How the Earliest Christian Confession Informs Our Proclamation in a Pluralistic Age
by Marianne Meye Thompson | Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Fuller Theological Seminary
This is the background paper for the address given by Marianne Meye Thompson at the annual PFR Breakfast, June 19, 2002, at the 214th General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. The Office of Theology and Worship is grateful for the kind permission of Dr. Thompson and Presbyterians for Renewal to include this resource on our Web site.
In the contexts in which we live and minister today, the confession “Jesus is Lord” is often understood to articulate what the speaker thinks about Jesus. It’s understood as a statement which begins from the human point of view: Jesus is my Lord; or my “personal Lord” or Jesus is Lord of my life. The statement summarizes “who Jesus is to me.” However heartfelt and sincere the confession may be, it remains personal and individualistic. In our pluralistic world, we are leery of imposing our beliefs upon others; with our penchant for personal story, we are happy to speak in the first person, “Jesus is Lord to me.” “Jesus is my Lord.”
But the Creeds and confessions of our church have a different starting point. In the Apostle’s Creed, which the church is to recite at baptism, we do not confess that Jesus is “My lord” but rather that we believe in God the Father Almighty, “and in Jesus Christ his only Son, Our Lord, …” This way of putting it in the creeds underscores two points at once. First, Jesus Christ must be understood in relationship not first to us but to God; second, the confession of Jesus as Lord is a confession which is not first personal and individual in scope, but corporate. It binds the church together; but it first defines the identity of Jesus in relationship to God.
It is such an understanding of Jesus’ lordship that comes to expression elsewhere in the various constitutional documents of our church. In speaking of Christ as the head of the church, the Book of Order reads, “All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body ” (BO G-1.0100). Only such an understanding of the Lordship of Christ could have given rise to the Barmen Declaration’s rejection of the false doctrine that “there [are] areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords.” Similarly, the Confession of 1967 warns that “the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.” In the Study Catechism published in 1998, Question 31 reads, “What do you affirm when you confess your faith in Jesus Christ as ‘our Lord’?” Answer: That having been raised from the dead he reigns with compassion and justice over all things in heaven and on earth, especially over those who confess him by faith; and that by loving and serving him above all else, I give glory and honor to God.”
The crucial clause here is, “he reigns with compassion and justice over all things in heaven and on earth.” For if indeed Jesus Christ reigns over all things in heaven and on earth, then he is inseparably linked to the sovereign reign and justice of God. The implications for worship, faith and life are enormous. Such a confession moves out of the personal and private sphere; we do not confess what we believe to be true “for me” or even “for us” but what we believe to be true about Jesus Christ with relationship to the one God and all the world. That is the claim which I would like to pursue and flesh out in this paper.
“Jesus Is Lord” in New Testament Confessions and Formula
I would like first simply to highlight a few items from the NT which testify to the foundational character and the essential content of the confession, “Jesus is Lord.” The basic point which I would like to make is that the confessions of the NT first articulate the relationship of Jesus to God.
The confession that Jesus is Lord articulates the relationship of Jesus to God because it rests on the confession that God raised Jesus from the dead. Throughout the NT, “Jesus is Lord” is inseparably linked with Jesus’ resurrection, and so identifies him as the living one; he is not a figure of the past, nor is it merely his ideals or his inspiring life which endure. For example, in Acts we read that although Jesus was crucified by human beings, God has raised him to life and made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36-37). Paul links the confession that “Jesus is Lord” with the call to believe that God raised him from the dead (10:9-10).
The designation of Jesus as Lord also encompasses the exaltation of Jesus to a position of honor and dignity. Perhaps best known here is Philippians 2:5–11, which affirms that God has “highly exalted” the obedient Jesus, bestowing upon him the position and the name which is above every authority and every name, namely, that designation of Lord. This is what the creed summarizes in its assertion that God’s only Son, our Lord, is “seated at the right hand” of God, and has the power to “judge the living and the dead.” This means that the risen Lord exercises judgment over all people. If it is true that the risen Lord exercises judgment over all people, then in that can only mean that he exercises God’s own power to judge. Hence the confession that Jesus is Lord in the context of the NT inevitably implies that God is the one who authorizes Jesus as Lord. “God raised him from the dead” and “he is Lord of all” are two sides of the same coin, and point both to God as the one who authorizes Jesus as Lord, the judge of all the earth.
