Posts Tagged ‘christology’

Jesus in the Qur’an and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

February 26, 2010

I’ve been to some of the Islam Awareness Week events at Nottingham University this week – including a talk about Jesus and Muhammed. I was surprised to hear that Jesus (or “‘Isa”) is mentioned much more frequently in the Qur’an than Muhammed is, and that several things are said about him in the Qur’an which, to my mind at least, suggest that he is more than a prophet.

One of them is the well-known verse (5:110) where several (possibly apocryphal) events from the life of Jesus are recounted: 

Then God will say, ‘Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in your infancy and as a grown man; how I taught you the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel; how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird; how, by My leave, you healed the blind person and the leper; how, by My leave, you brought the dead back to life; how I restrained the Children of Israel from [harming] you when you brought them clear signs, and those of them who disbelieved said, “This is clearly nothing but sorcery”

Quite often people point out that this verse has parallels (and is probably dependent upon) the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (and also the “Proto-Evangel of James” for the talking baby Jesus story). There are also allusions to things in the Canonical gospels, such as healing the blind and the leper, and raising the dead. But rather than doing a “source criticism of the Qur’an”, perhaps we should consider also the theological implications of this story.

1 1 When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.
   2 Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.
  3 And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows.
  4 And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking.
  5 When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends.”

Following Oscar Cullmann (in his translation of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in Hennecke and Schneemelcher (eds), N.T. Apocrypha, I:363-417), scholars have tended to see the stories about Jesus in the apocryphal gospels rather as gratuitous miracle stories – or “‘theologically mute’ stories of marvels”  when actually they have a purpose and theological significance (Stephen Gero, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: A Study of the Textual and Literary Problems” Novum Testamentum 13 (1971), p.47), much as the “nature miracles” of the canonical gospels have a theological (Christological) significance. In the case of the “animation of the birds” story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, there is both a point about observing the Sabbath (Jesus is rebuked for making clay birds on the Sabbath) but also a Christological point: it is no accident that Jesus makes these birds out of clay before giving them life. This is parallel to what God does in Genesis 2:7:

“then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

The version of the story in the Qur’an is even more closely parallel to God’s creative activity in Genesis 2:7, with the added detail that Jesus breathed into the bird so that it became a living being:

Genesis 2:7 Qur’an 5:110 (excerpt) Infancy Gospel of Thomas 1:2-4(excerpt)
then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows.[…]

But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.”

It seems to be bizarre that the Qur’an (usually an advocate of a low Christology!) should include this tale, given the high Christology implied by the story and the details of phrasing in the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, God created Adam out of clay (7:11-12) which makes it even more clear that Jesus is doing a divine, creative thing. To be sure, the text inserts (by my leave) to a number of Jesus’ miraculous signs out of monotheistic embarassment, but the problem seems to remain. How can it be that Jesus is doing something which the Qur’an ascribes to God, if he is merely a prophet?

To this might be added the Qur’anic claim that Jesus, alone of all the prophets, is sinless; and that (arguably) he did not die. This is in tension with the normally low Christology of the Qur’an. Even from the Qur’an there are suggestions that Jesus is more than a human prophet.

Charles Wesley’s Christology

June 16, 2009

I’ve heard it said that the early Methodists learned their theology through hymns, and particularly those of Charles Wesley. There’s a lot of theology to be learnt from his hymns, and I noticed this in my module on Christology and Atonement this semester. Almost every point of orthodox Christology is expressed in one hymn or another – a mark both of Wesley’s theological learning and tremendous poetic skill.

One of the favourite Christmas hymns of my pastor at my “home” church is Let Earth and Heaven Combine, with the line “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man”. As well as major bonus points for getting a six-syllable word into a metrical hymn, I think this is a brilliant and lyrical way of describing the incarnation. The same hymn goes on to summarise the theology of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation in a verse:

He deigns in flesh to appear
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

The theologians of the early Church, particularly Irenaeus of Lyon and Athanasius, rejoiced in the parallelism of Christology – “God became man that men might become god (θεοποιηθῶμεν)” (Athanasius, On The Incarnation 54.3 – modern Western Christians might prefer to say “godly” or “Christlike” for the last word; in context this is what Athanasius means) and Wesley expresses this neatly and devotionally here. “We the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below” is (whether deliberately or not, I don’t know) exactly the thought of Origen in Against Celsus 3.28.

But perhaps better-known, the great-granddaddy of all Christmas carols, is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing:

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

I’ve heard it claimed (and indeed askeda few people myself!) if “Veiled in flesh” is a bad choice of wording and possibly docetic. Giles Fraser calls it “heretical“, but the following lines “pleased as man with man to dwell” essentially rule out doceticism. What I think Wesley is trying to do with “veiled” is to emphasise the hiddenness of the divine nature in Jesus (that glory which is manifested for a second in the transfiguration [Matthew 17]).

