What do Presbyterians believe about Jesus?
Jesus is the Way
By Cynthia L. Rigby
Reprinted from the April 2001 issue of Presbyterians Today
The two most common questions I am asked as a theology professor are: (1) Why is there so much suffering in the world? and (2) Will people of other faiths be saved? While this article is focused more directly on the second question than the first, it is helpful to note that the underlying impulse of both questions is to better understand what God is up to in the real world. We believe that God loves us, and is sovereign over all that happens, but what sense do love and sovereignty make in relation to our day-to-day lives? It is hard to understand why God does not stop suffering if God loves us and is powerful enough to do so. It is impossible to fathom how a God who cares enough to number every hair on our heads could not, in the end, find a way to save everyone.
And yet for those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord it is often deeply troubling to hear that "everyone will make it in the end." Such statements bother us because we are resistant to remarks that handle salvation as though it were a kind of "fire insurance" that everyone will find out they own, whether they remember having purchased it or not. Instead of focusing on it all working out "in the end," Presbyterian theology upholds both the value of believing right now and the importance of reflecting seriously on what we believe, so we can participate more fully in the faith that is our inheritance.
Jesus: fully human and fully divine
Presbyterians believe that Jesus Christ is "fully human and fully divine, one person in two natures, without confusion and without change, without separation and without division." This statement dates all the way back to the fifth century (451 to be exact) and is known as the Chalcedonian Definition. Emphasized by the Reformers of the 16th century, it is reflected in virtually all Reformed work on Christology, as well as in the Confessions. The people who wrote the Chalcedonian statement were, like us, trying to figure out what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is divine as well as human.
To declare that everyone will make it in the end
is to make the same theological error as to decide
that only those who profess Christ in ways we understand
will be present in the Kingdom:
it is to forget the sovereignty of God
Struggling with many of the texts that would eventually be included in the Biblical canon, these fifth-century Christians held the very strong conviction that humanity is redeemed by Jesus Christ because Jesus is "the Word made flesh" (John 1). These believers recognized that we would be without hope if Jesus were either only human or only divine. Because Jesus is divine as well as human, they thought, we have confidence that God does not stand at a distance from us, but has entered into existence with us. Because Jesus is not God in a human being disguise, but is fully human as well as divine, we have confidence that God truly understands us and loves us.
One of the most famous theological statements from the fifth-century discussions, along these lines, was made by Gregory of Nazianzus. "That which is not assumed is not redeemed" — in assuming our humanity, God redeemed us. The Word really became real flesh (John 1:14). This is a truth that is hard for us to accept because we cannot fathom how the God who created the universe could lie in a manger (Luke 2), fall asleep on a boat (Mark 4), cry at his friend's death (John 11:35), or beg for his life to be spared in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26). In Jesus Christ the omnipotent God entered into the frailties of human existence to raise us up (see Philippians 2).
Presbyterians believe that this one who is both fully human and fully divine is the "one mediator between God and humankind" (1 Timothy 2:5); "the way, and the truth, and the life," apart from whom "no one comes to the Father" (John 14:6). But what exactly does this mean? Do these verses clearly indicate that those who are not professing Christians will not be included in the Kingdom of God? Reformed theology teaches us to interpret particular Biblical verses in the context of all of Scripture, and to use theological principles (derived from reflection on the Scripture over the course of centuries) to aid in interpretation. With this in mind, let us briefly explore what might constitute a Reformed interpretation of John 14:6.
Jesus: the center of our faith
From a Reformed perspective, to confess that Jesus is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6) is to recognize that our theology and our faith is "Christocentric" (that is, "Christ-centered"). Our conviction is that Jesus Christ himself must stand at the center of all our theological reflections, or we are committing the sin of idolatry. If we want to better understand the character of God, for example, we look to Jesus Christ, and he reveals that God is a God of love as well as power. If we want to ponder who we are created to be, we look to Jesus Christ and see true humanity living in perfect response to the love of God. If we are working to understand something we have read in Scripture, we look to Jesus Christ as the ultimate criterion for every interpretation (any interpretation that contradicts what we know to be true of God in Jesus Christ is not the Word of God, according to Reformed theology).
