Category Archives: Christian Theology

Theological thoughts written for interested non experts

How Do I Handle it When Someone Won’t Forgive Me?

Recently a friend, whom I will call Samuel, asked me to address a dilemma he faces. He is now a Christian, but formerly he lived a life in which he offended and hurt many people. In relating to those whom he hurt in the past, he finds that they want him to express remorse, but when he does, they don’t trust him to be sincere and want him to demonstrate remorse in unspecified ways. Samuel finds this situation very painful and is tempted to withdraw and keep silent. I think Samuel’s dilemma may not be unique, so I wanted to share the gist of what I said to him:

“Sadly, this is a common human response, Sam, and from a Christian viewpoint, its mere humanity is what is wrong with it. When people are wronged they naturally want revenge, and when they ask you to prove your remorse, they are saying that their desire for revenge has not been satisfied. They want to see you suffer. Desire for revenge is the root of bitterness from which springs all sorts of violence. Jesus tells us that we are obligated to forgive whoever asks us for forgiveness even if they sin and come back 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:21-22)! He did not add a qualification that allows us to ask them to “prove” they are sorry. Nor did Jesus allow us to say “No” for any reason. In forgiving, we are not so much trusting the petitioner’s sincerity as we are trusting Jesus. We cannot know the hearts of other people—nor our own!—but we know the heart of Jesus! Petitioners can never do enough to prove that they are sorry to people who do not understand that they need forgiveness as much as the petitioners do. If we know that we have been forgiven a great debt, we will not hesitate to forgive others. Your point from Romans 5:8—that Christ died for us while we were sinners and enemies—was spot on target! God said “Yes” to us before we had even asked!!! I am amazed and completely humbled by his grace. All this reminds me of Jesus’ story of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). We all ought to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” and have nothing to say to God or others about our goodness.

“But you asked about your dilemma and not the offended party’s dilemma. I simply thought considering the obligation we have to forgive others when they ask for mercy would help us think clearer about the petitioner’s dilemma. If we are required to forgive those who ask us without knowing for sure that they are sincere, aren’t we—the offending party—also required to ask for forgiveness even when we cannot know that someone will extend it? Even if we are sure that they will not forgive? After we’ve faced our sin in God’s presence and have accepted his forgiveness, if possible, we should express remorse and ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. If someone doesn’t trust our remorse or grant our request for forgiveness, even though it is hurtful to us, in the spirit of Jesus we should in our hearts forgive them for not forgiving us. For they are in the wrong and need God’s grace and help. We should pray for them to come to know their forgiveness in Christ! And as we pray for our self-made enemy, God may grant us healing from the hurt of rejection. Indeed, I believe he will. It may be your remorse and requested forgiveness that finally confronts them—the supposedly innocent party—with their sin of not believing in the forgiveness of sins. Your costly remorse and their reaction could be means of their awakening and redemption.”

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Responding to Non-Christian, Monotheist Critiques of Christianity

Many of us live on streets where nearly all the world’s major religions and different types of secularism and atheism are represented. We personally encounter religious viewpoints today that fifty years ago we had only read about in books. We are encouraged by the exponents of pluralism and relativism to ignore the differences and just get along. And from a personal and political vantage point this may be a good strategy. But what is true for individuals and politicians is not true for religions and philosophies. They make conflicting truth claims. From a logical point of view they may all be wrong, but they cannot all be right. I am comfortable and experienced in arguing for the truth of Christianity against atheism or for the truth of an important theological truth against a Christian thinker who denies it. But like many of you I am not all that experienced at defending the faith in discussions with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. And as I hinted above, our culture discourages us from anything but affirming encounters with representatives of other religions. I think, however, that Christians need to go beyond tolerance and politeness, and learn how to explain and defend our faith to our non-Christian neighbors. Let’s think today about how to respond to one particular non-Christian critique of Christianity.

Critics of Christianity attack at different points. Where they attack depends on what they assert as the alternative truth. Atheists object to the very idea of God, and offer nature or matter as a god-substitute. Non-Christian monotheist religions object to the status and role Jesus Christ occupies in the Christian faith and assert some other revelation or mediator or law as a Christ-substitute. Non-Christian polytheist religions find it easy to assimilate Christ as one appearance of god among many. Today I want to address certain objections to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I am not concerned in this essay with those Christians who object on biblical grounds to the specific doctrine asserted in the Nicene Creed. I am thinking of rational critiques by Jewish, Islamic, Theist or Deist thinkers.

