Faith in Christ: A Christological Postscript
In the preceding chapters that made up most of this short book, I have given my own personal version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, one based on a largely psychological theory of faith development with the assist of modern New Testament scholarship. In much the same vein, I have also tried to show that, given belief in his resurrection, there is a natural progression from belief in Jesus as the rejected Jewish messiah to the Lord Christ who is a universal redeemer of humanity, indeed, of the whole universe. Loosely speaking, these chapters have centered more on what is sometimes called, at least by Christian theologians, a “soteriology”, that is, an approach to Jesus of Nazareth that focuses on his function or mission as Savior (sôtêr in Greek) of humanity.
In this final chapter or epilogue—really, just a postscript in contrast to the vast amount of study this subject deserves—I will attempt to reflect, however briefly, on “Christology” as such, which is that branch of theology that focuses primarily the personal identity of Jesus, not simply as the Savior, but as Son of God in the full Christian understanding of that term.
Of course, the two areas, soteriology and christology, are closely intertwined. The latter exists to explain the former. Yet theologically speaking, there is a huge gap, on the one hand, between acclaiming this savior as the “Servant‑Son of God” in the Hebrew sense of the words, as contrasted, on the other hand, to the full‑blown Christian confession that this same Jesus is “God from true God, Light from true Light” (Council of Nicea, AD 325). Although the doctrine of the Trinity supposedly kept the identity of Jesus as Son distinct from the Father, once this belief in the preexisting divinity of Christ became defined, another very difficult problem has taken its place, that of maintaining his humanity along with his divinity. This is what is often called “the christological problem” or sometimes, alternately, the “Chalcedonian problem” because, according to the classic statement of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), this “one and the same person”, Jesus Christ, is “consubstantial [i.e., of the same nature] with us in his humanity, and consubstantial with God in his divinity”.
However, instead of settling the problem, Chalcedon only restated it in terms that are more exact. History has shown that the problem of keeping the two statements about Christ in balance has been all but impossible, while the mystery of how he can be both truly human as well as truly divine has proved all but insolvable.
The effort to maintain this delicate balance or seeming contradiction has unfortunately led toward a popular view that splits the single reality of Jesus Christ into the mere semblance of a human (Jesus) who is the visible form of a totally divine person called “Christ”. One of the major aims of this book has been to do away with this caricature by picturing him as a real, suffering, and believing human being. The purpose of this postscript or epilogue is to ask or suggest briefly how we might also look upon him as divine or as the self‑revelation of God.
Many contemporary theologians have suggested that a major part of the problem has been in assuming that we really know what God is like, and that, as a consequence, we have projected onto the figure of Jesus certain ideas that are incompatible with the human condition as we generally know it to be—for example, the idea that he had to have known everything, and that, as a consequence, he had no necessity for faith. These theologians suggest that if Jesus Christ really is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:12) then we should instead start the other way around and begin with what we see in Jesus and only then draw our conclusions about God.
However, as much I am inclined to agree with that approach—and I will come back to it—I am even more inclined to agree with a few other theologians who suggest that perhaps even more our trouble lies in supposing that we have correctly understood human nature to begin with. As strange as this suggestion might seem—after all, don’t we experience being human first hand?—I think there is much merit in the suggestion. I say this for two reasons: first, because I think that we have in the past misunderstood the biblical view of human nature, wrongly reading into it ideas derived from certain ancient Greek philosophies; and, second, because modern science has revealed a different view of human nature, one that in some ways is much closer to the ancient biblical view. For despite the apparent contradiction between the scriptural understanding of creation and the modern scientific theories of evolution, there are some surprising convergences. Nowhere is this more striking than when it comes to our view of our own selves.
The Bible and the Evolution of Human Nature
Too often we have assumed, in the mode of ancient Greek philosophy (and in everyday speech as well) that we are composed of body and soul. Science, of course, knows of no such thing as “soul”. Yet, as we have already seen, neither did the ancient Jews, at least in the sense that the ancient Greeks, or even modern Christians and many others, like the Hindus, do. True, the Hebrew scriptures at times seem to speak of a shadowy existence after death, either pessimistically referring to those who went down to sheol (the pit or grave) or more optimistically about those who are in “the bosom of Abraham”. Still, it may surprise us, despite most Christian translations of the Old Testament, to find out that the ancient Hebrews had no such word as “soul” or its equivalent, at least not in the sense that traditional Christian thought has assigned to it.