Put another way: from the perspective of the NT, it is not merely a human confession that is at stake here, but God’s own action and God’s own identity. Because the confession of Jesus as Lord points to his relationship to God, as the one designated by God as Lord of all, that confession is also the necessary confession and proclamation of the church. This confession is the necessary confession of the church, not because it elevates the status and dignity of the church, but because it articulates the status and dignity which belong to Jesus Christ, and it does so by expressing the distinctive and unique relationship of Jesus to God.
Not surprisingly, then, throughout the pages of the NT there are formulations that link Jesus and God in inseparable unity, such as the formulaic statements of thanksgiving to and benediction in the name “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Other times and places the affirmation that Jesus is Lord is simply assumed, as in the innumerable places in the NT where we have the phrase “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Paul, 1 & 2 Peter, James, Jude). Moreover, there are formulations that are incipiently if not overtly Trinitarian. For example, in Paul’s summary of his Gospel in Romans 1, he speaks of God, the son and the Spirit together in a way which makes it clear that the confession Jesus as Lord belongs together with an understanding of God and God’s spirit. Paul writes about “the gospel of God…. the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul states, Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Although these texts would need to be discussed and fleshed out further, it is clear that the confession of Jesus as Lord is an essential component of the church’s trinitarian understanding and confession of God.
If the centrality of the confession is indisputable, its content and significance are further highlighted by looking briefly at the background for the confession of Jesus as Lord in the pluralistic pagan contexts of the early church’s world.. In order to unpack further the content of the confession Jesus is Lord, we will look first at the Scriptures of the OT and how they provided the basis for the confession “Jesus is Lord.” Then we will look briefly at the pluralistic contexts in which early Christians made this confession. We will discover that the ancient Roman empire was no less challenging, diverse, and pagan, than the modern pluralistic contexts in which we seek to hold forth and proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
Jesus as Lord and Biblical Monotheism
In speaking of the Risen Jesus as Lord of all, the church never abandoned its commitment to monotheism or its confession of “one God.” Monotheism is not ditheism. The point can be reinforced by the way in which Paul uses the Shema of the OT, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut 6:4). In 1 Cor 8:6, in an explicit echo of this passage, Paul writes to the Corinthian church, many of whose “members” had likely been relatively recently converted out of a pluralistic, pagan context: “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Paul teases apart the Shema, with its affirmation that “The Lord our God is one” into two affirmations, the first about God the Father and the second about Jesus Christ the Lord. This is truly an astonishing use of this foundational biblical confession which articulates the identity of Israel in terms of its allegiance to the One God. Now Paul rereads that affirmation to include within it the confession of one God and one Lord together.
The Shema is a statement in a personal form. The Lord our God is one Lord. This is a personal confession, and it is also a corporate confession which unites those who make it. In this way the confession in 1 Corinthians 8 is akin to it, couched as it is in personal terms. For us there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ ….But such personal forms of confession — The Lord is our God — in no way deny the uniqueness or singularity of God. Neither Deuteronomy nor the Jewish tradition which recites it nor Paul who adapts it could have meant, “There is one God for us” — but another God for you. Neither could Paul have meant there is one Lord for us, but another Lord for you. Jesus can be named as “our Lord” because he is first the Lord. In other words, there is an absolute context for the personal confession.
