Sweet and Viola: A Jesus Manifesto

Read time: 16 minutes

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have recently issued A Magna Carta of Restoring the Supremacy of Jesus Christ, a.k.a. A Jesus Manifesto for the 21st Century Church. They argue in the preamble that Christianity is nothing more, nothing less than Christ, but that in the church today there is a serious danger of the person of Jesus being marginalized in the interests of fashionable political causes, labelled variously ‘justice’, ‘the kingdom of God’, ‘values’, and ‘leadership principles’. So they have issued this manifesto not merely in order to promote their new books but to bear witness to the ‘primacy of the Lord Jesus Christ’.

I agree with Sweet and Viola that there is a worrying drift in emerging theologies in the direction of what would once have been called a ‘social gospel’. But I’m not sure that a Jesus manifesto, as such, constitutes an adequate response. I think that it creates both theological problems through an over-simplification of scripture, and practical problems by fore-grounding an individualized Christ-devotion at the expense of the more fundamental vocation of the people of God to be ‘new creation’ in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world.

I have quoted the ten statements of the manifesto in full with half-baked comments added.

1. The center and circumference of the Christian life is none other than the person of Christ. All other things, including things related to him and about him, are eclipsed by the sight of his peerless worth. Knowing Christ is Eternal Life. And knowing him profoundly, deeply, and in reality, as well as experiencing his unsearchable riches, is the chief pursuit of our lives, as it was for the first Christians. God is not so much about fixing things that have gone wrong in our lives as finding us in our brokenness and giving us Christ.

I question the value of this absolute insistence on ‘knowing Christ’. On the one hand, insofar as this constitutes a genuinely biblical thought, it belongs primarily to an eschatological narrative about suffering and vindication: Paul counts everything as refuse for the sake of knowing Christ because he believes it to be his calling to share in Christ’s sufferings, death and resurrection (Phil. 3:8-11). On the other, it presents a strongly individualized Christ-devotion that does not clearly match the New Testament emphasis on Christ as ‘Lord’ in relation to a people. In other words, this sort of statement reflects the thought-forms of a modern evangelicalism, not least an American modern evangelicalism, rather than of the New Testament.

So I disagree with the emphasis on knowing Christ as the ‘chief pursuit of our lives’. That made a lot of sense for those who had to walk the same path of suffering and vindication, but they walked that path in order to get somewhere, in order to arrive at the freedom to be God’s people in the world, no longer subject to the condemnation of the Law, no longer enslaved to other powers. The light of Christ-devotion has become so dazzling in this manifesto that we are unable to see beyond to the effective, historical existence of the people of God, called in Abraham to be new creation, a witness to justice and compassion and, through worship and obedience, to the reality of the creator. In a sense, this is all summed up in Jesus, but this sort of confessional statement can just as easily eclipse as clarify the concrete spiritual, social and ethical obligations of being the people of God.

2. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from his teachings. Aristotle says to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Socrates says to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Buddha says to his disciples, “Follow my meditations.” Confucius says to his disciples, “Follow my sayings.” Muhammad says to his disciples, “Follow my noble pillars.” Jesus says to his disciples, “Follow me.” In all other religions, a follower can follow the teachings of its founder without having a relationship with that founder. Not so with Jesus Christ. The teachings of Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus himself. Jesus Christ is still alive and he embodies his teachings. It is a profound mistake, therefore, to treat Christ as simply the founder of a set of moral, ethical, or social teaching. The Lord Jesus and his teaching are one. The Medium and the Message are One. Christ is the incarnation of the Kingdom of God and the Sermon on the Mount.

It is correct to say that Jesus cannot be separated from his teachings, but what that meant for his disciples and for the early community and what it means for us now are two different things. I argue for a narratively framed theology that is sensitive to historical context (see also Should we still be making disciples?). While I agree that the person of Jesus must be central to our self-understanding and purpose as the people of God, we create considerable exegetical problems for ourselves if we attempt to read the New Testament in the light of a modern Christ-devotion. In particular, I think we miss the distinctive sense in which the early church understood itself to be shaped in its response to both Jewish and pagan aggression by the story of the Son of man who suffers many things, is raised from the dead, and eventually vindicated against his opponents.

