Discuss Life and Religion with Tan Tai Wei

How is the Man, Jesus, “God … in Christ”?

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Jesus,  who initiated humankind into that consciousness of God as our Abba, Father, of Whom we are “children” in that consciousness, has also been hailed “Very God”, although also “very man” in the Christian tradition. How are we to interpret this apparently contradictory belief, which to “orthodox” Christians is a defining truth of Christianity, acceptance of which is a necessary condition of “salvation”?

I must first testify that when I had that religious experience as a sixteen year old, recounted in my above posting “A Personal Testimony”,  an experience that continued in that raw form for many years onwards, the belief in the Incarnation, that the Jesus taught me as Son of God is also God,  was unknown to me. I was  surprised, when I attended a class on doctrines sometime later, to learn that the Christ I believed for my salvation “was also God”. So, in my own experience, belief in the literal Incarnation of God in Jesus was not necessary for initiation into “sonship” of God. This seemed to be so, also, in other cases arguably more significant than mine. The first female Methodist minister of Singapore, after her stint at theological college and ordination as minister, asked within my hearing “How can Jesus be God?” And I heard a prominent American missionary Methodist minister  illustrating the doctrine that Jesus is God only in terms of “God is like Jesus”.  As regards “the fruit of the Spirit”, very few I know exhibit it more than the late Reverent Gunnar Teilman.

But, of course, that does not mean the doctrine is wrong, for it needs only be that our gracious God would dispense even with true belief in order to save.  So, we have still to ask what might the truth be .

We must first guard against the idolatory of thinking of a man as God, without appreciating the qualifications of that within the entire tradition of belief. I remember an occasion in Singapore when the major religions were represented at a national service of mourning after a Silk-air crash. Various invocations were sounded, and then came the Christian’s turn. But all the archbishop said was “Lord Jesus”.  I remember the let-down! We were so brought down to earth again!

The Christian belief that Jesus is God must be thought in its rightful context, ie. in its place within the religious experiences that inaugurated Christianity and  the attempted understanding of them the doctrinal formula of “the Holy Trinity” was meant to capture. Stephen, at the point of martyrdom, said he saw Jesus, resurrected, and seated (as a distinct individual) at the right hand of God, and this was heard by Saul, then his persecutor, who soon became Paul, the first great Christian missionary and  theologian, who bequeathed to posterity writings that became much of the New Testament. In his letters to various churches, Jesus was mostly distinguished from  “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”,  who will eventually be “all in all” when Jesus  will have gathered all under Himself and then presented it all “to the Father”. This was despite Paul’s quoting with approval, in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, the saying that it was “not thought robbery to claim for Jesus equality with God”.  But whatever the “equality” Paul agreed to, he was not saying Jesus is divine in being identical with God. Only distinct beings can be equal. At all events, there was the ambivalence between the notion of a resurrected and glorified Jesus, hailed as “Lord”,  yet subordinate to God the Father, and that of Him as being God’s equal.  It has been said that it would be idolatory for the early Christians and Paul to do the sort of homage to their “Lord Jesus” that was tantamount to worship had He not been divine. And if divine, He must also be thought to be identical with God, since being monotheists, they could not entertain the notion of more than one divine being. But it is a moot point that the homage they paid to Jesus was “worship”, rather than their receiving the bread and wine, “body and blood” of their risen Lord”, in solidarity with Him and signifying their being incorporated into His “body” as members of the new Israel He instituted. With Him they became “the Vine”, traditional symbol of “children of the Most High”, but all directed in worship , not of Jesus, but of His “Father, the Husbandman”. Now, all this might seem to outsiders as worship of one Jesus, recently crucified under Pontius Pilate, as it did to the Roman governor of Bithynia, Pliny, who in AD 112 wrote to the Emperor Trajan complaining of the activities of Christians in those terms. But, surely, precisely because they were  strict monotheists, they themselves could not have seen their reverence for their Lord and Master as worship of One other than the Father in Heaven. They would have recalled that it had been His Abba Whom he had been teaching them to worship andpray to, say in “the Lord’s prayer”,  and how He had  denied repeatedly the very charge of blasphemy. And they surely did not have the philosophic sophistication to be capable of mooting the “paradox” or “mystery” of how the conception of divine “transcendence” might allow for the contradiction of His being man and also God Whom He himself worshipped and  prayed to, of how God could have been Jesus of Nazareth living and dying, and yet through it all remaining all the while still God – ( this is the “mystery” of  divine transcendence purported by HD Lewis in defence of the Incarnation, in an essay entitled “The Person of Christ”).

