Skeptical conversations, part V: The person and work of Jesus

Continuing the conversation . . . Parts I-IV here.

A: So you believe Jesus was literally God, or part of God, or however you want to put it.

R: Yes, Jesus is God; specifically, the person of the Son. At the same time, he is a normal human male, with everything that means, except that his human nature was uncorrupted, unfallen. He is at one and the same time fully God and fully man.

A: Like the Red Queen, I, too, can believe six impossible things before breakfast; or at any rate, I’ll be to that point soon. It seems to me you have two problems: first, if Jesus was one of the persons of God, and he was down on earth in a human body, what does that do to the unity of God? After all, as you’ve noted, to be human is to be limited, and to be God is to be unlimited. Which raises the second question: how is it remotely possible that Jesus could have been both divine and human?

R: The answer to your first question is that just because the Son became a human being does not mean that he was in any way separated from the Father and the Spirit; they were still united with him, and the relationships between the three were just as close as they had ever been. This is because he was fully God and did not become any less so in becoming human.

A: Which still leaves the second question: how could he truly have been both?

R: Again, this isn’t something that can be explained propositionally; but again, I think it can be illustrated analogically. For one thing, remember light, which has two seemingly incompatible natures, a wave-nature and a particle-nature—and yet from all we can tell, it is both at once. For another (since there’s a piano over there against the wall) there’s the illustration Jeremy Begbie, the Cambridge theologian and pianist, uses.

A: Theologian and pianist? That’s an odd combination.

R: Yeah, he’s on the faculty in theology—or was last I heard, anyway—and he’s also a Fellow of the Royal College of Music, I believe. Given that combination of interests, it makes sense that he likes to use music to help explain Christology (that’s the term for the doctrine of Christ): when I play a note on the piano, where is the note?

A: Where is the note? Wherever the sound waves are, I suppose; everywhere in the room, though not precisely all at once.

R: Okay, now let me play two notes. Where are they?

A: The same as before—everywhere in the room.

R: But you’ll notice, they occupy the same volume of space; neither one excludes the other, and in fact, when you play them together, they become something more than just two notes. They still are two distinct notes, but they are also a unity. It’s the same way with Jesus; he is both God and man, and his two natures were two distinct notes, but also a unity: they are not blended together like a sauce, nor are they merely stuck together like a sandwich. As the Belgic Confession puts it, “the person of the Son has been inseparably united and joined together with human nature, in such a way that there are not two Sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in a single person, with each nature retaining its own distinct properties.”

A: I don’t understand how that can be. How can you have someone who is both infinite and finite, both omniscient and limited in knowledge, both omnipresent and localized, both omnipotent and limited in strength? It doesn’t make sense.

R: I don’t have a good answer. Some thinkers draw from a passage in Philippians 2 where Paul says that Jesus emptied himself, became a man, and took the form of a servant, and they argue that the Son gave up various of his divine attributes when he became human; since the Greek word for “emptying” is kenosis, this is called the kenosis theory. One problem with that approach is that if Jesus did in fact give up some of his divine attributes, he would no longer be fully God; so others have argued that while on earth, he gave up the right to use his powers freely, retaining all his attributes but submitting himself in their use to the will of the Father. To take omniscience as an example, when it was the Father’s will, he drew on it—in prophesying, for example, or in judging the hearts of people who spoke to him—but when it was not, he limited himself to normal human capabilities.

The idea that Jesus reconciled his divinity and his humanity by limiting his exercise of his divine powers makes some sense to me, but there’s a problem with it. It isn’t merely that Jesus was both divine and human, he still is; those two natures were united in him, and he didn’t leave his humanity behind when he left the earth.

A: I noticed that you were saying “is,” not “was”; I was going to ask you if you believe that Jesus is still human.

R: Yes. The Belgic Confession says that his two natures are so united that they were not even separated by his death or his ascension. The Son of God still shares our humanity. Given that, it seems to me problematic to reconcile Jesus’ two natures by saying, if you will, that he made it work on earth by turning down the volume on the God knob—that’s only a temporary solution to the problem. It may well be a true answer, but it isn’t a sufficient answer. So in the end, I have to say that I don’t understand how Jesus Christ could be both fully God with all his attributes and fully human with all our limitations; but I believe that he was.

