What Think Ye of the Christ, Whose Son is He?

In the margin of my reference Bible alongside this text there is the notation, “The inescapable question.” While it is true that this question is inescapable and that we must be confronted with the need for decision concerning its challenge, I do not think that it is the business of the Christian college to urge time-dated responses to this question as part of the classroom formulary. In fact, I don’t think it is the primary purpose of a chapel service to urge that kind of decision. We arc not here to do the work of the Christian church but to do the work of the Christian college. Therefore, I would call your attention to some of the answers which have already been offered in response to this question and to explore some of the implications of these answers.

First, we might look at the answer offered by the Jews to whom the question was originally put. They said that the Christ was the son of David. Now in the fashion that the Jews construed Davidic descent, they immediately cut the Christ loose from any divine origin. They placed the Messiah in Bethlehem as the natural son of David. The Pharisees might like to tidy up the recent geneology a bit, but coming from the Davidic line the Christ was to become an earthly Messiah. Obviously, any group as nearly perfect as the Pharisees did not need a Saviour, but they could use a political deliverer. They would welcome the kind of Messiah that would rid them of the opprobrium of subjugation to a foreign power.

In addition, a Messiah might be instrumental in getting rid of that detestable tribute. Not only was a Messiah the shortest route to national respectability but he was also the shortest route to a tax cut. Perhaps a tax cut would pump enough additional funds into the Palestinian channels of trade to get the economy moving again. In any case their Messiah could not possibly take the form of a carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee. Nothing good can come out of Galilee. It is on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. A Messiah out of Galilee can not meet Pharisaic specifications. The whole point is that both the first-century and the twentieth-century Pharisee can get along with an earthly Messiah. And as to atonement, the attitude in the twentieth century is the same as it was in the first century. It can be summed up in a shrug of indifference.

From the contemporaries of Jesus down through the ages there have been those who looked upon Jesus as of the Davidic line, but they did not emphasize his Messianic role. They recognize that he did not fulfill the Messianic hopes of the Jews. They see him as the son of Joseph and Mary of Nazareth from the carpenter’s shop, but they admire him only for his ethical insights and his moral teachings. The disparity between the educational background of Jesus and his ethical utterances causes them to marvel at the latter. So they are willing to refer to him as the Master.

This does not mean that we have to search for supernatural explanations and begin to talk about anything so unscientific as the virgin birth or, presently, after the Master’s death, about something so scientifically preposterous as a bodily resurrection. Why can’t we be content to say that Jesus preached well and lived well the life of love and meekness which he preached? We can benefit from ethical leaders, can we not?

In fact, in man’s long upward struggle for the delineation and attainment of human values, there have been a number of ethical heroes. There was Moses in the Old Testament among the early Hebrews. The Greeks had their Socrates. Perhaps Jesus is next in the chronology. The Medieval Church could point to its Francis of Assissi. There was Savonarola in the Renaissance. In the twentieth century many have singled out Albert Schweitzer. Undoubtedly, there will be other candidates in the future. All deserve our admiration—but perhaps Jesus more than any other. He had a highly developed sense of God-consciousness. Jesus was the most nearly perfect reflection of the latent deity in us all.

What are some of the implications of this kind of ethicism: First, it assumes that Jesus is not the supernatural Son of God. Though differing in their emphasis, yet, with the Pharisees, the modern devotees of ethical culture insist that there is no need for an atoning sonship in Christ. Man needs moral reformation, not spiritual transformation. In this effort, man can follow a Galilean Jesus. He does not need the Christ, the Son of the living God.

The foregoing ethical religion, in turn, means that man is not really dependent. He is free to work out his own destiny on the basis of his own work and according to his own notions as to what he ought to be. If we listen to the message of Sartre’s No Exit, we learn that man should be freed from even the interference of a sidelong glance from his fellowman. Sartre sounds with blatant defiance one more variation of the theme of man’s self-sufficiency.

There was also the time in the ministry of Jesus when He was asked to play the role of civil judge. You remember that a man came to Him and wanted Him to decide between him and his brother concerning an inheritance. Jesus forthrightly refused the role. This refusal has not prevented men from assigning to Christ the role of civil judge or some kind of moral referee.

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, concluded, and I think rightly, that one cannot adduce any air-tight theoretical arguments for the existence of God. Did this send Kant to the inscripturated Word for a revelation of God in Christ? By no means. Rather, Kant turned to man’s ethical situation and looked for some practical arguments to establish the existence of a sovereign deity.

