Thursday, February 15, 2007

Just another wonder-worker?

In an era dominated by Jewish 'men of deeds,' a Jew would not have been overawed by tales of Jesus' miracles.

By David Klinghoffer

Jesus' miracles are well-known. Apart from those having to do with healing and exorcism, they include feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish; feeding four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish; turning water to wine; calming the wind and sea; walking on water; and giving life to a dead man, Lazarus, and to a dead girl, the synagogue president's daughter. Did these not show Jesus was a unique person with a very special relationship to God, perhaps that he was God incarnate?

The catalog of miracles is impressive, if brief, when listed in this way, item by item. However, a Jew who believed in the Hebrew scriptures would know that not all such acts, causing nature to depart from her course, came from God. In the book of Exodus, when Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that the Jews be allowed to leave Egypt and doing some wonders of his own, the Egyptian king's magicians at first match the Jewish leader miracle for miracle. To ascribe magical powers to forces apart from God would not have strained the imagination of a Jew in Jesus' day.

Even if we take all these deeds at face value, as having actually occurred as the New Testament describes them, they would not have made Jesus unique. A Jew at the time, upon hearing of such things, might well be expected to seek out this man and see what he was about. But no more than that.

As Professor Geza Vermes has shown, the Galilee in particular was famous for producing a species of charismatic sages and healers known as Hasidim (literally, "Pious Ones"), whose most prominent representatives included the aforementioned Hanina ben Dosa, along with his counterpart of a century earlier, Honi the Circle Maker. As the Mishnah relates, Honi got his name by bringing down miraculously huge quantities of rain during a time of drought. He first prayed to God, but when his prayer went unanswered he drew a circle on the ground and swore he would stand in it until rain fell. It immediately did so, but in miserly fashion, not the volume he had in mind. He said, "I have not asked for this, but for rain to fill the cisterns, the pits and rock cavities." God then sent a cloudburst so heavy that the people were compelled to petition Honi to make it stop. Josephus relates a brief version of this story in the Antiquities.

Honi had two grandsons who continued the tradition of miracle working. One was called Hanan the Hidden, whom when rain was scarce the children would follow around, tugging on his clothing and begging, "Father, Father, give us rain!"

For his part, Hanina was one of a category of wonderworkers called "men of deeds." He apparently lived through the destruction of the Second Temple, because the Mishnah states that from the time of the destruction, the power of the "men of deeds" (anshe ma'aseh) was weakened, and with Hanina's death they ceased altogether. Professor Vermes points out that Jesus in the New Testament is also characterized as a man of "deeds."

Hanina was a healer, deriving his gift from a special relationship with God, likened in the Talmud to a household servant who is always passing everywhere through the king's household. Such a personality, humble like a slave, nevertheless has the king's trust in every matter. He can gain entrance to the sovereign's presence anytime he chooses, so if he makes a petition, it is sure to be heard. Thus, Hanina intervened with God on behalf of the deathly ill daughter of his teacher. While the teacher, a far greater scholar, could do nothing for the girl, Hanina healed her, casting himself down with his face between his knees. His power operated even at long distances: He was able to heal his master's son without leaving his home to visit the boy.

A story is told about Hanina and a serpent. There was a dangerous snake known to live in a hole nearby a town. Local residents complained to the rabbi that the creature was menacing them and had killed or injured many. Hanina proceeded to the mouth of the viper's hole and calmly stuck his heel down into it. On this provocation the snake bit him--and died. With the animal wrapped around his neck as a trophy, Hanina made his way to the town's study hall and displayed it to the crowd. He explained, "It is not the viper that kills. It is sin that kills"-meaning that in the long run, while nature may take its toll on human longevity, a much graver threat is the wages of wrongdoing, which deprive a person of eternal life.

I am not trying to instigate a spitting contest between Jesus and the rabbis-just making the point that a Jew would not have been overawed by tales of Jesus' wonderful deeds. Admittedly I don't know of a sage of this century to whom the rabbinic sources attribute the power of resurrection. However, such is not lacking from a little later in Jewish history. The Talmud tells of a certain Purim feast--celebrated to mark the anniversary of the redemption of the Jewish people recounted in the biblical book of Esther, where by custom it was obligatory to engage in prodigious drinking. One revered rabbi, Rabbah, got so carried away with his observances that, in a heavily drunken state, he killed another sage, Rav Zeira. The next day he prayed and raised his colleague from the dead.

