“So if Jesus was somehow God, how do you imagine him? Classical theologians talked about two natures in one person, but surely that’s just a bit of gobbledegook?”
This is a real challenge. The Nicene Creed simply asserts that Jesus was/ is “very God of very God, begotten not made,” and the Chalcedonian Creed (451CE) emphasises that Jesus shared the “substance of God and the substance of humanity, two natures without separation or confusion.” Although the creeds are part of the story of how the church imagined Jesus, they are mainly prohibitions of wrong imaginings, and perhaps, in Chalcedon, of all imagining: “don’t try to imagine Jesus, because he is essentially unimaginable. Just accept the formula.”
The controversies about the nature or natures of Jesus arose out of the biblical witness to Jesus on the one hand, and the use of the Greek philosophical terms “physis” (nature) hypostasis ( substance/ person) ousia (being) logos (word/reason). In particular the difficulty was in asserting of Jesus that he had both human nature and divine nature. This difficulty is not biblical. The bible never says that Jesus has either divine or human nature, but uses a variety of expressions to refer to his sharing human and divine life. Jesus, a real human being, shares as a human being in God’s life, so much so that he can be called Lord, Son of God; and it can be said that he shares the “abundance” of God. He can also be depicted doing things which are considered impossible for human beings, raising the dead, stilling storms, rising physically from his tomb. Certainly, however, no division of natures is alleged. Was his forgiveness of the weeping woman in Luke 7 any less “divine” than his stilling of the storm in Mark 4? It is enough to say that with the help of what now would be viewed as magical realism, the Gospels are able to tell a convincing story of a man who is the action and the suffering of God. They deal with events, with what happened, and with the character of the person through whom they happened. This also true of the more reflective language of St. Paul, who writes of the “crucified messiah” who “loved me and gave himself for me” – he is still dealing with character and events: “he humbled himself and was obedient even to the point of death, his death on the cross.” Even when Paul talks of him as raised to the highest place above, as Lord over creation, he is still depicting a cosmic drama in which Jesus wins a victory. The language of the Bible is the language of human history, of what happened and why; of what was done and by whom; of what was felt or understood; of what the main actors were like, how they acted and spoke and suffered; of what emerged from events. Of course, natures, substances, being and reason may be deduced from such language, but it may not be a successful endeavour.
The Jesus’ narratives of the Bible are part of two larger narratives about God:
1. The battle of God’s goodness against evil
2. The ongoing story of God’s creation of a perfect universe.
In both of these stories the people of Israel have an important role, as God cannot win his battle and achieve perfection without the cooperation of humanity, of which Israel is the chosen prototype. The narrative of Israel as God’s partner is an important sub- narrative of the two major narratives. The story of Jesus is presented in the Bible as a critical although not final turning point in all these narratives.
There is a great difference between the movement of these narratives and the static determination of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus. This has often been recognised in the history of Christian theology, to the extent that “narrative theology” is an accredited field of study. Its practitioners suggest that rather than jumping out of the story into theology, we develop a theology by entering more deeply into the story, as becoming part of the story is the best way of finding the truth of Jesus, God and the world.
I want to agree with that while disagreeing with its disengagement from larger issues of truth. Yes, imagining the story of Jesus as part of the story of God can be life-changing, but only if I insert my own story, the story of my life, into his. But if I do so honestly I have to recognise that I do not live in the time of the Bible authors; I do not speak their languages or share their culture; the society of which I am part is blessed with knowledge which they did not possess, in the sciences and especially in our discovery of the universe and its evolution. So, if I imagine myself as part of the Biblical story, it has to be a total re-imagining of it which engages with questions of its continuing relevance and truth. In other words, although the answers given by the questioning Greek believers of the 4th and 5th centuries may not be acceptable to me, the questions they put to the Biblical narrative remain relevant, and can guide my questions and my re-imagining today.
They remain relevant but they must be supplemented by contemporary questions and not just those of my own culture, but of other cultures too, for unlike the ancient Greeks I do not see other cultures as barbarous, but as a shared civilisation. It’s a tall order, but that’s what makes it THEO- logy, reasoning about the One who is not us, rather than IDEO- logy, reasoning about the priorities of my party, nation or church.
An example may help, the story of the man afflicted by a legion of evil spirits, from Mark chapter 5.
