In What Sense a Saviour? The nature and function of Jesus in Radical Theology

In his book ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson outlines a change of metaphor in modern religious thinking. This simple paradigm shift revolves around the changing perception of height and depth as symbolic expressions of the sacred and the profound. Robinson demonstrates that whereas the expression of height and the consequential elevation of God were once the primary metaphors, increasingly, as the universe has grown larger and more impersonal, they have been replaced by the idea of depth as communicating a more meaningful reality. Regardless of origin or catalyst, however, this change would seem to have ultimate implications for Christianity as it effectively redirects the theological vision from up to down, from heaven to earth and from outward to inward. But if this is so, what are the potential effects on Christianity’s understanding of the person of Jesus?

The worldview of the first Christians was, of course, radically different to ours. They perceived heaven to be a physical reality located high above the clouds. God the Father, Jesus and the angelic host all resided there, in a realm that mirrored their metaphorical elevated status. Man, quite literally, looked up to God. When God incarnated Himself he came down and when he was resurrected he went up. As that cosmology became increasingly untenable, however, with the apparent proof that the universe was helio-centric and a lot bigger and much more impersonal than previously imagined, the paradigm had to change. Fortunately though, not much. A simple replacing of ‘up there’ with ‘out there’ proved, at least in the short term, to satisfy the mind. And whilst it’s fair to say that in a geographical as well as a psychological sense God became more remote and seemingly less accessible, ultimately ‘out there’ could simply be seen as ‘up there’ writ large and so heaven and its inhabitants remained undisturbed.

In the twentieth century the paradigm changed again. Now so much is known of the universe that a heaven located ‘out there’, anywhere out there, simply won’t suffice. Our current knowledge informs us that if we travel through space for unimaginably long periods at unimaginable speed we will, depending on your preferred theory, return to the point at which we started or travel forever into a boundless ever- expanding universe. But the one thing we won’t do is end up knocking on heaven’s door.

An attempt can be made to circumvent the problem of the seemingly ever-increasing distance between man and God by another simple replacement, namely, ‘out there’ can become ‘beyond there’, taking God and heaven out of the universe altogether whilst still allowing the basic original concept to remain intact. At first glance this would seem to solve the problem once and for all as heaven is moved to another dimension, a realm that science and cosmology can never penetrate. But this time, however, it doesn’t work as well as earlier changes because, as Robinson observes, the paradigm shift resulting from our changing cosmological understanding has brought with it fundamental changes to religious language. Whilst, for centuries goodness and profundity were expressed in terms of height and elevation, now man thinks of profundity in terms of the depth of experience. Man has no desire for a heaven above the clouds or above the universe. He now searches innermost, not outermost, for truth and understanding.

The shift in language brings other problems for the heavenly host. In short, the concept of the mythological aspect of religion has rendered their continuing existence problematic to a society now fundamentally secular in outlook. Large parts of Biblical history are understood as story, not history, and angels, miracles and resurrection are not believed in. The supernatural elements of the Christian tradition are, for many, just the first forms of the expression of religious faith and are no longer tenable constituent parts of a religion for modern man.

This shift in modern consciousness has been observed by any number of theologians, many of whom, like Nietzsche’s madman, see the outcome in terms of the Death of God. Man has killed God or the idea of God and must now find individual meaning by saying ‘yes’ to an essentially existential experience. Theistically this may be uncomfortable but, in the end, achievable. But for Christianity the problem is compounded because it is not simply a theistic tradition, but also an incarnational one. In short, by denying the supernatural and bringing down the pillars of heaven we not only kill God we also evict Jesus and bring him back down to earth.

The rejection of the supernatural Christ Jesus, however, is in an important sense, an affirmation of the human Jesus of Nazareth. It requires, rather than humankind aspire to become like the gods, that Jesus ‘become like one of us’ (Genesis 3:22), albeit a very special one of us. The question for Radical Theology, of course, is ‘how special’? The denial of a supernatural saviour and the rejection of the risen Christ whose sacrificial atonement reverses the Fall and offers a path for a broken and imperfect humanity to return to God means that Jesus of Nazareth must be appreciated, understood and made special by Christianity in ways other than as cosmic redeemer. If, as Robinson contends, the idea of the God-Man sacrifice as atonement for sin is alien, if not abhorrent, to the modern mind how is Jesus to continue to be seen as special? [1]

To speak of the humanity of Jesus is, of course, not new to Christianity. Rather, as Macquarrie observes, it is a ‘a return to the oldest way’. [2] His early Jewish followers would have understood Jesus in terms of a human socio-political Messiah directly descended from David, whose agenda presumably included the very worldly ambition of over-turning Roman rule and restoring a rightful kingship to the nation of Israel.

