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Jesus - the how of God

26 February 2016

Acknowledging Jesus as Lord is only the beginning, suggests Mike Higton


Human and divine: 6th century icon (one of the earliest in existence) from St Catherine’s, Sinai

Human and divine: 6th century icon (one of the earliest in existence) from St Catherine’s, Sinai

CHRISTOLOGY is the doctrine of Christ. It begins simply enough, with the confession “Jesus is Lord”. The way it was eventually laid out by the early church, however, is rather more elaborate. The council of Chalcedon in AD 451 insisted that Jesus is


perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man . . . in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation . . . but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is . . . one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him.

(Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Georgetown University Press, 1990)


A Christian is someone who (in the words of Romans 10.9) confesses with his or her lips that Jesus is Lord, and believes in his or her heart that God raised him from the dead. Why might such a person go on to make this more elaborate confession about natures and persons, humanity and divinity? Why might Christological thinking be significant for Christian life?


Jesus is Lord

SINCE to be a Christian is to be a follower of the way of Christ, “Jesus is Lord” is the basic confession of Christian life. This confession has two elements to it.

First, there is the name “Jesus”: a proper name, belonging to a specific person who lived, died, and rose again in a particular place and time. Second, there is the insistence that this Jesus “is Lord”: that we are called to follow him in everything that we think, say, and do, in every area of our lives.

And the confession is not simply that Jesus happens to be our Lord, but that he is “Lord of all” (Acts 10.36). The confession “Jesus is Lord” therefore expresses the basic shape of Christian worship (the acknowledgment of the Lordship of Jesus in every part of our lives) and Christian mission (witness to the Lordship of Christ in every part of our world).

We can dig a little deeper into both sides of this confession. The name “Jesus”, as the name of someone who lived at a particular time and place, is the name of someone we learn about primarily through the witnesses who tell us about him. Christian life therefore involves an unavoidable relation to the testimony of the Gospels and the wider New Testament witness, and to those who have passed on their message down the generations.

To be readers of the New Testament testimony, however, means also being readers of the Old Testament. The Old Testament writings were the only scriptures possessed by Jesus and the earliest Christians. They are assumed, alluded to, quoted, and commented on throughout the New Testament. For readers of these scriptures, to acknowledge Jesus as Lord means relating to him as the scriptures say that we should relate to the God of Israel.


God made flesh

THERE are many ways to explore this relationship. For instance, in the Old Testament, God’s powerful word calls the world into being, establishes covenants, judges sinners, forgives people for their sins, and heals.

The New Testament witnesses say that, through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, God is calling into being a new creation, establishing a new covenant, judging, forgiving, and healing. It therefore makes sense for them to say that the living and active word of God is now among us in a new way: in the form of a human life. This Jesus is not simply one who tells us about, warns about, or points towards what God is doing. His life is how God is doing these things.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, God shows Godself to God’s people in the burning bush and on Sinai, in dreams and visions, through the law and the prophets, through creation. By these means, God’s character, will, and glory are made known. In the New Testament, Jesus can say that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.9). His is a life transparent to God. His life is how God is showing us Godself.

In other words, acknowledging this Jesus as Lord does not mean that we are doing something different from acknowledging the God of Israel as Lord. This human life — Jesus of Nazareth — is what the God of Israel is doing to exercise God’s lordship. Jesus is the living and active word of God, the self-revelation of God, in the flesh.

It is important to emphasise one extra point here. Christians understand God’s saving work as a work of grace: a free gift that does not rely on any prior achievement on our part. It is therefore important to emphasise that none of what I have been describing is Jesus’s independent achievement. It is not a status he reached by his own efforts — not even in part. Rather, his whole life, from conception to the cross and beyond, is God’s gift to the world. And, by this gift, God has made possible what we could not achieve by ourselves.


Humanity united to God

IN HOSEA 11, God calls Israel “my son”. How can the people of Israel, Hosea’s God asks, stray from his ways, after he has taught them to walk, led them with cords of human kindness, bent down to them, and fed them?