Unlike the Gospel writers, the Talmud doesn't make a fuss about this. Indeed, a sage of the Mishnaic period, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, presents the power to resurrect as a goal toward which a person of extraordinary spiritual ambition may direct his energies. He alludes to a program for developing one's soul, apparently known at the time in more detail, comprising ten steps leading finally to the capacity to give life to the dead. The Jews, whose religious consciousness was formed by the spiritual system later embodied in the Talmud, would thus have seen miracles, even if witnessed with their own eyes, as a proof of spiritual potency, but nothing more than that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The concept of "Divinity" in a pre-enlightenment world

The Bible, the New Testament, they are all operating in a pre-enlightenment world. In a pre-enlightenment world it is taken for granted by everyone (expect maybe some very erudite philosophers who don't believe in it, but the general culture takes it for granted) that, for example, divine babies can be conceived, that gods can come to earth and have intercourse with mortals and that this intercourse can produce divine babies. They take it for granted. It's simply part of the baggage of their culture.

Therefore in their culture, in a pre-enlightenment culture, to announce that your Jesus is a divine child is not going to get the general post-enlightenment reaction that this can't happen, couldn't happen, doesn't happen, we don't believe that stuff. It might get the reaction that we don't believe your claim, but they cannot and would not argue that it could not happen. What they would like to know is: what has your baby done for anyone? If your Jesus is divine, what has he done for the world? That is a pre-enlightenment question. The post-enlightenment argument that it can't happen is never used in the first century. The most you'll ever get is that we don't believe your claim. So in a pre-enlightenment world, whether we live in a post-enlightenment world or not, we have to respect that.

For example, if Paul goes around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, the immediate answer from a polite, pious pagan is not that we don't believe in that stuff. The proper answer is: good for you, good for Jesus, but so what? We've heard these kinds of stories before, what's he done for us? That is a pre-enlightenment question.

- excerpted from an interview with John Dominic Crossan

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Emphasis on resurrection or kingdom?

N.T. Wright defends resurrection in first point-counterpoint forum

By Gary D. Myer
Baptist Press
Mary 17, 2005

Jesus was raised from the dead,” N.T. Wright, an Anglican evangelical scholar, said.

“Over and over again, they use arguments that can be shown to be invalid and propose alternative scenarios which can be shown to be impossible.”

Wright and John Dominic Crossan, a member of the Jesus Seminar, voiced divergent views of the resurrection during the inaugural Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary March 11.

Wright, bishop of Durham, England, defended the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus as the only tenable view, while Crossan, a professor emeritus at DePaul University, set forth a metaphorical interpretation of the resurrection.

To begin the forum, each speaker was given 20 minutes to explain his beliefs. During the following dialogue, both Crossan and Wright questioned each other and clarified their positions.

Wright began by examining some of the common attempts to explain away the resurrection. He said one argument proposes that ancient people did not understand the laws of nature and were, therefore, more inclined to accept unsophisticated answers.

“That is simply absurd,” Wright said. “The ancients knew perfectly well that dead people didn’t rise. We didn’t need modern science to tell us that.”

Others have pointed to Hellenistic and pagan stories featuring empty graves and visions of the dead as the reason the early church began to believe in the resurrection. But Wright said these stories are completely different from the biblical resurrection accounts.

The presence of resurrection beliefs in Judaism cannot account for the focus on Jesus’ resurrection in the early church either, Wright said, noting that resurrection was peripheral in Judaism, or not a foundational part of the Jewish beliefs. In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus is central.

“I’ve shown conclusively that [the Apostle] Paul really did believe in the bodily resurrection despite generations of critics going back as far as the second century trying to make out that he didn’t,” Wright said.

The empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances caused the early church to believe in His bodily resurrection, Wright said, noting that the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances taken together constitute a sufficient condition for belief in the resurrection.

“Having examined as many of the alternative explanations I could find and having shown them all to be completely inadequate, the one we are left with, however unlikely, must press itself upon us as being true,” Wright said. “It is only with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, demonstrating that His death dealt a decisive blow to evil, that we could find the proper grounds for calling the kingdoms of earth to submit to the Kingdom of God.”

Crossan, on the other hand, said he believes the mode of the resurrection is secondary to the meaning of the resurrection. Though taking a metaphorical approach to the resurrection, Crossan maintained that, whether one believes in a literal or metaphorical resurrection, the implications of the resurrection should make a difference in the world today.

“We are talking about cosmic transformation from a world of injustice, impurity and violence into a world of justice and peace and purity and holiness,” he said.

Crossan denied that the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus served as a sufficient cause for the rise of resurrection belief in the early church.

“That would get you to the exaltation,” Crossan said. “It would get you to the conclusion that Jesus has been exalted, maybe even to the right hand of God.... Something else is absolutely needed to make that leap of faith [to belief in a literal, bodily resurrection].”

