Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Theology for beginners (13): Deity

Summary: Through his resurrection from the dead, the whole course of Jesus’ human life is the event of God’s deity.

At the centre of the gospel story is the claim that God has acted in the man Jesus. In other words, the whole gospel depends on the fact that both God and humanity are present in Jesus – as one of the Christian creeds puts it, Jesus is both “true God” and a “true human.” What does this mean?

We have seen already that the word “God” does not describe some sort of divine substance or entity. God is an event. God happens. So when we say that God is present in Jesus, we’re not saying that a divine “substance” has somehow been joined to Jesus’ human body, or that Jesus is a “God-man,” a unique blend of divinity and humanity. Rather, we’re saying that God has happened in the human history of Jesus. The story of Jesus’ humanity is the story of God’s deity. Through his total dedication to the Father’s will, Jesus reveals God’s deity in a unique and unrepeatable way – and therefore God’s deity appears and takes place in Jesus.

From one perspective, Jesus’ life as whole is a human life; and from another perspective, this same human life is also the life of God. Jesus is not partially human and partially divine. He is not human in some respects and divine in other respects. No, his existence as a whole is both the existence of one particular human being and the event of God’s deity.

This means that we cannot think of “deity” as something that is incompatible with “humanity.” Precisely in his humanness, Jesus reveals God’s deity. For example, when Jesus eats and drinks with social outcasts, he is doing something human – but in exactly the same act, God’s deity is also taking place. When Jesus heals people through the power of the Spirit, he is acting as God’s human servant – but in the same act, God’s deity is unfolding.

In other words, there is no competition between deity and humanity. Deity and humanity do not remain apart, each repelling the other like a pair of magnets. Deity and humanity are not incompatible opposites, like darkness and light. In the story of Jesus, we see that deity and humanity belong together! The humanness of Jesus is at the same time the deity of God! In Jesus, deity and humanity are not separated, but they are both events that unfold in the totality of Jesus’ existence. The whole meaning of Jesus’ life is that he is human – the whole meaning of his life is that he is God! These are two different ways of describing the one set of phenomena – they are two different ways of saying who Jesus is.

To put it another way, in the single life-history of Jesus, two distinct events take place: the event of authentic humanness, and the event of God’s deity. In every particular aspect of Jesus’ existence, both these events are unfolding. There is no switching back and forth between deity and humanity – as though Jesus sometimes acted in his capacity as God and sometimes in his capacity as a human. Since Jesus is the man wholly dedicated to God, in all that he does he reveals true humanness and true deity. In all that he does, deity happens and humanity happens.

Moreover, the fact that God’s deity is an event in Jesus means that God’s deity is a process which unfolds in time. God’s deity is not something which Jesus “possesses” right from the start of his life. It is a process that unfolds throughout the whole course of his existence. God’s deity is revealed in the whole of Jesus’ history.

But it will not do merely to say that God’s deity begins with the birth of Jesus and continues until his death and resurrection. In fact, it is exactly the other way round. As we have seen repeatedly, the “place” of God’s deity is the future. God does not live, like us, by moving from the past towards the future – God moves from the future towards the present. God comes from the future. And just so, God’s deity happens first and foremost at the end of Jesus’ history – in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

The resurrection is the decisive moment in which God’s deity happens in Jesus. This is the event of God’s deity! And from this event, God’s deity (so to speak) “moves backwards” throughout the whole course of Jesus’ life. Thus every aspect of Jesus’ life becomes part of the event of God’s deity. His death on the cross, his message of the kingdom, his miracles and forgiving love, yes, even his birth – through the resurrection, all this now becomes the living movement of God’s deity. The whole course of Jesus’ existence, from the end to the beginning, is the single and unrepeatable event of God’s deity.

Because Jesus was raised from the dead, he is both “true human” and “true God”! Because he was raised from the dead, he is – and always has been! – one with God. Because he was raised from the dead, he is therefore the only way of salvation, the only way to God.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. The Humanity of God (London: Collins, 1961), pp. 37-65.
  • Brunner, Emil. The Mediator (London: Lutterworth, 1934), pp. 201-48.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 125-45.
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. God as the Mystery of the World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), pp. 343-68.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 127-58, 334-64.
  • Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations, Vol. 1 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961), pp. 154-85.
  • Schillebeeckx, Edward. Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (London: Sheed & Ward, 1963), pp. 7-45.
  • Tanner, Kathryn. Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2001), pp. 1-52.


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