What We’re Missing When We Call Jesus “Teacher” or “Rescuer”

[This is a re-post from Missio Alliance.]

Recently I noticed a little twitter interaction between Tim Keller and Rachel Held Evans. Keller tweeted the following:

To which Evans replied:

Keller replied back:

Evans went on to make a number of other responses, when others chimed in, like:

Fully recognizing, of course, that banter on twitter hardly counts as real dialogue or theological discussion, this exchange is nonetheless revealing. Now, it could be dismissed as just a typical debate between two different streams of Christian thought, one evangelical and the other mainline Protestant. And some might want to criticize the way Evans responded to Keller’s tweet, like she was picking a fight (the snarkiness of “I’m one of those crazy people…”).

Still, I think her last tweet above actually gets at something very important. Evans’ point is not a liberal one. Nor is their disagreement necessarily about atonement theory — say, between penal substitution and moral influence. And I do not think Keller and others like him are dismissing Jesus’s teachings or the significance of following him, either.

But Keller is doing at least two things: he’s making the same argument C.S. Lewis did in Mere Christianity — namely, that you can’t simply call Jesus a good moral teacher. Secondly, he’s probably also responding to the fallacy in the popular spiritual sentiment that Jesus is just another sage-like figure akin to Muhammad or the Buddha.

Now, the argument that Jesus can’t just be a good teacher is fine, so far as it goes. Certainly, to hold that Jesus was merely a good moral teacher is to blatantly disregard the fact that, even in some of his most “historically accepted” sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, he makes highly messianic statements about himself that go well beyond what any Jewish prophet would have claimed. Not to mention the early christological hymns in Paul’s letters and the high christology that developed before the gospels themselves were even written.

The Limits of “Lord, Liar or Lunatic?”

But this line of reasoning also has its shortcomings. For one thing, it contains within it the seeds of the same modern rationalism that later inspired much apologetic literature reacting to skeptics and secularism. Most of the so-called “evidence that demands a verdict,” and the attempts to prove the historicity of the bodily resurrection, for example, have ironically weakened Christian epistemology by reducing faith to Enlightenment standards.

To say that Jesus must be understood primarily as a rescuer before he is a teacher is part of this same confusion. It is a well-intended but unnecessary ordering or operations, so to speak. Of course, it is our Protestant heritage to be salvation-centered in how we look at Jesus, but considering more of the tradition would show that this is actually a fairly narrow view. It also drives an undesirable wedge between theology and ethics.

The other issue is that, for many people today — and for the disciples! — Jesus’s teachings and example often preceded any doctrinal assertions about him. Yes, it was the resurrection that ultimately solidified their faith, but Jesus’s life set the stage. It laid the foreground. And needless to say, people today can similarly begin to follow Jesus before completely understanding or believing that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Just as the experience of salvation through Christ authorizes his teachings, so too can the power and beauty of his teachings lead someone to trust in him for salvation.

Last year, my friend Tripp Fuller wrote a book about Jesus with the subtitle, “Lord, Liar, Lunatic or (just freaking) Awesome?” Tripp’s purpose in this book was not to say that we should drop the title of “Lord” for Jesus. He was just making the point that the question of Jesus’s identity is deeper and more existential than a logical choice between three options.

The overwhelming reason for deciding to follow and worship Jesus is not going to come from a deductive argument. It is more likely to follow from an encounter with God’s love made known in Christ — through his death, yes, but such a death would not be intelligible apart from the life and teachings that came before it. Jesus is more than a teacher, but not less.

Rescue in Teaching and Teaching in Rescue

And when it comes to what Jesus actually taught, he did much more than tell us how to live. He proclaimed the gospel and described the coming of God’s kingdom — through parables, healings, and exorcisms. But whatever else all of this is, it is still teaching. It’s revealing the truth of how things really are. Evans contends in another one of her tweets, there is “teaching in his rescue and rescue in his teaching.” Again, no separation. To talk about teachings and rescue as if the former depends on the latter, rather than recognizing that they both depend on each other, is to treat God’s actions as if they are not governed by God’s nature — a nature made known to us, through Jesus’s whole life and teachings.

What I’d like to propose, then, is not only that we try to see Jesus as equally Teacher and Rescuer, but above all, and particularly during Christmas, as the Word made flesh. In this especially Johannine light, the suggestion is not anything new, but neither is it a recommendation to just work with a different dogma. I am saying that because of the incarnation, the life, teachings, death and resurrection are all part of what God has to say and do for us. They reveal who God is. The Word, the Logos made flesh, is the Great Teaching and Revelation that God through Jesus is the Great Rescuer.

The most unique and radical teaching of Jesus is arguably the command to love even our enemies. And this teaching itself is still all about rescue, because it’s actually the only way to really live a blessed life. Jesus goes on then to live by this very teaching, which is what makes the rescue happen in the first place. And because he is at the same time the Word made flesh, the rescue is successful.

Questions Raised by Calling Jesus Word Made Flesh

This makes me wonder, for instance;

How many fewer evangelicals would be willing to support a politician like Trump if they trusted in Jesus’s teachings as much as his rescue?

How many fewer mainline Protestants would put their hope in a militant liberalism if they trusted in Jesus’s rescue as much as his teachings?

How much different would churches be that claimed to be “gospel-centered” if those same churches saw the sermon on the mount as essential to the gospel?

How much different would churches be that claimed to be “inclusive” if those same churches saw themselves as forgiven sinners as much as enlightened progressives?

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” — John 1:14

Originally published at William A. Walker III.

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