The problem of proclaiming the divinity of Jesus within the monotheistic conceptions of the early Church was to prove a battleground for various different Christian groups. The idea of Jesus as being fully man, a person who was not a deity at conception, but, rather, who was adopted into the godhead by the Father at his baptism when he became imbued with the Holy Spirit was a view promoted by the Monarchian sect. The idea was also taken forward by the Antiochan Bishop, Paul of Samosata. His view was simply that Mary, who herself was not pre-existent had not, in turn, given birth to a pre-existent aspect of deity, but had born the man Jesus of Nazareth, and only through the grace and favour of God was he elevated to the godhead. Further, the spirit that anointed him at his baptism was the spirit that inspired the Old Testament prophets. [3]

Such a view of Jesus, of course, had the advantage of getting around the problem of how God could actually suffer and die on the cross. However, in its radical distinction between Jesus and the Father and the consequential radical unity between Jesus and humanity there lay, for the emerging Christian orthodoxy, the danger that Christianity, could be viewed as, or even develop into, nothing more than a Jewish sect. Of course, that never transpired. What we now know as Orthodoxy won the battle over the divinity of Christ, and proclaimed him as God Incarnate, an aspect or mode of an essentially Trinitarian God who took human form to effect the salvation of mankind but whilst doing so remained uniquely God.

It is not the issue here, of course, to discuss the problematic nature of the creed. As Robinson observes, the formulation of Jesus as being fully Man and fully God is not so much a solution to the doctrine of incarnation as a statement of the problem. [4] Here it suffices to observe simply that the supernatural Christ won out over the human Jesus and the nature of the victory affected the Christian tradition and the person of Jesus by effectively dragging him out of this world and placing him another.

Yet to re-evaluate Jesus primarily in human terms is, in reality, not a return to the oldest way at all for that would simply require an assessment of a Jewish messiah figure who ultimately failed as a political, social and religious reformer. What has ‘happened’ to Jesus, i.e. elevation to the godhead and two millennia of appreciation of him as a cosmic saviour makes a return to a strictly historical assessment impossible. Further, the study of the historical Jesus and a developing understanding of the cultural situatedness of his eschatological message have also contributed significantly to the idea of the historical Jesus as primarily a man of his time.

For Radical Theology then, if Jesus of Nazareth is to remain a seminal figure, it has to be in terms of what he continues to represent or to offer the Christian tradition today. Stripped of supernatural transcendence, the figure of Jesus has to be evaluated in terms that are human and both historically and culturally transcendent. But, what elements of his life or character retain that quality of specialness that he might remain just such a pivotal figure?

Broadly, we can classify the ideas that develop the notion of the significance of the life of Jesus as absolutist or relativist. Absolutist ideas endeavour to link Jesus directly to deity, whilst relativist ones attempt to develop a form of trans-cultural significance which stresses the continuing relevance of his life and teaching.

In absolutist terms the continuing justification of Jesus as a seminal figure in history has tended to be derived from what has been understood as the uniqueness of his person, either through his relationship to God and/or because of his peculiar moral perfection. In the former case Jesus is seen to be a man who, more than any other lived for God, a man who, through his total god-centredness, became the God-man. His life is understood in terms of a kenotic denial of self to the point where through the perfection of his actions on earth one sees the actions of God. So God-centred does his being become that transparency is actually a feature of his existence to the point that when one observes Jesus one sees through him and beyond to God.

Kenosis, as a theological proposition for an evaluation of the life of Jesus, is an attempt to explain how through his self-denial and self-emptying he allowed room for God to permeate his entire being. In this respect it becomes dialectical in nature. Jesus makes room for God and in self-denial finds fulfilment and in supplication and self- rejection assumes the role of servant of both God and humanity such that his very existence and the nature of that existence become the ultimate template for human life. He who would lose the most will gain the most.