Paul’s particular way of framing the confession in 1 Corinthians 8:6 is telling, for it also identifies God the Father and Jesus the Lord in terms of prerogatives which are elsewhere unique to God. God is the one “From whom are all things.” One of the unique divine prerogatives or actions, which not only characterizes but defines God, is the activity of creation. In order to defend the unity and uniqueness of God, both the OT and subsequent Jewish apologetics argue for God’s creation of all things. This is a well-known polemic from the book of Isaiah, where God’s role in creating the world underscores the sharp blast against idolatry, but also serves to call for the worship of Israel, as well as all the nations. For example, In Isaiah 45:18-21 we read:
For thus says the LORD,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it a chaos,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
I am the LORD, and there is no other. ….
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the LORD?
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me.
In other words, the assertion that God created the world is an assertion of God’s uniqueness.
Here as elsewhere in the NT, Jesus or the Son is spoken of as the mediator of God’s creating work. So we read in John 1:3, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made which was made.” And in Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Similarly, in Hebrews 1:1-3, In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.
A second feature of OT and Jewish apologetic for the uniqueness of God appeals to God’s sovereignty. Not only is God the sole creator of all things, but God is the sole ruler of all things; indeed, the two cannot be separated, for the God who rules over the world is the God who made the world. Again, Israel’s God is King or sovereign not only of Israel, but indeed of all the nations. In short, to speak of God’s sovereignty is to speak of the identity of God, who God is.
There is an emphasis in the NT on the universal scope of God’s sovereignty exercised through the Son. “All things were made ….” in him all things hold together …. he is the heir of all things …. Both in the OT and in Jewish apologetic this language of “all things” points to the sweeping and all-embracing character of God’s sovereignty over the world: “The earth is the Lord’s” – indeed, for God made it and God governs it. All things are God’s. Now the NT applies this language to Jesus as well: The Father has given “all things” into his hand. All things hold together in him. These affirmations attribute to Jesus divine activities and prerogatives, and thus show the specific concrete shapes taken by the confession, Jesus is Lord.
To put it differently, the recognition of Jesus as Lord is necessary to understand and express the identity of Jesus in relationship to God’s creating and saving purposes in the world. The statement Jesus is Lord is necessary to express the identity of Jesus; but it is also necessary to express the identity of God. If the Lord God of Israel, the one God of the universe, has now raised and exalted Jesus to his right hand, and designated him as Lord, then to acknowledge the one God is also to acknowledge the one whom he designates as Lord. The crucial point here is it is not we who designate Jesus as Lord, but God who does so. Through the Son, God’s identity as Creator and Sovereign are not only known but also expressed in concrete ways for the salvation of the world.
Thus the NT confession of Jesus as Lord reflects and adapts the biblical confession of the singularity and distinctness of the one God to include Jesus Christ within that confession — not as an option or addendum, but as a necessary confession: we confess one God, and one Lord: One God who made the world, one Lord through whom it was made; one God who governs the world, one Lord through whom God’s sovereign purposes come to expression. The individualistic confession “Jesus is my Lord” thus gets it somewhat right — but also wrong unless it is a response to the universal confession “Jesus is Lord.” When we couch our confessions only in the first person singular — “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” —we fail to articulate what is at stake in the designation of Jesus as Lord of all — that it is first in relationship to God and to God’s purposes for the world that the statement “Jesus is Lord” finds it proper place.
Jesus As Lord in a Pluralistic Empire
There is a new emphasis in recent NT studies on the significance of the imperial cult, the cult of Caesar, as not just as an interesting aspect of the early church’s social world, but as permeating it to such an extent that any announcement of Jesus as Lord would inevitably have been heard as a challenge and an alternative to the role of Caesar as Lord. Although in the past emperor cult has been understood primarily as a civic duty without real religious overtones, today there is an increasing awareness of the way in which its religious and political aspects were intertwined. Or, as one author puts it, Caesar demanded both taxes and sacrifices. In other words, to say Jesus is Lord means that Caesar isn’t — in whatever way that Lordship might be demonstrated and exercised.