I hope the brief indications above suffice to show how shallow and misleading is the simple, childhood  prayer  “Thank you, Jesus”, taught at “Sunday School”. You don’t think  God when thinking a kind, bearded, Galilean youth. The “lordship of Jesus” is inseparable in meaning from whatever His being the Christ or Messiah means, interpreting the life He lived and the death He died, based upon the experiences of all that, and the Resurrection experiences. It involves wondering and meditating with our early informants on “those things that had occurred amongst them” involving Jesus and the impact He made on their consciousness, especially the seeming encounter with a loving “Abba” God He initiated them into, an experience that seemed to them impossible to separate from His teaching and lordship over them.

But just as it can be idolatrous to just “pray to Jesus”, even the doctrinal formula of the Holy Trinity we recite in church can be an idol also, if we “worship” it, rather than meditate our way behind it into the experience it is meant to capture. Key to it all is, of course, the apparently contradictory claim that the Person of Jesus is “Very God, and Very Man.” What had been the “mystery” of this Person and what the nature of the impact He made on the experiences of the early Christians that seemed to the formulators of the Creed to  call for nothing less than this “paradox” for enshrining it in church doctrine?

That He was “Very Man” we cannot doubt. For it must have been as human that He could have so impressed His first followers  that they felt they could only call Him, in the words the author of John’s Gospel put into the lips of Thomas, “my lord and my God”. This is a point HD Lewis might consider. He proffers his case for Jesus’  divinity, in the essay “The Person of Christ”, by showing how uniquely good the records show His person, as seen in His living and dying, to have been, and how unclassifiable He would be if not hailed God incarnate.  But then it must be only as man that He could have thus impressed, for such goodness  would only be something to be expected of a “God incarnate”.  And it cannot be gainsaid that Jesus thought himself human even if at a later point in his ministry he identified himself with the pre-existed “messiah” of some Jewish expectancy. Once someone called him “good master” and he replied “Why call me good? Only God is good”. Another time, he refuted the charge of blasphemy levelled by Jews who sought His death, in the words “Isn’t it written in the scriptures that ‘ye are gods’?”, implying that He claimed to be nothing beyond what the accusers by their scriptures must accept as proper to man. Another charge of blasphemy tried on Him was His “saying God was his Father”. Now, this need not be seen as a claim to divinity, but only of  familiarity and personal with God, deemed disrespectful by His accusers. This claim to familiarity we can readily admit He did make, for what distinguished His apprehension of God is that God is “Abba Father”, and it wasn’t “blasphemy”. At this point in his life, however, it was as man or representative man that God was Abba to Him, the doctrine of His “divine Sonship to the Father” being a later theologised development occurring most prominently in John’s Gospel, a heavily theologically interpretive work written about a century after the events of His life.  Even at His baptism by John the baptist, when He had that experience which impressed upon Him His calling to be Messiah, His understanding of being God’s “beloved Son” could only be by reference to Scriptures, where God calls Israel and the lord’s anointed king “my son”, and where “prophecy”, it seemed, was that “a root of Jesse”, another of David’s line, therefore only man, was to to rule as Messiah (but not, in Jesus’ mind, as the conquering Messiah  popularly hoped for by many, but as that “suffering Servant” described in pseudo-Isaiah as one “who sacrificed his life for many”, in whom God “is well pleased” (Is 53).  The latter clause was significantly quoted in the latter half of that “voice from Heaven” spoken to Jesus in order to signify the proper Messiah He was to be.)  Also, in many places in the Gospels where Jesus called Himself “Son of Man”, if He meant anything more than just saying He was man, it was only by reference to the Book of Daniel where one “like a son of man”, representing “children of the Most High (ie., Israel)”, would present himself “to the Ancient of Days”. Therefore, it all signifies that Jesus, the Son of Man, was human, as indeed the term itself implies in Hebrew. It was never thought that Messiah was God. That claiming to be representive of “the children of the Most High” as “Son of Man” before God He had made claim to  some exalted status and power is possible, and there are indications of His claiming some kind of ultimate judiciary power “dividing the sheep from the goat” and saying to some, to be left “in outer darkness”, that “I know you not”,  even in the earlier Gospels before John. But with His poetic cast of mind, it is arguable that He could not have read the apocalyptic book of Daniel, and other literature of that genre, and used their characteristic fantastic imagery and visions,  too literally. He taught in parables, and it is a moot issue whether those depictions of end days and of Himself as judge, etc., were meant, like all parables, only to make a point, say as regards sincerity of heart and commitment, like all his direct decrying of hypocrisy, and not to make factual claims and predictions about His own person. Anyhow, his person, as depicted there, was at most only an exalted being and not divine. Even had He claimed divinity, it would not follow that He was right. The ascription of sinlessness to him never included omniscience. He did not know our science, for instance, and he had certainly been wrong about the authorship of Exodus, ascribing the Pentateuch to Moses’s authorship which would have to mean Moses wrote of his own death.

