Can Jesus show us both what it means to be human, and what it means to be God?
Modernity’s assault on Jesus’s divinity has made most evangelical readings of the gospels (and of the prophets) a reflexive defensive of divinity, to the exclusion of any hint of his humanity. We are constantly on guard against Christologies which seem too “low” or seem to limit the importance of Christ. If the choice were between immanence and transcendence, we want a God who is Other, over against the Jesus of scientific-historical criticism, who seems to have lost any inherent divinity. This choice is of course not an abstract choice, but one shaped in particular historical struggles. For instance in the United States, the hell of Civil War and the instability of society’s industrialization contributed to the adoption of strict binaries – God was either for this world, or for the next. God was either for material existence, or repulsed by it. The Christologies adopted during these times were not unaffected by these broader cultural forces. When the crisis of World War eroded immanence’s optimism regarding humanity, the evangelical story of a God who was fully Other found a natural appeal. Of course, this had to be a sympathetic God, and the doctrine of the Incarnation provided this emotional appeal. See, he was just like us! Yet, in no way could we believe that his humanity went “all the way down,” that the man Jesus shared very much in common with the humanity of Hitler or Stalin. So Jesus became humanity without the bad parts, or the weak parts, or anything that resembles what we have learned to see as the essential nature of humanity.
Thus my tradition lives by the unspoken agreement that Jesus’ perfect life does not show us how to be human. It cannot, because humanity is sinful at its core, and cannot coexist with the grace and truth of Christ. At the most, Jesus’ sinlessness serves the utilitarian function of a mathematical proof – on one side of the equation is a particular view of atonement, which requires a perfect life on the other side. Jesus’ perfect life and his mission are what distinguish him from humanity. Thus, Jesus’ life cannot be considered in any way normative for humanity, even for the believer. He had the mission to come and die as the Father’s sacrifice for our sin, which is not a mission that we share. Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, we might go even further that not only is Jesus not normative, but he is fundamentally non-normative – that is, Jesus becomes the dialectical opposite of humanity, over against which we come to understand ourselves in our humanity. Jesus is a (per)version of humanity which shows us what we are not, and cannot be.
Gerald Hawthorne’s The Presence and The Power responds to this construction in a way that seems to be well suited for the more charismatic in my tradition. We have had robust (though again, unspoken) doctrines of the Spirit, but these have not engaged much with our Christology. To suggest Jesus relied on the Spirit seems to take something from his divinity. Though my church has always affirmed the three members of the Trinity, their interrelatedness has been a puzzle in which we have had little interest. Jesus’ need to rely on the Father makes some sense. Our need to rely on the Spirit and the Father is foundational. However, Jesus’ need for the Spirit presents some problems. Perhaps this is baggage from the filioque (how can Jesus rely on that which proceeds from him?). More likely, it is due to the fact that we really see even Jesus’ reliance on the Father as a mirage, and see all three members of the Trinity as we would like to see ourselves – as self-sufficient individuals with a common goal.
The Spirit in my charismatic tradition might be likened to a supercharger. You want experience? The Spirit provides intense experiences. You want power? The Spirit will blow you away. Our limited experience of the Spirit might be seen as power, but not power in a particular direction. It is also not essentially transformative- it gets done essentially the things you would expect need to be done anyhow. So when we read about Jesus doing things through the power of the Spirit, we might be just tempted to skip over that phrase – it was Jesus doing the things that he might have done without the Spirit, just with a little more oomph. The presence of the Spirit is more a luxury than a necessity. The presence of the Spirit with Jesus, when it has been recognized, has also been, strangely, a sign of his Messiah-ship, which we (wrongly) understand to mean his divinity. When the Spirit moves through Jesus, we find (and we imagine the people around Jesus to have found) proof that he was, in fact God. This is not especially problematic if, like the people of his time, we take his humanity as a given. When we don’t, the Spirit cannot be seen as truly decisive for the work of Jesus.
We evangelicals are caught in a pickle when we take seriously the Spirit’s work in the life of Christ. On the one side, as we have seen, we want to uphold Christ’s divinity, and so make the Spirit superfluous. On the other side, if we were to affirm that the Spirit did any useful work, we would risk impinging on Jesus’ divinity. Raymond Brown captures this dynamic well in saying “most Christians tolerate only as much humanity as they deem consonant with their view of divinity.” Crucial there is the phrase “their view of divinity.” We understand divinity and humanity in particular ways, and so we interpret the biblical texts through these prior categories. The way out of this pickle is to interrogate these categories, or rather, to allow them to be reimagined in the life of Christ.
