Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Is Jesus God?

Is Jesus God? I would like to answer this baldly stated question in the manner of that great preacher, Reverend Lovejoy: "No with an if; Yes with a but."

The answer to this question must be "no" if we mean that God, simply stated, is the human being named Jesus. Jesus is not God if we understand the identity of God to be exhausted in the history of the human Jesus. Jesus is not God if we mean God has no choice but to become a human being in order to fix his out of control creation. Jesus is not God if we claim to worship and serve a human being as such. Jesus is not God if it is implied that God had become incarnate in order to become that which he is not already in eternity. Jesus is not God if we understand God to already be a creature named Jesus before there even was a created order.

Nevertheless, the answer to the question "Is Jesus God?" must also be "yes." Yes Jesus is God, but as the incarnation of the eternally begotten Son of God. Yes Jesus is God, but on the basis of the fact that there already is in God's eternity a fellowship of persons. Yes Jesus is God, but only if we remember that God becomes human as an outpouring of his divine life as Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Yes Jesus is God, but as the unfolding of a plan set in eternity by the triune God. Yes Jesus is God, but Jesus can pray to the Father without suffering from multiple personality disorder since the Son has been praying to the Father throughout eternity. Yes Jesus is God, because the Trinity logically precedes and therefore grounds the Incarnation.

In other words, the Trinity is the divine line of credit upon which the Incarnation draws. The Triune life of God in eternity is the condition for the actuality of temporal incarnation of God in the man Jesus. This is why, historically speaking, the doctrine of the Trinity had to be established first (4th century: Nicea & Constantinople), before the church turned its face fully to Christological problems (5th century: Ephesus and Chalcedon). This may seem counterintuitive, for as this post shows it is precisely the Christological question which leads one to the Trinitarian formula. Yet the order of discovery does not always correspond to the order of reality. Christology leads to Trinity, but only the Trinity has the resources to ground Christology. The key of course is that they remain inseparable. For the Trinity without Christology is meaningless metaphysical mathematics. But Christology without the Trinity is ungrounded pious assertion.

So what's my point? Certainly we can confess the divinity of Jesus without all this further ado. But it pays to remember the pains with which Christians have always treaded carefully around the topic of the divinity of Jesus. It's not something we just assert and say "love it or leave it." "Jesus is God" is a mystery worthy of manifold adoration -- an act of worship which includes precise theologizing in order to block misleading implications that leave us open to all sorts of attacks. So keep saying 'Jesus is God." Or keeping asking "Is Jesus God?" But whether you confess or ask, accept or reject, give a weighty statement like that the thought it deserves.

Any thoughts?
Is this account with its distinctions accurate?
Is it adequate?
Is it coherent?
Is it useful?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Is it really "not about you"?

You have heard it said, “It’s not about you.” I appreciate this popular attack against anthropocentrism, inasmuch as it goes against the narcissistic individualism of American religion. Since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I should put my weight behind it. But I am reluctant to do so. Why? Because it doesn’t go far enough.

The initial problem is that it is only a negation. Avoiding anthropocentrism doesn’t really accomplish much. Negating the self is easy. There’s nothing peculiarly Christian about that. Thus it tells what the faith is not about. But what is the faith about? It might as well be about a dog, for as long as it is not me, the formula is satisfied.

Of course, one ought to give the benefit of the doubt that the affirmation is implied by the negation. It’s not about you, because it’s all about God. But even as an implication, the formula stills does not succed in centering our faith on God. By focusing on the negation, it remains firmly planted on anthropocentric soil. Theocentrism is here only accomplished by the negation of the human, and thus God is still just an extension of humanity. One still starts with the self and then seeks to reach beyond oneself by negating the self. Such is the same old cul-de-sac of false humility in which we have been caught for years.

The apparent solution is to simply focus on the affirmation: “It’s all about God.” The advantage here is that the negation is implied: if it is all about God, than it can’t be all about me, or you, or anything else. The problem with this solution is that one wonders whether this egotistical God is really the God of Christianity. Does the reality of God by definition overpower the reality of humanity? Does the acknowledgement of God require the disenfranchisement of the human? Are God and humanity really in competition with each other? No! For us and for our salvation, God became human. A phrase like “it’s all about God” veils this act. So just as “it’s not about me” remains stuck in an anthropocentric circle, “it’s all about God” stately baldly leads to a theocentrism that excludes the central humanizing activity of God. It seems in either case we are required to choose between God and humanity.

The real alternative is to proclaim that “It’s all about God, and God is all about us.” A Christian theocentrism that is truly centered on the Christian God must also affirm a modified anthropocentrism. We do not need to help God out by hating humanity. We just need to point to God’s own love for humanity. In light of the incarnation, we can trust that our affirmation of God does not exclude but rather includes an affirmation of humanity. And who better to lift humanity to its intended heights than the very God who created us?

So in a way it is about me, but only because this God is all about us, and that "us" includes "me" in a real and genuine way.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Did Jesus Die and Go to Heaven?

A lot of Christians use the phrase "die and go to heaven." Though it may hold some truth, it is a misleading phrase. Why? Because the only concrete clue we have about our future is the first-fruits of our resurrection: the raised body of Jesus. And Jesus certainly did not “die and go to heaven.” If he didn’t, why should we expect to? The fact of the matter is, Jesus died and went to hell. Now he went to hell for us, but that does not mean we just die and flitter off as disembodied souls. No. We die and are raised like him. So although we may consciously experience our heavenly future immediately, the fact of the matter is that our hope lies in the restoration of our bodies, not just in our souls going to heaven after we die.

