The Big Question


  • Recently freelance theology has received some questions/comments relating to the divinity of Christ.

    One was from AL, Australia, who says:

    For me, Christianity has little to do with Jesus, especially the fundamental Christianity of today.I also don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus and I cannot relate to ‘Christ’. He was a man with a message, and the message was the important thing. To me, he wasn’t a god, or son thereof, at least not any more than the rest of us are.

    The peace, love and compassion he spoke of are sorely missing in our ‘Christian’ countries. I think Jesus was a regular guy, and that makes his message more powerful because it doesn’t come attached with the need to believe in the unbelievable. His message of social care and love has in my opinion been much convoluted and ignored by the sometimes religious nuttiness and fervour of not only some of his followers, but also those who hijacked the message to create a power base. I have tried to put my previous thoughts into a question and I hope the following is ok.

    Why don’t Christian churches actually practice and teach their followers the true importance of following the social teachings of love and compassion of Jesus?

    I ask this because it seems to me that they concentrate so much on the idea that he died for their sins and then was resurrected, that they’ve missed the point of the message (which is focused on you caring for others). What is the good of believing the former (which is rather selfish when you think about it because that idea is focussed on yourself, not others) if you then go to war against your neighbour, love and take care of yourself more than others, extol the benefits of greed and not taking care of the less fortunate? It seems to me that religion has increased the violence and darkness of the world, whereas the message of love that Jesus spoke of was supposed to decrease it.

    Another, similar statement about Jesus’ divine nature was made by DL, United Kingdom:

    Trouble is, I have already read loads and discussed for hours. But the more I learn the more I am convinced that God is not a trinity, and Jesus is not God. The options I’ve been given is that Jesus is either God or just a man. I don’t believe either of these notions. I do believe that Jesus is the son of God, and that he is sitting at God’s right hand as the bible says. In fact Jesus himself talks about “your God and my God”. The difficulty about all this is that there is no single question / answer which will convince me of a Jesus / God relationship that I believe was conceived by man some 400 years after Jesus death.

    It’s the big question…
    The study of the person of Christ is known in theology as ‘Christology’ and, broadly speaking, there are two types of approach. ‘High Christology’ emphasises the divinity of Christ, relating to those aspects of doctrine concerning Christ’s pre-existence, position as second person in the Trinity and installation at God’s right hand after the Ascension. In contrast, a ‘low Christology’ would reconstruct the historical life of Jesus, accentuate his human-ness and his identification with the rest of humanity.

    There are some starting points to make. Firstly, Christian tradition has always stated that Jesus Christ is fully human (note the use of the present participle in that statement). The New Testament accounts show quite clearly that Jesus has a human body, a human mind and human emotions. People near him thought he was a man just like them, which is why he was rejected in his ‘home town’ of Nazareth (see Matthew chapter 13, verses 53-58). Above all that, he also experienced mortality. In short, he lived a human life and he died a human death.

    However, to only state that would be to miss out the paradoxical fact that the New Testament, while affirming Jesus’ genuine humanity, also indicates that he was divine. This is much starker in the original Greek texts than in our English translations. In the opening line of Mark’s gospel, which is generally thought to be the earliest one written, the gospel writer describes Jesus as ‘uiou theou – literally ‘son of God’, a popular term in use among pagan worshippers of the Roman Emperor. From the outset, the gospel of Mark affirms the divine nature of Christ. There are seven passages in the New Testament that explicitly refer to Jesus using the Greek word for God, theos.

    The word kyrios is also used, often translated as ‘Lord’ in English, and, again, carrying divine connotations as it was commonly used by Greek-speaking Jews instead of the divine name Yahweh and in the pagan cults for whichever god was being worshipped. There is also the designation ‘saviour’ (the word sote and derivatives) – an attribute that belonged solely to Yahweh in Jewish thought. As an action, God could only effect salvation in Greek neo-Platonist philosophy, so to be a saviour Jesus had to be divine. So, to both the Jewish communities and pagan Graeco-Roman culture, the use of these words would have been interpreted as statements regarding Jesus’ divine nature and would have been blasphemous to Jews and ridiculous to ‘gentiles’.

