3rd Essential: The Two Natures of Christ

The 3rd of the 8 Essentials declares, “the real Godhead and real humanity of Jesus Christ.” That means that Jesus Christ is “fully God and fully human.” I know this is a paradox, yet I believe it is a necessary paradox, and this is how it came about.

The first Christians were mostly Jews, and these devout men and women struggled between two truths that they regarded as equally important to their faith.

First, they were convinced monotheists. They worshiped the LORD God of Israel and lived by the Law of Moses. They were intimately familiar with the Deuteronomy 6:4. Therein Moses declares:

4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; 5 and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

This text was not buried deep in a dusty and little used Bible. Moses told the people that they were to write these words on their hearts, and teach them diligently to their children. He told them to talk of them when they sat together in their houses, and when they walked together along the road. He told them to remember them when they lay down at night, and when they rose up in the morning. He told them to bind them as a sign upon their hands, and write them on the ornaments that hung between their eyes. He told them to write them upon the doorposts of their houses, and upon the gateposts of their property.

Many times each day, a devout Jew would pray the prayer that call came to be called the “Shema”—because of the first word of the prayer:

“Shema Israel, Adonai Elihannu, Adonai Shad,” or, “Hear O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.”

This first truth was unshakable. No good Jew,and no good Jewish Christian, could ever be anything but a monotheist.

However, there was a second, equally important truth that those good Jewish Christians had to consider alongside of the first: They believed that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of Israel predicted by the prophets. They said that he came to his own, and his own received him not. They said that the Jewish authorities rejected him, and handed him over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. They said that the Romans crucified him, killed him, buried him, and closed the book on him. But that was not the end of the Jesus story. A handful of disciples said that Jesus rose from the dead, and appeared to them. They said that Jesus was the first fruits of them that had fallen asleep, and the first born from the dead; but many more would follow. (NOTE 1) They believed he had ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high, but that he was coming back to judge the living and the dead. They believed that at his return the dead would be raised and the living transformed to a new order of life. For a period that lasted c. thirty years, disciples who were eyewitnesses of the Risen Christ lived and testified to their experience of Him. There were hundreds of these witnesses. We know some of their names, and in one instance, we have an eyewitness account. In 1st Corinthians 15:3, St. Paul passes on a tradition that he had received. The passage is the earliest eyewitness account of the resurrection in the New Testament. No serious scholar, ancient or modern, denies that Paul wrote these words, and personally believed them. He writes:

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
1 Corinthians 15:3-11

The early church was at a crossroads. Many members of the church were good Jews, yet it was these good Jews who led the services in which they worshiped Jesus.

Moses had warned Israel saying, “Thou shalt have no other God’s before me.” Yet Christians worshiped Jesus, whom they called, “the Son of God,” right along beside “God the Father.” Likewise, Moses had warned Israel saying, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” Yet within a generation Christians believed that Jesus the Christ was “the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1) Paul himself said:

6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6

Moses had warned, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD they God in vain.” Yet the very earliest confession of the church declares, “Jesus is Lord!” (Romans 10:9)(Note 2)

The recognition and worship of God the Son alongside God the Father produced an inevitable spike in theology that led to the doctrine of the Two Natures of Jesus Christ. They said that only a Divine Christ was worthy of worship.(Note 3) They said that only a Human Christ could enter fully into human life, then die on the cross for the sins of the world.(Note 4) Some say that the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ was not fully articulated until the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and after. Yet, given the facts of God’s Revelation, it was safe to say that Christians were driven to the doctrine from the earliest days of the church. As soon as these Messianic Jewish monotheists began to worship the Risen Christ, the doctrine became inevitable.

Naturally, in the history of the church, there has been a great deal of discussion about just when the man Jesus became fully divine.

Some say it took place at the moment of his resurrection that he was, “designated Son of God, in power through a Spirit of holiness.” They find support in Romans 1:16.

Some say it took place at the moment of his baptism. They find support in Mark 1:11, wherein we read that when the Spirit descended upon Jesus a Voice spoke to him saying, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”

Some suggest it took place at the moment of his conception, when the Holy Spirit impregnated the Virgin Mary. They find support in Matthew 1:18-25 and in Luke 2:1-20.

Some say that the Son of God like the Father was eternal. They find support in John 1. In John 1:1-3 we read:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

And in verse 14:

And the Word became flesh (a human being!) and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father.

Personally, I am not afraid of the idea of development, as I think that the development was inevitable. (Note 5) Mark is my favorite gospel, but when it comes to a full and complete Christology, I am wedded to the Fourth Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “And the Word became flesh (a human being!) and dwelt among us.”

I am an orthodox Christian, but I will not pretend that everyone in the history of the church who calls him or herself a Christian has been an Orthodox Christian.

Let me give you a few examples.