Crossan said Jesus’ words about launching the Kingdom of God caused the early church to believe in the resurrection.

“If you want to debate what has to be taken literally and what has to be taken metaphorically, it is a perfectly valid debate,” Crossan said. “But there is something else -– the question of meaning.”

Crossan said he would like to hear someone who takes the resurrection literally share the implications of that belief, asking how that belief could change the world.

“Tell me that from your literal reading,” he said. “I will try, as one who takes it metaphorically, to spell out the implications from a metaphorical reading.”

Those who disagree over the mode of the resurrection, whether literal or metaphorical, will find common ground in the area of meaning, Crosson said.

During the dialogue time, Wright pressed Crossan on the use of “literal and metaphorical.” Wright argued for the use of the terms “concrete and abstract.”

“Often we use the terms literal and metaphorical when, actually, we mean concrete and abstract,” Wright said. “I do think it makes an enormous difference if you say that what happened on Easter day was not a concrete event.”

Wright also challenged Crossan to explain the changes that occurred as believers in Christ moved from Judaism and other cultures to Christianity.

“Something happened which caused all those Christians from very different backgrounds to transform the beliefs their cultures had given them into this remarkable new shape,” Wright said.

Crossan, however, spoke again of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God.

“I think for me it’s extraordinarily important that the historical Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, has already made an announcement,” he said. “It is not that the Kingdom is beginning. It is that the Kingdom has begun. When He sends people out, I think these people ... experienced part of the Kingdom.”

Crossan said he believes the early believers saw apparitions rather than the literal risen Jesus. The apparitions along with their experience with the Kingdom, Crossan said, caused the dramatic shift in their beliefs.

Wright responded, “I agree with you that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and their awareness of the power of God through the preaching of Jesus is one of the preconditions for the eventual interpretation at which they arrived.” But, he said, “I don’t think those by themselves would have been sufficient to generate anyone saying, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’”

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Can one be a Christian without being a theist?

By John Shelby Spong

As a person who lectures extensively across this nation and the world, I have been asked a wide variety of questions from my audiences. They have ranged from the naive to the profound, from the obvious to the obtuse. Some questions have been hostile, designed not to gain knowledge or insight, but rather to embarrass, attack and minimize. Some have been profoundly questing, seeking in the wasteland the questioner occupied some hint that the living water of faith might yet be available. However, no one has ever confronted me with a question at once so penetrating and modern and yet so devastating and threatening as the one with which I began this column.

To my amazement and delight this question was asked by a lay person within the Diocese of Newark. It originated inside that activity we call Education for Ministry (EFM) and specifically from a member of St. Thomas' Church, Vernon. It was posed at an EFM graduation ceremony held at St. Stephen's Church in Millburn in June. It made me newly aware of the significance of the EFM program. If that program can free this person to inquire into her faith on this level, then it has renewed my conviction that EFM is the best educational tool available for lay people in the church today.

Theism is the historic way men and women have been taught to think about God. Most people think theism is the only conceivable way to think about God. The primary image of God in the Bible is a theistic image.

By that I mean that God is conceived of as a Being, even the Supreme Being, external to this world, supernatural in power, and operating on this world in some fashion to call this world and those of us who inhabit it into the divine will or the divine presence. This theistic Being is inevitably portrayed in human terms as a person who has a will, who loves, who rewards and who punishes. One can find other images of God in the scriptures, but this is the predominant and the familiar one.

Theism is also the primary understanding of God revealed in the liturgies of the Christian churches, including the various Anglican Books of Common Prayer. There the God we meet is described as a Being who desires our praises, elicits our confessions, reveals to us the divine will and who calls us into the spiritual life of communion with this Divine Being.

So dominant is this theistic understanding of God that if one rejects theism, one is thought to be an a-theist. An atheist is defined as one who dismisses the theistic concept of God and, since theism exhausts most people's definition of God, an atheist by definition is one who rejects the concept that God might be real.

So when one is confronted with the question, "Can one be a Christian without being a theist?" it opens vast doors for further thought and theological speculation.

This question becomes askable only when one lives in a world that has rendered the traditional theistic view of God inoperative. We may not like to confront that reality, but in a real sense, this is what the post-modern world forces the contemporary religious community to face. The Supernatural Being that we have traditionally called God has increasingly been rendered impotent by the explosion in human knowledge over the last five hundred years.

