My extensive reading and writing over a number of years have led me to believe that the traditional Jesus of the churches is docetic. This observation is occasionally made by others usually with regard to a particular doctrine, though I am unaware of anyone who has tried to demonstrate the issue in any detail. I believe, however, that the evidence for it is substantial.
Having recently (2013) written an essay entitled Still Docetic in reaction to a book by Professor Bruce Ware entitled The Man Christ Jesus (2013), I remain convinced that the problem is much more deeply rooted than most are aware. In the present essay I attempt to show even if somewhat superficially just how the traditional image of Christ is portrayed in the churches and in the text books.
First, it is often pointed out with reference to Hebrews 2:17 that Jesus was like his brothers in every respect apart from sin. The point being made is that he was a genuine human being. On the face of it this settles the issue: the only difference between Jesus and all his fellow human beings is that he did not sin. This would appear to be supported by such texts as Hebrews 4:15 (cf. 2:14,18) and 1 Peter 2:22. In contrast with Adam and the rest of us, we can say that Jesus was the obedient Son of God. He kept the law to perfection: the rest of us do not.
There is a problem, however. Historically, under the influence of Augustine of Hippo in particular, the church has strongly stressed the ‘Fall’ from original perfection, righteousness and holiness into sin, and this is said to have affected the whole of humanity along with creation in general. All the descendants of Adam are deemed to be sinful even from conception. (1* Cf. Ps. 51:5. This verse is not only frequently mistranslated assuming what needs to be proved, but almost universally misinterpreted by evangelical Christians. The Jews, followed by the Orthodox, have never drawn “Christian” conclusions from it, and with good reason. See further my various articles on original sin.) They are one and all the victims of original sin, sinful by nature and born under a curse. Given this assumption, Jesus too as the Son of Adam (Luke 3:38) through Mary his mother who rejoiced in God her Saviour (Luke 1:47) must have been born sinful. But this is emphatically denied by most Christians, and the Bible itself makes the position clear as we have already seen. However, on the assumption that original sin is true, a Jesus who was sinless at birth and different from all his fellows was clearly not human, and the conclusion we must draw from this is that he was docetic, definitely not like the rest of us. His exception by birth nature inevitably involves his exclusion: as an exception he was excluded from the human race, not genuinely part of it.
The question that confronts us now is: How do we overcome this problem? Tradition tells us that the first Adam was sinless as created and that Jesus replaces him. This, however, ignores the indisputable fact that Jesus had forebears including Adam himself (Luke 3:38) as Matthew 1:1-6, to go no further, indicates. God could not possibly begin again like a potter. To begin again with Jesus he would have to obliterate a substantial portion of previous history as Moses was fully aware (cf. Ex. 32:11-14; Num. 14:13-19). (See note 2 below.) Clearly the answer lies in the fact that the dogma of original sin is contrary to sound doctrine. It simply cannot be true, and the idea that the sin of Adam is either transmitted (Catholics) or imputed (Protestants) is foreign to the Bible. Apostolic teaching informs us that where there is no law there is no sin, that sin involves breaking the law and that moral attributes are not transferable except by faith. As Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31:29f., for example, clearly indicate, they have to be acquired. We become murderers by murdering, adulterers by committing adultery, the slaves of sin by sinning (John 8:34), and so forth. (2* The much-touted idea that we sin because we are sinners by birth nature is clearly false. If we are born sinful in contrast with Adam, then God has made us such and we are blameless. The very idea is blasphemous. It makes God the author of sin. In any case, throughout the Bible God opposes the imputation of sin to those who do not sin, cf. Ex. 23:7; 1 K. 21; Prov. 17:15, etc.) On the one hand we are deemed righteous by keeping the law; on the other hand we are deemed unrighteous by not keeping it. But babies which do not know the law can neither keep it nor disobey it and are consequently innocent like Adam before he sinned by breaking the commandment when it eventually registered on his mind (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f., etc.). In Romans 7:9f. Paul clearly indicates that he recapitulated Adam and Eve’s experience. He was, he claims, once ‘alive’ but when the commandment came and he broke it, though it promised (eternal) life, he earned the wages of death (Rom. 6:23). And so with all of us apart from Jesus (Rom. 3:23; 5:12).
