. The Real Christ...
I feel I am obligated to make the point that the real, genuinely human Son of God whom we have reconstructed from the pages of Scripture is at variance with the Trinitarian perspective. The Trinity grew out of Gnosticism, which taught that life comes by leaving the world and the flesh. But John’s Gospel especially emphasizes how the true life was and is revealed through the very flesh, the very worldly and human life, of the Lord Jesus. True Christianity has correctly rejected the trinity and defined a Biblically correct view of the atonement. But we need to make something of this in practice; we must use it as a basis upon which to meet the real, personal Christ. In the 2nd century, the urgent, compelling, radical, repentance-demanding Jesus was replaced by mere theology, by abstracting Him into effectively nothing, burying the real Jesus beneath theology and fiercely debated human definitions. And we can in essence make the same mistake. And I might add, it was this turning of Jesus into a mystical theological 'God' which made Him so unacceptable to the Jews. The preaching of the real, human Jesus to them ought to be more widely attempted by our churches. It must be realized that the growing pressure to make Jesus 'God' was matched by a growing anti-Judaism in the church. Some of the major proponents of the Trinitarian idea were raving anti-Judaists such as Chrysostom, Jerome and Luther. And in more recent times, Gerhard Kittel, editor of the trinity-pushing Theological Dictionary of the New Testament was also a regular contributor to the official Nazi publication on the Jewish 'problem'. It was Hitler who pushed the idea that Jesus was not really a Jew, suggesting that the humanity of Jesus should be de-emphasized and the divinity stressed, so that the guilt of the Jews appeared the greater (1). The point is, we have been greatly blessed with being able to return to the original, Biblical understanding of Jesus, which worldly theology and politics has clouded over for so many millions. But we must use this to build a Christ-centred life.
The Trinity is theology. One reason that the Trinity dogma arose was exactly because of the development of theology as a discipline, more precisely, systematic theology. This tends to deal with religious ideas on a large conceptual scale, and it soon fell adrift from a study of the actual text of the Bible. A Roman Catholic theologian laments that “There has been a continuous tendency... to divide what is called dogmatic or systematic theology from what is called biblical exegesis, and to put them into separate and practically water-tight compartments... biblical scholars have often had reason to complain that too many dogmatic theologians [i.e. those in the business of constructing dogma- D.H.] appear to be biblically illiterate” (2). The Trinity would be a parade example of this; ‘dogma’ became established and then dogmatized about as a result of philosophical speculation about God and Jesus, rather than being the result of careful, deductive Biblical study.
The humanity of Jesus was more radical for the early Christians than we perhaps realize. Against the first century background it must be remembered that it was felt impossible for God or His representative to be frightened, shocked, naked, degraded. And yet the Lord Jesus was all this, and is portrayed in the Gospels in this way. To believe that this Man was Son of God, and to be worshipped as God, was really hard for the first century mind; just as hard as it is for us today. It’s not surprising that desperate theories arose to ‘get around’ the problem of the Lord’s humanity.
We need to keep earnestly asking ourselves: ‘Do I know Jesus Christ?’. The answers that come back to us within our minds may have orthodoxy [‘I know He wasn’t God, He had human nature….’]. But do they have integrity, and the gripping practical significance which they should have for us? Too much emphasis, in my view, has been placed upon this word ‘nature’. We’re interested in knowing the essence of Jesus as a person, who He was in the very core of His manhood and personality. Not in theological debate about semantics. Athanasius, father of the Athanasian Creed that declared the 'trinity', claimed that "Christ... did not weigh two choices, preferring the one and rejecting another". This is in total contrast to the real Christ whom we meet in the pages of the New Testament- assailed by temptation, sweating large concentrated blobs of moisture in that struggle, and coming through triumphant.
Separating Jesus From His Nature
Trinitarians have ended up making ridiculous statements because they’ve separated the ‘nature’ of Jesus from the person of Jesus. “He permitted his own flesh to weep, although it was in its nature tearless and incapable of grief” (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary in John, 7). “He felt pain for us, but not with our senses; he was found in fashion as a man, with a body which could feel pain, but his nature could not feel pain” (Hilary). “In the complete and perfect nature of very man, very God was born” (Leo, Tome 5)(3). This is all ridiculous- because these theologians are talking about a nature as if it’s somehow separate from Jesus as a person. And we non-trinitarians need to be careful we don’t make the same mistake. Forget the theological terms, the talk about ‘wearing a nature’; but focus upon the person of Jesus. The terms end up distracting people from focus upon Him as a person; and it’s that focus which is the essence of true , Jesus-centred spirituality. The meaning and victory of the Lord Jesus depend upon far more than simply ‘nature’. So much of the ‘trinity’ debate has totally missed this point. It was His personality, Him, not the words we use to define ‘nature’, that is so powerful.
