Volume 11 - Issue 3

‘Incidentalism’ in theology—or a theology for thirty-year-olds?

By David F. Wright

Is there any theological significance in the fact that Jesus’ public ministry did not begin until he was about thirty years old? Or that it lasted only three years? Do these facts have any relevance, for example, to our theological views of Christian ministry, or, less ecclesiastically, to our evaluation of the seven ages of man (to say nothing of woman)?

Such questions may seem absurd enough, but let us remind ourselves that one of the most respected theologians of the early church placed considerable theological weight on the age of Jesus:

He came to save all through means of himself—infants, and children and boys and youths and old men:. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants, … (etc.) … So likewise he was an old man for old men, that he might be a perfect master for all … also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also.1

‘An old man for old men’? Yes, indeed, for Irenaeus believed that Jesus lived on into his late forties (‘from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age’), on the basis of his reading of John 8:56–57. (Irenaeus also takes time to refute the notion that the Saviour came to be baptized at thirty years of age, in order to ‘show forth the thirty silent aeons of some Gnostic system’. He believed that at thirty Jesus had reached the perfect age for a teacher.)

So when the Vancouver Message from the 1983 Assembly of the World Council of Churches declared that Jesus ‘experienced our life, our birth and childhood’, we note that it did not claim that Jesus shared our middle age or old age. Not that it would have made much theological difference (would it?) if Jesus’ ministry had begun when he was forty—or twenty—rather than thirty, and had lasted five years—or one year—rather than three. The age of Jesus, and the length of his ministry, belong to those incidentals or accidentals of his life on which we build no theological structures. This must also be the case with those phases of human life that he passed through. If we cannot follow Irenaeus into Jesus’ sanctification of old age, nor can we go with him in the infant Jesus’ sanctification of infant years. Christmas too often seems like a festival of babyhood or childhood, but it is surely a better theological insight that boyhood, teenage and the twenties and early thirties do not now enjoy any particular theological value by virtue of the fact that Jesus passed through them—a value denied to our middle and later years by his death before he reached the mid-thirties.

Modern theologians have not always been so reticent about other aspects of the experience of Jesus which might equally be regarded as incidentals. They also commonly display a loud silence about yet other aspects which might be thought to have much less claim to be viewed as mere incidentals, such as the masculinity of Jesus, and his bachelor or celibate state.

For example, if the life of Jesus affords no basis for theologizing about the ages of human life, should the flight into Egypt be made to speak theologically about the experience of refugees and displaced persons? We can leave aside the historical question about this gospel story. Its function in Matthew’s schema of fulfilment of prophetic prediction is obvious enough. In addition, we must ask, does it in any sense mean that Jesus lived in solidarity with the homeless and exiled of the earth? Has this episode in his life a significance detached from the particularity of the Matthaean context and derived from the universality of such human misfortune down the centuries, so as to impart to this kind of experience (flight or expulsion into alien territory) a value or meaning that does not apply to other common human experiences that Jesus did not share?

For we cannot have one—solidarity with the refugee—without the other—no solidarity with the non-refugee if, that is, we choose to theologize this particular ‘incidental’. A lengthy passage from John Vincent’s book Secular Christ will illustrate my point:

The theology of Christ is unashamedly discriminatory. By choosing to come as man, Jesus excluded womanhood (hence, of course, the divinization of Mary). By coming as a Galilean, Jesus excluded the Torah-obedient traditionalism of the rabbis. By belonging to the ‘pious poor’ of the land, Jesus excluded the middle class and the beggars. By being a carpenter, Jesus excluded the rich and the wise. By preaching in Galilee, Jesus excluded the Judeans, let alone the Samaritans. By being a bachelor, Jesus excluded the insights of love and family. And so on.

These are what one might call the ‘accidentals’, the things which do not explicitly form part of the gospel. They but emphasize the restriction, particularity and selectiveness inherent in any human life. The church has not, in its best moments, read too much significance into these factors. Yet they are absolutely unavoidably tied to the church’s faith in incarnation,’ or to any man’s assessment of Jesus called the Christ.

The mission of Jesus is likewise discriminatory. By being baptized and preaching repentance, Jesus excluded the good who did not need repentance. By calling fishermen as disciples, Jesus excluded the student, the sage, or the rich … By entertaining prostitutes and tax officials, Jesus excluded the decent middle classes … By excluding political allegiance, Jesus excluded Rome, By being crucified, Jesus excluded the hopes of Israel … in the main, it was true for Jesus as for us, that you can put your eggs into only one basket.2

The question is: which of Jesus’s baskets have a more than incidental (accidental) significance and how do we identify them? To review merely Vincent’s catalogue, we have no difficulty in singling out the crucifixion, and its exclusion of (most of) the hopes of (contemporary) Israel, but most readers of Themelios would hesitate long and hard, being the people they are, before seeing any special significance in the occupations of Jesus and his followers (carpentry and fishing). Christianity is surely not a religion for people who work with their hands—in the sense that one cannot make a similar affirmation about the office-bound or academic. Down the centuries, however, many have rejected learning and education because they do not loom large in the life of Jesus and the twelve. The same range of questions can be asked about the significance of Jesus’ manual work for ministers and training for the ministry—if Jesus’ ministry is the paradigm for all ministry in the church.

A letter from the Church Times says it all:

Whenever 1, as a Catholic, have any misgivings over my support for the ordination of women, I simply turn for reassurance to the shallow theological arguments of the Rev. F … B … With what logic can he insist that whoever stands at the altar in persona Christi must be male, while at the same time, presumably, waiving the requirements that he be a Palestinian Jew and a child of a skilled craftsman?

Even though biblical Christians do not normally cite Jesus’ maleness in discussing women’s ministry, we must resist the ‘all-or-nothing’ implications of this letter. But how do we discriminate? Is there a danger of fastening on Jesus’ blue-collar status because it is potentially universalizable, in a way that his Jewishness and maleness,3 let alone his unmarried state (in the Judaism of his day, perhaps the least incidental of all), are not?

The peril of selectiveness is pointed up by a quotation from ‘a German woman’ cited by John Poulton:

Jesus lived without protection. That is not a statement of faith, just a plain observation. He renounced the protection a family offers. He did not want the protection afforded by property. He did not use the protection of rhetoric but remained silent. He expressly rejected the protection of weapons and armies … God has no desire to keep himself protected and unapproachable. God practices no violence. God has disarmed himself in Jesus Christ Unilaterally.4

We may be doing the writer an injustice in analysing this one isolated paragraph. It is not clear that she would argue from God’s unilateralism to ours, or to our nation’s. But does such divine self-disarmament rest equally on each of Jesus’ rejections of protection? Does equal weight belong to his rejection of family and property as to his rejection of weapons and armies? The former is arguably far more prominent than the latter. And are all of them models for his followers? And if we would answer no (we are not all called to renounce the protection of family, property, rhetoric), how can we know that we are called to reject the protection of armies and weapons? No doubt the answer is to be found on other grounds. The danger of arbitrary selectivity comes from appealing to the incidentals of Jesus’ life. Such an appeal is liable to prove too little or too much.

What is here called incidentalism in theology sometimes becomes simply laughable, as in this passage from Kosuke Koyama:

If Jesus Christ was mocked, spat upon and stripped, then his ‘finality’ is mocked, spat upon and stripped … The spat-upon Jesus means the spat-upon finality of Jesus. It must mean then the “spat-upon bishops’, ‘spat-upon theology’, ‘spat-upon evangelism’, ‘spat-upon “combat-against-racism” ’, ‘spat-upon churches’. The finality of Christ and “being spat-upon’ go together! The glory of Christ and “being spat-upon’ go together!… ‘To be apostolic’ means ‘to be ready to be spat upon’ … History can be approached in two ways: the way of spitting upon others and the way of being spat upon by others.5

This passage illustrates a regular feature of much of this kind of theology—its remarkable ability to establish a valid case (here, the readiness of the church to suffer humiliation like her Lord) on the wrong grounds. At its worst, such an argument produces the neurosis of those who want to experience persecution, perhaps of a particular kind, but never quite succeed.

A not unrelated lesson emerges from another passage from John Poulton’s The Feast of Life. It is the kind of statement in which modern theology abounds, but is nonetheless questionable for all that:

Human life … depends on the sun and the earth and water, and the whole ecological environment. That is why women and men are to cooperate with God over each part of nature … All this is said by what Christians take and do as they gather at the Lord’s Table. Before ever it becomes a ‘church’ action, the preparing of food and drink is saying something about life itself, living, being. In its symbolism it proclaims many things, but in involving everyday food and drink and companionship, this ‘communion’ or ‘eucharist’ (thanksgiving) is saying very basically that existence and survival and humanness are God-given, God-willed.6

This is all very true, but is not what the Lord’s supper is about—if, that is, we take our bearings from the New Testament. Quite apart from the back-to-nature artificiality of’preparing of food and drink’ (uncorking the bottle and unwrapping the loaf bought at the supermarket),7 such a comment exemplifies a lamentable inability to differentiate. When eucharist says everything about everything, it says nothing much about anything in particular. It is a tendency of ecumenical theology, seen, for example, in the Faith and Order report Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,8 to run to pan-eucharistic extremes, as though the whole meaning of the Christian religion were to be found in the rite. Why can we not ground such worthy affirmations elsewhere (the Old Testament perhaps?) and let the eucharist speak above all of the unique self-giving of Christ in death? Such a loss of biblical proportions arises from failure to distinguish between the incidental and the substantial.