Kenosis as a way of life, of course, can, and is, practised by many seeking a spiritual path through life, but for Christianity the difference in the kenotic experience of Jesus lies in its degree. For Radical Theology, however, the degree can not be one of ultimacy for that would seem to result in the process of deification, a son of God becoming the Son of God, as it were. Even so, Jesus “though fully man and in no sense ‘more than a man’ is not to be confused with other men”. [5] In this respect perhaps the most satisfying explanation of the uniqueness of Jesus’ kenotic experience is articulated by Paul Tillich in his notion of Jesus as a man ‘united with the ground of his being’, a man who through such unity becomes ‘completely transparent to the mystery he reveals’. [6] Here Tillich offers a view of Jesus who, through his unique self-awareness and self-possession, was in a position to sacrifice the uttermost to God. Jesus as the most self-possessed of humanity and the most self-aware of humanity was, through kenosis, able to become the most God-centred of humanity.

The second form of absolutist justification is grounded in Jesus’ assumed moral perfection. Antecedent ideas regarding his moral perfection can be traced to the Enlightenment, particularly to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For Kant the idea, or ideal, of moral perfection was derived from reason and was a state of being for men and women to strive towards, but was a state which, ultimately, because of human nature, could not be attained. For women and men the supreme goal was intellectual and moral improvement rather than intellectual and moral perfection. In the person of Jesus, however, Kant saw the embodiment of moral perfection to which others may only aspire, but in whose salvific condition through their own practical endeavour may participate.

Albrecht Ritschl also developed the idea of the moral perfection of Jesus. For Ritschl the vocation of Jesus was to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, a Kingdom ‘the intention of which is the moral organisation of mankind’. [7] Jesus’ own moral perfection was seen as emanating out of his own selfless devotion to the establishment of the Kingdom, which, in turn, was understood as ‘a universal moral community of men’. [8] In this respect Ritschl’s theology was not in essence anti-supernatural, but was based on reason and a this-worldly vocation to bring about a just society reconciled to God. Theological statements such as ‘Jesus is God’ did not, for Ritschl, reveal knowledge of God or Jesus by the speaker, but simply offered a description of the respective perceived value of God and Jesus. The true concern for the follower of Christ was following Jesus’ moral lead and partaking in the furtherance of the Kingdom, initially throughout the Church but finally out into the world.

In the twentieth century this idea was, perhaps, most notably taken forward by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’, for example, he sketches the idea of a moral perfection testified to by a capacity for love and compassion that transcends history and makes Jesus ‘the man for others’.

Encounter with Jesus Christ, the experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others’. His ‘being there for others’ is the experience of transcendence. It is only his ‘being there for others’, maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence...” [9]

In this interpretation Jesus’ transcendence, as with Tillich’s idea above, seems to involve a negation of self. Thus the transcendence of Jesus is attributed to through his denial of self and his sole concern for other people and through it he demonstrates the quality of ultimate moral goodness.

For the Christian tradition the key to the understanding and experience of Jesus either as the man for God or the man for men is that of its trans-cultural significance. Jesus, as both the kenotic vessel of God and the self-denying servant of humanity offers to some degree a continuing focus for modern society, a man whose life established once and for all its own transcendent authority. Jesus is the man for all men for all time.

At the very heart of this theological proposition, however, there lies a fundamental problem. What is the historical basis for such an understanding of the nature of Jesus? Just how could we know that he had and exhibited particular qualities that set him apart from all others? The debate on the moral status of Jesus is the subject of Donald Nineham’s essay in ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’. In his paper Nineham questions the idea of Jesus’ moral or spiritual perfection on two counts. Firstly, that even if we had the most comprehensive fully documented and substantiated biography of Jesus that could have been written it would still be impossible to prove or have knowledge that he lived in a state of moral perfection. Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, Nineham also demonstrates that the argument is critically undermined by demonstrating that that which would constitute moral perfection to Jesus and his first century followers would certainly not constitute it for his twenty-first century ones. As Nineham observes, ‘If Jesus were to walk into the room...the first disturbing impression might be not so much of his greatness as of his strangeness’. [10] To this end Nineham contends that the argument for Jesus moral and spiritual perfection are simply a priori products of faith in a supernatural Jesus. When the supernatural element is discarded the claim for Jesus’ unique moral status loses its foundation.

