01 February, 2012

Essay - “Truly God and truly human”

Truly God and truly human; what are the difficulties to be dealt with in making this claim about Jesus Christ today?


The creedal formula in Jesus Christ as ‘truly God and truly man’ has been held by the Church since its definition at the Fourth General Council at Chalcedon. The seeds of this doctrine found in the Scriptures were elaborated in the Apostolic and Patristic periods long before AD 451. The work of the Council was aimed to define a theological stance truthful to the Church’s tradition. It also aimed to hold together different interpretations of how the mode of union between Godhead and humanity could take place in Jesus of Nazareth. Interpretation of Chalcedon has therefore played an important part in theology ever since, requiring the Church to further refine her language and beliefs. This statement – like any other formula of faith – has to be constantly rethought and elucidated in order to remain alive in the mind of the Church [cf. Walter Kasper, (1976) 17]. In recent times, particularly after World War II [cf. Gerald O’Collins (2009) 232], some theologians have brought forth Christological interpretations which undermine or simply deny the idea that the son of Mary could also be the incarnate Son of God. The key concept of the incarnation is that God – unlimited, unchanging and immortal etc... – enters the constraints of creation and time to dwell with his people. He becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who is precisely ‘God-with-us’, the Emmanuel (cf. Mt 1:23). Thus, Jesus alone is prefigured by the prophets and presented by the New Testament – among other titles – as the Christ (Mk 1:1); the Son of the Most High who is born by the Holy Spirit; the Son of God (cf. Lk 1:32-34); the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14) and the One in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19).

This essay will examine the major difficulties encountered by the Church in defending her Christology today. The first part of this essay will consider the main objections posed by low-Christology and theologians such as John Hick; to a great extent, these positions – although new in their language – stand very close to Arianism or Monothelism in their meanings [cf. Gerald O’Collins (2009) 233]. The second part of this paper will examine some of the issues which directly relate to the modern understanding of deity and humanity.

Towards a ‘soft’ account of the incarnation and low-Christology

a) Nature of the Incarnation
In recent times various theologians have reopened the debate about the actual nature of Jesus and the uniqueness of his incarnation. In other words, questions such as these were posed: does Jesus truly share in the divine nature of the Godhead or is he rather a ‘Spirit-filled’ Messiah? Moreover, does his incarnation have a unique status or is it rather more like a process of theosis (Θέωσις) by which all human beings – at different levels – can become Sons of God? [Compared to the Easter Churches this is a very different understanding of theosis, however there are strong similarities. In this case the believer’s goal is not so much union with God, but rather mirroring a very human Christ in almost every aspect, making him/her a sort of co-redeemer.] Gerald O’Collins interprets this unorthodox Christology as a ‘soft’ accounts of the incarnation that denies ‘the qualitative difference between the divine presence in Jesus and the divine presence through grace in other human beings’ [Gerald O’Collins (2009) 233]. For Hick the incarnation ‘is a matter of degree’ but egalitarian nonetheless [John Hick in Stephen Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (ed.) (2004) 2]. God becomes incarnate in every human being who is ‘truly saintly’ [John Hick, ibid.]. Although Hick sees these individuals to be also ‘Christ-like’ or ‘Spirit-filled’ it is not at all clear if being explicitly Christian is a prerequisite for this type of “incarnation”; indeed a universalist strain can be noticed in works such as The Metaphor of God Incarnate. For Hick and David Strauss Jesus is just the archetype of the incarnation; he is neither the union of the Godhead with creation nor is he the One whose life, death and resurrection have brought salvation to the cosmos. Moreover, even though it is debatable whether or not these two scholars were influenced by Hegel’s philosophy [cf. ibid. 2], by stressing their arguments, Jesus can be perceived as saviour not because of the Easter events, but rather because he is a prototype of perfect humanity and the new – perhaps perfect – mediator of the divine law [cf. Gerald O’Collins (2009) 233].

b) The pre-existence of the Logos

Discussions about the pre-existence of the Logos before Jesus’ earthly birth can trace their origins back to the Arian heresy and they could be grouped also with the other problems encountered with low-Christology in the previous paragraph. In order to sustain the belief that Jesus Christ shares in the divine nature of the Father it is necessary for the Logos – God’s Word and logia – to share the same divine life also [cf. Gerald O’Collins in Stephen Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (ed.) (2004) 3]. However, from Arius through Hick to Schoonenberg different theological understandings of the Logos have undermined this belief – and in consequence the Trinitarian creed – at various degrees. For example, Schoonenberg held that the Word is only fully personalised at the incarnation, hence his divine nature can be understood as “quasi-divine” prior this event [cf. ibid. 5]. If the word incarnate is not the eternally generated Word of the Father, then Jesus cannon be declared as true God.

c) Can God and man be united in the same person?