Further, the so-called ‘fathers’ ended up suggesting that the Lord Jesus effectively deceived people into thinking He was human when He wasn’t. Clement claimed: “He ate, not because of bodily needs… He was… untroubled by passions; no movement of the passions, either pleasure or pain, found its way unto him” (4). Hilary of Poitiers (315-367) likewise: “He bore the form of a servant, but he was free from the … weaknesses of a human body” (5). This surely undoes the whole wonderful achievement of the cross, turning the sufferings of Jesus into some act and even deception. Jesus was who He was; indeed it was the congruity between who He claimed to be – i.e. God’s Son- and who He was in practice which was so attractive to people. Cosmic deception on this massive scale would hardly be an inspiration to us here on earth to follow Jesus, to make who He was on earth the practical model for our daily lives. It was His through-and-through humanity which makes Him such a challenge, inspiration and Saviour to us. Some have argued that the miracles of Jesus were His Divine side, and His need, e.g. to eat, were His human side. But the Lord promised His followers that they would be empowered to do even greater miracles than what He had done, because of the victory He was to achieve on the cross (Jn. 14:12). He was as He was, I am that I am, and His victory and exaltation became a personal pattern for all those who would afterwards believe in Him. The theory of Him only ‘acting out’ reaches its nadir when we come- as each Christian must- to personally contemplate the meaning of the dead body of Jesus. That lifeless corpse, in contrast with the immortal God who cannot die, was surely the ultimate testament to Christ’s total humanity. God did not die for three days. The Lord Jesus did. His subsequent resurrection doesn’t in any way detract from the fact that He was really dead for three days. Indeed, His resurrection would also have been a cheap sham if He had actually not been really dead, with all that death means. We too, in our natural fear of death (cp. Heb. 2:15), come to that dead body and wish to identify ourselves with it, so that we might share in His resurrection. Baptism is a baptism into His death (Rom. 6:3-5). It’s more than some act of vague identification with the dead and resurrected Jesus. We are “buried with him”, literally ‘co-buried’ (Gk. syn-thaptein) with Him, inserted into His death, sharing the same grave. If His death was not really death, then baptism loses its meaning, and we are left still searching for another Saviour with whom we can identify in order to rise out of the grave. Jesus Himself was baptized in order to emphasize our identity with Him: “Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized…” (Lk. 3:21).
In this context we should consider Rom. 8:3, which is often used to support the idea that the Lord Jesus merely appeared human. Rom. 8:3 speaks of the Lord Jesus as being “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in order to achieve our redemption. The Greek word translated “likeness” elsewhere is used to express identity and correspondence- not mere external ‘appearance’ (consider its usage in Rom. 1:23; 5:14; 6:5; Phil. 2:7). Scholars, even Trinitarian ones, are generally in agreement on this point. Two examples, both from Trinitarian writers commenting upon this word in Rom. 8:3: “Paul consistently used “likeness” to denote appropriate correspondence or congruity. Thus Paul affirmed Jesus’ radical conformity to and solidarity with our sinful flesh (sarx)” (6). “The sense of the word (likeness) in Rom. 8:3 by no means marks a distinction or a difference between Christ and sinful flesh. If Christ comes en homoiomati of sinful flesh, he comes as the full expression of that sinful flesh. He manifests it for what it is” (7).
The Real Christ
I am no stranger to theological debate about the nature of the Lord Jesus. I’ve engaged in it so much that inevitably I have considered the question, “Why bother?”. Even if the non-Trinitarian position which I present ‘wins on points’, the question must still be faced: “And? And so what?”. I have therefore sought in these pages to also bring out the devotional implications of following the human Christ. Our tendency is to enquire into the nature of the Lord Jesus rather than asking ‘What does Jesus do and mean for me?’. For this starts to get uncomfortably personal and demanding. The meaning of Christ for me today is a question which some of the greatest theologians likewise have eventually come around to in their maturity; Barth, Bonhoeffer and C.H. Dodd come to mind, having all written books about this very question in the later part of their lives. Whenever commenting upon His own identity, the Lord always went on to say what this meant in practice; He never simply says “I am the Son of Man” and leaves it at that. Because He is “Son of Man” He had to suffer (Mk. 8:31), because of it He has authority to forgive sins and reposition the Law of Moses (Mk. 2:10,28), because of it He is our mediator and encourager in prayer (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15,16), and exactly because of it He will return in glory to save His true people (Mk. 14:61). The emphasis is continually upon His activity and our response on account of His nature, His person, His being. And we in our days must let this power break through into our likewise very human lives.
