This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.
To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?
In seeking to discover how various theologians in the tradition have answered this question, whether explicitly or implicitly, it seemed to me that they fell roughly into five groups. To be sure, many of them could be classed with more than one group, but nonetheless they usually assign priority to one perspective over others, or in turn the tradition has taken them to do so (and so their openness to other positions tends to drop out).
I organized this grouping into a fivefold schema.
1. Binding exemplar for imitation
On this view Jesus is consistently put forth as the normative pattern for human life—considered morally, spiritually, politically, or otherwise.
Allowances and exceptions are of course made, but the most perfect and commended form of life is that in strict correspondence to Christ’s. Representative theologians include Origen and Michael Sattler (in the Schleitheim Articles).
2. Non-binding but trustworthy example
In this approach Jesus’s example is supremely trustworthy and beneficial in every respect for everyone, and yet it is allowed that not everyone can, or should be expected to, follow Jesus’s way so closely. As a consequence, formal and institutional distinctions are made between, e.g., precepts and counsels, or clergy and lay, rulers and priests, etc.
Appeal is also made to natural law, reason, virtues, philosophical conceptions of the moral life, and the like. Thomas Aquinas is an instance of this position—although, I hasten to add, he is also one of the most sophisticated christologians on this question, so he is absolutely not limited to this view.
3. Forerunner of the spiritual life
Here Jesus’s life is the spiritual paradigm of the believer’s life, especially in temptation.
Rather than making parts of Jesus’s life fit to theirs (i.e., celibate, homeless, itinerant, wonderworking, whatever), believers should locate their lives in his earthly career. In the process they will find that he has paved the way for them to live in obedience to God’s will, purified and empowered to do so by Christ’s having blazed a trail in the flesh by the power of the Spirit. This is a popular patristic perspective, and can be found in Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus Confessor.
4. Author and interpreter of Scripture
This answer to the question is something of a departure from the previous three. Jesus’s life isn’t so much not an example as it is subordinate to his teaching, which on the one hand is a sort of microcosm and intensification of Scripture as a whole, even as, on the other hand, the voice of this One is itself the voice of Scripture. In this way Jesus’s life and teachings are located and qualified within the broad scope of one and the same Lord’s teaching across the whole biblical text, which often will prove to be more relevant than the limited ministry of Jesus, whose words are on a level with those of the rest of sacred Scripture. Athanasius is a minor example, but the two chief figures in this line are Augustine and Calvin (even as each differs in emphasizing aspects of the other answers in the schema).
5. Inimitable summit of righteousness
Finally, as a more polemical response to the first three, this position admits that Jesus’s life is undeniably a perfect model for Christians’ lives, but insists that for that very reason it can be a terror and a scourge to faith and to holy living, especially if taken as primarily or merely an example.
Better to consider Jesus’s life evangelically, as the unapproachable and inimitable summit of righteousness, which fulfills what we never could, and thus is to be received as a gift imputed to us by God’s grace, not (first of all, at least) as a model for imitation. Luther is of course the culprit here.
In subsequent posts in the series I will outline the particularities of the theologians' actual answers.