christology, James McClendon

James McClendon and Christology

For Incarnation class, we have to present on a theologian. I heard the word “Anabaptist” and jumped on it. It turned out to be James McClendon. I do have some significant sympathies with him, but I am unsure I would follow him all the way. Below is a short description from the designated reading, with specific emphases, and partial analysis, followed by three questions. Let me know what you think.

Christology as a Connective Narrative of Action, Authority, and Actionable Remembrance: The Narrative Incarnation of McClendon, an Ecclesiodemic

“The theologian, therefore, is not an academic but an ecclesiodemic. He may work in a university but he is not of the university. He must be multilingual, but he must remember that is hometown is Jerusalem, not Athens.” [1]

Before diving quickly into James McClendon’s work, to appropriately understand his work, we must see that this work of doctrine is a connective work by an ecclesiodemic. This volume is written after the Ethics volume and before Witness; however, it is all written to form the church for witness. This is for the church as it seeks to live within the story of the Lord. It is in this context that McClendon’s three formative questions are intelligible: “How Christ-like must disciples’ lives be?”; “How can monotheists tell the Jesus story?”; and “What Right has Jesus to be absolute Lord?[2]

Also, McClendon finds crucial the notion that Christologies must speak to their time. This will be addressed in part later.

The Christological Models
Before moving into his own Christology, McClendon takes account of three formative Christological models: the Logos model, the two-nature model, and the historical models. The Logos model is rooted in “[t]he early formulations of Jesus’ identity…worked out in the context of the missionary expansion of the Christian movement in the Roman Empire.” The missionary expansion of Christianity had a theopolitical quality to it, challenging modes of life, and subsequently their politics, in addressing two questions: How ought a Christian behave? – specifically, “what sort of participant in the wider society was a Christian to be?” or fundamentally “who or what was Christ” the redeemer? – and the second, how could the Christians make a direct connection between a widely accepted belief in “a one high God” and faithful witness. [3]

It is this missionary expansion that found itself theologically between the Ebionites – who seemed to have had a correct understanding of Jesus but did not stay within the Christian majority for whatever reason – and the Gnostics – who thought of matter as evil, the spirit as good, conceived of divine emanations, maintained a secret revelation, and denied the actual death of Jesus. The Logos Christology worked amidst its context, that of the Ebionites and the Gnostics, and McClendon concluded: “In retrospect, the value of the Logos Christology lay not in its aptness for later times but in its liberating role when it first appeared: Despite the subordinate place it assigned to Christ, it answered the question of Christ’s rightful authority (question one) better than Ebionites had, while it overcame the dualism of the Gnostics by affirming the identity of the (spiritual) Logos and the (human) Jesus.” [4]

The two-natures model, the conclusion of Nicea I and Chalcedon, McClendon addresses next. Citing the discussion between Arius and Athanasius (heteroousious vs. homoousious) McClendon moves into Nicea I, ultimately concluding that “Jesus’ right to Lordship was grounded in his substantial nature”; however, Nicea I was unable to sufficiently answer, “how was this high claim about Christ to be related to the very human Jesus story related in the Gospels?” [5]

By way of the discussion between Nestorious and Cyril of Alexandria, McClendon moves next into Chalcedon. Chalcedon maintained the Nicean two-nature model, proclaiming the perfection of Christ in “humanhood” and “Godhood” while still hoomousios “both with the Father and with us.” [6] This conclusion rejected both the monophysites and the Nestorians. McClendon concluded that while Chalcedon “affirmed a transcendent ground for the Lordship of Christ… [it] seems remote indeed from the humble Savior.”[7] Chalcedon in its quest for “rational coherence” in the face of its proclaimed paradox may have even contravened their fifth century notions of rationality.[8] As for meeting the concerns of the monophysites and the Nestorians around the Jesus stories, understood as a “viable model of conduct for the disciples”, Chalcedon seemed to fail.[9]

In Chalcedon’s attempt to answer questions, it raised more questions than it could answer. This fault of Chalcedon, McClendon notes, provoked later theologians to attempt to rescue it, namely Menno Simons and Pope Pius IX, but they ultimately failed. In response McClendon concludes that both Simons and Pius IX attempted to work within the two-natures model from their own contexts and so we could move on rather than rehabilitate them and their conclusions.

