How Did Jesus Become God—and Why
From The Fourth R
One of the most well-known figures on the world stage during the last ten years, and certainly the most photographed woman, was Diana, Princess of Wales. She was surrounded by praise and affection on the one hand, and by moral criticism on the other, especially from the royal family and the tabloid press. While Diana was enjoying a holiday in Paris in the company of her newfound love, The Sunday Times of London published a full page article psychoanalyzing her. It carried the double-entendre headline “Diana on the Couch.” The first edition had just left the printing press when the news came through of her tragic death. The Times immediately withdrew, from all later editions, the whole section of the paper in which the article appeared.
The British public were completely stunned by the news. There was a massive, spontaneous outpouring of grief such as had never been seen before. Even though her brother, at her funeral, warned mourners not to turn Diana into a saint, she was nevertheless glorified for months to come as the central figure of a modern tragic fairy tale. On the anniversary of her death journalists gathered at all the sites associated with Diana, expecting similar crowds as before. They came, but only in small numbers.
What is more, some influential voices, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, began again to speak in critical terms of Diana. The deconstruction of Diana had begun and her humanity was being recovered from the fairy tale. It is analogous to the topic we are about to discuss.
Whereas the glorification of the tragic Diana, followed by its deconstruction, took place in the space of only one year, the process of the glorification of Jesus as the Christ figure and its subsequent deconstruction has taken place over a space of two thousand years.
How Did Jesus Become Christ?
In 1974 a Roman Catholic scholar called Peter deRosa published a book called Jesus Who Became Christ. (Incidentally, not long before that, Peter deRosa, after an impressive academic career, had been dismissed as Vice-Principal of Corpus Christi College, London. That was a college for training Catholic teachers, which the Catholic Church closed down because it was becoming too radical.) We shall start with the question Peter deRosa set out to answer—How did Jesus become Christ?—for it is the first part of the answer to the question of how Jesus became God.
There are two ways of understanding this question and there is a rather subtle but extremely important difference between the two. It is a difference that is far too little understood. We may call the two ways the objective approach and the subjective approach.
I shall illustrate this difference first by reference to the question: “How did Mrs. Jenny Shipley become the Prime Minister of New Zealand?”
The objective answer to that question goes something like this. First Jenny was chosen by the ruling National Party to contest the Parliamentary seat of Ashburton. Then she was elected as the Member of Parliament for Ashburton. The next step was when she was chosen by Prime Minister Jim Bolger to be a Cabinet Minister. Her ability enabled her to work herself up the Cabinet pecking order. Then, while Jim Bolger was overseas, she gathered sufficient support from her fellow members of the ruling party to present the Prime Minister, on his return, with a fait accompli for a take-over coup. But she was still not yet Prime Minister. By mutual agreement Jim Bolger was given about a month’s grace to put his affairs in order, as it were, before she was finally sworn in as Prime Minister. This, then, is the objective account of how Jenny Shipley became Prime Minister.
What would be the subjective account? Subjective accounts vary from person to person, just because they are subjective. There is no one single answer and I shall give two extreme examples.
In the minds of her strongest detractors the subjective account could be like this, “Jenny Shipley is Prime Minister in name only, having got there by devious means. She is simply a caretaker of the Prime Minister’s office until the next election. She has not won a general election as leader, and does not have a mandate from the people of New Zealand to be their Prime Minister, as did her predecessors.”
On the other hand, the subjective approach from her strongest supporters could be something like this, “Jenny Shipley is so cut out for the job of Prime Minister that, once she entered Parliament, her rise to the top was inevitable. She has really been Prime Minister in waiting from the beginning. Indeed, she has shown such skill in the office that it is clear she was born to be Prime Minister.”
The difference between the objective answer and the various subjective answers to the question is this: The objective answer refers to events which happened to Jenny Shipley, events which are open to historical investigation. The subjective answers, on the other hand, are value judgments made by people. They are not open to historical investigation except the confirmation that some people have made to these judgments. They vary from person to person, though each particular answer may be shared by others.
With this difference in mind let us turn to the question of how Jesus became Christ for, unfortunately there has been, and still is, real confusion here. It soon becomes clear that the answer to this question has a great deal more in common with the subjective answers to Jenny Shipley’s prime ministership than with the objective answer. There was no political office of Messiahship to which Jesus was appointed at a certain point in time, an event open to public and religiously neutral confirmation. On the contrary, it is only Christians who have ever claimed Jesus to be the Christ.