One of the most pronounced emphases in John 14:6 is that God elects us. We do not "make a decision" to believe in Jesus in the sense that we know the "way" to God, if by "way" we mean a list of instructions or directions for getting there. The verse is not as much an answer to Thomas' question "How can we know the way?" as it is a corrective —clearly Jesus is reminding his disciples (and us) that we do know the way, but he does not mean they have a map tucked away somewhere that they have forgotten about. He is reminding them that they know him, and he is the Way. Related to insistence on the sovereignty of God, Jesus' self-identification in verse 6 is made in the context of reassuring his disciples that they need not be troubled, because they know the sovereign God in him. The emphasis is not on trying to figure out who will be "left behind" and who will be "taken up," but on the fact that the rooms Jesus will prepare are "many," and that there is no need to fear.
If those of other faiths are included in the Kingdom of God,
the Reformed conviction is that it will be
through the mediating work of the one who is the only Way
The first line of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Brief Statement of Faith is reminiscent of Jesus' reassurances to the disciples. It reads, simply and profoundly: "In life and in death we belong to God." Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we really lived into the truth of this statement? Perhaps we would be far less interested in arguing "for" or "against" alternative ways to God, and more concerned with bearing witness to the one who is the Way. If those of other faiths are included in the Kingdom of God, the Reformed conviction is that it will be through the mediating work of the one who is the only Way, the one who entered into the human condition and redeemed it. Should it surprise us if it turns out that the one who is the only way, truth, and life meets those we might exclude in ways that are beyond our comprehension?
But note that to be open to the possibility that those of other faiths will also be included in the Kingdom of God via the one who is the Way is not to take it upon ourselves to declare that we know that those of other faiths will be saved. To declare that everyone will make it in the end is to make the same theological error as to decide that only those who profess Christ in ways we understand will be present in the Kingdom: it is to forget the sovereignty of God, to lose our focus on Christ.
What about people of other faiths?
So ... will people of other faiths be saved? When the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth was asked this question, he is reported to have answered: "The Christian hopes that everyone will make it in the end, but preaches as though hell is real." This, certainly, is a very respectable "Presbyterian" response. It is an answer that upholds the sovereignty and the love of God by humbly recognizing both that the final determination is not ours to make and that we who know the Way are not to sit idly on the sidelines. Rather, we are called to boldly proclaim what we do know, that Jesus Christ is the one mediator "who desires everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4); that Jesus is "the way, and the truth, and the life" who frees us from the futility of trying to map out salvation for ourselves; that the love of Christ is broad and long and high and deep, surpassing our knowledge and expectations (Ephesians 3:18).
How do we share this Good News with people of other faiths? Honestly and openly, with a desire to see the presence of Christ in them in ways we wouldn't expect. And leaving behind the question of evaluating and constructing "ways" to God in favor of testifying to the one who is the Way.
What does the Bible say?
God is revealed in Jesus, the Word who became flesh.
Jesus is the way to God.
God has exalted Jesus, who "humbled himself," so that "every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
1 Timothy 2:1-7
God "desires everyone to be saved"; Jesus is the "one mediator between God and humankind."
Eternal life is given to those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick as though they were doing it for Jesus.
What did Jesus say?
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven"
What do the Confessions say?
Scots Confession, 1560
We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity in Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.
The Second Helvetic Confession, 1561
We teach and believe that this Jesus Christ our Lord is the unique and eternal Savior of the human race, and thus of the whole world, in whom by faith are saved all who before the law, under the law, and under the Gospel were saved, and however many will be saved at the end of the world.
The Shorter Catechism, 1647 (adopted by colonial Presbyterians in 1729)
Q. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God's elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man, in two distinct natures, and one Person forever.
A Brief Statement of Faith, 1991
We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God. . . .
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed and blessing the children,
healing the sick
and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised this Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.