When we tell the story of Jesus there really are two biblical starting points. You can start like the Gospel of John – ‘in the beginning was the word…”. Or you begin like Matthew & Luke with genealogies or human origin stories. One is called a Theology from Above. The eternal Word descends to earth for a time of humiliation and returns in exultation. The other is a Theology from below which essentially says its fine to talk about the pre-existent Christ and God and God, but we know Him revealed in human form as Jesus. This Jesus was actually born and lived among us. In his life, death and resurrection He revealed His deity. Take a quick look at the Nicene Creed 2nd article. Where does it start? “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds…” A pure theology from above, the pre-existant Christ. Then look at the apostle’s creed. “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by they Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary” A theology from below. It begins with the baby and Mary.
If you were asking me, the theology from below is the theology for times of philosophical materialism (like now). The theology from above is for times of philosophical idealism. Big words those, so give me a couple of sentences to explain. If you look at the world and say or even just act on a daily basis that ‘this is all there is’ or that ‘only what I can see, taste, touch, smell or manipulate is real’, congratulations you are a philosophical materialist. If on the other hand you look at a chair or lets say a room full of chairs and ask, “what really makes a chair or defines a chair, what is chair-ness?” then you are an philosophical idealist. Just the fact that “chair-ness” probably caused you to snicker, or if you break out into hives at the thought of someone “finding themselves”, you are at least a functional materialist. This split has been around a long time. A picture nearby is of the famous paint the school of Athens. In the middle are Plato and Aristotle. Plato points up saying –“the chair-ness is not in this world”. Aristotle points down – “it’s all here Plato, baby.”
Long lead up to the Hymn I want to look at. We will sing this hymn this week. It is Praise Be to Christ which is number 538 in the Lutheran Service Book. The words are written by the living writer Timothy Dudley-Smith whose inclusion in the Lutheran Service Book is one of the best things about the new Hymnal. He is a former Bishop in the Anglican Church. An evangelical within that tradition and a longtime friend of the recently deceased John Stott who himself was a leading smart voice in evangelicalism. The tune is a public domain repurposed German Tune from Stuttgart that has some drama. If you listen to it you can feel it build right up until the end.
Now for what hopefully is the payoff. The Lutheran tradition, largely German, loves its idealism. The tune to this hymn was originally paired with the text – O God, of God, or light of light. Idealistic theology from above all the way. This is my and any materialists problem with that – how do I know and talk about such lofty things? The pitfall of a theology from above is thinking that we know the mind of God. We only know about the God from above through revelation. And that is where Dudley-Smith is a great theologian. He thinks as a Trinitarian.
Look at the first line of the first stanza: Praise be to Christ in whom we see the image of the Father shown, the firstborn Son revealed and known…
We can’t know the Father or as even John would say no one has seen the Father (John 1:18). But the human Jesus Christ, the image or to use a more loaded term the icon of the Father shown, has revealed and made known to us God. If you have seen me you have seen the Father. (John 14:9) The Theology from above and the theology from below meet when you think the Trinity. They meet in the person of Jesus. Stanza three of this hymn: Praise be to Him who Lord Most High, the fullness of the Godhead shares, and yet our human nature bares, who came as man to bleed and die. Very God of very God was made man. This hymn holds those in tension. It speaks to the idealist who wants to hear of God above. It also speaks to the materialist who says give me something I can really see. You can have good theology in almost any philosophy. This is a great example of a hymn that stays true to theology.