So, in asking how Jesus became the Christ , are we concerned with an objective answer or with a subjective answer? I intend now to show that the Christian proclamation of Jesus as the Christ originated as a subjective evaluation on the part of some people. Later generations, however, interpreted the subjective affirmations as objective events and lost the distinction between the subjective and the objective. This can be clearly illustrated from the biblical data.
The objective answer refers to … events which are open to historical investigation. The subjective answers, on the other hand, are value judgments made by people.
When did Jesus become Christ?
If we turn to the New Testament records looking for the historical evidence of the objective process by which Jesus became the Christ, then what we find are subjective judgments or proclamations which simply sound as if they are objective. The conclusion that they are subjective is confirmed by the fact that there are several of them at different points in the New Testament and they are different from each other. Here are the most important ones:
After his death
In Acts in a speech put into the mouth of Peter we find these words (2:22–36):
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless man . . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses . . . Let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
The person who composed those words was declaring that it was by means of God’s raising Jesus from the dead that Jesus became the Christ. In other words, on this view, the man Jesus became the Christ at some point after his death on the cross.
We should note in this and the following examples that we are not dealing with historical events open to public investigation by the historian. The events are specifically described as “acts of God.” “This Jesus God raised up . . . God has made him both Lord and Christ.” Anything judged by humans to be “an act of God” belongs to the category of a human judgment or interpretation and not to the category of historical event.
During his ministry
In Mark’s Gospel, however, there is a story of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi in which he asked his disciples what people were saying about him and they gave a variety of answers. When Jesus asked Peter what he thought he received the reply, “You are the Christ.” The writer of this narrative clearly believed that Jesus was already the Christ during his ministry and before his death and resurrection. The narrator further says that Jesus charged his disciples not to mention to anyone that he was the Christ. These references to secrecy in Mark’s Gospel are known in modern scholarship as the Messianic Secret, after the title of a book written in 1901 by Wilhelm Wrede. He argued that the secret was a primitive invention to reconcile two accounts of how Jesus became the Messiah—the earlier account, that we have just seen reflected in Acts, and a slightly later account, that Jesus was already the Christ during his ministry.
At His Baptism
The author of Mark’s Gospel, writing at a time when all Christians accepted Jesus as Messiah, went even further, implying that it was at his baptism that Jesus became the Messiah. We read that when Jesus came out of the water he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”
This story gave rise in early Christian theology to what was called the “adoption theory” of the “Person of Christ.” In short, Jesus was born as an ordinary human being until God, at the time of his baptism by John, adopted him as his Son. This is why there are no birth stories in Mark. This view was eventually declared heretical though it continued to break out from time to time. It became heretical for the simple reason that the belief that Jesus became the Christ only at his baptism, still common when Mark was writing about 70 c.e., was soon to be overcome by further changes in the developing tradition.
When He Was Born
The birth stories of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke clearly intend to imply that Jesus was the Christ from the time he was he born. Whereas Matthew tends to emphasize that Jesus was born to be the King of Jews, Luke is more explicit, putting this into the mouth of the angels, “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.”
A further difference between the birth stories of Luke and Matthew is that Matthew traced the genealogy of Jesus back to Abraham to indicate, as it were, that he was a faithful Jew and a true son of Abraham. But Luke, perhaps because he was a Gentile, traced the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam, both to show that he was truly representative of human kind but also to say that, being human, he was also the son of God, for Adam he referred to as the Son of God.
In tracing this progression backwards in time, from post-resurrection, to ministry, to baptism, to birth, we should note there is also a shift in emphasis in the terminology being used concerning Jesus. It is a shift from Messiahship to divinity, from the status of Christ to the status of the divine Son of God.
This progression backwards did not stop with the birth of Jesus. When we turn to the Fourth Gospel we find that the process we are discussing goes so far back in time that it is no longer a case of Jesus becoming the Christ. It has now become a case of the Christ becoming Jesus, the Christ being now referred to as the Logos or Word. The reason the Fourth Gospel has no birth story is that it starts the Gospel of Jesus Christ from creation. The one who was to become Jesus was there from the beginning. (It’s a bit like saying that Jenny Shipley was divinely ordained to be Prime Minister from the beginning of time.)
