Project Canterbury

Problem Papers
Holy Cross Press
This piece was originally published in 1940 as Problem Paper No. 3 at West Park, NY

What About Jesus?

In concluding a remarkably interesting study of the life of Jesus Christ, whom he calls "Man of Genius," Mr. J. Middleton Murry writes: "We shall look like men, on the man Jesus. He will stand our scrutiny. Keep we our heads as high as we can, they shall be bowed at the last."

Mr. Murry is no professing Christian. He is a distinguished English man of letters, who has declared his inability to accept the Christian God, and has become one of the prominent contemporary defenders of a somewhat spiritualized form of Communism. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that he should find himself driven to write a life of Jesus, in which the dominant note is adoring love; and in the end, should be compelled to assert, in a more recent work, that Jesus can be interpreted as nothing less than "the emergence of a new species in the genus Homo." What is even more amazing, Mr. Middleton Murry confesses the reality of Jesus Christ in the present-day experience of men and women who have been won to Him as "spiritually risen." "Of the reality of this conviction, of the reality of the experience that created this conviction, we cannot doubt," he says. And in another place he declares that the modern man who seeks to know Jesus "shall find that He was, in very truth, the ineffable Word made Flesh."

We have quoted these words of a non-Christian, because they illustrate so clearly the power and presence of Christ in the world of men, two thousand years after He walked in Palestine as a Man among men. Evidently, He still walks the ways of this world. We need not give further quotations, for the persisting impact of the whole life, death and continued power of Jesus is no secret at all. He counts more and more, He has become "the conscience of the world," He is regarded as supreme among historic figures, "the chief among ten thousand, and the altogether lovely."

But Mr. Middleton Murry, by his insistence on the special significance of Jesus as one who is "spiritually risen," and who cannot be interpreted as anything less than the emergence of a new type of man, pushes us on to more important questions. It is to some of these that the present Paper will be directed.


Untold millions of men and women, drawn from every race and clime, have borne witness and still bear witness to the reality of their experience that Jesus Christ is to them a living spiritual power. It is not merely in the Christian Church that this fact has been asserted, although here the witness is strongest and clearest; but also outside, among others who (like the contemporary whom we have cited) have felt the majesty and love of His person, the same truth is declared. They have asserted that in and through Jesus, no matter how they -have entered into fellowship with Him, there has been re- leased into their lives a new energy, a new dynamic, a new strength and life. He has turned the dry places into pools of water, and has caused the rose to bloom in the arid desert. He has restored purpose to their lives; assured them of their high calling as men; driven out the impurity and lovelessness and selfishness, the sin and despair, which bound and tied them; and in place of these has put a meaning and a power that have made them new creations.

These are plain facts of history. We grant that the psychology of religion has much to say on the point, but the sheer reality of these things it can never explain away. How did all of this come into the world? It came in through a life, which was lived in Palestine some two thousand years ago, the very partial record of which we read in the New Testament. One appeared among men. One who was bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, who taught and healed and ministered to those about Him; whose positive goodness, simple grandeur and mysterious holiness compelled one of His friends to cry, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man;" who loved sinners and little children. He was one who seemed to His companions to live so close to the God in whom they believed that His whole being irradiated the beauty and strength of Divine Reality. And He was one who believed, with all the intensity of His will, that He had a great task to perform, the establishment among men of a kingdom in which love and active outgoing goodness should be the ruling principle. It was the kingdom of God, which He would inaugurate in the world. When His teaching seemed to fail of its effect, He set His face to go to Jerusalem, that He might die to bring in the fullness of the kingdom. He died on a cross, condemned by the leaders of His people as a common criminal; yet His death was not defeat, but victory. Love could go no further, and love conquered death. In some way, the details of which we do not know, He convinced His followers (and what is more, He has convinced men and women for two thousand years) that He was not dead because He could not be holden of death.


Now it is quite clear that these stupendous facts demand some explanation. What do they mean? What light do they throw upon the world in which we live? How can we best interpret them as occurring in that world of our experience? These are questions, which cannot be evaded, if we are clear thinking, honest men. For just because they have happened, the world is a different place than it would be if they had never happened at all. And when we come to give an account of the world, to make our terms with it, and plot out for ourselves a method of living in it, we must take all the facts into our story. Otherwise it is inadequate, and even definitely untrue.

