Jesus: Human and Divine
An address given at Baitul Futuh Mosque on October 9, 2018 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
The Heart of Christianity
There are two kinds of things: those that abide forever; and those that don’t. The things that abide forever we call essence; the things that last for a shorter period we call existence.
We human beings are in the first category. We exist: we think that because we exist we’re the heart of all things. But we forget that existence isn’t all there is. Existence is not the same as essence. Existence is subject to change and decay – and death. Essence isn’t. Yes, we do indeed exist. But we’re not essences: we’re not permanent. We’re not essential. Take us away and there still is. Our being depends on the existence of others.
Why are we here? We exist because the essence of all things, in the depths of its mysteries, brought into being something that was not essential, something … else. We’re part of that ‘else.’ We’re not just inessential to essence – we’re not even existential to existence.
There could have been no existence. There could have been nothing beyond essence. Yet here we are. We’re lost in wonder at the transition from eternity to time, from the elusive and immortal to the tangible and fragile. We’re bursting with gratitude when we realise that there’s nothing whatsoever for which we can claim the credit.
And here in the depths of wonder, we meet the astonishing claim of the Christian faith. On one starry night, displaced by migration, in a hostile political climate, surrounded by animals, from an unwed mother living homeless in a strange town, essence entered existence. Essence, which we could call by a hundred names but we most often call God (or, in Arabic, Allah); essence, which could have remained alone without ever conceiving of existence; essence, which would most straightforwardly have left things as nothing but out of utmost grace initiated existence – that essence made itself part of existence. The Word became flesh. In Jesus, the essence of all things became part of existence – subject to change, decay and death, just like us.
Here we discover the answer to perhaps the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is, because essence, or God as we usually say, always intended to be our companion, to be with us. That’s what the word ‘Jesus’ represents: God’s eternal purpose to be with us, which triggered the whole mystery of existence from beginning to end. Jesus isn’t an afterthought that came into existence when essence realised existence was going badly wrong: Jesus is the whole meaning and purpose for existence in the first place. Jesus is the reason we exist.
But we haven’t yet reached the best bit. Here we come to the most astonishing wonder of all. Jesus is fully human and fully divine – complete existence, utter essence. And through him we realise what God’s final purpose always was: to bring us into essence – into eternal truth. Jesus is God stretching out a hand and saying ‘Come into the essence of all things to be with me.’ You may know the painting of God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome: God’s hand stretched out in creation. But the final purpose of creation is that God’s hand stretches out a second time, in Jesus, and invites us to become part of the very essence of all things. What an inexpressible gift.
The Christian doctrine of the incarnation is that at a particular moment in history, the second person of the Trinity, the eternally beloved Son, known sometimes as the Logos, took flesh and, growing from infancy to adulthood, walked on earth in human form. Yet throughout his birth, life, death, resurrection and final exaltation, this human being, Jesus, at no time ceased to be divine, the second person of the Trinity; nor did he at any time cease to be human; nor did he at any time cease to be one person, albeit a person with both a divine and human nature; nor did at any time the divine and the human, the Creator and the creature, cease to be distinct orders of being.
In this revelation we see God’s character, the depth and irrevocable extent of God’s love for the world, the significance of humanity in God’s eternal purpose, and the relationship between the Trinity and Creation focused in a single life, showing the full face of God to humanity and the full face of humanity to God. Incarnation is thus the foundational Christian doctrine from which all other doctrines flow.
What the Doctrine Means
Christians believe three things about Jesus. They believe, first, that Jesus is truly and fully human. The nineteenth-century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard offers a parable to clarify this. A king fell in love with a humble maiden. He considered how he might woo her. If he were to court her with the trappings of majesty, she might love him for the wrong reasons. Yet if he were to dress up as a person of her own class, her love, if it came, would be founded on deceit. Thus he must become a person of her own class if he was genuine in his desire to win her heart.
Kierkegaard’s story stresses that Jesus embodies God’s unwavering and unearned love for the human race. This is not a stunt, but an eternal and costly gesture of grace. Thus Jesus was subject to the contingencies of human existence. He had physical limitations: he could not be in more than one place at one time, he needed food and drink, he needed rest. He was part of the intellectual and cultural fabric of his time: he started life as a child, he needed teaching, he did not have an encyclopaedic knowledge, he was a Jew, he shared many of his people’s assumptions about the world. He experienced profound human emotions: he was tempted, angered, grieved, abused, and executed.
Jesus’ assumption of human nature must refine an understanding of what it means to be human. For example those parts of human nature that withdraw from God are not intrinsic to being human. Sin is not essential to human identity, because Jesus was a human being but did not sin. If Jesus is a human being, he must be the definitive human being.
Many people’s misgivings about the Church can be traced back to prior scepticism about the genuine humanity of Jesus. Many of the Church’s shortcomings are due to its simple, clumsy, incorrigible humanity. But Jesus’ humanity, if it was indeed genuine, must have had clumsy, incorrigible aspects just as much.