We might also recall St Paul’s depicting Him, additionally to his other characterising of Him, as the ideal “Man from Heaven”, the “second Adam”,  as contrasted to the fallen “first Adam” (probably having in mind the Platonic belief in perfect “forms” of which earthly beings and things are imperfect copies). But Man in that sense is distinct from the transcendent Form of the Good, the Platonic counterpart of supremacy and divinity.  And we saw, in those other depictions of Paul’s,  ambivalence in his seeming to ascribe to Jesus divine attributes (equality with God) and also mere exalted  “lordship” in ultimate subjection to “God, the Father”. (We might also observe here that as human and “representative man” who “rose from the dead”, He could constitute evidence of  humankind’s survival of physical death. As divine, this evidential value would be moot, for it could be said that it had to be divinity that enabled the resurrection. So there would be this advantage of rejecting belief in the deity of Jesus.)

But what then is tradition saying about the Christian experience of God by the Apostle’s Creed that contains the key term “Very God and Very Man” ascribed to Jesus? John Hicks has reminded us that what enabled that formula to be sensible despite seeming to state, in CH Dodd’s word, “the unthinkable”(ie. how the same being and centre of consciousness could be both God and man) was the Grecian philosophic distinction between “substance” and “accident”.  This enabled the claim that Jesus was in essence divine, “of one substance with the Father”, even though also of the substance of manhood, both clothed in the “accident” of God and manhood combined. But, as Hicks points out, such talk is universally agreed to be meaningless today, and so we puzzle with Dodd as to how unthinkable is the literal identity of Jesus with God. So, too, the author of John’s Gospel, probably also under Greek influence, was able to, after  identifying Jesus with Logos and God, to  prove it only by illustrating how identical His thinking and living had been to the Father’s mind and will so as to render Him in essence God, or, as the Creed says, “true God from true God”.    But for us today, who cannot make sense of that Greek philosophical talk, such a conception can only mean either the abandonment of monotheism, ie. implying that two Gods exist (three, if the “holy ghost” is likewise distinct), or the unthinkable identification of man and God in one being and consciousness.  HD Lewis would take the latter course. Despite his warning us not to “fall over the precipice” in not heeding the limits to theological thinking and conceptualising, resulting in doctrinal and “Trinitarian” elaborations that trivialise rather than help our understanding of “the great mysteries of Godliness”, he nonetheless seems himself to fall over in affirming  that God had remained distinctly God, worshipped and prayed to by Jesus, and yet was also Jesus, ie. in effect telling us to think the unthinkable. Lewis, though, has himself been in the forefront pointing the need to think our way behind doctrines in order to appreciate the experiences they capture, so let us heed this call and ask what had experientially necessitated that ascription of divine “substance identity” to Jesus. Bear in mind that when that ascription of identity was originally proffered, it wasn’t unthinkable, enabled by then current conceptions. We adhere better to tradition, therefore, not to feel compelled today to think the unthinkable about it.

