I owe this challenging title to the great Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Footballl Club, who was being interviewed about his antagonistic relationship with Jose Mourinho now manager of Manchester United. Mr.Wenger was prepared to admit some responsibility for the antagonism, while nevertheless keeping the moral high ground. “Yes, I have made mistakes,” he admitted, “even Jesus made mistakes, no?” I have no wish to pursue the similarity between Wenger and Jesus, except to note that it may explain Wenger’s liking for a robe-like coat that almost touches the ground. But I would like to take up his common sense observation about Jesus, which mevertheless runs counter to most Christian theology about Jesus.
Indeed most people brought up on traditional Christian teaching about Jesus will have experienced a slight sense of shock at Wenger’s casual assumption that Jesus could go wrong. What, the Son of God, the precious Word of God, go wrong! It’s the sort of utterance that in earlier centuries would have had the boys from the Inquisition, or from your local Kirk Session (I would rather have faced the Inquisition) knocking at your door. For of course the Son of God is sinless, he can’t make mistakes, otherwise how could we be certain of our salvation?
The Gospels are not concerned to depict Jesus as sinless, although they never in my view deliberately show him making a mistake or doing something wrong. Nevertheless we may ask whether the deliberate neglect of his parents shown by the boy Jesus when he went to the temple, the impatience he showed towards Pharisees, the Jewish racial prejudice he displayed towards a Canaanite woman, his conviction that he had the right to alter the law of Moses, whether these actions and attitudes were not at least mistaken, if not actually wrong.
Classic Christian theology was concerned to deliver a credible doctrine of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, the divine Son of. God, incarnated as a human being Jesus of Nazareth, whose human self had to be provided by virgin birth from a woman herself conceived without taint of sex. These theologians imagined that sex inevitably communicated the sin of Adam and Eve, so it had to be avoided at all costs in the divine incarnation, and even more, in the life of the Son of God. Yes, Jesus was a complete man, which meant he had a penis, but don’t you ever think that this organ became erect, or provided him with even the teeniest, weeniest, twinge of sexual pleasure, certainly not! You disgusting pervert, how can you even think of such a thing! The divine willie was, if we are to believe St. Augustine, unlike all other willies in the history of the world, totally under the control of Jesus at all times, so that it would only have been erected if he had, God forbid, instructed it to be so. You may think I’m exaggerating, but no, it’s true that grown men (and yes, it was almost exclusively men) argued about such matters, and even tortured people over them, in the centuries when the classic doctrines of the church were hammered out. They wanted to make Jesus into a person with two natures, divine and human, which were not confused or intermingled but neverthless united in Jesus, the Son of God. It’s not really surprising that any image of Jesus as a credible human being was mislaid in the process.
So let’s tease out the notion of a sinless person who never made mistakes or did wrong. Children are taught by their parents, which involves getting things wrong before they get them right. A perfect human child would of course not go wrong but only right, which in fact means he would not need to learn from parents, but would know the right way. Toilet training comes to mind. Jesus never had accidents, or like some children, shat himself with undiguised glee, but would have put all nappy manufacturers out of business, if he had taught the trick to others. And of course sometimes parents, even virgin mothers, will be mistaken in their guidance. In Jesus’ case he would have known and automatically corrected any mistakes. Surely as perfect Son of God he didn’t have to learn to walk, but was able to do so, as soon as it was expected of him. Did he ever quarrel with his brothers and sisters, who were not like him divinely conceived. Dod he ever raise a hand in anger? Indeed, was he ever angry? Now there’s an issue; he does seem to have been angry at the Pharisees. He said they were fit for hell, and compared them to white-washed graves, which does sound a little unjust particularly when he was condemning a whole group of people. Our cunning theologians however say that the anger does not come from the human Jesus but from his divine nature which articulates the wrath of God and cannot of course be wrong.
The problem with the doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus is that it springs from an inadequate view of moral perfection, which excludes wrong attitudes and actions from the perfect life. The most perfect people I know have made mistakes and done wrong, but they have learned from these and grown into a wholeness of character in which they do wrong very seldom. Their knowledge of their past wrongdoing also gives them humility and a kindly understanding of the wrongdoing of others. I guess Jesus was like this rather than like the saints who feared contamination by the world. Perfection in my book, means a capacity for continually learning goodness from other people, the created universe and from God. If not, how could we learn to be like Jesus? If not, what would be the point of the “imitation of Christ”?
The logical answer given by some theologians is that of course we cannot learn pefection but must be born again through the spirit to share in the divine life of Jesus and of the Father. They called this theosis, becoming like God. I see the point of this theology and admire its scope and severity, and for a moment I’m tempted to dismiss all this blog as crude, worldly, banter which cannot conceive of either the corruption of human nature, or of the divine perfection that rescues us. Tempted but not convinced, for in all its logic this theology does scant justice to the human capacity to learn or to the one who taught perfection, the Rabbi from Nazareth who ate and drank with sinners and “learned obedience through suffering.”
So for the moment at least, I can declare myself a Wengerite in theology.