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . all things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father . . . grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known . . . John 1:1 –18
Here, the issue of how Jesus became the Christ has been reversed into a different issue—how the Logos, or only begotten Son of God, became incarnate in human flesh as Jesus. Thus the question of how Jesus became God became turned round in the course of time into the question of how God became Jesus.
By the time of the Ecumenical Councils and the formulation of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity the basic Christian Gospel had gone through a remarkable change. It had started with the simple affirmation that Jesus was the Christ. It was now the affirmation of how the second person of the Holy Trinity had become incarnate in the man Jesus. In effect, therefore, Jesus was now believed to be incorporated into the Godhead.
How are these differences in subjective evaluation to be reconciled? If we read the Bible expecting it to be perfectly consistent, being all written on one level and by the same author (and that is how it used to be read by Christians until two hundred years ago), then the various “acts of God” we have just retraced—creation, incarnation, birth, baptism, ministry, resurrection—could all be taken as successive steps in the one process by which Jesus became the Christ, the Christ who now sits at the right hand of God, from which he will ultimately return to be our Judge.
From about two hundred years ago, and especially during the last 160 years, Christian scholars have begun to read the Bible historically. They found it is not written on one level nor by one author. It was composed by different people at different times and it reflects many differences of viewpoint. That is why it can now be seen to contain many inconsistencies and vast differences of viewpoint. In particular the traditional answer of how Jesus became the Christ has been replaced by a surprising variety of conflicting answers. What is even more revealing is that when we look at these answers in chronological order of composition, we find a quite fascinating process taking place. Within the space of about seventy years the chief “act of God” by which Jesus supposedly became the Christ has moved from after his death, back through his ministry, baptism, birth, to beyond the creation itself, as the final creedal term “begotten, not made” makes clear.
The reason for the apparently conflicting answers is that they were not historical events, open to public investigation, but value judgments, being made by different people at different times in a fast developing tradition. Although they were being proclaimed in the same kind of language we commonly use to announce an objective historical event, they were actually subjective judgments or evaluations on the part of those who gave them. In other words what Christian tradition has long treated as an objective account of how Jesus became the Christ turns out to be a succession of subjective judgments. The traditional, and supposedly objective, account of how Jesus became the Christ is the account of how Jesus, step by step, came subjectively to be evaluated in the minds of successive generations of those who worshiped him and thus conceived as the Christ.
How Did the Easter Faith Arise?
This process did not stop with the last book of the New Testament but continued onwards in the thinking of the Church over the following centuries. We shall turn to that presently. But first we should look at what led up to what was proclaimed as the first “act of God” in that process, namely, the resurrection. This is essential to the answer to our question. To this day traditional Christians interpret this “act of God” as if it were an objective public event open to historical investigation. We shall find that this also is part of the same subjective development I have been describing.
How did Christians come to believe that the Jesus who was crucified was raised from the dead? Today this is often called the Easter faith. How did this Easter faith arise? The traditional answer is quite clear: On the third day after his death on the cross, or more strictly speaking within a space of thirty-six hours from the time his body had been laid in the tomb, Jesus rose from the dead in a renewed or glorified body, showed himself to his disciples over a period of forty days, and ascended into heaven, to sit at the right hand of God.
We may call this the assumed objective account of the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostles were thought to have witnessed the Ascension and Stephen had witnessed Jesus sitting on the right hand of God. It was accepted without question by Christians from about the end of the first century until a little over two hundred years ago.
Once again we find that, as the New Testament narratives on which this supposed objective account is based began to be studied chronologically as independent documents, a new version came to light of how Jesus rose from the dead. While there is as yet no unanimity on the details of this new version, for the old version has been vigorously defended, there is some agreement at certain points.
The Ascension of Jesus
There is widespread agreement, for example, that the story of the ascension is a mythical story and not an historical event. David Strauss, in 1843, was the first to argue that certain stories in the New Testament are more properly to be treated as myths, or symbolic stories. He contended that these arose in the early church and were grounded on motifs already found in the Old Testament. In the case of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, there was already a clear precedent for it in the Old Testament in the story of Elijah’s ascension into heaven in a chariot of fire.
