Most Christians who have some familiarity with the term, christology, would understand it to provide systematic reflection on who (or what) Jesus is (or was), particularly as the savior of humanity. From the time of the gospel story of Peter confessing Jesus as “the Christ” up through the classical conciliar formulations of the fifth century, this doctrinal kind of reflection has been a defining motif for the Christian tradition’s understanding of christology. The modern era, with its discovery of the “self” and the methods of critical historiography, has rendered many of these doctrinal christological claims problematic. Contemporary theologians have addressed this by adopting a “christology from below” which takes account of the results of historical scholarship into the life of Jesus and then indicating how the doctrinal claims emerged and cohere with this historical portrait. Proponents of a rigorous doctrinal stance upholding a “christology from above,” in the Catholic case propounded by the authoritative voice of the Vatican, have tended to find such historically sensitive proposals lacking in full doctrinal orthodoxy. In this significant new study, Terrence Tilley applies his “practical” philosophical orientation to such christological problems with the expectation that it will “dissolve” some of these intractable issues.
Tilley’s thesis here is that we need to shift the focus of christology from doctrinal explication to understanding it to be enacted discipleship (11). Christology in practice, then, becomes handing on Jesus’ reconciling activity of establishing the kingdom of God appropriately in whatever context the community finds itself. Unpacking the dimensions of this insight and convincing readers of its value constitute the aims of his extended essay. Here I will simply point out a few features of the position Tilley has developed so that readers might be persuaded to examine this important contribution to contemporary theology.
Placing the priority on practice requires appreciating that the primary mode of maintaining a tradition is to teach adherents how to engage appropriately in the practices of the community so that they are sustained by its way of life. Discipleship is learned by imitating and putting into practice the activities of the skilled practitioners of the community. What is primary is enacting the form of life; doctrinal claims used to explain or clarify it are secondary and derivative.
One important consequence of this approach for historical scholarship is to shift the emphasis away from searching for the “historical” Jesus and relying instead on the “historic” Jesus. By this Tilley means to highlight the reality that our knowledge of Jesus is dependent upon the impact he made on his disciples. The New Testament is comprised of the memories of the disciples who constitute the movement he initiated (50-58). The desire to get “behind” these accounts to some unmediated history of the individual who inspired them is misguided. When viewed from the perspective of the practice Jesus initiated in announcing the kingdom of God, we can understand the disciples as attempting to enact these practices during Jesus’ lifetime. Hence the stories that embody their memories of Jesus are rooted in his own practice, and their oral performances are handed on through an “informally controlled” tradition (55). This strategy allows Tilley to argue that the “gap” often alleged between the “historical” Jesus and the faith claims of the later Jesus-movement (most recently by the Jesus-seminar scholars) is a contemporary academic construct. In line with the recent work of Daniel Boyarin and Larry Hurtado, Tilley holds that the practice of Jesus in the context of late second Temple Judaism allowed his disciples to continue his practice precisely because they recognized him as God’s empowering agent (64-65). On these grounds, then, Tilley explicates how the reconciling practice of Jesus, including his healing, exorcising, teaching and fellowship, was able to be continued after his death by the disciples who constituted the Jesus-movement.
Maintaining this practice through time presumes a reliance on a Christian vision, which articulates in varying contexts practices and expressions of faith that are helpful and those that are to be avoided (195). Applying this strategy to the classical doctrines developed during the first five centuries after Jesus leads Tilley to adapt insights from George Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” analysis of doctrine. Here doctrines are taken as “rules” guiding first-order faith claims (204-05). This means that doctrines guide the proper practice of making faith claims. This technical restriction tends to evacuate doctrine of any substance, a consequence mitigated by formulating identity principles for the tradition. These, in turn, allow Tilley to present his take on the classical doctrines as declaring that Jesus’ practice enacted God’s will in his own context and inaugurated this possibility by proclaiming the kingdom of God (226-27). Christians continue to do christology in this manner when they find appropriate ways of engaging in reconciling practice today.
This brief sketch of a few features of Tilley’s attempted reformulation of christology obviously omits important nuances and almost all of his supporting rationale. My initial assessment is mixed. When his approach is applied to assessing and dissecting some of the “philosophical” problems posed to Christianity, it is quite helpful. In an earlier work, for example, Tilley’s insightful discussion of “theodicy” indicates how the philosophical critique based on the “problem of evil” misunderstands the depth of religious language and the practice upon which it based, so that the “problem” appears to be a philosophical confusion rather than a religious inadequacy. Whether this strategy works in the case of christology is not so clear; practice, as in the case of science, sometimes must be guided by the way things are as well as rules. Still, I hope enough of Tilley’s basic claims along with a few of the significant implications of his approach have been clarified so that it encourages everyone interested in christology to examine his effort.