Christians believe, second, that Jesus is fully and truly God. The weakness of Kierkegaard’s parable is that it is so committed to stress the humanity of Jesus, that Jesus’ abiding divinity may be obscured. Christians understand that, while he took on human nature, Jesus was still God in personality. This was true from the very beginning of his life.
If Jesus’ full humanity must refine our notion of what it means to be human, then Jesus’ full divinity must refine our understanding of God. The God revealed in Jesus is undoubtedly passionately devoted to the poor, radically open to the outcast, extraordinarily hospitable to sinners, and prepared to shape every aspect of life for humankind. Jesus’ encounters with working people, marginalised groups, and ruthless authorities are not just beautiful gestures: because he is God incarnate, they are definitive paradigms of the truth about existence.
Christians believe, third, that Jesus, being both God and human, remains one person. The danger lies in seeing divine and human personhood in absolute, exclusive terms – in perceiving a zero-sum equation in which if Jesus is one, he cannot be the other. The secret is to see the extent to which Jesus’ being divine enlivens and illuminates his humanity, and to see how Jesus’ being human focuses and intensifies the love of God.
The era of the Enlightenment turned the focus of reflection away from traditions handed down and towards the self, and also made the venerated traditions subject to unprecedented critical scrutiny. In particular it raised three questions about Jesus.
The anthropological critique suggests all religions have a sense of incarnation, the mystical, and a sense of the numinous. It sees the Christian doctrine of the incarnation as simply the way in which one tradition understands the self-communication of the numinous. Christians have responded that the particular claims of incarnation, for example words about the weakness of God, and of God’s power that overcomes through weakness, are unique to Christianity and that Jesus is in no way like semi-divine figures in other faiths.
The historical critique begins with discomfort at the dissonance between the apparently simple language of the gospels and the labyrinthine complexity of the creeds. Out of this contrast comes a chorus of suspicious voices. There are conspiracy theorists, who suggest that Paul or some other early leader hijacked the historical figure of Jesus and projected onto him a back-breaking assortment of metaphysical longings. Some even suggest Jesus himself never claimed to be divine. There are intertestamental historians who see so much expectation of the end of the world in the contemporary literature that Jesus becomes little more than a container for the religious fantasies of his time. There are early Church historians who find it hard to disentangle the historical Jesus from the practices and beliefs of the first Christians.
Christians respond that the classical debates of the early church were inevitable given the diversity of the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. That diversity is a strength rather than a weakness, since it attests to a much wider experience of the incarnation than any one conspiracy could bring about. There’s no reason to detach a historical figure of Jesus from the faith of the early church, since it was the early church that wrote the New Testament, and witness, rather than historical research, has been at the heart of Christianity all along. And there’s no point trying to establish whether or how often Jesus actually claimed to be God, because the only sources we have of what Jesus said are the gospels, which explicitly say they regard Jesus as God: for example Mark’s first verse is, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’
The philosophical critique of the incarnation is most identified with the German eighteenth century Enlightenment figure G.E. Lessing. He claimed that ‘accidental truths of history can never prove the necessary truths of reason.’ This epitomises what came to be called the ‘scandal of particularity’ at the heart of incarnational faith. The logic is that Jesus exhibited some more generally significant feature underlying the reality of the cosmos. The tendency for those who talk about Jesus after Lessing is either to part company with the historical realities of Jesus’ life, or to diverge from any significant sense of his divinity.
A contemporary version of the philosophical critique of the incarnation might be termed the moral critique. This is voiced today most explicitly from a feminist perspective. How important is it, that when God took human form, that form was male? If Jesus was fully human, and yet a man, does that mean that women are an insignificant or derivative aspect of ‘full humanity’? If, as many early theologians asserted, ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’, can a male Saviour save women? This moral critique is in fact still part of the scandal of particularity. There is no doubt that for much of the Church’s history, the maleness of Christ was by many taken for granted as essential to the character of his divinity. This view is much less common today, and the character of Jesus’ full humanity is more often found in his complete trust in God and his identification with the most estranged and excluded groups in society.
The doctrine of the incarnation is the central doctrine in Christian theology, from which all other doctrines flow. The person whom the disciples recognised as God among them, became the Saviour who brought God’s purposes to a climax, was identified with the Creator who had shaped his life to be for humanity from the very beginning, and became the source of the Holy Spirit who empowered the life of the church. Of the many things that could be said of the importance of the incarnation in Christianity today, I want to mention three.
