Wednesday, June 07, 2006
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
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.
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.
- Sabellianism or Modal Monarchianism
- Dynamic Monarchianism
- Heretical Orthodoxies: Not an Oxymoron
PatripassianismTo 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.
Conclusion 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.
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.
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.
Monday, June 05, 2006
Nowhere does the Book of Acts suggests that the apostles taught of Jesus as God incarnate. It seems pretty clear that they didn’t believe this to be true, as shown by several different facets of the stories told in Acts.
The Apostles Continued to Worship God, Not Jesus
The Book of Acts repeatedly refers to the apostles and their followers as worshipping God, not Jesus. For example (all emphasis mine):
- The first converts “spent much time together in the temple, … praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2.46–47);
- When Peter was imprisoned by King Herod, “the church prayed fervently to God for him” (12.1–5);
- The Holy Spirit directed the church at Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Saul while the church was “worshipping the Lord” (13.1–3); while this reference to “the Lord” is ambiguous standing alone, it seems to refer to the LORD God, inasmuch as the same chapter quotes a passage from Isaiah as the commandment of “the Lord” (13.47);
- Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi after their encounter with the owners of the slave girl, “were praying and singing hymns to God” (16.25);
- In Corinth, “the Jews made a united attack on Paul …. [and] said, ‘This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law’” (18.12–13);
- In Ephesus, Paul “testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus” (20.21), and stated his desire to finish “the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the good news of God’s grace” (20.24);
- When Paul visited the church in Jerusalem, he followed the advice of the Christians there, submitting himself to a purification rite in the temple to prove that he was not teaching Jews to foresake the Law (21.17–26).
Many Jewish Priests Became Converts
It’s worth noting that, according to Acts, “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (6.7). It’s hard to imagine this happening if the apostles had preached that Jesus was God in human form.
When the Apostles Were Persecuted,
It Wasn't for Preaching Jesus’s Divinity
According to Acts, “the Jews” persecuted the apostles, sometimes violently and even fatally. Why? Acts suggests that the persecutions happened, not because the apostles taught that Jesus was God incarnate, but for other offenses against politically-correct belief and the established order. If they had in fact proclaimed that Jesus was God, it's hard to see how they would have lived to tell the tale.
Persecutions for Proclaiming the Resurrection of the Dead
The earliest persecutions arose in response to the apostles’ teaching of the resurrection of the dead. That teaching apparently angered the priestly Sadducee hierarchy, which did not believe in resurrection (23.8). The priests and captains of the temple took offense at Peter and John’s proclamation “that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them ….” (4.1–3) The priests eventually released the two apostles (4.23), but they were soon to see Peter again.
The high priest and his jealous Sadducee retinue later rearrested Peter and the other apostles because they had healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits (5.12–17). Peter, brought before the council, risked death by defiantly pressing his resurrection claim. He insisted to the council that “the God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree [and] exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (5.30–31). His listeners “were enraged and wanted to kill them,” but council member Gamaliel — who as a Pharisee presumably did believe in resurrection (23.8) — talked them out of it, convincing them instead to wait and see how things played out (5.33–39).
Persecutions for Challenging the Established Order
The apostles suffered other acts of violence because of their challenges to the existing political and economic order. For example:
Stephen was killed for being too “in your face” with the council. The chain of events started when false witnesses told the council that “[t]his man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us” (6.13–14). Stephen himself enraged the council when he excoriated them for opposing the Holy Spirit and killing Jesus, just as their ancestors had persecuted the LORD’s prophets (7.51–53).
Paul and Silas upset an unsavory business arrangement in Philippi when they cast out a spirit of divination from a slave girl. The girls’s owners had been making good money from her fortune-telling, but no longer. Angry that their meal ticket was gone, they dragged the apostles before the magistrates and accused them of “disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” (16.16–21).
The same two apostles later provoked a political uproar in Thessalonica, where “the Jews” accused them of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (17.7).
And economics raised its head again in Ephesus, where Paul’s teachings caused the silversmiths who made shrines to Artemis to lose business; those worthies rioted (19.23–28).
Persecutions for Welcoming Gentiles
Some apostles were persecuted by “the Jews” because of their willingness to consort with Gentiles. The first time that Paul and Barnabas preached in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia, they were well-received and encouraged to return the following week (13.42). But when the following sabbath arrived, “almost the whole town gathered” — presumably including Gentiles. That quickly led to trouble: “[W]hen the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul” (13.45). So Paul and Barnabas then turned their attention to the Gentiles, apparently enjoying notable success (13.46–49). This prompted even more incitement by “the Jews,” which in turn caused Paul and Barnabas to leave town; “they shook the dust off their feet in protest” (13.50–51).
During Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, “the Jews from Asia” stirred up the crowd against him, “[t]his is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place[,]” and claiming that “more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (21.27–28).
Preaching that Jesus Was God Would Have Been Fatal
The foregoing passages suggest that the apostles were not men to shrink fearfully from proclaiming their message. They risked violence and even death to do so.
Those passages also suggest that the apostles’ opponents were quick to take violent offense when they didn’t like what they heard.
So if the apostles had preached that Jesus was God himself — which first-century Jews probably would have deemed the ultimate blasphemy — in all likelihood they would have been immediately killed.
This strongly suggests that the apostles didn’t preach the divinity of Jesus, at least not in the days recorded by Acts.
And given their willingness to preach what they believed to be the truth, it stands to reason that the apostles didn’t believe Jesus to be God.
Conclusion: Christology as Adiaphora?
I'm not sure exactly where or when the early church developed the idea that Jesus was God incarnate. I’ve read speculation that the idea arose as a hybrid of Jewish- and Hellenistic Christian beliefs.
But it seems pretty clear: The first apostles — the men who presumably knew Jesus best during his lifetime, the men who reportedly were commissioned by him to carry on his work — did not teach that he was God.
This is especially noteworthy given that Peter, along with James and John the sons of Zebedee, are reported to have witnessed the Transfiguration. If anyone was likely to have believed that Jesus was God himself in the flesh, it would have been they.
True, the author of the Gospel of John wrote a prologue that seemingly equated Jesus with God. But scholars aren't uniformly convinced that John the son of Zebedee was that author. Moreover, scholars believe the Fourth Gospel was written decades after the events we are considering here, whereas I'm interested in what the apostles are reported to have said then.
So when we renew our baptismal vows, and promise to continue in the apostles' teaching, we're not promising to profess or believe in the divinity of Jesus. That doctrine can legitimately said to be adiaphora, an inessential of the faith.
(FOOTNOTE: As regular readers know, my choice for what's "essential" in the faith is simply the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law, of which Jesus himself is reported to have said, "do this and you will live [eternally].")
Jesus was what he was — or if you prefer, he is what he is. If he was indeed God incarnate, we can hope that eventually we will be shown persuasive proof of it.
If Jesus wasn’t God, it doesn’t matter; we can still discern God’s hand at work in Jesus’s life, in the movement he started, and in the church he catalyzed.
God might not have been working in precisely the way that Nicene Christians have long thought. But that’s OK; our task is not to tell God how he must have done what he did — that would be a bit presumptuous, to say the least — but instead:
- to try to discern, humbly, what God in fact has done, using the senses and reason that he gave us and the real-world evidence graciously revealed to us;
- to try to figure out how and why God did what he did, as best we can, so that we can work to align our own actions with his will — mindful that we don't know everything, and that what we think we know could be wrong;
- to recognize that God seems to have a plan, and to trust that everything is going to work out unimaginably well in his good time; and
- to thank him with grateful hearts for all of his blessings.
Biblical scholarship and increased knowledge of non-Christian religions has left Christianity's traditional claim to superiority on shaky foundations. How can Christianity claim that Jesus was God when Jesus himself did not claim it? Donald Reeves sees the old theology being discarded and new thinking emerging which will put Christianity on the same level as other world religions.
How are we to 'understand Jesus'. In the last 30 years or so there has been great interest in Christology the significance of Jesus Christ. It has been a subject of intense debate most of it confined to universities and departments of theology. Occasionally these debates reached the secular media Honest to God by John Robinson (1963); The Myth of God Incarnate (essays by theologians on the Incarnation, 1977) and the writings of David Jenkins, when he was Bishop of Durham and set off intense, public, but short-lived debates about matters which are the perennial concerns of theologians.
The basic reasons for this flurry of activity is that Christianity is on a threshold between a structure of belief, which has dominated Western civilisation for centuries, and a new structure of Christianity (as yet unclear) that is aware of itself as one of many responses to the infinite, transcendent reality we call 'God'. This is a new situation, and all of us are caught up in it. Central to this debate is the person of Jesus Christ. By 'Jesus' I mean the historical figure. The Greek 'Christos' translated the Hebrew Messiah meaning 'anointed' which referred particularly to kings, and carried intimations of divinity.
The earliest Christians saw Jesus as God's anointed of the royal house of David one who would shortly bring in the Final Day of the Lord. Jesus called everyone to repentance, and offered a foretaste of this kingdom summarised in the Commandments love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus was exorcist, healer, wisdom teacher, but above all prophet the last of the prophets an eschatological prophet to usher in God's kingdom in the near future.