These critics assume that defeating the doctrine of the Trinity defeats Christianity as a whole. And to accomplish this goal they make use of a common (and mistaken) notion that gives their objections underserved force, that is, that the simple unity of the divine being is a clear, rational truth whereas the triunity of the divine being is irrational or mysteriously beyond reason. But as a matter of historical fact, biblical Israel’s belief in the unity of the divine being was based on historical revelation and divine action, not on reasoning from nature. The best reasoning from nature at that time concluded that the divine nature was plural, that there were many gods, some more, some less divine. There are many forces and spheres within nature, and for the ancients these different forces possessed no obvious connection. And even if you examine the writings of the Greek philosophers from Plato to Plotinus, you never find a rationally plausible system that gets beyond dualism, that is, the assertion of at least two ultimate principles; and the divine realm always includes multiple levels. The history of philosophy proves that we cannot reason conclusively from the many things of our experience to a single, simple explanation for everything, much less to a single personal God. To think at all is to relate one thing to another. If there is only one thing, we are beyond thought. Hence simple monotheism is not a clear, rational truth self-evidently superior to belief in a differentiated divine unity. That there is only one, personal God is a truth that can be known only by revelation. I think it can be rationally held once believed, but just because it can be rationally held doesn’t mean it can be rationally proved. And I’ve not even addressed the question of the identity of that one God, which, of course, can be known only through the self-revelation of God, who alone, knows who he is.

If we remove the presupposition of the rational superiority of simple monotheism, the rationalist critique of the doctrine of the Trinity collapses. The question of whether God’s inner nature is absolutely without distinction or contains internal relations is beyond rational discovery. Now we can see clearly that the more basic question at issue is, has God revealed himself in such a way that calls for thinking of God as triune? Just as Jews assert that the God who called, guided, punished and saved Israel proved himself to be the one Creator of all things, Christians assert that this same God showed himself by what he did in and through Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be eternally Father, Son and Spirit. The real question is not whether or not this assertion is as clear to reason as is the assertion of simple monotheism. Neither one is a truth discovered by or transparent to reason. The real question is whether or not God really has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit in the way the New Testament declares. Judaism, Islam and Deism deny this; and this denial is the root of their objection to the Trinity and to Christianity as such. The rationalist objection is a distraction.

Should Believers Worry that Extra-terrestrial Life Really Exists?

As you may know from recent news releases, astronomers are excited to find 7 new earth-size planets orbiting around a star 40 light years from us. Of course 40 light years puts them way beyond our reach. It would take a space ship constructed with our current space technology 800,000 earth years to reach it. The main motivation for space exploration has always been our curiosity about ourselves, our origin, nature and destiny. So, we search for extra-terrestrial life or at least planets that could support life. Some people of faith are a bit skeptical or anxious about that possibility. So, I want to calm your fears.

What would it mean if space explorers found proof of extra-terrestrial life? Many people of an atheist bent would conclude that discovery of life elsewhere would disprove divine creation and prove that life here happened by chance. I suppose the argument would have to run like this: since we have another example of the evolution of life in the universe, we know that life on earth is not so unique and improbable that it requires a miracle to explain it. Instead, life tends to arise wherever in the universe conditions are right. And those conditions are not limited to earth. Hence we must assume that life arose on this planet by chance when the conditions made it possible.

Is this the only, or even the best, way to draw out the implications of such a discovery? I think the opposite is true. As long as earth life is the only instance of life we know, we could plausibly think of it as a freak accident unrelated to any purpose. Physical law made it possible, but chance made it actual. In truth, if we found life elsewhere it would make less plausible the idea that life on earth was a chance event. If we discovered that the universe was teaming with life, it would completely destroy the idea that life on earth came about by sheer chance. Why? Because it would demonstrate (at minimum) that the universe has a built in tendency to produce life, ultimately intelligent life. The occurrence of life could never again be attributed to pure chance. We would know it to be matter of law! The law of life would be as much a part of the universe as the law of gravity or any of the other fundamental forces. At its origin, the universe would have been programmed to produce life, to produce us. Producing intelligence is the universe’s goal. And when you and I think and dream and pray, we are enjoying the activity the universe has been aiming at from its origin! Our experience of our own minds is the most powerful telescope or microscope conceivable. It is a window into the beginning and end of all things.