Kant observed that man acts as though he is under moral obligation. from the fact of moral obligation, Kant argued to the need for moral freedom. And from the fact of moral freedom he argued to the need for a moral referee who must be omnipotent. Obviously, the omnipotent must be God. But all Kant’s complicated argument cannot hide the fact that Kant’s moral man can save himself if he acts out of a good will.

If we now tum to Benjamin Franklin’s ethicism, we have an emphasis that is less philosophical but no less humanistic. Franklin wanted his God to be a moral judge who would assure him the ample rewards which his full life so richly deserved. You recall Franklin had improved the postal service. He had made some improvements in home heating. He had made a key advance in the knowledge of electricity, not to mention his diplomatic successes in the interest of the newly independent thirteen colonies. So as a substitute for the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, Franklin would install a moral bookkeeper to record the fact that the credit side of Franklin’s moral ledger was marked impressively in Franklin’s favor.

A few years ago in one of his children’s concerts, Leonard Bernstein demonstrated some of the possible elaborations which one can produce from a single musical theme. Choosing the first four notes from that well-known prohibition-era song, “How Dry I Am,” Bernstein demonstrated a few of the possible musical elaborations. He went on to inform his audience that there are eighteen major musical works which have been built around this basic theme.

In man’s religious life we have an analogous situation. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise, man has worked and reworked the theme of human self-righteousness and freedom. It really makes no difference whether the tune comes from Socrates, from Seneca, from Ralph Waldo Emerson or from a present-day Liberal Protestant pulpiteer, it all comes down to the same old tedious humanistic no hum.” It always comes down to the same four-note progression, “How Good I Am.”

Thc roles which I have suggested hardly begin to exhaust man’s ingenuity in finding substitutes for substitutionary atonement. Jesus has also been cast in the role of a defeated social reformer who suffered martyrdom. All the approaches suggested have this in common; they do take some account of the Christ and his work. A more prevalent approach these days is that of complete indifference or decision by indecision. When Christ intrudes, many would hurry him out of their lives as hastily as they can. The swine-herding Gadarenes of the New Testament account are a model for this reaction.

You remember that at one juncture in his ministry Jesus crossed over to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. There he was immediately confronted by a demoniac. Nearby, a large herd of dogs was feeding. The gospel according to Mark informs us that the number totaled two thousand. That certainly is a lot of hogs in any country at any time. We do not know the reason for so large a number of hogs in one place. Maybe they were owned by the G.H.C., that is, The Gadarene Hog Cooperative. Perhaps Orin Lee Al Rashid of the East Jordan Farmers Organization had in the past imposed a general hog withholding action. We may be rather sure that two thousand hogs were more than the daily receipts at the Gadara Stockyards. At two hundred pounds and twenty dollars per hundred this herd represented a loss of about $80,000 as they disappeared beneath the surface of the Galilean Lake.

It all happened because this strange man put in his appearance. At one moment there was this raving madman and the calmly grazing herd of hogs. At the next moment by some “hocus pocus” the madman was sane but the hogs had vanished following a precipitous dash into the lake. What kind of a man is this? He must certainly be some kind of magician. He must possess some kind of occult power. There seems to be no direct empirical explanation for the event. It defies the scientific postulate of causality. The calming of the demoniac was followed by the wild action of the hogs without any physical contiguity between the two events. Sure, we’ve heard that some people have extra-sensory power, but even so the whole thing has us mystified.

One thing is certain, there is something going on here which cannot be controlled by a scientific approach to animal husbandry. Fizers doesn’t produce anything which will prevent a recurrence of this kind of loss. The best hog insurance at the moment is a quick expulsion of the stranger to the opposite shore.

You ask what we Gadarines think of the Christ? Well, we really don’t know. The fact is that we do not really care to know any more about Him. At least this much is certain, we don’t care to learn any more about him if it is going to put the rest of our hogs in jeopardy. If it comes to a mutually exclusive choice, we’ll take our hogs. Call us witless materialists if you will. We are indifferent to labels. We’ve made our decision. As soon as we have recovered from our financial loss, we hope it will be a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” You can be sure that if we relate this incident to our philosophers, they will assert with your John Dewey that there can be no mysterious power outside of nature that can interfere with natural law. So let’s try to forget the whole thing.