So in Philippians 3:20 we read, “but our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The titles Savior and Lord are of course both designations for God in the OT, which refer in the NT to Jesus as well; Messiah is the designation for the coming king through whom Israel is offered God’s deliverance. But Savior and Lord can also be found referring to Caesar, who offered deliverance and demanded allegiance. I have a series of several slides here which show the conception of the emperor as “savior,” “lord” or “god.” The first is a notable inscription from Priene in Asia Minor, dated to the year 9BC. You need to have the words of Luke chapter 2 ringing in your ears at this point:
“A decree went out from Caesar Augustus” and “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” as well as the angelic announcement of the gospel, the “good news,” regarding “peace on earth.” This inscription reads as follows: Decree of the Greek Assembly in the province of Asia … Augustus, whom Providence has filled with virtue for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us a Savior who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in peaceful order . . . with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of good news (= euaggelia, “gospel”) for the world because of him…” There are similar later inscriptions and papyri which label other emperors as “God” or Lord” or Savior. Hence when such terms are applied to Jesus, in the context of the Roman empire, there is little question that the gauntlet is being thrown down. For if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn’t.
Paul’s appeal to the status of Christians of Philippi as a “colony” of heaven is thus particularly apropos and poignant. After his military victory over the assassins of Caesar, Augustus had settled Philippi as a colony of Rome, with all the privileges of Roman citizenship. Paul writes to those who name Christ, and not Caesar, as Lord. They had not been put in Philippi by Caesar, to colonize Philippi on behalf of Rome, but by the Lord Jesus Christ, to conduct their; their peace and salvation was not brought by Caesar, but by God through quite another Lord. The “colonists” of heaven have not only privileges, but responsibilities, public duties, to live in ways which comport with the fact that they derive their identity from the heavenly Lord and that their destiny lies with him. They must therefore negotiate between the Scylla of isolationism and the Charybdis of assimilationism.
The model Paul takes is that of Christ himself, who
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This passage couches its confession of the risen and exalted Jesus terms which are used in the OT for God, specifically in Isaiah 45. There we read of God’s insistence on his uniqueness and singularity:
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me.
22 Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.”
It is this passage which is echoed in Philippians 2:11: “That at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul rereads the Old Testament with reference to Christ not to pit Christ against God, but to show the applicability of these terms to the Lord, Jesus Christ, and to show that worship and honor of the one God cannot be separated from worship and honor of the one Lord. Furthermore, Paul identifies Jesus not simply in the abstract, but via a specific narrative — the narrative of self-emptying love, humiliation, and ultimate exaltation. Paul makes it quite clear that Christians do not confess an abstract or generic God, but one who is made known in the particular and in the concrete, in the narrative of Jesus’ identification with the human condition at its most wretched and humiliated, the death of a slave or criminal. Unlike Caesar, whose power is displayed and salvation won through the force of military might and conquest, the victory of Jesus and his status as Lord are gained through the death on the cross — on Caesar’s cross.
One could also point to the notably pluralistic pagan context in which Paul’s early congregations struggled to live out their Christian commitment. Excavations from Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and numerous other cities show cities replete with shrines and temples to a variety of deities — Isis, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, as well as to the emperors. Ancient inscriptions attest to prayers for healing and deliverance from peril and danger, offered up to these gods. People sought wisdom by consulting the various oracles, such as the oracle at Delphi. We have written documents that testify repeatedly the sincere religious quests of ancient pagans, who sought to enter into experiences of the divine which offered them joy and peace. We have an account known as Metamorphoses, in which a certain Lucius lives a live of moral debauchery and, as a result, finds himself unhappily changed into an ass. Through an encounter with Isis, he eventually regains his human form, and commits himself to becoming her devotee and, at great cost and great sacrifice, enters into the mysteries devoted to her. This, however, is not good enough, and eventually he undergoes two more costly and self-denying rites of initiation in order to enter the mysteries of Osiris as well. By any measure, he shows an extraordinary degree of earnestness, sincerity, and devotion. No wonder that in Acts 17, Paul speaks of the Athenians as “very religious,” honoring and tending even fallen and defaced altars, dedicated to gods whose names are by now long forgotten. It was in such a context that Paul penned the confession of 1 Corinthians 8:6, writing, ‘indeed there are many so-called lords and gods, but for us there is one God and one Lord.” How, then, did this insistence — one God, one Lord — work out in practice in Paul’s churches?