Wading through all the empty, passionless theology about Jesus, it becomes apparent that the first error was to draw a distinction between the historical Jesus, i.e. the actual person who walked around Galilee, and what was known as “the post-Easter Jesus”, “the Jesus of faith”, the “kerygmatic [‘proclaimed’] Christ”, i.e. the image of Jesus which was proclaimed by the church, and in which one was supposed to place their faith. Here we must give full weight to the Biblical statement that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Who He was then is essentially who He is now, and who He ever will be. This approach cuts right through all the waffle about the trinity, the countless councils of churches and churchmen. Who Jesus was then, in the essence of His teaching and personality, is who He is now. We place our faith in the same basic person as did the brave men and women who first followed Him around the paths over the Galilean hills and the uneven streets of Jerusalem, Capernaum and Bethany. Yes, His nature has now been changed; He is immortal. But the same basic person. The image we have of Him is that faithfully portrayed by the first apostles; and not that created by centuries and layers of later theological reflection. We place our faith in the Man who really was and is, not in a Jesus created by men who exists nowhere but in their own minds and theologies. This, perhaps above all, is the reason why I am not a Trinitarian; and why I think it’s so important not to be. There is simply no legitimate way that we can read the words of Jesus of Nazareth as proclaiming Himself part of a 'Trinity'. As one of the world's leading Protestants is driven to admit at the conclusion of a 700 page theological study of the Lord Jesus: "Forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror-image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy" (8). I love the way Tom Wright there describes the Trinity as a pseudo-orthodoxy. In layman's terms: Too many Christians think they're being 'orthodox', faithfully towing the party line, by claiming to believe in the Trinity. If they return to Scripture, to the New Testament Jesus, to Christ rather than 'Christianity' in its popular guises... they will find the true orthodoxy, the true original picture which is to be held on to. And the Jesus we meet there is simply not God Himself, let alone a "second person" of some theological 'trinity'. To repeat an oft-stated observation, often made in an over-simplistic way but that is all the same in-your-face true: The word 'Trinity' simply isn't in the Bible.
Leo Tolstoy powerfully came to Christ, but he later quit the established church over (amongst others issues) the Trinity; for he didn't see it taught in the Bible. Probably with allusion to this, there's a section in his Anna Karenina where Anna surveys a painting of the Lord Jesus with Pilate. She loves the way that it portrays His humanity, and comments in wonder: "You can see he's sorry for Pilate". Golenishchev then complains that the painting shows Jesus as human rather than God. The artist, Mikhailov, responds: "I couldn't paint a Christ I didn't have in my own soul... this is the greatest theme art can be confronted by". Golenishchev retorts: "There is one question that emerges, for the believer and for the unbeliever- is this a God or not a God?"." "But why? It seems to me that for educated people", said Mikhailov, "there really can't be any debate"" (9). And so it seems to me too.
But not to me alone. Both in academic research and amongst lay Christians in many denominations, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with Trinitarianism. This picked up speed in the latter half of the twentieth century and continues until now (10). This book is only part of a far wider movement back to the Biblical Jesus. The needs of modern society form a Christ-shaped hole within us, which only the genuinely human yet sinless Jesus can fill. Our hunger and thirst, our hardships, suffering of persecution and injustice, alienation and rejection by friends, family and society, our fate to die, in some senses, as outcasts and lonely men and women… makes us cry out for someone stronger than us who also hungered and suffered likewise, who can suffer with us, who can die with us; and who can save us from and out of it all. And quite simply, Jesus [the real Jesus] is the answer. As we cough and hack our way through this world, He is truly our inspiration- as we daily reflect upon His fortitude in suffering, His determination in the face of indescribable injustice; His abiding, persistent, continual kindness and gentleness in the midst of frustration and humanly hopeless situations [His care for others whilst hanging there crucified was the summation of a whole life lived doing just that]. But even more importantly, significantly, relevantly, powerfully… and here our choice of words has run out… because of His humanity underpinning and empowering His final sacrifice, He is and shall for ever be, our eternal Saviour; saving us from the times and moments and sad fact that our hard hearts still fail to accept His inspiration. And we receive the salvation that is in Him both now and always in humbled gratitude.
(2) Edmund Hill, Being Human (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1984) pp. 4,5.
(4) Stromateis 6.9 (71), as found in Henry Bettenson, translator, The Early Christian Fathers (Oxford: O.U.P., 1956).
(5) De Trinitate 10.24,25, as found in Bettenson, op cit.
(6) Thomas Weinandy, In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh (Edinburg: T & T Clark, 1993) p. 79.
(7) Vincent Branick, “The Sinful Flesh of the Son of God”, The Catholic Bible Quarterly 47 (1985) p. 250.
(8) N.T. Wright, Jesus And The Victory Of God (London: S.P.C.K, 2004) p. 653.
(9) The whole section is a masterpiece. Outside of straight Biblical argument, the case against the Trinity couldn't have been more powerfully put. Anna's wonder at the humanity of the Lord Jesus, her admiration of His pity for Pilate, her million warm feelings as she thinks about Christ as a human person, the weakness of Golenishchev's insistence that Jesus is God, and the artist's explanation that he had to express in any painting of Jesus His humanity, seeing that he as the artist was likewise human... is all really a powerful piece of writing. In English translation, this section is in Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina translated by Joel Carmichael (London: Bantam Books, 1981 ed.) pp. 503-508.
(10) This is evident from any summary account of the history of Christology in this period- see, e.g., Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (New York: Crossroad, 1990) pp. 19-65; William M. Thompson, The Jesus Debate: A Survey and Synthesis (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) pp. 14-78.
Duncan Heaster has written over 20 books, some of which contain material relevant to The Real Christ. And there is a host of other relevant material...