A further problem is encountered in the nature of the apparent change in language that seems to accompany the concept. In traditional realist forms of Christianity Jesus is conceived of as God, a noun. In ideas that link him to moral perfection, however, he becomes not God, but effectively a definition of authentic altruistic being. Jesus, not as God, but as altruism is not named, but verbalised. A realist interpretation of this debate may forward the view that as logos Jesus was indeed the very verb of God, called not “to declare the word of God, but to be the word of God”. [11] Yet, ultimately it seems that absolutist ideas concerning the person of Jesus depend on what appears to be a linguistic sleight of hand that subverts the normal categories of language.

Also, absolutist conceptions of Jesus seem also to compromise his relationship to the rest of humanity. In the kenotic interpretations of Jesus, for example, his denial of self could be understood as a denigration of the value of some of the very aspects that seem to define humanness. Also, the key kenotic requirement of self-emptying, despite the accompanying dialectical proposition of fulfilment through denial can be seen to hold limited value as a universal salvific message. The rich and advantaged, for example, may find a counter-balance in the notion of kenosis that appeals to them. However, for individuals who, or even societies which, have been brutalised, oppressed and dispossessed the idea that those who have lost nearly everything must now lose more may hold very limited spiritual appeal.

For some, however, an absolutist understanding of the nature of Jesus is not necessary.

Whilst continuing the positive exploration of Jesus’ life and work others hold views that both celebrate yet relativise him. In his essay Thursday’s Child, for example, William Hamilton embarks upon an exposition of the relationship between the radical theologian, theological discourse, the Church, the bible and the person of Jesus, and concludes,

“Jesus Christ is best understood as neither the object or the ground of faith, neither as person, event or community, but simply as a place to be, a standpoint’ The place is, of course, alongside the neighbour, being for him. This may be the meaning of Jesus’ true humanity and it may even be the meaning of his divinity, and thus of divinity itself”. [12]

At the end of the essay Hamilton freely acknowledges echoing Bonhoeffer in both content and concern. However, in this reconciliation of Jesus to humanity the primary element of relation seems to have switched from Jesus to humanity. The absolutism of Jesus apprehended as some sort of superhuman is replaced by an understanding of where men and women should stand and how they should act in relation to Jesus. In this respect an absolutist conception has been replaced by a relativist one. Indeed, in the essay Hamilton actually seems to even move beyond a relativist position by suggesting that the “church is present wherever Christ is being formed among men in the world”. [13] This idea seems akin to a form of enactment theology that understands God as being created out of the agape of humanity. Allusions to Jesus’ humanity, however, seem, ultimately to preclude such a radical interpretation. Instead, they leave us with a Jesus to whom women and men may commit themselves in a this- worldly way, not to act in partisan social or political ways, but, like Jesus, to offer a “love that takes place in the middle of the real world.” [14]

In this respect the significance of Jesus to modern secular society is taken forward by Ian Harris in his book ‘Creating God’. For Harris, the very essence of Jesus was, although naturally bound to the theistic conceptions of his day, God-like in behaviour and attitude and the impact he had on peoples lives is seen as stemming directly from their perception of Godness in him. And it is this, Harris contends, that makes Jesus ‘a reference point in the search for Godness in humanity in the vastly different secular culture of the West today.’[15]

However, as for Harris, Jesus is a reference point, an initial ideal or staging post to guide the individual in pursuit of making or creating God relevant to self and to culture, the possibility, perhaps even the desired outcome, is that Jesus is ultimately left behind. Quoting John’s Gospel he takes hold of Jesus’ declaration that ‘he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do’ (John 14:12) and suggests that any follower of Jesus may achieve a God-centred life greater than his.

