Tripp Fuller’s Open and Relational Christology
Tripp Fuller’s book Divine Self-Investment: an Open and Relational Constructive Christology makes an important contribution to understanding Jesus of Nazareth.
In this essay, I summarize Fuller’s book. I show how he affirms Jesus as a special expression of divine self-investment. As one who joins Fuller in embracing an open and relational theological vision, I am especially grateful for this work. It helps us better understand the person and work of Jesus in our time.
In a follow-up essay, I’ll engage Fuller’s work to wrestle with a question I have been asking for decades: in what sense should we say Jesus exerts causal influence today? But this essay is an overview of Fuller’s primary points.
Issues for Contemporary Christology
At the outset, Fuller aims to “investigate the possibility of a robust constructive open and relational Christology.” To do this, he 1) lays “out a broadly open and relational vision,” 2) “situates the constructive function of contemporary historical Jesus research,” and 3) “proposes three pairings of contemporary Christologies that share a thematic center with distinct trajectories.” An adequate open and relational Christology, says Fuller, “needs to include the historical Jesus, the existential register of faith, and the metaphysical referent to God.”
Christians typically account for who God is by telling the story of Jesus. Each age must make sense of Jesus and how to articulate the ongoing encounter with God that Jesus mediates. This means, says Fuller, contemporary theologians ought to offer constructive proposals that include “the historical person of Jesus, the contestability of God, and the irreducibly confessional nature of identifying Jesus as the Christ.”
The liberal Christian theological trajectory offers important resources for Christological work. But liberal theology often offers a muted and reductive account of Christ. The problem, in part, is liberal theology’s wariness of metaphysics. Fuller offers an open and relational metaphysics as a remedy.
Fuller’s project is not merely academic. He believes this work matters for the life of the church. “The inability to articulate just how God was present in Christ and how that reality shapes the character of life together,” says Fuller, “destroys the very integrity of the church.” This articulating should not be aimed at proving Jesus with evidence that demands a verdict. But neither is it limited merely to the subjective confession of the believer. Fuller unites the confessional and metaphysical through the historical person of Jesus.
The 21st-century theologian faces obstacles when doing Christology. Many people today regard God as unnecessary to account for the existence of the cosmos or to ground morality. Consequently, many people no longer assume God exists. Theology has been “dispersed from the center of town,” says Fuller, “to the private study of some but not all people.”
A 21st-century theologian must speak adequately about the historical Jesus. Fuller’s project builds from the contemporary awareness that history is an ongoing venture and the future is open, not settled. The contemporary theologian must account for the historical Jesus without allowing the often-naturalistic account of that quest to determine Christological formulations fully. To put it another way, metaphysical speculation must play a role in efforts to understand Jesus.
A contemporary theologian should acknowledge the subjective element in Christological formulation. Fuller calls this subjective element “the existential register,” because it also includes whether the person studying Jesus will claim him as the Christ. No one can obtain objective certainty on Christological matters.
The 21st-century theologian also faces metaphysical questions about God’s relation to the world. “How one understands the reality of God, the possibility of divine action, and the nature of divine revelation,” says Fuller, “will dramatically affect one’s Christology.”
The contemporary theologian functions as what Fuller calls a “believing-skeptic.” Theological questions today “are not settled upfront with triumphalist zeal or deflationary prolegomena.” But the Christological confession today cannot be about the historical Jesus alone. It cannot even be about how God is present in Jesus. Contemporary theologians must also consider whether God exists and how we best understand God.
To address these issues, Fuller engages prominent themes and theologians of contemporary Christology. He explores how we might best conceive of the historical Jesus in light of contemporary scholarship. From this, Fuller launches into comparing various Christologies. To address Spirit Christologies, he looks at contemporary Catholic theologians Roger Haight and Joseph Bracken. To address Logos Christologies, Fuller turns to Kathryn Tanner’s post-liberal work and John Cobb’s process theology. A final comparative chapter explores the Reformed Liberal theologian Douglas Ottati and Korean American Methodist theologian Andrew Sung Park.
Open and Relational Theology
As the subtitle of the book suggests, Fuller aims to offer an “open and relational constructive Christology.” To help the reader, he summarizes primary themes in open and relational theology at the outset.
The “relational” word primarily identifies the idea God affects creation and creation affects God. This means, Fuller says, “The history of our cosmos is the product of an ongoing process in which both God and the world are full participants.” This vision stands in stark contrast to traditional theologies that portray God as unrelated, unaffected, and determining outcomes singlehandedly.