McClendon divides the historical model – socio-historical criticism – into two main schools, the eschatological and the mythic. He names Immanuel Kant, Hermann Reimarus, Albert Schweitzer, Georg Hegel, and the history of religions school (Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack) as those who developed the eschatological stream. With two epistemological assumptions, privileging independent critical judgment and history as an objective tool, a scholar could reach the truth. The eschatological tradition also noted the forward looking direction of early Christianity, and its perceived dishonesty or incompetence, and so put history in tension with eschatology. Thus this tradition understood itself as a rescue operation, shedding misconceptions and untruths, even at times what may have been the very founder(s) held, in favor of a recognized transcendent or generalized set of truths that were understood to last through future ages.

The other historical model, myth and the historical Jesus, was developed by David Strauss, Rudolf Bultmann, and the writers of The Myth of God Incarnate. The myth model often combined two definitions of myth – a “story of the gods (or of God)” and “a story of events outside our time and space” – and resulted in creating a dichotomy between God and history.[10] God and history became an either/or instead of a both/and. The implication of this concerning Jesus, either makes Jesus historical and not mythical, therefore not divine, or mythical and not historical, therefore not existent in a tangible sense – not incarnate.

McClendon, in an aside, understands Wolfhart Pannenberg within the historical model, but concludes that the historical model has had its day. McClendon citing Hans Frei, surmises that the historical model was terribly flawed even on its own terms: it could not adequately deal with the divinity of Jesus and therefore had little to say on the incarnation. However, on the positive, “[i]t brought the confession of Christ’s humanity into its own day.” [11]

McClendon’s Narrative Christology
From the beginning of McClendon’s Christology, he outlines the purpose of Christology (an outline of orthodoxy if you will): “(1) A teaching church must teach the Lordship of Christ…. (2) A teaching church must teach the unity of God…. (3) A teaching church must teach the authenticity of life in Christ.”[12] McClendon judges that “[e]very Christian generation must respond to these demands” because it is upon these three points that the “possibility of authentic spiritual life depend[s].” [13]

McClendon next briefly recites three contemporary Christologys: Karl Barth in both his revelation and reconciling models, Paul van Buren’s Christ to the gentiles but not a messiah to the Jews, and John Cobb Jr.’s double-belonging, psychological work of a new humanity. Presumably McClendon notes the above three, and lists numerous others, to show that his work is not out of the ordinary. After all, he asserts that Christology “remains a creative theological task in this and every generation.” [14]

And so, McClendon begins his narrative Christology, because “the models on which earlier approaches were formed now appear partly incoherent”: “all deserve respect; none can take the place of Scripture—or of hard work now.”[15] In light of this assertion, he begins with Phillipians 2:5-11 and the divestment of ontological high and low Christologies in favor of task and achievement.[16] Tellingly, McClendon next summarizes the story of Jesus, resting heavily on the vocations of prophet (expectancy), priest (openness), and king (creativity), and as a result, Jesus’ counter politics to the status quo and subsequent death. But where does this authority to challenge the systems of the day come from? Is the point of Jesus’ life the incarnation of God’s authority, God’s politics, God’s basileia? The miracles, specifically the conception and resurrection, are addressed next by McClendon.

