Sunday, October 12, 2014

C2. Jesus is "God with us," God's Word become flesh.

This is now the second post in a series on Christology, in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation.
God became a man in the person of Jesus, the Christ.

1. As we saw in the previous article, Christians believe that Jesus has existed from eternity past. He is the "eternally begotten" Son of God. He is a distinct person within the Trinity--he is not God the Father and he is not God the Holy Spirit. But there is only one God and he has the "same substance" (homoousios) as the Father and the Spirit.

So Christians believe that Jesus is fully God, 100% God.

Christians also believe that Jesus became fully human, 100% human. At Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), Christians had wrestled with the Trinity. Is Jesus fully God? Once that issue came to rest, Christians turned to the person of Jesus. How could he be human and God at the same time?

There were a number of suggestions made in the years between the "Council of Nicaea" in 325 and the "Council of Chalcedon" in 451. It was at the latter council that the understanding we now have was finalized. So was Jesus one person, both human and divine (the right answer) or was he almost two different people (Nestorianism). Did Jesus have two natures--one human and one divine (the right answer)--or did he pretty much just have a divine nature (Monophysitism).

One man, Apollinaris, suggested that Jesus had a human body but that his soul was divine, made up of the Logos or Word of God. Another, Eutyches, suggested that Jesus' divinity was so vast that his human nature was like a drop in the ocean. So while you might technically say he had two natures, when they got mixed together, his human nature could hardly be found. The Church ultimately rejected both of these suggestions.

2. The official position of Christianity, the position that Christians have more or less held in common since the mid-400s is found in the description of Christ that became official at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Here is somewhat of a paraphrase of the definition they set down there:

"He is complete in his God-ness and complete in his humanity, truly God and truly man. He has a rational soul and a body. He is of one substance with the Father in relation to his God-ness and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his humanity. He is like us in every respect, except for sin... He is recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The distinction of his two natures are not in any way nullified by the union. Rather, the characteristics of each nature are preserved and come together to form one person and subsistence. They are not parted or separated into two persons, but they constitute one and the same Son..."

Again, the other suggestions were not heresies until the Church had come to this common agreement. Before then, we simply had well-meaning Christian leaders trying to make sense of a mysterious idea, namely, that Jesus was somehow both fully human and fully divine. The consensus that emerged was that Jesus was both. He was only one person, but he had a fully human nature and a fully divine nature. Any option that minimizes either his humanity or his divinity is off course.

3. In eternity past, God the Son was entirely divine. John 1:14 speaks of Christ taking on human flesh: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." [1] We call this moment of God assuming human flesh the incarnation. The Nicene Creed of 381 puts it this way: "For us humans, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made human." Now, for eternity future, Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.

The word for "made his dwelling" is related to the wilderness tabernacle of the Old Testament (skenoo). It gives us the picture of God's presence wandering through the wilderness with Israel. In the same way, Jesus is "God with us," Immanuel (cf. Matt. 1:23; 28:20).

4. In the New Testament, we occasionally find imagery of Jesus as the Word of God. This language of Jesus as the Logos found its background in Jewish thinking about God's Word, the instrument by which God enacts his will in the world. So God spoke, and the worlds were created.

So it is no surprise that we usually find language of Christ as the agent of creation in New Testament passages that have overtones of the Jewish Logos. Thus John 1:1, 3 say, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made..." Similarly, the "Colossian hymn" of 1:15-16 says, "The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him." [2]

Christians thus frequently speak of Christ as the agent of creation, although some do take this language more to speak of Christ as the ultimate meaning or significance of the creation.

5. The Apostles Creed says that Jesus was "born of the Virgin Mary." The Council of Chalcedon also clarified that Jesus was divine even when he was in the womb. Mary was the "Theotokos" or "God-bearer." The primary purpose of this language was not to exalt Mary but to make clear that Jesus was God even when he was in her womb.

The conception of Jesus by Mary when she was still a virgin has been a key belief of Christianity since before the great "Christological" controversies of the 300s and 400s that we mentioned above. There is technically a difference between the virginal conception and a virgin birth. Roman Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin anatomically even during childbirth and that she remained a "perpetual virgin" for the rest of her life, never having sexual relations.

