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Jon Ruthven

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Jon Ruthven is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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Articles > Charismatic Theology > The "Imitation of Christ" in Christian Tradition

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    Obviously, while it is granted here that the Apostles could and did perform miracles through the power of the Spirit, it is clear that Jesus' experience with the Spirit is unique and cannot be replicated precisely, even by his apostles. In fact, Ambrosiastor (d. 384), somewhat earlier, suggested that the experience of the Spirit involves a kind of spiritual entropy, moving from Christ to the Apostles, who, in Jn 14:12 were promised they alone would perform "greater works." A second, lower level of spiritual power is described in Jn 20:22, which denotes an impartation of the Spirit conferring ecclesiastical power enabling the successive transfer of the Spirit throughout history via the imposition of hands. Finally, a third level appears in Acts 2 in which the Spirit was bestowed on the laity "whence arises the preaching of the church."[6]  The specifics of this spiritual power are murky both in terms of the exegesis as well as the specific manifestations of the Spirit intended at the lower levels. He does seem to intend, however, that spiritual power, over time, diminishes in stages: that the layman of today could never aspire to the level of charismatic power of Jesus or even his apostles. Calvin echoes this principle: "How plainly is his deity shown in miracles! Even though I confess that both the prophets and the apostles performed miracles equal to and similar to his, yet in this respect there is the greatest of differences: they distributed the gifts of God by their ministry, but he showed forth his own power."[7]

This impulse to protect the uniqueness of Christ, and by extension, his apostles, nourished the doctrine of cessationism, which held that miracles and certain spiritual gifts appeared only to point to the deity of Christ and the significance of his work. These miracles, perforce, ceased when the core of Christian doctrine was established.[8]

    In this mode, Luther sets the agenda for subsequent Protestantism with respect to our "imitation" of Christ. He suggests that while Christ's role involves serving as an example, his chief mission, "the cardinal doctrine and the most precious one of the Gospel" [italics mine], is to redeem us from sin through his work on the cross. "When we possess Christ through faith as a free gift we should go on and do as he has done for us, and imitate him in our entire life and suffering."[9]   From other passages, we know that Luther limited the imitation of Christ to traditional acts of piety, suffering and ministry, but drew the line at miraculous spiritual gifts.[10]   Subsequently, scholastic Protestantism and the deistic Enlightenment overwhelmingly expressed Christian praxis as a matter of ethics. Hence, with the restriction of the miraculous to the first century on the one hand, and the emphasis on Christianity-as-morality that developed later, the profile of traditional Christian discipleship was set.

    Prominent Evangelical scholars follow this traditional Protestant line even today. For example, Colin Brown claims that the programmatic charismatic ministry of Jesus in, say, Luke 4:18 cannot apply beyond Jesus himself; "no one else may claim this anointing and this role." Similarly, Hebrews 2:4[11] "refers to the ministry of Jesus and the founding of the church. The passage is not talking about what happens when the gospel is proclaimed in each and every age."[12] D. A. Carson applies the principle a step further: "The apostles and other writers of the New Testament must be viewed as something other than proto-Christians, models of what other Christians should enjoy and experience."[13]

    Such modern Evangelical sentiment is threatened somewhat by an emerging emphasis these days on Spirit Christology,[14] which can be construed in many cases as an expression of the "anthropocentric turn" widely diffused in theology since the Enlightenment and generally denying the divine nature of Jesus. This category of Spirit Christology can nonetheless also be understood as a turn toward a scriptural emphasis, as Del Colle argues.[15] It is possible to affirm the central creedal statements about Jesus while at the same time retaining biblical emphases with respect to his Spirit anointing. A variant of this line of Christology may also be described as "paradigm Christology," reflecting an emphasis upon human response and replication of Jesus' life and ministry.[16]

    Arguably, any discussion of Spirit Christology engages the most attended, developed and dauntingly complex areas of theology-many areas from which we must prescind in this paper. However, this theological complexity has not dissuaded countless numbers of Pentecostal preachers from expressing their intuitive (or perhaps simply, Biblical) insight that "everything Jesus did we should do, because he was empowered by the same Holy Ghost we have"-in other words, a Christology of mimesis. Indeed, we would argue, something like this expression can be demonstrated as a key NT theme.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Footnotes

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