But how could intelligence be the law and goal of the universe unless Intelligence was also present at the origin of the universe? As long as we think of the initial laws of our universe as mere regularities in a material universe—a rather unimaginative viewpoint—we did not have to raise the question of divine creation. But when intelligence comes to be considered an inbuilt aim–as the discovery of instances of ETL would force us to conclude–this explanation will no longer work.  Intelligence is not a mere regularity but a real thing indicating the presence of a mind. If the goal of producing intelligent beings is part of the initial conditions of the universe, the only explanation of this fact I can imagine is that a super intelligence programmed it that way.

Hence far from believers have something to fear from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we should rejoice at its discovery and say to our atheist friends, “See, we told you this universe was created by Life for life, by Intelligence for intelligence.” It is the atheist who should hope that we are alone.

The Mormon Missionaries I Met Today—What I Said and What I Wish I’d Said

After two weeks of much needed rain, the Sun is shining brightly in Southern California today. I spent much of the morning finalizing my class roster for the three classes I am teaching this semester. And I cleaned out my sock drawer. It’s amazing how many mate-less socks and other useless things you can find in the back and underneath the top layer of a sock drawer! Just before noon I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I ran 4 and ½ miles yesterday, so I planned to take it easy today.

After about a mile I looked ahead and saw two young women walking and a man walking his dogs on the other side of the street. The women greeted the man and engaged in a brief conversation, which I could not hear. I surmised that the two either knew the man or they were Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon missionaries. Since I was walking at a faster pace than they I soon caught up with the women. They greeted me and asked how I was enjoying my walk. What are your plans for the rest of the day, they asked further. I noticed the badge attached to their blouses, which identified them as associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

What I Said

After the pleasantries, I said something like, “I admire your faith, but you are very misguided in your theology.” At some point I had already told them that I had studied Christianity for 40 years and had been a professor of theology for 30 years. Mormons teach that the God of the Bible was once like us and that we can become like God is now, reigning over a world of our own. I asked them whether or not they agreed with Anselm of Canterbury who said that God is “that than which a greater cannot be conceived”? Or, paraphrasing Anselm, Do you believe God is the greatest possible being? They both said, “Yes!” I replied, “How then can you say that God was once like us? How can a being that was at one time not greater than any conceivable being become that great? Wouldn’t a God who is eternally great be greater than a being that merely becomes great after not being great?”

In reply, they urged me to read the Book of Mormon and pray to God to reveal whether or not it is true. I said something like this: You are asking people to make a decision based on a subjective feeling. Shouldn’t such an important decision be supported by facts and reasonable arguments? After all, Mormonism cannot be true unless certain historical claims are really factual. And you can’t substantiate historical facts by subjective feelings. Continuing along this line, I asked, “Don’t Mormons believe the New Testament is true? What if the theology of Mormonism is incompatible with the New Testament? Wouldn’t that count as evidence against Mormonism?” The two again urged me to pray.

What I Wish I had Said

After about 10 minutes I could tell that the two young women had given up on me and were ready to search for more open-minded subjects. As I continued my walk it came to me what I wish I had said. They wanted me to pray for enlightenment, and they said they too continually pray for divine guidance. I wish I had said this in response: “Well, I am the answer to your prayer. You asked God for guidance, and here I am. I may not know everything about Mormonism, and I may not be able to refute every Mormon claim. But I know what Christianity is, and I know Mormonism is not Christianity.”

Mormonism claims to be the original and restored Christianity, and it accepts the New Testament as the uncorrupted word of God. They claim that the teaching in the Book of Mormon is contemporary with the NT. But of course there is no trace of the Book of Mormon in the NT era. I wish I had asked this: “Can one be a good Christian without access to the Book of Mormon, with just the truth contained in the NT? If not, then we have no record of any good Christians before the Book of Mormon was discovered and translated by Joseph Smith in the early 19th. If so, then why try to convert people to Mormonism who believe and live according the NT presentation of the faith?”

There are some lessons here for Christians. But I will save those thoughts for another occasion.

 

Religion of Love or Love of Religion?

