Jesus Christ: a god or just a demi-god?

The answer, of course, is neither.

When the catholic doctrine of the Incarnation is discussed with non-Christians (and sometimes even with fellow Christians), the doctrine is often interpreted as the assertion that Jesus enjoys the status of a demigod. Precisely this charge was raised in the comments under “The Why of God.” I replied that demigodhood was ruled out by the Chalcedonian assertion that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Jesus is not a mythological hybrid being, someone along the lines of Hercules, Achilles, Arjuna, or Percy Jackson. My reply generated the following rejoinder:

Sorry, but that’s the textbook definition of a demigod that we use for all other religions: an entity born of the union of a god and a mortal, one who lived as an human but with the power of the gods in his veins / spirit / heart / whatever.

The more I thought about this comment, the more I realized that this probably represents a common perception, even perhaps among Christians. It’s understandable. Didn’t Jesus heal the blind, turn water into wine, and still the storm? Who but a god could do such things? One might even point to the first chapter of Luke and argue that Jesus was begotten by God, just as Hercules was begotten by Zeus, all the while ignoring the rather obvious fact that the Lukan story pointedly avoids any suggestion of sexual union (see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah). The docetic turn has always been a temptation, and the best theologians and preachers of the Church have regularly striven against it, even while occasionally succumbing to it. So we should not be surprised when we discover that non-Christians believe that we believe that Jesus is a god or demigod.

In 1977 a controversial book was published in Great Britain: The Myth of God Incarnate. I was in seminary at the time and well remember the brouhaha that it caused. Oh the heated and entertaining debates we had in the classroom and refectory! The book prompted an illuminating exchange in the New Blackfriar’s Review (subsequently republished in God Matters) between Herbert McCabe and Maurice Wiles, one of the contributors to the volume.

In his initial review of the book, McCabe complains that the Myth of God Incarnate contributors do not understand the significance of the Chalcedonian attribution of a divine and human nature to Christ. They seem to believe that Godhood and creaturehood exist in a competitive relationship: if God were to unite himself to a creature, then the creature must be displaced, just as if I were to push myself into an already over-crowded room, someone would have to leave. Hence authentic incarnation (God truly becoming a human being and yet remaining God) is quite impossible. He’s one or the other. At the root of the problem, says McCabe, is a “deficient doctrine of God, and this must be partly due to the authors’ omission of a thousand years of hard Christian thinking on the topic [zing!]” (God Matters, p. 59). McCabe elaborates:

With the idea of God as creator, as source of esse (roughly the being of the thing not just over against a world-without-it, but over against nothing, not even ‘logical space’) comes the idea of God as relevant to things precisely in virtue of transcendence. This God cannot be a Top Person summoned to fill the gaps in the natural order; this God must be at the heart of every being, acting in every action (whether determined or free), continually sustaining her creation over against nothing as a singer sustains her song over against silence—and that too is only a feeble metaphor, for even silence presupposes being.

To begin to grasp the Christian notion of God that was hammered out particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is to recognise the crudity and utter irrelevance of Feuerbach’s polarisation of man and God. It may well be the case that the bigger place you give to some non-Christian god the less room is left for man, and vice versa; and interference by the celestial Housemaster may well restrict man’s freedom or compete with him for attention. For the Christian, however, Divinity is creative of man’s freedom, and the more man is himself, the more he is free, the more is the action of God manifest. (pp. 59-60)

Of course Christians do not understand what it means to confess that the eternal Word has assumed human nature in Jesus, just as they do not “understand what it means to say that God created the world or that the consecrated elements are the body and blood of Christ or indeed that God exists or that I am a sinner. The doctrine of the incarnation, like the doctrines of creation or redemption, is not conveying information, it is pointing to a mystery in Jesus” (p. 58).

McCabe then addresses the point upon which we all tend to stumble—namely, the feeling that the doctrine of the Incarnation “ought to tell us what Jesus was like, or what it was like to be Jesus” (p. 58), as if the Chalcedonian Definition is instructing us on what the God-Man must have thought and felt. “Of course it does not,” writes McCabe; “it does not tell us of his life but of the significance of his life. It authorises us to say, for example, because of the life of Jesus, that our God was whipped and spat upon and that God has experienced total failure and death itself (and, incidentally, not to say, as Frances Young  carelessly does, that, in Jesus, God ‘bore the pain and the guilt’ of evil” (p. 58).