We once attributed to the will of this deity everything we did not understand, from sickness to tragedy to sudden death to extreme weather patterns. But today sickness is diagnosed and treated with no reference to God whatsoever. Tragedies, like the crash of the TWA Flight #800 or the rise of the AIDS epidemic, are investigated by this secular society without reference to the will of God. That was certainly not the case when ancient tragedies, such as the black death or the bubonic plague, swept across the world. When death strikes suddenly today, we do autopsies that reveal a massive coronary occlusion or a cerebral hemorrhage as its cause. We do not speculate on why the external Deity, the theistic Supreme Being, might have wanted to punish this particular person with sudden death. Even what the insurance companies still call "acts of God" are today thought to be completely explainable in non- theistic language. We chart the formation of hurricanes from the time when they develop as low pressure systems in the southern oceans and we mark their paths until these weather systems are broken up either over land, after unleashing their fury of wind and water, or in the cold and heavy air of the extreme northern parts of our hemisphere. No weather man I know of refers to this phenomenon of nature as divinely caused to inflict godly punishment upon a wayward region, people or nation. Only someone as naive theologically as American televangelist Pat Robertson would assume, as he did a few years ago, that his prayers could steer a hurricane away from his television and radio enterprise in Norfolk, Virginia. Interestingly enough, Mr. Robertson did not pray to break the storm up, but only to redirect its fury. Furthermore, there was no expression of concern on Pat Robertson's part about what might happen to those in whose path his prayers might have redirected the storm.

At least one English theologian, Michael Goulder, saw this shrinking conclusion of the theistic God destroying his faith. He became an atheist when he came to the perception that the God of traditional theism "no longer has any work to do." This God no longer explains mysteries, cures sicknesses, directs the weather, fights wars, punishes sinners, rewards faithfulness. Indeed, the idea of an external supernatural Deity who invades human affairs periodically to impose the divine will upon this world, though still given lip service in worship settings, has nonetheless died culturally. If God is to be identified exclusively with this theistic understanding of God, then it is fair to say that culturally at least God has ceased to live in our world.

If the theistic understanding of God exhausts the human experience of God, then the answer to the question of the EFM student from Vernon is clear. No, it is not possible to be a Christian without being a theist. But if, on the other hand, one can begin to envision God in some way other than in the theistic categories of the traditional religious past, then perhaps a doorway into a religious future can be created. That is to identify what I regard as the most pressing theological issue of this generation. Christianity has been shaped by traditional theistic concepts. Jesus was identified in some sense as the incarnation of this theistic God. It was said that He came to do "the father's (read: that external supernatural Supreme Being's) will." Indeed, Jesus was portrayed as a sacrifice offered to this God to bring an end to human estrangement from the Creator. Theologians talked of original sin, and "the fall" to which it was asserted the cross spoke with healing power and in which drama of salvation the shed blood of Jesus played a central role. But in a world that has abandoned any theological sense of offering sacrifices to an angry Deity, what could this interpretation of the Cross of Christ possibly mean? In a post-Darwinian world, where creation is not finished, but is even now ongoing and ever- expanding, the idea of a fall from a perfect world into sin and estrangement is nonsensical. The idea that somehow the very nature of the heavenly God required the death of Jesus as a ransom to be paid for our sins is ludicrous. A human parent who required the death of his or her child as a satisfaction for a relationship that had been broken would be either arrested or confined to a mental institution. Yet behavior we have come to abhor in human beings is still a major part of the language of worship in our churches when we speak of God. It is the language of our ancient theistic understanding of God. It is also language that is doomed first to irrelevance and later to revulsion. The real question then becomes, "Can Christianity be separated from ancient theistic concepts and still be a living faith?" That is why this inquiry from the EFM student was such a threatening, scary question. Once it is raised to consciousness, it will never again go away. It will also destabilize forever the only understanding of God most of us have had.

The "religious right" does not understand the issues involved here. On the other hand, the secular society, where God has been dismissed from life, has also answered this question by living as if there is no God. Only those who can first raise this question into consciousness and who then refuse to sacrifice their sense of the reality of God when all theistic concepts fail will ever wrestle with these issues.

It would surprise many pew sitters in our churches to know how deeply this debate already rages in the theological academy. In this world of scholarly dialogue God has not been spoken of as an external Supernatural Being who periodically invades the world in decades. Yet the experience of God as a divine presence found in the midst of life is all but universally attested. Jesus as a revelation of this divine presence is the heart of the Christian claim. The normative language of theism by which this experience has traditionally been processed and transmitted is, however, today all but universally rejected by the academy.