The Rubber Meets the Road: The Confession “Jesus Is Lord” in the Context of Paul’s Churches
First, the confession “Jesus is Lord” was for Paul both absolute and necessary because, as noted above, it articulates what God had done through and in Christ. When Paul writes that for us there is “one Lord” he surely did not mean that Christ’s lordship was limited to the church alone, and it most particularly did not mean that there other were viable contenders for the title. For Paul, the failure to understand that there is one Lord is tantamount to the denial that there is “one God.’
In fact, there is a close connection between the confession that there is “one God, one Lord” and the content of Paul’s Gospel. When Paul calls in Romans 10 for the confession that “Jesus is Lord” and that God raised him from the dead” he goes on to assert, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Then he asks, But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” The messenger who proclaims the good news, the Gospel, is the herald from Isaiah 52. The Gospel proclamation begins not with a personal invitation to a religious experience, but with an announcement, like a royal herald, that God is King and that Jesus is Lord — of all the earth.
To relegate the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” either exclusively to the religious sphere or to the private sphere will be to misunderstand the public and universal dimensions of the claim in its first century context. And so it is that ministers of the Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA are asked this question at their ordination, “Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” The acknowledgment that Jesus is “Lord of all” is the beginning point of the church’s proclamation, as it was for Paul.
Second, Paul recognized that the pluralistic contexts from which his converts came and the pluralistic air which they continued to breathe permeated their thoughts to such a degree and to such an extent that understanding and living this confession were no easy matters. Paul had to not only socialize his converts into the ways of the Christian faith, but he did so without being able to presuppose that they had any prior knowledge of the Scriptures, or any conception of the uniqueness of God on which to build. Similarly, he had to work in a context in which there was little sense of the link between religious affiliation and moral commitment, such as is intrinsic to the OT/ Scriptural witness. Hence he worked to lead them not simply to assent to the confession of the One God and his One Lord, but also into the multiple ways in which this called for a shaping of the total life as those who live as “citizens of heaven.” Paul does not offer people a new “religious experience,” he does not start from human beings and move to God; he starts from God and moves to us; he proclaims the sovereignty of Jesus Christ and his claim on the life of every person.
Paul clearly recognizes, however, that not all in his church articulate this confession in worship, proclamation, and way of life. There are those in his churches , for example the church at Corinth, who have not yet grasped the full scope of this confession. In 1 Corinthians Paul regards their belief in many gods as a sign of the “weakness” and not the strength of their faith. His pastoral duty is to lead them from the recognition of the many gods and lords of their pluralistic pagan context to the confession of one God, and one Lord. It is Paul’s pastoral work, his life’s vocation, to proclaim Jesus as Lord AND to bring others to understand and live this out in thought, word and deed. He did not think his work was done when people said it once; it was the stuff of which is ministry consisted. The common commitment of the church is and must be “Jesus is Lord” – not because this is a cause or slogan around which we can rally, but because this confession articulates the fundamental reality of Christian faith.
Third, Paul labored to inculcate in his churches that the one whom the local congregation in Corinth or Thessaloniki or Philippi confessed as “Lord” was in fact not just a local cult deity, but the Lord of all. This meant not only that they were bound to each other within the local house church by a common allegiance, but also to all other bodies who confessed Jesus as Lord. The unique Lordship of Christ is the basis of the church, which Paul conceives of as the body of the one Lord, who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile and made one new person out of those who were previously alienated from each other. Paul paints the picture of the church on a very large canvas. The claims made for Jesus are matched by the claims Paul makes for the church. The church is one universal, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural entity.