Let us first set aside a circular argument “fundamentalist” Christians have been wont to present on such issues. They say “it’s in the Bible”. Now,  we saw that scriptures aren’t clear on the purported divinity of Jesus. In any case, one cannot quote scriptures to support scriptures.  The King James version has a verse in the second epistle to Timothy reading “All scriptures are given by inspiration of God and are profitable…” but the translation from Greek should be  “All inspired scriptures are profitable….”, and it after all referred only to “the Law and the Prophets”, the “scriptures” of the early Christians. Another reference in the second epistle of Peter seems to indicate that Pauline writings were being regarded as equally authoritative with inspired scriptures? Well, Second Timothy, where that verse about the “inspiration of scriptures” occurs, is a late writing that isn’t really by Paul. At all events, the argument would only bring the issue further back – what scriptures vouch for that epistle? Even if the “inspiration of God” were vouched, the conclusion would not follow that  inspired scriptures were “verbally inspired and infallible”, whatever this can be made to mean. It might still be that our wise Creator, who made us to be persons, did not “inspire” scriptures in such mode as to deny us, assumimg this were possible, the responsibility for intelligent discernment of “revelation”.  And we saw that scriptures are, in any case, not clear-cut about the mode of Jesus’ exalted status.

HD Lewis puts forward an impressive case for accepting the traditional belief in Christ’s divinity in his essay “The Person of Jesus”, where he paints a composite rendering of a Jesus “portrait” that brings out His manysided “uniqueness”, comprising perfections devotional, moral, artistic, exact sensitivity in response to varieties of specific human situations and encounters, etc.  Even Martin Buber, a Jew who was not Christian, admitted he could find no human classification befitting Him.  Lewis says we should respond, after prayerfully meditating the evidence of His person, in the only way open to us in view of the facts, and like Thomas, “be overcome in His presence” calling Him “my Lord and my God”.  Note that Lewis’s case does not rest on any purported Jesus’s own claim to divinity, nor yet the resurrection and the nativity stories. The resurrection, whatever its nature, would be neither here nor there as regards the issue, for it would at most show that “God raised Him from death” just as others had been claimed to be so raised. And the nativity stories just cannot be taken neat (in any case, they wouldn’t necessarily indicate divinity), although surely based upon some kernal of truth around which legends had surely been spun, as they were wont to over such impressive persons as Jesus. Lewis asks “What censor was that?” which purportedly brought Mary and Joseph from Galilee to Bethlehem. Well, that would not be the only instance of legend being spun in order to fulfil a purported messianic prophecy, in this case about his being born “in the city of David”. Another regards the “prophecy” that “out of Egypt I will call my son”. Now, this was only a reference to the Israelites’ being led by Moses out of Egypt, but which was reinterpreted as prophesying the messiah. And so the story had to grow of the infant Jesus’ escaping Herod’s persecution by being brought to Egypt, and then back from there fulfilling that prophecy. So, also, as regards the “virgin birth” and all those about angels appearing and speaking.  A mistranslation into Greek of an Old Testament purported “prophecy” read “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” The correct translation should be “a young woman shall conceive…”.  Historically, the reference was an assurance that despite the impending threat of foreign invasion to Judah and the kingdom, eventual salvation remained a hope. Another motive had been the belief in the genetic transmission of “original sin”.  And so, Jesus, being “without sin”,  had to be “born of a virgin”. Today we know that mothers too play a role in genetic transmission, and so the virgin birth would be pointless in this regard! And, after all, for the sake of internal consistency of Christian beliefs, surely primitive doctrines that presuppose literal collective responsibility for moral wrongs must be revised in order to tally with belief in freewill and individual responsibility. And that nullifies the need to postulate the virgin birth in order not to  implicate Jesus in “Adam’s sin”. (I stress all this, with the additional agenda of reassuring those, such as the Oxford trained literature teacher of my son’s, who on superficial readings of the Gospels feel it’s all like fairy tale. One should read the scriptures informedly, discriminating the varieties of literary genres they are composed of and their purports, distinguishing factual claims from fiction.)  The first proclaimers of the “good news” of Christ, as recorded in the beginning chapters of “Acts of the Apostles”, made no mention of nativity stories. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had been available for their learning the stories from, including during the earliest days after the resurrection, and had they so learnt, shouldn’t they not have been impressed and included them in their cases for proclaiming “the risen” Jesus as sent of God to be Lord and Saviour of all?  Also, with those nativity experiences, Mary herself should have been so impressed as not to  suspect that Jesus was insane at one point early in His ministry. Noteworthy, too, is that Mark, the earliest Gospel, mentions no nativity stories even though the author was likely the John Mark who would have much of his information firsthand from the mouth of Peter.  And the author of John’s Gospel, writing late in the first century AD, would have heard them and should have included them in his Gospel had he thought them important (as he surely would, if they were literally true, since his aim was to prove Jesus was the Logos made flesh). So, too, Paul in all his authentic epistles makes no mention of nativity stories, nor did writers of the rest of the New Testament other than Luke and Matthew, who probably got them from a common source.