So perhaps the major theological task of our times is to seek a new language of faith or at the very least a new way to translate those pre-modern theistic categories into the post-modern, non- theistic language of tomorrow. That is not an easy assignment. It is, however, the vocation to which my mind and heart are dedicated as I begin to create the last major theological book of my active career. I cannot begin to say how much the posing of this frontier question about the relationship between the Christian faith and the theistic language of the past encouraged me. At least one lay member of this Diocese is wrestling on the same frontier where my mind is now engaged; I rejoice that I am not alone.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

John 14:6

Legei (said) auto (to him) ho Iesous (Jesus) ego (I) eimi (am) he hodos (the way) kai (and) he aletheia (the truth) kai (and) he zoe (the life) oudeis (none) erchetai (comes) pros (to) ton patera (the father) ei (if) me (not) di (through) emou (me).

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Did Jesus claim to be God?

By John Hick


Most New Testament scholars today do not believe that Jesus, the historical individual, claimed to be God incarnate. That doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that Jesus was in fact God incarnate, but they don’t think that he himself taught that he was. In case this comes as a surprise to some, I will give some brief quotations. I’m going to quote only from distinguished New Testament scholars who personally believe strongly that the Church has been right in believing that Jesus was God incarnate. They believe this with their whole heart. But nevertheless they hold, on the basis of the evidence, that Jesus did not himself claim this.

Referring first to those New Testament sayings which I've quoted - ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life . . .’ etc. - Professor Charlie Moule of Cambridge, the doyen of conservative British New Testament scholars writes (in The Origin of Christology, 1977, p. 136), ‘Any case for a “high” Christology that depended on the authenticity of the alleged claims of Jesus about himself, especially in the fourth Gospel [i.e. John’s], would indeed be precarious’.

Also in Cambridge Canon Brian Hebblethwaite of Queen’s College, a notable defender of the orthodox doctrine, says (The Incarnation, 1987, p. 74) that ‘it is no longer possible to defend the divinity of Jesus by reference to the claims of Jesus’. Then the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey (previously a New Testament professor) said in his book Jesus and the Living Past (1960, p.39), ‘Jesus did not claim deity for himself’.

Again, perhaps the leading New Testament scholar in this country today, Professor James Dunn of Durham, after examining minutely every relevant text, in all four Gospels, and indeed throughout the New Testament, writes (Christology in the Making, 1980, p. 60) that ‘there was no real evidence in the earliest Jesus-tradition of what could fairly be called a consciousness of divinity’.

These are all people who accept the traditional Incarnation doctrine, but who are also part of the scholarly consensus that the historical Jesus did not himself teach this. It is generally held today that the great ‘I am’ sayings of the fourth Gospel, which I quoted a minute ago, cannot be attributed to the historical Jesus but are words put into his mouth by a Christian writer some 60-70 years later, and also that Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic Gospels cannot be taken to constitute a claim to be God incarnate - as Dunn says, ‘there was no real evidence in the earliest Jesus-tradition of what could fairly be called a consciousness of divinity’.

If this comes to anyone as a bit of a shock, that is because although theologically educated ministers of the church know this, they do not mention it in their sermons. And I must confess that I myself have never said it in a sermon, but only in settings such as this. This silence has been going on for a very long time, and of course the longer you put off saying something difficult - difficult to the hearers - the harder it becomes to say it.

When some years ago, 1977, a group of us, who included the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and a former Regius at Cambridge, then Warden of Keble College, Oxford, and the Principal of Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford, and others, published a book called The Myth of God Incarnate in which we discussed this question openly and frankly, we were attacked and reviled, not for saying what the scholarly world had long known, but for saying it so publicly and with such an alarming title. But today, more than twenty years later, the whole subject is much more openly discussed, and I don’t have any hesitation in discussing it here.

It’s also well known today - another theme of that book - that the term ‘son of God’ was widely used in the ancient world. Jesus was by no means the only person to whom the term was applied. In particular, within Jesus’ own religion, Judaism, Adam was called the son of God, and is so called in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus’ ancestry is traced back to ‘the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God’ (tou Seth tou Adam tou Theou’, 3:38), angels were called sons of God, Israel as a whole was called God’s son, and indeed any outstandingly pious Jew could be called a son of God. And the ancient Hebrew kings were enthroned as son of God - hence the words of Psalm 2:7, ‘Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee’.

But no one within Judaism thought that God literally begot sons. The phrase ‘son of God’ was clearly metaphorical. ‘son of'’ meant ‘true servant of’ or sometimes ‘given a special divine mission by’ or more generally ‘in the spirit of’. The term was a very familiar metaphor within Judaism and never implied deity. But as Christianity expanded beyond its Jewish roots into the Graeco-Roman world the metaphorical son of God was gradually transformed in Christian thinking into the metaphysical God the Son, second person of a divine Trinity. And it is this epoch-making development that is under question today.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Human or infused with God's presence?