First, Jesus’ embodiment validates the human body and the material world. There can be no sense of division between a perfectible spiritual soul and a flawed sinful body. Jesus died, body and soul, and was raised, body and soul. There can be no hierarchy between prayer and action. There can be no derogation of physical dimension of life, such as sex or disability. If Christ took on a human body, then the human body is, as Paul says, a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 3.16). The body is hugely significant in contemporary debate, from eating disorders to cloning, for Christians all such reflection begins and ends with the incarnation. The human body is the place where God revealed everything humanity needed to know about life, existence, divinity, eternity. Meanwhile the church is that body of people who have explicitly committed themselves to find the truth about God and themselves by following Jesus. The church is the body of Christ: its daily activities are thus of eternal significance. Just as Jesus became incarnate in a particular (Jewish) culture and (first-century) time and (fervidly rebellious) context, so Christians must attend to their culture, time and context today.
Second, the coming of Jesus in human form defines the character of God. Christmas, the feast of the incarnation, the centre of the Christian year. For it expresses the mystery of God’s limitless yet unfathomable love for humankind. The unknown God has made been made known, and now nothing that can be known of God can contradict what has been revealed of God in Christ. For example apartheid was wrong, because it was incompatible with the love of God embodied in Christ. An American footballer taking the knee is prophetic, because it imitates the way God’s life is poured out in Christ. In word and deed Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God – the coming time when creation would respond to God’s glory and relate to one another and to God as Jesus did. But the kingdom of God is most simply understood as Jesus himself.
The shape of God’s life in Christ is shapes how Christians live and share their faith. Mission inspired by the news of salvation in Jesus’ cross and resurrection characteristically seeks to convince, convert and transform the stranger. By contrast, mission inspired by God’s incarnation in Jesus is much more inclined to see faithfulness in simply going where Christ went, being with the people Christ was with, doing the things Christ did. The incarnate Jesus spent only 1% of his life working for us, going to the cross in Jerusalem. He spent perhaps 9% of his life in Galilee, working with us, building a movement among his disciples. But he spent a full 90% of his life in Nazareth, sharing our existence, experiencing the joys and struggles of being human. These percentages are significant for the shape of our own lives.
The Full Implications
As Christians tried to reconcile the revelation of God in Jesus Christ with the conviction of the unity of God that pervades the Old Testament, they arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity. They concluded that God is one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostases). They saw the ‘substance’ as a universal nature, common to the three persons, whereas the ‘person’ referred to a particular characteristic of each one. The three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mutually indwelling. Every act of one is the act of all three. The Father is not the ‘real’ God; all three together are the real God.
The Trinity shows us that God’s whole life is shaped to be with us in Christ. The coming of Jesus isn’t an afterthought, consequent upon humanity’s fall from grace; it was always intended, from before the foundation of the universe. So time isn’t linear, from dot to now and beyond; time is Christocentric; the incarnation of Jesus is the central moment of history.
The Trinity shows us the heart of all things is love, which means self-offering and other-receiving relationship. It means that our notion of person is inseparable from relationship, rather than an atomised individual, autonomous compound of impressions, choices and desires. That this kind of love is at the heart of all things is a conviction based around the centrality of the Christ’s cross and the compassion that it embodies, together with the transformation of the resurrection and its promise of a force stronger than death and despair. The picture and character of God disclosed in Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension epitomise the whole nature of the Trinity, and thus the ultimate truth about all things, which will be finally visible on the last day.
The Trinity embodies mutual hospitality and an inclusive dance of love, a paradigm of partnership of equals subverting the prevalence of relationships of domination and oppression to be found the world over. Holiness means being drawn into the life of the Trinity: in the most famous depiction of the Trinity, there are three figures around a table, and a place at the table is left ready for us to join them. Note that this means that differentiation and otherness are intrinsic to God, and assumed in the creation of a world full of diversity and creaturely interdependence. Difference is not just part of the created order: it’s essential to the nature of God.
Fundamentally, the Trinity shows us that the deepest form of reality is relationship. Whereas human beings are constantly trying to turn relationships into something more tangible, reliable, predictable, transferable, God is the opposite. God’s life is constantly turning the tangible, the predictable, the reliable, into fragile, fallible, fickle, relationships. That’s what we discover in Jesus. Jesus’ coming, Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ dying, Jesus’ rising again are all showing us that there’s nothing God wants besides us. The doctrine of the Trinity says there is no residue in God beyond the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no solid rock, no lengthy beard, no gilted throne, no weighty sceptre detachable from the interdependence of the three persons.
John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel and the three letters of John and the Book of Revelation, lived out his days on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. One day, one of his followers came and spoke to him. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘Tell me one thing. I’ve always wondered, why is it that you always write about love? Why don’t you ever write about anything else?’ St John paused for a very long time, waiting for his disciple to work out the answer for himself. Finally, he answered the question. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘In the end, there isn’t anything else. There is only love.’
Only love. Only companionship with us. Only relationship, in the very heart of the Trinity. In the end, that’s all there is. And, in the power of Christ’s resurrection, ever shall be.