Fidelity with Plausibility: Modest Christologies in the Twentieth Century


The task of interpreting the religious significance of Jesus Christ takes shape in this book with the tension determined by two goals: fidelity to the classical Christological tradition, which draws our attention to Jesus in the first place, and plausibility with respect to all forms of contemporary knowledge.

To ignore the classical tradition is to assume uncritically that contemporary plausibility structures are beyond question, while to forsake plausibility is to embrace the irrationalism of the theological ghetto-dweller.

This book argues that maintaining this tension in our time can be achieved only with a modest interpretation of Jesus Christ, one that repudiates the hermeneutical absolutism associated with affirming that Jesus Christ is uniquely, exhaustively, unsurpassably significant for revelation and salvation.

Distinctive Features

From the Preface:

Convictions are wonderful and dangerous things. They drive the most noble human achievements, and many of the horrific ones, too. We should celebrate the orientation to life and the steadiness of character produced by convictions. And we should be wary of allowing our convictions to remain unexamined. Such celebration and wariness coexist in the intellectual life, constraining each other. From this symbiosis emerges a fascination with forms of inquiry that are capable of expressing, justifying, correcting, and producing convictions. The imperative to inquire so as to improve and correct convictions does not oblige everyone, but it presents many challenges for those in thrall to it. Not least among these is the fact that inquiry, too, is guided by convictions, and exposing them to the possibility of correction and improvement is even more difficult than doing the same for first-order convictions.

The intricate geography of convictions impresses me greatly. Some seem determined by the cultural or family conditioning of early years, others picked up along the way. Some last for a life time, rocklike, while others pass easily into their successors—and these transformations usually depend more on personality and circumstance than on the passion with which convictions are held. These are further reasons to celebrate and be wary, but they are also considerations appropriate to the preface of a book devoted to the task of rationally weighing Christological convictions, to the extent that this is possible: I, too, have my convictions, and they influence what I write here.

One of them is about inquiry. I take it be an opportunistic, even promiscuous, process of attempting to justify, improve, and produce convictions, thought of as fallible hypotheses even when they are of the greatest importance to an individual or society. It is often seat-of-the-pants problem solving. When the goal is to detect the true, then correspondence, coherence, pragmatic, and aesthetic criteria all have roles to play. Even deferring to functionally normative traditions has a place in truth seeking of this uncensored sort. And nothing is finally so sacred that it may not, ought not, be questioned; it is our interest in questioning, not our obligation to inquire, that abates in the presence of sacred mystery.

With regard to theology, I interpret its obviously intensive diversity to be necessary in order adequately to apprehend, express, and inquire into that about which theology attempts to speak. Within the range of theological expression, there needs to be some confessional proclamation, some poetic exploration, some evangelical declaration, some community-supporting reflection, some prophetic condemnation, some social analysis, some meditative repose. But there must be truth seeking, too, at least somewhere in the gamut of theological activity, and some truth-seeking inquiry needs to be as systematic as human rationality permits. This is not just for the sake of curiosity; it is also in order to guard against the all too familiar dangers of ideological bias, illusionistic distortion, misplaced concreteness, and excessive reductionism (or, in more theological terms, fanaticism, foolishness, idolatry, and desacralization). Can theology achieve this? To some extent, of course it can. But I see no way to determine how well this can be done in advance of trying, and I want to test the limits of thelogy’s capacities in this regard.

These guiding convictions about inquiry and theology greatly affect the approach taken in this study of twentieth-century Christology. I try hard to attend (though not explicitly in this book) to alternative viewpoints on inquiry and theology, especially when they seem contradictory to my own, so that my convictions do not hover like a curse over the argument of this book. But so far I see no compelling reason to abandon them. In any event, it is as well to identify them at the outset.

There are other convictions at work, too, some of which I will not have noticed, or will not speak of here. I will mention just one of special importance, as it influences the key criterion used to argue that an authentically classical Christology in our time is a modest one. It ought to be introduced biographically, if only to emphasize that provenance of convictions is not the all-determining motivation for holding them, but merely impetus for justifying and improving them.

Some time around Christmas of 1986 I was listening from the back pew to a colleague of mine preach at the Protestant church we both served in Sydney, Australia. My friend was preaching on the incarnation, and his goal was to impress his congregation with the cosmic immensity of this wondrous event. With great rhetorical skill, he gave a profoundly moving account of the magnificence of the cosmos. He spoke of its size in terms of the yielding in leaping orders of magnitude of planets to solar systems to galaxies to clusters of galaxies to the more than one hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe. He spoke of its fifteen billion-year history since the Big Bang, and likened the whole of recorded human history to the tiny last portion of the last page of a large book whose whole extent was the record of cosmic development. He spoke brilliantly, I thought, and then continued with deliberate audacity to say something to the effect that, “And yet, it is here, on this planet, in our history, that the great Creator of this cosmos sent His only-begotten Son to be the unique God-man, to live among us, to reconcile the universe to Himself.”

It was at this point that I became viscerally aware of the symbolic character of my position in the last row of the church; my sense of alienation was pronounced, and I felt overwhelmed by the strangeness of the event—so common in Christian churches—unfolding before me. I was not concerned about my flock, who like most liberal Protestant folk were mostly unfazed by the theological ideas that passed through their pulpit. Nor was I worried for my preaching colleague, whose rhetorical flair I greatly admired and whose personal character was genuinely impressive. My alienation was not even self-concerned, for such Christological excess had long seemed to me implausible, without the metaphysical scheme it presupposes being thereby demonstrably impossible.