The miraculous conception, McClendon asserts, is obviously a virginal conception, but not a virgin birth or immaculate conception. He next points that the stories of Jesus “do not say or suggest” Jesus’ divinity was because of the miraculous birth, nor the “cause or source of Jesus’ sinlessness”, nor “a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy”; instead the virginal conception is a sign of faith, faithfulness to the God of Israel, and the work of the Spirit in humanity.[17] It is “the full presence of God in the full story of Jesus.”[18] Likewise the resurrection is a sign, not an adoption. It “is nothing less than God’s (re)identification of the entire earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, from conception to its last breath, with God’s own immortal life.”[19]

As Jesus does not remain dead, the story likewise continues – missionary expansion and church formation by remembrance (anamnesis) – in acts like baptism and the meal, and the witness to the defining titles of Jesus. It is in this that two-narrative Christology lays; where the story of Adam and Eve’s fall is dialogically juxtaposed with Christ born, crucified, and risen. These two stories “are at last indivisibly one. We can separate them for analysis, but we cannot divide them; there is but one story there to be told. Finally, this story becomes gospel, becomes good news, when we discover that it is our own.” [20]

However, McClendon is not without perceivable problems. First, “[w]hat right has this Jesus, the Jesus rendered in this one narrative that is two, to be Lord of us each and all? … Jesus, the risen Jesus upon whom the story concenters, has this right if (and only if) in this very story we are confronted, as by an unimpeachable authority, with God’s own claim upon our lives.”[21] Importantly, I want to note that McClendon roots his answer in Jesus as promise maker and promise fulfiller: “Luke’s gospel captures this well with its anticipation themes: a life of promises made and promises at great price kept.”[22] There is a second problem of coherence and particularity, however, it is out of this particularity that we can recognize that there are “always two stories—God’s and ours—told together.”[23] The third problem is the question: “How Christ-like are disciples lives to be?”[24] But this is the easiest to answer. A two-narrative Christology moves us straight into action, into participation. It works well with anamnesis as the stories form the community of actionable remembrance, and so the action of the community is always tied back into the stories and the authority of God. Action, witness, faith, and the church are all wrapped inseparable.


1. The two-narrative Christology, does it work? Is it compelling?

2. Does the urge to make the life of Christ intelligible within one’s context, admittedly a different context than the Mediterranean in the fourth century, break our connection to the past, or should we re-understand our connection to the church/believers past? In other words, does this epistemological turn, which is in part clearly obvious, allow some to too easily establish their own terms for orthodoxy or faithfulness?

3. Is the step towards the descriptive work of Jesus’ ontological nature, the two-nature Christology, an effort to explain more of the mystery than we ought, although it hopes to function as an abstract way of retelling the stories, and therefore the authority, of Jesus? In other words, might we begin to understand the two-nature language around Jesus as an attempt to control – or lock the identity of Jesus into ontological stasis, rather than the interruptive dynamism of narrative that must be continually retold to different contexts – in a Constantinian fashion (to be Yoderian about this, see Precarious Peace) that forms a controlling discourse and therefore a controlling church and controlling theology?

[1] Kim Fabricius, Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008), 127.
[2] James Wm. McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology: Doctrine Volume 2 (Nashville, TN; Abingdon Press, 1994), 250.
[3] Ibid., 251.
[4] Ibid., 252.
[5] Ibid., 254.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 260.
[11] Ibid., 263.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 265.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 268.
[17] Ibid., 270.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 271.
[20] Ibid., 276-277.
[21] Ibid., 277.
[22] Ibid., 278.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.


2 thoughts on “James McClendon and Christology

  1. Ted Michael Morgan says:

    Whoosh, but a fine map. I think incidentally about two works (from the historical school rather than the mythic) Richard R. Niebuhr’s Resurrection and Historical Reason: A Study of Theological Method and Van A. Harvey’s The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christen Belief. I will have to think about your comments and observations.

  2. Ted Michael Morgan says:

    Frei has a discussion of historical and hermeneutical readings of texts that explores the work of H. Richard Niebuhr in his work Christ and Culture. The hermeneutical approach takes a text as complete but not as process of historical formation. In the discussion he talks about how Harnack might stress Paul and radical love, Albert Schweitzer and radical hope, and Rudolph Bultmann on radical discipleship.What he does is take something from each of these figures and makes into into something that is other than what any of them said.

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