It is surely plain that it is not a mere prejudice, which sees in Jesus Christ, and all that He has done and meant for men, the central event of history. Many great things have happened since this planet first broke away from its parent sun. But in the affairs of men, among all the events, which have shaped and moulded the course of events, none has had such profound and far-reaching effects as the total fact of Christ. We indicate this when we date occurrences as "B.C." and "A.D." Here is a striking, a supreme, a specially significant event.

But if we have come to believe that the only satisfactory explanation of the universe and of our own lives is that one which sees a Divine Reality behind and in all things, creative and outgoing, we shall be obliged to see that the course of events, and events themselves, are very closely related to that Reality. God is concerned with the affairs of men; He is not merely the Power which throbs in the tiny atom and stretches the stars across the sky, He is also the righteous God who is working out a purpose in history, and who is known in the secret heart of His created children. Surely, then, He who reveals His presence and activity through every range of being and life, is not without sufficient reason believed to reveal Himself specially and uniquely in Christ.

Yet this is not the whole of Christian faith. For Christ has not simply shown certain things about the nature of God. That He has done, indeed. He has declared that the "nature and the name" of the Divine Reality is love; He has taught that men must approach God through love and service, in a spirit of sonship to a heavenly Father; He has shown that friendship, justice, love, humility and peace must characterize our relationships with one another. But He has done more. In some supreme manner He has brought men into a newly realized relationship with God. He has established a new fellowship on earth, a fellowship where the very life of God is rendered richly available for Christ's followers. He has made men at home in the universe, wrought an "atonement" between the Reality of God and the lives of men. He has poured a new power and strength, whose essential quality is self-giving love, into human hearts.

In all this, He has shown Himself to be "the emergence of a new species in genus Homo." But such an explanation is insufficient. No emergence (and above all this one) can be explained "from below." If we possess that reasonable belief in God, which we have mentioned above, we must go on to say that Jesus Christ is not merely the supreme revealer of God; He is indeed the very revelation of God. He is the sufficient human expression of God. He is God-in-man, God-as-man, God-Man. He is truly human and He is truly divine.

That is what the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation means. It is no dry-as-dust formulary, devised by ancient theorizers and stuffy pedants. The doctrine of the Incarnation grew out of the burning experience of Christian people, who had found God and been found of God through Jesus Christ. Here was One who had brought the vitalizing power of God into their lives, who in their experience was identified with God because He was in truth God-for-them. They were compelled by the logic of facts and the deeper logic of experienced living, to fall on their knees and cry out in adoration, "My Lord and my God."

And it is only those who have earnestly sought to reproduce that experience in their own lives, who have made the experiment of faith in Christ as God made manifest in man, who can dare to judge whether or not the doctrine of the Incarnation is sheer nonsense, or is truth so profound and shattering that it turns our ideas and thoughts upside down and makes us new, quite really new, creatures.


Suppose that we grant the central Christian belief in the real divinity of Jesus, which as the Russian philosopher Solovieff wrote is "the Christian faith pure and simple." We may then ask, How best can we conceive the Incarnation of God in Christ? What implications does it have for the nature of God, the world and man, and the relationship which exists between God and His creation?

We shall begin by acknowledging the view of God, which was discussed a page or so back. The entire world in which we live is sustained as it is created by the Divine Reality who reveals and expresses Himself in it. But it is not all equally significant. The way in which different levels manifest God varies greatly in quality. He is shown much more fully in conscious human life than in a stone, and a great poet with his artistic, creative power shows more about God than the self-indulgent libertine whose only desire is to find amusement for himself. He is more clearly manifested in a St. Francis of Assisi than in an envious and rapacious son of the Medicis. He is known more adequately in the gentle kindness of a child than in the hard-handed ward politician. This point need not be labored further: but we must go on to mention the equally real fact that God is at work everywhere, under every circumstance, even in things that appear evil, guiding, healing, compelling, persuading, bringing good out of wickedness and crowning goodness with His own seal of perfection.

In such a world, God is "incarnationally present," as we may put it. He is working partially in disguise, partially unveiled. He shows as much of Himself, expresses Himself as fully, as it is possible for Him to do without denying the freedom that He has bestowed upon His creation. He prepares the way for fuller disclosures, moulding events and human lives so that He may enter more completely into the world of men and into the secret places of their hearts. From the very lowest level of the world up to the highest which we know, God is there, --in the flower, the sunset, the birds’ flight, the stars and the moon, the smile of a child, the hand-clasp of a friend, the kiss of a true lover, the broken bread of comradeship, the blessing of a saint, the kind deed and the indignation at unrighteousness and sin. Yet God is not to be identified with any one of these things: He is present in them, revealed by them, self-expressed through them. But God is always "the Other."