By John Shelby Spong


The debate over whether Jesus was human and somehow infused with God’s presence, or a divine life simply masquerading as a human being, has been ongoing since the dawn of the Christian era. The first gospel, Mark, written in the eighth decade C.E., portrays Jesus as fully human, with no hint of a miraculous birth, who at the time of his baptism was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Fourth Gospel, John, written in the 10th decade, portrays Jesus as the pre-existent Word of God incarnated in a human form, which allowed him to do godlike things.

That debate turned on how God is to be understood. If God is a supernatural being, dwelling outside the life of this world, who periodically enters human history to split the Red Sea or to answer prayers, to meet God in Jesus is to see Jesus as a divine visitor. However, if God is conceived, as many modern theologians suggest, as the “Ground of Being,” the source of life and love, then Jesus becomes the human vessel through whom the God presence is experienced, enabling people like Paul to say: “God was in Christ.”

Through the centuries, the church has tended to see Jesus as a divine visitor. In the 21st century, the emphasis has been to look at God through the lens of humanity. At the end of the movie version of “The Da Vinci Code,” Tom Hanks raises this question poignantly when he says, “Maybe the human is the divine”--or maybe the human is the only medium through which men and women can talk about God. I think that is true, and because I hold that conviction, I think the only task facing the Christian Church in our day is to enhance the humanity of every person, so that by living fully, loving wholeheartedly, and daring to be all that they can be, they make visible all that the human word "God" means.

The Jesus I serve was understood by John’s gospel to be the one who came so that “we might have life abundantly.” The religion of Jesus can do no less. When Hanks says, “As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing,” he spoke the truth that plagues religion when it claims that its own understanding of divinity is the same thing as God--which seems always to lead to religious imperialism.

Early experiments in Christology

By Paul N. Tobin
Rejection of Pascal's Wager

In the Gentile world Christianity found itself in, it had to compete for converts from other pagan mystery religions. As we have noted elsewhere, these religions also have their own myths about virgin births and dying and rising gods. At the turn of the first century AD, christology was no more developed, no better refined, then the pagan theologies concerning Zeus, Dionysius, Mithra and other gods.

Based on our previous analysis, the Jewish Christians, the Nazarenes, were obviously monotheists and took Jesus to be, at most, the messiah. The early church fathers therefore faced a problem in their theological battle with the pagans. They derided the pagans for their polytheism yet at the same time they faced a difficulty with their own conception of Jesus. It was obviously the divine or quasi-divine figure of the Christ that was drawing in the converts; yet how are they to formulate a doctrine regarding the nature of Jesus. For if Jesus was a man, why do they ostensibly worship him? And if Jesus was God, surely, his suffering could not be real; so why weep for him? It were attempts to meet this challenge that forced some of the early Christian theologians to formulate a more exact doctrine about the person and nature of Jesus.


To save Christianity from the charge of polytheism but at the same time to keep the worship of Jesus alive, the Christian teacher Praxeas, around the year 200 taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit are in essence simply functions of the one God. In this scheme, it was, essentially, God the Father who descended into the Virgin Mary and became Jesus Christ. Praxeas was accused by other Christians as "making the Father suffer" on the cross. His sect was called the Patripassians. For taking the trouble to think through his beliefs, Praxeas was denounced as a heretic.

Sabellianism or Modal Monarchianism

A little later, around the year 250, another Christian teacher, the priest Sabellius, tried another formulation of the Christian belief in God. In retrospect in represented the most commonsensical view of the Christian Godhead; all the later developments were to progressively made the Christian Trinity a travesty of reason.

Sabellius taught that the three "persons" of the Trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were not actually persons but are different aspects or modes of the deity-such as power, wisdom and goodness. His teaching kept the unity of the Godhead but, like Praxeas, he was accused of "making the Father suffer" or Patripassianism. He met this accusation by asserting that only a certain energy from God had been united with the human Jesus. Another name for Sabellianism is Modal Monarchianism. Modal because it teaches that the three persons where simply three modes of the same person. Monarchianism bacause it sought to preserve the unity (monarchy) of the godhead.

Sabellianism attracted many adherents including many Christian bishops. However the teaching did away with the divine nature of Jesus. Jesus in Sabellianism became no more than a human body inhabited by a certain emanation from God. Yet the ostensible divinity of Jesus was the main attracting force for pagan proselytes. As such, Sabellianism could not have been the official doctrine: it does not have that effective conversion magnetism. Sabellianism persisted in one form or another for a few more generations before disappearing from the scene.

Dynamic Monarchianism

The second century theologian Theodotus taught a doctrine quite similar to Sabellianism. Theodotus, a cobbler living in Rome, expounded the doctrine that Jesus was merely a man who was anointed by the Holy Spirit on his baptism and became the Christ. In his teaching, God's unity (or monarchy) was preserved. An impersonal power (Greek, dynamis = power) from God lived within the humna Jesus. Like Sabellianism, his teaching could not gain widespread acceptance among the pagans and the pagan converts to Christianity for precisely the same reason: it did away with the divinity of Jesus.