If there is one consistent thing across the resurrection accounts, it is that the post-Easter Jesus had a body, and it was his body, the same body that had died. Was it changed? Certainly. It was a transformed and glorified body. That’s what makes it good news for us. But this transformation is a predicate of his same body. The resurrection is not some replacement of our identity or a leaving behind of this life altogether. If so, then it wouldn’t really be us who are experiencing it. The resurrection is the transformation of this life. That’s what makes it good news for us.

Of course, the phrase “die and go to heaven” does not necessarily need to be abandoned. That is the bottom line. But it helps to be complemented by the phrase, “die and yet will be raised like him.” Such speech reminds us that we are not just imprisoned souls awaiting the end of this embodied life. Rather, we are embodied souls awaiting the redemption of all things, including our own bodies.

What implications does this have for how we relate to our bodies?
Once we have retrieved the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, how do we continue to speak coherently about the “soul”?
Am I missing something major in this account?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Was Jesus Tempted?

I get this question a lot:

"The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in the desert, but if He is God, how could He be tempted? If you say that His humanity was tempted, are we saying that Jesus had the "urge" to commit sin? Are we to separate the humanity from the divinity of Christ?"

Here's a recent response to such an email query:

Temptation does not require that Jesus had a sinful inclination - it could simply be an option laid before his will which he rejected. The same applies for us that we can experience temptation without necessarily being culpable. We have a tendency to think that Jesus' humanity had some extra boost of divinity that we do not have and we therefore get ourselves off the hook for the call to become fully human. Note also that all the temptation stories for Jesus are to give up and/or twist his mission (wilderness at beginning of ministry and garden of Gethsemane at the end), so they have a particular focus. Hence Jesus was tempted to contradict the nature of his mission. And once again, this is the more dangerous form of temptation for us - to not fulfill or twist our vocation.

As for the unity of divine and human natures, it is essential that the one person "The Son made Man Jesus" does all and experiences all as a united person with two natures. So when the human flesh undergoes temptation, God is united to the humanity so that God experiences temptation in and through the humanity. God adds (assumes) humanity onto himself so that he can perform this mission, and yet the Trinitarian shape of his eternal life is the condition for this "adding" (hence God is not "changing" into a man). Everything undergone by the humanity God also takes on as his experience. And everything done by the humanity (whether it appears human or divine) is performed by the humanity under girded by the power of God. So the two natures are never separated, yet they are not mixed. The one God-Man is born, eats, sleeps, heals, walks on water, dies, and rises again. There is a long Christian tradition that attributes some things to the humanity and others to the divinity. But this is a dangerous game because the unity of the two natures is broken and we are left with a schizoid Jesus. It’s all the one person: The Logos Incarnate.

Does this old-school Chalcedonian stuff really answer the question?
Or are the problems of Christology unsolvable?
In other words, does the plain sense of Scripture fall apart in the context of a high Christology?
If so, what's the alternative?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Will Heaven Be Boring?

As a kid, heaven always sounded boring to me. Won't we get sick of worshipping God all day? That sounds so repetitive. The only solution I ever came up was that at the eschaton we will be changed into the kind of people that won't get bored of God. Unfortunately, this just means we'll become boring too. Furthermore, this transformation hypothesis doesn't really affect the premise that God is boring. No wonder Christians, who proleptically participate in the eschaton (aka 'foretaste of glory divine'), are so bored and boring!

This week I have been reading J. Warren Smith's Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa, who deals with this problem as it was framed in the Patristic period. Apparently, Origen's teachings on human satiation implied that God was boring (or at least that humans can become bored in their contemplation of God). He believed that human beings had pre-existent souls who used to contemplate God yet as they became too full of God's goodness (aka, satiated) they "fell" into fleshy bodies. Only the soul of Jesus never fell, so he took on a body for our sakes to bring us back into contemplation of God. Despite the wacky primitive Christology, Origen's theory leaves open the problem that we may once again become satiated with God and re-fall. Although he answers such an objection, the idea that we could be satiated with God in the first place raised questions about divine infinity. Though Origen himself may have assumed that God was infinite, he did not think through the implications of this assumption.

Enter Gregory of Nyssa. First of all, Nyssen discarded Origen's idea of a pre-existent soul and the deficient Christology attached to this theory. But more importantly, Nyssen argued that because God is infinite, the human can never become satiated with his goodness. Rather, God is so unbounded that he will by nature remain interesting for eternity. Not only that, but we in our human finitude (which will never pass away even in the eschaton) will remain eternal interested in God. Eternal Life with God will mean dynamically exploring by our finite means of knowledge the infinite dynamic being of God. In other words, we will never get bored of God, because of the radical difference between his infinity and our finitude. Nyssen's term for this is epectasy: continual reaching. C. S. Lewis expresses this idea beautifully when he speaks of the children in New Narnia going "further up and further in" (Harper ed., 203f).

So the bottom line is that the end will not be boring. Actually, it will be eminently more interesting than life is now, for God fully revealed will give us an eternity's worth to think, feel and do.