Rough Draft

Presentation for the One God Seminars

June 1, 2008

Seattle, Washington

 

 

“Either God or a Madman or . . .”

 

In C. S. Lewis’ now-famous “Jesus trilemma” he proposed that people need to choose whether Jesus was the divine Son of God or else a madman or something worse such as a demon.[1] Lewis opted to call Jesus “Lord and God” and gave reason why his readers should do the same.  However, the trilemma works only if Jesus actually made that sort of claim about himself recorded in the New Testament Gospels. There is no evidence he did.

 

By Kenneth Westby

 

I can sympathize with Lewis’ dilemma. At hand was the orthodox teaching that the Son of God, Jesus, was truly God the Son and the second member of the divine Trinity. To Lewis, and most orthodox Christians, mankind’s choice is either accept this as truth or else declare Jesus a madman, a liar, or something worse, for making such claims. But are there other options? Has Lewis limited us to false options?

 

Just who claimed that Jesus was God? Jesus? If so, where? The disciples? Paul? The heavenly Father? Or were such claims developed by the “church fathers” in the centuries after the NT was written?

 

In answering the above questions we encounter the difficult task of identifying and laying aside presuppositions learnt from ancient traditions. Detaching the barnacles of church history that have attached to Christianity will challenge the seeking student. Orthodox doctrine today is the product of a church history, Protestant and Catholic, rich with disputes, dogmas, confessions, councils, and creeds. While much is the valuable work of sincere and devout churchmen in the centuries after the NT period, it nevertheless is extra-biblical. We need to strip off the layers of church tradition to reveal what lies beneath. The truth about who Jesus was and is must be rooted in Scripture—not in church councils and creeds.

 

Laying aside presuppositions is probably the most difficult challenge toward pursuing an open-minded, objective study of the nature of Jesus. Perhaps indulging in the mind game of the proverbial deserted desert island could be helpful. There you are, you’ve had absolutely no religious teaching, you’re ignorant of Christian church doctrine and history, but you have a Bible to read. After a thorough reading of it you are finally rescued by a passing ship and asked by a sailor to explain who Jesus was. Limited to the evidence he had, what would our desert island friend tell the sailor. Would he declare him the second God in a three-God Trinity? Would he discuss preexistence? Or would he declare Jesus a human with a mother like the rest of us?

 

Claims and Titles

 

It is impossible to prove any historical claim with absolute certainty. But we can objectively weigh the evidence preserved in Scripture. Unfortunately, most of us do not have a clean, unobstructed path to forming a clear picture of the nature of God and Jesus. Orthodox (i.e. right opinion) tradition has placed major obstacles and detour signs along the pathway toward understanding this most critical doctrine. It become our individual responsibility to grapple with the evidence, exercise our minds, and actively challenge church traditions.

 

 But what is remarkable about the historical claims of Jesus is that a claim to be “God” is not among them. Scholars debate over the meaning and significance of Jesus’ self-chosen title, “Son of Man,” but there is no lack of NT evidence for his claim to that title.

 

The title “Son of Man” occurs eighty-two times in the Gospels; sixty-nine times in the Synoptics. In the Gospels the designation is used only by Jesus himself except in one text, where his words are quoted by a crowd responding to Jesus statement  “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” There is no attempt made in the Gospels to explain the meaning of the phrase. This absence of any definition or explanation may imply that the designation was so well known to Jesus’ contemporaries that any such explanation would be superfluous. With one exception the phrase always has the definite article, suggesting that it referred to a well-known entity: “the Son of Man” or that Son of Man.”

 

The Son of Man claims of Jesus are worthy of study and debate for the evidence of their historical use is abundant. But how many are the claims from the mouth of Jesus that he is God, or divine, or the second member of the Trinity, or part of the Godhead, or preexistent, or fully God and fully man, or perfect, or eternal, or uncreated, or the God of the Old Testament, or the Creator? Are there any? To the contrary, Jesus even balked at a man calling him “good” quickly correcting the record by stating  “only God is good,” in the fullest sense, clearly making a difference between himself and God.

 

Different View Points

 

The synoptic gospels provide a narrative of the historical Jesus, his beginnings, his ministry, his startling end in death, and his surprising return to life. The synoptic writers largely attempt to picture Jesus as the fully human man they knew and followed. There is a conscious effort not to read back into the narrative subsequent understanding developed in the three to four decades following the resurrection when their accounts were written. There are, of course, some obvious editorial additions and recasting of events to serve the author’s purposes and the needs of the intended audience.

 

The fourth gospel, however, takes a different point from which to view the Christ event. John writes from the vantage point of the present reality (at the time of his writing several decades after the resurrection) of who the man Jesus is and his glorified position on the Father’s throne in heaven. John, it is generally believed, wrote after the synoptic gospels were in circulation, and overlays the history of Jesus’ ministry with his understanding of Jesus’ eternal role in the Father’s grand plan. He dwells on the cosmic role Jesus was intended to take and weaves elements of it into the narrative of Jesus’ life to highlight the transcendental spiritual purposes Jesus was fulfilling. John writes of the human Jesus with the “heavenly Jesus” clearly in mind.