On the one hand, the Docetists denied the humanity of Jesus. They taught that the natural world was evil. They said that Jesus appeared human but was really divine. They said that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the eternal Word separated from him to return to God.

On the other hand, at the end of the 19th Century, the so-called “Life of Jesus Movement” denied the divinity of Jesus. They said that Jesus was a simple Galilean peasant who preached the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. (Note 6) They said that Jesus never intended to be the object of worship. Today, his thinking is alive and well in the some members of the Jesus Seminar. Some members of the Jesus Seminar believe there is a radical difference between the Christ of Faith that is preached in the Gospels and the Jesus of History they think they can find by delving deep into the gospel texts. The Jesus Seminar folk are masters at promoting themselves, and their books are popular. Many pick them up by mistake, and are disturbed by them, so I will offer this criticism. Their work contains some interesting facts, especially as concerns individual texts, but I believe they make at least three far-reaching errors.

1) They find in the texts what they want to find. They rule out the divinity of Jesus in their presuppositions.

2) They include texts that are non-Canonical, usually because the texts fit their presuppositions. Notably, they value the non-Canonical Gospel of Thomas (Note 7) written no earlier than 200-250 AD more than the Gospel of John that most scholars believe was written before the close of the 1st Century AD. Actually, a fragment of John’s gospel that is contained in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester has been carbon dated to between 115 and 130 AD.

3) They underestimate the value of Pauline Christianity. Paul’s letters are a decade or two older than the written Gospels (though not older than the oral tradition) and almost 2,000 years closer to the facts of the early church than the Jesus Seminar research. Paul knows a heap about Jesus. Here are some of the things that Paul mentions about Jesus. Paul knew Jesus was “born of a woman and born under the law.” (Galatians 1) Paul knew Jesus’ teaching on marriage. (1 Cor. 6) Paul knew that Jesus had twelve disciples (1 Cor 15), and that Jesus was betrayed. (1 Cor 11:23) and about the institution of the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor 11:23-25) Paul knew about Jesus’ death for our sins (1 Cor 15:3, etc.), and he certainly knows about Jesus’ resurrection to which he was an eyewitness. (1 Cor. 15:3-11, etc.) According to Galatians 1 Paul met with Peter, James and John in Jerusalem over a period of 15 days. We can be sure they did not talk about the weather. Paul certainly believed in “the historical Jesus.” Were he alive today, I doubt he would appreciate much of the work of the Jesus seminar. However, having seen the risen Christ, he is much more concerned with the future that is coming to us in Him than with authoring “a life of Jesus.” (Note 8) In Philippians 3:10-14 He wrote:

10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

People ask me about “heresy” in the church today. I have already mentioned what I believed to be the error of the Jesus Seminar—the denial of the real Godhead of Jesus. There is another mistake that is equally serious. A great number of well meaning Christians deny the real humanity of Jesus Christ, even though it is well-attested in scripture. Consider these few facts:

Jesus lived as one of us from the cradle to the grave. He certainly endured all that we endure as human being, and he was not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. (Heb. 2:11). Jesus lived the common life, and, like us he worked. According to John 5 Jesus knew hunger and thirst. According to John 11, he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. In Mark 14:34 we read that Jesus was “sorrowful unto death.” (Mark 14:34) The New Testament never says that Jesus smiled or laughed, but it does say that Jesus went to banquets and wedding feasts, and people called him a glutton and a drunkard. (Matthew 11:19) I don’t think Jesus was either, but he was a frequent guest at weddings and dinner parties, and he must have given the appearance of enjoying a good meal and a good time. I don’t think Jesus attracted the crowds he attracted by being a sourpuss. I believe Jesus knew the full range of human emotions.

There are some key ways in which God the Son differed from God the Father.

Unlike God the Father, in the days of his flesh, Jesus was not omnipresent. In John chapter 16 Jesus told his disciples that it was to their advantage that he go away so that he could send another counselor, the Holy Spirit. The man Jesus could be with a limited number of people. Through the power of the Holy Spirit he can be with us all. He can be with you.

Unlike God the Father, in the days of his flesh, Jesus was not omniscient. In Luke 2:40 we read that the boy Jesus grew in wisdom, and in stature, and in favor with God and man. If he had known all things, he could not have grown in wisdom. In Matthew 24, the end is near as Jesus comments on the advent of the Son of Man. He says, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”

One wonders at how much power Jesus had in the days of his flesh. Perhaps God would have granted him anything. At any rate, according to the New Testament Jesus relied upon his faith in God to perform mighty works and signs and miracles. According to Mark 6:4-5, Jesus could do no “mighty work” in his own home town, except that he laid hands on a few sick and healed them. The reason given is that “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

This survey is not exclusive, but I will rest my case that Jesus is indeed fully human, as well as fully divine. The doctrine of Christ’s “kenosis” or “self-emptying” was particularly dear to Count Zinzendorf, the patron of the renewed Moravian Church. I believe it is fully expressed in Philippians 2:5-11.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Most of us believe in the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ. How should we relate to those who do not?