It is very likely that Theodotus' teaching was based on the apostolic concept that Jesus was associated with God on a purely symbolic plane. For this doctrine was certainly taught by the Nazarenes.

A follower of Theodotus that attained some following was Paul of Samosota. Paul, the bishop of Antioch, around the year 260 taught that the Godhead was a Trinity consisting of Father, Wisdom and Logos (Word). The Logos, who was not a distinct person from the Father ascended unto the human Jesus but was never united with him. Paul's teaching was condemned by the synod of Antioch in 264. He promised, after the synod, to renounce his teaching. But it was a promise he did not keep. In another synod four years later, Paul was deposed from his office as bishop and subsequently excommunicated.

Heretical Orthodoxies: Not an Oxymoron

All the "heretics" we have seen above, never thought of themselves as such. They were merely thoughtful believers who tried to clarify their faith. The way the early Christians settled these issues were not so much by theological debates, but by banishment and excommunication. That there was no "orthodox" position can be shown from the fact that even church fathers considered Orthodox held views which were later branded as heretical.

Tertullian (c160-c225), an Orthodox father, taught that Jesus was formed or created when God said "Let there be light" at the beginning of the creation of the universe. In that sense, Jesus was "the first of all creation." According to Tertullian, the Logos was a kind of radiation from which the Father descended into the Virgin Mary, and became the human Jesus.

Origen (c185-254), another theologian bestowed with the label "orthodox" by later Christians, taught that Jesus was not exactly the incarnation of God but was a being distinct from him. Jesus was an emanation from God. Divine, yes, but still subordinate to God. In fact, when the fourth century Christian author, Rufinus, wanted to translate Origen's book On First Principles, he found that there were many views expounded in the book which, by then, were considered unorthodox, or even heretical. When he translated Origen's book from Greek to Latin, he also "translated" his ideas. In his preface, Rufinus said that he took care to "smooth over" certain statements and ideas of Origen that would "likely to cause offence" to ensure that his readers would find "nothing out of harmony" with what they considered to be orthodox.


A brief survey above should suffice to show that there was no official Orthodox position. "Heretics" and "orthodox" alike, all contributed to the evolution of christological ideas. Up until the fourth century, all Christians believe that Jesus somehow had a special relationship with god. Many vaguely thought of him as divine but they did not believe him to be equal to the Father. Most Christians, like Tertullian and Origen, like Sabellius and Theodotus, heretics and orthodox, were "subordinationists"; they believe Jesus was divine but that he was somehow inferior or subordinate to God the Father. There was, up till then, no widely accepted clear-cut formulation on the person and nature of Jesus. All this was brought to a head in the fourth century when a controversy arose that was to change the theological conception of Jesus forever; The Arian Controversy.

In bondage to the creeds

The Reluctant Messenger

The description of Jesus as the only Son of God is carried forward in the Apostles' Creed, which is used in many Protestant churches today. It reads: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty... I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord." But even that language - calling Jesus God's only Son - denies that we can ever attain the sonship that Jesus did.

Christians may be interested to know that many scholars analyzing the Bible now believe that Jesus never claimed to be the only Son of God. This was a later development based on a misinterpretation of the gospel of John.

There is further evidence to suggest that Jesus believed all people could achieve the goal of becoming Sons of God. But the churches, by retaining these creeds, remain in bondage to Constantine and his three hundred bishops.

Some of the bishops who attended the [Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.) were uncomfortable with the council's definition of the Son and thought they might have gone too far. But the emperor, in a letter sent to the bishops who were not in attendance at Nicea, required that they accept "this truly Divine injunction."

Constantine said that since the council's decision had been "determined in the holy assemblies of the bishops," the Church officials must regard it as "indicative of the Divine will."

The Roman god Constantine had spoken. Clearly, he had concluded that the orthodox position was more conducive to a strong and unified Church than the Arian position and that it therefore must be upheld.

Constantine also took the opportunity to inaugurate the first systematic government persecution of dissident Christians. He issued an edict against "heretics," calling them "haters and enemies of truth and life, in league with destruction."

Even though he had begun his reign with an edict of religious toleration, he now forbade the heretics (mostly Arians) to assemble in any public or private place, including private homes, and ordered that they be deprived of "every gathering point for [their] superstitious meetings," including "all the houses of prayer." These were to be given to the orthodox Church.

