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The Divinity of Christ

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

So acknowledge today and take to heart that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.
Deuteronomy 4:39
  1. The Formation of the Doctrine
  2. Criticism of the Doctrine
  3. Why This Is Important
  4. Preserving the Faith

Was Jesus God? Was he man? Was he both?

In some branches of Christianity the answer is an unqualified yes. In others, the answer often remains unstated, and sometimes even avoided. But the issue is an important one, and can’t really be ignored.

The Formation of the Doctrine

Steps toward a definitive answer were taken in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea. The council resulted from a conflict between an Alexandrian priest and his bishop. The priest, Arius, taught that the Son was a divine being, the instrument of creation, but that he existed only through the will of God the Father, from whom he derived. In other words, he was created and had a definite beginning, before which he did not exist. But for Bishop Alexander, the Son was coeternal with the Father, with equal status, and with no beginning.

The dispute quickly spread from Alexandria throughout much of the Empire. It got so bad that Constantine saw it as a threat to social unity. In 313 CE he issued the Edict of Milan legalizing Christianity, in the hopes that it would become a unifying force for his empire. But now it looked like it was going to fall apart.

So in 325 Constantine called the First Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea, to settle the matter. He was not really invested in which side won. What he wanted was agreement one way or the other, so that his empire would not fragment. The council was extremely contentious, and Arius found himself outmaneuvered by his arch-opponent Athanasius, at the time a deacon but later to succeed Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius promoted the doctrine that the Son is homoousios (”of the same substance,” or “consubstantial”) with the Father, and not just similar or inferior to him. This view prevailed, and Arius was condemned as a heretic and sent into exile.

But Nicaea did not settle the matter. Disagreements persisted concerning how exactly to understand Christ’s divine nature. At one extreme there were the Monophysites, who held that Christ’s divine nature was his only nature. At the other extreme were the Nestorians, who taught that Christ had two natures, divine and human, which were completely separate from each other, making Christ in effect two persons. Clearly there was a need to resolve the confusion.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451, condemned both extremes and issued the “Chalcedonian Definition”: Christ is one person (ruling out Nestorianism) in two natures (ruling out Monophysitism). Christ is “fully God and fully man”: in his divine nature Christ has all the qualities belonging to God, and in his human nature he has all qualities belonging to human beings. The two natures are indivisibly connected in what is called hypostatic union: they are united, inseparable, while yet remaining distinct and unconfused with each other.

Thus we can understand Christ as both completely God and completely human. And since Christ’s divine nature is complete, he existed eternally with God the Father and is equal to him. He was not created, as Arianism held. He was eternally generated: this means that the Father’s begetting of the Son was not an event that happened in time but is eternal and happening at every moment, and that the Son inherits the full divine nature of the Father without qualification. All of this is reflected in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father.”

Trinitarianism has always been in danger of falling into one of two heresies: tritheism, belief in three Gods, or modalism (sometimes called Sabellianism), the view that the Trinity is one person revealing itself in three different ways (modes). The doctrine of hypostatic union is supposed to overcome this difficulty. But does it?

Let’s try to understand the logic behind the Trinity, before offering a critical assessment.

Ousia (pronounced “oo-SEE-a”) is a very Platonic idea. It corresponds to the Platonic essence of things. For example, a collie, a poodle, and a golden retriever are different and distinct, yet they possess a common essence or ousia of “dogness.” A Marigold, a California Poppy, and a Black-Eyed Susan are different and distinct, yet they possess a common essence of “flowerness.” Similarly, the three members of the Trinity are distinct, yet possess a common essence, their nature as divine. The divine essence is called ousia. And the three members of the Trinity are called hypostases (accent on the “PO”) in Greek or personae in Latin.

