(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

All Christian spirituality is centered on Jesus Christ. Donald Baillie’s God Was in Christ is an attempt to understand who Christ is and the significance of his life. Some parts of the book deal with matters of particular concern to professional theologians; other parts are written with the educated, though perhaps theologically unsophisticated, general reader in mind. Baillie, a Scottish minister and theologian, aims to affirm the classic teaching of the Church about Christ and to do so in a way that makes sense. The book, however, is more than just an academic discussion. By exhibiting how Christian experience helps illuminate the nature and significance of Christ, Baillie calls the attentive reader to a revitalization of personal experience and to the fellowship and ministry of the Christian community.

Baillie begins his book with a survey of the theological situation of his day with regard to the doctrine of Christ. Gone are the days when liberal theologians could paint their confident portraits of the “historical Jesus” behind the Gospels. However, the rejection of this approach has not meant a return to precritical approaches to Christology. Things are different in two very important respects. One is an agreement on all sides that the full humanity of Jesus must be taken more seriously. Throughout theological history there has been a tendency to shrink back from or explain away some aspects of Jesus’s humanity, treating his life as “a divine life lived in a human body.” However, theologians who accept the deity of Christ have recognized that they must not let this doctrine push out a recognition that he was human. This has included an acceptance of limits on Jesus’ knowledge, an understanding of his miracles as “works of God in response to human faith for which all things are possible,” and a recognition of the human characteristics of Jesus’ moral and religious experience.

The other important factor on the theological scene, according to Baillie, is a new radicalism with regard to historical studies of the Gospels. Advocates of form criticism attempt by an analysis of the various literary forms in the Gospels to uncover the nature and content of early Christian preaching. However, they are extremely skeptical of attempts to get behind the preaching to discover anything about the historical Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann, a leading advocate of this approach, maintains that we can know “almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.” However, this radical skepticism is coupled with a strong confessional stance, claiming that what is important to us is the Christ of faith given to us in the Gospels, not any historical construct.

Baillie finds acceptance of the full humanity of Christ combined with skepticism about the possibility of historical knowledge to be an inherently unstable position. To hold that God has entered history in a concrete human life but to renounce the possibility of knowing what that life was like is intellectually unsatisfying. While agreeing that the “over-imaginative” liberal attempts at historical construction must be rejected, Baillie holds that the reaction against this program has moved too far in the other direction. If the “Jesus of history” is given up altogether, that amounts to a rejection of Christianity as a historical religion. What is the basis for a faith response if not the conviction that in the historical Jesus is a revelation of God? Historical facts are not sufficient for faith, but without them faith becomes an empty shell. Furthermore, skepticism of the type exhibited among the form critics is based on a number of assumptions that are not obviously true. Among these is the assumption that motives for passing on a story never include a desire to preserve a true account of events that really occurred.

If the need for a historical Jesus is accepted, it is still possible to imagine a different kind of problem: Why complicate the human Jesus found in history with the “theological mystifications” of traditional Christian doctrine? Why not simply regard Jesus as the supreme discoverer of God? Part of the answer, says Baillie, lies in the nature of God as described in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus described God as one who takes the initiative to seek us out and come to our aid. If this report is correct, we are led to reassess the idea of Jesus as a discoverer. Is God passively waiting to be discovered, or is he rather actively revealing himself in the life of Jesus? In the New Testament accounts, the witness of those who came into contact with him is unmistakably clear that whatever Jesus said or did, “it is really God that did it in Jesus.” The most striking example of this is in how Jesus’ followers describe his death on the cross. They spoke not of the love of Jesus but of the “God who sent him.” None of this makes sense unless we acknowledge some kind of identity between the revealer and the revealed. Christological doctrines are developed in an attempt to say how intimately God is involved in the “phenomenon of Jesus.” They...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)