Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Why a human Jesus is important

It may seem peculiar to pose the question “was Jesus really and fully human” in the 21st century. These were arguments fought and won in the first few centuries of the church. However, tendencies in some Evangelical theologies mean that it is an important question to focus on.

The evidence
The humanity of Jesus is important in my theology because it is affirmed in Scripture. Jesus is shown to be human both physically and psychologically. Jesus became thirsty (Jn 4.7) and hungry (Mt 4.2). Although his conception was unique, Jesus was born from a woman’s womb (Lk 2.7), and grew up like any other human children (Lk 2.41f). He became tired and slept (Mk 4.38). He could cry (Jn 11.35), and eventually died (Lk 23.46), bleeding (Jn 19.34).

Jesus also exhibited human emotions and cognitive abilities. He felt strong grief at the death of a friend (Jn 11.33) and the unbelief of his people (Lk 19.41), could be amazed (at unbelief, Mk 6.6), needed to ask questions to discover information (Mk 9.21, 5.30). He could become exasperated at his disciples (Mk 8.17), change his mind (Mk 7.39), could be subject to temptation (Mk 1.13, though without sin Heb 4.15). There were some things that Jesus did not know, e.g. when the temple would be destroyed (Mk 13.32).

Christological errors
Historically, the two heresies that denied Jesus’ humanity were docetism (e.g. Marcion), and Apollianarianism. The former view denied that Jesus was human, so that his suffering on the cross was only apparent, not real. This derives from the Platonic chain of being, where the divine is perfect, the created impure. The divine perfection is kept from the impurity of the created.

The views of Apollinarius represent a slightly more sophisticated view of docetism. Jesus is said to have a human body but the divine logos replaces a human nous. This means that Jesus was driven entirely by the divine, and hence was not truly human. He could not sin because he was not human in his motivations or drives. He had no human will.

Barth’s emphasis on the revelation downplayed what could be observed by the senses, and hence the value of the incarnation and the humanity of Jesus. Bultmann places no faith on history, and hence the humanity of Jesus is not as significant the preaching of the church (Christology from above).

Modern evangelicals are not as blatant as the aforementioned doctrines, but can fall prey to equivalent errors by not fully understanding or following the implications of the humanity of Jesus.

If Jesus were not truly human, then various schemes of the atonement fail. Penal substitutionary atonement asserts that sin incurs guilt and guilt must be punished by death, for the wages of sin is death (Rm 6.23). Jesus bears the wrath of God by dying in our place. However, if Jesus is not truly human, how can human sin be dealt with? This is the logic of Anselm in Curs de homo.

The Christus victor model of the atonement becomes a cosmic drama apart from the affairs of humanity if Jesus is not human. God battles the demonic, the evil of human political power and sin and humanity plays no part in its defeat, nor can share in the victory.

Hebrews 2 brings together the Christus Victor and sacrificial elements of atonement theology in the necessity of the incarnation. Since we are flesh and blood, so he shared the same thing (v12) so that he might destroy the one who has the power of death (the devil), to act as priest and make a sacrifice of atonement (v17), which was his own life (v18).

The moral influence theory of Abelard asserts that Jesus lived and died primarily as an example to humanity, how it is we should live. Jesus suffered as an example for us to follow (1 Pet 2.21). We are to pick up our cross daily and follow him (Mk 8.34). The moral influence theory does not stand on its own apart from our unity with Christ (Rm 6). However, if Jesus is not human as well as divine, then he is an impossible example to follow.

If Jesus were not truly human then he could not have been truly tempted by sin. The author of Hebrews asserts that Jesus truly was tempted by sin (4.15), yet was without sin. This is not because he was not truly human, but because he lacked sinful desires (Jas 1.14). Jesus is able to fully sympathise with our weaknesses. What is more, in times when we are tempted by sin, he is able to help us (Heb 2.18). We are not to loose hope by abandoning our confession of faith (Heb 4.14). Instead, in the face of human weakness and sin, we are to approach the throne of grace with boldness (not self-confidence, but trust and faith) for mercy and grace in times of need. Christ is the God who nurtures and strengthens us in to no to sin, not a merciless and hard taskmaster.

This has implications for our own Christian walks, and for pastoral ministry. 1 Thess 5.14 is a model of pastoral care that emphasises sensitivity, love and nurture, and not demanding or heartless legalism.

Holistic soteriology
More generally, a docetic Jesus only saves our nous, soul or Spirit. Our bodies are not redeemed if the redeemer is not truly embodied. This is a feature of eschatological schemes that expect people to go to heaven when they die, and the end of the space-time universe when Christ returns. However, not only was Jesus fully human during his earthly ministry, he was fully human after it, being able to be touched (Jn 20.27, Lk 24.39) and to eat (Lk 24.42). True, Jesus also passed through walls and ascended. However, he was raised so that he might be the first fruits of a harvest of those raised from the dead (1 Cor 15.20). Combined with the new heavens and earth (Rev 21), this argues for a Christianity that takes the body and the world seriously.

Our physicality matters to God, why else did Jesus heal the sick, the leprous, the blind, and raise the dead? These were signs that the kingdom was at hand (Lk 7.18f), for the kingdom is not about sitting on clouds playing harps, but new bodies on a new earth. Jesus is the first man of this new humanity.

This may be referred to as New Adam Christology. Adam was a man (Rm 5.12), and a type of the one to come (v14). Just as in one man death came via his trespass (v15), in the one man Jesus Christ, grace abounds for many. Through the one man come judgement, condemnation, sin and death, so through the other comes justification, righteousness and life.

The resurrection comes through a human being (1 Cor 15.21), just as death came through a human being. Christ is the firstfruits (v23) of this new humanity. Furthermore, this new humanity represents a unity of the old, encompassing both Jew and Gentile (Eph 2.14-16). This represented the greatest division in Jewish thinking, between God’s people and those outside (v11-12).

The incarnation of God in human form provides a model for evangelism. God cannot be truly known apart from becoming a true human (Jn 1.14, 18). Our witness is weakened if we present a Jesus who is less than fully human. Human beings live in epistemological ignorance about God due both to finitude and sin (Rm 1). Without the incarnation, humans could not know God (Jn 1.18, 14.9). Furthermore, John makes it clear that the one who makes God known is touchable (1 Jn 1.1-4), i.e. truly human.

For many, God is an abstraction, an idea. Postmoderns are more interested in community and relationship than ideas. Jesus as fully human is one with whom people may be in community with, relate to. It is important that he is fully human, genuinely human.

Likewise, if the church itself is not fully human, then it has no witness. If we live as docetics, denying our own humanity, we present a faith that is unacceptable and unrealistic. People will not be interested in a spiritual life that is not also physical. A half-human Christ produces half-human Christians who inhabit a half-world. We were created to live fully physical lives. We are created new in Christ to live a redeemed physical life. A docetic or Apollinarian faith will not appeal to those who wish to live genuine lives in the real world, with real sufferings and struggles. Jesus is one who is fully sympathetic to the human existential state (Heb 4.15).

Furthermore, a non-human Christ will be concerned little with the creation, and many postmoderns feel an attachment to the created world in a way many Christians do not. The appeal of paganism means that Christians have lost ground due to a Christological error in praxis.

Whilst Evangelicals would confess that Jesus is fully human, it is all too easy to live at odds with this belief. A less than fully human Christ cannot save humans, or at the very least not save all of them. It robs us of ethics as it makes Jesus the impossible example to follow. Finally, a non-human Jesus offers little for evangelism. Jesus is truly human, and we should affirm this in doctrine and praxis.

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