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hand of God

Truly God truly human

hand of GodWe’ve been discussing the story here recently: mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, reporting for the Daily Planet, in the city of Metropolis, is really Superman pretending to be a weak, ordinary human being like me; but really he has come to this planet from out there and with his superpowers he will save us all from evil.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the Virgin Mary
and became fully human.

The Creed “sounds like Superman to me”, you might rightly say. God, it seems to say, (and it lays it on thick: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made,”) God comes down to earth and the mild-mannered carpenter working in the backwater of Nazareth is really God pretending to be a weak, ordinary human being like me, but really he has come to this planet from out there and with his superpowers he will save us all from evil.

Clark Kent Jesus, pretends not to be able to do complicated differential calculus, he pretends not to be able to do the programming required for an iPhone 5, and he pretends he doesn’t know exactly what will happen next – but in fact we all know Clark Kent Jesus, knows everything and can do everything.

Except … Christian orthodoxy is clear: that is false.

The Creed at Nicaea (325) has “and became fully human” (my emphasis) καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα. [The 1988 English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC) version: “and became truly human”.]

But wait – there’s more! The Council of Chalcedon (451) declared (hold onto your hats):

…our Lord Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, of one substance with the Father according to the Godhead, and of one substance with us according to the humanity; in all things like unto us,

to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the unity, but rather the property of each nature being preserved…

OK. I’ll translate that into English. Jesus – read my lips – Jesus is exactly as human as you and I are. There is no secret trapdoor to some sort of God bit of him. Jesus couldn’t do differential calculus, he couldn’t speak English, and he would have freaked out like everyone else if Dr Who appeared with an iPhone 5. Jesus is fully human. FULLY human.

Nicaea and Chalcedon also declare that Jesus is fully God. Now – if this man, this real human being making tables, chairs, and carts in Nazareth 2,000 years ago actually is God – then maybe, just maybe, that changes what we mean by the word “God”.

This is the eighth post in a series on the Creed.

The first is Apostles’ Creed.
The second is I believe in God.
The third is a source of the Apostles’ Creed.
The fourth is I believe in the Father.
The fifth is Handing over the Creed.
The sixth is I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son
The seventh is Don’t use the creed in worship

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26 thoughts on “Truly God truly human”

  1. A couple of questions…

    1. Are you saying that Jesus had no foreknowledge, or just that He didn’t exercise complete foreknowledge of all things? (It seems to me from the Gospels that He knew He was to be crucified, die, and rise again, and return to the Father bodily.)

    2. Per your last paragraph, how do you propose this changes what we mean by “God”?

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. I stand in the tradition of Chalcedonian orthodoxy that any foreknowledge he had and taught Jesus did so in and through his full humanity. Are you suggesting that there are not humans who can “see the writing on the wall” and know the inevitable consequences of actions? In the case of Jesus I also think there was a strong element of his handing himself over, at least in the Gospel accounts. As for “return to the Father bodily” – let’s leave that ’till later in this series on the Creed. And for your (2) a brief start would be to question the Aristotelian deity many still image. Blessings.

      1. And, of course, some kind of Spirit-fuelled prophetic knowledge is not incompatible with full humanity. As evidenced by, well, pretty much all the prophets!

      2. Jesus has full and perfect humanity. Jesus isn’t just completely human, he is FULLY human, “human” in its full essence.

        And Jesus’ foreknowledge goes beyond mere knowledge of inevitability. He knew people’s thoughts, He knew who believed in Him and who didn’t, and who would deny or betray Him (and under what circumstances). He knew Lazarus was already dead, etc.

        The distinction between the divinity and humanity in Jesus, defined at Chalcedon, does not preclude Jesus, in His humanity, benefiting from His divinity.

    1. Sorry, Steve?! I’m certainly missing the part where I’m missing that. Maybe you skimmed the post, and missed the parts like “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.” Blessings.

    1. Robert W M Greaves

      I’ve always thought that after angels, a Virgin Birth, Magi, shepherds, strange dreams, and the king trying to kill the baby, by this point they would have been beyond being surprised by anything.

  2. Julianne Stewart

    Thank you for reminding us of this Bosco. I also find books like Frank Anderson MSC’s ‘Jesus: Our Story’ useful for gaining a better understanding of how Jesus does challenge our traditional understanding of God. Anderson’s thesis is that through knowing Jesus as the human face of God we can begin to understand how, as Jesus’ fellow humans, we too can strive to be the ‘heart of God on earth’.

