A New Understanding of the Deity of Christ
Logan Geen writes a blog about classical Christian Unitarian and Universalist spirituality. He is a master's degree student in healthcare administration.
By Logan Geen
One of the central mysteries of the Christian tradition is about any doctrine concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. The doctrines of the Trinity, Deity of Christ and the Incarnation are among the key mysteries of the Christian faith. These doctrines are components of our creeds, defining hallmarks of our faith. Turning away from these beliefs has given birth to a multitude of heresies: Modalism, Nestorianism, Arianism, Docetism to name just a few; divided the church (a debate over the nature of the Trinity severed Roman Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy); and remains for many the dividing line between Christian and pseudo-Christian (Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses do not make the "cut" primarily due to the fact that they are non-Trinitarian and do not see Jesus as God). Many modern day progressive Christians seem content to ignore or scrap these doctrines entirely -- among them such figures as the retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong who suggest such concepts are part of an ancient worldview that is no longer applicable to or useful for Christians today since it cannot easily be fit into our postmodern worldview.
"Jesus of Nazareth was not an ordinary man. No human being who has ever lived has had quite the same impact as
Jesus, no other religious founder occupies a position of such stature, and no one else has impacted history in such a way."
I do not agree with such assertions. The issues concerning the Incarnation and identity of Jesus Christ are not minor aspects of the Christian faith; they are crucial, defining aspects to our belief. Who, what, is Jesus Christ? How is this man related to God? As Jesus himself once so aptly put it "Who is it that men say that I am?" This is a crucial, defining question now and for all time. The answer of some -- that Jesus was simply an exceptional prophet or a great teacher -- is unsatisfactory to me. While neither the Bible nor tradition definitively address the nature of Christ one thing is clear: Jesus of Nazareth was not an ordinary man. No human being who has ever lived has had quite the same impact as Jesus, no other religious founder occupies a position of such stature, and no one else has impacted history in such a way. If Christ were just another religious leader he should have faded long ago into the mists of history, vanishing into the long line of desert prophets. As some have pointed out many of his teachings on spiritual and moral matters were not unique -- in some cases they were almost word for word with those of the Buddha. It is unclear if Jesus intended even to found a new religion or whether he simply envisioned a new movement with Judaism. Yet Jesus lives on and not just in memory: He is experienced as a palpable, spiritual presence by millions to this day and his presence is felt through his followers, through his Church (in its many forms), in the Eucharist, through Scripture. While the actual events of the first Easter Sunday may never be known for certain many people, myself included, believe in the Resurrection because the evidence for that is all around us: Christ lives.
So again we have to confront the question of who Christ is. Christ certainly was a prophet and a teacher, and a movement leader. Jesus of Nazareth was a historical man and should be understood in his historical context. Yet it readily becomes apparent that there was something exceptional about this man. The Scriptures attribute him with titles and descriptions that are remarkably close to those of God Himself -- even to the point where Jesus supposedly invoked such forbidden titles as "I AM." It is true that there are questions concerning how much of this language can be traced directly back to the mouth of Jesus and how much was a later addition by the early Christian community (progressive scholar and bestselling author Marcus Borg notes that particularly the Gospel of John has much later "layers" that appear to be the early community's understanding of Christ applied into the historical record). Whether or not that is true there is general agreement even amongst progressives such as Borg and Spong that Jesus embodied a life filled to the brim with God, that God was revealed in his person, not just his teachings, and that the Spirit of God could be palpably experienced through Jesus. There is general agreement here: God was definitely in Christ. But this raises question: What exactly was/is the precise relationship between God and Jesus? Tradition has answered that Jesus was the Son of God (a title that could have multiple meanings but in its Biblical context indicates a profound relationship and intimacy with God) and also God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Christ was True God and True Man, the perfect Union of Divinity and Humanity. What are we to make of such a teaching?
The tug-of-war between those favoring Christ's humanity and those favoring his divinity is an ongoing battle, and even for those who wish to believe the traditional doctrine that Christ was truly 100% both, it is a struggle of making sense of the idea. In spite of the fact that Christians affirm that Christ was truly human, thinking of Christ as true human strikes terror into the hearts of most Christians. To believe that Christ may have gotten frustrated, angry, made mistakes, been wrong in any of his understandings, been married, had sex or even simply gone to the bathroom are ideas that bother even many progressive Christians -- yet these are all traits that are essentially "true human". If Christ was truly human doesn't that mean that we need to at least confront the possibility that maybe he lost his temper at the wrong time, or that maybe, just maybe, he knew intimate relationships? (For the record I am not in way suggesting that the allegations of The Da Vinci Code are true, I'm merely saying that it could be a possibility and should be considered). On the other hand making Christ divine seems to drain his humanity -- as Borg has written attributing Christ's greatness to his divinity essentially neuters his greatness: For if his great abilities, love and power are those of God than they are nothing impressive. After all, as Borg so adequately put it, even raising the dead is just "parlor tricks for someone who holds the power of God". Can we call Christ True God? Can we call him True Man?
