fredag 20. januar 2012

Nr. 196: Jesus is not God Almighty!

Nr. 196:

Jesus is not God Almighty!

The divinity of the Son.

It seems to me that when Jesus referred to himself as possessing ‘divinity’ it was invariably in terms of the indwelling Father, not the incarnate ‘God the Son’. He never speaks of ‘the Son that dwells in me’. Instead, Jesus was indwelt by his God in the same way the ark of the covenant was. In John 17:3, Jesus clearly sets himself in contrast to ‘the only one who is truly God’, the Father (see also John 5:44).

Furthermore, where the title ‘god’ is applied to Jesus by others, it harmonises far better with the Hebrew Bible to read it in terms of a functional equality, as opposed to an identity of substance. Moses was made a god to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1) because he acted as Yahweh’s stand-in for his dealings with Egypt. In the same way, Paul describer the Satan as ‘the god of this age’ in that he occupies the dominion, usurped from Adam, that the Son will enjoy in the age to come.

Of course, the distinction between ‘small-g’ and ‘big-G’ in our English translations is artificial, since there was none in the original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts.

Jesus functions as God towards humanity in that he did and spoke of himself as doing things which up to that point only God was thought of as doing (the general resurrection and judgment, the forgiveness of sin etc.)

Yet for all this, I would insist that there is no evidence that the apostles ever deviated form the strict unitary monotheism of the Jewish fathers. There is still only one Creator God, the Father, in spite of the addition of a vice-regent, Jesus, God’s agent through whom he interacts with man. Surely it is significant that the only clearly articulated ‘incarnation’ theology in the New Testament is found in the mouths of mistaken pagans (Acts 14:10). According to 1Tim 2:5, God is one and his Son is a man (wouldn’t this have been the perfect place to introduce the ‘god-man’?).

To hold a concept of Jesus as being ‘god’ in a ‘homoussian’ sense (being of the same substance as God the Father- a Greek term not found anywhere in the Bible) has a double effect:

Firstly it divides the godhead, violating what according to Jesus was the first and greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-30). This is borne out in the contradictory Athanasian creed that ‘the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God, yet there are not three Gods, but one’.

Secondly, it eclipses Jesus’ humanity- an aspect upon which the most heavy scriptural emphasis is laid. Evidence of this is found in the Chalcedonian declaration that the Son possessed an ‘impersonal’ human nature. That he is ‘man’, but not ‘a man’. Read in the light of 1 John 4:3 this should cause alarm bells to ring.

What about the holy spirit?

In the development of patristic thought, the spirit didn’t become a person in the godhead until long after the Son. Strictly speaking, the spirit of God would appear to be his operational presence, as opposed to another person in the godhead. It is God’s dynamic, reaching into the world to create, inspire, work miracles etc.

Furthermore, it would seem to connote the ‘inner life’ of God, often being used synonymously with his thought and by extension, his expressed word. Of course, the same could be said of our human spirits. They too can be vexed, grieved etc. without being another person ‘subsisting’ within our ‘essence’.

It may even be that ‘spirit’ is not an ontological category at all but instead, a metaphor. The literal meaning of the words ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek are in both cases ‘wind/breath’. This has been obscured by their transliteration into English from the Latin ‘spiritus’ as opposed to straight translation. So ‘spirit’ may not be anything in and of itself, but rather a term, acting as a stand in for various functions.

Some confusion has arisen due to Jesus’ personification of the spirit in the later chapters of John, as the ‘paraclete’ who would take over his role subsequent to his ascension. But this is standard Hebraism. One of the best examples would be Solomon’s personification of ‘lady wisdom’ in Proverbs chapter 8. James Dunn’s excellent ‘Christology in the making’ offers many examples from the Judaism of Jesus’ day of the widespread use of this device in relation to God’s attributes.

Even today we would say of a ship, “God bless her and all who sail in her”. But, though we often personalise inanimate objects, we would never refer to a person as an ‘it’ unless we wanted to insult them. Yet throughout both Testaments, God’s spirit is referred to in almost exclusively impersonal terms.

What follows are Peter’s comments and my responses:

How does the death of Jesus find meaning within this framework?
The highest expression of God’s love for us is the giving of his Son (John 3:16). The Son’s love for the Father is shown in his obedient offering of himself (John 14:31). None of this is obscured by attributing full humanity to Jesus and full divinity to the Father. Jesus’ blood is still the ransom demanded and provided by God for our sins.

