What Is A Man?

From “Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays”
by Hans W. Frei, 1922-1988

In the story of Jesus, we recall his transition from initiative to increasing passivity in the face of circumstances, beginning with the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. It may be fruitful to add to this an instance (recorded as taking place immediately afterwards) that not only points in a like direction but actually perfects the previous instance. In the Matthean version of the passion story, Jesus reminds an ardent partisan, who would defend him, that he himself could pray to his Father, and more than twelve legions of angels would come to his aid.

“But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matt. 26:54)

There was indeed the envisagement of a possibility of his own salvation. But it was envisaged only to be rejected decisively, in this transition from power to powerlessness. What we have in the story of Jesus’ arrest is the external parallel, or more correctly the enactment of the same transition which had taken place, just before this, on the inner plane, in Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both of these instances in their very unity point up the fact that there is an inner and outer, yet unitary, fine point of transition when an intention is being carried into action, a point where a free resolve initiates and at the same time meshes into a chain of circumstances which, once started, cannot then be reversed. Jesus is the unity of this intention-action pattern which is particularly and uniquely his own.

What is a man? What we learn from the New Testament about this question is in part gained from its portrayal of the man Jesus of Nazareth. A man (in this instance the fully human saviour who, by his action peculiar to himself, bestows a particular human identity upon the mythological saviour figure) is what he does uniquely, the way no one else does it. It may be that this is action over a lifetime, or at some climactic moment, or both. When we see something of that sort, especially if we see it at some climactic stage which recapitulates a long span in a man’s life, when we see the loyalty of a lifetime consummated at one particular point (even if we see several hitherto ambiguous strands in his character pruned and ordered in a clear and decisive way at that point), then we are apt to say: “Here he was most of all himself.”

In that kind of passage from free intention into action, ordering the two (intention and act) into one harmony, a free man gains his being. He becomes what he is; he gains his identity. Something like this seems also to be the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus, in this portrayal, was most of all himself in the short and climactic sequence of his public ministry, rising to this resolve and this entry into the situation of helplessness. We must, above all, not abstract one from the other: as if, in the New Testament, the event of the crucifixion were anything without Jesus’ resolve, or the resolve anything without the event in which it took concrete shape! In his general intention to enact, in obedience to God, the good of men on their behalf and, at the crucial juncture in his specific resolve, to do so if necessary in this terrifying way and in the event in which this intention and resolve were enacted, Jesus was most of all himself in the description of the Gospels. This was his identity. He was what he did and underwent: the crucified human saviour.

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