Many of Wesley’s hymns have too many verses to fit comfortably into a carol service or worship “sesh” so we usually pick three or four. Hark! the herald has some extra verses, one of which picks up on Paul’s image of Christ as the Second Adam (1Corinthians 15:45-49):

Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us thy humble home;
rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

Love it.

Of course, nobody is perfect, not even Charles Wesley – and unfortunately one of his best hymns (and my favourite Wesley hymn) does have an unfortunate Christological line in it. I refer, of course, to And Can It Be?

He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race

The offending line “Emptied himself of all but love” isn’t great – as one of my lecturers says, “I don’t believe that!” Kenotic Christology has its devotees, who take the self-emptying of Philippians 2:5-11 to mean precisely this – that Jesus gave up the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence …) in the incarnation. I don’t believe that – and I don’t think the Bible teaches that (topic for another post, I think!). I thought it would be unfair to have a post on Wesley’s Christology without dealing with this anyway. Any suggestions for emending the verse? Use the comment box!

All in all, however, I think Wesley’s hymns show a great Christology and are jam-packed with theological truths, expressed in a way I find compelling and memorable – and that is why it’s great to sing them and learn some (biblically faithful!) theology from our hymns.

Is a sinless Jesus truly human?

May 13, 2009

In 451 the Council of Chalcedon declared that:

“We confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; “like us in all things but sin.”…”

The quote “like us in all things but sin” is a direct allusion to Hebrews 4:15 = “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The Bible repeatedly affirms that Jesus, being fully human, was without sin – he “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1Peter 2:22); “in him is no sin” (1John 3:5) and he “had no sin” (2Cor 5:21) – and Jesus himself claimed that he always did what pleased the Father (John 8:29).

But is this a contradiction of Jesus’ humanity? It is sometimes claimed that, if Jesus is truly human, he could not have been sinless (or vice-versa). “To err is human…” and Jesus can be no exception – or, if he is, he is not really human. The implication is sometimes that those who affirm the sinlessness of Jesus don’t really believe in the incarantion; they don’t really believe in his true humanity and are in fact closet Docetists.

The same principle of sin (moral error) is sometimes also charged to Jesus in respect of his teachings – might he not also be fallible in some of his views and opinions (intellectual error)? For example, in his ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses, or his teaching about hell. Is an inerrant Jesus truly human? “To err is human…”

But this is, in fact, not the case. To claim that a person who does not sin is not truly human is in fact to claim that sinfulness is an inalienable part of human nature. But then, we must logically deny that humanity in the new creation is not going to be true humanity. There will be no sin in heaven… does that mean that we will not be entirely human in heaven? No – in fact, we will be more human in the new creation. Sin is not an essential part of human nature; and in fact, to assert that it is is to measure Jesus by our humanity rather than measuring our humanity by Jesus’.

The question shouldn’t be “is Jesus as human as we are?” but rather “are we as human as Jesus is?” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, p.737) The upshot of all of this is that we are right to read the Bible as affirming both the full humanity and the full sinlessness of Jesus – and that imitating Christ makes us more authentically human, not less. Ultimately, when we are no longer troubled by the presence of sin in the new creation, we will be human in the way God always intended for us to be. Jesus’ sinless life is an foretaste of what that is going to be like – amazing!

“The God Who Wasn’t There” and Jesus

April 26, 2009

Recently I’ve seen adverts and trailers all over the internet for a forthcoming film called “The God Who Wasn’t There“, which claims to do for religion what “Supersize Me” did for fast food. I checked it out, but I don’t think I’ll be parting with the Student Loan Company’s money to go and see it any time soon.

It really surprised me that the filmmakers claim that the early church were “unaware of the idea of a human Jesus” and (I surmise) that the gospel traditions that have Jesus being a real human being are therefore secondary. Logically, I guess, they must then proceed down the “Jesus never existed” avenue, which I really wasn’t expecting from something trying to portray itself as based on legitimate scholarship.

I’d be interested to know how the filmmakers substantiate their claim that the early church did not think of Jesus as being a human being, though. Usually the objection is the other way around – that Jesus’ earliest followers did not think he was a God!

Justin Martyr mentions in his second-century Dialogue with Trypho that he believes Christ to be both man and divine. Interestingly, he mentions that some “of his race” (either Christians, or Greeks more generally) struggle with the idea, but from the angle of ‘How could Jesus be divine?’ rather than ‘Was Jesus human?’.

Now assuredly, Trypho, [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father’s will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. For there are some, my friends, of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have [now] the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.
(Dialogue, 48:2 – emphasis mine)

Clement of Rome writes at the end of the first century AD that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham:

From him [Abraham] also was descended our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh…
1Clement 32

Of course, this is nothing that the New Testament authors have not already taught- Clement is alluding to Romans 9:5 which also calls Jesus “God”. Moments after describing Christ’s divine status and preeminence over all creation in Colossians 1, Paul can talk about his “body of flesh”, his afflictions and his death. The same divine-and-human Jesus is seen in Philippians 2. Disagree with the early church if you will, but don’t claim that they were unaware of the idea of a human Jesus, or, for that matter, of a divine Jesus.