In light of all the above, how should we see the experience of the early Christians which the doctrinal formula of the Holy Trinity with its assertion of the Incarnation was meant to capture? We must again stress that nothing so “paradoxical”, “mysterious”, contradictory or “unthinkable” as claiming black is white, or man is also God, was ever intended by that creed. We saw that Greek thinking in terms of substance and accidents had enabled the formula ascribing “very God and very man” to one and the same being to be sensible.  And even though, as HD Lewis maintained, experiences of being “overcome” in Jesus’ presence and addressing Him “my Lord and my God” had occurred from “the beginning” and not after a period of devotional development, His disciples and close associates, being monotheistic Jews, could not have meant, by that address, that the human Lord of their encounter, however elevated or “deified”, was strictly and literally God. For that would have to mean in their minds that Jesus was God other than His own “Abba, Father”, ie. two Gods. They were not tutored in Greek philosophy to have the sophistication of the later formulators of the Apostles’ Creed in order to conceive how two or three persons could also be one. True, so impressive of divinity had been their encounters with Him, especially post-resurrection, and not only the resurrection appearances but also their subsequent ongoing “personal” experience of being “in Christ”, that their paying homage to Him, especially in “the breaking of bread”, had seemed to onlookers, like Pliny, to be worshipping Jesus “as a god”. And we need not doubt  that they themselves,  seeing Him from the far side of the resurrection, thought Him a being of some exalted status, such as the expected Messiah had been thought by many to be, even to have pre-existed His advent. Stephen “saw” Jesus “seated at the right hand of God (not himself God, be it noted)”.  But for all that veneration of Jesus as “Lord”, they seemed to need to still maintain the distinction between Him and “God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. So, John had Jesus saying to Mary, who was about to touch him at that resurrection appearance, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father and your Father, my God and your God”. And this was despite his recording of Thomas’ addressing Him “My Lord and my God”. From this we might gather that John meant, by saying “what the Word (Christ) was, God was” (Chapter One, verse one: New English Bible translation), that Jesus was “divine”, not as being God Himself, but only as true Son of God. John said He was God’s “only begotten Son”, but being begotten of God would not mean being identical with Him. Now, our Creed was enabled by Greek “substance” thought to render that “divinity” to mean being”of one substance with the Father”. And it is a moot point whether John himself thought Greek enough to imply that.  Even when it developed into that Creed, there was the alternative, contesting view that Christ was only “of like substance”, rather than “one substance” with God, the Father, and this would have been close enough for John, who was careful, being Hebrew, not to have in mind any other God, however venerable the lordship of Christ.