On another day, as the result of an interrogation as to opinions concerning his identity. Jesus elicited from Peter that wonderful confession, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” Peter made a confession which could stand as the foundation for all the subsequent growth of the Christian Church and the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Not based on beggarly human aspirations, Peter’s confession meant more than he fully understood. Later he also fell into peevish and jealous arguments as to who was to benefit most in the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. And a short time after, he wanted to prevent the Christ from going to the end of the road which led to substitutionary atonement. There was little appreciation at this time for the fact that presently the disciple must serve and rule in a spiritual Kingdom. But for all this, Peter’s confession emphasized the deity of our Lord and His exa1ted position as the Anointed, that is, the Christ.

And what does the regency of the Anointed imply? First, as the Son of Cod, the Christ was able to atone fully for the sins of His people. There will be no place for boasting self-righteousness in His kingdom. Secondly, Christ as the Son of God is worthy of rule in a spiritual kingdom. Competition for high places of authority must come to an end. Any ruling that must be done will have to be done as a vice-regent. And when we have placed the position of vice-regent in its proper perspective, we find that it is really the position of a servant.

Let me continue now somewhat in the fashion of allegory. The servant, even when highly exalted to the title of vice-regent, does not inaugurate any policies of his own. For example, he does not deal with the enemies of his king according to his own notions of foreign policy. He always replies to the enemy’s urgings for enclaves, accommodations, cease-fire agreements and appeasements with the one authorized reply, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Similarly, the cabinet minister in charge of economic affairs does not begin his work with thoughts as to how he may enlarge his own villa first of all. His first thoughts are not busy with the idea of a new chariot for himself. Nor does he, Ahab-fashion, try to attach another vineyard to his private holdings. No, he is constantly asking, “How can I help extend the boundaries of my Lord’s kingdom?”

Even in education, where freedom would seem to be the hall-mark of a vice-regent’s success, even there subserviance must be the rule. As Shakespeare might say, even there the role of the servant may not be lightly vaunted o’er. For example, in compiling and collating the conclusions of the king’s archeologists, paleantologists and other students of man’s past, the minister of education does not accept any legends which contradict the royal chronicle as it narrates the facts concerning the origins of the kingdom.

The minister of education sends his fellow servants to the farthest limits of the kingdom in order that they may learn about the orderly conduct of kingdom affairs. This they do so that they may more fully appreciate the great wisdom of their Lord. And they will also joyously praise their king to his face as from time to time they have special audience with him. It is also interesting that the minister of education allows the fellow servants to explore in various parts of the kingdom according to their particular interests. They work according to their interest and ability.

However, there is one severe stricture placed upon the servants who work for the ministry of education. They are not to give aid or comfort to the foreign agents which infiltrate into the kingdom from time to time. These foreign agents are wont to tell the servants that they are not free as long as they are in the service of the king. How can one be free who listens to authority and obeys in faith? The foreign agent presumes that the servant will be quite ready to listen when he is told that the life of obedience is not worthy of a free rational being (one who is guided by reason). Past experience has shown the enemy agent that this is the thrust that really strikes home. The enemy goes on to insist that it is the servants themselves who are the rightful rulers. Complete autonomy is the only way for the completely rational. Plato was on the right track when he wanted to make philosophers the kings.

What an enticing appeal1 Yet the minister of education has a counter-admonition for those in his department. He has a counter-poise for the weighty arguments that favor complete autonomy. He points to the fact that by the law of their nature, servants are bound to serve and to obey. They are rational beings, to,Pc sure, but they cannot entertain all possible hypotheses. In fact, it is precisely the kind of propositions which are offered by the enemy that they must reject totally. Moreover, as servants of the king they have been released from the yoke of rationalism’s logic. The servant seeks to think his Lord’s thoughts after Him even though there may arise paradoxes in the servant’s fore-shortened perspective.

How does the servant know that he is going the right way? Surely, he cannot give proof through rational and empirical arguments. The minister of education repHes, “Tell the enemy you know your Lord has your welfare at heart because you know that he loves you. Tell him that your Lord gave his life as the purchase price for your freedom, freedom from sin. ‘Greater love hath no man than this than that he lay down his life for his friend.’ And we are his friends because we keep his commandments.

Tell the enemy agent that when one is content to live the life of a servant, he is really more than a friend. He is given the status of a brother. Brotherhood makes one co-heir with the Only-begotten-Son-of-the-Father. There is no one in the Kingdom that has more freedom than the Son. and if the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. The Son is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Professor Nick Van Til is Professor of Philosophy at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.