Open and relational theology stands in contrast to theologies that portray God as distant. Christologies that consider God distant, says Fuller, often interpret concepts like incarnation “against the backdrop of radical divine transcendence from the world.” While open and relational theologians affirm the otherness of God, they don’t think of this otherness as divine distancing only crossed once in Jesus’ incarnation. God didn’t invade creation from the outside, nor is Jesus a one-off divine entrance and exit in history. From an open and relational perspective, God is always present and plays an essential role in each moment of creation’s becoming.
Open and relational theologies reject forms of naturalism that deny the presence and operative power of God in the world. But they also object to forms of supernaturalism in which God is primarily understood as acting upon the world from the outside. Forms of panentheism that speak of God and creatures co-creating in each moment fit the open and relational vision.
Open and relational theologies not only say creation affects God, they also say God’s experience changes in the ongoing process of existence. Fuller heads off the usual criticism of this view by arguing that God’s experience changes moment by moment, but God’s nature remains constant. In terms of love, this means God’s feelings and expressions of love vary. But the fact that God loves remains steadfast, because God’s nature is immutable.
An open and relational analysis of existence points to creation’s moment by moment becoming. This view plays a key role in Fuller’s own Christological formulation. The basic idea is that each moment in a creature’s life involves inheritance from the past, the gift of possibility for the future, and the responsibility of freedom in the present. A creature’s life also requires God’s ongoing self-investment. “For an open and relational theologian,” says Fuller, “there is nothing more natural than the Creator co-creating the world in each moment with the world.”
Fuller addresses the “open” portion of open and relational theology by emphasizing God’s ongoing experience of time. Because of time’s incessant flow and genuine creaturely freedom, God cannot foreknow with certainty all that will someday occur. But the God who cannot exhaustively foreknow isn’t blind. God knows everything knowable, which includes the completed past, the becoming present, and possibilities for the future. “God is very much aware of what is both possible and probable on the immediate horizon,” says Fuller. “Like a flashlight pointing the way forward in the dark, awareness of the future is much clearer for what is near.”
The Historical Jesus
Given the quest for the historical Jesus and sense of ongoing history, many today begin Christological reflection “from below.” This common phrase means the one engaging in Christological construction starts with Jesus as human. Fuller laments that those who begin from below often assume claims about God’s action must be bracketed.
Open and relational theology resists this bracketing. Using Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Fuller argues contemporary Christology should start not from below nor from above but from within. By “within” he means the existential confession of Jesus as the Christ. But this confession is only the beginning, not the conclusion. And it may be deconstructed and reconstructed in an ongoing engagement with Christ, as fresh ways of understanding the Christian mission emerge.
This existential confession of Jesus as the Christ does not arise ex nihilo. “The open and relational theologian,” says Fuller, “needs to take account of the genuine influence that creaturely cooperation and participation played in the history of Israel.” The expectation of a Messiah emerges in actual history, as does the revelation of a covenantal God. In fact, this God, says Fuller, chooses “to invest Godself in the world with this people.”
Unlike Christologies that assume an overly transcendent God, open and relational theology says God neither foreordains nor foreknows from the foundation of the world the specificities of Jesus’ life. And God enters covenantal relationship – self-investment – long before Jesus emerges in history. An open and relational Christology embraces the dynamic openness and contingencies displayed in Jesus.
While Jesus is not God’s only expression of self-investment, he enjoyed a special relationship – “oneness” – with his Abba. This special relationship involved Jesus’ responses to God’s self-investment. And the community that emerged in response to Jesus was not a community divinely predetermined. They too responded to God’s self-investment as witnessed in Jesus.
According to Fuller, Spirit Christologies affirm the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus. “It was through the faithfulness of Jesus to Abba,” says Fuller, “that a unique and particular bond between God and humanity was established.” Because of Jesus’ fidelity to the Spirit, a qualitatively new relationship with God emerges.
A significant number of theologians turn to Kenosis Christologies to account for God as revealed in Jesus. Fuller rejects Kenosis Christologies that say a preexistent one rescinds divinity to become incarnate in Jesus. Fuller argues, instead, that Jesus understood himself to be known and loved by the one he called Abba. In light of this understanding, Jesus trusted God’s call to be a faithful servant in and through his humanity.
Fuller extends Kenosis beyond Jesus. An open and relational Christology can connect the kenotic pattern of Jesus’ subjectivity to that of God’s within Israel’s covenantal context.” In fact, “the faithfulness of the Spirit-filled Jesus himself would not have been possible,” says Fuller, “without the living tradition of the people.”
