Ponderings: Jesus and Christ

There is an ongoing conversation about the difference between “the historical Jesus” and “the cosmic Christ.”  Some scholars want to treat the two as if they were almost distinct, and they want to put the emphasis upon the cosmic Christ.

On one level, I must affirm the difference.  The Word (as John puts it) existed both before and after the incarnation.  No Christian limits all that we know of either Jesus or Christ by the thirty-three years that he lived on the earth.

But my concern arises when an emphasis upon “the cosmic Christ” virtually eclipses the incarnate Jesus.  This is a renewal of the debate I grew up with earlier in my theological education: the “Jesus of history” versus “the Christ of faith.”  The problem then—and now—is that a movement away from the incarnation leaves us without a sufficient means to go on to think and speak of the eternal.

I believe that the Word became flesh, at least in part, to give us a reference point for the eternal Word.  Jesus is the reference point for the cosmic Christ.  Without the incarnation the Word remains word; our faith remains primarily philosophical.  And the whole philosophical process easily becomes one of speculation.  It takes something tangible in order for us to understand the intangible.  It takes the incarnation to understand the cosmic.

I believe Jesus himself gave us the interpretive clue.  He said, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (John 16:14 CEB).  I believe this means that the conclusions we make about Christ will never be separated from or contradictory to what we know about Jesus.  This means that we are dealing with one “person” (being) whose nature is singular and not self-contradictory.

We understand that Jesus lived on the earth for only a little while and that the Christ lives forever.  But we have not been given two revelations, but only one revelation in two ways.  The cosmic Christ will never be, say, or do anything that we have not seen in Jesus.  The incarnation is the “way” into the “cosmic.”

(Note: CEB is the Common English Bible translation)

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Ponderings: Jesus and Christ

  1. Judith Warren-Brown says:

    The Chalcedon formula … we were led there by the Holy Spirit. To separate the cosmic from the historical is to make the same mistake as the Nestorians at Epheses. Jesus did live here on earth for a little while, but Jesus Christ (with his two natures) was resurrected and sits at the right hand of God, having his two natures forever, which are “One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved and [both] concurring into one Person (prosopon) and one hypostasis – not parted or divided into two persons …” [from the Definition of Faith of Chalcedon.]
    I agree with you that the conclusions that we make about Christ will never be separated from or contradictory to what we know about Jesus because they are together in the Jesus Christ forever.
    The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us…that humanity in essence was taken back into the Godhead which gives us our special place as children of God.

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