We’ve been working our way through Christian doctrine for the last 9 months, examining Christian teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, providence, sin, salvation, the atonement, the church, baptism, the Trinity, and many more. A catechism (our theme for this year) usually treats doctrines about God and God’s acts first. Afterward, it considers the appropriate human response to divine truth. The human response to divine truth can be further divided into religion and morality.

Religion concerns human action and affection directed primarily toward God. God is the object of religious acts.

Morality focuses on human action and affection directed primarily toward other human beings. Other people are the objects of moral acts.

Note: Theology is disciplined thought about God whereas religion is practical action directed to God. Ethics is disciplined thought about human moral action.

Christianity distinguishes these two kinds of human acts but does not separate them. It embraces them along with all other Christian teachings within our overall relationship to God. Jesus considered the duty to love God the most basic human responsibility and the obligation to love our neighbors as second in priority (Matthew 22:34-40). The character of our relationship to others is determined by our relationship to God. And the quality of our relationship to God is revealed by the way we treat others (1 John 4:7-21). Held in their proper relationship there can never be a contradiction between loving God and loving others, between being religious and being moral. The need to fulfill a religious duty can never excuse evil acts or enmity toward another human being. Nor should we neglect the love of God in the name of helping other people. Morality must not be reduced to religion or religion reduced to morality.

The Christian’s Religion

As we move into the practical teachings of our “catechism,” let’s first consider religion, that is, our acts and affections in relation to God. Today I want us to think about what it means to love God. It’s already clear in the Old Testament and it’s central to Jesus’ teaching that right outward actions, whether religious or moral, must be motivated by proper affections. Jesus cited the duties of loving God and neighbor as “the greatest” commandments. They are the “greatest” because they concern the root and foundation of all human action, the heart or the inner person or the will that determines the true worth of all our outward acts. However praiseworthy or helpful our religious and moral acts may seem to be from an external point of view, they are worthless before God if not motivated by love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

What does it mean to love God? As far as I can tell there are two basic Christian models: (1) profound gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and (2) passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good. Most often, New Testament writers follow Model (1) and ground our motivation for loving God in God’s demonstration of his love for us in Jesus’ sacrifice. Paul emphasizes God’s love for us more than he does our love for God. He exercises caution about professing the purity of his love for God. That’s a matter for God to judge. But he is deeply moved by God’s love for sinners, enemies, and the godless (Romans 5:1-11). We are full of hope because “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (verse 5). Nevertheless, he is clear that our fitting response to God’s love for us is our love for God (Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 8:3).

John, in 1 John 4:9-19, grounds our ability and motivation to love God and others in God’s love for us:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…. 19 We love because he first loved us.”

According to model (1), then, to love God is to experience the unexpected, undeserved, and unfathomable love of God for us in the self-giving of Jesus Christ and to feel an overwhelming desire to give in return our whole being in service to God. I say “desire” but perhaps Paul’s expression “compulsion” is a better word:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (2 Corinthians 5:14).

If you’ve seen what Paul saw you know something of what he felt.

Model (2)—the love of God as “the passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good”—is a subordinate but still important theme in the Bible. God is the Source of every good gift. He is beautiful, praiseworthy, great, glorious, and perfect. If each of God’s gifts are “good” and all of them together are “very good” (Genesis 1), the Giver must be surpassingly good. However, the love of God as desire for the highest good became prominent only in the patristic era under the influence of Platonic thought. Perhaps the most famous expression of the love of God as desire is Augustine’s Confessions, especially that often quoted line in the first paragraph:

“Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Every healthy, enjoyable, beautiful, truthful, and excellent thing in creation possesses those qualities because it participates in the highest of all goods, eternal perfection itself. Created goods were not designed to satisfy us completely. Their goodness evokes desire but their imperfections disappoint and drive us higher, beyond all creatures to the perfect Good from which all things flow.

According to model (2), then, to love God is to have experienced the amazing goodness and beauty of creation as a mere foretaste of the infinite perfection of God and to be set ablaze with desire to see and experience directly that divine perfection.

