Friday, December 09, 2005

Antithesis #2: Jesus Christ is Not My Personal Lord and Savior. Or Yours.

I have a personal computer. I have a friend who works as a personal trainer. Executives (and some pastors!) have personal assistants. Some people have personal shoppers. In the Old Testament narratives, pagans had personal gods, called “household gods,” a.k.a. idols. Folks loved to steal them from one another (See these passages and ask yourself what I’m trying to do).

The clear connotation of the word “personal” as we normally apply it to people and things is that those things serve our own individual needs as we understand them and wish to have those needs met. We would even refer to them as my personal ________.

And in terms of the biblical narrative, it is a grave thing to refer to the living God with such language.

Colossians 1:15-20:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Philippians 2:5-11:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Daniel 7:13-14
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
(You might also check out Revelation 4:11, 5:9-13, as well as 15:1-4, but I don’t want to belabor the point)

It seems rather clear, doesn’t it? If we take seriously the Bible’s language about the King of the Universe and the Christ who rules it, we don’t get to say that Jesus is anybody’s "personal" anything. Note particularly the "cosmic Christ" of Colossians: the entire creation is put back under the headship of Christ. It's not just people, and not just you or me that he was after, and that he's after still.

Now we can talk about “getting personal with God,” or having a “personal relationship with Jesus” in the sense of having a friendship with God. That’s valid. It can be very problematic, however, as that language quickly gets confused with the other kind of “personal” language.

I think we would be far better off to talk about the Ruler and Savior of the world who loves us collectively and also knows us as individual personalities whom he adores. In turn, we offer our total allegiance and seek to love him with reckless, embarrassing abandon. That is, I think, what we really want to convey with the “personal Lord and Savior” language, but it gets lost in the lexicon of a consumer society. So instead, let’s say what we mean rather than assuming that our shorthand phrases really convey what we wish them to convey.


Anonymous said...

Of course, once again I thoroughly agree with and have no substantive comment to add except to make one minor distinction, perhaps hardly worth making:

The triune God is personal. We refer to the trinity as "persons." So, as you sort of alluded to without actually stating it, there is nothing wrong with the word personal per se; it's how we use it. And as you correctly point out, to use it as is most often done to refer to something or someone who or which serves our own individual needs is quite an incorrect and even dangerous usage when applied to the almighty.

God is personal, and personally interested in you and in me, but indeed God is not my or your personal anything!

Keep up the perspicacious theological delving. You're writing some good and important stuff these days.


theyoungstag said...

Just so I'm not misunderstanding you, knowing God as he put it in John 17 and eluded to by Hosea are not what you are discussing here.

Is it just the Depeche Mode kind of Idea that he is your own Personal Jesus. A personal Jesus who works this way for you and that way for me in regards to salvation?

So, if that is the case then what is the difference between the personal touch he gives in that Knowing mentioned previously?

I'm fairly new to the Church and honestly phrases like this have confused me for a while. As well as all the polemical thrashing about with new ideas and language.


Kyle said...

A., you're dead on, and I hope I did reasonably characterize that kind of "personal" relating in my last paragraph. I might also remind folks of my comments about perichoresis in my piece on "The Sign of the Cross."

Robb, I think you've understood me well. We can indeed talk about knowing God in a "personal" fashion, particularly after the ideas expressed in Jn 17 and Hosea. We see a god who is deeply passionate and personal in those places, and indeed throughout the Scriptures.

It is important to talk about life with a personal God, as opposed to an impersonal God. It's when we use that word personal in other ways that we crash upon the rocks. And I think we can say that the Trinitarian God is for us, but not on our terms.

Thanks for reading and commenting; you're quite welcome to nose around a bit and challenge and ask questions.

Stephen Newell said...

Would you say that God is "personal" in that Jesus died for the specific sins of each person who is, was, and will be saved? Would this be a better way to describe "personal Lord and Savior?" Because that's exactly who he is, the one who saves each of us individually, meeting our "personal need" for a Savior.

I understand you're trying to avoid cliches in your theological language, but I can't help but feel you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater with these last two posts.

Kyle said...

'Now we can talk about “getting personal with God,” or having a “personal relationship with Jesus” in the sense of having a friendship with God. That’s valid.'

And yes, we can talk about individual sin, as well.

And cliches (babies and bathwater? WTF?) aren't arguments. One again, dovey, that was kind of the point.

Bill Heroman said...

Good post. Good points. Words will always fall far short, but they can also betray gross mis-understandings of God and His purpose.

Surely many people who use the phrase "personal savior" are indeed wrapped up in a self-focused version of true christianity. And probably many are not. But it's still a terriffic point!

Lord, give us all a greater revelation of Who You Are!

Will said...

So far I am with you on both of these posts. I think you have done a good job of pointing out the truth that informed the original though behind the cliche, and also how we have moved to just meaning the cliche, and, perhaps, lost much of the truth behind it.

I encourage you to continue to be careful in your distinctions on that because words like "personal" and "dwell" have a large field of meaning.

Kyle said...

Thanks, guys. Particularly when we wander in the realm of God-talk, it gets really hard to just say what we mean and mean only what we say.

To say nothing the challenge in listening to other people!

JHearne said...

I like it, Kyle. As I study, it reminds me what I'm doing it for. Peace and love.

Kyle said...

Thanks, Josh. I can't wait to see you!

byron smith said...

Again, I think your post was right on. I appreciate the provocative approach, trying to get us to think about how we use words. I think you carefully defined the relevant sense of 'personal' you were rejecting in your opening paragraph.

Kyle said...

"I snagged me a Jesus."

Ha! How wonderful. Thanks, Michael, it's good to touch base with you, and thanks for reading.

Indie Pereira said...

I'm coming in a little late on this discussion. All I can say is amen. Thanks for articulating the reason that I've always been uncomfortable with the phrase "personal savior". Every time I hear it, the next thing that pops into my head is personal lubricant. Its just so off to make Jesus my personal anything.