Saturday, March 30, 2002

Theological Foray #7: What's the Deal with Christ?

Today is Holy Saturday, and is thus a very good time to address the question of why it was necessary for Christ to die, or even exist in the first place. Now, I don't presume to tell you exactly What It All Means. In the words of Ben Domenech, that would be unspeakably arrogant. However, the idea of Christ is, ironically enough, the part of the whole Christian thing with which I have the most trouble. I know it's central to all Catholic doctrines (as distinguished from Arian and Gnostic doctrines, for instance), but it's been very hard for me to understand. I'll try to start with basic ideas and try and build them together into some sort of free-standing structure (and I'll also try to keep the mixing of metaphors to a minimum).

Hardly anyone disagrees that Jesus Christ was a good moral teacher. There may be disagreements about certain practices, but overall, he's well-respected. Unfortunately for simplicity, that's not all there is. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity asks how we can accept the teachings of a man who claims to be God if we deny his divinity. After all, while a loon may speak truth, he's usually pretty unreliable.

Perhaps the best way to go from here would be to examine Jesus' teachings, and see how radically different they were from contemporary Jewish teachings. If there's a historical basis in Jewish theology for them, and the modifications remain in the "spirit of the law," then we can at least establish that his teachings themselves were sound, even if we believe him not to be. Passages of prophecy will not be addressed here, only actual teachings. In Matthew 4:4-11, Jesus resists temptation by following Hebrew scripture, not deviating at all. In Matt. 5-7, though, we see him commenting on Jewish law in the beatitudes. In Matt. 5:17, Jesus says "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." From this, we can gather that Christ did not want to nullify everything the Jews had already known, but to show that what had come before was just the groundwork for the coming Kingdom of God. The laws in the Pentateuch (Torah) had the effect of keeping God's chosen people, the Hebrews, distinguishable from surrounding peoples. Similarly, we see in the beatitudes a way of keeping God's people morally separate from others. They all had the purpose of emphasizing the importance of loving your neighbor, and thus loving God. This is fully in line with Jewish teachings, and so we can conclude that Jesus' teachings were beyond reproof.

Next, we must look at statements of divinity. Jesus Christ's self-referential claims of being the "Son of Man" and "Son of God" do not in themselves prove anything. All humans (except possibly Adam) are the "Son of Man." The title "Son of God" is similarly not definitive, as Hebrew kings were anointed "Son of God" upon their coronation. Furthermore, in Genesis 6:1-4, we learn that the "sons of God" came down, bred with humans, and produced the Nephilim. In Matthew 5:9, Jesus says "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." In Luke 20:36, we are told that those who will be resurrected will be "sons of God." However, while not definitive, they are helpful. As shown by Matthew 4:3, 4:6, 8:29, 14:33, 26:63, 27:40, 27:43, 27:54, and Mark 3:11, it wasn't expected that one would actually be the Son of God. Jesus' miracles and the miracles his disciples worked while acting faithfully were tokens that they were sons of God. I think what it comes down to is that I'm not sure Christ is the same thing as God.

It seems to me that Jesus Christ was a prophet and messiah. Many say that Christ was God in the flesh, and thus God met us half-way by learning what it was like to be a man. I don't discount that, but I think it's more likely that he was a divinely inspired and guided man, and that it was as if he never had need of spiritual resurrection, and was thus made like God at his baptism. He was sinless, and thus was a perfect example for those seeking to love God. By being crucified, he rendered to Caesar what was Caesar's, while remaining faithful to God. By emulating him, we too can become sons of God through grace.

Of course, I'm still turning all this over, so it's quite possible this Foray will need to be significantly revised.

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