The idea of evolving beyond Jesus is also taken up by Don Cupitt. In ‘The Debate About Christ’ Cupitt likens Christianity to the city of Paris in that they are both about the same age and that neither now resembles the initial community or settlement that constituted their foundation. Each generation has continued to build on what has gone before and although this guarantees continuity with the past that which continues does not do so completely unchanged. So it is that Paris, whilst having connections with it original form, is now in outlook and resemblance something different. So too is the modern Christian experience very different from that of those who founded the tradition. So different, in fact, that he is forced to conclude that in ‘every age the church must be the church in a new and different way, and in an important sense the church must evolve beyond Jesus and leave him behind.’ [16]

Cupitt identifies the key element for the appreciation of Jesus not in supernatural being or moral superiority, but rather in his role of teacher. He contends that an analysis of the linguistic structure and didactic devices Jesus used reveal that as a man standing, relative to his beliefs, close to the end of time, his demands represent a call to people to ‘die’ to the material world to discover a relationship with God. In this respect it is not the cultural content of the message that is important, but its form. This is because the message contains an elemental trans-cultural aspect that is as relevant to society today as it was to Jesus’ contemporaries. As Cupitt observes, ‘Standing where he did, Jesus shows the ultimate truth about the human situation before God, and shows it in language that can be tested because it still works. His words are his work, and in his words he still lives and still relates men to God’. [17]

So, if not as sacrificial Lamb of God, in what sense a saviour can Jesus be for Radical Theology? As a self-negated kenotic instrument of God or as a man who transcends ego as a servant of humanity? As we have seen, there are problems associated with such ideas, not least of them being, historically, how can we know he was just such a man? Apart from the obvious hermenutical problems, however, other issues remain, not least of them being if a perfected moral state involves a life spent denying some of the very aspects that seem to define humanness, why, from a theological perspective, do we have them in the first place?

Jesus as a reference point, a morally good though not necessarily perfect example to whom man may aspire but who, ultimately, may surpass or evolve beyond would seem to offer a safer, more accessible concept for secular man. However, it also seems to bring with it a requirement to rewrite that most famous of Buddhists incitements to murder. ‘If you see Jesus on the road kill him’. Would such a demand represent a valid development of the Christian tradition? Finally, Jesus as teacher who through his own radicalism called men to God and, through the immediacy of his message still does so today would seem to satisfy historical demands for factual accuracy and also offer a continuing place of importance for Jesus in the Christian tradition. The nature of the salvation on offer, of course, has changed beyond recognition and the eschatology is now existentially defined but ultimately it may be this Jesus who offers the most satisfying definition that radicalism can offer.


[1] (1)Robinson, p76ff.

[2] Macquarrie, p359.

[3] Frend, p385.

[4] (1)Robinson, p64ff.

[5] Van Buren, p54.

[6] Tillich quoted in (1)Robinson, p74.

[7] Ritschl quoted in Heron, p35.

[8] Ritschl quoted in Pannenberg p45.

[9] Bonhoeffer, p274

[10] Hick, p195.

[11] (2)Robinson, p210.

[12] Altizer & Hamilton, p100.

[13] Altizer & Hamilton, p99.

[14] Altizer & Hamilton, p100.

[15] Harris, p8.

[16] Cupitt, p133.

[17] Cupitt, p138.


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Bonhoeffer, D. ‘Selected Writings’, Collins, 1988.

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Frend, W. ‘The Rise of Christianity’, Fortress, 1984.

Guyer, P. (ed) ‘The Cambridge Companion to Kant’, CUP, 1995

Harris, I. ‘Creating God’, St Andrews Trust, 1994.

Heron, A. ‘A Century of Protestant Theology’, Lutterworth, 1980

Hick, J.(ed) ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’, SCM, 1977.

Kant, I. ‘Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone’, Harper & Row, 1960.

Macquarrie, J. ‘Jesus Christ in Modern Thought’, SCM, 1993.

Mackey, J. ‘Jesus the Man & the Myth’, SCM, 1980

Panneburg, W. ‘Jesus - God and Man’, SCM, 1968.

(1)Robinson, J. ‘Honest to God’, SCM, 1987.

(2)Robinson, J. ‘The Human Face of God’, SCM, 1973.

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Vermes, G. ‘Jesus and the World of Judaism’, SCM, 1983.

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