But, it will be said that Jesus was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He was indeed but only by faith. Just as we are justified (deemed righteous) by faith, so he who did not personally sin and earn its wages was accounted sinful by faith. (3* On this, see my An Exact Parallel?) He bore our sins on the tree voluntarily and vicariously. Why? Because in no other way could he save his fellows who all actually and willfully sinned and were doomed to die (Rom. 3:23; 5:12, etc.).
So, I conclude that the ecclesiastical Christ who was not born sinful as the rest of us are said to be is docetic. The only way to overcome the problem that this constitutes is to abandon the dogma of original sin. (4* See further my various articles on original sin including those on imputation) It is not and indeed cannot be true. The creeds, church tradition (apart from the Orthodox) and false exegesis, especially of Romans 5:12-21, have led us astray. A simple syllogism clarifies the situation:
- First premise: According to the churches all human beings are born sinful.
- Second premise: Jesus was not born sinful.
- Therefore Jesus was not a human being.
On the assumption of original sin, I conclude that the ecclesiastical Jesus was docetic, not what he appeared to be.
The New Birth (Regeneration)
Closely associated with the dogma of original sin is the doctrine of regeneration. Perhaps the best known chapter in the Bible is John 3, yet I would argue it is among the worst understood. In verses 1-8 Jesus makes it clear beyond reasonable dispute that the new birth is not an imperative like repentance (Mark 1:15) but a natural necessity (Gk. dei) for all who are flesh. Since his incarnation made him flesh, by inexorable logic we must conclude that Jesus too had to be born again. As Wheeler Robinson once wrote: “… if regeneration be entrance into conscious sonship to God, we must regard regeneration as the normal and ‘natural’ completion of what was begun in the first birth” (p.327). (5* Jesus’ sonship requires brief explication. First, he was the Son of God like Adam by natural (physical) birth, Luke 3:38, cf. Mt. 2:15. Second, as the first and only human being ever to keep the law, in accordance with Leviticus 18:5, cf. Gen. 2:17, etc., and having thereby pleased his Father, he was confirmed as his Son by baptism of the Spirit (= was born again), Mt. 3:13-17. Third, he was further acknowledged as God’s Son at his transfiguration when God bore testimony to him, Mt. 17:1-8; 2 Pet. 1:17, then, fourth, at his resurrection, Acts 13:33. Finally, he was appointed or declared to be the Son of God in power at his ascension transformation, Acts 13:34; Rom. 1:4. Though the latter verse refers to his resurrection, it clearly involves the entire process of resurrection including his exaltation and heavenly session.)
So far as Jesus is concerned this conclusion is to my knowledge universally denied in the church. Why? The answer lies in the fact that quite unwarrantably the sin-obsessed Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to fashion church tradition, claimed that the new birth provided the cure for original sin, and since Jesus was not its victim, he did not need to be born again. As a consequence of this, anyone brave or rash enough to suggest that Jesus needed to be born again is immediately but quite wrongly accused of charging Jesus with sin! Yet if Jesus himself was truly flesh (note v.3) the ‘obvious’ truth is that he was born again at his baptism. It was he who in contrast with all his sinful forebears (1 K. 8:46; Eccl. 7:20, etc.) who brought life to light (2 Tim. 1:10).
As we have seen above, however, original sin is alien to the Bible. In fact, all human beings recapitulate the experience of their forebears of whom Adam and Eve were the first. In other words, we all begin at the beginning and mutatis mutandis recapitulate the history of the race. (Only the other day I heard on TV that this is one of the findings of modern geneticists!) Just as Adam lacking all knowledge of the law (commandment) was created knowing neither good nor evil, so are all his descendants (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.). Genesis 5:1-3 says nothing about sin and the notion that we are all created in the moral image of Adam (not to mention that of God) after he had sinned is simply false (cf. e.g. Ezek. 18, etc.). The fact is that original sin is a mythical not a real problem, a veritable mare’s nest which has led to all sorts of unnecessary and erroneous speculation about the Virgin Birth. In reality, Jesus did not avoid original sin by being born of a virgin – a solution which when subjected to critical analysis proves both false and inadequate. As the Son of God he simply did not sin and thereby proved his divine pedigree. He was, in common parlance, a chip off the old block, a true Son of his Father. If he had sinned, he would have proved an impostor.