What distinguishes Jesus from other people, if he is just one in whom the spirit of the Father is operating? Most of the figures in the bible could claim that.
The differences are several. The Son is the cornerstone of the Father’s purpose and motive for his entire creation. As such, his calling is unique. In the counsels of God he alone was chosen from the beginning to be God’s solution to sin, the expression of his mercy and plenipotentiary sovereign of the created order. Furthermore, his unparalleled obedience to this calling further distinguishes him. At immense cost to himself, he set aside his own pride, self-will and every right due to him, making room for the Father to perform his work through him.

Yet the scriptures lay great emphasis upon the fact that this does not exempt him from the weaknesses and temptations experienced by the rest of us. In this way he is both a credible role model and merciful high priest in that he can fully relate to our sufferings and limitations. By contrast, God cannot be tempted with sin (James 1:13 and Hebrews 4:15). To make the Son into God seriously undermines both God’s holiness and the genuine human experience of Christ.

Your observation that many of the figures of the Bible could also claim to have God’s spirit operating through them is absolutely true. This is consistent with the fact that the Son of God is revealed to us in comparison to them. Another Moses, but with greater authority. Another David, with a permanent throne. Another Adam, succeeding where he failed and winning back what he lost.

Why would the supremacy of the Son need to be revealed to us by means such as these, if he was God Almighty? It would be enough simply to state it clearly, and leave the issue alone.

What about the impact of this on the depth of the atonement, in that it isn’t God on the cross taking the suffering on himself;
God, who loves perfectly, had to endure watching the agonies of his Son, the most worthy object of his love. Surely there is no question of the degree to which God suffered. The fact that the Son suffered too, as someone other than God, does nothing to detract from this.

That someone other than God is able to atone for sin or find release from its consequences.
Where does the Bible teach us that God would die for our sins? God is immortal and cannot die (1 Timothy 1:17, Luke 20:36). In contrast, Jesus was only made immortal subsequent to his resurrection.

God atoned for our sins by providing a sacrifice, not by being one. In the Old Testament he provided blood for temporary atonement. In the New Testament he provides his Son for a permanent sin offering once and for all.

As he gave his life, Jesus cried out from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’. Therefore, whoever was left on the cross from that point on cannot have been God. If Jesus’ personal centre was indeed ‘divine’, then this abandonment would have left nothing but an empty shell to die. Incarnation theology is forever crossing the line into docetism.

That in this framework, sin is not seen as such a great problem to be overcome (That all that is required is a bit more effort and trying harder at the rules!)
Anyone who has struggled with sin knows only too well how great a problem it is. This experience is universal, irrespective of Christology.

Yet, to the extent that our view of sanctification is a product of our Christology, it could reasonably be said that a message that sin could only be overcome by God in the form of a man is remote and irrelevant. None of us has the advantage of a personal existence in eternity prior to our birth.

Instead, Jesus’ achievement and sacrifice are all the more remarkable by virtue of his human limitations. He is the uniquely normal man, the living example of a spiritually mature humanity which will be the standard of the age to come.

So, far from minimising the problem of sin, his example is more inspiring, given his success in spite of the absence of any hidden advantage.

That very often folk who do not subscribe to Jesus’ divinity lack personal experience of God in their own lives.
This is your observation. But does the Bible encourage us to evaluate truth in these terms? Wouldn’t a faith based on ‘personal, experiential knowledge of the divine’ be more akin to gnosticism than New Testament Christianity? Where in the Bible does anyone ‘invite Jesus into their heart’ etc.? Powerful experiences are a feature of all mystical religions, yet we would not establish their veracity on that basis alone.

The faith-experience of the apostles seems rather to be the result of their persuasion concerning God’s promise. It gave them hope, and hope gave rise to joy.

For now, Paul tells us, we see through a glass darkly. Only ‘then’, in the age to come can we look forward to seeing God face to face, as so far only Adam, Moses and Jesus have. To seek more than this, if it entails going beyond the confines of scripture, is to tread a dangerous path towards the occult.

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cause for celebration
by Albannach - 05/09/2005 - 14:44
I have no philosophical or theological comments to make. I would just like to say that I found the clarity and precision of your argument inspiring. In your thoughts I find a new hope of personal peace of mind and reconciliation of years of doubt and dissillusionment, thank you.

I was reading about laser eye treatment earlier but that miracle of modern medicine, which I cannot afford, has much less to offer me than your thoughts do, bringing so much of my own thinking into focus.

This follows hearing a sermon recently by a well seasoned methodist local preacher, where I was able to feel God’s presence while in a church for the first time in years. I do not think the preacher in question would share your interpretations but I do as, I believe, did much of the very early church.