This terminology has given rise to a great deal of confusion. Before Nicaea the terms ousia and hypostasis were used interchangeably. After Nicaea a need for more precise terminology became apparent. The Cappadocian Fathers made a key contribution, producing the one ousia and the three hypostases. Hypostasis became distinguished from prosopon, another confusing Greek term meaning literally “face” and corresponding to what we think of as “person.” In fact, the Greek prosopon and the Latin persona are very similar in that both were used to designate the masks worn by actors on stage to identify their characters.

The term “person,” however, has proved extremely problematic. Because the meaning of “person” has changed over the centuries, its use has been criticized as encouraging a misleading and erroneous understanding of the Trinity. We think of a “person” as an entirely independent being with its own center of consciousness and a separate will. According to classical Trinitarianism, thinking of the Trinity as three “persons” in this sense leads to tritheism and so is heretical. There is only one consciousness and one will in the classical Trinity. However, more modern “social Trinitarians” disagree, seeing the Trinity as comprising loving relationships between each of its three independent “persons.” Even though this view has become quite popular, classical Trinitarianism considers it a tritheistic heresy, and many orthodox writers have strongly condemned it.

Orthodox Trinitarians still need to be careful, because in calling for a more original understanding of “persona” there is the danger of falling into the opposite error of modalism. Sometimes people try to explain how three can be one by comparing the Trinity to ice, water, and steam, or to the same individual being a mother, wife, and daughter. These are bad analogies; they are all modalism, three different manifestations or forms of the same thing (H2O, or the particular woman), and thus they are heresy. Classical Trinitarians call for a return to understanding “person” the way it was originally intended, which is something in between an undifferentiated identity and the modern “person” as an independent center of consciousness.

I have, however, looked through many presentations of the Trinity, some by accomplished scholars, and I have yet to find an original definition of “person” that satisfies the theological requirements of the classical doctrine or that even makes sense. To make sense out of it, and to avoid the ambiguity of “person,” often the term “subsistence” is used. It supposedly refers to the way the one divine essence “subsists in” or “exists in” or “stands under” each member of the Trinity. “Subsistence” is actually a literal translation of hypostasis, both coming from words meaning “stand under.” And like hypostasis, “subsistence” really does not shed any additional light on the meaning of “person” or the coexistence of three persons in one deity.

The best definition of the Trinitarian “person” that so far I have been able to find is given by Matthew Barrett, a Professor of Christian Theology, in the glossary of his book Simply Trinity:

Person: A person is a subsisting relation, distinguished from another person by his eternal relations of origin alone (paternity, filiation, spiration). A divine person “is nothing but the divine essence . . . subsisting in an especial manner” (John Owen). (Italics in original.)

This is truly incomprehensible. OK, a “person” is a “relation” that “subsists.” So to clarify what this means, let’s look up “subsistence“ in the same glossary:

Subsistence: Another way of referring to a divine person. The one, simple divine essence subsists or exists in three persons. Each person is a subsisting relation of the divine essence. The divine essence has three modes of subsistence (Latin: subsistentia; Greek: hypostasis): paternity, filiation, spiration. (Italics in original.)

Aha. A “person“ is that which “subsists“ and a “subsistence“ is a “person.“ Classical circular reasoning. Trying to understand traditional Trinitarian theology, we inevitably find ourselves going around in circles. We are no closer to finding any definition of “person“ that can reconcile modalism and tritheism and make three equal one.

The evolution of the doctrine of the Trinity is actually more complex than the brief history outlined here. The terms we use to describe the Trinity came into being gradually. The Son and Spirit were not originally granted equal status with the Father - Origen ranked them in a hierarchy - but in time they became considered equal in divinity. Nowhere in the New Testament (except for a very questionable reference in the Gospel of Luke) is Jesus called “God.” But eventually Jesus became recognized as God, and the Spirit was ranked together with them. And so the doctrine evolved: God is one essence in three persons. Therefore God is both three and one. And therefore the Trinity can have three members and still be one God. Its adherents felt they had supportive references in scripture, so have continued to insist that the doctrine is biblical and even that belief in it is a test of one’s Christianity. And so it is among orthodox Christians to this day.