The Hebrew word nephesh is usually translated as “soul”, but this is far too narrow of a translation. The word (which actually seems to have been derived from the word meaning “throat”) can mean all sorts of things: life, person, self, indeed, any living thing, or sometimes (no doubt reflecting on our most persistent appetite) simply “desire”. No doubt, such ancient ideas were still quite confused, even to the extent that they seem to have imagined that life somehow resided in the blood. That in turn accounts for a major feature of Jewish dietary laws, the prohibition against eating any meat with blood in it. Still, their idea of life was not so much a thing as an activity, and a rather expansive one at that. Hence, we have another Hebrew word, kabod, which is also sometimes translated as “soul”, but literally means “glory”, “honor”, or even “wealth”.
From this, it should be evident that from the ancient biblical point of view that it is not some kind of immortal, spiritual substance called “soul” that gives life. Instead, life is a gift and it is God’s ruach or “wind”, “breath”, or “spirit” that gives life. Thus, as described in the Book of Genesis (2:7), when God breathes this spirit into the bashar or “flesh”, only then does it become a nephesh, a living being. Or, on the contrary, as described in Psalm 104:29, take away the ruach or spirit, and living beings simply “return to their dust”.
Certainly, this very much down‑to‑earth Hebrew picture of human life and death was later modified by inroads of certain Greek, and possibly even Egyptian, ideas concerning a soul and the afterlife. Among the deuterocanonical books, the Book of Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon) shows definite Greek influences in this respect. Later on, medieval Judaism developed its own cabbalist mysticism that was heavily influenced by neo‑Platonist ideas about the soul, even to the point of seeming to adopt in some cases such non-biblical concepts as the pre‑existence of the soul or even theories of reincarnation.
Contemporary Judaism, on the other hand, has tended to hew more closely to the ancient biblical mode of thought, even to the point of generally ignoring the later biblical development of belief in a resurrection—which obviously would play into Christian hands. In this, some strains of Jewish conservatism bear a striking resemblance to modern scientific agnosticism in these matters.
This is not to say that the Hebrew scriptures and contemporary science are entirely in agreement on what makes us alive. Evolutionary science sees life as a property or attribute of matter—given sufficient complexity under the right conditions—not as a result of some mysterious divine breath. But the two views agree completely on the basic materiality of human nature. We are rooted in our earthiness. The first human [Adam] was made out of “the soil of the ground [adamah]” (Gn 2:7). Of ourselves we are merely “dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19).
Thus, we see again why the Jews of old could only think of life after death, at least any such after‑life worth living, as the effect of what came to be called, by New Testament times, “resurrection”—that is, to rise or to be raised up again. This, in turn, was imagined to be more or less literally the result of God breathing his spirit back into the bodies of the dead that they might live anew. And again, as we have seen, there is no reason to think that Jesus himself saw things any differently. As a Jew, he believed, as did most of the Pharisees, in the resurrection. This was against the conservative skepticism of the Sadducees. This resurrection would be apparently not just of the “just” or righteous, but also even of the wicked—otherwise it is hard to explain the fire and brimstone nature of the punishments awaiting them.
Nevertheless, it was St. Paul, not Jesus, who has given Christianity the most nuanced and expansive view of resurrection. By adapting the more sophisticated Greek vocabulary, but still basing himself on the same ancient Hebrew view of human nature, where bashar (body) plus ruach (spirit) equals nephesh (a living person), Paul was able to add a new twist or two to the still-developing concept of resurrection. However, in doing so he also introduced a problem or two. One of these has to do with his use of the Greek term psychê.
For many Greeks, particularly those influenced by Plato’s ideas, the psychê was an eternal, immortal soul or immaterial substance which, much the same as the Hindu idea of atman, keeps coming back through a process of reincarnation into a series of earthly lives in different bodies. Although the basic concept of an immortal soul seems to have contributed to the development of some lines of Jewish thought at that time, both mainstream Judaism and Christianity had to nevertheless reject the idea of the soul’s eternal preexistence and the idea that we have more than one chance to live our life as being incompatible with biblical revelation. The attempt of one early Christian theologian, Origen of Alexandria, to incorporate such notions into his approach to Christianity, even as modified by a later Neo-Platonist mysticism, was to result in his later condemnation.
Today, despite the widespread use of the term psychology, most contemporary thought has also rejected such ideas. Not only is the concept of a soul as existing apart or independently from a body held to be unverifiable in scientific terms, but even the concept of a soul as existing apart from its association with, or even its origin in, a specific body makes the idea of reincarnation or transmigration of souls highly problematic. If you or I have become who we are in terms of our race, or sex, or specific location in time, then to speak of the soul, much less ones self returning to life in a different body or as a member of a different race or of the opposite sex, becomes a contradiction in terms.
