Never has a man provoked so many questions, in particular questions about who he really is. The nature of Jesus is, of course, a hotly debated topic, and has been for 20 centuries. There are practically as many major views of Jesus as there are religions. And there are many, many other sub-theories. Was Jesus merely a man? Was he even a real historical person? Was he a historical person that got blown out of proportion by a group of sensationalists?
Rather than directly address the above questions, I will address the question: How can we make sense of what the Bible says about Jesus? (I make a case for the historical Jesus elsewhere.) I will assume (based on conclusions of other studies) the general accuracy of the biblical accounts – including the words of the apostles. Yet, this still does not render the job of understanding the nature of Jesus to be an easy task. What we will see first here are some of the vain attempts to explain the nature of Jesus in a way that honors the historical accounts.
The logical challenge to the Christian view of the nature of Jesus is clear: how can one person be man and God in nature?
1/2 and 1/2. A simple and knee-jerk proposal is that Jesus is half man and half God. But this poses great problems. How can such a be guaranteed to live a pure and spotless life? How can a half person fully be our representative? How can one who is only half God be said to perfectly represent him? What can a half human possibly look like? It seems that being 1/2 God is like digging half of a hole–it’s all or nothing. These are some of the drastic barriers to the half-and-half position.
Fully God, not fully human (Docetism, Gnosticism): Some have admitted that Jesus is fully God in nature, but assume that this negates him being truly human. So while he was truly God, he only appeared human – possibly for the sake of our comprehension. But the Bible says that he was made like one of us. He was a priest and representative on our behalf.
Fully human, not fully God (Arianism): This theory says that Jesus was fully human, which seems evident by empirical observation, but not fully God. They would say that his nature really wasn’t different from our own. Instead his purpose was to show us an example of how to live maximally as humans. This represents liberal theology’s great Christological heresy. The problem is that there is no guarantee that Jesus would live a sinless life if he were not fully God. In fact, any part of him which was not protected by perfection would necessarily fall to the human propensity to sin. Maybe, they say, but couldn’t God simply protect a particular human life from sin? I suppose it is logically possible. However, one major issue still remains; how can he be a worthy sacrifice? He could be sinless, but he would not be of infinite value. In fact, he would be of no greater value than any other person. This implies that he would be worthy to earn salvation on his own behalf, but not on behalf of others.
Shift back and forth (Nestorianism): Maybe Jesus has an aspect of himself that is human and an aspect that is God – neither of them limited. But the one person, Jesus, has to constantly shift from one nature back to the other. This suffers the same core problem as the “half-and-half” theory and the heresy of Arianism. Jesus would inevitably fall to sin if his human nature would ever override his nature as deity.
Later Sonship: Some have believed that Jesus was fully human only until his baptism at age 30. At that point he became the Son. Maybe God protected him from sin until the age of 30, at which time God gave Jesus Sonship and the role and duties of Christ. On its face, this contains no heresy. One might be tempted to think that this opposes verses like John 1:1. But this may not be a good counter. The Son can still be eternal and from the beginning, and also inhabit Jesus at a time 30 years after birth. But it still has some issues. Why would the Christ nature of Jesus come later rather than from birth? What would be the importance of the genealogy?
More poignantly, it negates the meaning of the virgin birth. The virgin birth tells us that Jesus was something unique and distinct from the moment of conception – not at the moment of baptism. The significance of Jesus’s baptism at age 30 was to mark the beginning of his earthly ministry. This paralleled the Jewish Levitical practices, which Jesus came to fulfill in perfect form. It’s not that Jesus became the Son at this point; the words were spoken to announce Jesus’s Sonship for the benefit of the listeners (an attribute that was basically “veiled” before that time).
You may feel ready and able to explain your own theory of the incarnation of Jesus Christ that does justice to the biblical text, to reason, and to Christian orthodoxy. Even after looking at ideas we must avoid, there are still many questions to be asked and many challenges of reason to be answered as we go about considering a working perspective.
Some working views, including my own, are coming soon…