Criticism of the Doctrine

There is no scriptural support for the Trinity doctrine. The doctrine was not known to the New Testament writers. Attempts to read the doctrine into the New Testament are flimsy at best. It is claimed that God manifests in the Bible as Father, Son, and Spirit. There is indeed a “spirit of God” in the Bible, but that is only a way of describing divine activity, and not any kind of separate “person” or “subsistence.” Making such inferences is an example of the fallacy known as reification: turning an abstract idea into a “thing.” As for the Son, in scripture he is not in any sense God on a par with God the Father, and we will look at this in some detail.

If you have a King James Bible you may think you can find the Trinity in it. It is mentioned explicitly in 1 John 5:7. However, scholars are united in considering this phrase a later interpolation, not part of the original text. I have found no serious reference to it as support for a biblical Trinity.

Taking into account all the explanations of the Trinity I have read, some in theological dictionaries, others by dedicated scholars, I could come to only one conclusion. Either the three Trinitarian entities are the same, or they are different. If they are the same, you have modalism. If they are different, you have tritheism. There is no other possibility. You can declare that “Nevertheless, the three are one,” but that does not make it so, anymore than simply asserting that 1 = 3 makes it a true mathematical statement. I know there are ways of explaining away the difficulties, and I feel like I must have read them all. They all amount to the use of circumlocution to obscure the attempt to make sense of a contradiction.

In speaking of the Trinity, we either emphasize the threeness, which inevitably leads to tritheism, or we emphasize the oneness, which leads to modalism. Trying to emphasize both, which is the usual way, only lends support to two heresies. It does not produce the orthodox doctrine. It cannot. Making up a word like “subsistence” whose meaning is elusive only obfuscates the contradiction without resolving it. Examined very closely, all the explanations by the classical writers are either tritheistic or modalistic or both, and asserting both is often meant to represent a solution. Even Karl Barth describes the Trinity as three “modes of being” (Seinsweise), yet denies it is modalism. One cannot wipe away a contradiction by fiat.

Once again, the three things that “subsist” are either the same, or they are different; either way leads to problems. With all the explanations I’ve read, I still have not found a coherent account of how three can be one, how God could beget himself, or pray to himself, or be both humanly finite and divinely infinite, all at the same time. (I will discuss this further below under “hypostatic union.”)

One way of trying to avoid this unpleasant conclusion has been to say it is not really a contradiction; it is a mystery. This is a very dangerous solution. There is indeed mystery when it comes to the sacred. However, no divinely ordained mystery would require us to negate our God-given capacity for reason. Once we do that, we create an entrance for the demonic. Any belief, no matter the consequences, can be justified as a “mystery” beyond our ability to question: slavery, witch trials, heresy hunting, divine condemnation of nonbelievers, even endless hell for good non-Christians, have all been justified as the mysterious ways of God beyond our capacity to fathom. Admittedly, reason cannot take the place of revelation and divine inspiration. It cannot, nor was it meant to reach that far. Nevertheless, a true divine revelation cannot annihilate reason, for then all the abuses of religion would be allowed to surface, as has often happened in history. God does not give us the gift of reason only for us to abuse and discard it.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose from the need to ascribe divinity to Jesus (we’ll discuss reasons for this perceived need below). What about the claim that Jesus’s divinity, as well as the doctrine of the Trinity, really are scriptural? Doesn’t the Bible teach it?

Actually, no. There is no definitive confirmation in scripture either of the Trinity or of Jesus’s divinity.

Let’s look at some common arguments for Jesus’s divinity:

Jesus performed miracles, and only God could do that.

The prophets Elijah and Elisha also performed miracles and raised people from the dead. That did not make them God. There were also others at the time of Jesus reputed to perform miracles: Hanina Ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, Apollonius of Tyana, and even the Emperor Vespasian, to mention just a few.