But this did not happen. Jesus the prophet gradually became transformed within Christian thinking into God the Son coming down from heaven to live a human life, and save us all by his atoning death. One of the reasons for our fascination about the New Testament is that it looks backwards to the memories of the Jesus of history and forwards to the understanding of Jesus as a Son of God, and eventually to Jesus as God the Son, the second person of the Trinity and God Incarnate. Given the occasional nature of the New Testament books gospels and letters there is nothing systematic in this progression. Nor is this progression obvious or self-evident.
Together with the development of a perception of Jesus as God Incarnate grew all the apparatus of a universal religion Creation, the Fall, Guilt and Sin, a long history of divine interventions, the Church as the Body of Christ and the redeemed community, Judgement, Purgatory, Heaven and Hell.
This traditional understanding of Christianity as a universal religion with Jesus as the centrepiece as the unique, sole complete revelation of God lasted until the seventeenth century. As the modern world view began to form, this framework of belief began to strain, crack and snap. There are four aspects of this modern world view:
1. Discoveries about the origin of the universe and the evolution of humankind in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries challenged the creation stories, and with them the traditional cosmology.
2. The scientific study of the Bible as if it were any collection of ancient texts has made it a much less secure and authoritative source of knowledge. Biblical scholarship has made it difficult for us to "trust the text" and when the text is illuminated, it often reveals much less than we expected (there is considerable disagreement about how much we know of the historical Jesus). Furthermore, Biblical scholarship has revealed the 'strangeness' of the Biblical worlds far removed from ours.
3. Global consciousness has created a more sensitive awareness of the variety of cultures and faiths (and an awareness of the obvious fact that adherence to one religion or another is due largely to the accident of birth). Even the most cursory glimpse and experience of other religious traditions shows that each of them has produced great blessings and each is also responsible for appalling evils. Try putting the world religions in some sort of order of merit impossible!!
4. The arrival of post-modernism has meant that large certainties are more difficult to hold truth is experienced in fragments and in stories rather than in universal concepts.
So it is in the light of this new knowledge that it becomes difficult to sustain the conviction that "In Jesus Christ, God came into history, took flesh and dwelt among us, in a revelation of himself which is unique, final, completely adequate wholly indispensable for man's situation" (HH Farmer Revelation and Religion )
Jesus did not claim to be God incarnate; nowhere does Jesus show any sense of "being God". All theologians are agreed about this matter from the most staunchly conservative to the most radical. Yet from the second to the nineteenth centuries it was believed that Jesus had proclaimed himself to be God, living a human life. (Many of the "sayings" in St. John's Gospel the "I am" sayings, for example, would have been used as evidence for this, but now they are recognised as not attributable to the historical Jesus ). It is easy to miss the significance of this change brought about under historical scrutiny. The results of such scholarship would have been shocking to Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; those who challenged the traditional beliefs would have been burnt for heresy.
The question about the divinity of Jesus moves to the church how is it possible for Christianity to know something about Jesus that he himself did not know?
There have been five answers to this question. Here they are very much abbreviated:
1. Jesus implicitly recognised that he had a direct and special relationship with God particularly in the intimate way he addressed God as Abba. And Jesus was implicitly aware of this special relationship by his actions abrogating the laws of Moses and forgiveness of sins.
2. Theologians concerned about addressing difficult questions about the historical Jesus speak instead of the "Christ event" the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the development of beliefs about Jesus in the early Church.
3. A variation of 2 is to place emphasis on the Holy Spirit guiding the early Church.
4. A more Catholic and sacramental theology moves from the historical Jesus to the heavenly Christ.
5. A more evangelical theology recognises the presence of the Risen Christ as the hymn puts it "He walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own".
Each of those "answers" is neither complete nor fully coherent. Many of the arguments are circular.
Before concluding this piece on understanding Jesus, and how Christianity emerged from the historical Jesus, I will mention the harmful effects of the doctrine of the Incarnation in terms of its anti-semitism (the Jews were guilty of deicide the murder of God), patriarchy (that only men could be priests representing Christ, a man) and imperialism (the Bible and the Sword went hand in hand in the nineteenth century). The harmful effects of this doctrine do not necessarily invalidate its truth, but I recall them because one of the greatest problems Christianity has to face up to is its traditional belief in the unique superiority of Christianity as embodied in the Church and in western civilisation. John Hick writes in The Metaphor of God Incarnate, "Those who are deeply committed to this are inclined to see within the ambiguous New Testament data, the Jesus whose deity provides the Church with a divine foundation on the other hand those who have come to see the great religions of the world, including Christianity, as different, but so far as we can tell more or less equally valuable forms of response to the Transcendent, are inclined to read the evidence of Christian origins differently." (The Metaphor of God Incarnate ).
