"Theology needs to begin and end its task with Jesus Christ" - Paul Molnar
This was part of my quote of the day a while back (my focus then was on the rest of the quote). I have been wondering in what sense theology should, or even can, begin its task with Jesus Christ. What might this mean?
In one non-trivial sense the admonition is an attempt to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. Anyone capable of understanding the proposal has already begun the theological journey and so it is too late to tell them where they should begin. And, again in an important sense, once one has begun one cannot go back and begin again from scratch. We just don't work that way.
Another thing that should give us pause for thought is this: the earliest Christ-believers did not begin their theological reflections with Christ. On the contrary, they were deeply immersed in various forms of Jewish theology when they encountered Jesus. And from reading the NT it is abundantly clear that they did not abandon these Jewish theologies and begin again with Christ. Whilst the Christ 'exploded' in the midst of their Jewish theologies and rearranged them they did not 'begin' the task of theology, in any strightforward sense, with Christ. Indeed Jesus would have been utterly incomprehensible to them if they had as they would have lacked the categories with which to grasp his identity and mission.
Please do not mishear me. Jesus was the centre of the theologies of the early Church and of the Church ever since. Any previous theologies they held were reconfigured around him. He was also the goal of their theological reflections. Theology must be Christocentric!
But can it begin with Christ?
Perhaps, but only in a very limited sense of 'begin'.
An example: It might well be that mature Christian theological reflection on divine judgement should 'begin' with reflection on the cross and end with reflection on the cross - that the process of pondering the topic of judgement constantly returns to the cross over and over again as the central revelation of divine judgement that all other experiences of judgement must be illuminated by.
But in what sense does the reflection on judgement 'begin' with the cross? Presumably not literally. I imagine that every Christian theologian who has pondered divine judgement has some idea of what it might mean independent of and prior to reflecting on it in the light of the cross. It is hard to imagine someone acquiring the level of theological sophistication necessary to rethink judgement Christocentrically not having prior, more basic, notions of justice.
Perhaps they 'begin' there in the sense of presenting their findings by beginning there (although I cannot imagine that this is a requirement). Perhaps, more strongly, they 'begin' by literally starting their renewed focus on the doctrine with the cross. But even then we must be clear that this is merely beginning a renewed focus and not beginning from zero.
So maybe 'begin' is not the best word to use. Perhaps we should say that all Christian theological reflection must be Christ-shaped and Christ-centred; and that all Christian dogmatics must be reconfigured around the Messiah.
I'm just thinking aloud and am very open to correction