    Far from Jesus’ full humanity limiting the nature of Jesus, it rather gives us a greatly expanded vision of God, and it greatly empowers us in the possibilities of our own humanity.

  3. I think you’ve touched on the most widespread heresy of them all. Thanks. This is a great series you have been running.
    Lou Poulain

  4. My brain seems to work in weird ways. It’s just taken a complete sidetrack and is imagining a conversation between Dr Who and Jesus. 🙂

    A great thought provoking post as usual Bosco.

  5. Brian Poidevin

    I am responding to this post rather late as I have been thinking on it and wondering if there is anything more to say. Then only this morning I came upon an essay that great American writer, Marilynne Robinson, wrote around the Bible for the NY Times 2011. Your last question “What do we mean by the word God?” is one that is hung with me for years. Important to me as I ponder this has been the book of Job. Robinson puts into words what I could not manage and what she says bears directly on your question.
    “What if Job.s challenge to God’s justice had not been overawed and silenced by the wild glory of creation.”
    This is part of a most extraordinary paragraph near the beginning of the essay. Another sentence:” How is the violence andcorruption of a beloved city to be understood as part of an eternal cosmic order?”

  6. Julianne Stewart

    One other question, Bosco, and this comes out of complete lack of theological training, so may sound naive. But it is a genuine question…If Jesus is/was fully human, does that mean that the Trinity is at least in part human? Or did Jesus’ humanity cease upon his death? If the Trinity is partly human that also says something interesting about what we mean by the word “God”. OR was that the meaning of your own question here? The whole concept of time here is a bit mind-boggling.


    1. My understanding, Julianne, is that Jesus continues to be fully human after his death. So there is no alteration in the Trinity by the incarnation or Christ’s death. We humans are in the image of God the Trinity – that enables incarnation, and our divinisation. We are drawn into the life of the Trinity through Christ’s incarnation and death. Blessings.

    2. There is a mindblowing essay by Robert W Jenson that brings us to this very conclusion using the grand sweep of eastern Christian theology from Justin in the 100s to Maximus the Confessor in the 600s called ‘With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East’ in Ancient and Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A Hall. Jenson misreads Pope Leo, but is otherwise spot on.

      When I first read the article, I was overcome by the realisation that one Person of the Holy Trinity is still human.

      Finally, this has great implications brought out in the 100s by Tertullian, who argues that we humans are made in the image of God by being made in the image of Christ. It starts to become cyclical. And I love it.

    1. I don’t think I was saying that, Julianne. So thanks for the invitation to clarify. But it may depend on what you mean by “at least partly human”? Which “part” of human do you think of? I understand human to be created; creature. So I don’t think of God as having a created part. Is it possible you are thinking in terms of mathematical equations with equal signs: Jesus = God. If we do that, predicating whatever we do on the left of the equation also on the right, we can end up with “God = 5 foot 10 inches” kind of stuff. I hope that helps a little. Blessings.

  7. Thanks for the translation ‘fully human’. I’ve seen some annoying stuff out there arguing that Chalcedon is sexist because Christ is ‘fully man’ — but that’s an antiquated translation of anthropinos.

    I, personally, vacillate on the question of Christ’s knowledge. Leo’s position is that the miracles are all performed by his divine nature — but, then, most of them are things apostles and prophets did, too. So they could have been done by him as a man. And Cyril of Alexandria’s position is that the divine nature sanctifies the whole person of Christ to such a degree that it becomes silly to imagine one nature or the other.

    But what does he know? He has divine foreknowledge, but so did the prophets. Then again, Athanasius imagined that somehow, he was still keeping the universe in order whilst an infant. Clearly this could not have been a conscious act — was it so just because he was God, and God, simply by being, orchestrates the universe?

    I lean towards God the Word having chosen to limit His knowledge upon taking on flesh because otherwise He would not be like us in every respect saving that he was without sin. This is a much better answer than saying that His cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ or when he seems to not know stuff was all just a charade to teach us a lesson. That makes God into a liar. And that’s disturbing.

    One final thought: Michael Spencer, the ‘Internet Monk’, once had a simple inversion of the usual equation as the tagline for a website: God is Jesus. Simple but helps readjust our thinking.

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