Rather, it was my evangelical and intellectual instincts that stumbled over my colleague’s beautifully contextualized declaration. My overriding impression was of the fantastic impotence of such a message: it could neither convince nor even really inspire, at least not in the sense of breathing life into most souls. It could not evince a coordinated affirmative response from all of the human faculties because of its comic implausibility by contemporary cultural standards—notwithstanding the apparent result of physical cosmology that a universe of about the size of ours is needed for life as we know it to be possible at all, which is a mere detail incapable of easing the problem. This Christological point of view forces the hiding of intellectual reservations from spiritual assent, and the separation of emotional needs for a cosmic home from the conviction that sweeping the details of the rest of the cosmos under the Christological rug does not serve to make a cosmic home. And yet, there is something to be said about Jesus Christ that is important, and it requires a tradition of testimony, a memorial community, to draw attention to it because it is apt to be lost in the cultural ruckus, with its tendencies to homogenize beautiful differences, to trivialize the spiritual, to neutralize religious offense.

The conviction drawn to my attention in this experience is a criterion for theological adequacy: the balancing of plausibility and fidelity in theological discourse. Plausibility is to be judged by what passes for consensus in as wide an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural domain of intellectual debate as possible. Fidelity is authorized by the necessity of traditions for organizing societies; for making ethical and political judgments; for producing beautiful art, music, and architecture; for preserving ancient wisdom; for checking cultural forces that casually assimilate so as to regulate the potency of religion; for fostering the kind of symbolic engagement with the mystery of life that cultivates souls; for engaging in sustained inquiry; and for orienting ourselves to our world.

This criterion for theological adequacy is widely held in contemporary theology. It is also strongly contested both by those who hold that the gospel can never be subjected to human judgments of plausibility, and by those who think that theology should be thoroughly rational in character. It is a via media resisting both extremes, and has often been invoked in various formulations to resolve theological debates. This book attempts to apply this middle-of-the-road criterion systematically to the task of weighing the whole range of advantages and disadvantages of two competing classes of Christological visions in the twentieth century. It is important to do this systematically, and with care. After all, it is not so hard to say that my preacher-colleague’s absolutist Christological formulation is implausible and unfaithful, nor to carry a few favorably disposed votes with a noisily offered judgment. By contrast, it is genuinely difficult to evaluate that absolutist Christological claim with patient argumentation that tries to comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of alternative formulations.

That difficulty is due, I hope, not to any failure of impartiality on my part, nor to an inability to interpret and apply the plausibility and fidelity criterion consistently, but to the fact that Christological reflection is profoundly entangled with many other spheres of human inquiry, both theological and non-theological. This makes the weighing of evidence difficult, but that is the task that needs to be completed in order to evaluate Christological absolutism and Christological modesty. This is also necessary for expressing a systematic argument (as against a colorful opinion or fragments of an argument) in favor of the result of that evaluation, namely, that Christological modesty meets the plausibility and fidelity test.

This brings me to the last conviction that I will mention here. It is the one formed in the process of writing this book, and justified by the argument it contains: Whereas Christological modesty meets the plausibility and fidelity criterion, Absolutist christologies violate it—both parts of it at once. These Christologies are the contemporary holdover of an absolutist hermeneutical distortion in Christology that attained normative status in most theological circles on the coattails of the classical Christology. It is not, however, an essential component of classical Christology itself; indeed, the opposite is the case: classical Christology must be free of absolutist hermeneutical distortions. Christological modesty in a variety of possible forms, therefore, should be affirmed in our time as the authentically classical Christological position. And the virtue of this conclusion? It allows many individually pressing, superficially independent problems in contemporary Christology to be solved or eased in plausible, faithful ways.

Table of Contents


A Crisis in Contemporary Christology
The Argument of this Book
The Virtues of Classical Christologies

PART I. Reflections on Ernst Troeltsch and the Origins of the Crisis of Plausibility In Contemporary Christology

Introduction to Part I
Chapter 1. Christology and the Historical Jesus

Strategies for Managing Dependence
Criticism of the Extant Dependence Strategies
Troeltsch on the Dependence of Faith and Dogmatics upon History

Chapter 2. Christology and the History of Religions

The Theology of the History of Religions
Supernaturalism and the History of Religions
The Development of Doctrine and the History of Religions

Chapter 3. Christology and the Sciences

The Philosophical Sciences
The Natural Sciences
The Human Sciences

PART II. Modest Christology and the Resolution of the Crisis of Plausibility in Contemporary Christology

Introduction to Part II
Chapter 4. The Absolutist Principle and Modest Christologies

The Origin and Structure of the Absolutist Principle
Absolutist Christology
Modest Christology

Chapter 5. Incarnational and Inspirational Modest Christologies: Two Case Studies

John Hick: The Logic of Modest Inspirational Christologies
The First Step: The Myth of God Incarnate
The Second Step: Jesus As Inspired
The Third Step: Jesus’ Inspiration as Divine Love Incarnate
John Cobb: The Logic of Modest Incarnational Christologies
The First Step: Christ as Principle of Creative Transformation
The Second Step: Identification of Jesus as Christ
The Third Step: Affirming Christian Uniqueness

Chapter 6. Modest Christological Solutions to Internal Challenges

History: Christological Dependence on Knowledge of Jesus
Tradition: Reassessing Christological Development
Metaphysics: The Universal and the Particular

Chapter 7. Modest Christological Solutions to External Challenges

Ethics: Christological Responsibility?
Natural Sciences: Evolutionary Biology and Cosmology
Religious Pluralism: The Modest Consensus


Modest Christologies and the Quest for a Believable Jesus
Approaching the Conceptual Heart of Modest Christologies