The classical understanding of the incarnation involves the union of two distinctive natures in the person of Jesus Christ. The objections made on this point by some theologians have, once again, been fairly similar since the ones made in Patristic period. According to these, even if one were to accept the divinity of the Word it would be difficult to believe that the Second person of the Trinity truly became part of the created order and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The immanent characteristics of the Godhead are perceived to be so diametrically opposite to the human ones that the incarnation becomes simply illogical. In recent times Don Cupit and Friedrich Schleiermacher held similar positions. Probably because of this, the former was brought to deny relevance of Jesus’ resurrection for the Christian faith [cf. Robert W. Jenson (1997) 179]. Thus, for some modern scholars the incarnation became an unreasonable contradiction rather than just a paradox [cf. Gerald O’Collins in Stephen Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (ed.) (2004) 8]. How is this possible? Precisely because the two natures considered here are so indescribably different they ought to be acknowledged according to their respective frame of reference. Perhaps this was unintentional by-product of the Tome of Leo at Ephesus and Chalcedon. The Fourth General Council was able to anticipate much of the theological debate of the subsequent centuries by acknowledging two distinct natures in one and the same hypostasis. Should the Tome of Leo had been incorporated wholesale in the Definition of Chalcedon it would have pushed the Church dangerously towards ‘Antiochean scepticism’ and a ‘Duad of Sons’ (υἱῶν δυάδα). However, because of the conciliar discussions a balanced definition was formulated between the Roman and Alexandrinian parties; one person in two natures (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν) which should be understood respectively according to their proper frame of reference – i.e. divine and human. The Council Fathers saw in the word ‘person’ the most logical expression for for the “product” of the incarnation. According to Karl Rahner ‘there is no other word which would be really better’ [Karl Rahner in Gerald O’Collins (2009) 246].

d) Demythologisation of Christ

Another important aspect of low-Christology is the demythologisation of Christ himself. This phenomenon is fundamentally related to the quest for the historical Jesus [cf. Walter Kasper, (1976) 18]. Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann successfully argued against this kind of Christology; however, some of Bultmann’s pupils such as Gerhard Ebling and Ernst Fuchs [cf. Robert W. Jenson (1997) 166] formulated further thesis about the historical Jesus in post-World War II Germany. It should be noted that none of these theologians would have denied the resurrection of Jesus or the miracles he worked; however, some more recent scholarship has seen Jesus’ actual historicity as ending with his death. The resurrection, the mark of divine Sonship, is regarded as part of a different ontological realm; as part of the Christ of faith [cf. ibid. 172]. Jesus Christ should be only accepted in the light of what one could prove about his existence. However, because of the fragmentary nature of the historical notions about Jesus of Nazareth this hypothesis seems difficult to sustain; moreover, it would probably lead one to deny the notions of Jesus’ divine nature precisely because of its un-repeatable or miraculous characters. According to Walter Kasper this is a flat-footed theology which is incongruous with the New Testament view of Jesus [Walter Kasper, (1976) 19]. The quest for the historical Jesus was somewhat prophesised and pre-empted by Søren Kierkegaard in 1850 with the publication of Indøvelse i Christendom. Here the Danish theologian held that Jesus is a person both within and outside the realm of history; thus, trying to define him just according to His human action would be unfruitful for both believers and academic alike. Kierkegaard’s interpretation of σκανδαλισθῇ in Mt 11:6 (‘Blessed is the one who is not scandalised by me’) refers to the paradox of the incarnation, when the man-God [cf. Søren Kierkegaard (2000) 123] Jesus reveals himself as God’s intervention in the World [The ‘Zeal of the Lord’ (Isa 9:7) is God’s intervention.].

