The early church spent several hundred years sorting through the implications of Jesus’ claim to Godhood. What sort of being was he? Was he fully human? Was he fully divine? Is he still fully human?
To the unbeliever, the whole question seems to be one big, self-inflicted theological handicap. The average Christian may have only a slightly higher opinion. Serious students of the Incarnation wrestle with whether Jesus had one or two natures or something in between. If he had two natures, what were their relationships? Just what is “human nature” anyway? How was Jesus’ divine nature affected by his Incarnation? How was his human nature affected by his divinity? Do the answers to any of the preceding questions really matter?
Begining with the last question first; yes, it does matter. It matters whether Jesus was fully divine while also being fully human. It matters whether his human nature was affected by his divine nature. It matters in at least three ways:
First, it matters in relation to the possibility of reconciliation between God and humanity. Reconciliation requires full participation in the nature of the things being reconciled. Oil doesn’t mix with water because their respective molecules won’t “reconcile”– they won’t join together. Oil and water will mix, however, in the presence of soap because soap has long molecules that have the nature of water on one end and the nature of oil on the other. Thus soap is able to join together, or “reconcile,” oil with water. The point is that Jesus functions very much like soap. He is able to reconcile humanity with God because he participates in both divine and human communities. Being both fully human and fully divine, he is able to join them together.
Second, Jesus’ full divinity and full humanity are necessary to his continuing role as intercessor between God and humanity. After having reconciled God with humanity, Jesus is able to maintain that reconciliation by continuing to be both fully human and fully divine– even after his ascension.
Third, Jesus’ full, unaided humanity– that is, his humanity unaided by his divinity– is critical to his role as moral exemplar. The underlying principles are simple. First, a person can only exemplify what he or she truly is. If Jesus were not fully human, his example would be irrelevant to that extent. Second, if Jesus were to use his divine powers to insulate himself from human difficulties, then his role as exemplar would again be defective to that extent.
The preceding concern about divine aid is particularly interesting with respect to the role of the Spirit in the life of Jesus. The gospels can be read in such a way as to present a picture of Jesus who appears to be divinely assisted in ways most humans will never experience– a critical difference that would seem to cast doubt on the relevance of Jesus as moral exemplar.
The answer to that doubt begins by defining the word “human.” The fundamental issue is whether Spirit-led fellowship with God is necessary to true humanity. Scripture thinks it is. That’s because a definition of “humanity” that excludes Spirit-led fellowship with God is a definition, not of “true humanity,” but of “fallen humanity.”
Fallen humanity naturally lacks fellowship with the Creator because the Fall was a radical one. Original sin changed the nature of the creation, particularly in terms of “relationships.” God is no longer as immanent within his material (physical) world or his spiritual (human) creation as he once was. Both have become subject to decay and catastrophes.
The catastrophe for humanity is that, although God created humans to live in fellowship with Him, they now live by their own “lights.” They are their own arbiters of right and wrong. That’s the essence of fallen human nature. It’s not a tainted substance, but rather a tainted existence cut off from God’s continuous guidance and presence. Sin is not absolutely necessary; but in practice, it becomes inevitable.
So the presence of the Spirit in the life of Jesus is not an unfair advantage. It simply reflects human nature as it was originally intended– a nature designed to be in continuous fellowship with God. Therefore the Spirit’s presence in the life of Jesus made him “true human,” not “super human.”
Moreover, that true “humanness” did not begin with the Incarnation, but instead existed from eternity. There is something in the nature of God that has an affinity for particularities, finitude, “emptying,” and subordination– and that something is Jesus– the Son– the Logos. Jesus’ voluntary abandonment of divine prerogatives via the Incarnation is an inherent attribute of God– God’s “humanness.”
Thus the Incarnation demonstrated Jesus as “true human”– “true human” in his subordination to and utter dependence upon the Father. At the same time, it also showed him to be “new human”– “new human” in inaugurating the restoration of humanity’s fellowship with God.
Implications of the preceding view are profound. It helps to . . .
- Understand the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus as eternal,
- Understand Jesus as forever changed by the Incarnation,
- View the Spirit’s presence in Jesus’ life as normative for true humanity and a consequence of his voluntary subordination,
- No longer think of sin as “normal” for humanity– but rather to think of sinful humanity as defective humanity,
- Take seriously the temptations and passion of Jesus’ life, and
- Take seriously Jesus’ example of holy living made possible by radical dependence upon and fellowship with God.