 

Apparently John’s gospel was prime growing ground for one of the early church’s most invidious and destructive heresies, Gnosticism. Nascent Gnosticism was in John’s sights when he later wrote his epistle as a corrective to the misuses and misunderstanding of his gospel at the hands of the Gnostics. Gnosticism was a complex weave of various threads of special knowledge (Gk. gnosis) that could guide the initiate to salvation, which was seen as escape from the body. Flesh/matter was regarded as evil; spirit was entirely good. Dualism and Docetism (Gk. dokeo, “to seem”) were two manifestations. There was both a human and divine Jesus—the divine in a fleshly body; or, the spiritual, divine Jesus only seemed to be a human, but was an immortal spirit. These and other Gnostic concepts found their way into Christian doctrine through the acute Hellenization of Christianity and the commensurate departure from the Jewish/Hebriac roots of the church of Jesus’ apostles.

 

An Anti-Christ Teaching

 

False teachers were denying Christ’s humanity by saying that Christ only seemed to have a body. Further, it was taught that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at baptism and left him before he died. Christ to the Gnostic was an eternal spirit who was not contaminated by a flesh and blood bodily existence.

 

John labels these view of Jesus as anti-Christ, against the truth of who Jesus was and is.

 

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

 

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus [was a fleshly human] is not from God. This is the spirit of the anti-christ, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. ( 1John 4:1-3)

 

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the anti-christ (2John 7).

 

John takes this matter seriously using the most powerful denunciation available against those who have spiritualized away the flesh and blood man from Galilee. Are most Christians aware that perverting the truth of the fleshly nature of Jesus can be a severe error—and anti-Christ heresy? Jesus was as human as anyone and Paul was comfortable referring to the risen Messiah, “the man Christ Jesus.)[2]

 

Jesus the Man

 

Could the answer to C. S. Lewis’ trilemma be another choice? If Jesus was neither a madman nor a demon, what was he? If he claimed to be God, perhaps those choices would be appropriate, but he never made such claims nor was C. S. Lewis able to provide evidence that Jesus made such outrageous claims. Lewis said our three choices are: Jesus is either God or a madman or a demon. Should Lewis have offered another choice--that Jesus was simply a human man? If Jesus were fully man, would that choice better fit the evidence of Scripture? I think the answer is yes.

 

The NT (Mt & Lk) offers a human linage to baby Jesus born of a human woman. Every human, including Jesus, has a linage going back to Adam and Eve. There was something unusual associated with his birth, for sure, but little more is said about it in the rest of the gospel accounts or the rest of the NT. His origin, his genesis, was clearly human or as John put it, “come in the flesh.”

 

John said of Jesus, “we have seen with our eyes…and our hands have touched” (1Jn 1:1). He personified God’s nature and became God’s Word to mankind. He “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).  

 

The great mystery revealed through the Christ event is expressed by Paul to his converts as “Christ in you” (Col 1:27). This is incarnational theology applied by Paul to mean that we Christians need to have Jesus Christ incarnated in us. By this he means that Christians embrace the mind of Christ and walk as he walked. It parallels the incarnation of God the Father in the person of his son by his son embracing not his own will but that of his Father; internalizing his Father’s character, and having his Father’s words and purposes as his own.

 

“Christ in you” means having the divine nature in us as it was in Jesus. It does not suggest a metaphysical transformation of Jesus to possess or inhabit our bodies. It does not suggest that we “preexisted” as a divine Jesus-like spirit. The “incarnation” of Jesus likewise does not suggest a divine being transformed into the fleshly man Jesus.

 

The powerful message revealed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is that a human being, bearing the weakness of the flesh and living in a world of trials and temptations, can be made holy, can please God, and can live beyond the grave. We believers will, with our leader Jesus, forever be in the presence and glory of our heavenly Father. The significance of Jesus’ humanity is that he is one of us. If he can, so we can transcend death and live forever with our Maker. He bids us to follow him.

 

What we see in the gospels is not a superman Jesus, not a perfect, porcelain God-man, not the cardboard caricature pictured on the wall of churches. We see a baby, a boy, a man—the greatest of men.

 

The NT does not seem in the least embarrassed by Jesus’ natural connection with the rest of his fellows: “Is this not the carpenter, son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mk 6:3).

 

Jesus is presented as a man like the rest of us made of the same common clay. The Father didn’t create new “spiritual flesh,” he chose Jesus from among men, from among common flesh. The early-written epistle to the Hebrews gives us a Jesus who as a man “has been tested every way as we are, who was beset by weakness and who in the days of his earthly life…offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears and because of his humble submission…was heard” (Heb 4:15; 5:2; 5:7).

 

And for Paul, too, the solidarity of Christ with our present human condition is of fundamental theological importance. Paul makes it clear that Jesus has significance only if he really did share our fallen lot. God send his son “in a form like that of our own sinful nature” (Rom 8:3) and “made him one with the sinfulness of men” (2 Cor 5:21). Contrary to Paul, the Council of Chalcedon endorsed the statement of Cyril that Christ’s flesh was not “the flesh of a man like one of ourselves.” [3] 

 

The progression of orthodox Christologies has served to separate Jesus from ordinary humanity and undercut his true humanity. Orthodoxy has rejected the Jesus who had his beginning in the womb of Mary, who as a man represented all mankind as the Son of Man and the Second Adam. Orthodoxy has made it difficult for humans to see Jesus as one of us, who by following his example can share in his resurrection and glory.

 

Scriptures to Consider

 

The Epistle to the Hebrews offers some of the clearest insights into the nature of Jesus. See Heb 2:14-18; 3:1; 4:14; 5:1-10; 7:28. Why are readers encouraged to “fix our thoughts on Jesus” (3:1)? How would this help? If we can identify with Jesus as one of us it is natural and logical that we be encouraged to imitate his way of thinking. It would not be such a natural suggestion to imitate the thoughts of a preexistent being who is some sort of God-man. How can a mere human closely identify with fantastic spirit? How would that help empower Christians to believe they can be like Jesus? It could actually discourage.

 

The goodness that Jesus had (Acts 10:38) was hard won out of the struggle with evil within him and around him. The epistle to the Hebrews, which alone refers to Jesus’ perfection always used of him the verb ‘perfected,” never the adjective “perfect.” The sole occurrence of the phrase “the perfect man” (Eph 4:13) is not a description of Jesus but of humanity fulfilled in Christ.

 

It insists that he “learned obedience in the school of suffering” (Heb 5:8) – through the things that touched him, affected him, and changed him. Hebrews provides forceful evidence that Jesus was remembered as a man of like passions with ourselves who had to win through in the same way as everyone else. [4]

 

Jesus and His God

 

Jesus “became man” not by becoming a man from being something else like an eternal spirit (no one can do that), but by becoming fully and completely human. As the author of Hebrews says again, He had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest (Heb 2:5-18; 4:15).

 

Jesus had his own will, which was not always in harmony with God’s. He chose God’s will even though it was clearly not what he wanted as we see in Gethsemane (Lk 22:42). His prayer was not the simple petition: “Give me the strength to drink this cup.” Rather, he prayed: “Remove this cup from me.”  Three times he prays the same prayer! He didn’t want to die. Nevertheless he ends his struggle with a prayer of submission: “yet not my will, but yours be done.” Clearly Jesus had his own will apart from God’s.

 

Jesus sets us the example of yielding personal will to God’s will. Why? Because God’s will is wise and it will manifest his love for us. Jesus said “I’ve come to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38), and “I have come, O God, to do thy will” (Heb 10:7, 9), and Rom 15:3, “for Christ too did not please himself.”  He had to battle to submit his will to that of his God. Can we identify with that struggle?

 

He plainly had the freedom to sin and was fallible, yet when the crunch came, he did not fail. What does it mean to speak of him, as the scriptures do, as being tempted? For a temptation to be a temptation the evil must be more attractive and enticing than the good. This is how temptation, when yielded to, becomes sin. Were the temptations of Jesus genuine? I think so.

 

Jesus was so close to his Father that he at any moment could call on him for help-- “Do you think I cannot call on my Father… (Mt 26:53). He knew that God is not a God far away for “the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him” (Deut 4:7). Jesus had a full relationship with this Father and invites his followers to become one with the Father as he was.

 

The humanity of Jesus is central to understanding God’s salvation. Jesus is our model for the path Godward. He is one of us. He grew up, learned, suffered, resisted temptation, did good, loved, and drew near his God. His life offers us the sure hope of eternal life. God chose to manifest himself through a human made in his Image—a son, a firstborn son.

 

As Son of God/Son of Man, Jesus has been given by God the honor of “bringing many sons to glory.” Jesus is pleased to declares us “my brothers” (Heb 2:10-12).

 

We must reject all attempts to remove Jesus from his common human roots so plainly attested to in the New Testament. The traditions and creeds of orthodoxy that have made of Jesus a preexistent God or spirit oppose the historical evidence preserved in scripture.

 

God called and appointed Jesus his firstborn son, commissioning him to lead all humanity into the Kingdom of God. He is Savior. A man or woman who submits to and does the will of God will partake of the Tree of Life and live forever with God. Jesus has shown us the way. He has passed from death to life, from mortality to immortality and now reigns with his Father. We can look forward to joining Jesus in his Father’s Kingdom. 

 

“The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deut 31:8).

 

These words of Moses were given to Joshua (Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, meaning salvation) as he prepared to lead God’s people into the Promised Land.

 

Jesus, Son of Man, bids us follow him into the Kingdom of God. With the words of Moses Jesus invites us, “Give me your hand and I will help you to victory. That’s the job my Father has given me. I’ve done it and you will too.” Jesus says come to me…learn from me…and you will find rest” (Mt 11:28-30).

 

 

 

 


 

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York, Macmillan, 1943, p. 56.

[2] 1Tim 2:5

[3] John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God, 1973, Westminster Press, p. 53-54.

[4] Ibid, p. 78.