Faith calls for clarity about Jesus' humanity, divinity

October 26, 2015
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is the basis of our faith. Acknowledging Jesus as divine, however, does not resolve all the problems of faith.

Throughout the course of history, believers have puzzled over what Christ's divinity might mean. In doing so, many have fallen into errors that dilute the meaning of the incarnation and redemption.

Confusion over the meaning of Jesus being both divine and human began in the first century and the Church did not resolve the issues until the Third Council of Constantinople in 681. Even so, the same errors continue to appear under different guises.

The word "heresy" is now rarely used, perhaps because it conjures up images of an authoritarian Church repressing free thinkers. Today, proclaiming unorthodox beliefs is trumpeted as a badge of individual freedom and dignity. Yet, heresies were condemned not to curtail what is truly human, but to ensure truth takes precedence over falsehood, that there is a clearer path to the fullness of life.

When Jesus Christ Superstar proclaims, "He's a man, just a man," this is not an enlightened new idea, but a belief expressed long ago in heresies such as adoptionism and Arianism. Like most, if not all, heresies, Arianism assumes the difference between Creator and creature is an unbridgeable chasm.

The Arians claimed to know everything of which God was capable, and becoming human did not fit the bill. The adoptionists and Arians believed no human being could also be God. In different forms, they held that Jesus was a man lifted up by God to carry out a special mission.

One misunderstanding of the nature of Christ views him as fully divine but only appearing to be human.

One misunderstanding of the nature of Christ views him as fully divine but only appearing to be human.

That mission, however, could not include the redemption of humanity. Only God has the power to bridge the chasm created by human sin.

On the other extreme were Docetists and Appolinarians who believed that while Jesus is God, he only appeared to be human.

Everything about his life was a mirage - Jesus was not really crucified nor did he die or rise from the dead. They believed God could not be soiled with something as low and impure as matter.

Again, if Jesus was not truly human, he could only have offered salvation to us, but not effectively made it real. God's saving act was effective because he had become human and offered the perfect sacrifice in atonement for our sins.

What would the Eucharist mean if Christ were not one person with both divine and human natures? Not much. But because Christ is both divine and human, we share in the fruits of redemption by participating in the Eucharist.

DIVINE AND HUMAN WILL

As the centuries progressed, some who accepted the truth of the incarnation could not believe Jesus had both a divine and a human will. They thought that if he had two wills, those wills would always be at odds with each other. So, Jesus must have had only a divine will.

But without a human will, Jesus' human nature would have been just a show. Instead, Jesus displayed how a human will, unaffected by the distortions brought on by sin, can freely be in complete harmony with God's will. Jesus provides a model for doing the will of the Father.

JESUS' HUMANITY

Although contemporary Western society is humanistic, in the Church we too often fail to take Jesus' humanity seriously enough. We are prone to see God as infinitely above us in unapproachable light. Doing so lets us off the hook for trying to live as Jesus lived; to do so would, we think, be impossible.

Yet, the grandeur of the human person is that, first, we are created in God's image and likeness and, second, that Jesus paved the way for the Spirit to give us a share in the divine nature. Through Baptism and the other sacraments, we become God's adopted sons and daughters.

If God were stuck infinitely far away from creation, none of that could be true. Instead, God revealed himself and walked among us. Pope Leo the Great described it this way: "Lowliness was taken on by majesty, weakness by strength, and mortality by eternity."

The debates in the early Church about the nature of Christ sometimes scare off even devout Christians. Those debates are seen as difficult and irrelevant theology without practical implication.

TRUE FREEDOM

However, nothing has greater implications for how we live than understanding the nature of Jesus as one person, both divine and human. That truth does not impose a rigid law undermining our freedom. Rather, it is the basis for living in true freedom and the fullness of life.

God became human so we might share in divinity. What could be more important?