I think we can see that within a Christian framework these two models are perfectly compatible. Model (1) focuses on the generous, merciful, and kind acts of God in creation and salvation. In these acts we experience the undeserved love of God and are compelled to love God in return. In Model (2), we also experience the goodness of God in creation, but the emphasis falls on the perfection of God’s being rather than on the loving character of his actions. In Model (1) we experience the kindness and in Model (2) we experience the excellence of God. Model (1) is Model (2) articulated in personal terms. Apart from the biblical revelation, we might think of God’s perfection in impersonal terms, that is, as a distant ideal or an unattainable state. But in Jesus Christ we see the perfect being of Model (2) turn toward us and freely invite us weak and sinful creatures to share in his perfect life. Profound gratitude is combined with passionate desire in a perfect union!

 

 

 

The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not About A Word

A few years ago I gave a talk to a popular audience on the doctrine of God. During the question and answer period a questioner ask, “Would you explain the Trinity?” The audience laughed. I replied that I find the doctrine of the Trinity quite simple and would be happy to answer his question. For today’s post I will share my understanding of this simple doctrine. Let me begin with two preliminary qualifications.

(1) The doctrine of the Trinity is not about a word. The Greek word “Trinity” (trias) was first used to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the late 2nd Century. The word “Trinity” was not used in the New Testament, and some people turn this absence into an argument against the substance of the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They seem to think that the whole issue turns on what word you use. If the word “Trinity” were that important to the doctrine, surely the Nicene Creed (381), the definitive statement of the Trinitarian faith for nearly all Christian churches, would have used it. It did not. The debate about the Trinity addresses the question, who is God? Or more precisely who is the God we meet in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who raised him from the dead? The name “Trinity” is simply a shorter way of saying the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), into which we are baptized.

The real question of the Trinity is this: is it proper for Christians to believe and confess that the word “God” means Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Gregory Nazianzus (A.D. 329-89), Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the chief defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity says it this way:

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity, either Judaizing to save the monarchia, or falling into paganism by the multitude of our gods. For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.  This then is the Holy of Holies, which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and is glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription to the title Lord and God (Oration 38, 8).

(2) The doctrine of the Trinity is not a speculative doctrine that claims intellectual comprehension of God’s essential being. The church fathers who articulated the Nicene Creed were well aware that God dwells in unapproachable light and that no one has seen God. God’s essence is incomprehensible by any being other than God. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a protective formula whose only claim to truth is that it faithfully summarizes the revelation of God made in Jesus Christ. Only God knows God. Hence only God can reveal God. The Son knows God and can reveal God (Matthew 11:27). The Spirit knows “the deep things of God” and can reveal the “thoughts” of God (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). In sum, the doctrine of the Trinity aims not to comprehend “the deep things of God” but to restate the truth of divine revelation in a compressed formula that protects the faithful from one-sided interpretations of the scriptures.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative, and it’s not complicated.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

John dealt with similar doubts in his own context in the First Century. And his answer is similar to the one the church eventually gave in the doctrine of the Trinity:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).

The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

The Christian church confesses that the eternal Son of God became a human being in Jesus Christ, lived a human life, and died a human death for our salvation. The prologue to the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). In verse 14, we hear that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The man Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Paul speaks about the one who dwelt in the “form of God” emptying himself and humbling himself to take on the “form of a slave” and to die on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). And in Colossians, he speaks of Christ as the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” The writer of Hebrews speaks of one who secured purification from sins as the one “through whom also God made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Hence the New Testament certainly teaches that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed with the Father before he was made flesh. But how did his disciples arrive at this knowledge, and what does it mean to say that the Word became flesh or that the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily? These questions are not easily answered. It seems clear, however, that the doctrine of incarnation was not understood during Jesus’ earthly life. Only after the resurrection did this become clear. What changed?

It seems to me evident from  the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, his post-resurrection appearances, and his close connection to the sending of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus as one whom God had designated from all eternity as Lord, Savior, Revealer, Creator, and Judge. These functions cannot be carried out by a mere human or even an angel. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Jesus Christ could not be thought of as a mere instrument God used or a space in which God dwelt while doing this work. The risen Jesus is one with God in will and action. God acts “through” and “in” Jesus. But Jesus is not the Father. Nevertheless, in calling Jesus Christ the Word of God or the Son of God the apostles view Jesus Christ as some sort of “extension” of God.