A: Why does it matter?

R: It matters for a lot of reasons. For one thing, you might remember a song called “One of Us” that was a top hit around 1995 for Joan Osborne; the chorus asked this question: “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us?/Just a stranger on the bus/Trying to make His way home?” That question has an answer: God was one of us; the Son of God came down and took on everything that is involved in being human. He experienced our pains and our discomforts, our joys and our pleasures, our temptations and our struggles, our ups and our downs. He lived a fully human life, just like any of us, and that includes the full range of temptations; and the fact that he never gave in to any of them, and could not have, only means that he was tempted long past the point where we crumble and give in, making his struggles all the more agonizing.

That’s why Hebrews, which talks about Jesus as our high priest, says this: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Whatever we’re going through, he understands, because he’s been there himself.

A: Why the term “high priest”?

R: The high priest was the one who brought the petitions of the people to God, and he was the one responsible for the sacrifices; he was the only one allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, which he did once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Jesus has now taken over these functions. He is our mediator, the one who brings our prayers to the Father and intervenes on our behalf; and he has completed and finished the sacrifices through his sacrifice of his own life. Once for all, he made atonement for all our sins when he died on the cross.

A: I have a problem with that. There was a piece in the paper not too long ago about a new book that raises some important questions about the doctrine of the atonement. If God is appeased by cruelty, if he would torture his son to appease his anger at sin—well, then he’s a child abuser, to be blunt, and you have a religion that sanctions violence and abuse.

R: That’s a common conclusion among feminist theologians; Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, the two who wrote that book, have been making that argument for a decade now, and they aren’t the only ones. I think, though, that their criticism comes because their theology lacks a proper understanding of the Trinity, and so they are misunderstanding the doctrine of the atonement.

Let me take a step back here and lay this doctrine out, and then come back to this point. First, the problem: evil is real and must be defeated; human sin is real and must be dealt with. Partly, this problem is legal in character, that there must be a penalty paid for our sin, and partly it is relational, that our sin has alienated us from God. The penalty due is death; blood must be shed to pay the price and to satisfy the wrath of God against sin. No lesser price is enough.

God chose to deal with evil by paying that price himself. The Father sent the Son to earth to live among us, and then to die in our place. Jesus was sentenced to death for having broken the law of God, though he was not guilty of any sin at all, and he went willingly to his execution. Because he was fully human, he went to the cross in solidarity with us, for us; because he was fully God, his self-sacrifice was of infinite value. Because he was both, he was the only one who could ever pay the necessary price for us. He took all the sin in the world on his back, and he paid the price for all of it; he took our place under the curse of the law, and took away the power of sin to condemn us. He bore our sentence of death and left us free, and then after three days he broke the power of death by rising from the dead, sealing his victory over Satan.

A: You can see why the objection to this arises.

R: Yes, but as I said, the objection arises because of an insufficiently trinitarian understanding. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross comes out of the relationships among the persons of the Trinity, and the whole Trinity is involved. As the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has noted, this is not one member of the Trinity causing the suffering of another, as though the Father were standing aloof, using the Son as a whipping-boy; this is God intervening on our behalf, suffering for us, giving himself to pay the price for us. The Father sent the Son to the cross, but the Son went willingly; and remember, all three persons of the Trinity are interconnected, interwoven. The pain of the Son on the cross was shared by the Father and the Spirit.

A: How does this fit with the impassibility of God that you were talking about earlier?

R: You aren’t the only one to ask that question; the classical understanding of impassibility excludes the idea that God can suffer. Now, if that is the case, that brings you to the position that Christ experienced suffering and death only as man, not as God, and that is in fact what many if not all of those who hold to the classical position believe. There’s nothing necessarily problematic in saying that Jesus experienced some things as man and not as God, or vice versa; but it seems to me that to say that he suffered and died only as a man is fatal to the doctrine of the atonement, for it means that in the end, it was only a man who died—and that is not sufficient to save anyone. It also seems to me that the argument that God’s impassibility excludes the possibility of his suffering assumes that God is bound by our time stream in the same way we are; the argument really doesn’t follow otherwise, I think. If God is outside our time stream, then to say that he suffers is not necessarily to say that his suffering changes or lessens him, and there is no inevitable conflict.