At all events, to represent the apostles and early Christians as claiming that God is strictly and literally identical with Jesus, but at the same time also the God He worshipped and called His “Abba”, would be to make them say “the unthinkable”, which even the formulators of the Creed, with their Greek background, did not.  HD Lewis’ point may be argued that because the early Christians were strict monotheists, unless they thought Jesus strictly identical with God, their veneration of Jesus would be tantamount to idolatry. But did they have the philosophical sophistication for them to appreciate Lewis’ point that the conception of “divine transcendence” should allow for human wonderment beyond the limits of intelligent speculation and thus give sense to the purported “mystery of Incarnation” that asserts Jesus was both man and God? Short of having that, they would, by so regarding Jesus, in effect be thinking nonsense. Even if divine inspiration and revelation is claimed for the thinking, that could not be what was revealed, unless we take revelation to be God’s putting persons in a sort of trance and they then record “communications” they don’t understand. But such a view no thinking person accepts today. And it would defeat the point of revelation, for nothing meaningful to humans would be revealed that way and, therefore, there would be no revelation to man. One must carefully distinguish paradox and mystery from plain contradiction. God’s “eternity” is mystery, for even as we can’t fathom its meaning, we can imagine eons of time, on which basis to “suspend judgement” as to what His eternity might mean. The question how an all-good God and Creator is compatible with evil in His creation is ultimately mystery, for we have some inkling as to how evil in  our experiences might sometimes be necessary for some good, on which basis, we suspend judgment and develop faith that from God’s viewpoint, some similar justification exists of evil. And what initially appears paradoxical we expect to be eventually explained, like we know when it’s true that the “slow and steady” would win, and when a “faint-hearted” would lose, even though the proverbial pair is contradictory at face value. A contradiction, say that a man is man and therefore not God, and yet also God, and therefore not man, is just a jumble of words that say nothing. If divine revelation involves the human receiver’s responsible response, how could it be that anyone could claim something so unintelligible to be its content?

HD Lewis thinks that the uniqueness of Jesus constrained the first persons who encountered Him to so conclude. But might not the following be a more plausible alternative account of the meaning they discerned? That the “Lord” they encountered seemed to them extraordinary and exalted, as the expected Messiah was popularly thought by some, we needn’t dispute. But note that the  standard description of that was “God raised Him from the dead” or “God has highly exalted Him” and “He sitteth at the right hand of the Father”. If the mode of their encountering Him constrained them to recall the titles,”Son of Man” or “Son of God”, and ascribe them to Him, the exaltedness they thought of Him  could only be in terms of that apocalyptic figure “like unto a son of man” in the book of Daniel, representing “children of the Most High”, otherwise addressed in Psalms as “Israel, My son”. This son would eventually be presented to God, “the Ancient of Days”, and therefore, if taken to be “divine”, he could not be so taken in the sense of strict identity with God. It must be experientially true that in those encounters, the apostles and others felt themselves “in God’s presence”, and hardly able to make any due discrimination whilst “seeing” Jesus in His numinous intensity. So, perhaps, although John could be expected, true to his intent in writing his Gospel, to put in his own perceptions  recording it, Thomas did address Jesus in those very words “My Lord and my God”. On subsequent reflection, though, they would have to duly discriminate, and, like Paul, place God appropriately  as “Father of our Lord”, to Whom Jesus would have to present all after He had gathered all under Himself, so that “God will be all in all”. All this was despite their addressing Jesus as “Lord”; therefore this address did not imply, in their mind, His being identical with God.

Now, in light of all we have said, wouldn’t the so-called orthodox adherence in our time to the Apostles’ Creed, which involves asserting the unthinkable not originally intended by the Creed, be really unorthodox, and unnecessarily alienating other views concerning the Person of Jesus? Wouldn’t Christendom have been less divided throughout the centuries without all the alleging of “heresies” and persecutions, and, notably, might not Islam (Mohammed was influenced by a “heretical” branch of early Christianity) have developed, with due qualifications, to be a branch of a greater Christianity? We noted that HD Lewis warns against our not seeing when interpreting should stop and reverential agnosticism adopted when theologising. Shouldn’t we stop at this point with the first people who encountered Christ, and merely acknowledge the impression of the entire event centred on Him, focusing their finding themselves overwhelmed “in God’s presence” where in their personal experiences they could hardly  distinguish seeing Jesus from experiencing God? Elevated and empowered we might claim Him to be in view of some of His apparent own claims and along with some Messianic expectations, and seeing Him from the far side of the resurrection. And so we could say with Paul that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”.  But we must also remember with Paul that ultimately all that was to be for “the glory of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus”, Who was to be “all in all”.

