On this site, I will rarely post on topics that are unrelated to the explanation, motivation or defense of The Placebic View. However, I am making a small exception to address an important Christian doctrine that will be ubiquitous this Christmas season: the divinity and humanity of Christ. This doctrine has the potential to be deeply comforting. Unfortunately, the common teaching and understanding of this doctrine is not. Therefore, I am writing this post in the hopes of restoring comfort (and intelligibility) to what has become a comfortless (and unintelligible) doctrine.
Around this time of year, we will be inundated with the reminder that Jesus, The Holy One born of the virgin Mary, was wholly God and wholly man (or, as it is sometimes said, “100% God and 100% man”). But, what are we suppose to make of this confusing reminder? The Common Understanding is this: There is a kind of thing, humanness, which is wholly defined by a set of human-making properties, and there is a kind of thing, divinity, which is wholly defined by a set of divine-making properties, and Jesus was wholly members of both of these kinds; or, to put it roughly, Jesus had all the human-making and divine-making properties in such a way that He satisfied, perfectly, both humanity and divinity…somehow.
I, however, believe that those who object to the intelligibility of such a doctrine, understood in the aforementioned, “somehow” way, may be correct. For, what other examples can we point to in order to demonstrate what that being whose name was “Jesus” was like? What examples do we have of one thing being two different kinds of things, in such a way that its being one of those kinds of things does not entail that it is also one of other kinds of things (where the two different kinds of things that this one thing is suppose to be are deeply ontological and not merely, say, functional, and where the two alleged kinds of things that this one thing is suppose to be isn’t really a single, new kind of thing altogether). I don’t know of any. I know of things that are two kinds of things, like Chevy Camaros, that are both cars and Camaros. But, if something is a Camaro, then it must also be a car. I also know of things that are both firemen and fathers. But, these sorts of things are not deeply ontological (the irreducible things that constitute reality). For, one is a member of the kind fireman or the kind father not in virtue of their essence (in virtue of what they are) but merely in virtue of their standing in certain external relations (in virtue of how they are). I also know of things that are both phones and web-surfing devices. But, this isn’t exactly right. For, it would be more precise to say that I know of things that can both make calls and access the internet. And, artifacts, like phones, watches and ships aren’t deeply ontological. So, none of these examples satisfy the criterion of a dual nature, like Jesus is suppose to have. And, I am not sure that there are any.
But, even if I am wrong about this, i.e., even if there are things with a dual nature that we can point to in order to help us understand Jesus’s dual nature, I think that there still remains a better way to understand what it meant for Jesus to be wholly God and wholly man. For, I don’t just believe that the aforementioned understanding of Jesus’s humanity and divinity (what we are calling “The Common Understanding”) is wrongheaded, I also believe that it is existentially empty and unsatisfying. For, people who acquire such an understanding of Jesus’s ontological constitution believe in a Jesus who they are highly doubtful that they can relate to. “Sure,” they think, “Jesus was human, like me, BUT He wasn’t JUST human like me, He was also God. And, I have been taught that God is higher than me in every respect imaginable. So, how could Jesus possibly be anything like me? Really? Surely, Jesus’s divinity must somehow trump his humanity. And, if so, how could He relate to me? Or, how could I relate to Him?” Doubts of this sort have a way of robbing Jesus of all His perceived humanity, whatever that may be. And, when this happens, what is left for us to relate to? The mere appearance of humanity? If this is true, why should we think that we can relate to anything that Jesus may have experienced during His earthly life, whether that be His apparent pain, temptation, joy, fears or doubts, things that we experience in very much a human and, for all we know, non-divine way. So, in light of the intellectual and existential deficiencies of The Common Understanding, I want to spend the remainder of this post elucidating another way to understand what it means for Jesus to be be wholly God and wholly man, a way that I think is both intellectually and existentially satisfying.
Let’s begin with the doctrine that Jesus is God. What do we mean by this? Do we mean that Jesus is identical to God? No, we do not (this is not controversial). For, if we did, then we would have to reject the Trinity, as, if we also believe that the Father and the Holy Spirit are identical to God, then we would get the result that each divine person is identical to God and, as a consequence, each other. Thus, all divine persons would collapse into one divine person. And, this is not what we want (for reasons that you can investigate elsewhere). So, when we affirm that Jesus is God, we are not affirming that Jesus is identical to God. And, for reasons stated above, we should not be affirming, at least primarily, as The Common Understanding does, that Jesus has all the essential properties of the divine kind. But, what’s left?
