Twenty-first century pastorates are a bit different; many of us find ourselves serving as ministers to people via Facebook or IM. I know that I have at least half a dozen people who consider me their pastor, but for various reasons cannot or do not want to attend the church where I hold the pulpit. I cherish these relationships, but they also require me to function slightly differently than I would if I could refer them to a bible study or class I lead. This leads us to today’s post: Is Jesus God? Is God Jesus? If so, how?
I imagine that my fellow pastor/professor/theologian/biblical scholar friends are laughing right now, as these questions are literally the stuff of dissertations and careers. Looking at my not insubstantial book collection, I can see no fewer than fifteen titles on the unorganized shelves that directly relate to Christology. So please know that my musings are not meant to be, nor are they, definitive. But if we pastors cannot elucidate such basic concepts in simple language, we really should not be calling ourselves preachers and teachers of the Church.
The Council(s) and the Controversies
After the death of Jesus, the Apostle’s Creed emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Tradition holds that each of the Twelve Disciples (we assume not Judas Iscariot, but rather his replacement Matthias) contributed to the creed (or its forerunner), and Patristics note that it is mentioned throughout the writings of Church Fathers. While we are uncertain of how it emerged, it is an attempt to set forth the basics of what one needs to believe in order to be a card-carrying member of Team Jesus.*
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Let me say that I ascribe to the Apostle’s Creed with very little nuance needed. This pretty much summarizes my faith. But let’s break it down. Notice, the divinity of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) is not set forth in the creed; this, according to some historians, opened the door for later controversies, most especially Arianism. Also notice that this seems to be saying that we believe in one God, one person, and one spirit. So, are we pantheists? Are we polytheists? Are we Jewish plus? Questioned abound.
The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed
Arianism arises from the ideas of Arius, a Libyan theologian who was dead set against emerging Trinitarianism (discussed below). The foundation of his ideas was threefold: God the Father and the Logos (John’s term for the second person of the Trinity; “Word” that becomes flesh as Jesus Christ) were not of the same substance or essence (ousia); that the Son (Logos) was a created being; and as a created being, there was a time in which the Logos did not exist. Arius referred to the Logos as a “creature,” a being that was divine in that it was created ex nihilo, and was a participant in the creation of the universes, but a being that is not coequal with God. Seem complicated? It kinda is. But it boils down to this question: Are Jesus and God the same thing? Arius said no. And he was excommunicated.
In fact, when the Council of Nicaea met in 325 C.E. to address the divinity of Christ, they formed a creed that many people think they know. But most don’t. Why? Because there is an entire section dedicated to refuting Arianism that was later pulled out in the Council of Constantinople (381). Imagine hearing this recited in St. Peter’s Basilica each week:
But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Arianism has never fully been put down in Christian circles–Unitarians by and large accept the Apostle’s Creed and agree with Arius, but have issues with subsequent creeds–but it has been a heresy since the 4th century, for whatever that is worth. Needless to say, the issue of Jesus’ divinity was not settled in 381 C.E., with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. (And, again, apologies to all my friends who are early Church historians for glossing over so many details that it is just simpler for me to say that there is much, much more to the story.)
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets; And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the Life of the age to come. Amen.
Those who are interested in minutia should research the filoque controversy or how the statement “not one iota’s difference” emerged from the Council of Nicaea. What we can say, though, is that there were early and very violent disagreements among followers of Christ regarding his divinity and relationship with the Trinity. In fact, there is no explicit biblical statement supporting a Trinitarian view of God. The term first emerged through the writings of Tertullian , a second century theologian who wrote about three persons (tres personae) united in one substance (substantia); the unity he called tri-unity, or Trinitas. While Tertullian’s particular vision of the Trinity was adapted and altered over the years, his contribution became the foundation for orthodox thinking regarding the relationship of the persons within the Godhead.
The Councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon
But controversies continued. At the Council of Constantinople, the bishops rejected Apollinarianism, the idea that the divine Logos overtook the mind and soul of the human Jesus. In other words, Jesus was more divine than human. This was rejected because, according to atonement theology, Jesus must be fully human and fully divine to achieve the salvation of humankind. This gave way to what is known as Hypostatic Union, the two natures (human and divine) united perfectly in one person. A few decades later, in response to Hypostatic Union, another controversy, this one called Nestorianism, which argued that Christ has two natures, but that there is no union. He would go from “mode to mode.” Again, problems with needing to adhere to atonement theology prevented Nestorianism from being a viable, orthodox Christology.
All of this came to a head with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., and the resulting creed, which again solidified the dual nature of Christ united in one person, and present in tri-unity within the Godhead.
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
We describe this as “fully human, fully divine.” If you push most theologians to his or her limit, we would have to defer to the divine mysterium. Somehow, Jesus is fully God but also fully like us, except for the sin part. This is the view that won out. At least until the Protestant Reformation.
So what does all of this mean? That the question is not simple and is not without controversy. Orthodox theology would say, “Yes. Jesus is God. Jesus is human. Jesus is both fully and completely, and is so because his death on the cross must atone for original sin.” If you don’t believe in original sin or if you do not accept atonement theology, the nature of Christ becomes more difficult. Or easier, depending on your viewpoint.
I always tell congregants that I don’t necessarily think that I am correct, but I will always explain how I have alighted upon my own decisions regarding central issues in our faith tradition. I have spent a goodly amount of time assembling a quick journey through the history regarding Christ’s nature, and I affirm that this is what we historically have believed regarding Jesus. He is unlike anyone or anything else; he is truly God, truly human, truly the Messiah, and truly perfect. And if that works for you, awesome. Great.
But if it doesn’t, does that mean you are out in the cold? Not at all. The truth is, what we have within the canonical scriptures are a selection of ideas about Jesus, but not the full picture. Texts such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Judas, the Sayings Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy of James, and a whole host of other gospels were written at the same time that Church Fathers were wrestling with these questions. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, sets forth the idea that salvation is achieved through Wisdom, and that the divine nature is within human beings other than Jesus. We see from the earliest levels until today the notion of the “moral influence” of Jesus’ life on followers; the notion that Jesus is the finger pointing toward the moon, but is not the moon itself. Scores of scholars and theologians have argued that the greatest mistake Christianity made was worshiping Jesus rather than following him. Luckily, we do not burn people at the stake anymore for daring to question orthodoxy.
I find that there are generally two types of people who seriously consider religion: those who want certainty and those who want direction. Those who want certainty are very comfortable in orthodoxy. Questions are answered clearly and definitively. There is a right way and a wrong way. There does not need to be debate because the debates have already occurred and the Holy Spirit has spoken. The other type of people–and here is where I place myself–are those who like that religion gives direction, but want the autonomy and ability to puzzle things out for themselves.
I do not believe that Jesus had to die in order for God to be satisfied for the debt we owe as a result of original sin. I do believe that Jesus died as a result of sins, but the sins of arrogance, fear, greed, indifference, and the need for power. I believe that through his life, Jesus definitively (yet not exclusively) revealed the mind of God, providing human beings a template on how to lead an existence that brings forth love, peace, justice, compassion, and joy. I attest to the resurrection of Christ–this will need to be another post unto itself–and believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to human persons, but the Holy Spirit has been called countless names throughout time. I attest completely to the existence of a creator God, to whom Jesus was intimately connected and for whose sake Jesus gave his life in order to bring hope to those cast aside by humankind.
Is Jesus God? Well, let me ask you a question. What do you mean by God?
*Credit for “Team Jesus” must be given to Deacon Gilah Pomeranz.