Battle Over the Nature of the King of Peace

People will know we are Christians, not by our philosophizing, but by Christ's love worked out within us.

Marshall J. Grosboll is pastor of the Berwick, Danville, and Northumberland, Pennsylvania, churches.

 

WAS CHRIST human? Was He truly and fully human? Could He have sinned? Was He really tempted? These questions have stimulated theological discussion (and argument) for centuries, if not millennia.

And why? If one takes the Gospels simply as they read, it seems quite evident that each of the above is true. Christ simply referred to Himself as "the Son of man."

Christ was not burdened to explain fully His human existence. The Bible gives us no chemical analysis of how Christ assumed a human form and was born of an earthly, carnal mother. There is no scientific data computing the number and type of His chromosomes. That was not the burden of His message.

The burden of His work was the salvation of lost humanity. "For God sent . . . his Son into the world . . . that the world through him might be saved" (John 3:17).

Whatever was profitable for our salvation was revealed. The rest was left concealed. Christ "might have unlocked mysteries that have required centuries of toil and study to penetrate. He might have made suggestions in scientific lines that, till the close of time, would have afforded food for thought and stimulus for invention. But He did not do this. He said nothing to gratify curiosity or to stimulate selfish ambition. He did not deal in abstract theories, but in that which is essential to the development of character; that which will enlarge man's capacity for knowing God, and increase his power to do good. He spoke of those truths that relate to the conduct of life and that unite man with eternity." —Education, p. 81.

It was good enough for Matthew and his Jewish cohorts to accept the humanity of Christ without being able to fully understand it. They had enough truth essential for salvation to absorb their minds without getting sidetracked by speculating upon unrevealed mysteries.

But then, that is the way the Jews were. They were charged by the Greeks as being pragmatists. They were uninterested in Hellenistic philosophies and creeds. They were more interested in "What am I supposed to do?" This led some people to the extreme of legalism, but its basic concept was established in the Scriptures—"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man" (Eccl. 12:13).

As some theologians say, "The Jewish creed was their deed." In other words, the basis of the Jewish religion was what they did, not what they professed.

Because of the Jews' lack of interest in abstract philosophy, and because of their acceptance of revealed truth whether understandable or not, the early Christian Jews did not have many arguments on such things as the nature of Christ.

"Was Christ a human person, born of a woman?"

"Was He the eternal Son of God, the sustainer of the universe?"

"Yes."

"That doesn't make sense! Christ couldn't have been both. How do you explain it?"

"I don't. It's the mystery of God. But would you like to hear about what He did?"

And with that switch, the Jewish Christians went about their work of preaching, medical missionary activity, and worship. They were unified. And they spread the gospel to the then known world in just a few years (see Colossians 1:23).

But a change came in. In the process of time many Greek scholars accepted Christianity, and they brought with them their love of philosophy. They wanted everything explained in a neat little package so they could understand it.

To the lowly and persecuted Christians, it was a great honor to have these men of worldly achievement join their group. They probably invited them to tell their conversion stories in their general meetings and published their names far and wide. The ability of these men to synthesize and explain the great secrets of eternity gave them an aura of superiority and genius. These philosophers—Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, and others— quickly be came prominent leaders in the movement. But the result was that the church began to slide into apostasy.

One of the great burdens of apostate Christianity seems to be that they felt called on to explain the mysteries of God. How could Christ be sinless, for example, and still be human? According to the master philosopher Plato, human flesh was sinful; all matter was evil in and of itself. The goal of life was to escape from the materialistic into the spiritualistic. So how could Christ have sinful flesh like you and me (made up of sinful, horrible matter) and still be the sinless Son of God?

"Well," said some philosophers, "Christ did not really have flesh. It just appeared that He did. It was merely an illusion so that He might communicate with us."

