The Incarnation: Orthodoxy is Confusion!

Felix Taylor of Post-WCG Life and Theology has a great post, Guess What I found on Youtube.com???. Felix found the episode of The John Ankerberg Show in which Ankerberg interviews religious teacher Garner Ted Armstrong.

So far, I’ve watched the first three parts, which relate to the incarnation. Would be that both sides handled this complex issue with the least dose of humility, but, alas, they don’t. Ankerberg and his audience act like anyone who doesn’t see it as they do is a gross heretic.

Basically, Armstrong teaches that Jesus was the creator God, who was transformed into a flesh and blood human being. For him, Jesus died, meaning that no part of him was alive when he was in the tomb. Moreover, Armstrong maintains that Jesus had the same type of fallen human nature that we all do, which indicates that he could have sinned.

Ankerberg takes this to mean that Armstrong denies Jesus’ divinity in the flesh. For Ankerberg, God is immutable, unchangeable, immortal, and sinless. Because Jesus was God even while he was human, he had all of the prerogatives of deity that he possessed before his incarnation, including omnipresence. He had to have these things, else God changed, which he cannot. But Ankerberg maintains that Jesus hid or chose not to use some of those attributes (particularly omnipresence). And how’s he respond to the notion that Jesus died, something that’s impossible for God? He says that Jesus’ human part was dead during his three days and three nights in the tomb, whereas his divine part was still alive.

That reminds me of something I heard at a Seventh-Day Adventist church. We were discussing the incarnation, and everyone assumed that Jesus had a divine part and a human part. I asked about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: At some point, Jesus disagreed with God’s plan, since he asked God to take the cup from him. Did that mean there was tension within the Godhead? Everyone in the Bible study class responded that Jesus’ human part disagreed with God, whereas his divine part did not.

Does this make any sense at all? It makes Jesus look like a split personality. Jesus is Jesus, right? He’s one being, not two in one. Plus, what’s all this “part” stuff? Jesus is fully divine and fully human, according to Chalcedon’s definition of orthodoxy. Then how can there be parts?

I don’t know as much about early Christianity as I should, but I remember discussing Nestorianism with a friend at Harvard, whose field of study was the church fathers. Nestorianism is a heresy. According to my friend, it teaches that Jesus had two natures, divine and human, which were like an apple and an orange in a bag. Orthodoxy teaches, however, that Jesus was a unified person, not someone with a split personality. If that definition is true, then my SDA friends and Ankerberg sound like Nestorians.

Interestingly, all sorts of people claim to have THE orthodox perspective on Jesus’ incarnation. On the Christian dating site that I visit, a Princeton graduate said that Jesus had a sex drive, and anyone who says the opposite is a docetist, a heresy maintaining that Jesus only appeared to be a human but actually was not one. “But Jesus couldn’t lust,” other Christians respond. “He was God.”

The problem is that Jesus was divine and human, and those things are mutually contradictory. Divinity means immutable and immortal. Humanity means changing and dying. And people try to handle this contradiction in all sorts of ways. One heresy said that Jesus’ mind was divine, whereas his body was human. The side that became orthodox responded that this can’t be true, since it implies that Jesus wasn’t a true man–with a human mind. Even many evangelicals have appealed to Philippians 2:6-7 to argue that Jesus emptied himself of his divine attributes. Other evangelicals then retort that this means Jesus was not fully God, which can’t be true, since Colossians 2:9 is clear that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (NRSV).

God can’t change, and yet, in the Scriptures, we see aspects of Jesus that are clearly mutable. Hebrews 5:8-9 says: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him[.]” “Learned”? “Made perfect”? Those words imply that Jesus became something he wasn’t before. In short, he changed.

Jesus aged. That implies change. He died and rose again with a new body. That’s change! “But Jesus was God, and God doesn’t change. See Malachi 3:6!” True, and Hebrews 13:8 says that Jesus Christ “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” And, yet, the Bible presents Jesus changing.

Could Jesus sin? We read that it’s impossible for God to lie (Titus 1:2–though the Greek word “apseudes” may just mean that God is trustworthy), so does that mean there was not the slightest possibility that Jesus could sin? Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” What’s the point of Jesus being tempted, if he absolutely could not sin? That makes the temptation pretty pointless, doesn’t it, if not non-existent?

Was Jesus fully dead? Well, Jesus said he was in Revelation 2:8, as Garner Ted argues. But here we may have a case of clashing proof-texts. Romans 4:24 says that God raised Jesus from the dead, which implies that an external power needed to resurrect Jesus, who was as dead as a doornail. And yet, Jesus says in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Doesn’t that indicate that Jesus could resurrect himself? Didn’t part of him need to be alive for this to happen?

And then there’s omniscience. God knows everything. Did Jesus? Matthew 24:36 says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” “But that just means that Jesus’ human part didn’t know, whereas his divine part did.” WHATEVER! Jesus was Jesus. Either he knew or he didn’t.

The issue is complex, and different people can use proof-texts to buttress conflicting positions. Personally, I’m not going to judge someone else for trying to make sense of this issue in a way that differs from my own approach (whatever that is). And I think that the “orthodox” position is as weak and confusing as other views.

But some may say that the orthodox position is crucial. “The martyrs gave their blood for it!” Who cares?! I didn’t ask them to do that! They were closed-minded, as were the people who put them to death.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to The Incarnation: Orthodoxy is Confusion!

  1. FT says:

    [[The issue is complex, and different people can use proof-texts to buttress conflicting positions. Personally, I’m not going to judge someone else for trying to make sense of this issue in a way that differs from my own approach (whatever that is). And I think that the “orthodox” position is as weak and confusing as other views.]]

    Whew!!! May I propose a solution. Buy and read a book called Sabbath Roots by Charles E. Bradford (an African American SDA scholar) and go to page 105 and read about “miaphysism” as opposed to the conventional Chalcedonian creed.

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  2. James Pate says:

    I looked it up on the Internet. It seems to say that Jesus had one nature which was a mixture of divine and human. I wonder how two contradictory natures can co-exist. Does miaphysitism say that Jesus simply chose not to use certain aspects, as Ankerberg contends?

    One thing I like about miaphysitism: it addresses my concern of Jesus being Jesus, not someone with a split-personality.

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  3. rtjones says:

    I read an essay from an analytical philosopher on exactly this topic this morning. “Jesus Christ Was Fully God and Fully Human” by Thomas Morris was originally published in Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Thought (Notre Dame, 1986), but I have it in an anthology called Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings (Oxford University Press, 2001). He doesn’t seem to deal specifically with immutablility, but he does deal with omnipotence, omniscience, and necessary existence. I suspect his book The Logic of God Incarnate (Cornell University Press, 1986) addresses the issues you are bringing up. His basic argument is that conflicting human and divine attributes are either not essential attributes of humanity or of divinity. Thus the apparent contradiction is not a contradiction at all. I’m not sure I find his specific argument compelling, but I suspect he is on the right track. Even if you disagree, it seems his argument is the current standard orthodox defense, and well worth the read.

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  4. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the reference, RtJones. That’s one way to handle it: certain aspects of divinity are not essential.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    It seems like instead of us trying to be more like Jesus, we want Jesus to be more like us. I am thankful that as a human, Jesus trusted in the Father as much as he did when He was tempted and when he asked Him to remove the cup or things would have been different. Trust is a difficult thing for us and the more we are capable of doing, I think, the harder it is to trust that someone is bigger.
    Again, my opinion on another topic I have wrestled with to no avail. So I put my pride of wanting to know everything aside and until He wants me to know more, am satisfied. Jesus trusted his God.
    Aunt C.

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