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Some Observations concerning Our Thinking about God and about Jesus

Whenever the Lenten season arrives, I begin to focus my thoughts on spiritual matters. This year I am meditating on the entire concept of God and Christ. I begin my journey by setting out some general principles that help me to clear away some of the underbrush that so often impedes my efforts to understand. I begin by observing that God is not threatened by our various opinions and beliefs about Him/Her. Likewise, neither is Jesus Christ threatened. God, in all of Gods manifestations, can take care of Himself/Herself without human help. God does not need me or anyone else to defend Him/Her. Furthermore, I must recognize honestly that whenever we humans attempt to describe anything, we can do so only in terms of our human experience, and using human language. We must also concede that this-worldly human experience and human languages are limited, and are inadequate to describe Heavenly- and Other-worldly matters. So whenever we talk about God we are attempting at the very outset a basically impossible task: to describe the indescribable and to express the inexpressible. Only metaphors and similes, and perhaps also parables and myths, are suited to do justice to our descriptions of heavenly realities. For example, we often describe and address God in our prayers as Father. And contrary to the politically correct concepts of some Christians I know, I think that calling God Father is perfectly OK, so long as we do not do so to the exclusion of other necessary clarifying metaphors or similes. But to call God our Father does not mean we must believe that God exists in a human body having male genitalia. And it does not mean that the use of Mother or other feminine metaphors or similes for God are excluded or

inappropriate, for the Bible itself uses female metaphors. But the use of the term Father does mean that we may perceive God as in some sense being the originator, the begetter, the initiator of our human existence. The image of God as Father also suggests that we may understand God, not as an abstraction, but as a kind of person, as one who cares for human beings as in some sense members of a family. The term also suggests that God is in a role of authority, setting guidelines for His/Her children as they grow up within the household of faith. Yet none of the writers of Scripture would assume that to call God Father is to limit the Being, the essence, the character, or the qualities of God to that one metaphor. On the contrary, the term Father is not adequate in itself to describe God, and it does not tell us everything that God is. Furthermore, the term Father, used without qualification, can be misleading. My own human father, for example, was the husband of my mother, and he was the breadwinner in my family. He had, along with his good qualities, many imperfections. I loved him, but sometimes I feared him, and at other times I was annoyed with him, and in his later years, he was not the caregiver for his family, but rather, the family was his caregiver. I do not think of God as Father in those terms. Indeed, some of us may have grown up not having experienced in any sense the kind of fatherhood that the writers of Scripture intended to portray by the use of that concept. Some of us may have grown up in a family with a mother, but no father, in the household at all, and others may have lived in a household where the father was either totally uncaring, or even abusive. Thus, many find it difficult to identify with the metaphor
Father

for God. But that fact does not mean that the term should no longer be used. It

means only that every metaphor or simile for God must be supplemented by other

metaphors or similes, and that every person must draw upon the entire wealth of metaphors and similes used for God in Scripture, and perhaps even envision new ones, and relate them to their own experiences and understanding of God. Thus, all of our titles for God and for Jesus, and all of our metaphors and similes used to describe God and Jesus can be only partial and inadequate. Yet they cannot affect Gods reality. When we pray, we may address God in terms of our personal beliefs, but in the back of our minds we are (or, at least, we always should be) addressing God, not as we believe God to be, but as only God knows Himself/Herself to be. We Christians generally in all of our official creeds have always asserted our belief in the existence of only one God. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament occasionally appears to suggest that ancient Hebrews might have assumed the existence of other gods, at certain periods in their history. It seems clear, however that the writers and editors who set down and preserved our Biblical texts always wrote assuming the existence of only one God, Yahweh, the God of Israel. They considered that any other gods mentioned in the text were not real, but were only idols worshipped by pagan peoples, or by Israelites who had forsaken the one true God, Yahweh. When we come to the New Testament, we should remind ourselves that none of the writers of the Gospels, as far as we can tell, were actual eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. (The names for the Gospels were given to them many years after their writing.) Some of their material may have come from such eyewitnesses, but there is still a strong interpretive element involved in the Gospels, and the same thing would have been true of the narration of any eyewitnesses whose testimony was handed down and utilized in the writing of our Gospels. Oral tradition about what Jesus did, and

Who Jesus was, and what Jesus was like, has been filtered through the experiences and the faith interpretations of those who handed down the traditions. That would be only natural, and it is not necessarily a bad thing that this is the case. The various writers of the New Testament, especially in the Gospels and in Pauls writings, use many different titles for Jesus in order to suggest to their readers different aspects of the Being or the works of Jesus during the course of His life, including the stories of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The most important of these include: The
Prophet, the Servant of God (or the Lord), the great High Priest, the Messiah

(Greek Christos =

Christ), the Son of David, the King of the Jews, the Son of Man, the Second Adam, the Lord

(Greek: Kyrios), the Savior, the Word (Greek: Logos), the Son of God. In the interest of space I will address only one of these, the most important one, the Son of God. A Jewish Rabbi friend once remarked to me, the trouble I have with Christianity is its
assertion that a man became God. Such an assertion is sheer arrogance.

I replied to him that when

you put it that way, I am in full agreement. But that is not the teaching of Christianity, as I understand it. Christianity asserts, rather, that the eternal God somehow entered into the life of this man Jesus of Nazareth to accomplish many wonderful things. We call this belief the concept of Incarnation. In answer to the question, Is, or was Jesus God,? My personal response is both, Yes, it is true! and No, it is not true! As a matter of objective human history, I do not believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh. But as a confession of my personal faith experience, I must say that I do conclude with the Apostle Paul that God was in Christ
reconciling the world to Himself.

The following paragraphs will hopefully clarify my answer.