Having read your words I think I can now put more easily into words what I mean when I refer to what I call the modern ‘Cult of Jesus’. Christianity, as practised in so many of today’s churches seems to have taken a step too far sideways from the position you describe, to its detriment.

view as page.Jesus is God Almighty (but that's a phrase I have never used)
by peter wilkinson - 05/09/2005 - 18:54
As I’ve been referred to in the foregoing post, I felt some kind of response was called for. The questions I was asking, around which Theocrat has constructed his response, were sketched out in a rough way without having seen how Theocrat would describe his position, but I’m happy for them to be a springboard.

My preliminary response would be something along these lines:

Although Theocrat doesn’t say so, he sees Jesus as being human in the same way as Moses, David etc were human. It’s just that Jesus was a more perfect human. There is so much evidence weighted against this conclusion that it’s hard to know where to begin.

I’ve already commented on this site at some length about Jesus’s own identification with symbols such as temple - which in its suggestion of Jesus as the locus of the presence of God goes infinitely further than placing him in a line with other O.T. figures who experienced the spirit of God coming upon them. So every time Jesus healed someone or performed any of the other miracles, there was a rewriting of the holiness laws taking place, or echoes of what had previously been done by God and God alone. Looked at from that angle, the gospels are alive with the phenomenon of Jesus being himself YHWH, Adonai, God.

This is only the synoptic view. To read John’s gospel and not see Jesus making God-claims for himself is to keep one eye closed and the other very committed indeed to some alternative explanation. I’m still waiting to hear from someone why the Pharisees picked up stones to stone Jesus if it wasn’t for this kind of blasphemous self-identification in John 8:59.

The view of Jesus as God continues throughout the epistles: to see how trinitarian language is used from very earliest times, read ‘What St Paul Really Said’/N.T.Wright. When the early church saw Jesus, they saw God, and worshipped him as such. This was not in the light of any later Greek inspired Christological formulations.

Theocrat also raises questions which have been part of previous discussions on this site. If anyone has read any of these, it will surprise no-one that I believe the core narrative of the bible to be the mystery of how a covenant-keeping God remains true to the covenant - faithful to his people - yet would deal with the sin that was at the heart of their faithlessness to him, and thereby provide the same solution for the whole world.

In this divine project, a merely human Jesus fails to plumb the depths of the seriousness of the problem. Here, the reformers had it right: all who were born of Adam were bound by Adam’s sin. This is the depth of the problem. Man could not be redeemed by the actions of any other mere man - however much he might be the summit and apex of human perfection. I have noticed consistently with religious systems which have a merely human Jesus that the problem of sin is not so central nor profound, the cross not so central, in short, their true focus is elsewhere, and the prescription for living now is: “Try harder!” When the inevitable failures come under this system for living, their response is: “You didn’t try hard enough!” In short, there is no solution offered or found for sin.

The other sense in which the death of Jesus shows the seriousness of the problem is that a merely human figure (however much the paragon of humanity) dying on the cross is one thing, but God identifying himself with the sin which brought separation from himself (2 Corinthians 5:21) shows the nature of sin in its effects, and the depths of sin in its consequences. And I have to admit that in my own view, which would not be the view of everyone on this site, other perspectives which sidestep this issue are simply playing games.

Theocrat’s final paragraph concedes as much as I had suggested - that without these realities in which to believe and find ‘the Spirit of life (that) set me free from the law of sin and death’, we do not have the personal experience of God which God had planned for us to know. It is more than persuasion - it is, as Paul puts it, the love of God poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit whom he has given to us.

To summarise baldly, the narrative line that I would pick out here is the narrative of the presence of God; presence experienced, presence withdrawn, presence given occasionally to individuals, presence marking out a people, presence withdrawn from a people, presence restored, presence completed. (Very bald!) The apostles had more than a message of persuasion; the persuasion had an end in view: the present experience of the eschatolological Spirit - through the eschatological Jesus.

I regret that Albannach finds cause for celebration in seeing here ammunition against what he calls the Jesus cult. If his experience was of something that could be called a cult, with all that is suggested in his use of that phrase, it is regrettable that he did not encounter something more worthy of the name, which might have shaped his views in a different way.

It will also be very apparent in this post that I hold to an evangelical view of the gospel. I believe that the times call for a repackaging of the elements which accompany that view. The narrative/historical explanation seems to me to hold out distinct possibilities, and has opened up startling new insights. I am at variance with interpretations which seem to me to be losing the distinctiveness of the explanations which are not just part of the biblical story, but make it something to be proclaimed and believed - something which people would want to give their lives for, and be worth giving their lives for.

I also realise that this comment goes against the ethos of the site. I did encourage Theocrat to publish his views - so let it be said that I am doing no more than giving my own personal response and perspective. I’m sure, that like Albannach’s, there are others, and the ethos of the site is to give place to each other, which I now do.

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