Before considering the Atonement, Salvation and the implications of these matters for the life and practice of the churches, let us look at the idea of Incarnation. Sarah Coakley in Christ Without Absolutes distinguished six ways in which Christianity can be said to be Incarnational. As you read them, again highly abbreviated, ask yourself where do you find yourself on the ladder? although they are not mutually exclusive:
Incarnation means that:
1. God is with us. It affirms God's involvement in human life.
2. As well as 1, God was involved in the life of Jesus in a particularly powerful and effective way Jesus was not just an ordinary person but one whose relationship to God has a universal character.
3. Christ existed before his birth in some divine form e.g., the Logos, or the Word (John Chapter 1).
4. There was a total interaction of the divine and human in Christ qualitatively superior to others, because God "gives himself fully".
5. Jesus has been and will be the only divine incarnation in the sense that no other person could be like this again.
6. The definition of the Council of Chalcedon Jesus as God and Man is definitive.
Another way of understanding the Incarnation is metaphorically: we hear of someone who says, "she incarnated the spirit of Christ in the world", or we say that Churchill incarnated the spirit of the British to resist Hitler in 1940. Incarnation here indicates something important about these people; they gather round them an aura of meanings and associations. We might then say that as far as Jesus was doing God's will, God was acting through him on earth, and was in this respect incarnate in Jesus; and in as far as he was doing God's will, he incarnated the ideal of human life in response to God. How this looks and how this works out is described in God was in Christ by Donald Baillie.
In the light of different perspectives on the Incarnation, new vistas about traditional doctrines Atonement and Salvation begin to appear, particularly as the encounter with other religious traditions deepens. All religions offer something like Salvation from a state of the wrongness of ordinary human existence, expressed in many ways, to the proclamation of a limitless, better possibility. In Christian terms this means dying to self and living to God, turning away from self-centredness and relating with love, worship and respect to God, humanity and the environment. But each religious tradition sets forth the way to attain this goal faithfulness to the Torah, living out of the Quir'anic way of life, the Eightfold Path of the Buddhist dharma or the three great Hindu Margas of mystical insight, activity in the world, and devotion to God.
Looking at the 'performance' of the major religious traditions, all offering paths to salvation, it is clear that not one religion stands out as more 'salvific' than the others. Thus, one of the problems we have to address is, if we insist on the unique revelation of God's love in Jesus, other world faiths are downgraded to the status of lesser, secondary channels of salvation. This traditionalsuperiority claim is unrealistic theologically, and unrealistic in terms of what is experienced of Christianity and other faiths today.
It is at this point that we have arrived at a threshold one in which Christianity will have to learn in its teachings and in its practice that it is one path among many. The implications of this insight need to be considered thoughtfully and imaginatively, and above all hopefully.
Donald Reeves was for 18 years the rector of St. James's Church, Piccadilly, London. He is now involved in establishing a network of 'progressive, radical churches from all over Europe in the Orthodox, Lutherian, Anglican and Catholic traditions'. His book 'Down to Earth' is available from him at: 29 the Chase, Bromley, Kent, BR1 1DE, UK. Tel. 0181 249 7774. Price £5+p+p.
This was the content of four sermons transcribed as one page. The sermons were delivered in St. James's Anglican church, Piccadily, London in 1996.
In a recent discussion, I broached the topic of the divinity of
I realize that to even question this core doctrine is considered
Honestly, though, labels have never been that big of a deal to me. So
But I digress...
My point is that there is already a serious (though perhaps subtle) dialogue between Christian scholars and theologians about the "Jesus as God" doctrine. And note that I do not include Dan Brown in this dialogue!
One of the foremost Christian scholars/theologians around is Marcus Borg. If you carefully read Borg's books such as the Heart of Christianity and Jesus: A New Vision, you'll see that Borg tactfully, gently questions the traditional doctrine about Jesus' "exclusive" divine nature.
Within the Episcopal Church, Borg is generally considered a mainstream (although somewhat to the left) thinker/writer. He and N.T. Wright are good friends and respect each other's views. I don't think Wright would regard Borg as a heretic. Yet these two respected scholars/theologians clearly differ on many core doctrines.
Within more conservative fundmentalist Christian circles, Borg is without a doubt viewed as a dangerous heretic. Note the following critique of Jesus: A New Vision by John Miles, who is an Elder in the North Arkansas Annual Conference of the United
I have been writing this newsletter for over a year now and I keep adding names. I write this newsletter because I believe we are at a critical time in the life of the
I recently bit the bullet and read Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg's book, "Jesus A New Vision". The book has been widely praised.
