Reading Philip Jenkins’ The Jesus Wars allows me to re-evaluate my seminary discussions of the fifth century AD time period. Often, the picture of Jesus I would take away from these lessons was of a monstrous figure. I don’t mean to say it made Jesus either horrible or scary in any way. Rather, it was the difficulty I found in the resulting confusions. Jesus was one being from two substances with corresponding natures and more than one will – who was the same for all time while being flesh and blood after his birth and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit after and before being born to a mortal woman. One thinks of these things within the categories of platonic philosophy.
What did I miss in all of this? Oh yes. It is an important mystery of our faith.
Preachers, Bishops, Emperors, Queens, monks, and Patriarchs disputed, argued, fought hand-to-hand, blessed and cursed, exiled and tortured, and even murdered in order to qualify these definitions. They handed down to us creeds, formulas, books, and letters to further deepen our confusion while trying to explain clearly something that is a mystery. And yet, the doctrine of God – The Theology of the church – remains THE GREAT MYSTERY OF OUR FAITH.
There are those people who give in to the temptation to oversimply the matters involved. On one side there are what I call the weak adoptionists. They call for a truly human Jesus who receives the status of Son of God at his baptism by John (as given in the gospels) or at his resurrection as indicated by St. Paul (Romans 1:3). The opposing side argues for a totally divine Jesus who flesh is an added bonus so that he may relate to his creation.
The interesting fact is that these explanations puts fifth century orthodoxy (with all of its’ confusing explanations) squarely in the middle. Orthodoxy as a moderate viewpoint is an interesting idea!
Western culture has adopted the proposition that one thing is not another thing. Horses are horses. Humans are humans. And therefore a centaur cannot exist.
Centaurs exist in the human imagination. They are real in the same part of the mind that claims they cannot exist. While humans do not spend time looking for centaurs on earth, humans still think about them. Humans read stories about . Humans make up new stories with centaurs in them. J. K. Rowling imagined the astrology, prejudices, and even the culture of centaurs.
The practitioners of the natural sciences employ the same human imagination to learn and extrapolate about animals that exhibit the characteristics of both reptiles and birds – the dinosaurs. Paleoanthropologists discuss and debate the simian and human characteristics found on the ancient skulls of both humans and those extinct apes called Australopithecus. The idea that one thing is not another thing is not as logical as it appears. Humans have yet to demonstrate an explicable objective reality where one thing cannot be another. We never will. Observations will only be as useful and objective as the human imagination can be.
Human beings then fall short for explaining anything exhaustively. For this reason the confusion church leaders always face in explaining the doctrine of God in Christ does not invalidate the results of the major church councils. Indeed, it gives our present day arrogance pause when we attempt to judge the men and women of the past or attempt to exonerate the liberal or fundamentalist of the present.
“Who is this Jesus the Messiah” is still the great question and crisis of the church. It is the crux of who we are as his followers and worshippers. The complete answer may be beyond our reckoning. The revealing of God in Christ is being worked out among us now. Even though our forebears in the councils with their agendas and failures gave us a set of muddled answers they are the same ones we will get if we tried to start all of it over again.