There heretical teachers were forced to flee, and many of their students were coerced back into the orthodox fold. The emperor also ordered a search for their books, which were to be confiscated and destroyed. Hiding the works of Arius carried a severe penalty - the death sentence.

Nicea, nevertheless, marked the beginning of the end of the concepts of both preexistence, reincarnation, and salvation through union with God in Christian doctrine. It took another two hundred years for the ideas to be expunged.

But Constantine had given the Church the tools with which to do it when he molded Christianity in his own image and made Jesus the only Son of God. From now on, the Church would become representative of a capricious and autocratic God - a God who was not unlike Constantine and other Roman emperors.

Tertullian, a stanch anti-Origenian and a father of the Church, had this to say about those who believed in reincarnation and not the resurrection of the dead: "What a panorama of spectacle on that day [the Resurrection]! What sight should I turn to first to laugh and applaud? ... Wise philosophers, blushing before their students as they burn together, the followers to whom they taught that the world is no concern of God's, whom they assured that either they had no souls at all or that what souls they had would never return to their former bodies? .... These are things of greater delight, I believe, than a circus, both kinds of theater, and any stadium." Tertullian was a great influence in having so-called "heretics" put to death.

Misunderstanding the Gospel of John

Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife

The orthodox vision of Jesus as God is based in part on a misunderstanding of the Gospel of John. John tells us: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." Later John tells us the "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." The orthodox concluded from these passages that Jesus Christ is God, the Word, made flesh.

What they didn't understand was that when John called Jesus "the Word," he was referring to the Greek tradition of the Logos. When John tells us that the Word created everything, he uses the Greek term for Word - "Logos." In Greek thought, Logos describes the part of God that acts in the world. Philo called the Logos "God's Likeness, by whom the whole cosmos was fashioned." Origen called it the soul that holds the universe together.

Philo believed that great human beings like Moses could personify the Logos. Thus, when John writes that Jesus is the Logos, he does not mean that the man Jesus has always been God the Logos. What John is telling us is that Jesus the man became the Logos, the Christ.

Some early theologians believed that everyone has that opportunity. Clement tells us that each human has the "image of the Word (Logos)" within him and that it is for this reason that Genesis says that humanity is made "in the image and likeness of God."

The Logos, then, is the spark of divinity, the seed of Christ, that is within our hearts. Apparently the orthodox either rejected or ignored this concept.

We should understand that Jesus became the Logos just as he became the Christ. But that didn't mean he was the only one who could ever do it. Jesus explained this mystery when he broke the bread at the Last Supper. He took a single loaf, symbolizing the one Logos, the one Christ, and broke it and said, "This is my body, which is broken for you."

He was teaching the disciples that there is one absolute God and one Universal Christ, or Logos, but that the body of that Universal Christ can be broken and each piece will still retain all the qualities of the whole. He was telling them that the seed of Christ was within them, that he had come to quicken it and that the Christ was not diminished no matter how many times his body was broken. The smallest fragment of God, Logos, or Christ, contains the entire nature of Christ's divinity - which, to this day, he would make our own.

The orthodox misunderstood Jesus' teaching because they were unable to accept the reality that each human being has both a human and a divine nature and the potential to become wholly divine. They didn't understand the human and the divine in Jesus and therefore they could not understand the human and the divine within themselves. Having seen the weakness of human nature, they thought they had to deny the divine nature that occasionally flashes forth even in the lowliest of human beings.

The Church did not understand (or could not admit) that Jesus came to demonstrate the process by which the human nature is transformed into the divine. But Origen had found it easy to explain.

He believed that the human and divine natures can be woven together day by day. He tells us that in Jesus "the divine and human nature began to interpenetrate in such a way that the human nature, by its communion with the divine, would itself become divine." Origen tells us that the option for the transformation of humanity into divinity is available not just for Jesus but for "all who take up in faith the life which Jesus taught."

Origen did not hesitate to describe the relationship of human beings to the Son. He believed that we contain the same essence as the Father and the Son: "We, therefore, having been made according to the image, have the Son, the original, as the truth of the noble qualities that are within us. And what we are to the Son, such is the Son to the Father, who is the truth." Since we have the noble qualities of the Son within us, we can undergo the process of divinization (at-one-ment with God).

To the Arians, the divinization process was essential to salvation; to the orthodox, it was heresy. In 324 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine, who had embraced Christianity twelve years earlier, entered the Arian controversy. He wrote a letter to Arius and Bishop Alexander urging them to reconcile their differences, and he sent Bishop Hosius of Cordova to Alexandria to deliver it. But his letter could not calm the storm that raged over the nature of God - and man. Constantine realized that he would have to do more if he wanted to resolve the impasse.