While it seems possible to reduce “Jesus is Lord” to a statement that Jesus is Lord for the church — and for the church alone — the language and logic of Paul’s declaration begins with the universal sovereignty of Jesus and moves from that to the church’s acknowledgment of it. Similarly, while it is possible to reduce this confession to the private and individualistic statement “Jesus is my Lord” that confession is always secondary to and dependent upon the universal formulation, “Jesus is Lord.” Can the church survive as the Christian church, the body of Christ, without the confession that Jesus is not just Lord of the church, but Lord of all? To the extent that the church denies the universality of Jesus’ lordship, it also denies its universal character and God’s saving purposes for all creation. It may then become a local cult, even a cult with manifestations in various cities and countries, such as that of Isis, but it will not be the universal church of the Lord. Hence, while the confession “Jesus is Lord of all” is the starting point of the church’s proclamation, it must also be the confession to which we work to bring all of the members of the body, in both word and deed.
As Lesslie Newbigin puts it: “The uniqueness and the universality are counterparts of each other. To reject both in the alleged interest of mutual tolerance among the world’s religions is to deny the message at its center. If there are many different revelations, then the human family has no center for its unity. If the Krishna of the Puranas and the Jesus of the Gospels are both revelations of God, then we must say (and this is what Hinduism in the end does say) that God is unknown and unknowable. Each of us is — in the end — shut up in his own world of ideas. He must find God in the depths of his own being because there is no action of God by which he gives himself to be known by us” (The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], p. 43).
While Caesar’s empire may have boasted of its scope and unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, and of the peace and justice it purported to bring, Paul contends that it is the church which truly offers the sort of unity and community for which human beings hunger. So while Paul celebrated the diversity of the church, he did so because the church is gathered up in unity into and by its one Lord. The church’s diversity comes from and must lead to its unity in Christ; there is no celebration of diversity apart from the underlying affirmation of the one body of Christ, a unity which is remembered at the Lord’s Table as we discern in our table fellowship the one body of Christ.
Fourth, the confession of Jesus as Lord indicates that a particular understanding of salvation is also in view. These two are inseparable. Salvation in Paul’s view implies a right relationship to the creator, a relationship that calls for worship and faithful obedience. Right worship of God is thus at the heart of the life of the Christian church. In keeping with this understanding, one of the marks of the true church is “right worship of God.” Because the church’s fundamental confession is one which joins “One God, One Lord” — there is no right worship of God where Jesus is not also acknowledged and confessed as Lord.
To confess that Jesus is Lord is not to confess that in him we have found a way to God, but that in him God has embodied a way to us. This means that an understanding of God and of the salvation given to us is uniquely and decisively manifested through the life, death, and resurrection Jesus Christ. We know God, in the particular and concrete, as self-sacrificing love for the life of the world. To worship God rightly, then, is to worship the God of Israel whose saving purposes are brought to their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the narrative of the Scripture.
If we make the confession “one Lord” mean that Jesus is actually one of many Lords, then we might as well deny that there is one God. This is of course what the paganism of Paul’s day did say — there are many gods and many lords, enough for temples and rituals and cults a-plenty in the cities of Corinth and Ephesus and Philippi and Laodicea. It is what the paganism of our day, with its intolerance for monotheism, says as well. The church in Paul’s day benefitted from living under the Pax Romana, but it could not adopt the state’s tolerance for pluralism as its own. Pax Americana goes further, inculcating tolerance as the highest good — but the church can no more adopt that as its slogan than could the church of Paul’s day.
To say there are many equally valid ways to God is not to make God more generous, but simply to make God generic. And a generic God, a God known apart from Israel’s story and apart from the narrative of Jesus, is simply not the God of the Bible. What it is imperative for the church to articulate today if it is not simply to be assimilated into its pagan context is a theology which does not cater to the lowest common denominator of confession, but stands with Paul in affirming in the face of every possible objection and obstacle: “There is one God, and one Lord.” From that starting point we may work together to bring the church to the point where “Every knee will bow, and every tongue confess … that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Our context is no more pluralistic than was the context of Paul or of any of the apostles who lived, worked, and taught in the Roman empire of the first century of this era. Although people are fond of saying so, we do not live in unprecedented times. The world of the early church knew of the claims that there were indeed “many lords and many gods.” There were claims for the gods of nationalism and power, such as the Caesars and Rome; for the various gods of foreign and mystery cults, such as Isis and Osiris; local and civic deities, such as Athena, Artemis, and Apollo; the gods of chance and fate, such as fortune, fate, and luck; and the generic life force of the universe. Precisely in the context of such claims, Paul affirmed that there is “one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Our world, too, knows of “many lords and many gods” – and many of them take the same form as they did in Paul’s own day – nationalism, foreign deities, fate and fortune, and the pantheistic belief that all is God. In the ancient world, Christianity provided an alternative to the shapeless confusion of antiquity; in the modern world, it can provide the same alternative, but only if it articulates the gospel clearly.