    Secondly, the comment from AL regarding an emphasis on personal salvation at the expense of Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching is a legitimate concern and well worth raising. The point of the Incarnation, i.e. God becoming human, is often distilled to something that had to happen in order for an adequate substitutionary sacrifice to occur that would cancel out human sin and restore the original relationship between God and human beings. What is forgotten is that, in his earthly life, Jesus acts as a role model and template of what humanity should be like.

    The thought that any ‘ordinary man’ could also be divine might seem “unbelievable”. However, Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner comments: “Only someone who forgets that the essence of Man is to be unbounded… can suppose that it is impossible for there to be a man who, precisely by being man in the fullest sense (which we can never attain) is God’s existence into the world.” [Quoted in John Macquarrie, Stubborn Theological Questions, SCM 2003, pp135-6]. Christians would assert that Jesus was a perfect example of what humanity was supposed to be and, while admittedly this necessitates a certain amount of faith to say, therefore led a sinless life. It follows that his sinless life should act as a guideline to Christians.

    The thing is, though, Christian theology (and human experience) would point to the fact that human beings generally lead sinful lives. The emphasis on personal salvation is heavily influenced by modernity’s obsessive individualism, which naturally means it becomes all about the individual concerned. Yet that does not negate the fact that a way has to be found to mimic the authentic, “unbound” human life of Christ. Something has to effect that change.

    The transformation comes, in Christian theology, through accepting that Jesus Christ’s death in some way atoned for the sins of human beings. That has always been the central claim of the Christian message, although the actual mechanics of how Christ’s death works to do this is still a matter of intense debate. A Christian might respond to AL’s comment by arguing that it is impossible to live the way Jesus lived without accepting that his death atoned for sin. ‘Salvation’ is therefore a rediscovery of true humanity (frequently described in the Bible as the ‘image of God’).

    Christology is a huge area to study and the above comments are really only a starting point. In response to some of the specific comments made, it’s worth saying the following:

    DL’s statement about the “Jesus / God relationship that I believe was conceived by man some 400 years after Jesus death,” indicates a common misunderstanding concerning the development of Christian doctrine. It is true that the ‘final word’ on the confusing paradox about how Jesus can be both divine and human at the same time was made at a council of theologians and church leaders in a place called Chalcedon in AD451. The ‘Chalcedonian definition’ of the ‘one person in two natures’ is highly technical in its language and description. However, those present at Chalcedon regarded themselves as trying to find a way to describe the historical communicated truth of the gospels and the earliest Christians. They would not have seen the product of that Church Council as something new in content.

    AL’s comment that Jesus was “a man with a message, and the message was the important thing” is also slightly simplistic. The implications of many passages in the New Testament is not just that Jesus had something to say, but that he was, himself, a message. His very life was a message. The Gospel of John says that “In him was life and that life was the light of men” (chapter 1, verse 3), which would seem to indicate that Jesus had an exemplary role that went beyond just ethical teaching. The gospels are all written after the resurrection event, so naturally there is an element of hindsight at work. A large percentage of each gospel account is taken up with the final days of Jesus’ life; death and resurrection – indicating how important his followers thought those events were. Jesus’ actual teaching takes up far less of the gospel accounts. The important thing to the writers lies in what happened to Jesus, which means any view of Jesus as solely an ethical teacher ignores the priorities of the first followers of Jesus.

    However, that said, AL’s posed question: “Why don’t Christian churches actually practice and teach their followers the true importance of following the social teachings of love and compassion of Jesus?” relates to the question of which Christological model is followed. The inherent danger in many fundamentalist churches is that they concentrate on doctrinal correctness and spiritual purity, which relate, in a sense, to a ‘high’, supernatural interpretation of Christ, ignoring the ‘low’, human revelation of the Jesus who is both compassionate and prophetic, concerned for the poor and the excluded and calling for justice. The particular excesses of fundamentalism, which, for example, in America has aligned ‘Christianity’ with Neo-Conservative, pro-war, pro-multinational corporation politics, are not solely due to this view of Christ. It has as much to do with that particular form of Christianity being firmly wedded to modernity and the institutions, governmental or otherwise, thereof.

    The challenge for Christians is to recognise both natures at work in Christ – the ‘unbound’, sinless human life that we seek to emulate and the divine life that empowers us to do so. To that end, faith is a necessary part of any recognition; faith not only in Jesus as a man, but also as God Incarnate.

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