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)