Scripture and Christology

April 20, 2009

I’ve been working on an essay for my Christology and Atonement module, and had one of the best, but broadest essay prompts ever: choose one particular doctrine of Christological controversy and show how it compels a particular reading of a text of scripture which could be read otherwise. Geeky, I know. I’ve also had a bit of trauma with it today, having found out the word limit is 500 words less than I had assumed, and therefore having to cut out John of Damascus and Leo the Great entirely from my essay, and paring Origen down to a soundbite. (Sorry, guys. We can chat more about your stuff in heaven!)

Anyway, I chose to look at the Arian controversy and Colossians 1:15, where Jesus is called the “firstborn of all creation”. In the fourth century, Arius taught that only God the Father was uncreated and eternal, and that therefore Jesus (the Word) was a created being who acts as a kind of demi-God – the agent through whom God creates and saves. His teachings were summed up – either by himself, his supporters, or his detractors – in the phrase “there was a time when he [Christ] was not”.  Arius claimed that his view was taught by scripture, and one of the texts he appealed to a lot (which is why I chose it) was Colossians 1:15:

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation

Arius understood the genitive “of all creation” firstly as a partitive genitive rather than a genitive of subordination. A partitive genitive suggests Christ belongs to the set of things “creation”, as the firstborn. So an analogous genitive might be a student who is “top of the class” – the student is a member of the class, as the top of it. However, this is not the only way to understand “of all creation” – for example, the NIV translates the phrase as a genitive of subordination with “firstborn over all creation“. An analogous genitive would be to say someone is the “teacher of the class” – the teacher is not a member of the class!

Secondly, Arius understood the word “firstborn” to refer to Christ’s temporal status – that he preceded everything else, but had a beginning in time at some point. He also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father, as well as the Son’s relationship to creation.

One of the things that surprised me in looking at some of the early Church writers on Colossians 1:15 was that many of them also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father. Justin Martyr for instance:

…we know Him to be the first-begotten (πρωτότοκος – lit. firstborn) of God…
(Dialogue with Trypho 100.1)

Theodoret of Cyrus:

Thus is he the firstborn of creation: not because he has a created sibling but because he was begotten before every creature

Notably, Athanasius denies this:

Accordingly it is nowhere written in the Scriptures, ‘the first-born of God,’ nor ‘the creature of God;’ but ‘Only-begotten’ and ‘Son’ and ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom,’ refer to Him as proper to the Father.
(Athanasius, Against the Arians 2.62)

And rightly so. To be fair to those who argued against Arius, a lot of them did do what seems to be the obvious thing and read on to the next few verses, which clearly distinguish Christ from the creation. However, I haven’t found a single ancient commentator who makes an appeal to the use of “firstborn” in Psalm 89:27 – “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” – which, according to Gordon Fee (Pauline Christology, pp.250-1) and Donald Macleod (The Person of Christ, p.57), had become a recognised Messianic title by the time Colossians was written. For Paul (or whoever – it is possible that Colossians 1:15-20 is a quote from an early hymn) to call Jesus the firstborn over all creation was to claim that Jesus was the Messiah and was the rightful heir and ruler of creation. It’s not a statement about coming into being or being “eternally begotten” at all.

So why is it that I can find this idea only in modern commentaries? Eduard Schweizer (The Letter to the Colossians, pp.251ff.) raises an interesting idea – it is because Paul’s world of ideas has been largely lost to Greek commentators by the 3rd/4th centuries; and so they were essentially unaware of the Jewish background of Messianic titles in this text (One might object that Paul may have been writing to a Gentile church – I’m with those who think it likely that Paul is quoting a bit of a hymn here that may well have been written by a Jewish-background Christian). This made it possible to interpret things like “firstborn of all creation” in a way that Paul didn’t mean. Of course, Arius had some other texts, and some philosophical presuppositions about what it means to be a monotheist as well, but it seems like a loss of touch with the world of ideas of the New Testament may also be partly to blame in allowing him to develop a heretical interpretation of this verse. A first-century Jew would never have thought of “firstborn of all creation” as referring to time, but to a position of honour and status promised to the Messiah in the Psalms.

Which brings me to a question I was chatting about on Saturday with another Christian theology student: How important is it to do the contextual and “critical” study of Biblical texts in terms of Christian reading of Scripture? We’d both noticed rather a lot of academic work that only seemed concerned with “What did this mean to the original writer/audience?” and agreed that this wasn’t a good approach for e.g. a sermon, or bible study; or even for doing systematic theology. We both agreed, too, that it was necessary to work out the implications for us, and that, believing the Scriptures to be God’s word as well, those implications are authoritative. But I think the close initial study of the text in terms of its historical context, and the world of ideas in which it makes sense, is important before we move on to applied or systematic theology. It doesn’t give us all of the answer, but maybe it can help prevent us from getting the wrong answer.