The reason why the story of the Ascension of Jesus was the first to be widely accepted to be of the category of myth is obvious. While it had made very good sense when taken at face value in the worldview shared by the ancients and the mediaevalists, it makes no sense at all in the worldview we all share today. To assert that the risen body of Jesus ascended into some special heaven above the earth is to turn the story into a ridiculous piece of space science fiction. Consequently, in the traditional account of what happened to Jesus after his death, this has been the first element to be demythologized, that is, interpreted symbolically rather than at face-value. Some scholars dismissed it as dispensable anyway on the grounds that it was a late development in the resurrection tradition.
I wish to suggest that, while the actual narrative of the ascension of Jesus into heaven that we read at the end of Luke and in Acts 1 is undoubtedly late in its present form, the idea that gave rise to it is quite early and indeed may well have been the very beginning of the resurrection tradition, rather than its end result. That idea was the glorification of the crucified Jesus. Just as we have already seen that Jesus was probably not acclaimed to be Messiah until after his death and then gradually his Messiahship was read back earlier and earlier, so the Easter faith, I suggest, began with a vision of the glorification of Jesus and from that it gradually grew by stages until it reached the later much fuller tradition describing a divine procession from the emptied tomb to the heavenly throne.
The unconscious is a vast area of the human mind or psyche which is hidden beneath the surface of consciousness as nine-tenths of an iceberg is hidden under the surface of the ocean.
Its discovery has made possible an entirely different explanation of what had commonly been called religious experiences.
Visions of Jesus
There is general agreement, among all but conservative scholars, that the Easter faith began with visions in Galilee and not with the discovery of an empty tomb in Jerusalem. Now visions and dreams, as many traditions record, have frequently been the raw material of religious experience, especially in times of religious origins. Until this century we did not appreciate, as we can now, why this is so. Carl Jung and others have discovered and drawn to our attention the creative powers of the human unconscious.
The unconscious is a vast area of the human mind or psyche which is hidden beneath the surface of consciousness as nine-tenths of an iceberg is hidden under the surface of the ocean. Its discovery has made possible an entirely different explanation of what had commonly been called religious experiences.
Previously, when a person saw visions (which no one else saw) or heard voices (which no one else heard), the only explanation was that such a person was receiving revelations and messages from an external source of a supernatural or divine kind. Depth psychology provides a natural explanation. The experiences do enter into consciousness from another source but that source is the unconscious, thus making appeal to a supernatural external source unnecessary.
By this means we come to a new understanding of the visions Muhammad had of the angel Gabriel, of the vision Paul had of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and of the visions from which sprang the Easter faith in the Apostles before him. According to Paul (and his is the earliest and first-hand witness we have) the first to have a vision of the risen Christ was Peter. Yet nowhere does the New Testament supply us with any record of that vision. Some have surmised that the tradition of this vision, if there had been one, became superseded and was discarded in favor of later and more convincing traditions. It could have been a vision similar to what is now attributed to Stephen before his martyrdom (Acts 7:55–56):
He looked to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God and he said, Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.
It has been suggested that the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus does not belong chronologically within the ministry of Jesus, where Mark’s Gospel has mistakenly placed it, to be followed by those of Matthew and Luke. Rather, it originated as an early Resurrection story. This suggestion has been supported by such internationally acclaimed scholars as Heinrich Meyer (1800–1873), Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), Adolf Harnack (1851–1930), Alfred Loisy (1857–1940), Maurice Goguel (1880–1955) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). Indeed, this story could be pointing to the very earliest vision which gave rise to the Easter faith.
It is generally agreed, with Gospel record support, that when Jesus was crucified the disciples deserted him and fled. They returned to Galilee greatly dispirited, suffering acute anxiety and bewilderment, asking themselves why a man of such quality and power could have been allowed by God to come to such a tragic end. Those are the very conditions in which the unconscious depths of the human psyche can prove to be so creative. The psyche, drawing upon the previous experience and basic symbols already embedded there, creates a vision which resolves the issue.
Here, then, were Jewish disciples whose minds, like that of Elijah before them in his time of crisis, would turn back to Sinai, the source of their faith. In the vision created by the unconscious (possibly of Peter), he and his two closest companions James and John were led back by the memory of their Master to climb that same high mountain. This is the story as Mark tells it:
And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white . . . And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus . . . And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” And suddenly looking around they no longer saw anyone but Jesus only . . . Mark 9:2–8
There are some very significant ingredients in this vision.
