“Under Pontius Pilate”
We are always in danger of forgetting what the Christian faith is actually all about. We might slip into the assumption that the Christian faith is a kind of philosophy, a system of ideas about life and the world. Or we might assume that the Christian faith is essentially a religious doctrine, a set of accurate beliefs about God.
The problem with both these views is that they end up reducing Christianity to a theory. And if Christianity is a theory, then salvation is reduced to an intellectual level: getting rid of the wrong ideas and acquiring the right ones.
Of course, doctrine is an important part of the Christian faith (see: 1 Timothy 4:16, 6:2-3). But it’s surprising to see how little the Apostles’ Creed actually says about doctrine. For the most part, the creed doesn’t list concepts or ideas. It tells a story. It reminds us of certain things that have happened.
That’s why one of history’s most dubious characters, Pontius Pilate, is included in the creed. When we confess that Jesus “Suffered under Pontius Pilate,” we remember that the gospel isn’t an idea but a fact. It’s not a theory but a news report. Something happened at one particular moment in human history. The name of Pontius Pilate is a historical anchor. It prohibits us from turning salvation into a general truth. It reminds us that God has acted in real human history, at one particular time and place.
This is the heart of Christianity: not an idea but a brute fact. Not a theory but a human body. Not a general principle of suffering but the suffering of one particular human being. Not a doctrine but a person: Jesus Christ. And in case we start to think that “Jesus Christ” is a theoretical concept, the creed adds another name: “Jesus – the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Pontius Pilate is there to remind us that salvation occurred in time and space. It had a date. Certain people were there when it happened.
Because Jesus himself is the heart of Christianity, the continuous reading of the four Gospels is the central spiritual discipline of the Christian life. The story of Jesus is read out in every Christian assembly. In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper we participate communally in Jesus’ story. In the Lord’s Prayer we take up a part in his story. When we serve the marginalised, the oppressed, and the poor we are re-enacting scenes from Jesus’ life. The church calendar, too, is just an elaborate way of remembering and repeating Jesus’ story each year – ‘reading’ the Gospel story not just with our minds, but with our lives.
This is the staggering simplicity of the Christian faith. The same person, Jesus Christ, born of Mary and condemned by Pilate, is always at the centre. All the church’s practices and institutions are just attempts to respond faithfully to this person. All the church’s doctrines are just attempts to speak faithfully about him. As the second-century theologian Irenaeus said: “The one who says much about the faith does not add to it, nor does the one who says little diminish it.”
All the vast complexities of our faith are anchored in one particular point in human history. Everything else extends from that point. Our faith is mysterious not because it is so complex but because it is so simple.
Ben Myers is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at United Theological College
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