Having said this, however, we must hastily add that as the Son of Mary he was made in Adam’s fleshly image (Luke 3:38) and as such he needed to be born again as a natural necessity. As a true human being he was in contrast with his Father both mortal and corruptible (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16, etc.). He had a natural or created spirit (cf. Num. 16:22; Zech. 12:1, etc.), but to enter the kingdom of heaven he had to have an eternal one of which God was the Father (John 1:12f.; Heb. 12:9). How, it may well be asked, did he acquire this? The answer is that he did it by keeping the law that all the rest of us failed to do. At the beginning, Adam was promised eternal life if he kept the commandment (Gen. 2:17). He failed. By contrast Jesus kept that commandment, indeed the entire law of Moses, and so inherited life in accordance with the promise (cf. Lev. 18:5). Prior to him no one, on account of sin (1 K. 8:46; Eccl. 7:20, etc.), was born again, and throughout the OT regeneration remained a promise which was never fulfilled (Dt. 29:4; 30:6; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:19f.). Jesus as the second Adam was the first to be born from above as his baptism makes plain. He was the leader of the band, of the new or regenerate humanity (cf. Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, etc.). Only he was in a position to establish the new covenant by his death. Had he not been born again, he would have remained forever under the law and under a permanent obligation to keep it. In this situation he would have been incapable of doing good works as opposed to works of obligation (Eph. 2:10; Acts 10:38), least of all of atoning for the sins of his fellows. As the author of Hebrews says, the law could not perfect anything (Heb. 7:18f.).
I conclude then that a Jesus who on his own testimony regarding the flesh (John 3:1-8) was not born again was not truly human. Though he apparently failed to appreciate the logic of his assertion, Louis Berkhof was dead right when he wrote regarding the new birth in John 3:3, cf. vv.5-7: “This statement of the Saviour is absolute and leaves no room for exceptions” (p.472). The Bible implies, even if it does not explicitly state, that Jesus was born again; but the churches traditionally deny it. The plain truth is that a once-born Jesus is not and cannot be our elder brother (Heb. 2:11-13) and trail-blazer into heaven (Heb. 6:19f.; 9:24; 10:19f.; 12:2, etc.). On this assumption, he is, like Adam, dead, permanently so as we shall see below, and we are still in our sins.
Jesus’ Fleshly Corruption and Transformation
Traditionally, following Augustine, the churches attribute both moral and physical corruption to sin. (6* Older writers like Ottley apparently attribute Jesus’ fleshly corruption to sin. He writes: “Christ is ‘flesh’, is ‘man’, morally such as he originally was, but physically such as sin has left him, i.e. subject to creaturely weakness, pain, temptation, and death, but sinless”, p.100, cf. pp.105,115.) But is this what the Bible teaches? Emphatically not. First, we must acknowledge the fact that Adam was created from the physically visible, temporary, provisional and hence corruptible earth (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). This being the case he himself in contrast with his Maker was naturally mortal and corruptible. As we saw above, as such he was promised (eternal) life on condition that he kept the commandment. He did not, and so he died being paid the wages of sin. And the rest of us, Jesus apart, followed suit (Rom. 3:23; 5:12, etc.).
However, what would have happened to Adam if had not sinned? Jesus, the second Adam provides us with the answer. First, as we have seen, he did not sin, pleased his Father and so was born again (= gained eternal life). But this was a spiritual rebirth not a physical one as Nicodemus seemed to think. Second, this prompts questions regarding our physical flesh. Some even in the twenty-first century apparently believe that it can be transformed despite the fact that Paul dogmatically denies that flesh and blood and all that is perishable by nature can inherit the kingdom of God. They base their argument on the putative transformation resurrection of Jesus from the grave. This is clearly false. If Jesus was transformed at that point, his perishable flesh would have been imperishable and this contradicts Paul’s plain assertion in 1 Corinthians 15:50b. (7* On this, see, for example, my John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus, When Was Jesus Transformed?, etc.)
The truth is that the flesh, like the earth from which it is taken, is perishable or corruptible by nature (creation) as the entire animal creation implies. If it had a beginning, it will also have an end. Thus it is that according to Paul transformation is a natural necessity intended, in fact ordained by God and integral to his plan of salvation (Gk. dei, 1 Cor. 15:53, cf. John 3:7). So Jesus who was flesh and in contrast with his Father grew older (Luke 2:42; 3:23; John 8:57, cf. Mt. 5:36; Heb. 1:11f.) had consequently to be changed even though he was not a sinner. And this change according to Paul must have taken place at his ascension. Indeed, just as he was the first to be born again, so he was the first to be corporeally changed (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). (8* Superficially considered, Enoch and Elijah in the OT seem to be exceptions. It is important to realize however, that nothing is said of their receiving a body of glory like that of Jesus, Phil. 3:21. As Hebrews 11:39f. indicate, their perfection both spiritual and corporeal still awaits them.)