- When Moses went up Mount Sinai the glory of the Lord enveloped it in a cloud. And when he went down his face glistened.
- Moses and Elijah were the chief Israelite representatives of the Law and the Prophets, respectively.
- Elijah, as we have noted, did not die but was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.
- Moses had died and was buried. But a late Jewish tradition, reported by Josephus and narrated in a book “The Ascension of Moses,” told how Moses had been taken by God into heaven.
- Moreover, they were the only two Israelites who in Jewish tradition were believed to be with God in heaven.
- The vision of the Transfiguration has Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, thus placing him on a level with them.
These ingredients from the Jewish tradition, coupled with the bewilderment of the disciples, supplied ample raw material for an apostolic vision. What the vision was chiefly affirming was that the death of Jesus was not a meaningless tragedy. It showed this Jesus was placed by God on a level with Moses and Elijah. The glistening or transfiguration demonstrated symbolically that Jesus had been glorified.
I am suggesting that this vision of the glorification of Jesus marked the beginning of the Easter faith. According to Paul there was more than one vision, including that which he himself had. They are not described. They no doubt varied but they had one thing in common—the glorified Jesus was seen by his followers and only by his followers. At the time Paul was writing, say about 50 c.e., the Easter faith rested solely on the testimony of visions.
But such is the nature of the enquiring human mind that it was not sufficient for the ongoing Christian community just to say that the glorified Jesus had been seen in visions. How did he get to be where he was, in heaven with God and sitting at God’s right hand? So, in the second half of the first century, all sorts of stories began to emerge, such as that in John 21 where Jesus breakfasted with the disciples after their catch of fish.
Empty Tomb and Bodily Resurrection
Attention then began to go back to Jerusalem where Jesus had been crucified. It was assumed that his body must have been buried in a tomb and in that case the tomb must now be empty. So a story arose of how the tomb was found empty by some women. The key to that story is the angel or mystery man robed in white who said, “The crucified Jesus whom you seek is not here, for he has risen.” Some modern defenders of the historicity of the empty tomb, since they no longer believe in angels themselves, argue that that was late intrusion. Actually the story loses its point if it is eliminated. The words spoken by the angel are the foundation stone on which the story was built. It is the conviction that Jesus was risen which gave rise to the story of the empty tomb and not the other way round.
Because the empty tomb stories have long dominated the tradition, they shape our imagination when we hear the term “rising from the dead.” When this was first used, however, it did not refer to someone coming out of a tomb. It referred to the rising from Sheol, the abode of the dead, and the ascension into heaven. This is reflected in the Johannine story of Mary Magdalene, where Jesus says, “Don’t touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my father” (20:17). He was on his journey from the underworld of the dead to the heavenly world, and Mary had accidentally met him on the way.
As soon as Christians were convinced they had a vision of the glorification of Jesus, and since they knew for certain he had been crucified and gone to the abode of the dead, then it followed that he must have risen from the dead. So stories of how that happened began to emerge. As the stories progressed the risen Christ was being described more and more in physical terms, and it is on the basis of these late resurrection stories that conservative Christians today defend what they call “the bodily resurrection.”
As soon as we trace the glorification and resurrection of Jesus back to visions, it serves to confirm the conclusion that we are dealing with a subjective process rather than an objective one. The Christian affirmation that Jesus had been raised from the dead did not refer to something which happened objectively to the body of Jesus; it was referring to a subjective event in the minds and hearts of the followers of Jesus. As Maurice Goguel put it in The Birth of Christianity, “The religious significance belonging to the resurrection does not lie in the fact that the body of Jesus came to life again on earth for a short time, but that it was taken to live in heaven. What gives salvation is Christ’s glorification, not his resurrection understood in the sense of the reanimation of his body. If this reanimation became an object of faith, it was because it was regarded as the symbol, proof and reification of the glorification of Christ” (p. 39–40). “The resurrection of Jesus is in reality the resurrection of that faith in him which the disciples had had during his ministry” (p. 61). Thus, what was originally a visionary experience assumed the character of history. Rudolf Bultmann said something similar in his famous essay, “The New Testament and Mythology,” when he wrote, “The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. It is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord . . . Faith in the resurrection is really the same thing as faith in the saving efficacy of the cross” (pp. 41–42).