All this leads us, especially given his Jewish background, to suspect that in his use of the Greek term psychê Paul really meant simply the nephesh, the living being or person, but focused on what we could call the psychological level of human existence. Indeed, in some places Paul substitutes the Greek term nous (“mind”) where we would expect to find the word psychê. Instead, when Paul speaks of immortality, he uses a quite different term, the word pneuma or spirit. But for Paul, first and foremost, the spirit is God’s spirit, the ruach Elohim of Hebrew thought, the same being the Holy Spirit or the “Spirit of Jesus” who raised Christ from the dead. On the other hand, for Paul, there is also such a thing as the human spirit, as well as the “spirit of this world”—so not all spirits are divine or even necessarily good!
Yet as soon as we look at the way Paul generally used the word pneuma or spirit we should notice something else. Even when he speaks of the human being, we will see that our spirit is not so much a thing as it is a quality or a capacity that points toward another distinct level of life beyond that of the mere body or of the psyche/mind. This closely corresponds to one meaning of nephesh as a desire or appetite. So too, Paul speaks (see Rm 8:16) about “our spirit” reaching out, as it were, to “God’s Spirit”. In other words, our lives are limited and incomplete without God. Without God’s life‑giving spirit, our bodies as well as our minds or souls are doomed to death. Only God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit or “the Spirit of Jesus” who raised him from the dead can guarantee the longing of our spirit for eternal life.
Accordingly, it was very important for Paul to emphasize the spiritual quality of the resurrection. Paul’s understanding of resurrection was not simply that of human bodies being restored to life, as a more primitive view might imagine—that would be mere resuscitation. Instead, for Paul, resurrection is a transformation of our natural life into a whole new realm of existence. In a passage where he compares the first Adam to the second (Christ) we can gain a keen insight into the evolution of Paul’s thought about the resurrection of the body.
It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also spiritual body. Thus it is written “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life‑giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man from heaven, so are those who are of heaven. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, so shall we bear the image of the man from heaven. (1 Co 15:44‑49)
If both the words “evolution” and “transformation” have been used to describe what might be seen in the above passage, it is also because we can see a whole new mode of thinking about human nature revealed here. The “living being” who is represented by Adam (psychên zôosan are the Greek words Paul used in this passage instead of simply psychê—but here it seems likely that he was thinking of the Hebrew nephesh) is succeeded by Christ who has become a “life‑giving spirit” (pneuma zôopoioun). This is why Paul sometimes calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of Jesus”, that is, the spirit that transformed the earthly Jesus into the heavenly or glorified Lord Christ.
Also, we can see in the above passage a change, not just from a more earthly concept of resurrection, from a primitive view of a mere resuscitation of a corpse—the kind of thing for which Paul was ridiculed in his preaching at Athens (see Acts 17:32). Here we have a more advanced view, one describing a breakthrough into a new level of existence. It is also a view that, if it is correct, in turn raises the idea of evolutionary progress to a whole new level of understanding.
We are always, or at least should be, in the process of becoming more human. This is not just true of the beginning stages as we develop into fully formed embryos from mere specks of reproductive matter or even after we are born as squalling infants to gradually become children who learn to speak or eventually young people who think on their own. Nor do we suddenly come to our adulthood or majority at some arbitrary age, with it all downhill from there. No, we can continue to evolve even in the direction of the spirit—a never finished task, which, if anything, should be accelerated by the onset of mid-life, and old age. In this way, every human life can be said to be an individual evolution in itself.
However, there is even more to it than that. There is also the whole collective dimension to this evolution. Modern science, at its best—when it isn’t devising ever more horrible weapons—has dedicated itself to improving humanity’s condition and making this world a better and longer‑lasting place. This drive toward human progress should show us that evolution is not just a mechanism that results in ever higher and more complex forms of biological life, but is also an impulse or energy in human nature which impels us to surpass ourselves searching for a better and ever more fulfilling level of existence. Philosophers sometimes speak of this as the human drive or desire for transcendence, which literally means to go beyond where or what we are. Yet transcendence must be more than just a desire to go beyond what we are as mere individuals. It must be also a self‑transcendence in the sense of transcending or going beyond concern for self.
So too in biblical thought. Redemption or salvation is not just a matter of individual soul‑saving. For St. Paul, the movement toward transcendence was not just a case of individual human longing for salvation but of all creation, which as depicted by Paul (Rm 8:20‑21) has been “made subject to futility”. It is not just the fate of individual humans but the fate of all creation that concerned Paul. So again, Paul’s answer is to be found in the power of God—the power of the Spirit—that power that raised Jesus from the dead, and which will raise us also, so that by finally defeating death in all its forms, Christ can turn over the redeemed universe back to the Father “that God may be all in all” (1 Co 15:28).