3. God’s grand mission and eternal purpose in the earth and in heaven centers in Christ … both the individual Christ (the Head) and the corporate Christ (the Body). This universe is moving towards one final goal – the fullness of Christ where He shall fill all things with himself. To be truly missional, then, means constructing one’s life and ministry on Christ. He is both the heart and bloodstream of God’s plan. To miss this is to miss the plot; indeed, it is to miss everything.

My view is that the argument about the fulfilment of all things in Christ in the New Testament has to do primarily with the restoration of the people of God and the victory over Greek-Roman paganism rather than with a goal towards which the whole universe is moving. Again, this is largely a question of how we read the New Testament narrative. There is certainly a cosmic dimension to the person of Christ: first-born of all creation, through whom all things were created (Col. 1:15-17). But this should not be confused with the eschatological narrative by which Christ becomes Lord for the people of God, with his enemies subjected under his feet. This latter narrative culminates not in Christ filling all things with himself but Christ handing back everything to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). Significantly, the two texts that most clearly speak of a final renewal of creation (Rom. 8:19-23; Rev. 21-22) do not present this in terms of the fulfilment of all things in a cosmic Christ.

4. Being a follower of Jesus does not involve imitation so much as it does implantation and impartation. Incarnation–the notion that God connects to us in baby form and human touch—is the most shocking doctrine of the Christian religion. The incarnation is both once-and-for-all and ongoing, as the One “who was and is to come” now is and lives his resurrection life in and through us. Incarnation doesn’t just apply to Jesus; it applies to every one of us. Of course, not in the same sacramental way. But close. We have been given God’s “Spirit” which makes Christ “real” in our lives. We have been made, as Peter puts it, “partakers of the divine nature.” How, then, in the face of so great a truth can we ask for toys and trinkets? How can we lust after lesser gifts and itch for religious and spiritual thingys? We’ve been touched from on high by the fires of the Almighty and given divine life. A life that has passed through death – the very resurrection life of the Son of God himself. How can we not be fired up?

To put it in a question: What was the engine, or the accelerator, of the Lord’s amazing life? What was the taproot or the headwaters of his outward behavior? It was this: Jesus lived by an indwelling Father. After his resurrection, the passage has now moved. What God the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to you and to me. He’s our indwelling Presence, and we share in the life of Jesus’ own relationship with the Father. There is a vast ocean of difference between trying to compel Christians to imitate Jesus and learning how to impart an implanted Christ. The former only ends up in failure and frustration. The latter is the gateway to life and joy in our daying and our dying. We stand with Paul: “Christ lives in me.” Our life is Christ. In him do we live, breathe, and have our being. “What would Jesus do?” is not Christianity. Christianity asks: “What is Christ doing through me … through us? And how is Jesus doing it?” Following Jesus means “trust and obey” (respond), and living by his indwelling life through the power of the Spirit.

The argument that incarnation applies to all of us is correct: the people of God is always the locus of divine presence in the world. But I would point out again that what Viola and Sweet have presented here is a very generalized argument that in certain important respects obscures or distorts the New Testament account of things. The New Testament model of Christ-devotion presupposes participation in the story of suffering and vindication.

5. The “Jesus of history” cannot be disconnected from the “Christ of faith.” The Jesus who walked the shores of Galilee is the same person who indwells the church today. There is no disconnect between the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel and the incredible, all-inclusive, cosmic Christ of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The Christ who lived in the first century has a pre-existence before time. He also has a post-existence after time. He is Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, A and Z, all at the same time. He stands in the future and at the end of time at the same moment that He indwells every child of God. Failure to embrace these paradoxical truths has created monumental problems and has diminished the greatness of Christ in the eyes of God’s people.

