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God has a human face

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 21 December 2015


At Christmas the Church proclaims that God has a human face. Mind you, it was a close thing.

The councils of the Church in the fourth century deliberated over the divinity and the humanity of Christ. Was he an exemplary man who deserved the honorific title "Son of God" or was he the eternal Word that was at the beginning of creation made flesh in the form of Jesus of Nazareth? Was he wholly God who only appeared as a man and only appeared to suffer and die as a man? Was he a divine emissary from God who did not share the same substance of God but whose mission was to preach repentance or to reveal sacred knowledge?

The Church came to the decision that Christ was of one substance with the Father. They decided that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. From how the New Testament narratives ran they derived the doctrine of the Trinity in which the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God. By deciding thus the Church produced a scandal among the religions of the world that exists to this day.

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For Judaism, Jesus was the unacceptable Messiah and saying that He was God flew in the face of the utter transcendence of God. Later, for Islam, the idea of the Trinity looked very much like Tritheism and hence was in contradiction to the belief in the one God, Allah. For Islam Jesus could be a prophet but certainly not God.

While it is popular to say, in an intended peace-making turn, that Christianity, and Islam believe in the one God, it is apparent from close inspection that this is not true. When Christians talk about God they talk about the triune identity. This is non-negotiable.

There is, however, more of a point to saying that Jews and Christians believe in the one God. We can say that they both believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but Jews parted ways with Christianity when it pronounced Jesus as divine.

It may seem that the rather complex and subtle Christological controversies of the fourth century are too obscure, too metaphysical and too long ago to be interesting or important. However, if the Church had not came down on the side of Christ being both truly human and truly divine, of one substance with the Father, coequal with the Father and the Spirit, our civilization would now be unrecognisable.

If the Church had been persuaded that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, a divine emissary giving moral guidance and the path to heaven, the whole work of salvation would have been forfeit and Christianity would have been reduced to morality.

Let me explain.

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The Church believes that the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection were actually events in the Being of God that has eternal consequences for the lives of men and women.

In His teaching Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors and thumbed his nose at holiness laws. He confronted the religious authorities with their lack of faith. In response the "church" of the time organised his murder via the civil authorities. Everyone thought that was the end of the story: a troublemaker was eliminated.

However, death could not hold the eternal Word who was with God at the beginning and was God. Now you must think theologically and not concretely. God raised Jesus from the dead to sit at his right hand in glory. This was not a nature miracle: the biochemistry of death was not reversed. The resurrection is rather an event in God in which Jesus was vindicated and his persecutors judged. The position of victims and perpetrators was reversed. This subverted all of the power structures of the world and inaugurated an age open to a new possibility of peace.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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