Jesus called himself “I AM,” which was a name given only to God (Exodus 3:14): “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

The words “I am” in any language do not necessarily confer divinity. When some were doubting the identity of the blind man Jesus healed, the blind man responded simply “I am” (John 9:9), using the same Greek words (ego eimi). (In the Greek, “I am” is all that the blind man says, and not “I am the man” as in the NRSV.)

Jesus is called “Lord,” and only the true God is Lord.

This is perhaps the flimsiest argument and the easiest to refute. The same word for “Lord” (kyrios) applied to Jesus is used, both in the New Testament and LXX, to refer to any kind of lord or master, the master of a household or the master of a slave. There is nothing in the word itself that implies divinity.

Jesus forgave sins. Only God can forgive sins.

Actually Jesus declared that a person’s sins were forgiven, always using the passive voice (another example of the so-called “divine passive”). As divinely appointed Messiah and God’s agent, Jesus could declare what God had already done. Now Jesus does state that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). Assuming Jesus is referring to himself (there is some scholarly disagreement), that authority must have been conferred upon him from somewhere. It does not mean that he was God. To show that purely of himself Jesus did not have the power to forgive sins, consider the following: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (Luke 23:34). Jesus could not by himself forgive those who committed this grievous sin against him. He had to ask God the Father to do it.

Let’s now look at the Gospel record. It is very clear, at least in the Synoptic Gospels, that Jesus was not himself God.

Jesus actually discouraged people from worshiping him. He fled the crowds when they tried to follow him, and even resisted an effort to make him king (John 6:15). And there is this:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus never makes a claim to be God. In fact, Jesus clearly sees himself as different from God. For one thing, God knows things that Jesus does not:

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Mark 13:32)

And further:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:35-36)

Contrary to the Trinity doctrine, here we see Jesus not only having a separate will, but even the possibility that his will could be different from God’s will.

But what about the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke? These accounts cannot be taken as history and very possibly were not meant to be taken literally (see “A Note on the Virgin Birth”). In addition, heroes who were born to one human and one divine parent were common in pagan mythology. At best that made them a kind of divine or semi-divine being, but not actually God and certainly not on the same level as full Gods, especially Zeus himself.

The Synoptic Gospel writers clearly did not consider Jesus to be God. What about the Gospel of John, with its higher Christology?

Here the situation is admittedly more complex. We do have this in the prologue:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

Is the Word, the logos, identical with the man Jesus? That is not entirely clear. In the logos philosophy that appears to have influenced John, the logos was much more than an individual being. It was the rational principle that gave coherence to creation. It is the structure of reality that makes creation possible. Therefore “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3).

So the logos was in the beginning with God, but not the man Jesus. Somehow this creative principle took form in the man Jesus. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Clearly this happened at a moment in time. It is not Jesus of Nazareth but the Word that is preexistent and was always with God. And preexistence itself does not imply divinity. Proverbs 8, most likely one of John’s influences, or at least an influence on the tradition John was working from, tells us that Wisdom (Greek sofia) was preexistent and also an agent in creation:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
when there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth--
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
    then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.
(Proverbs 8:22-31)

This description sounds a lot like the preexistent Christ. It is certainly one of the forerunners of John’s logos Christology. Even so, it did not make Sofia God. Preexistence is not a criterion of divinity. Nor is it known to the Synoptic Gospels or to Paul. The New Testament speaks in a diversity of voices.

Let’s see what else John’s Gospel tells us about Jesus:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19)

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30)

”I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.” (John 8:28)

The superiority of the Father to the Son is clear in these passages. Also note: “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me,” again clearly showing that God and Jesus have two separate wills.

Here too Jesus recognizes God’s superiority:

”If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)

Classical Trinitarianism dismisses any kind of “subordinationism,” making Christ any less than the Father, as heresy. Yet here we see it in the Gospel itself.

