In a couple different blog contexts, the question of John Howard Yoder’s assertion of Christ’s independence (especially as expounded by Nate Kerr) has been raised. What is meant by “Christ’s independence” is multifaceted, but the short version of it is, as Yoder says that Christ lived among the powers of this age in a manner that was intensively “morally independent of their pretensions” (Politics of Jesus, p. 145). Jesus is thus a singularity within the history of humanity. He lives a life of moral freedom from the fallen powers (i.e. ideologies, structures, etc.) that enslave and determine human existence. He lives in independence from them, breaking their mythological yoke and opening up history to the life of God’s abundant freedom (i.e. the Spirit, Pentecost, Parousia).
What is meant by the independence of Jesus, then, is this radically irruptive singularity. This term signifies the way in which Christ’s moral existence was free from the machinations of the powers that sought to determine human history. Because Christ lived independently from all human powers, structures, ideologies, and authorities, he has exposed their rebelliousness and their contingency. In his resurrection, Christ’s life of moral independence from the powers was shown to be the truth of all of history. His independence from the powers goes all the way down to their most ultimate weapon: death.
Now, the question that often gets raised against this construal of Christ’s independence is the question of the Torah and of the history of Israel. Is not Christ conditioned, determined, and only intelligible within the framework of the history of Israel and its tradition? Does stressing Christ’s independence lead to some sort of Marcionism?
There are a few things that should be pointed out here. First, the notion that Israel and Torah constitute a prearranged “framework” for Christ’s intelligibility seems to me to be inherently supersessionist. If Israel and Torah are there to facilitate Christ’s mission in an instrumental sense it seems that they are, well, merely instrumental. This is a problem. Second, the notion that Jesus is made intelligible by his historical location in Israel and Judaism relies on a rather myopic reading of the Gospels. It doesn’t take that much of a heavy reading to see that Christ was clearly an irruptive presence within the national, social, and religious conventions of his context. However, in the midst of fairly clear interruption, revision, and inversion of many tenets of the Torah, Christ also claimed, not to be annulling it, but fulfilling it. What might this mean?
I think all of this, and the more important point about Jesus’s independence points us to a different construal of the relation between Christ, Israel, and the Torah. Rather than conceiving of Israel and Torah as a sort of framework that prepares the world for Jesus (as, for example T.F. Torrance does), we would do better to understand them as retroactive effects of Jesus’s own independent singularity. I have argued for something like this before in arguing that “we should see the biblical history of Israel and the nations, as preverberations, if you will, of Christ’s apocalyptic recreation of the world in the event of death and resurrection. Such a theology of recapitulation would see the apocalypse of Christ as the macrocosom, the mesoform within which created reality has its being and freedom.” In other words, Christ is not a predicate of Israel and Torah, rather they are retroactive events that irrupt from the very singularity that Christ is.
This ties into another important point that Kerr makes regarding his fundamental theological proposal that we understand divine action in Christ through the logics of singularity and excess. It is Christ’s singular reality, his independence which “unhands” and breaks open history, opening it up to the “more” of God, namely the Pentecostal mission of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s singular, apocalyptic reality is the very event which, by defeating the powers, opens the world to God’s radical love poured out in the Spirit. From within this logic of singularity and excess, we are able to propound a different and more fruitful reading of Israel and Torah than a conventional salvation-historical approach.
Rather than seeing Israel and Torah as precursors to Christ who make the way for him and his mission, we ought to see them as events of God’s own irruptive excess which Christ’s own singularity unleashes. Christ’s defeat of the powers liberates not only the future, but retroactively, the past. Torah and the history of Israel, like the history of the church is the story of the way in which Christ’s disruptive singularity, his independence from the powers has opened up the world to the freedom of the Holy Spirit. Israel and Torah are not conditions of Christ’s intelligibility or agency. Rather they are effects of his very particular singularity.
This is to take the distinctly Pauline idiom, “he is before all things and in him all things hold together” with the utmost seriousness. Likewise it is to insist that the Johannine, “before Abraham was, I Am” means exactly what it says. Indeed, stressing Christ’s independence is, in a cosmological and metaphysical sense, a way of talking about his eternality. Here we have the very specific historicality of Jesus coupled with the affirmation, grounded in the resurrection, that this singular one is before, above, and beyond all powers and realities. Christ’s independence means the adoption of an apocalyptic and doxological cosmology. It means understanding the world, politics, and history—including biblical history—as predicates of Christ’s own singularity. “He is before all things.” That is what it means to speak of Jesus’s independence.