What we see here is, it seems, a greatly expanded view not just of resurrection, but of redemption as well. If so, then it also may give us the key to a whole new way of understanding the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Jesus in Evolution toward God
We know that the concept of evolution involves not just the development or growth of things from birth to death, but also implies the transformation from one level of life to, or into, another. It has been this idea of the transmutation of species that has been most controversial, particularly when it has come to the area of human origins. While part of the problem may seem only to be semantic—humankind’s “descent from the ape” should be more accurately described as being humanity’s ascent from a now extinct species of primate—there are nevertheless real puzzles. For example, it is probably easier to explain a degenerative evolution or “devolution” by means of the biological understanding of atrophy (that “what isn’t used disappears”) than it is to explain how any species acquires new advanced characteristics.
In somewhat the same way, although the earliest New Testament christologies spoke of Jesus being raised to his position as Lord—thus a “low christology” that begins with his humanity and ascends to his divinity— it is probably easier to think in terms of divine power which has no limits, and of God descending into the human condition. Later New Testament christology, and almost all official Church teaching, has been in this latter “high” christological mode, so much so that most modern attempts to revive the low christology of ascent, if not condemned as outright heretical, have been viewed as dangerous to the faith.
Nevertheless, at the same time, traditional Christian teaching, with the exception of some lines of Reformation theology, has always held an ascending approach when it comes to the doctrine of what is generally called “sanctifying grace”. Unlike Protestant (especially Lutheran) theology which held that grace only “justifies” us—that is, covers over our sinfulness to make us acceptable to God—the traditional Catholic doctrine of grace has always held that human life is transformed or elevated to a new level of existence, one that makes our lives and our persons holy in a special way. This sanctifying grace was also distinguished from the lesser “actual graces”. These latter were seen as divine helps to become better persons in various ways such as acquiring good habits, overcoming temptations, etc. Sanctifying grace, on the other hand, was seen as a sharing in divine life, although in a derivative, creaturely form.
However, the Eastern Christian (both Orthodox and Catholic) tradition went even farther, viewing this grace as “uncreated”, that is, not just as a share in godlike qualities, but as an actual participation in the divine life— hence the doctrine of theopoesis (usually shortened to theosis) or the “divinization” or virtual “deification” of the human being through grace. Indeed, it can be said that this theme, as derived from the promise found in the Second Epistle of Peter (1:4), of our becoming “participants in the divine nature” has played a central role in Eastern Christian theology, so much so that it has led to another theological rift between the Eastern and the Western Church, this time over the whole idea of what we mean by “supernatural” in reference to the whole concept of grace.
On the one hand we have western insistence (Protestant as well as Roman Catholic—both deriving from the Augustinian theological tradition) on the use of the word “grace” (charis) in a way that emphasizes its sheer gratuity as a gift from God. It was seen as in no way owed to us, with human nature seen as being fixed and naturally complete, consisting of a mortal body and an immortal soul. Thus, everything above and beyond what is strictly human is in some way “supernatural”. According to this view of human nature, borrowed from or at least re-enforced by Platonist philosophy, the soul survives death because it is naturally spiritual. Yet, according to the western Christian theological adaptation of this approach, without sanctifying grace this natural immortality or eternity itself might be a dead end. With grace, we get to enjoy heaven and without it, we are consigned to hell—or at least to “limbo” in the opinion of those who could not accept Augustine’s view of the fate of unbaptized babies who would otherwise be deprived of eternal happiness through no fault of their own.
In contrast to this, Eastern Christian theology has always been uneasy with such a rigid division between what is natural and what is supernatural. From one point of view, it sees all of creation as a gift. Yet, on the other hand, it sees the true or full, and therefore to some extent natural, human destiny as being to share in God’s life. Hence, to the eastern mentality, to call grace “supernatural” makes it sound like an add‑on, like a hat placed on a head, on top of what is already a complete human nature. This is seen as distorting the true situation, where humans, created in God’s image, are called to achieve likeness to God. Thus, in contrast to the western tendency to reduce the effect of grace to justification (as seen especially in Reformation theology), easterners tend to see the effect of divine grace to be primarily a share or participation in divine life, not just in the next life, but even in our lives here and now.
Yet, if this alternative way of thinking about the matter is true, then would it not imply that human nature, taken by itself, is to some extent incomplete? We may very well need God’s help or graces to reach heaven, but, it would seem, we also need it to become just even fully human as well. If so, then the real division is not between what is natural and what is supernatural, although theoretically such a division does exist. Instead, what is of much more significance is the division between what God creates and what is uncreated—which is to say, God himself. Grace, then, at least the truly sanctifying kind, is no mere holy thing or a commodity of sorts, a mere ticket (but indeed precious) ticket to heaven. It is a participation in the life of the uncreated Creator; hence, the life of grace is a “divinized” life. Through it, we not only share divine life, but we ourselves even become, as it were, God!
