Monday 18 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.


W. Travis McMaken said...


Thank you for your thoughtful post. I have a couple of questions:

(1.a) Why does God come from the future any more than God comes from the past and the present? It seems like something of a false emphasis.

(1.b) I understand the function of the resurrection in the disciples' realization that Jesus was God, etc, but why does this priviledge the future?

(1.c) And, why is Christ's deity located in the resurrection with more emphasis than the virgin birth?

(2) This is less of a question. :-) It seems to me like you smooth over the relation between divinity and humanity. I would want to stress the incompatability that is only finally overcome by God's infinite possibility. But, even in the event of this impossible possibility, the fundamental incompatability remains.

I don't know you well Ben, and I hate to try to get inside your head like this, but this bit sounded more Lutheran than Reformed and I'm just curious if you are part of either tradition. If you'd rather not say that's cool too. :-)

byron smith said...

Wow - a very stimulating post!
A couple of questions:
Does the resurrection reveal the divine identity of Jesus or establish it?

If the latter (which I think is what you're saying), how is this christology to be distinguished from adoptionism?

I really enjoyed the paragraph that began 'To put it another way'.

I also enjoyed the point you made about the 'humanity' of God. However, does this necessarily imply its correlate (the 'divinity' of humanity)? In what ways is this relationship asymmetrical? Is divinity anything more than true humanity?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, Ben, and, for beginners, a really helpful demystification and explication of Chalcedon. A few points.

As a student of Barth (rather than a Barthian!), I appreciate your emphasis on God as event. But (to steal from Hunsinger's typology of Barth's theology), I think you should add the motif of God's "personalism" to God's "actualism". A standard criticism of Tillich's God as the Ground of Being is: How do you pray to the Ground of Being? Similarly the question could be asked: How do you pray to an event? It is insufficient, it seems to me, to desribe the Father only as an event, though certainly we must avoid the idea of God as substance at all costs

I am sure your readers will value some answer to wtm's good questions about the tenses of God. Knowing where you come from I can understand why you theologically privilege the future, but why do you - as it seems you do - exclusively privilege the future?

Regrading wtm's other questions I am sure you will also explain why the resurrection and the virgin birth are in different ball parks when it comes to the deity of Christ. And also why your exposition is very Reformed indeed: the influence of Moltmann (the tenses) as well as Barth is very clear, as is the lurking figure of Calvin (e.g. the humanity and deity of Christ are not to be thought of as two planks glued together).

Byron: I think the answer to your two questions is the same: the Trinity! The resurrection reveals "the divine identity of Jesus" that is established in the Trinity. And because the deity of Christ is established in the eternal Trinity, there can be no question of adoptionism.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these incisive comments. I'll try to respond to a few points:

As Kim says, I'm thinking from within the Reformed tradition. But WTM raises a sensitive point when he asks whether this christology is in fact Lutheran -- if it is rather Lutheran, I hope it's still recognisably Reformed in some respects! But it's certainly true that my approach to christology has been shaped above all by contemporary Lutheran theology, especially by Pannenberg, Jenson and Jüngel.

My emphasis on the "future" throughout this whole series is also shaped mainly by Pannenberg and Jüngel. I've been trying to articulate what Pannenberg calls the "ontological priority of the future" (see, e.g., Pannenberg's book Metaphysics and the Idea of God, as well as Jüngel's essay "Thesen zur Grundlegung der Christologie").

From a philosophical perspective, this concept of the future's priority is based on an ontology of the "whole" -- the true nature of reality lies in its unity, and the unity of reality is given only at the end of the temporal process. Thus it's the future that has priority in determining the true "essence" of things.

But more importantly, this eschatological emphasis is an attempt to take seriously the priority of eschatology in the Old Testament (with its theme of "promise"), and in Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom (as a kingdom that "comes" from the future), and in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (as the anticipatory arrival of the final goal of history). In other words, the concept of the future's priority is really an attempt to give a determinative role to eschatological structure of the gospel (whether or not it's a successful attempt is for you to decide!).

To respond to Byron's point, then, I don't think the prioritising of Jesus' resurrection is related to adoptionism. The point isn't that Jesus first becomes the Son of God through his resurrection, but rather that Jesus always was the Son of God because of his resurrection! To borrow another term from Pannenberg and Jüngel, the resurrection has "retroactive" force -- it establishes and constitutes Jesus' deity (i.e. the deity of his life as a unified whole). Part of the significance of this is that it tries to do justice to the nature of the NT Gospels -- documents in which Jesus' whole life (including his birth) is interpreted christologically only from the perspective of the end of Jesus' life, i.e., the resurrection.

Finally (sorry for the length of this comment!), when WTM asks whether humanity and deity are really incompatible, I can say only two words: Karl Barth! The great emphasis of Barth's whole mature theology is that God and humanity are not incompatible opposites, but that they belong together, and that their togetherness is already grounded eternally in God's decree. For me, Barth's achievement here is simply axiomatic for christology.