The open and relational emphasis upon the past, the gift of possibility, and the responsibility of freedom fit Spirit Christology well. What the Spirit does in the present is influenced by the past. But the Spirit and creaturely responses also influenced that past. In terms of Jesus, says Fuller, this means, “without the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus from Egypt, the voice of the Prophets, and so on Jesus could not have been the Christ.”
God’s work in the world, in the history of Israel, and in Jesus “revealed both a new possibility for the world,” says Fuller. This new possibility “makes the singular relationship of Jesus to God definitive for both God and a new potential possibility for the world’s continued future.” In Jesus, says Fuller, “the intention and desire of God for the world has been revealed.” Jesus’ response to the Spirit introduces a new reality.
Most Logos Christologies lead to tensions if not contradictions. They usually begin with a pre-existent Christ who is both the eternal Son and Word of God. This starting point moves the typical Logos Christology to say the wholly spiritual Christ was united with physical creation in a “hypostatic union” that resulted in Jesus as the Christ.
Fuller rejects the hypostatic union approach. He does so in part because of the spirit-matter dualism it assumes. Fuller suggests a non-interventionist account of incarnation. In this account, the self-investing God is always already present to creation but especially revealed in Jesus. God’s creative initiative is necessary, but this initiative is not fully determinative. It requires creaturely response.
To spell out what his open and relational Christology entails, Fuller draws from the work of John Cobb. Cobb describes God as the ground of freedom, the ongoing Creator, the call for creation, and the giver of possibilities. God does this by providing an initial aim moment by moment to Jesus and all creation. “The initial aim of God in each moment,” says Fuller, is “a potential embodiment of God in the world…”
In Jesus, God’s initial aim co-constitutes the very self-hood of Jesus. “In Christ,” says Fuller, “the distance between the source of the initial aim and the response to it is dissolved.” In this, we find a fusion of God’s will and Jesus’ will. The result is a profound revelation of God in Jesus.
Fuller’s Christological vision extends beyond Jesus’ own response to God, as important as that response is. “An open and relational Logos Christology,” says Fuller, “connects the universal history of the cosmos with both the person of Jesus and the disciple’s salvation history.” To put it another way, “The Word which became flesh in the person of Jesus was the same Word that was present through the Spirit over all Creation.” This “includes calling the people of God throughout Israel’s history into its fullest expression in each moment of becoming.”
By emphasizing both Jesus’ response to the Spirit and the work of Christ in all creation, Fuller unites the central themes in Spirit and Logos Christologies. This union grounds a contemporary Christology to affirm Jesus’ special relation to God, God’s relation to the entire cosmos, and our own personal relations to the divine. “When one has encountered God in and through Jesus Christ, the history of God’s ongoing investment in the world can be reinterpreted,” says Fuller. This history of God’s investment includes evolutionary emergence, a special relationship with Israel, and our own lives today.
The Cross and Hope
The God who relates to and suffers with the world is profoundly revealed in the cross of Jesus. This Nazarene identifies with the downtrodden, forsaken, and hurting. God not only brings salvation in the cross, but a suffering God also needs saving. This salvation is “not an external solution to the never-ending pattern of victim and violator,” says Fuller, “for God is also the victim.”
If Fuller concluded his book by saying God needs salvation, one might wonder if his Christological vision offers eschatological hope. Fortunately, Fuller’s vision is hopeful. This hope is grounded first in God’s covenantal faithfulness toward all creation. God is committed to suffering with us… all!
Secondly, Jesus’ resurrection provides grounds for a future with promise. But even this divine work occurs alongside a redeemed community that cooperates. After all, eschatological theories that require divine intervention through solitary power, says Fuller, “run contrary to the nature of love and the integrity of relationships.” Our hope is not established by a God who could overrule creation.
“The promise of the God of love is that God will be ever faithful,” says Fuller, and this God offers “greater beauty, healing, and goodness to each moment of the Creation’s becoming.” In short, the Divine self-investment we see most powerfully in Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits for the hope of all creation.
I am impressed by Tripp Fuller’s work on Christology. He articulates an open and relational vision of Jesus that makes so much sense!
While this essay has summarized Fuller’s book, a subsequent essay will engage Fuller’s view that Jesus “mediates” God to us. The follow-up essay is less a criticism and more an inquiry. But I strongly recommend those who engage Christology from an academic perspective to get and read Tripp Fuller’s book!
By the way, an online panel exploring Tripp’s book will be held later in November. Here’s a link with details.