Yet this very traditional doctrine of the divinization or deification of human beings, even if it sounds somewhat strange to western ears, stands in a rather odd contrast to the way such an approach has been excluded from our more traditional ways of looking at Christ, even in the eastern tradition. Probably this is due to the belief that because Christ is God, he must always be considered primarily as the “divinizer” rather than the divinized.
True, there was a whole vein of what is today called “Spirit Christology” in early Christian thought, largely associated with the school of Antioch in Syria, that also very much emphasized the humanity of Jesus as depicted, particularly in the synoptic gospels. In this line of thought, it is the Holy Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism, leads or drives him into the desert, gives him power over evil spirits, and raised him from the dead (Rm 8:11). This was also, to put it in more contemporary terms, a low christology that was eventually to pass into disfavor under accusations of Adoptionism and other related heresies, to be replaced by the domination of the high christology of the Johannine gospel and of the Alexandrian school.
This is strange in a way, and, in view of the doctrine of human divinization, unfortunate. It has tended to set aside Christ in such a way that all the things the gospels say about Jesus as a human can’t be easily taken at face value—things like his psychological suffering as well as his physical suffering, his temptations, and certainly not, heaven forbid, his faith!
Yet if we wish to look at the life of Jesus from the viewpoint of his own faith, a low christology of ascent is an altogether necessary presupposition. For we have already seen that the life of faith is a life lived unrelentingly in a spirit of self‑sacrifice in total and complete abandonment to the will of God. Jesus may well have displayed miraculous power, prophetic knowledge, and divine compassion, but none of this was equal to the love he showed when he laid down his life for others through a total act of trust and faith in God. Even the Gospel of John exalts this moment of self‑sacrifice as the moment of glory and moment of the triumph of God’s all‑consuming love.
Of course, the whole problem here, when we look at it this way, is that the call of Christian discipleship, like the promise of divinization itself, is seen as putting us all on an equal footing, as it were, with Christ. Being told that we must become like him (“other Christs”), traditional main‑stream high christology seems to do an about-face, always quick to remind us that of, course, he was different. No doubt, he was different, but the question is, just how?
Probing the Difference
If the question of Christ’s uniqueness is held to be all-important, the answer is even more important¾and problematic.
In contemporary christological debate, it has become commonplace to express concern that our understanding of Jesus, if it is to remain orthodox, must be such as to establish his difference from the rest of humans in terms of kind, rather than simply in terms of degree. Thus it is often held that the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy is the confession that Jesus Christ is different in kind from the rest of us, in that he alone is, among all humans, at the same time, really, truly God, and this because he always was so in the person of the divine Word or Son. In this way, the high christology or christology of descent is held to be altogether necessary for a full understanding of the truth, no matter how helpful a low christology may be in helping us understand Jesus from a human point of view.
Put in these terms, I’m inclined to agree. Low christologies or christologies of ascent, like that which I appear to be favoring, are typically faulted for reducing the difference between Christ and us as being simply one of degree. This is taken to imply that his divine identity is being denied or simply reduced to being an example, even if the preeminent example, of divinization.
Yet I’m also greatly in sympathy with theologian Robert MacAffie Brown’s warning that to the extent we insist on Christ’s difference from us in the language of high christology, to that extent we end up denying his true humanity. Too much stress on a supposed difference in kind ends up making him into an altogether different species, a kind of E.T. (an “extra terrestrial”), an alien form of life, sharing some affinity for humanity, but nevertheless distinctly different. In fact, it should not go unnoticed how the film by that name some years back was seen by a few Christian reviewers as a parable of the Incarnation. Is this how we really wish Jesus to be understood?
One would hardly think so. If we must choose between seeing him as different in kind or simply different in degree, we find ourselves facing an impossible situation, an either/or dichotomy, either of which, understood strictly on such terms, amounts to what has been long considered to be heresy. If different in kind is our answer, then we really end up denying his humanity. On the other hand, if it is simply a difference of degree, then we end up putting his divinity into doubt.
To try to avoid this dilemma, attention might be called to an ancient maxim cited by St. Athanasius in the East and St. Augustine in the West as well as by many other early theologians as far back as St. Irenaeus in the second century. Again and again, we find it repeated, even as late as the thirteenth century, even by someone as theologically precise as St. Thomas Aquinas; it is that “God became man so that man might become God.”
