Several years ago, we had a WWJD craze. People in many quarters were asking, “What Would Jesus Do?” Not a bad question. The desire to do what Jesus would do in any particular situation, the choosing of Jesus as a role model, is certainly better than many of the competing options out there.
WWJD runs into some problems, however. Which Jesus are we talking about? WWJD easily lapses into modeling our actions on a Jesus of our own making. Jesus was nice? Well, we need to be nice too.
Before we can put any version of WWJD into effect, we need to ask WDJD – “What Did Jesus Do?” Setting aside our theories about what the Son of God, God Incarnate would do (as if we have deep insight into such things), we turn to what Jesus actually did.
Karl Barth delves into this kind of question in Church Dogmatics IV.1, section 59. His object is not the same as I’m dealing with here, the strictly ethical. Rather, he’s emphasizing the necessity of paying attention to what Jesus actually did – to what he calls his history. He emphasizes that instead of starting with abstract theories about God, divinity, justice, salvation, incarnation, sin, etc., we must start with the actual actions attributed to Jesus in Scripture. Would the God of the Old Testament become incarnate? Would that God take on his own judgment of our sin? That kind of question is trumped by the fact that in Jesus Christ God did precisely that. The theory question needs to give in to and be subservient to the historical fact question. God did these things in Christ; of that we must take note.
In the section of the Dogmatics I’m reading now, Barth delves into the history of the Synoptic Gospels and their reception in Protestant theology. Some have treated them as mere history, not up to the revelatory power of John and Paul’s epistles. Not so, says Barth. Jumping to a contemporary voice, Not so, says N.T. Wright. Barth, the systematic theologian, and N.T. Wright, the biblical scholar and historian, through a common insistence that our picture of Jesus be rooted in context, particularly Old Testament context, find plenty of material in the Synoptics to see the “full” Jesus there. Even though the vocabulary is not always that of John and Paul, when we attend to the OT context and background, we still see God incarnate, dying for the sins of the world.
Evidently I haven’t paid much attention to WWJD yet – What Would Jesus Do? Our anxiety about What Should I Do needs to be set aside a bit, tempered by an investigation of What Did Jesus Do? Only as we pay attention to What Jesus Did, can we discern the content and trajectory of the story of God’s action – action begun in Creation, continued in the Fall, the calling of Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and now the church. Only as we discern where we stand in that story’s plot-line can we begin to fairly answer the question, What Should I Do?