So at the very most, in the Gospel of John we have Jesus as a kind of divine being but subordinate to God. And this was the position of Arius. Nicaea labeled it a heresy, and so it has been considered up till now. Nevertheless, the Arian view has more scriptural support than the orthodox view, which actually has none. Nicaea conceivably could have gone the other way; a doctrine considered necessary for salvation was determined by political forces. But history is written by the winners, and so we have inherited an orthodoxy that strongly resists questioning.

Before moving on let’s consider one last example from the Gospel of John, Jesus’s “Farewell Prayer.” Here is an excerpt:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17:6-11)

It is impossible to conclude from this that Jesus is not a center of consciousness separate from God. One would think that if the Father and Son shared the same center of consciousness, that such a prayer would be unnecessary if not impossible. Nevertheless, there has been an attempt to explain this with the concept of hypostatic union.

The doctrine of hypostatic union comes from the Council of Chalcedon. It states that the Son is one hypostasis (”person”) with two natures, one human and one divine. These two natures are distinct and separate from each other, so it is the human nature, not the divine, that experiences agony in the garden and that implores the Father on behalf of the people.

Unfortunately, this explanation does not solve the problem; it only compounds it. We still have a human nature of Christ that cannot be explained as other than a separate center of consciousness, as well as a dual-natured Jesus that may be indistinguishable from Nestorianism in any practical sense, even though it was intended to exclude that heresy. It even seems that Jesus has two centers of consciousness within himself: a divine nature and a human one that seems unaware of what the divine one does and knows. Only a structure this convoluted could support a belief that is not even scriptural but that people were afraid to question. And it does not work. One cannot make a contradiction disappear simply by manufacturing a new term for it.

Before concluding, just a few words about Paul. Paul’s Christology is not entirely clear. What I believe is clear is that Paul did not consider Jesus as God on a level with God the Father. Paul calls God “God,” but nowhere in his letters does Paul call Jesus “God.” Paul seems always to make a clear distinction, as in the following verse (which, for reasons I cannot understand, is often quoted to show that Paul supposedly equated Jesus with God):

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords - yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:5-6)

I don’t see how Paul could have made this distinction any clearer. He most likely did consider Jesus an exalted being, with special and unique attributes and with a distinct authority, but not actually on a par with God. In that way Paul’s monotheism was preserved. This is also additional scriptural support for the Arian over the Nicaean view. As we have already seen, the term “lord” (kyrios) does not necessarily imply divinity.

Much is made of the hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death--
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2: 5-11)

It may be asking too much of this hymn to derive from it any kind of systematic Christology. Clearly God is above Jesus in having the power to exalt him. And it also appears that Jesus resisted any attempt to regard him as equal to God. And that is fortunate, because otherwise it would be hard to explain how there could not be two Gods.

Why This Is Important

We have seen that even though the orthodox views of Jesus’s divinity and the Trinity have been staunchly defended as scriptural, scriptural support for them is weak and highly questionable. But why go to all the trouble of pointing this out? What is the purpose?

It is important because nothing could be more important than preserving Jesus’s message. Jesus used very simple language, accessible to everyone. He told us what we need to inherit eternal life, and it is not “faith alone.” Jesus distilled the essence of torah and taught that what God wants from us is to love God with all that we have, and to love our neighbor as ourself (Luke 10:25-28). It is through our devotion to non-self-interested love that we find our connection to God and come to know God’s kingdom: eternal life, which transforms our experience in this world. This is the true Gospel, the real good news. It is what we learn of Christ when we read the scriptures without the overlay of centuries of theology that have turned them into something else.

But thanks to generations of theologians, this true Gospel has been replaced by Christology. Emphasis shifted from doing as Christ instructed to accepting and believing certain things about Christ. Jesus explicitly cautioned against this, but the theologians weren’t listening. The Protestant movement, intended to correct the abuses of Catholicism, actually made the problem worse. The Reformers read into Paul a doctrine of “justification by faith”: that in the final judgment, when heaven and hell are at stake, everything we do, including all that Jesus told us to do, will count for nothing. Faith alone in Christ matters, apart from works - as if faith in the true Christ could even exist without the “works” that put that faith into practice. Yet we know from the history of Christianity how easy it has been to separate faith from works.