Unlike many of progressive compatriots I am not prepared to entirely scrap the theology of our tradition or its defining language. However I am interested in finding a new way to understand it, a new meaning for it. What are new ways of understanding these old teachings -- understandings that are fresh and open yet still faithful to the tradition from where they came? Such understandings will wander "off the reservation" of orthodoxy a bit, yet at the same time they can be surprisingly consistent with the same orthodoxy. The goal here is not to create something new or reject the old but rather to reinvent it and to find a new lens, a new vision of what so many have wrestled with before us. With that in mind I am not "trying" to be a heretic for the sake of being a heretic but rather trying to make sense of God and the ways he has been revealed, as I understand them. I do not claim to know with any degree of absolute certainty the nature of God. With that said let me present my beliefs and my thesis on the nature of Christ and his Human-Divine nature:
First I would state that I believe the historical man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. I believe that Jesus was a revelation of God in humanity: His teachings and his person are a revelation of God's character, God's attributes and God's will. Jesus reveals that God is love, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, holy, righteous and longs for justice, peace and healing. In Jesus we can see the character of our Creator. Jesus is the perfect moral and spiritual teacher, who (to Christians) reveals God most adequately. Jesus taught and reinforced the basic moral laws of all religions (the Golden Rule, Karma, etc) but also emphasized the parental nature of God, that an intimate relationship was sought between God and his children. God was no longer distant and unapproachable, in Jesus he was instead a loving Father, with deep interest in his creation. Jesus succinctly summarized the law into the Great Commandment: The Triune love of God, nature and self; taught that true religion was selfless service to our neighbor and that true love meant loving our enemies. To those around him Jesus embodied the very presence of God: This was a man who spoke with God's authority, who was the effective disclosure of God, so much so that "He and the Father were one".
"Jesus was a revelation
of God in humanity: His teachings and his person are a revelation of God's character, God's attri-
butes and God's will. Jesus reveals that God is love, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, holy, righteous and longs for justice, peace and healing."
In this sense Jesus can be understood as a sort of human sacrament of God, an embodiment of God in a person. God clearly dwelled in him and it was obvious that in some way Jesus was a manifestation of God. What exactly, however, would this mean on an ontological or metaphysical level? Was Jesus actually God Himself? If so, what did that mean? Did Jesus have a human soul? A mind and personality distinct from God? Was his divine essence linked to his body? Once we turn to these questions we descend into a land of philosophical speculation and theories upon theories that lead to what a professor of mine once called "metaphysical goobly-good-ook". At the very least it becomes apparent that we cannot know for sure the nature of Christ's relationship with God. If nothing more he was a mystic with an exceptional relationship to God. At most he was literally God himself, somewhere within the humanity. Or maybe, perhaps, the true answer lies somewhere in between. I believe part of the answer to this dilemma lies in a little known belief within Christianity: Theosis.
Theosis is a Greek word which means "deification" or "becoming godlike or one with God". Theosis as a belief essentially means that human nature will be radically transformed in the image and pattern of Christ to a level where we essentially share in the Divine nature and became, in some way, "one with God". Theosis was a common belief amongst early Church Fathers such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Maximus the Confessor and others. As a doctrine it has been retained primarily by the Eastern Orthodox Churches and Eastern Catholicism which teach that Christ's purpose was not only to save people from hell (separation from God, sin and suffering) but to restore a lost relationship with God with humanity and to bring them into a closer fellowship with God than ever before. Such transformation carried to its conclusion would purge humanity of its selfish desires, restoring them to a perfected state and drawing them into a deep and permanent union with God. Such a union would result in humans becoming "gods", in perfect likeness to their Creator and possessing properties of God to their fullest potential. In other words humans would never "become" God or "part" of God -- but would instead unite with God as Christ already had. Theosis within the Orthodox community is understood as a process beginning in this life: A process of seeking to dwell within God, experiencing God and seeking to do his will.