While this saying (updated perhaps in more gender inclusive language) sums up, in two short phrases, the highest expression of christology and soteriology as well, still, it needs to be explained or unpacked. Yet rather than concentrating on the first half, which is the christological problem, let’s look again at the second part of the saying, but this time at the metaphysical implications of the assertion that humans can “become God”.
Strictly speaking, of course, God alone is (or ever can be) God. Divinity as such is incommunicable. Augustine, who used the maxim in its original form (in Sermo 27 de Tempore as quoted above) also qualified it somewhat when on another occasion he paraphrased it to write, “The only Son of God became a son of man to make many men sons of God” (Sermo 194). Certainly, this qualification is what one might expect from him who has been dubbed “The Doctor of Grace”, even though “sons” in the last use of that word in the above quote is obviously meant in the sense of merely adopted children of God.
On the other hand, might we not say (although with less precision) that not just humanity through grace, but all creation is, in a way, adopted—not in simply having been created by God, but in the sense of its continued existence being dependent on God, that is, by divine concurrence. Yet if we go back to considering why anything exists in the first place (the basic philosophical question as to why there is anything rather than nothing) we are brought back to the Augustine’s concept of God as “Being”, or as some of the medieval theologians described God’s primary quality, as being his “aseitas”— that is, the act of being in and of itself. Thus, God’s most basic property is simply to be, indeed, to be God is to be in such a way that all other existence is, in itself, a participation in God’s being. Or again, to put it in still another way, (made more popular in recent times by theologian Paul Tillich) God is the “Ground of Being”.
Tillich’s terminology, however, was hardly new. It seems to have been borrowed from the fourteenth century German mystical theologian Johann Eckhart—who also spoke of God as die Grund or “Ground”—and who went so far as to proclaim that in itself to exist is to be God, at least in the sense that everything that is, insofar as it exists, partakes in the divine quality of being as such. Therefore to exist is, at least in some sense, to already be divine!
Yet normally we don’t speak this way (especially after Eckhart was hauled before the Inquisition and accused of pantheism), because we have only a borrowed existence. (In fact, the very word existence—especially in light of its prefix ex meaning “from”—implies dependency; thus, strictly speaking, God doesn’t “exist”, instead, God simply “is”.) So, no matter how holy or complete we become, our lives as individuals is still only derived or dependent on something else. Even when raised by grace or the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s life, we at best are “divine” as adopted sons or daughters of God. To suggest that existing as isolated individuals we can somehow actually be or become God or to be ontologically the Son of God—as the critics misunderstood Eckhart to be saying—is, of course, impossible or absurd. Only God can be God as such.
However, it is less commonly pointed out that strictly speaking, the first part of the statement that “God became man” is just as impossible. Only a “man” (a human being with all its limitations) can be truly human. Ontologically speaking (which is to say, in the order of being), God as such cannot actually be a human or become one. That would seem to be a metaphysical contradiction in terms.
Nevertheless, human life, insofar as we exist, shares God’s being. So too, looked at from the divine perspective—if we can presume to do so—God’s creating and sustaining role in the universe (divine concurrence) implies that no event in nature, or in our activities, or any imaginable activity of any sort in the universe is accomplished without God’s presence. In this sense of divine immanence, all that exists is divine. This is just the flip side of Eckhart’s equation of existence as partaking in God’s being when it is rightly understood.
Taking such ontological restrictions seriously, then it would seem that, strictly speaking, to say, “God became a human” is just as impossible as to say, “Humans can become God”. From this point of view, a christology of descent seems to be as impossible as one of ascent. Nevertheless, in the order of divine concurrence it is possible to say that God descends into humanity, just as surely, and perhaps with much greater certainty than we can say any particular human ascends to divinity or participation in God’s life.
The reason for this is because God is the altogether necessary precondition or ground of existence. Our existence is entirely contingent on God’s being, even if our individual identity, rooted in our physicality, marks each of us as distinct from our creator. Yet in the case of Jesus, was not only his existence, much as ours, entirely contingent on God, but even more, was not his individual identity as a human in some very unique way identified personally with God’s concurrence in human history? If so, then perhaps we come as close as we can to saying that God has incarnated himself in a human life as it is possible to do. Yet this would be without destroying what it means to be a human being, or, on the other hand, without the primary agent of that concurrence ceasing to be God. In this way, we might say that not only the degree of divine in every aspect of the life of the man Jesus, but even more the clarity with which this has been revealed, is how he may have been preeminently different than us.