However, common Christianity only affirms that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. When we commonly refer to the virgin birth and confess it in the creeds, we are confessing our faith in the virginal conception of Jesus.

Although the Virgin Birth is a core Christian dogma, it is significant to note what it is not. Jesus was not half man and half God. Therefore, there is no obvious reason why Jesus could not have had a human father and a human mother too and still be fully God. His genes had both an X chromosome (from Mary) and a Y chromosome--which was a human chromosome the Holy Spirit must have created out of nothing. The Spirit did not have sex with Mary and contribute a divine Y chromosome!

This a significant point. The Y chromosome does not contain our sin nature, as if women with their XX genes have no sin nature. The male gene does not contain the sin gene. Therefore, there is no obvious reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin either to be without sin or to be fully divine. All the same genetics necessary for him to be fully human had to be fully human anyway. Whether the Holy Spirit contributes the adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine--or if Joseph had--these are still fully human molecules.

Our faith in the virgin birth is thus a reflection of our faith in the common Christianity of the centuries and the historicity of this biblical story. Other than giving a sense of Jesus' greatness and the miracle of his entrance, there is no obvious truth about Jesus' nature that the virgin birth makes possible, at least from our current understanding of genetics.

4. If anything, Christians today probably minimize Jesus' humanity and overemphasize his divinity. Like Eutyches, it is common for Christians to have such a high view of Jesus' divinity that he is hardly like us at all. Yet, if diapers had existed in the first century, Jesus would have dirtied them. He had sexual urges, like the rest of us. If he had married, it would not have made him less holy.

Here is an important point and one that fits well within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. Is it not likely that Jesus "played by the rules of humanity" while he was on earth? That is to say, it is not likely that Jesus chose to do what he did as a human through the power of the Holy Spirit--the same Spirit who lives in believers today--rather than through his power as the second person of the Trinity?

It is a core Christian belief that Jesus never ceased to be God. We must believe that Jesus, as the divine Son of God, retained all his attributes as God. To that extent, any kenotic theory (from the Greek word for "emptying") that sees Jesus as losing his divinity when he came to earth is unorthodox.

However, it would fully fit with the biblical texts to believe that Jesus set aside in some mysterious way access to his divine powers while he was on earth. So Mark 13:32 indicates that Jesus did not know all things when he was on earth. In some mysterious way, the second person of the Trinity seems to have bracketed many of his divine powers and prerogatives when he came to earth.

So Jesus did not come out of the womb speaking Aramaic, let alone English. He learned it like anyone else. Jesus did not hover through Nazareth but learned to crawl and walk. He was probably not fully aware of his full divinity when he was a child, let alone aware of what would be declared at the Council of Chalcedon.

This is also a mystery but it is the only way to be true both to Scripture and the consensus of Christianity. The Bible does not waver on the full participation of Jesus in humanity. We can plausibly suggest that when the earthly Jesus knew more than other humans, he was relying on the Holy Spirit. When Jesus performed miracles, he was relying on the Holy Spirit.

The special case of Jesus not sinning is perhaps more complicated. Presumably, his divine nature would not have let his human nature fall prey to sin. Yet we can plausibly suggest that he was relying on the Holy Spirit to have the power not to sin, just as we can rely on the Holy Spirit not to sin. Jesus indicates that it is not part of the essence of humanity to have to sin. [3]

So Christians believe that Jesus was fully God and that he came to earth and fully assumed humanity. He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made human. He is God's word made flesh. He is Immanuel, God with us.

Next week: Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

[1] You can see where there was plenty of room within what the biblical texts say for someone like Apollinaris to argue for his position. Indeed, Christians probably stopped using language of Jesus as the Word in the late 300s because it was susceptible to interpretations that did not fit with what the Church would finally conclude.

[2] From the perspective of the original meaning, it is difficult to know the extent to which the New Testament authors were being poetic with this language. Nevertheless, we as Christians generally take this language literally today.

[3] And here we are talking about intentional sin. We are not considering mistakes to be sin. It is possible that Jesus made mistakes while he was on earth (e.g., forgetting where he left the donkey), but this is not sin.

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