Scot McKnight gave an example of this approach in a seminary class during my first year. He recounted how a radio host had asked him, “do you believe Jesus was God?” Not content to give a straight answer, McKnight responded that he believed instead that “God was Jesus.” The point was clear – we might look at the life of Jesus and sort out what we think looks like divinity, and what looks like humanity, and then come up with a diagnosis as to his true nature. This kind of scientific method may not be the most conducive to the witness of Scripture. Instead, we are told that Jesus was God, and then invited to allow the Jesus-event to guide our reading.
If we read the Bible in this way, the argument that Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit takes away from Jesus’ divinity might be seen as resting on presuppositions that are foreign to the way the Bible explains the inner life of God. The three persons of the Trinity are not self-sufficient, autonomous “modern men.” We also might see that God has a history in Scripture of limiting Godself for the sake of communion with creation. This kind of “weakness” (as Paul might describe it) is “stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit follows a pattern established in the Old Testament of how God chooses to exist and relate with others.
Taking seriously this freedom of God means that we must also take seriously the fact that in Christ, God has chosen to be human. Beth Felker Jones describes what this choice means, saying that “Jesus saves us by making our situation his own.” This is a foundational truth of Scripture, and we must apply the same method to understanding Jesus’ humanity as his divinity – that is, not to comb through the text for what looks like genuine humanity, but instead to assert first that Jesus is human, and then to allow his humanity to explain ours. According to the anthropology we evangelicals have been gifted, humanity is essentially sinful, and something to be avoided or even exterminated. God can only heal or transform it by remaining apart from it. Gregory of Nazanzius wrote against this view, claiming “What is not assumed is not healed, what is united with God is saved.” It is not that Gregory was naive about humanity’s sinfulness – it is clear that he saw a humanity in need of saving. However, he saw God’s salvation as taking place through the act of God’s joining Godself to creation in the man Jesus. For Gregory and Irenaeus, and the countless others who took Jesus’ humanity seriously, God did not need to pretend to be human, especially when centuries of theology would eventually reveal the ruse.
I am now worshipping as a Mennonite, a tradition for which the teachings and practices of Jesus are sometimes seen as capturing the entirety of the work of Jesus. For Mennonites, there is no question of Jesus’ life being ethically normative – the only question is whether it can be more than that. In the short time I have been with this church community, I have been given a perspective on the person and work of Jesus that allows me to re-engage people and ideas from my evangelical roots with new vision and appreciation.
For many evangelicals, the work of Christ on the cross is so important that it necessarily diminishes the normative effect of his life and incarnation. The cross is portrayed as the bridge between us and God, and Jesus’ work was to die and thereby effect the repair of this relationship. The key word here is atonement, and we have very complex theories to explain why God could not, as Doug Campbell put it, have “sent a very large bull to atone for the sins of the world.”
Mennonites take very seriously the person of Christ. We are skeptical about wealth and power and violence because we see Jesus exemplifying what it means to be God’s image-bearers – through peace, love, and self-giving. Since Jesus has revealed “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42) a word like peace cannot be an abstraction, and becomes unintelligible when used in ways that contradict Christ’s witness (for instance, when used to describe a lack of violence, or when printed on the side of a NATO tank in Kosovo).
If we have Jesus’ work without Jesus’ person, we can assume that violence brings peace (as it presumably did for humanity). However, if we have Jesus’ person without Jesus’ work, then our sinful situation has not fundamentally changed. To hold his person and work together as the church will require the ongoing work of the same Spirit that holds together the two natures in Christ. Recognizing the Spirit at work in the Christ of Scripture will encourage evangelicals to see Jesus as bearing God’s image through his humanity, and will force Mennonites and mainline liberals to realize that if Jesus did not bear God’s image without the Spirit, neither will we. Perhaps even more importantly, the Spirit can help us rediscover a concept of salvation that requires both Christ’s person and work, because it is salvation by participation. Through the Spirit we participate in the covenantal flesh of Christ, and this means that we are not saved into some abstract notion of freedom, but we are saved and freed for image-bearing, for participation in the Triune life of God. Contra both evangelicalism and liberalism, Jesus is not just the means to our salvation, or the model for salvation, but is himself our salvation.
 Gerald Hawthorne, The Presence and the Power (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1991), passim.
 Raymond Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 27.
 Beth Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014), 121.
 Gregory [of] Nazanzius, Epistle 101.7.32, as found in Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 195.
 Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 49.