According to the Trinitarian understanding of God, God is a tri-personed being. So, when we affirm that Jesus is God, we should be affirming, according to Trinitarian theology, that Jesus is one of the persons that constitute the being of God. And, here we have something that is very helpful in our making sense of the doctrine that Jesus is wholly God and wholly human. For, here we are affirming not just that Jesus is a certain kind of thing: a person, but rather that Jesus is some particular person, namely, that same person from whom, through whom and to whom are all things. So, according to Trinitarian theology, we mustn’t affirm that Jesus is God in virtue of His being a certain kind of thing. In other words, we mustn’t affirm that Jesus is God in virtue of his exemplifying some set of divine properties, properties that constitute the divine essence, whatever those may be. Rather, we need affirm no more than the following: Jesus is wholly God in virtue of His being the very same person for whom, through whom and to whom are all things. And, since there is nothing about personhood that is incompatible with humanity, we have removed the intellectual barriers to the doctrine that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Jesus was fully human in virtue of this having all those human-making properties and Jesus was fully God in virtue of His being Jesus, the second person of the triune Godhead.
But, what about the existential problems that are a result of The Common Understanding? How should we understand what it is like to be The Incarnate Son of God? I offer that Christians do know what it is like to be The Incarnate Son of God, at least to a a very significant degree. For, Christians know what it is like to be human and Jesus was a human person. Now, I can imagine that many will be hesitant of such a relatable view of Jesus. For, they will compare the miracle-filled life of Jesus with their own life-experience and conclude that Jesus’s life is unrelatable. And, if His life is unrelatable it must be in virtue of His divinity, i.e. it must be in virtue of His divine-making properties. However, we mustn’t conclude this. While, we may conclude that Jesus’s miracle-filled life is in virtue of divine power, we mustn’t conclude that this divine power resided in The Incarnate Son of God as a consequence of His being wholly God. Rather, we can conclude that any non-human powers or knowledge that Jesus may have enjoyed were given to Him in much the same way that the Holy Spirit empowered and communicated with the prophets of old.
But, someone may say:
If we grant that the Jesus of the gospels was fully God in virtue of who He was and not what He was and that He did all of His miracles not in virtue of His own power but in virtue of the Holy Spirit’s, then we are still left with the question: In virtue of what does the Holy Spirit empower people to do the miraculous? It seems that, at some point, we must acknowledge that the power to perform miracles is essentially associated with divinity. And, if so, then either Jesus had this power and was divine in virtue of having it or Jesus lacked this power and was not divine in virtue of not having it. Thus, The Common Understanding is unavoidable: There is a set of essential, divine-making properties and Jesus could not have been fully God if He lacked them.
In response, maybe there is some set of properties essential to divinity, properties that no divine person could lack and still be worthy of the name “God”. In fact, on one understanding, there probably. For, we could consider the property of being identical to either the Father, Son or Holy Spirit an essential property for divinity. And, if so, then there is a set of properties that defines divinity in a way consistent with The Common Understanding. But, this understanding isn’t the best way to comprehend The Common Understanding. The Common Understanding is grounded in the idea that there is a lot more to being divine than merely being identical to some person. But, why think this? Why think that things like maximal knowledge, maximal power and the like must be counted among them? In other words, why think that even if Jesus was identical to The Second Person of the Trinity, that if The Incarnate Son of God wasn’t, say, omniscient that He wouldn’t be worthy of the name “God.” It seems that one’s justification for such knowledge would necessarily depend upon revelation and I have yet to find the scripture that unequivocally reveals which properties are essential for divinity tout court. Moreover, one might believe, and believe that they have good reason to believe, that any divine property must be an essential property. But, this understanding couldn’t get us very far in discovering the complete list of properties that are essential to divinity. For, we are going to run into what we might call the problem of generalization. Accordingly, we couldn’t just consider the power and wisdom that it must have taken God to create the world and conclude that each divine person must have this much power and this much wisdom essentially. For, we shouldn’t conclude more than the evidence gives us; and, all the evidence gives us is that each non-incarnate, divine-person has such and such power and such and such knowledge. So, while power and knowledge should be associated with divinity. There is nothing that says that these properties are essential to divinity.
In conclusion, there is a lot that is unclear when it comes to God’s essence or nature. But, what is clear is this: Jesus is worthy of the name “God” if and only if He was the same person for whom, through whom and to whom are all things. If He was the same person, then He is worthy of the name “God” and He is so regardless of what other properties He may or may not have had. Divinity is grounded in personhood, three persons: the person of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.