Would even this make him different in kind? Perhaps not really, when you get down to it. Yet perhaps we can see another aspect, a temporal one, as well, that does add to his preeminence. From this temporal aspect, the difference between Jesus and us could be this: that from the very beginning, that is, from the first moment of his actual existence as a human, the fullness of the Holy Spirit was there. Not only that, but even before his conception, from all eternity—if we can speak of a “before” in respect to eternity—that this fullness of the divine spirit was intended by God. In this sense, Jesus was absolutely predestined as the summit of all divinized humanity. There never was, nor, as far as we know, will there ever be a union between God and human nature as complete as his.
This is not to say that he was necessarily conscious of this fact as a human. Instead, he appears to have slowly—or perhaps more quickly at some times than others—grown into full consciousness of this union between himself and God. It may even be that the summit of this consciousness was not reached until after his death and that his resurrection was the outward sign of this totally conscious consummation.
Furthermore, perhaps we could add a certain ontological slant to this divine immanence and indwelling as well. For if we can say that God is in or “subsists” in (which is to say supports or gives existence to) the person whom we call Jesus—which is true of all persons—still in the case of Jesus would it not be possible to say that the indwelling of God was so intense that he was already raised to a higher level of existence?
Here we might think of the philosopher Engel and his evolutionary principle that enough difference or increase in quantity can amount to a difference in quality as well. For example, few would doubt that humans are qualitatively different from mere animals. Yet when we try to account for that difference, we seem, at least according to evolutionary evidence, to be reduced to concluding that the greatly increased quantity or amount of thinking ability is what makes this difference possible. Thus, as the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin often pointed out, animals “know”, but humans “know that they know”.
In a parallel fashion, might it not be then that in the case of Jesus, the absolute influx of divine grace at the beginning of his existence as a human being made a qualitative difference in the meaning of the second part of that saying, the part about humans “becoming God”? If a person’s thinking and willing become, due to the influx of divine grace, totally one with that of God, can it not be said that person has become fully one with God, at least to the extent that any creature could be said to become divinized in this way?
Finally, if such considerations still seem to smack too much of a low christology, no matter how high the ascent, it could be suggested that we might consider the divine initiative or influx of grace into Jesus in an even more radical and personalizing way. If, as we have seen, no human person is complete or fully human without the influx of the Holy Spirit, could we not say that so complete was this divine influx into the composition of Jesus’ humanity, that his personhood was that of God’s archetypical plan for all humans? If so, it would to be to say that this archetype (the true Adam) has taken shape fully in this man, and that this archetype is, at the same time, God’s expression or Word about himself. “Let us make humankind in our image... in the image of God he created them” (Gn 1:26-27). Thus, Christ is also the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
If so, then it seems that the only real barrier, even within a high christology, towards seeing Jesus as fully human, as well as fully divine, is the false dichotomy that is set up when we presuppose, on the one hand, that human beings are complete, fully conscious, fully self‑sufficient creatures all by themselves, and, on the other hand, that the divine Word or Son whom we presuppose Jesus to have been (in his divine nature) was himself a complete, fully‑conscious person in his own right apart from the existence of Jesus in his humanity. That this last observation (as suggested by Dutch theologian Piet Schoonenburg in his book The Christ,) seems to undercut the traditional understanding of the Trinity, may be true, but then it also brings me to what I feel, at least for now, must be my concluding remarks.
A “Monotheocentric” Faith
By way of a theological summary to this whole book, I would have to say this: if it is to remain faithful to its origins, Christian belief, which includes our faith in Christ, must be at most a universalized version of Jesus’ own faith. Anything else must be viewed as a deviation from that norm.
Such a faith is, above all, a belief in one God, in other words, an uncompromising monotheism. All trinitarian elaborations, whatever be their beauty or profundity, must be held subservient to that central tenet. The God of Jesus, his Father and ours, is the God revealed to Israel. And that God is one!
Furthermore, we must always keep in mind the basic revelatory function of Christ. Even if we believe him to be divine, it is obvious from the New Testament that the mission of Jesus was not to make himself worshipped, but to direct all attention to the Father. Believing what we do about him, we Christians may be forgiven our enthusiasm and proclivity to make Jesus Christ our central cult figure, but this is not following most faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus himself. In other words, Christianity, despite its name, must always be theocentric, not christocentric at heart.
Keeping these two central points in mind, even when we enter the realm of trinitarian elaboration, we must always keep it subservient to the kerygmatic demands of the New Testament—the liberating Gospel or “good news”. We must always remember, historically speaking, that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity emerged out of the prior necessity of explaining how Jesus Christ, through the power of God’s Spirit, is the revelation of the one God whom Jesus addressed as “Father”. In more technical terms, immanential trinitarianism, which is speculation upon the inner workings of the divine nature, must remain secondary to and dependent on economic trinitarianism, which is to say, upon the work of God in relation to salvation history. Otherwise, Christian thought opens itself up to the charge of theological―or dare we say “mystical”?― adventurism.