McCabe provocatively applies his reasoning to the always controversial question: Exactly what did the God-Man know and when did he know it? He acknowledges that extravagant claims about Jesus’ knowledge have been made by theologians in the past (if Jesus is divine, how could he not know all about quantum mechanics?); but while these claims may have seemed appropriate to St John of Damascus or St Thomas Aquinas, they are not necessarily connected to the dogma of the Incarnation.

People ask, then, did Jesus in Galilee assent to the Chalcedonian definition of himself? And nearly everyone nowadays says: No, he didn’t. He lived in a time before the language of Chalcedon was formulated; he no more accepted this than he accepted Newton’s third law or the theory of surplus value. But what about Jesus’ self-understanding as God? There seems to be an idea that if we once admit (with Chalcedon) that Jesus was divine in Galilee—and hence living not merely in history but in eternity—he must, by the power of his divine nature, have foreseen the propositions of Chalcedon and assented to them. Once again the theological mind boggles. It would have seemed absurd to, for example, to Aquinas, to say that Divinity ever assented to any proposition at all. The idea that Jesus, qua Son of God, constructed some special divinely authorized set of propositions such as the Christian creed is as anthropomorphic as the idea that God has a white beard. Whatever we can mean by speaking of God’s knowledge, we know that it cannot mean that God is well informed, that he assents to a large number of true statements [sorry Richard Swinburne]. Jesus’s knowledge of history, as Son of God, was no difference from the existence of the world; it was not in the same ballgame with what he learnt as man. (pp. 58-59)

Wiles offers a thoughtful response to McCabe’s review, but unfortunately passes over McCabe’s critical claim that divine nature and human nature must not be understood as competitive, mutually exclusive realities, as if they existed on the same metaphysical plane. Jesus might be God or he might be human, but he cannot be both simultaneously. Against all such either/or construals the Council of Chalcedon dogmatically confessed the one Christ, “acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons.”

Wiles does query McCabe’s claim that the incarnational doctrine does not give us information about the historical Jesus, and he asks McCabe to explain why he believes that Jesus is divine.  In his reply, McCabe acknowledges that Christianity would be disproved if Jesus had never lived or if historical scholarship could demonstrate that Jesus’ body had “rotted away in Palestine.” But the Chalcedonian confession, he continues, is not vulnerable to this kind of invalidation, “because it does not assert historical facts either about the behaviour of Jesus or about his inmost psychology” (p. 69).

How then does McCabe justify his belief in the divinity of Jesus?

So long as we are asking historical questions about what Jesus was like, we shall, according to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, come up with answers to the effect that he was a man; not, therefore, an angel or a ‘supernatural visitant’, but a human being like ourselves except in not deceiving himself or playing at being superhuman as we do when we sin. But, of course, we do not simply examine Jesus historically to see what he was like; we listen to him, he established communication and friendship with us, and it is this rapport with Jesus that we explore a different dimension of his existence—rather as when we say that the world is created we are considering a different dimension of it from the one we look at as physicists.

The insight that Jesus is uncreated, that he is divine, is available only to those in whom this rapport is established, to those ‘who have faith in his name’. That is why the Church alone, the community founded on this rapport, is able to pronounce on the divinity of Jesus, as she has done (I would maintain) implicitly in the New Testament (especially in John) and later more explicitly in the conciliar pronouncements. It would, I think, be absurd for a man to say: ‘I’m not a Christian myself, but I do see that Jesus must have been Son of God’.

It is in the contact with the person who is Jesus, in this personal communication between who he is and who I am, that his divinity is revealed in his humanity, not in any way, as it were, [by] clinical, objective examination of him. Any such examination will simply reveal correctly that he is splendidly and vulnerably human. …

Perhaps, for the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate, the incarnation, whether true or false, is interesting because it tells us something about Jesus. For me, however, it is interesting because, if true, it tells me something about God. For you [viz., Wiles], I think, the proposition that Jesus is divine might be (though probably isn’t) the conclusion from a scholarly examination of the texts of the New Testament and related documents. I have tried to show why I think that such an examination outside the context of the believing community never could arrive at such a conclusion. (p. 71)

And here is the answer to the question so often put to us by those outside the Christian faith: “Prove to me that Jesus is divine.” We can’t. Such “proof,” such as it is, is only available to those who have heard the summons of the risen Christ, been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, and now indwell the eucharistic life of the Church.

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2 Responses to Jesus Christ: a god or just a demi-god?

  1. huh? no photo of alexander the great using the predecessor of canon? i’m disappointed…
    by the way, i have fr. brown’s birth of the messiah on my shelf…i need to get around to reading that.


  2. Pingback: Man’s limp “who do I say that he is” and what God calls reliable proof | theology like a child

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