All this brings under suspicion the still widespread Augustinian idea that creation was originally perfect but was cursed when Adam “fell” and lost his putative original righteousness and immortality. If the sinless Jesus was corruptible and subject to aging, then the corruptibility of creation must be natural, nothing whatsoever to do with sin. It is vital to note that Paul claims that even though Jesus was truly flesh and hence subject to death and corruption, having abolished death he brought to light both life and incorruption (Gk.) (2 Tim. 1:10. In other words, Jesus uniquely met the conditions of life and incorruption.) While the ecclesiastical Jesus has been regarded as God, he has failed to be truly appreciated as man who by nature needed to be born again and transformed. (9* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities, Death and Corruption.) Whereas with the old or unregenerate man the natural precedes the spiritual, with the new or regenerate man the spiritual precedes the supernatural or incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:46-49). If Jesus had not been born again and changed, as naturally corruptible flesh he would eventually have died or disappeared (cf. Heb. 8:13).
A story from classical mythology illustrates the point I am making:
The goddess Aurora fell in love with the beautiful Tithon and carried him away. He requested immortality and that was granted him. Unfortunately he forgot to ask for incorruption with the result that he gradually grew old, decrepit and began to fade (cf. 1 Pet. 1:3f.). So, since he could not die, he requested to be removed from the world. The goddess then turned him into a cicada or grasshopper.
The difference between this and the teaching of the Bible ought to be plain to all. As man, then, though Jesus never earned the wages of death, he was inevitably growing old (Luke 2:42; 3:23; John 8:57, cf. Mt. 5:36). But as the regenerate Son of God who had kept the law, the condition of eternal life, he was transformed as a natural necessity (1 Cor. 15:53) at his ascension to inherit the holy and sure (eternal) blessings of David (Acts 13:34). Thus he received the powers delegated to him by his Father as the Lamb who sits at the right hand of God (Mt. 11:27; 28:18; Rom. 1:4; Rev. 5).
Traditional ecclesiastical theology contends in accordance with the Chalcedonian Creed that at his incarnation the Word never gave up his divine nature. Despite the explicit biblical assertions that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37, etc.) and that the eternal Word who was God became flesh (John 1:14) and emptied himself (Phil. 2:7), the reason given for this is that it was impossible. This idea doubtless stems from Greek philosophy (which thought of God as an immutably transcendent and impassible monad) and can only mean that he never truly became man. Bluntly, Chalcedon is a denial of the incarnation, for no one person can at one and the same time have two natures. (10* Just how a body of flesh could contain the divine nature even in the womb, cf. the theotokos or mother of God idea, is not merely incomprehensible but plainly impossible. If God’s incommunicable attributes by definition are not granted to men in general, how could they be to Jesus who was one with his fellows, Heb. 2:10-13, etc.? Col. 1:19 and 2:9 describe the situation in heaven and refer to Christ’s transformed body of glory. Compare John 17:5,24; Phil. 3:21. Note also that when Jesus returns he will do so in his own and in the glory of God, Mt. 16:27, etc.) However, Jesus himself while strongly stressing the fact that it is the humble who will be exalted (Mt. 23:11f., etc.) even goes so far as to describe himself as gentle and lowly in heart (Mt. 11:29). The evidence of his life and death supports this to the hilt. He who was originally exalted in his divine nature freely humbled himself and became man (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9). Even in that condition he humbled himself still further and so was finally exalted in his humanity (Phil. 2:5-11). His life reflects both correspondence and violent contrast with the characters alluded to in Ezekiel 28-32 (cf. Luke 1:52).
Lower Than the Angels
But this matter can be taken even further. For example, it is said that Jesus was made for a little while lower than the angels (Heb. 2:7,9). If he retained his divine nature as their Creator he was always and forever superior to the angels and not for a little while lower. And it follows from this that since he never underwent true humiliation, he was never exalted. But Scripture insists that he was both humbled and exalted. In other words, while the Bible clearly teaches that he became man and as such was humbled (e.g. Phil. 2:7), it also teaches that in that condition he was further humbled and on that account was exalted as Lord (Phil. 2:9-11, cf. Acts 2:33,36). Thus it was as man that he was crowned with glory and honour (Heb. 2:9; Rev. 5:12f., cf. Rom. 2:7,10; 1 Pet. 1:7) and as the firstborn received the worship of the angels (Heb. 1:6). In this way he regained as man the glory that he had had as the eternal Word who was with God and was God (John 17:5).
So while the eternal Word retained his identity and remained God in person (2 Cor. 5:19-21), he nonetheless changed his nature by divesting himself of his divine non-communicable attributes. For example, in the days of his flesh (Heb. 5:7), he clearly lacked divine omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, incorruptibility, immortality and eternity. As a true human being he was wholly dependent on his heavenly Father apart from whom he could do nothing (John 5:19, cf. 15:5). (11* On this see e.g. Berkouwer, pp.185ff.) To become man he could do no less. This would appear to be the point Paul is making in Philippians 2:5-11 (cf. 1 John 1:1-3).
The Glory of Jesus
This raises yet another point for in John 17:24 it is implied that Jesus’ glory, which he prays his people will see, will be evident only in heaven (cf. Rev. 5; 22:4). This deals the death blow to those who claim that he was transformed and glorified at his resurrection from the grave when he was physically visible and hence still impermanent by nature (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18). Indeed, after his resurrection Jesus goes out of his way to stress his fleshly nature (Luke 24:39; John 20:28f.; Acts 10:41) and that he had not yet ascended (and by implication been transformed, John 20:17). Truly, as Paul indicates, he could not in this state inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50).
If the eternal Word had retained his divine nature during his incarnation, it is difficult to see, first, that he was truly man, and second, that as such how he could receive his inheritance, the sure or eternal blessings of David (Acts 13:34, cf. Rom. 1:3f.). In any case, if he was still God both in person and in nature, he did not require an inheritance. As the eternal Word equal with God he was already the owner of everything (Ps. 24; John 1:11, compare Gal. 4:1). But Paul tells us that as the Son of God he was the heir and we ordinary human beings are joint-heirs with him (Rom. 8:17, cf. Mark 12:7; Luke 22:25-30). It is as perfected man, the first-born of all creation (Col.1:15), the Lamb of God who sits at God’s right hand (Rev. 5:13) that Jesus inherits everything and becomes Lord of all. He was the antitype of Joseph who became lord of all Egypt with the exception of Pharaoh himself (Gen. 45:10,26).
If it is hard to appreciate Jesus as the heir assuming he had retained his divine nature during his sojourn on earth, it is also hard to understand why so much is made of his delegated powers. As the eternal Word he was God and as such he exercised divine sovereignty (see John 1:1-4; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1). As man, however, he is clearly subordinate and his purpose is to do the will of his Father in heaven (John 4:34; 8:29; 17:4, etc.) and not to please himself (Rom. 15:3). It is clearly as man then that he is said to be Lord and to exercise the powers normally attributed to God (cf. Mt. 11:27; John 5:26, etc.). As the one who had been baptized by the Spirit and acknowledged and confirmed as the Son of God not simply ontologically but functionally, he was in a position to receive and exercise the power to forgive sin, to be worshipped, to perform miracles (signs in John), to serve as judge (John 5:22) and to distribute the (gifts of) the Spirit. These things were granted to him by his Father but were wholly unnecessary, even superfluous, if he had retained his divine nature and not become incarnate. If the latter were the case, he would have acted on his own account (cf. Jud. 6:31, 1 K. 18:21,24-26) even if in inter-Trinitarian agreement. It is surely as man, the Lamb in fact in the book of Revelation, that he is seen to take his seat at God’s right hand (Rev. 3:21, cf. Rom. 1:4)
It is widely held in the churches that Jesus was the eternal Son of God, that is, that he was God’s Son even in his pre-existence before his incarnation. If this is true, then he was never truly (equal with) God (John 1:1; Phil. 2:6) but inherently, that is, in essence a subordinate being. Apart from the fact that this derogates from his humiliation so powerfully stressed in the NT, there are all sorts of problems attaching to this view which need more space to develop than I have here. (See at greater length, however, my essay Still Docetic, referred to above.) Suffice it to say, it is not taught in the Bible as even some of its advocates concede. It would appear to be a false inference drawn from what is called the projectionist language both the Bible writers and we ourselves all use from time to time. Scripture tells us plainly that prior to his birth of Mary Jesus was the eternal Word, equal with God, indeed God. The doctrine of the Trinity itself is at issue here.
Son of Man
Jesus’ usual self-designation was that of the Son of Man. His meaning has been much disputed and cannot be reasonably dealt with here. On the assumption that the title derives from Daniel 7:13f., rather than, say, from Ezekiel, references such as Matthew 24:30 and 26:64 make admirable sense. Jesus the man is to return transformed, we are told, in his own and in his Father’s glory (Mt. 16:27; Luke 9:26). Jesus the man is not merely King of the Jews (Mt. 27:37, etc.) but the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14; 19:16).
The Glorification of Man
The glorification of man in general is surely dependent on his union with and the glorification of Jesus as man. It could occur in no other way. If the eternal Word had remained God in nature as well as in person (John 1:1-3, cf. 1 John 1:1-3), it is more than a little difficult to see how man could be glorified as man and gain access to the presence of God (cf. Eph. 2:18; Rev. 3:21). Jesus who as man was our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) was also our pioneer as the author of Hebrews is at pains to stress (2:10; 5:9; 6:19f.; 10:19f.; 12:2). He was made for a little while lower than the angels to win salvation and glory as man. And it is as man that we shall see his glory in accordance with his promise (John 17:24, cf. 14:9; 20:28f.). To suggest that he did not divest himself (Phil. 2:7, ekenosen) of his divine nature in order to become man makes the idea of his humiliation followed by his development or perfection through incarnation, regeneration and exaltation a charade. How different is the picture painted by John (3:13; 6:62; 16:28, etc.)!
The letter to the Hebrews in particular (though note John 17) depicts Jesus as our heavenly high priest (8:1-7). Since priests are representative men (like the Levites) who mediate and intercede on behalf of other men before God (Heb. 5:1f.), as God become man Jesus is the perfect mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) and high priest after the order of Melchizedek who ever lives to intercede for his people (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:15f.). Having equipped himself to perform these vital roles through incarnation (Heb. 2:14), personal experience (Heb. 2:17f.) and exaltation, we cannot but rejoice. He meets our need ideally. (How different he is from Allah who apparently acts by mere power!)
It can be argued that no one who performed the kind of miracles that Jesus performed could be performed by anyone who lacked the nature of God (though note John 3:2; 9:16,33). But this fails to reckon with the fact that others, like Elijah who James reminds us had a nature like ours (5:17), even in the OT performed miracles. And just as they attributed their miracles to the power of God at work through them, so does Jesus (e.g. John 5:17,19,20,20, etc.). If Jesus was truly God’s Son then, as his Father, God would testify to (see e.g. Mt. 17:1-8, cf. 1 Pet.1:17) and honour him (John 12:28, etc.) and even raise him from the dead. This is the picture presented in the NT. Jesus as man is God in person but as a human being while lacking the nature of God he is nonetheless empowered by him (cf. John 5:17). In heaven at his Father’s right hand he exercises all the prerogatives of deity (Mt. 28:18). The unity between God and man (John 10:30; 17:22, cf. 1:14; Rev. 3:21) culminates or attains its apogee at this point.
Nothing is more clear than the teaching that in eternity Jesus was the eternal Word, equal with God (John 1:1; Phil. 2:6), but who became man (John 1:14) in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4). The churches, however, ruled apparently, as was mentioned above, by a Greek philosophical principle emphasizing the immutable transcendence of God deny that he changed his nature. If this is the case, how is it that he who was originally equal with God and according to Paul ‘emptied’ himself (Phil. 2:7) is presented to us as permanently subordinate to God even in heaven (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The answer must lie in the fact that in his love and humility he freely became one of us and in so doing humbled himself to death on the cross to save us (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 2:9). In this way he revealed and manifested the loving character of our God in the most radical way possible. No wonder the Roman soldier at the foot of the cross said of Jesus that he was the Son of God and that Doubting Thomas after subjecting him to meticulous physical examination acknowledged him as God (John 20:28, cf. 14:9; 1 John 1:1-3). To say this, however, forces us to infer that if Jesus could be called God while still in the flesh, he was so in person but manifestly not in nature.
One of the more obvious differences between the OT and the NT is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is only in the NT that Jesus, himself the Son of God born of Mary, teaches his disciples to call God Father. The Trinity is a NT revelation only made possible by the incarnation. This necessitated a change in relationship whereby God became Father and the Word became Son. This reaches the heart of the love and humility which radiates from new covenant doctrine.
Who Is Jesus?
So, then, who is Jesus? My brief answer to this question is that he is the eternal Word made man, approved by God (Mt. 3:17; 17:5; Acts 2:22, cf. 10:38) and perfected in the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3, cf. Mt. 5:48). It is he before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of the Father. It is he who sits at God’s right hand, and it is to his image that we as his fellow (adopted) sons (Heb. 2:10-13) and co-heirs (Rom. 8:17) will be conformed (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) and glorified (Rom. 8:30; Phil. 3:21; Rev. 3:21).
Without going further, I conclude then that the Chalcedonian or ecclesiastical Jesus of the churches is sadly distorted. Traditional Christology is in effect a denial of the incarnation. As the eternal Word Christ remains for ever God in person and can do no other. As such, however, in his humiliation freely undertaken in demonstration of the love of God (cf. Fee, p.384), he was made man the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). Having in love and humility changed his nature to become the Son of God at his incarnation (John 1:14; Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6f.), he remains for ever man even after his ascension transformation and exaltation to the right hand of his Father. And though all things are slowly but surely being subjected to him (cf. Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 2:5-10), he himself will be finally subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him so that God may ultimately be all in all (1 Cor. 15:27f.).
If God really is the Creator, the author of all life (Acts 17:25; 1 Tim. 6:13) and universal redeemer (1 John 2:2), nothing less can be expected (cf. Neh. 9:6; Acts 17:24-28; Phil. 2:9-11; Rev. 4 & 5; 22:1-5, etc.).
Soli Deo Gloria
It is strange that evangelicals seem to be more concerned with the deity than the humanity of Jesus (see, for example, God Became Man, A.M.Stibbs, The Truth of God Incarnate, ed. Michael Green.) Apparently, this was not so in the early church when his deity was more readily accepted. It was doubtless for this reason that John, like Paul (Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Tim. 2:5), so strongly stresses the Word’s coming in the flesh and reprobates those who deny it (John 1:1-18; 1 John 1:1-3; 4:2; 2 John 7). Of course, the very idea that God could become flesh (human) was as intolerable to the Jews in apostolic times as it is to both Jews and Muslims today (2013). But that is surely what the New Testament teaches (cf. John 17:3).
If we assume the eternal generation of the Son, it is difficult to see how Jesus could become man at all since as such he was changeless. On the other hand, the assumption that he became the Son of God at his incarnation permanently undermines the idea of original and hence birth sin. Why? Because if Jesus had sinful ancestors through his mother (cf. Rom. 1:3; Mt. 1:1-6, etc.), he must have inherited their sin or he was not human. To overcome this problem he would have had to make a new beginning but to do so would mean the destruction of God’s earlier plan of salvation as Moses recognized in Exodus 32:11-14 and Numbers 14:11-19. Of course, since we have incontrovertible evidence that he was born sinless, we are forced to conclude that original sin as propounded by Augustine is false. This is further proved by references such as Deuteronomy 1:39, 1 Kings 3:7,9, Isaiah 7:15f. and Hebrews 5:13f. Furthermore, if Israelite babies were born sinners, on what basis were they differentiated from their fathers? In contrast with them who died in the wilderness, how did they come to enter and inherit the Promised Land (Num. 14:31; Dt. 1:39)? The plain fact is that like Adam, Eve and Paul (Rom. 7:9f., cf. 9:11), babies are born innocent because they do not know the law and so cannot break it (Rom. 4:15, etc.). In truth, we all begin at the beginning and each individual to the extent that he/she gains maturity recapitulates the history of the race as the father of theology, Irenaeus, taught (cf. Heb. 2). Jesus not only recapped to perfection first Adamic history, but as the second Adam he inaugurated and ‘precapitulated’ regenerate or kingdom life, died for his sinful fellows (cf. 1 John 2:2), and blazed a trail for all who follow him into heaven itself (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 6:19f.; 10:19f.; 12:2, cf. Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 15:50-55).
L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, London, 1959.
G.C.Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, Grand Rapids, 1954.
Gordon D.Fee, Pauline Christology, Peabody, 2007.
Michael Green, ed., The Truth of God Incarnate, London, 1977.
R.L.Ottley, The Doctrine of the Incarnation, London, 4th ed. Rev. 1908.
A.M.Stibbs, God Became Man, London, 1957.
B.Ware, The Man Christ Jesus, Wheaton, 2013.
H.Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man, Edinburgh, 1911.