In times past, some people have suggested we physically oppose those with a sub-standard Christology. At a low point in an otherwise great life, Martin Luther pointed out that the Jews had rejected Christ. He said that we Christians were doing God a favor when we burned their synagogues and drove them from our cities. This kind of heinous teaching and acting is strangely at odds with Jesus who taught us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. I believe this benevolence should extend to all those who disagree with us, especially those who disagree with our theology.

Some people say that we should excommunicate those with a sub-standard Christology. I disagree. Let me give an example. Some years ago a member of this church no longer living came to me and told me he did not believe in God. He certainly did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. I was curious. I asked him why he came to church. He said he enjoyed hearing me preach, and above all, he loved being with you. He regarded you as friends, neighbors and family. He asked me if I thought he was a hypocrite for coming to church. I said, “No, I believe you are still a seeker. Church is the place you ought to be.” I wish all agnostics and skeptics would come to church. Perhaps you are in that number. If so, be assured that I will listen to you if you will continue to listen to me. Let us talk.

That brings us to the matter of clergy who do not accept the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ. Should they preach and teach. Personally, I am a team player. I would not drive a Ford and try to sell you a Chevrolet. I believe that we pastors owe the church our loyalty. That said, I recognize that all Christians go through crises of faith. The best advice ever given to someone struggling with faith was the advice that Peter Boehler, the Moravian brother, gave to John Wesley the founder of the Methodist Church. He said, “Preach faith until you have it, then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Eventually, Wesley attained faith and he and his Methodist preachers turned Great Britain upside down. I would hate to play God in this matter.

I want to close this quick survey with a question. It is the question of Anselm, “Cur Deus Homo?” “Why would God become man?”

This Friday, Brother Ron Tedder called my attention to a story that answers this question quite nicely. It is about a man who bought a barn. He entered the barn and discovered it was chock full and overflowing with migrating birds. The birds wanted out, and the man wanted to help them out. He threw open the doors and took up a broom, hoping to usher them out. Each time time he tried the birds resisted. Blinded by the light they did not fly out the door, they flew up to the ceiling and bounced off the barns walls. For several long minutes the man rushed hither and thither with the broom, but he managed to drive out very few first. At last he sat down on an anvil, and rested. As he rested, he caught himself saying, “If only I were a bird, I could lead them out.”

I believe that God became a human being in order to lead us out of the darkness into the light. Apart from Jesus Christ we live in the anxious middle. We don’t know where we have come from or where we are going. In Jesus Christ, we see that we have come from God and that we are going to God. Jesus wants to lead us into the light and show us the way back to the Father’s house. If only we will follow.

Finis

NOTES:

1 1st Corinthians 15:20 and Colossians 1:18

2 Paul preserves one of the earliest statements about Jesus in the language that Jesus himself spoke, Aramaic. In 1 Corinthians 16:22 he says, “Maranatha!” It means, “Our Lord Come.”

3 See John 1:1, John 20:28 and Hebrews 13:8

4 See Hebrews 2:14 and 1 John 4:1-3

5 The Arians taught that Jesus was divine, but that he was a created being. They and their kin in all ages would stop short of John’s Christology.

6 Albert Schweitzer, a contemporary of Harnack, took another tack. He said that Jesus was an apocalyptic who thought that the end of the world was near. He said that Jesus preached the arrival of a heavenly Son of Man who would receive the kingdom from God and establish it upon the earth. Schweitzer said that ultimately, Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic who threw himself upon the wheel of human history only to be crushed by it. Interestingly, though hardly an orthodox Christian, when Schweitzer was asked why he went into the Belgian Congo, he responded, “Jesus sent me.” I think it is interesting he went with an evangelical mission. Today, Schweitzer’s approach to the New Testament is represented by Bart Erhman who teaches at the University of North Carolina. Though Erhman started life as a fundamentalist, he now calls himself, “a happy agnostic.” Ironically, Erhman studied at Princeton Theological Seminary under the same teachers I studied under, I. Cullen Story and the late Bruce Metzger. Both men were brilliant teachers. Dr. Metzger was arguably the greatest New Testament Scholar of the 20th Century, especially as regards textual criticism. More importantly, both men were devout Christians. I think that Erhman’s loss of faith is due as much to his fundamentalist background as to his scholarship. I believe had he been raised as a Moravian, he might still be a person of faith.

7 No doubt the Gospel of Thomas contains some genuine sayings of Jesus, but much of its content runs contrary to the picture of Jesus we have in the canonical gospels. I believe the early church did right to exclude it from the Canon.

8 In 2nd Corinthians 5:16 Paul says that though he once regarded Jesus “according to the flesh,” he regarded him thus no longer.

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.