Some postmodern Issues

Some issues connected with the more recent understanding of humanity and the divine will be briefly outlined in this part of the paper. If it is true that the Christological language of Chalcedon feels somewhat distant from modern usage of words such as “person” and “nature”, then the same could be argued for the modern usage of concepts such as “God” and “humanity”. It is perhaps part of the apologetic work of the Church to present God in the light of Jesus Christ; however, the Christian God appears to be very different from the modern interpretation of God. Similarly Jesus’ humanity seems to be far removed from any concept of post-modern humanity. Karl Rahner held that Christ ‘is the union of the historical manifestation of the question which man is and the answer which God is’ [Karl Rahner in Colin Gunton (ed.) (1997) 171].

i) What kind of god?

Kenneth Leech wrote at the beginning of the ‘80s that ‘the god of much conventional religion is a being who dwells [...] above and beyond the world. [...] He is essentially uninvolved’ [Kenneth Leech (1980) 7]. This perception of the divine has pervaded a large part of society. God is seen as uninvolved, absent, silent or dead. Religiosity is also quite often seen as obsolete and obscure; just a devise which hampers progress. Indeed, Hegel held that Christianity was a ‘dull and killing belief in a superior being, altogether alien to man’ [ibid. 11] which needed to be eradicated in order to free mankind. Why would this kind of god become enfleshed, despoiling himself from all his majesty and aloofness and dying on a cross?

In order to answer this question one should start from the incarnation precisely because ‘no one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, [...] who has made him known’ (John 1:18). Humanity has generally ascribed to God many characteristic such as being omnipotent, omniscient etc... However, the Scriptures point towards a deeper understanding of His nature. He is also ‘the absolute source of all that is true, good and beautiful. God is not only absolutely self-fulfilled but also absolutely self-giving’ [Gerald O’Collins (2009) 232]. Therefore, Christianity is able to recognise in Jesus some divine characteristics in order to proclaim that this man from Nazareth is true God. Indeed, his life and death reveal to humanity ‘the breadth and length and height and depth’ of the divine love which ‘surpasses knowledge’ (Eph 3:18-19). Love such as this mirrors the Father’s love and chiefly reveals Jesus as true Son of God and shatters the ideas of divinity proposed by Hegel and post-modernism.

ii) What kind of humanity?

Gerald O’Collins articulates his view of humanity as ‘bodily, rational, free, emotional, remembering dynamic, social and limited/unlimited’ [ibid. 237]. Perhaps it would be useful to add to this list ‘communicating’ and ‘in relationship with “the other”’ [ibid. 235]. These characteristics are shown by the New Testament to be fully manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, but it is important to note that Jesus’ interaction with ‘the other’ was the centre of His ministry and His relationship with the Father. Jesus can be acknowledged as fully human as he willingly experienced all things which define being a man such as emotions, social interaction, fear, pain etc... even sinning was thought to be possible by Him [cf. Gerald O’Collins in Stephen Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (ed.) (2004) 14]. Christ is human in a provocative sense. He is the one who says ‘learn from me’ (Mt 11:29) and shows how to live in union with the Father. However, His cross and passion compel the believer to redefine what is being human in the face of such finitude and brutality [cf. Gerald O’Collins (2009) 237].


The Church is confronted with difficulties in expressing her belief in Jesus as the man-God in whom both the divine and the human natures are fully present and inseparable. These difficulties are represented by (a) a shift in the meaning of the technical words used at Chalcedon; (b) the rise of low-Christology; (c) by academic scepticism about the Gospel narratives and the metaphysic of the incarnation; (d) by a profound shift in the general perception of humanity and God. Walter Kasper invites the Church to constantly reflect on her Christology in order to expound the uniqueness of her faith. An example of this was given in 1973 when a joint declaration was signed by Paul VI and the Coptic Church leader Shenouda III seeking to repair the breach between the Western Church and the Monophysite Churches. It described Jesus as 
perfect God with respect to his divinity, perfect man with respect to his humanity [...preserving] all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of humanity together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union’ [Gerald O’Collins in Stephen Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (ed.) (2004) 11].

Stephen Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (ed.), The Incarnation, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2004)
Colin Gunton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1997)
Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, The Triune God, Oxford University Press (NY, 1997)
Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ, Burns and Oates (Tunbridge Wells, 1976)
Søren Kierkegaard, Esercizio di Christianesimo, Piemme (Casale Monferrato, 2000)
Kenneth Leech, True Prayer, Sheldon Press (London, 1980)
Gerald O’Collins, Christology, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2009)

No comments: