Christology, Biblical Fundamentalism, and the Infancy Narratives

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This is the fifth article in our weekly series on Christology. The following is a review of William Loewe’s The College Student’s Introduction to Christology.

In chapter fourteen of The College Student’s Introduction to Christology, William Loewe details a few of the major Christological themes that emerged from early Christianity. He describes three Christological patterns from the early Church. Parousia Christology was developed by predictions of the imminent apocalypse, since the death and resurrection of the savior surely must have signified the approach of the world’s end. Death and Resurrection Christology considered Jesus’s personhood in light of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Finally, Wisdom Christology drew on Old Testament wisdom literature to portray Jesus as wisdom incarnate, which was foundational for John’s Gospel. All three Christological patterns were prominently featured in Paul’s letters, suggesting that they preceded the written accounts of His life. Loewe then describes the major Christological themes of the Synoptic Gospels. Mark’s Jesus is apocalyptic, Matthew identifies Jesus as a new Moses, and Luke emphasizes the continuity between Jesus and the Old Testament. Finally, Loewe addresses the infancy narratives, noting how the recognition of Jesus’s Messiahship during His infancy was likely added retroactively. Furthermore, some of the stories that were unique to each Gospel were likely developments of their respective communities’ theology rather than reliable historical accounts. For example, Matthew adds Jesus’s genealogy to cement Jesus’s proper messiahship, the slaughter of the innocents draws parallels to Moses’s infancy, and Joseph’s dream is similar to  Joseph of Genesis’s dreams. 

Loewe’s conclusion that several stories in the Gospels are Christological motifs, rather than historical events, will easily disturb fundamentalist readers of the Bible. However, I argue that such explanations resolve historical and narrative discrepancies in the Bible. For example, the recognition of Jesus’s Messiahship is quite inconsistent throughout the Gospels. How could Jesus have been instantly recognized as the Son of God by such a diverse cast of characters throughout His infancy, while His most intimate friends and confidants were unaware and confused about His nature throughout the entire Gospel of Mark?  The infancy narratives depict a miraculous Holy Family who somehow slipped into obscurity. If these stories were meant to be understood literally, the Markan scene in which Jesus’s mission is doubted by His hometown associates would make little sense: surely, the people who grew up with Jesus’s miraculous family, which escaped death and received visions on a regular basis, would have believed that their son was capable of incredible feats. These inconsistencies are resolved by understanding the Gospels as theological commentaries on Jesus’s character. As Loewe mentions, the essence of a story about a person is not in its historical literalness, but in its effectiveness at conveying something about a person’s character.

Biblical fundamentalism, which I have seen gain prominence in Catholic circles, threatens to discredit the coherency of Catholic theology. I understand the appeal of a scripture that can be interpreted literally, since it is easy to take something at face value, but doing so ironically limits our capacity to love God. Loewe uses the analogy of Christology as a spouse describing their partner. Perhaps Biblical fundamentalists could be considered as marrying someone for their looks alone., which not only does injustice to their spouse, but a commitment to someone without seeking their identity can often yield a shock once their true personalities are uncovered. In fundamentalism’s case, the realization that the Gospel narratives are often more theological than historical will inevitably lead to a rift that can only be resolved by abandoning the shallowness of fundamentalism altogether.

One Response

  1. Please, spare us your sniffling & stating down your nose to the “shallowness” that you heap upon the simple faith of so many.
    They’ve kept the faith whole you high brow experts are trying to follow the early 19th c experts who de-myhthologized themselves away from Christ & His Church.

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