I have the same problem with this as with Frost and Hirsch’s ReJesus. It is true that the Jesus of history cannot be separated from the Christ of faith, but it is equally true that the Jesus of history cannot be separated from… well, history. This Jesus Manifesto demonstrates virtually no awareness of how Jesus was an actor within a story about the people of God. Jesus cannot be properly understood apart from that story. What we lose by the abstraction is a sense of existing as a historical people, called into being by the creator God, having to respond and adapt to historical and political circumstances.

6. It’s possible to confuse “the cause” of Christ with the person of Christ. When the early church said “Jesus is Lord,” they did not mean “Jesus is my core value.” Jesus isn’t a cause; he is a real and living person who can be known, loved, experienced, enthroned and embodied. Focusing on his cause or mission doesn’t equate focusing on or following him. It’s all too possible to serve “the god” of serving Jesus as opposed to serving him out of an enraptured heart that’s been captivated by his irresistible beauty and unfathomable love. Jesus led us to think of God differently, as relationship, as the God of all relationship.

No argument with this – except that it is still framed in terms of an individualized Christ-devotion, which misrepresents the biblical narrative and obscures the central missional role of a called people.

7. Jesus Christ was not a social activist nor a moral philosopher. To pitch him that way is to drain his glory and dilute his excellence. Justice apart from Christ is a dead thing. The only battering ram that can storm the gates of hell is not the cry of Justice, but the name of Jesus. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of Justice, Peace, Holiness, Righteousness. He is the sum of all spiritual things, the “strange attractor” of the cosmos. When Jesus becomes an abstraction, faith loses its reproductive power. Jesus did not come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live.

This seems to me a necessary corrective to some developments in emerging theologies – the tendency, for example, to reduce ‘kingdom of God’ to a principle of social justice.

I strongly object to the translation of Matthew 16:18 that takes it as a command to ‘storm the gates of hell’: the issue here is whether death will overcome the church, not whether the church will break down the gates of hell. But this is a minor detail.

Viola and Sweet exchange one type of abstraction for another: they rescue the person of Jesus from being merely an ethical abstraction, but they abstract him from the historical-eschatological narrative that at all points undergirds and shapes the thought of the New Testament.

The dichotomy between bad/good and dead/live is overstated. Jesus had a great deal to say about unjust behaviour and about righteous behaviour. Paul argues that Israel was dead because of its sins – that is, because of a history of bad behaviour; and new life is manifested in changed behaviour.

8. It is possible to confuse an academic knowledge or theology about Jesus with a personal knowledge of the living Christ himself. These two stand as far apart as do the hundred thousand million galaxies. The fullness of Christ can never be accessed through the frontal lobe alone. Christian faith claims to be rational, but also to reach out to touch ultimate mysteries. The cure for a big head is a big heart.

Jesus does not leave his disciples with CliffsNotes for a systematic theology. He leaves his disciples with breath and body.

Jesus does not leave his disciples with a coherent and clear belief system by which to love God and others. Jesus gives his disciples wounds to touch and hands to heal.

Jesus does not leave his disciples with intellectual belief or a “Christian worldview.” He leaves his disciples with a relational faith.

Christians don’t follow a book. Christians follow a person, and this library of divinely inspired books we call “The Holy Bible” best help us follow that person. The Written Word is a map that leads us to The Living Word. Or as Jesus himself put it, “All Scripture testifies of me.” The Bible is not the destination; it’s a compass that points to Christ, heaven’s North Star.

The Bible does not offer a plan or a blueprint for living. The “good news” was not a new set of laws, or a new set of ethical injunctions, or a new and better PLAN. The “good news” was the story of a person’s life, as reflected in The Apostle’s Creed. The Mystery of Faith proclaims this narrative: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” The meaning of Christianity does not come from allegiance to complex theological doctrines, but a passionate love for a way of living in the world that revolves around following Jesus, who taught that love is what makes life a success… not wealth or health or anything else: but love. And God is love.