A: But as I understand you, he came into our time stream as the man Jesus.

R: True. That is the mystery of the Incarnation, that the Second Person of the Triune God became human; and as a human being he wept and rejoiced, praised God and grew angry at those who fought him. He wrote himself into the story, if you will. The easy way to handle that is to say that all the messy human stuff, that was just Jesus’ human nature, and that is what those who deny that God suffered do; but in anything having to do with God, I am suspicious of answers I can fully understand, at least if they seem to leave problems behind. I am suspicious of collapsing the divine mystery into human rationality, because God is not fully comprehensible and any understanding of God which makes him so can only lessen him.

A: I can see that, I suppose. You certainly have enough mysteries lying about already.

R: True; but it seems to me, as I said, that any God big enough to truly be God is going to be too big to be humanly comprehensible, like a diamond with an infinite number of facets; we can’t possibly fit them all together out of our own wisdom and understanding. As such, I think it’s almost axiomatic that any theology which lacks mystery has sacrificed truth to comprehension at some point.

A: Though of course any theology anyone produces is going to be imperfect regardless.

R: Also true; that’s why humility is a virtue in theology no less than anywhere else. In any case, do you see the flaw in the feminist critique of the doctrine of the atonement?

A: I do. But I think it’s an understandable one.

R: I’ll grant that. Even leaving out the legitimate theological arguments, there is a lot of bad theology in the church, and I don’t doubt that some use the death of Christ on the cross in just the way that Brock and Parker see. But that doesn’t require changing our theology, only correcting those who abuse it.

At any rate, there are two other things to be said about the atonement. One is to define its results, which need to be described in several ways. First, Christ justified those who believe in him; to justify means to make righteous, to make right with God. In our own strength, we can’t stand before God’s just judgment, we can’t measure up to his standards, and so we stand condemned; but in taking the penalty for our sin on himself, Jesus gave us a new standing before God, and we have been declared righteous. Second, by his death Christ established a new covenant between us and God.

A: Covenant? I’m not familiar with the term.

R: A covenant is a solemn agreement—sometimes a negotiated agreement, sometimes unilaterally imposed on one party by the other—binding two parties together in a permanent defined relationship; each side makes specific promises and incurs specific obligations. Biblically speaking, for instance, marriage is a covenant, not merely a contract. Covenants are analogous to a contracts, but rather more serious and binding, and they tend to come with dire consequences attached for those who break them.

In any case, God has made several covenants with humanity throughout history, and in every case, he has been the one who has established the terms. Since the fall of Adam, each new covenant has built on the last, and each has been a covenant of grace—even the covenant established at Sinai, in which he gave Israel the Law. With Jesus’ death, he established a new and final covenant between God and his people, one which brought us into a new relationship with him.

A: A new relationship, legally speaking.

R: Yes, and more. Third, Christ liberated those who believe in him. He defeated sin, death and the Devil on the cross, taking away their power over us and breaking our slavery to sin; in paying the price for us, he redeemed us from slavery. Jesus gave us the freedom to choose to do the right and follow him, and thus to live as we were meant to live. Sin no longer rules us; rather, Jesus is Lord. Fourth, Christ did not merely free us from the power of death, he brought new life to those who believe in him; we are born again, spiritually, we have been adopted as children of the Father, and we have a new life with new power, which is the power of the Spirit of God living in us. We have been regenerated, made new people—not new and different, however. Rather, we have been reborn as the people we were created to be, and are thus more ourselves than ever before, though that process won’t be completed in this life.

One thing that I think you can see clearly from those four definitions is that they are all, in one way or another, relational language: through his death and resurrection, Christ brought about a new relationship between God and his people. This really speaks, I think, to the contemporary concern (at least among Generation X) with alienation; because it’s true, our sin alienates us from God, who is the source of life, and from our true selves, the people he created us to be—and, for that matter, from each other, as our sinfulness warps and breaks our relationships with each other. Jesus restored our relationship with God, he brought healing to our self-alienation, and in setting us free from sin he brings healing to our relationships with those around us.

Posted in Credo, Religion and theology.

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