In such a world, it is urgent that the Church have the courage to speak its belief in the one Lord, for this is the content of the Gospel. In making this proclamation, it must be clear that it does not seek to add another deity to the pluralistic mix, but that it intends to bear witness to the Lord who is “above every name,” for he is the one whom God has “set above all rule and authority, all power and dominion.” In other words, the foundation of the church’s confession and proclamation who Jesus is, through God’s mercy and grace, for all the world and also for us. The confession that Jesus is “my personal Lord” is not the same as the confession “he is Lord.” And unless we truly believe that he is Lord, we ought not to make the confession he is “my Lord,” because to do so is tantamount to idolatry, honoring one lord among many lords.
As one author put it, “To assert today that the one Creator God has revealed himself fully and finally in Jesus Christ is to risk criticism on the grounds of arrogance or intolerance. The mission of the church, however, does not commit Christians to the proposition that there is no truth to be found in other religions. All philosophies or religions which have some ‘fit’ with the created world will thereby reflect in some ways the truth of God. [This] does not, however, imply that they are therefore, as they stand, doorways into the new creation. That place … is Christ’s alone” (N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon [Leicester: Inter-Varsity; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], p 79).
If the church compromises its witness to the Lordship of Christ, then it has ceased to be the church of Jesus Christ. But in proclaiming and living this news as good news, we must be certain that our mode of confession matches the trajectory of the self-giving and self-emptying of the crucified one who loved us and gave himself for us. So question 52 of the Study Catechism asks, “How should I treat non-Christians and people of other religions?” Answer: As much as I can, I should meet friendship with friendship, hostility with kindness, generosity with gratitude, persecution with forbearance, truth with agreement, and error with truth. I should express my faith with humility and devotion as the occasion requires, whether silently or openly, boldly or meekly, by word or by deed. I should avoid compromising the truth on the one hand and being narrow-minded on the other. In short, I should always welcome and accept these others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of me.”
If this is what the catechism asks of us in relationship to people of other religions, how much more should we deal with friendship, kindness, generosity, and forbearance with our sisters and brothers in Christ. In other words, the virtue we must seek to cultivate is not the American virtue of tolerance, but the biblical virtue of humility. Humility is not the same as tolerance, for humility recognizes that a word of judgment may always be addressed to us, and that there are logs in our own eyes which we need to remove. Humility is the stance that we, as those who are united in baptism to the death and resurrection of our Lord, must seek. We have a long ways to go before we show the kind of compassionate and courageous love which Jesus demonstrated to the tax collectors and sinners as he welcomed them to his table. We forget the scandalous character of his act, as we forget the shameful character of his death on the cross, which he endured for us while we were yet sinners . There will be a profound irony and, indeed, shame if those of us who insist most vociferously that “Jesus is Lord” are also known to be characterized by a lack of humility and love.
But as the catechism states we must also “meet error with truth.” There is no formula — nor has there ever been — a formula for how one measures and mixes truth and forbearance. Paul’s unflagging commitment and unfailing compassion can remind us that we can never compromise on our zeal for truth —or for forbearance. This is neither an easy road to walk nor an easy witness to bear. But let us also be reminded that where the church fails to hold fast to its commitment to Christ as Lord, and therefore to hold and speak this truth in the humility of Christ himself, the loss is not only ours, or the church’s, but also the world’s.