In his book Christianity Among the Religions of the World, the historian Arnold Toynbee urges Christian people to purge out their exclusiveness, the traditional belief that Christianity is unique. He argues that our persistent emphasis on the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ stands in the way of unity with other religions in our common struggle with our major enemy—atheism. This insistence on the uniqueness of Christ, he thinks, is a subtle form of pride, and we should get rid of it.
But the uniqueness of Christ is what gives us our gospel. In addition, His words and deeds are so original, sublime, and transcendent that they mark Him and make such a difference that “Never [a] man spake like this man” (John 7:46, KJV), “none other name . . .” (Acts 4:12, KJV).
But why should we reexamine our belief in the uniqueness of Christ? Because we are being exposed to new ideas of old religions. The world is not as compartmentalized as it once was, where each nation and religion could live behind protective walls, safe from the invasion of others. The old ethnic religions are becoming alive. They are becoming missionary and aggressive.
So how can we defend the supremacy of Christianity? I suggest the uniqueness of Christianity and the originality of Christ consist of three words:
I. THE SUBLIME SIMPLICITY OF CHRIST
This may not be the most impressive, but neither is it unimportant. Part of Jesus’ profound impact upon His contemporaries and us is due to the masterful ways in which He simplified and clarified the great law—“You have heard it said, but I say . . .” In the second century Christianity faced one of its bitterest enemies, a Greek named Celsus. He despised this new superstition, Christianity. His most effective argument was that Jesus was a plagiarist, that He borrowed His best utterances from other minds in the past. His argument was not disputed simply because most of the teachings of Jesus can be paralleled in the Prophets, the Psalms, and the voluminous writings of the rabbis. This was the textbook of His boyhood. Jesus made constant use of this literary heritage. So in what respect are His words, if not original, unique?
His uniqueness was in His emphasis, the unparalleled simplicity of His mind to see the difference between the true and the false, and to sift the essential from the trivial. The laws of His people were an immense entanglement. Even the best rabbis got lost in it—laws upon laws that Jesus called “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” (Matt 23:4, KJV); and “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition” (Mark 7:13, KJV).
Where did He learn this wisdom? Who taught this Nazarene Carpenter to see with penetrating clarity into the deep issues of life over which the scholars and rabbis had wrestled? The answer is in the second reason for His uniqueness.
II. THE WORD FULFILLMENT
In what way does that word “fulfillment” inform the wisdom of Christ? Jesus was born of a people whose knowledge of God and human dignity is unparalleled in any race. His school was the synagogue. His textbook was the law and the prophets. He said, “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17, KJV). He took up all the great insights of the past and fulfilled them, filled them full of larger meaning. His God, still a national God, the God of Israel, limited and local, is now universalized. He said, when you pray, say “Our Father. . .” Now all the barriers are removed. “God so loved the world . . .” This was a new emphasis.
Further, He took all the great symbols of worship—the temple, the altar, the mercy seat, the feast days—fulfilled them, and removed them from their provincial limitations into wider universal meanings. “The Lord’s Supper,” for instance—the Passover Supper—was intensely national. Every year it brought thousands of the devout to Jerusalem to celebrate the Exodus deliverance. Out of that nationalistic Passover Supper He made the Supper of Remembrance, not to show God’s concern for one people, but His sacrificial love for all people—the whole world. Everything He touched was lifted from the local to the universal, from the partial to the eternal. He fulfilled them.
Scholarship today has furnished us with a wealth of knowledge about old faiths. In their sacred books there is some shining light there; in fragmentary form, even the Golden Rule appears. Why should it surprise us that God has given light to other people? Pascal says, “God has an infinite desire to communicate himself” (see Rom 1:18–20). Jesus came to fulfill.
But let it be clear, notwithstanding some fragmentary parallels to His teachings, there is an impassable gulf between Christ and the oriental faiths. If one is true, the other isn’t. The escape religions of the East that teach withdrawal from the world have submerged the people’s vital life in the peace and quietude of death. What they need, and what we need, is the touch of the transforming Christ who comes to fulfill “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10, KJV).
III. THE TRANSCENDENCE OF INCARNATION
The clearest mark of Christ’s uniqueness is not in His words, but in Him, summed up in the word “Incarnation”—the Word made flesh and brought to life in a person. It is He Himself who remains through the ages supreme and unparalleled. Though the words He spoke were not wholly new, the Man was. “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46, KJV). Here is the supreme miracle of the ages—a man who towers as high above our century as He did the first. Who can compare to Him?
There’s a story about a Russian novelist who dreamed he stood in a crowded Russian church. The standing congregation swayed in worship like grain before the wind. The sacred candles gleamed red against the altars. Suddenly in his dream he had a strong feeling that Christ was standing just behind him. He dared not turn, but he must; turning, he looked into his face. “What sort of Christ is this?” he thought. “Such an ordinary face. A face like all man’s faces.”
And that is grandly true. The face that looks out from the gospel pages is a human face—a face like all men’s faces. And yet as soon as we come to terms with that fact then we are confronted with another. He was such a man that those who walked with Him knew by an unerring instinct that He was more than any man. Said Simon Peter: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8, KJV). Like us, yet unlike us—One with us, yet outside us, with an eternal beyondness in Him that no one could grasp. In the moral sublimity of His life, in the texture of His spirit, in the majestic reach of His mind, so unlike us we cannot think of Him as we think of other men. What other name would you put alongside His? In the first century they said, “None.” “None other name” (Acts 4:12, KJV).
The reason we reject all concepts of a merely human Christ is this unlikeness, this uniqueness, this transcendence that marks Him off as different from all who came before Him, and remains the increasing hope of our salvation. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”1
None, other name! None! “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46, KJV).
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Collins, 1984), 52.