Christology in a pluralistic world.

Author:Jersild, Paul

This opportunity to commemorate Mark W. Thomsen gives me particular pleasure for several reasons. The first is because of a long friendship that began during our student days at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, where we were roommates. We both attended Trinity Theological Seminary of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (UELC), which moved to the campus of Wartburg Seminary in 1956. From there we went our separate ways within the ministry of the church, but always managed to stay in touch.

Second, both of our fathers were pastors in the UELC, the church of Danish heritage that merged with much larger German and Norwegian churches in 1960 to form The American Lutheran Church. That common background gave us a religious heritage that was cherished by both of us during the course of our ministries. Our childhood church was marked by a deep piety rooted in the Inner Mission movement in Denmark, but it was characterized by a reserve typical of the Danish people. (1) One's faith was not "worn on one's sleeve," but it had a distinctive emotional element. It was marked by an earnestness that tended to focus more on the character of one's life than on the orthodoxy of one's beliefs. We both saw that spirit in the theologies of professors C. B. Larsen and T. I. Jensen, prominent members of the seminary faculty. (2) Trinity graduates typically resisted the kind of strict orthodoxy that was often found among their peers in other Lutheran churches.

Early Christology

Most of Thomsen's theological works have focused on Christology. Jesus Christ is at the center of the Christian faith, a truth that has loomed all the more importantly to him in light of his work on the mission field and continuing relations with adherents of other world religions, both on a personal and professional basis. He was a theologian who could admirably represent his church as a leader in its global outreach, emphasizing the centrality of Jesus Christ while also stressing the inclusive nature of the church's message. His adherence to the gospel was expressed in ways that certainly placed him within the church's orthodox tradition, while avoiding the exclusive claims that have marked much of orthodox theology. This characteristic of his theology was apparent from his earliest publications.

In his article, "The Lordship of Jesus and Secular Theology," Thomsen addresses the Christology of Paul van Buren, one of the secular theologians emerging in the 1960s who was associated at least indirectly with the "death of God" phenomenon. (3) In his book, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel: Based on an Analysis of Its Language, van Buren avowed the lordship of Jesus apart from faith in God, a position that was challenged by Langdon Gilkey in his Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language (4) Gilkey claimed that secular theology is self-contradictory when it affirms the lordship of Christ because that confession assumes faith in God. Without that faith, secular theology relinquishes any claim to be a Christian theology. Van Buren, in contrast, argued that the picture of Jesus conveyed in the Gospel records, "the man for others" who is driven by the spirit of agape, has the power to grasp and claim any contemporary person. Thomsen agreed, saying that the man Jesus, because of what we know about his life as depicted in the Gospels, can be experienced is Lord. "To be loved and to love, to be accepted and to accept, to be forgiven and to forgive are of value in and of themselves ... I am convinced with van Buren that it is in the story of Jesus that the Christian is grasped...." (5)

I believe this openness to what many of us in the 1960s and 1970s regarded as a questionable Christology reflects the influence of Herbert Braun, under whom Thomsen studied during his doctoral program at Northwestern University. While this openness characterizes the inclusiveness of his theology, it does not signify total agreement with van Buren. In another article, "The Lordship of Jesus and Theological Pluralism," (6) Thomsen compares van Buren's position with that of Schubert Ogden in Christ without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann, concluding that Ogdens Christology is preferable to the empirical thinking of van Buren. (7) In contrast to both Bultmann and van Buren, Ogden affirms the "objective" reality of a God-revealing event in Jesus, in whom one actually confronts "the eternal Existence or Thou in whom all truth is grounded." (8)

In this article Thomsen also considers the Christology of the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. (9) A distinctive feature of Pannenberg's Christology is his insistence on a historical ground for faith in Jesus, which he finds in the resurrection. He argues that both philosophical assumptions and historical facts demand recognition that death was not able to hold Jesus. Without this objective, historical basis, Pannenberg maintains that we could not recognize the Lordship of Jesus. Thomsen concludes that while he respects Pannenberg's argument and ultimately agrees with his conclusions, he finds it impossible to approach the Lordship of Christ from this perspective. Can one commit one's life for time and eternity upon the basis of "a neutral, nonvalue fact which at its very best is only highly probable and possibly only the most adequate interpretation of a series of events"? (10)

Thomsen finds the insights of van Buren and Ogden more persuasive...

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