A Methodist Bishop, our nation paper The United Methodist Reporter and other leading organizations in the church have given it a glowing review. I got the book from a local pastor going to
In his book, Borg is quite explicit in his rejection of what he calls the popular image of Jesus. He writes, "The popular image is most familiar to Christian and non-Christian alike: the image of Jesus as a divine or semi-divine figure, whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose life and death open up the possibility of eternal life. Its answers to the three questions of identity, purpose, and message are clear. As the only begotten Son of God, he was sent into the world for the purpose of dying on the cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humankind, and his message consisted primarily of inviting his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true." pg. 2
Of this popular image he writes, "In short, the image of the historical Jesus as a divine or semi-divine being, who saw himself as the divine savior whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose message consisted of proclaiming that, is simply not true."pg. 6
Jesus according to Borg is not the 'only son of God', "If 'beloved Son' is taken to mean 'unique' Son of God in the sense in which the church uses that term, then the phrase must be viewed as historically suspect." pg. 41
Further, Borg states that Jesus did not view himself as the Son of God, "If 'Son of God' is used in the special Christian sense which emerges in the rest of the New Testament (by the time of Paul and John, preexistent with God from before creation; by the time of Matthew and Luke, conceived by the Spirit and born of a virgin), then almost certainly Jesus did not think of himself as the Son of God." pg.49
Jesus did not die because he wanted to atone for the sins of the world rather, "He was killed because he sought, in the name and power of the Spirit, the transformation of his own culture. He issued a call for a relationship with God that would lead to a new ethos and thus a new politics. For that goal he gave his life, even though his death was not his primary intention." pg.184
He goes on to reject the resurrection as an objective historical event, "Though the story of the historical Jesus ends with his death on a Friday in A.D. 30, the story of Jesus does not end there" pg.184
Borg rejects the Christian claim that Jesus is the Son of God, Rather he is one, presumably among many icons of God. He writes, "As such, he was an 'image' of God, an 'icon' of God, revealing and mediating the divine reality". pg 191
For Borg the picture of Jesus found in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds are simply wrong pg. 3.
Jesus is not THE image of God but rather AN image of God. According to Borg Jesus did not go to the cross as an act of atonement for sin. Indeed sin is never mentioned in Borg's, new vision.
Anyone who has been to a mainline seminary has heard these arguments before indeed Borg's new vision sounds exactly like Bultman's old one. Let's use the quadrilateral to investigate Borg's premise.
First and most important, this is not the teachings of the bible or the church. It is heresy. If you take away Jesus who was the Divine Son of God, who taught that he was representing God and was in fact a new way to God, that he died an atoning death on the cross and was raised in history from the dead then you no longer have the faith of scripture and the church. One may believe whatever one likes about Christ but if one rejects that he was the Son of God then one can not claim in any historical sense to be a Christian.
Second, based on experience, this stuff does not work. Borg himself concedes the need for a new image of Jesus because the old classical rejections of Christ emptied the gospel of the Spirit. He tells of a colleague who claimed that modern theology was a "flat-tire" theology-
All of the pneuma (spirit) has gone out of it. Borg writes, "Though I still see modern theology as a treasure of great value for both church and culture, I also see that my colleague's statement was (and is) largely correct". pg. 25.
In fact Borg's attempt to add Spirit to this tired notion fails as well. Look around, when the gospel as history is rejected the church suffers. The decline of the mainline church is not due to our lack of skill, it is due to our infection with the bad theology exemplified by Borg. I once myself was tainted by so called "modern theories" of Christ. When I preached that nonsense I got no where. When I fully believed and preached Christ and Him crucified I began to have success.
Finally, reason also compels us to reject Borg. In order to reject the foundational teachings of our faith you must give a compelling case why the traditional picture can not be true. Although modern biblical scholars have shown discrepancies and inaccuracies in the gospels they give no compelling reason to reject the basic vision of Christ found there. C.S. Lewis an
Modern scholars wander through the jungle of the New Testament claiming to see exactly how it was all put together. Even after 2000 years they know more about this jungle and its tiny fern seeds than those who lived in it or came in the early generations after it .
However, these same scholars can not see what is obvious to even the casual reader. The people who had encountered Christ were transformed by him. He is the elephant these so called scholars completely miss.
If we are to renew our church we have got to address this heresy head on. If we continue to teach this nonsense we will never recover. Next week I want to address the curious lack of challenge to Borg from our church leaders. Please e-mail me if you can help me understand why we so willing allow this heresy to flood our church.