So we have inherited the deep irony that our salvation hangs on accepting certain doctrines promulgated by flawed human beings at church councils and in theological treatises, rather than on practicing what Jesus actually taught. Jesus warned us that “faith alone” will not bring us into eternal life: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Compare this to James 2:14: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” Martin Luther hated the Letter of James, but the Parables of the Good Samaritan, the Sheep and the Goats, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and so many others - they are all “works righteousness.” The Reformed sola fide is directly contrary to everything Jesus taught.

I am not being glib. This is extremely serious. This kind of ethic - that “works” are not important and are sometimes even scorned, because “faith” is everything and what you do doesn’t really matter - explains how huge numbers of American Christians can support a President who practices cruelty for its own sake, who hates the stranger, who separates children from their parents, who relishes taking health care and other supports away from those whom Jesus called “the least of these” - in short, who stands for exactly the opposite of everything Christ taught - how they can support him and still believe they are being good Christians. It does not get more serious than this.

Sometimes I try to imagine what Jesus might have thought had he been a witness at those early church councils. What were those councils worried about? What were they debating with such ferocious intensity? How best to serve the poor? Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? No, they were fighting over the tiniest letter of the Greek alphabet, the iota, whether Christ is homoiousios (of like substance) or homoousious (of same substance) with the Father. And they fought with such vehemence because they believed that their eternal salvation hung upon that tiny little Greek letter. What would Jesus have thought of all the talk about same or different ousia, how many hypostases in the ousia, how many physeis (natures) in each hypostasis, and if more than one physis, are they in prosopic or hypostatic union? I suspect Jesus would have thought they were all insane.

So why did this happen?

Jesus’s message is simple but intimidating. Can we really do it? Can we really love one another beyond our own self-interest? And yet Jesus seemed to have dire words for those who don’t: being cast into the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the like. How can we be saved from this? Certainly, many believe, not by anything we ourselves can do. Only a God-man could have the power to save us. Because

Only man can atone.
Only God can forgive.

Only a man can occupy our position, stand in our place, and receive the punishment for our sins.

Only a God can forgive those sins.

And so we need a savior who is both human and divine. Neither one alone can save us. And so the Docetists, who thought Jesus was only divine, had to be condemned. And so the Arians, who did not think Jesus was divine enough, had to be condemned.

All this is why faith in the divinity of Christ and his atonement for our sins became necessary for salvation in the minds of many, and assumed centrality within Christianity even above the actual teachings of Jesus. Faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice saves us from facing what Christ actually asks of us.

And here we encounter another irony. Ever since Marcion Christians have condemned Judaism for its allegedly cruel and vengeful God, not like the Christian God of infinite love. But consider: how much crueler can you get than a God whose justice is not satisfied, who cannot forgive, until an innocent creature is beaten to a bloody pulp and subjected to an agonizing death?

Christianity has taken so much from Judaism, to the point where few Christians realize how Jewish Christianity actually is. But it left out the most important thing: a God who forgives without the exercise of cruelty, and who is ready to forgive anyone regardless of what they believe. All that is required is repentance, not perfection. This is why Paul’s message as it is usually interpreted, of a Messiah crucified for the forgiveness of sins, made no sense to Jews, and why he converted so few of them.

Jews knew that no one can be punished for the sins of another, and that God does not exact cruel measures in order to forgive. A Jew always felt able to approach God directly in repentance, in the confidence that on the Day of Atonement sins would be forgiven. If one sinned against someone else, one would have to make it up to that person - but would not have to be crucified for it. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). This is the Jewish God, who is also the Christian God - there is only one God, who does not require the bloody sacrifice of an innocent for the forgiveness of sins.