How Did Jesus Become God and Why?
Now let us return to our topic. First I showed from the biblical material that Jesus became the Christ by a series of mental steps in the developing thought of the first- century Christians, as they began to evaluate what he meant for them in ever higher terms. The process by which Jesus became God is not an event which happened to Jesus but a developing change in human thinking.
I then turned back to the rise of the Easter faith to show that it also has to be understood subjectively rather than as objective history. The Easter faith arose partly out of the continuing influence of the impact Jesus had made on those who knew him and partly out of the devastating experience they had death.
The process of religious thought by which Jesus became the Christ, as demonstrated by the New Testament, did not stop there but continued in the post-biblical period. For even at the end of the first century Christian thought was still a long way from what was to become the classical Christian teaching as proclaimed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 c.e.
Yet already, as the New Testament itself clearly acknowledges, a rift was beginning to emerge as a result of the speed with which thought about Jesus was developing. It is the rift between the first generation of Christians—the Jewish Christians—and the rapidly growing Gentile church spread by Paul.
The Jewish Christians, led by James and Peter (at least at first), still saw Jesus through Jewish eyes. In their view Jesus remained fully human like themselves. He fulfilled the role of Messiah but was not himself divine. The Jewish Christians rejected the later stories of the Virgin Birth and the doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Letter of James we may have the best example of their thinking. They were expelled by the Romans from Jerusalem, their center, along with the Jews and they settled across the Jordan in Pella. They were rejected by the Jews because of their allegiance to Jesus and they were cold-shouldered and eventually rejected by the Gentile Christians as heretical. We hear no more of them after the fifth century.
It was the Gentile Christianity shaped by Paul which became the classical form of Christianity. The Gentile Christians increasingly saw Jesus through Greek eyes. Even Paul, though he gloried in his Jewishness, was very much a Hellenistic Jew. The New Testament largely reflects his thought and that of the Gentile Church and tends to hide from view what remains there of the thinking of the primitive Jewish church.
The Gentile mind had no trouble with regarding Jesus as divine. They saw him as the Son of God par excellence—the only Son of God. They had no expectation of a coming Messiah as the Jews had, so the word Christ (which translates Messiah) simply became used as a proper name. Jesus the Messiah became Jesus Christ or just Christ. Indeed the problem soon became not how to proclaim his divinity but how to defend his humanity. The Gnostic wing of the Christian movement wanted to say that Jesus only appeared to be a man but was really wholly God all the time.
As the church struggled to maintain both the full divinity and the full humanity of Jesus it went through a series of theological controversies. Various solutions were rejected, most as heretical. At first the church tried to determine just how Jesus was related to God the Creator. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity resulted and Jesus was portrayed as the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. Then the church had to work out how human nature and divine nature could be united in the one historical personage. The debate was never universally resolved. Those who disagreed with the findings of the Ecumenical councils were simply excommunicated from the main body. That is how the Nestorians (who affirmed two natures) and the Coptic churches (who affirmed one nature) came to be separated from the main body.
What became Christian orthodoxy was the following formula arrived at by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It may be regarded as the end result of the process by which Jesus became God.
We then, following the Holy fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted nor divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, the only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us, and the Creed of the Holy Father has handed down to us.
Today this statement of Christian orthodoxy, couched as it is in Greek concepts which are foreign to us, has become almost nonsensical. The majority of traditional Christians today have probably not even heard of this statement, far less understood it. Indeed one suspects that if one were to ask the average churchgoer to spell out what they meant by saying that Jesus is divine, they would probably align themselves, without realizing it, with one of the ancient heresies, rather than with orthodoxy.
The time was overdue for the process of deconstructing the affirmation of Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God. Reimarus (1694–1768) began the process. Further significant steps in the process were taken by David Strauss (1808–1874), Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). Most recently the process of deconstructing the glorification of Jesus and of recovering the historical human figure behind the process has been undertaken by the Jesus Seminar.
- Bultmann, Rudolf. “New Testament and Mythology.” Kerygma and Dogma. Ed. Hans Werner Bartsch. London: SPCK, 1960.
- Goguel, Maurice. The Birth of Christianity. London, 1953.
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