I will conclude by raising a question mark against part of the reasoning in Moltmann’s The Crucified God, where he ventures into what he calls ‘the political theology of the cross’:

If the Christ of God was executed in the name of the politico-religious authorities of his time, then for the believer the higher justification of these and similar authorities is removed. In that case political rule can only be justified ‘from below’. Wherever Christianity extends, the idea of the state changes. Political rule is no longer accepted as God-given, but is understood as a task the fulfilment of which must be constantly justified.9

Again, what Moltmann is advocating seems to me arguable, though not self-evident, but not to have much to do with the crucifixion. Certainly the historical developments which he immediately proceeds to summarize (the desacralization of government in the early Christian and medieval centuries) are only part of the story and have precious little to do with the fact that Christ was ‘executed in the name of the politico-religious authorities of his time’. Is there any evidence that any New Testament writer drew Moltmann’s conclusion from the agency of the crucifixion?

In fact, this is only one aspect of Moltmann’s case for ‘the political theology of the cross’. If I have understood itaright, it is not free of the peril of incidentalism. ‘The death of Christ was the death of a political offender’10—this may be true, but is it theologically significant?11 The sequence of Moltmann’s reasoning is elusive, but it seems to rest on the assertion that the political execution of Jesus entails a delegitimization of all(!) political authority as God-given Again I wonder why no Christian in the hard-pressed Roman Empire seems to have drawn this kind of conclusion.

David Kelsey would do us all a service if he wrote another book, entitled The Uses of Jesus in Recent Theology. It would not be, I suspect, unconnected with his earlier work on The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology.

1 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2. 22. 4.

2 John Vincent, Secular Christ: A Contemporary Interpretation of Jesus (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968), pp. 70–71.

3 Cf. a comment on Mary’s ‘sheer ordinariness’: ‘In a sense her femaleness is incidental: biologically required for the role she is given, but not theologically significant’ Her humble responsiveness and faith is that of a human being, not that of a woman exclusively (A. E. Lewis (ed.), The Motherhood of God: A Report by a Study Group … (Edinburgh, 1984), p. 59).

4 John Poulton, The Feast of Life: A Theological Reflection on the Theme ‘Jesus Christ—the Life of the World’ (Geneva, 1982), p. 32.

5 No Handle on the Cross (London: SCM, 1976), p. 95, quoted by A. Kee (ed.), The Scope of Political Theology (London: SCM, 1978), p. 95.

6 Poulton, Feast of Life, p. 19.

7 And which food and drink? If Poulton’s reasoning is followed through, the use of (fermented) wine and bread can hardly be required in cultures to which they are alien. Luther denied that the fact that Jesus did not elevate the sacrament at the Last Supper was prescriptive for Christian practice: ‘For if incidental circumstances are to be strictly binding, the external places and persons must also strictly be adhered to’, and we should have the Supper only in Jerusalem in an upper room—indeed, only the apostles would enjoy it, and then only after eating the paschal lamb (Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525, trans. B. Erling and C. Bergendoff, Luther’s Works, vol. 40 (Philadelphia: Concordia, 1958), pp. 132–133).

8 (Geneva: WCC, 1982.)

9 J. Moltmann, The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), p. 328.

10 Ibid., p. 327.

11 ‘What are the economic, social and political consequences of the gospel of the Son of Man who was crucified as a “rebel”?’ (ibid., p. 317). Similar questions could be raised about some expressions of contemporary theology’s ‘bias to the poor’: ‘The nub, the nucleus, of the biblical message … is in the relationship between God and the poor. Jesus Christ is precisely God become poor’ (G. Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History (London: SCM, 1983), p. 13). This kind of reformulation is in danger of depriving the gospel of its universality.

David F. Wright

David Wright is the Professor of Patristic and Reformed Christianity at New College, Edinburgh University. Amongst his specialist areas for teaching and research are infant baptism, Augustine and the Reformation.