What it means to be a Christian


This paper is intended to be a discussion about what being a Christian is. The discussion is centered on three important ideas about Jesus in the Gospel of John

Three Important Ideas in John

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1. The Son Idea –

The Son as Son, and insofar as he is Son, does not come forth in any way from himself and so is completely one with the Father; since he is nothing beside him, claims no special position of his own, confronts the Father with nothing belonging only to him, makes no reservations for what is specifically his own, therefore, he is completely equal to the Father. If he has nothing in which he is just he, no kind of fenced-off private ground, then he coincides with the Father, is “one” with him. To John, “Son” means being from another. With this word John defines the being of this man Jesus as being from another and for others, as a being that is completely open on both sides, knows no reserved area of the mere “I”.

When it becomes clear that the being of Jesus as Christ is a completely open being, a being “from” and “toward”, which nowhere clings to itself and nowhere stands on its own, then it is also clear at the same time that this being is relation and, as pure relation, pure unity. This fundamental statement about Christ becomes at the same time the explanation of Christian existence. To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, not standing on one’s own and in oneself, but living completely open in the “from” and “toward”; living in absolute openness without reservation to the One who is the cause and sustainer of all reality.

Insofar as the Christian is a “Christian,” this is true of him. This is the true measure to what extent one is a Christian. And certainly such utterances will make him realize to how small an extent he is a Christian.

What Christian Unity Is

Everyone knows that Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” (Jn. 17) is the basic document of all efforts for the unity of the Church. But too often we take far too superficial a view of it. Christian unity is first of all unity with Christ, which becomes possible where insistence on one’s own individuality ceases and is replaced by pure, unreserved being “from” and “for. From such being with Christ, which enters completely into the openness of the one who willed to hold on to nothing of his own individuality (cf. also Phil. 2:6f.), follows the complete “at-one-ness” – “that they may be one, even as we are one”. All not-at-one-ness, all division, rests on a concealed lack of real Christliness, on a clinging to individuality that hinders the coming together into unity.

Relation is at the same time pure unity. It is the nature of the Trinitarian personality to be pure relation and so the most absolute unity. God, the one Being who is three persons, is the highest unity, pure oneness. Pure oneness can only occur in the spirit and embraces the relatedness of love. It is the nature of Christian existence to receive and to live life as relatedness and by this to enter into that unity which is the cause and sustainer of all reality. This is why the doctrine of the Trinity, when properly understood, can become the reference point of theology and anchors all other lines of Christian thought. If we do not understand this—most likely—we’ll get everything else wrong

2. The Mission Idea –

Mission theology is again theology of being as relation and relation as the mode of unity. There is a well-known Jewish saying: “The ambassador of a man is like the man himself.” Jesus appears in John as the Father’s ambassador, in who is really fulfilled what all other ambassadors can only aim at imperfectly: he really loses his own identity in the role of ambassador; he is nothing but the ambassador who represents the other without interposing his individuality. And so, as the true ambassador, he is one with him who sends him. Once again, through the concept of mission, being is interpreted as being “from” and as being “for”; once again being is conceived as absolute oneness without reservation. And again we find the extension to Christian existence in the words, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (13:20; 17:18; 20:21). In the classification of this existence as mission it is again expounded as being “from” and “for, as relatedness and thus as unity.

3. The logos idea –

When John characterizes the Lord as Logos he is using a term widely current in both Greek and Jewish thought. John uses this word to transfer to Christ the ideas that are implicit in it. But the new element that John has added to the logos idea is, to him, logos does not mean simply the idea of the eternal rationality of being, as it did essentially in Greek thought. By its application to Jesus of Nazareth, the concept of logos acquires a new dimension. It no longer denotes simply the permeation of all being by meaning; it characterizes this man: he who is here is “Word.” The concept of logos, which to the Greeks meant “meaning” (ratio), changes here really into “word” (verbum). He who is here is Word; he is consequently “spoken” and thus is the pure relation between the speaker and the spoken to. Because of this logos Christology, as “word” theology, is once again the opening up of being to the idea of relationship. For again it is true that “word” comes essentially “from someone else” and “to someone else”; word is an existence that is entirely way and openness.

I’d like to round off this discussion with a passage from St. Augustine that clarifies splendidly what I mean. It occurs in his commentary on St. John and hinges on the sentence in the Gospel that runs “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (7:16). Augustine has used the paradox in this sentence to illuminate the paradoxical nature of the Christian image of God and of Christian existence. He asks himself first whether it is not a sheer contradiction and offense against the elementary rules of logic, to say something like “Mine is not mine.” But, he goes on to ask, digging deeper, what, then, is the teaching of Jesus that is simultaneously his and not his? Jesus is “word”, and thus it becomes clear that his teaching is he himself. If one reads the sentence again with this insight, it then says: I am by no means just I; I am not mine at all; my I is that of another. With this we have moved on out of Christology and arrived at ourselves: What is so much yours as yourself, and what is so little yours as yourself? The most individual element in us—the only thing that belongs to us in the last analysis –our own “I”, is at the same time the least individual element of all, for it is precisely our “I” that we have neither from ourselves nor for ourselves. The “I” is simultaneously what I have completely and what least of all belongs to me. Thus we hear again the concept of mere substance (=what stands in itself!) is shattered, and it is made apparent how being that truly understands itself grasps at the same time that in being itself it does not belong to itself; that it only comes to itself by moving away from itself and finding its way back as relatedness to its true primordial state.

Such thoughts do not make the doctrine of the Trinity un-mysteriously comprehensible, but they do help, I think, to open up a new understanding of reality, of what man is and of what God is. Just when we seem to have reached the extreme limit of theory, the extreme of practicality comes into view: talking about God discloses what man is; the most paradoxical approach is at the same time the most illuminating and helpful one.

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