Against that background, the New Testament witnesses see Jesus as the one who lives as a true son to the God of Israel. He lives in an unbroken covenantal relationship with the Father. His is a human life utterly united to God, and, thanks to God’s gift of this life to the world, we can be united to God by being united to Jesus.

What we could not achieve by ourselves, God has made possible for us. To be united to God is what we were created for: although the sin that keeps us from God might be endemic in humanity as we know it, it is not how we were created, and to be reconciled to God is to have our humanity fulfilled.

Covenant relationship to God therefore does not require a bypass of any real aspect of our humanity. It is not something that happens despite our bodies, or despite our being finite creatures, or despite our minds or souls. Our full bodily humanity is the material of our salvation.


THE human being Jesus of Nazareth is the pioneer of our faith. His life — God’s gift to the world — is a human life perfectly united to God, and as such it holds open a place for us. We, by grace, can come to stand where Christ stands in relation to the God of Israel.

Nothing about the humanity of Jesus needed to be inhuman, or other than human, or more than human for the sake of this union. If Jesus could be united to God only by the absence or suppression of some aspect of his humanity, what hope would there be for us?

This is the meaning of a famous line by the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus: “What is not assumed is not healed.” That is, if any part of what it is to be human — any part of human nature — has to be left out for the sake of Jesus’s relationship to God, that part would be left out in our salvation, too.

A good part of the history of the development of Christology therefore involves the insistence that element after element of what it means to be fully human is indeed present in Jesus. Yes, he has a human body; yes, he dies a human death. Yes, he suffers human pain; yes, he endures human weariness; yes, he has human emotions. He has a human mind, a human soul, a human will.

If his life goes beyond what we think of as the limits of humanity, it is not because he is anything other than fully human, but because this human life, from beginning to end, is open to the work of God’s Spirit, in and through it. And, by grace, we can be opened to the work of God, too.


Fully human and fully divine

IT THEREFORE makes sense for those who say “Jesus is Lord” to say that this Jesus, the one about whom we read in the Gospels, is the word of God in the form of a fully human life. This is God taking on, or “assuming”, a human life for our sake.

That does not mean that Jesus is some kind of meat puppet, a simulation of a human life within which a divine operator lurks. Jesus lives an unreservedly human life; he is fully and completely a human being. But this human life is God’s way of saving the world, and it is therefore true to say that the one who meets us here is God.

If we ask, “Who is this? Who are we dealing with here?”, the deepest answer we can give is: “This is God.” This is the God of Israel, a jealous God who will not share glory with another, and yet who gives us this human life as a focus for our worship and our obedience. In meeting Jesus, we meet God.

We are not talking about some clumsy amalgam: bits of human being and bits of God stuck together in some composite being. We are not talking about God (or part of God) “turning into” a human being, as if one could imagine being God and being human as successive episodes in Jesus’s conscious experience.

We are instead saying that the one God has chosen to take on a new way of being with us: this human life can therefore be called “God-with-us” (Matthew 1.23). Here we encounter God as God has always been — “what was from the beginning” — but in a new way: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1.1).


Christological living

IN THE end, none of this says more than that “Jesus is Lord.” To grasp the meaning of more elaborate formulae does not mean graduating from understanding the lordship of Jesus to understanding something different.

Nor does it mean that we grasp an explanation of how all this works, an exposé of the mechanism by which God took on this life. Rather, to understand classic Christology simply means having one’s attention drawn to some of the limits and some of the consequences involved in affirming that Jesus is Lord.

A Church that is faithful to classic Christological insights will be a Church that witnesses to Jesus. It will point away from itself to the one testified to in scripture. It will point to him as the source of healing, forgiveness, new creation, and covenant relationship — and it will invite all others to share that relationship with him.

It will point to his life as a gift of God’s grace rather than as an impossible standard of perfection. And it will be involved in the unending process of discovering what it means to live the acknowledgment of his lordship: ongoing conversion of our hearts to him, ongoing reception of his healing, ongoing discovery of the forgiveness of our sins in him, and ongoing transformation of our fully human, bodily, finite lives to become mirrors of his love.


Mike Higton is Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

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