The famous Clement of Alexandria could not quite buy the fact that Christ was only an illusion, but that most certainly He could not have had human qualities such as feelings. So he took the position that "in the case of the Saviour it would be absurd to suppose that His body demanded these essential services such as food and drink) for His stay. For He ate, not because of bodily needs, since His body was supported by holy power, but so that His companions might not entertain a false notion about Him, as in fact certain men did later, namely that He had been manifested only in appearance. He Himself was, and remained, 'untroubled by passion': no movement of the passions, either pleasure or pain, found its way into Him." —The Early Christian Fathers, ed. & translated by Henry Bettenson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 175.

Other thinkers were concerned about understanding how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could all three be one God. This became a bone of contention that eventually split the church right down the middle. While the New Testament writers gave but little systematic study to this problem, the early Christian literature was saturated with it. In fact, the word "Trinity" was first coined in the third century by a converted son of a pagan centurion by the name of Tertullian.

These technicalities about Christ's nature and the Trinity became the all-important issues of Christian teachers. Different schools were started to support different opinions. Papers were written and debates held. Excommunications were issued. Battles were fought. Fields of blood were created —all to support one side or another of an abstract theological concept.

The Christian church was caught up in the Greek love of philosophizing. These different philosophies on the nature of Christ superseded such seemingly inconsequential things as the Sabbath. They had more important things to do than to obey God—they had to explain Him!

How is it in the Adventist Church today? Have all the Hellenistic philosophers been converted to apostolic Christianity? Or are there still some who are waging war over their ideas of the mysteries of the Incarnation?

Was Christ fully human? I believe He was. The Desire of Ages says that "like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life." —Page 49.

It is true that Christ did not have the propensity to sin (see The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1128). But this did not make Him nonhuman, for so can it be with us.

"We must learn of Christ. We must know what He is to those He has ransomed. We must realize that through belief in Him it is our privilege to be partakers of the divine nature, and so escape the corruption that is in the world through lust. Then we are cleansed from all sin, all defects of character. We need not retain one sinful propensity." —Ibid., vol. 7, p. 943.

Christ was not born with tendencies to commit sin as I am. But it is my privilege to become like He was.

"Jesus revealed no qualities, and exercised no powers, that men may not have through faith in Him. His perfect humanity is that which all His followers may possess, if they will be in subjection to God as He was." —The Desire of Ages, p. 664.

"The ideal of Christian character is Christlikeness. As the Son of man was perfect in His life, so His followers are to be perfect in their life. Jesus was in all things made like unto His brethren. He became flesh, even as we are. He was hungry and thirsty and weary. He was sustained by food and refreshed by sleep. He shared the lot of man; yet He was the blameless Son of God. He was God in the flesh. His character is to be ours." —Ibid., p. 311.

Can I explain it? No. I just have to accept it. How could Christ have no propensity to sin and still accept "the working of the great law of heredity"? Maybe with three centuries of philosophizing and warfare someone could come up with a good solution, such as the early church did with the concept of the Trinity.

But we do not have three centuries to spend philosophizing. There is a work to be done. Suppose you do differ with me on some points of understanding. Should we take up all our time arguing with each other? That is just what Satan would have us do.

Today some of us seem to believe in Clement of Alexandria more than in Matthew. Oh, not what he taught, of course, but his love of philosophizing. We would rather philosophize than go out and do medical missionary work. We would rather argue about the nature of Christ than wage the battle against sin. We are not so concerned about people's actions and feelings as we are that they have good theological concepts (ours, of course).

Christ may not have revealed every aspect about Himself, but He has revealed the work He wants us to do. He has demonstrated the character He wants us to form. He has given us a commission to fulfill and the Holy Spirit to make it possible.

It is time we got ready for Christ to come. It is time we did the work, both in our own lives and in the world, that is necessary to be done before Christ can come. The nature of Christ is not the last great issue. It is the character of Christ lived out within us.

People will know we are Christians, not by our philosophizing, but by Christ's love worked out within us.

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Marshall J. Grosboll is pastor of the Berwick, Danville, and Northumberland, Pennsylvania, churches.

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