Preserving the Faith

The purpose in all this is not to tear faith down, but to liberate it from the underlying fear and the ethical problems inherent in the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ: doctrines that demand the eternal condemnation of good non-Christians, or else Christ would have suffered and died for nothing. This is not a loving God. There must be a valid alternative. God did not send Christ to extend the Jewish covenant just so that Christians could turn it into a radical and often violent exclusivism of their own.

The views expressed in this presentation are actually not far removed from those of the earliest Jewish Christians, who were called “Ebionites” (meaning “the poor ones”). They faded into obscurity, once orthodoxy became established and condemned all other views as heresies. “Heresy” is a relative term, and like history, is defined by the winner. Had the Council of Nicaea gone the other way - which was certainly possible - today’s orthodox Trinitarian faith would undoubtedly have been condemned as a polytheistic heresy.

So what can we say about the suffering and death of Christ? Was it really all for nothing?

As Paul would say, mi yenito - by no means! Jesus’s embracing his fate on the cross was truly an act of love. By preaching his message of love and justice, defying the corrupt Temple authorities, and arousing the malevolent attention of the Roman occupiers, he put himself on a collision course with death, and he knew it. If his passion predictions are truly historical, this must be what prompted them. He knew he was courting death, and he did it anyway, because it was all in service to his people. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

And in laying down his life this way, Jesus did much more. He showed us it is possible to suffer in faith, and he showed us it is possible to die in faith. It is precisely because the cross was not unique to Jesus that his death has saving power. The cross will come to all of us. For some it will be quick. For others, perhaps most, it will be prolonged, perhaps longer than Jesus’s agony. And the part of it hardest to bear may be the fears of isolation and abandonment, the terror of being alone when your pain is intractable and you are facing the end of your existence on earth. By willingly accepting this human fate, the worst that life can do to a person, Jesus showed us that God is present even in our most horrifying moments and does not let us go even when we have given up hope. The cross is indeed a mystery, and it is part of life in this world. Jesus showed us that next to the cross is a presence, which holds us even when we do not know it.

This gives Christianity an extremely powerful message. Understood in this way, it brings the courage to face directly life’s most terrifying circumstances and come out of them with faith. And who knows whether this is not why we were placed here with the inevitability of extreme suffering - for the more extreme the suffering, the greater the love must be that rises to meet it.

Jesus’s suffering on the cross was not unique. The Romans crucified thousands, and many suffered worse than Jesus did, yet we don’t remember them. Jesus died the night he was crucified. Many others were left on the cross for days on end, their feet attacked by wild beasts, their eyes pecked out by birds of prey, until their bodies rotted and became warning signs of the terror of Roman power. It is precisely because Jesus’s suffering was not unique that his death was redemptive. It was part of the human fate we all share. If there was redemption for Jesus, who was not God after all and so did not possess any real advantage over us, then there can be redemption for us as well.

At this point we inevitably confront the resurrection. However one understands it, it can be thought of as a manifestation of God’s presence in the most radical way possible. The love of God that Jesus let shine through himself as a channel to the divine light somehow persisted and made itself felt to his immediate witnesses. Does this sound unreal? I have felt a radiant and deeply peaceful love surrounding many of my hospice patients during the moments leading up to their deaths. I can only imagine what the disciples must have felt by the death of their master, who was the purest carrier of that love. It is a love felt at the boundary between time and eternity, where the divine presence is most clearly revealed.

How tragic then to lose this message in a sea of theological terms that no one can understand and whose purpose may actually be to draw us away from it. For it is no easy thing to summon the courage to face what Jesus asks of us, to give ourselves completely in loving service, and to confront life’s extreme moments without flinching in our quest for faith. But if we shy away from this task, we will lose the true power of the Christian message. Jesus was the culmination of a tradition, the Jewish covenantal and prophetic tradition, whose purpose was to teach us not just to survive in a precarious world, but to find in it the divine presence that makes it meaningful, draws us out of ourselves, and brings us to a redemptive love not just of our own but also of the stranger, and ultimately of God, who is all goodness. And that is, in the end, what will save the world.

December 2021