OK, I’m used to people disparaging academic theology. But what Viola and Sweet, for all their postmodern credentials, fail to acknowledge is that their interpretation of Jesus is paradigm-bound; they fail to grasp the extent to which their manifesto is the product of a limited and, frankly, short-sighted theological position. What good academic theology can do is help us to deconstruct the inherited paradigm – not perfectly, and invariably another imperfect paradigm must be substituted in its place, but I think a broad-based renewal of theology demands this.

Of course we worship the exalted Christ – the one who was installed as Israel’s king above all earthly authorities. But there is no reason to make that assertion at the expense of a critical reading of the biblical narrative. Viola and Sweet, for all their good intentions, are merely reinforcing a crippling modern dualism by insisting that academic knowledge of Jesus and personal knowledge of Jesus ‘stand as far apart as do the hundred thousand million galaxies’.

9. Only Jesus can transfix and then transfigure the void at the heart of the church. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from his church. While Jesus is distinct from his Bride, he is not separate from her. She is in fact his very own Body in the earth. God has chosen to vest all of power, authority, and life in the living Christ. And God in Christ is only known fully in and through his church. (As Paul said, “The manifold wisdom of God – which is Christ – is known through the ekklesia.”)

Perhaps a small point, but Paul is taken out of context here. What he is saying in Ephesians 3:8-10 is that the ‘mystery’ of the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God has now been revealed. That is the ‘manifold wisdom of God’ (he does not equate it with ‘Christ’) that is now revealed to the principalities and powers through the church.

The Christian life, therefore, is not an individual pursuit. It’s a corporate journey. Knowing Christ and making him known is not an individual prospect. Those who insist on flying life solo will be brought to earth, with a crash. Thus Christ and his church are intimately joined and connected. What God has joined together, let no person put asunder. We were made for life with God; our only happiness is found in life with God. And God’s own pleasure and delight is found therein as well.

Ah, I stand corrected – except that I think that this point needs to be made at the start. Scripture gives us a corporate narrative within which individuals find their identity and purpose, not a template for personal faith from which a collective entity is agglomerated. The latter may feel much more like the modern experience of church, but if we attempt to superimpose the modern experience on scripture, we will inevitably suppress important narrative and contextual structures.

I’ll let Sweet and Viola have the last word. I think a passage like the following still confuses elements of New Testament thought that should really be distinguished contextually: it is not all immediately and indiscriminately relevant to us; the New Testament does not provide us with an undifferentiated blob of Jesus teaching; and we take a huge theological risk in removing him from the story about Israel. But I fully understand that we always approach God through the story and the person of Jesus and that we cannot define a purpose for the church without taking full account of the existential and emotional force of that confession.

10. In a world which sings, “Oh, who is this Jesus?” and a church which sings, “Oh, let’s all be like Jesus,” who will sing with lungs of leather, “Oh, how we love Jesus!”

If Jesus could rise from the dead, we can at least rise from our bed, get off our couches and pews, and respond to the Lord’s resurrection life within us, joining Jesus in what he’s up to in the world. We call on others to join us—not in removing ourselves from planet Earth, but to plant our feet more firmly on the Earth while our spirits soar in the heavens of God’s pleasure and purpose. We are not of this world, but we live in this world for the Lord’s rights and interests. We, collectively, as the ekklesia of God, are Christ in and to this world.

May God have a people on this earth who are a people of Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. A people of the cross. A people who are consumed with God’s eternal passion, which is to make his Son preeminent, supreme, and the head over all things visible and invisible. A people who have discovered the touch of the Almighty in the face of his glorious Son. A people who wish to know only Christ and him crucified, and to let everything else fall by the wayside. A people who are laying hold of his depths, discovering his riches, touching his life, and receiving his love, and making HIM in all of his unfathomable glory known to others.