Interestingly Theosis is not a belief confined to Eastern Orthodoxy. Well far less apparent in the West Catholicism also shares this belief: Thomas Aquinas stated that "the humanity of Christ is the way we come to divinity" and elsewhere that Christ "became man so that man might become God". Catholicism has also defined Theosis as increasing stages of prayer, drawing into a closer relationship with God. Protestantism has also acknowledged Theosis, with different terms (sanctification and "Sonship" -- used in the Pentecostal community -- seem to mean the same thing). Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated "He has become like man so that man may become like him"; Jefferts Shcori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, stated that humans are "Earthen vessels of divinity"; and Max Lucado once wrote a book entitled Just Like Jesus, describing a commonly held belief that God's desire for humanity would be to perfect them in the image of Christ. At the fringes Mormonism holds a similar belief in man attaining some form of divinity. The idea of man sharing in the Divine Nature is even referenced in the pages of the Bible itself, in 2 Peter 1:4, Hebrews 4:15, John 17:22-23 and 2 Corinthians 8:9.
"Jesus is not just Lord and Savior, he is also the Example, the one who has taught us the means and shown us how to conform to the Divine Image, to become one with God. Jesus set the standard, the pattern, by which all of humanity shall be transformed."
It is important again to emphasize that Theosis does NOT mean that we become God -- it is not like various New Age and pantheistic beliefs that imply we simply disappear into God. Instead it emphasizes that we become true humans -- for true humanity is not far from true divinity, and we are reconciled in the fullest way possible with God, elevated to a perfected state as Christ was. This radical and full transformation is the culmination of the human journey and of salvation. With this understanding of Theosis it is possible to approach Jesus Christ with a new understanding. Now Christ becomes the image of perfect humanity, the archetypal Divine-Man, who represents the culmination of Theosis that all men are to achieve. Jesus is the image of the Perfect Human -- and the Teacher, the Elder Brother, the Coach, who gets us to that state, the one who inspires us and enables us to rise up. Jesus is not just Lord and Savior, he is also the Example, the one who has taught us the means and shown us how to conform to the Divine Image, to become one with God. Jesus set the standard, the pattern, by which all of humanity shall be transformed. What does this mean to me? For me this was the purpose of Christ's mission: Not merely to save us from hell but to bring us to God, to reconcile the rupture between divinity and humanity.
What does this mean in terms of the Incarnation and Christ's Deity? That I have no direct answers to but I believe that it succinctly answers the question of Jesus being both Human and God: Jesus was both, in exactly the way that all people are supposed to -- and will -- be. He represents the perfect marriage, the perfect union, between Divinity and Humanity. In Christ the barrier between divinity and humanity was torn down and cast aside and God became man. The question that remains is whether a man also became God. I am unsure exactly how this happened. Was Jesus already "fully God" when he was born, unlike most people? Or was he the first human being to achieve the completed state of Theosis through a combination of his own spiritual journey and God's help? Again I cannot present anything that I say as absolute truth. However I can state what I believe and that is this:
- Jesus was fully human and thus possessed a human soul. However he was chosen by God, anointed to be the Messiah, the Christ and thus possessed a unique role and a unique mission among humanity.
- The Incarnation is a process: In other words, throughout his life Christ was drawn more and more fully into God. The Incarnation began with his birth (I certainly believe in some way God was born in Christ, as a bit of Her Spirit is born in all of us) and continued throughout his life: As he learned in his youth, at his baptism, at the Transfiguration. Whatever selfish desires Jesus possessed disappeared as he became more and more consumed by God, as the line between him and his Father were blurred, as he became the human reflection of God. God was in Christ throughout his ministry, working to reconcile humankind to Himself.
- God was so firmly present in Christ by the time of the Crucifixion that it can be said that God endured the torture of death on the Cross and it was through this death that the "marriage" between Divinity and Humanity occurred in Christ. I do not believe Christ needed to die to appease God (in other words it didn't satisfy God's wrath or pay off a debt -- I believe that the law of karma already addresses that balance and God possesses the power to forgive without the bloodshed of an innocent). Rather his death was a necessary part of the marriage between Divinity and Humanity that would make Theosis possible: God made the sacrifice of torture and death, and Jesus surrendered completely to God's will. At Calvary the process of the Incarnation culminated at last and the gulf that separated man from God was closed forever.
- There was another reason why Christ's death was necessary: To make way for the Resurrection. Having been the image of perfect humanity, the Son of God and God's human sacrament in his lifetime had his biography ended at his death the entire story would have been effectively negated. But it wasn't. According to tradition Jesus descended into Hades after his death and in what is known as the Harrowing of Hell "took the locks off of the gate" and welcomed the dead into the presence of God. Then on Easter Sunday the Divine light broke through the darkness of the world and death itself was reversed: Infused with life and supernatural power Jesus arose and brought a new message to his followers: VICTORY. In one final fell swoop the power of death was defeated and good overcame evil. The Resurrection is the centerpiece of the Gospel, the Heart of Christianity: God won. Victory belonged, belongs, and always will belong, to God.