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
This story is set in the Decapolis, the area of the ten towns developed by the Greek conquerors of Palestine, which were viewed as foreign territory by pious Jews. Like the rest of Israel it was at that time under Roman rule. The key to the story is when the evil spirits name themselves as Legion. In effect they say, We are the Roman Army. This poor man has allowed the violent Roman conquest to enter his soul, so that he is continually brutalised. A superior powerful culture has made him into a self-harming victim.
Jesus’ lack of fear and his therapeutic questioning leads the man to acknowledge the “spirit” by which he is oppressed, so that he can be healed. The request of the legionary spirits to enter pigs is a kind of manga comedy, where the evil ends up where it belongs in unclean animals. The reaction of the townspeople shows how much they are complicit with the rule of Rome, but the witness of the healed man shows how the fight against global wrongs starts locally.
Can I insert myself in this story? Yes. When I was young I was oppressed by fear of violence at home and at school. A culture I saw as superior made me ashamed and stupid. In that condition I did many things which harmed myself, as well as sometimes others. I took me years into adult life to be able to name the afflicting spirits, while admitting their influence. The persistent counter-influence of Jesus, along with the love of my wife and friends, helped me do this.
In my varied ministries I have seen how the very poor people of the UK are subjected to the violence of destitution by a class of people who imagine themselves as superior, even when engaged in the so- called caring professions. The self-harming of the poor, through alcohol, drugs, and crime, is an obvious result. I confess that I was only seldom able to help them name their oppressor, and to find healing. Churches in such areas often imagined themselves to be superior to these victims.
The hymn writer Fred Pratt Green got it right:
In conflicts that destroy our health/ we diagnose the world’s disease. / Our common life declares our ills./ Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?
That question reminds us that Jesus is depicted by Mark as in many other stories as an unremitting agent of life who will not be complicit with violence and death. He does nothing spectacular but he frees the man from these evil spirits. Mark is saying, This is God’s goodness. The same sort of story had been told in the Hebrew Bible, for example, in the healing of Naaman by Elijah. The goodness of God is as quiet and persistent as the questioning of Jesus or the water of Jordan on the leper’s skin.
This is an important way of talking about God, but is it true? It seems to me unarguable the neither of these two healings took place as narrated. Rather, an author is imagining an improbable human being in whom God is revealed as present and compassionate.
The small communities of the early church also knew the power of the legions, along with the overwhelming cultural power of the Roman Empire. They hoped that by naming the oppressive spirit and trusting in the goodness that is Jesus, they might be freed from fear and self-harm and liberated to speak of what God had done for them.
Enough! The world of this story, the world of the Bible, is a world of events. Nature is not a background to events but is itself a series of events which involve human beings. This sits well with the world as defined by modern quantum physics as an infinity of events, some very large like the explosion of a black hole, some unimaginably small. Some people of faith and wisdom are able to perceive the presence of God in certain events, such as cataclysms, or sacred groves or the actions of great rulers, but Jesus is depicted as one who cherished each and every event, ready to find in it the possibility of creative goodness, which he called Abba, father. He imagined the process of the world in this way. Only the possibility is given, for God will not force it. The entities involved in the event have to respond, as Jesus did. This responsiveness may belong as much to particles and viruses as to human beings.
This way of thinking points to a universe of ceaseless happenings in each one of which the persuasive goodness of God is present. “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Heavenly Father” “In him we live and move and have our being.” We deny these as often as we affirm them, but Jesus on earth is the small life which was never without The Father, the man who always lived and moved and had his being in God.
1. I am imagining God as the persuasion towards perfection in every event of the universe.
2. This persuasion issues from the origin of the universe and from its future culmination, for God is the first and the last.
3.Jesus of Nazareth is both the revelation and the embodiment of this persuasion in a particular time and place, in his life and his death on the execution stake. He is the true but not finished expression of God’s goodness. He was not an automaton with a son of God implant, but a real human being who believed himself to be God’s child, a faith put in question by his death and answered by his resurrection, that is, by his disciples’ imagination of the risen bodily life he shares with God. Did God make a difference to Jesus? Yes, in all his living and especially in his resurrection. Did Jesus make a difference to God? Yes, assuredly God is different because the life of Jesus became part of God’s own life.
4. Life shared with other creatures in the persuasive goodness of God is called life in the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit differ from God the Father? By being the shared life of God and his son, God and his children. It is the venturesome partnership (Greek: koinonia) in which God is happy to work with human beings.
5. This is my imagination of Jesus the Son of God. It does not mention evil, sin, heaven and hell. So it is not a creed but a faith working towards articulation.