In reflecting through all this, it must be borne in mind also, that a literal reading of the traditional Creed  is open to the danger of rendering the concept of God so particularistic that He cannot be God, the “all in all”, but only a basically Hebrew God.  If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is given an interpretation which ties it so particularistically to Hebrew history and culture that it could not be appreciated without reference to that culture, then God could not be God of all cultures, especially in times past when cross-cultural communication was scarce. Our worry today in this regard concerns the possibility of extraterrestrial civilisations of persons existing, which we cannot have contact with, with innumerable  galaxies continually receding and distancing from us. Surely, God our Creator is also theirs, and loves them too?

HD Lewis says that those who shy from asserting the strict identity of Jesus with God should, for clarity and integrity, cease partaking in the eucharist.  He thinks we should not “prevaricate”, and want to feel  its  blessing and comfort but yet confuse by rejecting its meaning. But my impression has been that the average Christian, even a “fundamentalist” such as I was when I first believed, takes Holy Communion whilst acknowledging Jesus as “Son of God” without asking or feeling the need to ask what that means. He quotes John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” and takes that “by faith”. He prays to God “through Jesus Christ, our Lord” without really studying the meaning of the ritual. He would be surprised like I was by the theology that Jesus is “very man and very God”. He recites the Apostles’ Creed in church but hardly reflects its meaning. Indeed, the new Methodist Hymnal contains a modernised Creed used interchangeably with the Nicene Creed which plainly says Christ was “Jesus incarnate” rather than God incarnate. Presumably, this is deliberate, in order to accomodate viewpoints such as advocated here. And why not?  God is Whom we all want to worship via the context and experiences of the great revelatory event, labelled by theologians today “the Christ event”, which involved the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the majesty and experiential “mystery” of which event and of His person we acknowledge, whilst refraining from thinking the unthinkable by a creed that wasn’t unthinkable  within its original cultural context. And we can, in some sense, say with Paul that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself”, for Paul is clear as to the  ultimate supremacy and distinctiveness of God,”the Father of our Lord” who is “all in all”. All this I recall as I take Holy Communion, and remain “grafted” (Paul’s metaphor) in that great fellowship and “body” headed by our Lord Jesus. Am I not still Christian through all this?

Dodd, despite saying the identification of Jesus with God is “unthinkable”,  nonetheless points out that Christians don’t think Christ as someone read of in ancient writings but as contemporary Lord and Master, experienced somewhat like the apostles and Paul’s  experience of Him as a constant companion and guide who had said “Lo, I am with you always”. Paul could testify that “thrice I had asked Him to remove a thorn in my flesh” but He had replied instead, “My grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness”. Does the understanding of Christ we proffer undermine this Christian experience? We first note that even the resurrection appearances of Jesus within that symbolic period of forty days were not ordinary material presences, however “bodily” they seemed. He appeared and disappeared through closed doors, vanished instantaneously when recognised,  ascended into clouds. At all events, after the forty days, experiences of Christ were more like the vision Stephen had when he “saw the heavens open and the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God”. Even Paul, who claimed apostleship for having witnessed the resurrected Jesus, based that only on hearing a voice whilst being blinded by a great light on the Damascus Road.  And in his letters, he interchangeably wrote of “Christ in you” and “your bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost”, in one place actually asserting “the Lord is the Spirit”, seemingly identifying Christ with the holy spirit of God.  Now, that the Christ event has the significance of “Emmanuel, God-with-us” we can affirm, and we may in the same vein say that Christ is “with us always” as the Spirit of God experienced by Godfearing peoples everywhere in all ages, or as the Spirit of, as affirmed in the first letter to Timothy, “the Man Christ Jesus, the Mediator between God and Man”, continually still mediating us with His Abba. We may also say, with the author of the letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus is the ideal “High Priest” who once and for all paid the “sacrifice” to bring us all through “the veil” to the holy presence of God, Who continually prays and pleads on our behalf. We may say that without going beyond  where these authors themselves did not, ie. to think the unthinkable, and say that as High Priest and Mediator He is also God with Whom He mediates.

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Written by Tan Tai Wei

May 5, 2012 at 8:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hello

    I’m trying to contact Mr Tan Tai Wei, former ACS teacher, for a class reunion. Would you please email me at iplpng at gmail?

    Many thanks
    Ivan Png
    ACS 1974

    IP

    January 9, 2014 at 6:37 am


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