Nor is this trinitarian trend even uniquely Christian. Plato seems to have developed a trinitarian view of divine nature, one that may even have it roots in Vedic or Hindu thought. And if one were to read the Roman philosopher Plotinus (AD 205-270), one cannot help wondering just how much his mystical reworking of Plato influenced Christian doctrine as it took shape in those early years. So too, some more recent western philosophers, such as Hegel and Whitehead, devised their own trinitarian insights. Christians may well rejoice at all this, or even see it as a providential working of God’s grace, but it seems to me that we would do well to take all claims of insight into the inner nature of God with a grain of salt.
In addition, even within the realm of an economic trinitarianism that claims to adhere strictly to the New Testament, we must also remember that even such scriptural Johannine and Pauline themes as the pre‑existence of the divine Word/Wisdom/Son are third level traditions. As explained in the very beginning of this book, most of these might be best understood as inspired theological elaborations. Otherwise, we run into great difficulties —for example, if divine to begin with, how explain the fact of Jesus “praying” at all? Even the personalization of the Spirit in John’s gospel would not seem to meet the strict criteria of having been part of the remembered words or deeds of the historical Jesus. Otherwise, how explain the complete absence of this approach in the rest of the New Testament? Nor do these themes appear to be part of the original kerygma as well. For this reason, none of them should be taken as the only possible approach. The same might be said about the various soteriological themes in the New Testament, whether expressed in terms of “justification”, “enlightenment”, or “cosmic restoration”. They could be seen more as complementary than definitive.
So too, something similar must be said about what we might term the fourth level of tradition—the creeds and other post-scriptural theological elaborations formulated early in the history of Christian thought. Such formulations as “one nature, three persons” to summarize the Trinity, or “one person, two natures” to describe Christ, are all too subject to misunderstanding. Indeed, perhaps the most respected Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, suggested a moratorium the term “person” in the trinitarian context, the contemporary usage of the term being too far from what the ancient Church theologians were trying to convey.
Finally, and most of all, the same must be said about contemporary attempts (including this one) to make sense of everything. While I have found myself increasingly resistant to the ancient Christian practice of extolling paradox—which seems to me to be deliberate mystification— as a sign of God’s working in this world, still, I have to admit that there is more than enough mystery in it to keep theologians occupied until the end of time. So maybe the important thing is not so much to slavishly hew to theological correctness, trying to explain or fully understand all that has been believed about Jesus. Instead, it is much more important to be a Christian—to walk simply and humbly in the footsteps of Jesus, who can be seen as our “leader and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2a).
The reason for emphasizing this should be obvious by now. Religious divisiveness remains one of the greatest, if not the only, cause of human conflict upon this earth. Religion, which should be the greatest unifier of humanity—“that they all may be one…as you, Father, are in me and I am in you” (Jn 17:21)—has become, sadly to say, almost from the very beginning, a point of contention. Perhaps this is to be expected in view of religion’s role in providing what for most people is the ultimate meaning of their life in this world, even if their religious beliefs focus largely on whatever is next. The advent of Christianity, unfortunately, did not alleviate this situation. If anything, it seems to have only made it worse. One cause—not the only one, but certainly one that is a major premise of this book—is that faith, which is a measure of our fundamental trust in God, has been too often and for too long confused with belief or beliefs, which to a large extent are views, opinions, or attempts to formulate exactly why we may have such trust or confidence. Except for his conviction that the reign of God in some way already was among us or was soon to be fulfilled, Jesus was noteworthy in having introduced no new beliefs beyond those—including the resurrection of the dead—already held by many, perhaps most, of his fellow Jews. All that he asked for was a life lived in trustful faith in God and a faithful love of God and ones fellow human beings. If Christianity introduced any new doctrines, they have originated more from his followers, not from Jesus himself.
If this last chapter or extended christological postscript may have seemed to concentrate on the latter (the conflicting beliefs regarding the divine-human identity of Jesus and this attempt to present a possible solution to the problem), it is only for the sake of accentuating the former, that is, his role as a model for our faith. And if this view of Jesus—as a man of faith—seems as unorthodox to some as my views concerning his ultimate identity, then I must conclude, more than ever, that mere beliefs (including my own, which have continued to develop, even since the initial writing and first publication of this book) may still be an obstacle rather than an asset to a loving trust in God or what is, in the gospel sense of the word, genuine faith.