It is probable that Jesus Himself never publicly proclaimed that He was God in the flesh, and that He never Himself used most of the titles for Himself that later Christians

have used to describe Him. For the most part such titles have come from much later reflections of the earliest followers of Jesus and their descendants in the faith as they tried to come to terms with His significance. However, that does not necessarily mean that those titles do not express a part of the truth about Who Jesus was, and about what His work was. But we cannot now recover from the Gospels exactly what Jesus understood or believed about Himself, because so much of what we encounter in the Gospels is overlaid with later faith-interpretation. Yet I do believe that the Gospels provide us a fairly reliable impression of Him when we study them carefully, with an open mind, and using the best tools of modern Biblical scholarship. The letters of the apostle Paul provide us with probably the nearest thing to eyewitness testimony that we possess. But even Paul is very reticent to discuss in detail just what the risen Christ was like. And as far as we know, Paul was not an eyewitness to Jesus earthly life and ministry. Furthermore, even an eyewitness can misinterpret what he or she has experienced. Paul virtually never calls Jesus God.1 However, from the experiences that he had with the risen Christ, Paul clearly does attribute to Jesus most of the attributes of God, while also clearly describing Jesus as fully human. The New Testament writers who are most insistent that Jesus was God (namely, the writer of the Fourth Gospel, John, and of the Letters of John, and the writer of the Book of Hebrews), are the very writers who are also most insistent on the full humanity of Jesus. If pressed, they would probably insist that Jesus was both fully Divine and fully

Some interpreters insist that Paul does this in Romans 9:5, but whether Christ is called God in that passage depends on the way the Greek text is punctuated, and the earliest Greek manuscripts themselves did not have any punctuation. If Paul did call Jesus God here, it would be an unusual departure from his customary practice. Personally, I believe Paul was too Jewish in his outlook to do that, although, of course, I could be mistaken.

human, and not just God masquerading as a human being. The writer of the Letters of John even insists that anyone who denies that Jesus came in the flesh as a human being is an Anti-Christ (1 John 2:22 ff., 4:2-3; 2 John 7)! Many Biblical interpreters have noted that in the New Testament there appears to be a backward trend in the understandings of Jesus by the various writers. The earliest writer, Paul, writing about 50-55 CE, seems to hold that, at the death of Jesus, God adopted him as Messiah and Son of God. And in this view, the resurrection is practically identical with the concept of the ascension. Of course, Paul eventually seems to progress somewhat beyond that, yet he almost never actually speaks of Jesus as being
God

(see footnote 1). The earliest Gospel, Mark, from about 70 CE, apparently holds that God

adopted Jesus at the time of Jesus Baptism, and that His disciples did not come to this understanding until the incident at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks, Who do
people say that I am?

Matthew and Luke, perhaps a generation later than Mark, seem

to hold that Jesus became Son of God and Messiah at His birth. And then the latest Gospel, that of John, written about 90-100 CE, holds that Jesus was Divine from the creation of the world. It appears that, as people came to experience the Christian faith, and sought to understand that experience, and reflect upon it, their understandings were enlarged. But most of the titles and metaphors for Christ in the New Testament are not statements about the nature of Christ (Divine vs. human) at all, and they are not related to the later controversies that led to the definitions of the ecumenical Church councils and the creeds in the fourth century CE. The titles and metaphors for Jesus in the New Testament

are related, not so much to Who and what Jesus was, but rather, to what Jesus did, and to what those early followers were convinced that the risen and ascended Jesus continued to do and to be in their lives. Those titles and metaphors were never meant primarily to describe Jesus essence, but rather, they were used to describe Jesus functions and continuing activity, in light of what those earliest Christians had experienced as Jesus followers both during His ministry, and after His death. And the central function that they described was that Jesus lived, and suffered, and died, and was raised, in accordance with the will of God, as a mediator for Gods love and forgiveness for all sinful human beings. The various doctrines that we Christians have held through the centuries about God and about Christ did not come first. No one at the beginning just handed out the doctrines about the nature of God and about the nature of Christ, and said to the very earliest Christians, First you must believe the truth of these doctrines, and then you will be saved. On the contrary, first, there were experiences with Jesus during His earthly ministry. And then, there were experiences of Jesus living Presence after His death. And people then reflected on the meaning and significance of these experiences. Only then came the doctrines, by which people attempted to explain, however inadequately, their understandings of the significance of those experiences, to themselves and to others. It may be true that there is a problem with the differing metaphors and similes and doctrines concerning the nature of God and of Christ, and concerning the work of Christ. If so, that problem is the natural result of the fact that different people, at different times in the history of the Church, have experienced God in different ways, and even when they had the same kinds of experiences, they still interpreted them differently. This should not be surprising, and it is not a bad thing, for study about God is like the examination of a finely cut

diamond only more so. Certainly a diamond has a lot of facets and its true beauty is often known only by examining it from many angles, and in different kinds of light. But how much more so must it inevitably be with God! Personally, I am still trying to keep an open mind about just Who and what Jesus was and is for me. My experiences with God and with Christ grow every day. And often, to grow means to change. To a certain extent I am sympathetic with the aims and the methodology of the Jesus Seminar, and I am very impressed with the color-coded translation of the Gospels that they have produced. And I look forward to their completion of the entire New Testament. But I do not agree with a lot of their conclusions. In fact, I believe that many of their conclusions about the words and acts of Jesus and about Jesus own self-consciousness were colored (no pun intended) by their preconceptions about him before they ever began their investigations as a group. All of us must guard against being prejudiced by our preconceptions. Those views are the starting point for my conceptions of God and of Jesus, but I hope that I always continue to be open-minded and to grow in my understanding of such matters.