The disciples did not realize fully the identity of Jesus as the Son/Word of God incarnate before the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. However, once they knew his true identity they concluded that from the very beginning of his human life he had been the incarnate Son of God. The resurrection revealed the identity of Jesus in glory, but it did not constitute it. The question I raised earlier becomes relevant at this point. What does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? We can readily see that the resurrected and glorified Jesus has been united to God, filled to overflowing with divine life, one in will and action with God. His body was transformed and spiritualized and his consciousness united with the divine mind. But how shall we understand his divinity during his earthly life before his glorification?

The first thing to keep in mind in answering this question is the truth I stated above: the actuality of the incarnation before the resurrection is a deduction concluded from Jesus’ resurrection and his status after that glorious event. It cannot be known from experience of his humanity or from pure speculation. And it could not have been established merely by a claim by Jesus or his followers. However, once that conclusion has been secured by the resurrection we can retrospectively see signs of Jesus’ identity in his earthly life: his miracles, the authority of his teaching, and his claims.

But accepting the resurrection-grounded truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate from conception onward does not grant us understanding of how this is possible or complete insight into the nature of the union between the Son of God and the human life of Jesus. Our expectations of what an incarnate God would be like create difficulties in thinking of Jesus as the Word made flesh. We tend to think that a divine presence in Jesus would necessarily manifest itself in a special divine-like consciousness and action through the agency of the body. But we cannot imagine a human consciousness that includes all knowledge or a human agency that exercises omnipotence. In the same way, we cannot imagine a divine consciousness that is limited to a human mind and bodily senses or a divine power bound by the limits of the body. Hence we get hopelessly entangled in contradictions. Some theologians develop theories of divine self-limitation, wherein the Word gives up or refuses to use some divine attributes and others think up theories that lessen the humanity by replacing the human mind with the divine mind or making the entire humanity a mere appearance.

The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds assert that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man” and that he is “one and the same Christ…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” These statements do not attempt to explain how this is possible or speculate about the psychological experience of the God-Man. Perhaps it is enough simply to confess the biblical and orthodox Christology and refuse to speculate further. I believe this stance is sufficient for the life of faith, and it is the foundation on which I base my thinking about the Incarnation. But we are curious to know the answers to these questions, and we cannot help imagining some sort of answer. And this curiosity can lead us to propose heretical or fanciful theories.

As I hinted above, I do not find it helpful to think about the Incarnation primarily in psychological categories, speculating about the union of divine and human consciousness and self-consciousness. I find it more helpful to think in ontological categories, that is, the being or existence of a thing rather than the self-consciousness of that thing. No right thinking person identifies their humanity fully with their consciousness. We are human even when we are not aware of the fullness of our human nature. Our humanity does not rise and fall with our self-consciousness. Human life is a life-long quest to understand and experience our full humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of all human existence is to become spirit, that is, to achieve identity between what we are in existence and in our self-consciousness.

Clearly, here and now there is a difference between my existing humanity and my ego or any other medium in which I am aware of my existence. Nevertheless, I can truly affirm that my existence is me and mine, even if I am not yet aware of all of it. I do not think or feel this way about the existence of other things, rocks, mice, planets or light beams. Why not? They are within my sphere of possible experiences. Indeed they are, but when I experience for the first time aspects of my existence, I experience them as me and mine, as having been me and mine all along. I do not experience other objects this way. I experience all dimensions of my existence as constituents of myself, and I realize that they were aspects of my constitution even before I knew of them.

Jesus Christ was fully human from conception onward. But like all human beings he grew in consciousness of his human existence and nature. It was not his consciousness and self-consciousness of his humanity that made him human. Jesus shared with other human beings the drive to know the fullness of his human nature and existence. But Jesus was also fully God from conception onward; that is to say, for Jesus the divine nature was a constituent of his existence. (For us, the divine nature is the cause of our existence but not a constituent of our persons.) In the same way that Jesus was not fully conscious of every aspect of his human nature from conception onward, he was not fully conscious of his divine nature always. And just as his lack of complete consciousness of his humanity did not make him less human, lack of full consciousness of his divine nature did not make him less divine. I think we can safely say that Jesus grew both in his awareness of his humanity and his divinity during his earthly life. And even if Jesus did not become fully conscious of the full depths of his humanity or his divinity until his glorification in the resurrection, this in no way diminishes the completeness of his pre-glorification divinity or his humanity!

Note: this is the 151st essay I’ve written and posted on this blog since August 2013.