If we consider man, with his rational, moral and spiritual nature (his reasoning powers, his limited freedom of choice, his discerning of good and evil, his sense of supreme values such as goodness, truth and beauty), we shall feel that it is not mere presumption which finds him to be in a higher sense the potential instrument of the Divine Reality. But man is a broken, frustrated, weakened, selfish, sinful being. It was a fault of much of our thinking a few years ago that we overlooked this more unpleasant and hateful side of human life. Yet it is painfully true that man as we find him is all of these things. But the very fact that he has a rational, moral and spiritual nature, and that he recognizes (when he is at his best) his failures and limitations, indicates that he is no mere brute. Working in man, the very ground of his being and the rooting of his life, is that same Power which moves the sun and stars, which shines through the flowers of the field, and speaks in all noble things. Theologians call that Power the Word of God, Deity in His outward-moving, creative, expressive, aspect or mode.

In Jesus Christ, there is the adequate expression through a quite real and complete human nature, of that Word of God in harmony with manhood. It is a penetration of humanity by God somewhat akin to the mutual penetration of personality which we know in our closest and deepest friendships, where you simply cannot tell the point at which one individual stops and the other begins, they are so intimately one.

We cannot prove, in any arithmetical or logical way, that such an expression, supreme, sufficient, special and definitive, was achieved by God in Christ. But few worthwhile things can be proved in that way. We can know it to be true in the heart of our experience of His power and grace, by His conforming us to His likeness, and above all by the fact that He has brought into existence in this world a new level of life, --life which is abundant, rich, full, and compelling. Shall we not call this new level of human life God-manhood, friendship, communion, fellowship with the Divine Reality made available through the total fact of Christ? The Holy Catholic Church is the nucleus of that level, --gradually, but in God’s own time, surely leavening the lump, until all men are made conscious sons of God through Christ.

In some such way we may preserve the stupendous significance of Christ as the unique Incarnation of God, and at the same time maintain the balancing truth that as God-in-human-terms (and hence as a real man) there is no impassable gulf of difference between Christ and those whom He did not refuse to call His brethren. This is important, for much theological writing seems sometimes to make Christ only a marvelous prodigy, a tremendous wonder, and thus to destroy the warmth and comfort which comes to us when we know that through the wounds of His humanity, as brother and friend, we may come to the intimacy of His divinity.

So we have endeavored to suggest a way of understanding the how of the Incarnation, and something of its meaning for our world, and for ourselves as struggling men and women. We have not given a technical treatment -of the "problem of Christ," because fundamentally Christ is not a problem at all: He is the answer to our problems. It is there, in that strong Son of God, divine as the Divine Reality is divine, human as any one of us is human, that we are told "The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet, Heart-shattering secret of God’s way with us."

The Rev. W. Norman Pittenger
Fellow and Tutor, General Theological Seminary, New York City


For a simple discussion of early Christian life and the source from which it sprang:

J. W. Hunkin, The Earliest Christian Church, MacMillan.

J. F. Bethune-Baker, Early Traditions about Jesus, MacMillan.

For a good picture of the life of Jesus, and Christian belief about Him:

B. S. Easton and Charles Fiske, The Christ We Know, Harper.

For a plain and short history of the developing Christian doctrine about Christ:

Alan Richardson, Creeds in the Making, Student Christian Movement Press (available in America through Morehouse Publishing Co.).

For a sound, carefully written, of Christian belief about Christ, other areas of belief:

J. F. Bethune-Baker, The Faith of the Apostles’ Creed, MacMillan.

J. K. Mozley, The Incarnation, London.

For more advanced study:

B. S. Easton, Christ in the Gospels, Scribner.

A. E. J. Rawlinson, The New Testament Doctrine of Christ, Longman.

L. S. Thornton, The Incarnate Lord, MacMillan.

L. W. Grensted, The Person of Christ, Harper.

William Temple, Christ the Truth, MacMillan.


This piece certainly is a bit dated, especially in terms of taking as a given the wide acceptance of the importance of Jesus Christ outside Christianity. People today have great deal more suspicion about the man, Jesus Christ, than at any other time in past 2000 years in the Western World. Unfortunately, although this piece is relatively sound, despite some overtones of Schleiermacher, the twenty-first century Christian teacher will probably find that this piece cannot adequately engage the highly suspicious non-Christian reader of this age.

G. Robert Stephenson, Jr., MD
Duke University, Durham, NC
Feast of the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, 2000

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