Further Thoughts on a Letter about Jesus

Further Thoughts on a Letter about Jesus July 17, 2014

My previous blog – “A Letter about Jesus” – drew a much larger response than I expected. In this blog, I continue that conversation with a clarification and some additional comments.

Clarification – even as I think this was pretty clear in my previous blog. One of my major claims was that the New Testament does not simply identify and equate Jesus and God. It never says, “Jesus is God” or “God is Jesus.”

Of course, it does affirm, in phrases from John’s gospel, that Jesus is “the Word of God” and “one with God.” But that does not mean that Jesus was God. Rather, in John’s language, he was “the Word become flesh.” He revealed what can be seen of God in a human life – and that means within the limitations of human life.

To affirm that Jesus is the Word become flesh, the Word incarnate, means what another New Testament verse does: he is “the image (ikon) of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15). He shows us what God is like – reveals God’s character and passion.

But none of this means that the New Testament teaches that Jesus was God – as if all of God was in Jesus during his historical life. To use the language of the Trinity, God the father did not cease to be while Jesus was alive. Jesus was “God’s son,” not God the father. Was the son like the father? Yes. Was the son the father during the life of Jesus? No. Are they in an important and complex sense one? Yes. But to equate God and Jesus during his historical lifetime is bad history and bad theology. It is the product of pre-critical conventional and uncritical dogmatic Christian thinking. Sounds harsh. But think about it.

An additional comment. The conflict among Christians about whether or not Jesus was God is grounded in two different understandings of the gospels – and the New Testament and the Bible as a whole.

One view – generally embraced by “conservative” Christians – sees the Bible and the gospels as “divine information.” That is shorthand for the view that the Bible and the gospels are the direct revelation of God and thus have a divine guarantee to be true. For them, divine inspiration means divine inerrancy.

A second view sees the gospels as the product of a historical process, written in a particular time and setting. Time: the earliest was probably written around 70, the last perhaps as late as the early second century. Setting: they are the product of early Christian communities, written from within and to those communities. As such, they combine early Christian memory of Jesus and testimony about Jesus. Their memories of what he was like – of what he taught and did. And their testimony to what he had become in their experience and lives – his significance for them.

To illustrate the difference generated by these two ways of seeing the gospels, reflect upon the series of “I am” statements attributed to Jesus in John (and only John). In them, Jesus refers to himself as “the Light of the World,” “the Bread of Life,” “the Door,” “the Good Shepherd,” “the Resurrection and the Life,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and “the Vine.” For the first view, this is “divine information” – the direct revelation of God about who Jesus is. And because John says Jesus said this about himself, that means that he did.

The second way of seeing the gospels understands this language as early Christian testimony to Jesus and not as memory of what Jesus said about himself. A major reason for this verdict is that the first three gospels (the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not report that Jesus said anything like this about himself. Within this way of seeing the gospels, the “I am” statements in John are best understood if we turn them into third-person statements about Jesus: Jesus is “the Light of the World,” “the Bread of Life,” “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and so forth. This is the testimony of the Christian community within which and for which John was written.

As a concluding illustration of the difference made by the interconnected issues of whether we think Jesus was God and how we see the gospels, I suggest the miracles stories of Jesus and the sea. They share in common that the disciples are in mortal peril in a boat on a stormy sea. Jesus rescues them by stilling the tempest. He comes to them walking on the sea.

Those who think of Jesus as God and the gospels as divine information hear these stories literally and evidentially. Anybody who can still a storm at sea and walk on the water must have divine power, indeed be divine, for no mere human could do that. This hearing of the stories sees them as reports of spectacular events that happened in the distant past, long ago and far away. They matter because of what they demonstrate, prove: that Jesus had divine powers, was more than human.

Just as the first way of hearing these stories combines a way of seeing Jesus with a way of seeing the gospels, so does the second. It takes seriously that as a human being, as an incarnate being, Jesus did not have supernatural powers during his historical lifetime. Was he “filled with the Spirit”? Yes. Was he a healer? Yes. But could he change water into wine? Multiply food so that he could feed a multitude of 5000 (or more) with a few loaves and fishes? For this way of seeing Jesus, he was a vulnerable human being living within the conditions of finitude, incarnation. He was born and could be (and was) killed. He was not God, but the revelation of what can be seen of God in a human life.

Within this framework, the miracles on the sea are not historical data proving that Jesus was God. They are about what trust in Jesus and God produce. Jesus stills the storms that threaten us. He makes it possible to walk on the water, the void, the abyss, without sinking.

Within the gospels, this metaphorical – more-than-literal – meaning is clearly intended. As Matthew takes over the story from Mark of Jesus walking on the water, he adds an episode: Peter also walks on the water. Successfully. But then he becomes afraid and begins to sink (Matt. 14.22-33). The story identifies Peter’s fear with “little faith.” With faith, we can walk on water. Literally? No. The story is about the importance of trusting in Jesus. It is about faith as trust, the opposite of fear. It is about the significance of Jesus, not about something he once did.

A final reflection question: what is added to the story of Jesus by thinking that he was God – and therefore could do spectacular deeds that no one else could or can? Does his story gain meaning? Or is something lost? Was Jesus extraordinary because he was God? Or was he extraordinary because he was an utterly remarkable human being, one of us?

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