In a nutshell Jesus was a human being chosen by God to be the Messiah, the Son of God who would serve as a human sacrament of God and the perfect moral and spiritual teacher for all time: Authority that would make him Lord and Savior. Throughout his life God dwelled in Jesus, until Jesus became the Divine-Man, the Perfect Human. When he was executed on the cross God made the ultimate sacrifice -- death -- for his children and Jesus was resurrected, representing God's triumph over death and the triumph of good over evil. Jesus' mission was to reveal that all people are God's sons, children of the same Creator, and to give God's children the means to return to God. He was not an innocent man sacrificed to "make things right" but rather a man chosen to reveal God to humanity, to unify humanity with God and to conquer the power of death. Jesus fulfilled all of these things, and as such he is indeed the true unity of man and God. Exactly how this process worked is a mystery, and I believe always will be (exactly when, where and how this process worked is a matter known only to God and Christ -- we will never know where Christ stops and God begins, or when Jesus fully realized the extent of his mission. Such boundaries are unimportant anyways).
"Jesus' mission was to reveal that all people are God's sons, children of the same Creator, and to give God's children the means to return to God. He was... a man chosen to reveal God to human-
ity, to unify humanity with God and to conquer the power of death."
How would this pertain to the doctrine of the Trinity? Is Christ in fact a member of the Trinity? Once again my position on the Trinity walks the shadowy ground between heresy and what is considered orthodoxy: I believe that the Trinity at its core is a metaphor reflecting different manifestations, understandings and workings of God, not a literal metaphysical schematic of God's nature. The Bible does reference a Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and there can be no doubt that the nature of the way the Trinity works (each of the three holding/representing a different role) is important to the faith. In the early days of Christianity it became readily apparent that in some way Christ was God -- yet distinct from the Father, and the new experiences of the Holy Spirit were so palpable that it seemed that this was another person. So the Trinity gradually developed as a way to unify the Church and understand God more fully. Eventually of course the doctrine became more and more literal, reaching a point where philosophers and theologians saw fit to explain that how the three persons of God related to one another. I have always been uncomfortable with explaining God related to Herself, and am also wary of a theology that suggests that God has multiple "personalities" or wills: While the idea of the three persons working in tandem would rectify the possibility of conflicts it seems unnecessary to me: God can still manifest himself in different ways and not have to contain/be multiple persons (the highly complicated and intellectual explanations of the Trinity are not particularly helpful). With that said I am NOT anti-Trinitarian and remember that God is beyond our comprehension and a Mystery in most ways: Therefore the official doctrine of the Trinity may be true.
What I lean more towards is a belief shared by most Christians, that the Trinity represents different aspects, facets, manifestations or workings of God. Technically this is a heresy known as Modalism but even so to me it seems closest to the truth (and one many would say the vast majority of Christians believe, if unwittingly). God is an intelligent and benevolent Creator (possessing intellect and emotion) and he can also be thought of as an intimate Parent (as Christ taught), traditionally Father but also a Mother. God manifested Himself strongly in, and unified with, Christ, creating the aspect we know as the Son: A crystallized human image of God, who functions as the Redeemer (the same way he desires to dwell in every one of us). The Holy Spirit meanwhile is the Spirit of God, the Divine aspect which is located everywhere within the world, the Sustainer of Creation. The Holy Spirit also dwells in the hearts and souls of all people and the Spirit's inspiration and handiwork is found in numerous religions and spiritual traditions. The Spirit is the part of God that we experience, that we seek, through which we come to know our Heavenly Parent and through which Christ lives. The Trinity may or not represent actual Persons but it clearly represents the way in which God works: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Another metaphor I like compares the Trinity to water: God as Father represents water in liquid form, as Son as ice [solidified in Jesus], and as Spirit as steam. Many Christians would probably agree with this imagery of God. By this definition I am neither a Unitarian nor a true Trinitarian.
What can I say in conclusion? Simply that the questions of the Trinity, Deity of Christ and Incarnation are and always will be key aspects to the Christian faith. They represent our way our understanding how God works and who God is, what the person, life, teachings and Resurrection of Jesus Christ mean for us, and how we live as Christians. What we believe matters. I believe that my beliefs, while progressive and new (and a bit heretical) in some ways, are also true to the Gospel and to tradition. I am a Christian Universalist in the broad Catholic tradition (beyond just the Roman Catholic Church). While my beliefs my defy easy categorization they all matter to me, and I believe at the end of the day that Jesus is my revelation of God, the perfect spiritual teacher, the Divine-Man and the symbol of perfected humanity. I hope that my thoughts here may be found to be both intellectual stimulating and inspiring.
Logan Geen is a member of the Board of Directors of the Christian Universalist Association.