Anyway, I hope all this helps -- or at least I hope it doesn't cloud everything in even greater obscurity!

W. Travis McMaken said...

Ben, thanks for clearing those things up. I sensed Jungel, Pannenberg and Jenson (both from your text and from the heft of their volumes on your further reading list) but I hate to just come out and try to tell people who their main influences are. Thanks for making it clear yourself. :-)

I should add that I'm not convinced by the notion of "retroactive force." Perhaps I just need to sit with it for a while longer, but it seems to me like something that falls under Occam's razor.

As far as Barth's theology and divine / human compatability, humanity per se is not compatible with divinity, but humanity as reconstituted, freed, and grounded in Christ is. However, this reconstituted humanity remains to be seen (as it were) and in the present we only have to do with miraculous events of grace wherein this reconstituted humanity is made present. Because of all this, I would tend to want to spell out precisely how the compatability / incompatability relation works.

Keep up the good work!

byron smith said...

Kim and Ben, thanks for your comments and clarifications, though are you actually agreeing with each other on this? It seems that Kim is making what might loosely be called an epistemological point about the resurrection (it reveals who Jesus is because of the Trinity), while Ben is saying something more about the grounding of Jesus' divinity (considered distinctly from (though not nec also separate from) our apprehension of that). Have I misunderstood either of you?

From a philosophical perspective, this concept of the future's priority is based on an ontology of the "whole" -- the true nature of reality lies in its unity, and the unity of reality is given only at the end of the temporal process. Thus it's the future that has priority in determining the true "essence" of things.
Why does the true nature of reality lie in its unity? Isn't it true (deeply) that things are different, that God has created diversity, and that diversity (even summed up in Christ) will remain? I was reading James K. A. Smith yesterday (The Fall of Interpretation), who was criticising Pannenberg for assuming/arguing that the goal is an overcoming of diversity and even of temporality. Has anyone else seen this book? Thoughts?

Ben Myers said...

Well, Byron, thank you very much for this comment!

I haven't seen this James K. A. Smith book, but I will now hurry off to get a copy. This kind of critique of Pannenberg is something that I've been worrying about myself. I've just read David F. Ford, Self and Salvation (1999), which raises a similar problem. Although Ford doesn't engage with Pannenberg, he uses Levinas to critique all theological "totalising" attempts to synthesise plurality.

Anyway, I'll have to read Smith's book -- but I'm inclined to think that Pannenberg's approach should be nuanced by a contingent conception of narrative, so that Jesus' resurrection forms the non-necessary (or, with Jüngel, "more than necessary"!) conclusion to the story of reality in all its polyphonic diversity.

In part, I think I should also revise my emphasis in this series on the eschatological "goal" of creation -- perhaps, instead of thinking of a (quasi-deterministic) "goal", it would be better to think of a fully contingent conclusion which corresponds to created reality in an unexpected way, but is not merely a goal that could have been anticipated from the preceding temporal process. In other words, grace perfects (and corresponds to) nature, but is not the necessary completion of nature -- so that the temporal process isn't swallowed up in a totalising "unity", but is rather contextualised in a new way by a contingent conclusion.

Anyway, sorry if this all still sounds rather muddled -- but as you can see, I'm looking for a way to appropriate Pannenberg's method without sacrificing "difference". So hopefully Smith's book will also help me here....

Thanks again!

byron smith said...

I like the idea of (narrative) fittingness without deterministic necessity: a creative solution, yet not ex nihilo (more ex sepulchro?).
If you do get a chance to look at the J. K. A. Smith book, I'd love to know what you think of his take on Pannenberg. I haven't read enough to know whether he was being fair. I found the book stimulating, though it seemed to lack any space for judgement. I appreciated his comments on Heidegger and Derrida, though again, from a fairly limited knowledge base. As for the first section on Evangelical hermeneutics, it sounded all-too-familiar. Our Dean has repeatedly made comments about hermeneutics being unnecessary!

nature doesn’t just exist for the sake of grace, but then I keep finding myself saying that grace is the preordained “goal” and “conclusion” of creation, which really seems to undermine the inherent goodness of creation qua creation.

Yeah, this was another weakness of the Smith book: a restoration eschatology. But how to speak of the city being greater than the garden without saying the garden was not good, very good...

Thanks again for your series - I know you're getting a lot of appreciative comments, but I know of a number of people who read but never comment who are also really enjoying it. I'm sure it's a common story.

Brian Miller said...

"God is an event. God happens."

How does one pray to an event?/Can one relate to an event? Or, perhaps more importantly, is this faithful to biblical revelation / salvation history?

It seems to me that God in these stories is understood to be an other with a will, the freedom to choose and engage and act. So these stories speak of God as an actor.

But you are saying that the actor is the act.

This confuses me; perhaps I am too simpleminded. Can you clarify or explain?

Brian Miller said...

I know you frequently post on your blog and that you have many other posts which occupy your time. But, if you do get the chance, I am interested in your response to my comment above.

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