Week 4: "Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit"
Last week we began to reflect on the statements in the creed concerning the second person of the Trinity. God the Son, or Jesus Christ. We set this in terms of belief in Jesus having a practical outworking. I.e the things that we believe to be true about Jesus do not remain in the realm of theory but translate into real life in a myriad of ways. This was described in terms of relocating where we live, with the idea being that those who believe in Christ are ‘in’ Christ and therefore citizens of a new world which is in part realized now, and in part still to be fully known.
The section of the creed that refers to our faith in Jesus Christ in particular is by far the longest section of the creed. The short opening section refers to God the Father, and the final section refers to the Holy Spirit, but in the middle we find the bulk of the creedal confession referring to Jesus.
This should come as no surprise to us as the revelation of God in Christ is the central point of Christian faith, the dawn of the new era, the establishing of the New Covenant. For the early church, as for the church throughout the centuries since, the Christian faith stands or falls on our theology of Christ – who he was, how he was, what he did, and what this means. He is the lens through which the entirety of scriptures are read, he is the means by which we know and speak of God.
We’ve looked so far at what it means for Christ to be both the Son of God and our Lord – his relationship to God, and his relationship to us. This week we’re going to focus in on one side of his being – his divinity, or as theologians call it his ‘Godness thingumy whatsit’
The Dual nature of Christ:
And so with this in mind we turn our attention this week to the nature of Christ’s divinity as we unpack the next line of the creed.
The scope of our session this week is quite narrow, and we’re going to attempt to remain on topic and not stray into next weeks session in which we’ll reflect on our profession of belief in Christ’s incarnation – born of the Virgin Mary – his human nature.
What does it mean to say that Christ has a ‘dual nature’? In a nutshell it simply means that Christians assert that Jesus was both fully God and also fully man. It became necessary to make this assertion as a number of other views of Christ’s nature began to emerge which challenged the orthodox theology of the early Christians.
(Here are a selection for your reading pleasure! - But please note you don’t have to include this bit, I’ve inserted it as a point of historical interest for anyone who likes that kind of thing…)
Apollinarianism: Apollinaris was the bishop of Laodicea in AD361. He taught that Christ had a human body, but not a human mind or spirit. In his view Christ’s mind and spirit were the ‘divine’ components of Jesus. These teachings were rejected on the grounds that it is not just our human bodies that need saving, but also our human minds and spirits as well. Christ had to be fully human if he were to save us. (Heb2:17)
Nestorianism: Nestorius was bishop of Constantinople from about AD428. It’s a bit unfair to call this particular heresy ‘Nestorianism’ because poor old Nestorius didn’t actually teach this himself…but anyway…Nestorianism is the idea that there were two separate persons in Jesus Christ, a human person (or nature) and a divine person (or nature). Both combined into one body.
This teaching was also rejected as heresy because nowhere in scripture or in the teaching of the early church do we find any evidence of Jesus having a ‘split’ personhood – i.e his human and divine natures are never seen to be opposed, or there to be a struggle between them. Jesus himself doesn’t acknowledge himself as a ‘we’ but rather as ‘I’ and the biblical writers affirm him as one person.
Eutychianism: Unlike our previous two heresies Eutyches (AD 378-454) taught that Jesus had only one nature, but that this nature was neither fully human or fully divine. Eutyches taught that the human nature and the divine nature were caught up, mixed together and turned into a kind of ‘third nature’.
Reflect and discuss: How do you view Jesus Christ? Do you tend to think more about his human nature, or more about his divine nature? Why?
How do you see the dual nature of Christ as both fully man and fully God? Are your views similar to any of the views above?!
Why does it matter whether Jesus was fully man and fully God?
The divinity of Christ:
The divinity of Christ stands at the heart of orthodox Christian belief, and the denial of Christ’s divinity has for centuries been a source of conflict within the church and also between the church and other faith groups. For example Islam is happy to speak of Christ as a prophet, but will vehemently deny that Christ is divine – of the same being as God. Interestingly the confession of Christ as Lord, which comes in the first sentence in the creed about Jesus uses the term ‘Kyrios’ which means ‘Lord’ and ‘God’. The earliest Christians were persecuted and killed for their assertion that Christ was divine.
But Jesus himself, as recounted in the scriptures, seems to say exactly this as he claims divinity for himself. Likewise the biblical authors also make explicit claims with regard Christ’s divinity. We’ll spend some time looking at these now:
Christ called ‘God’ (Theos)
In the pages of the New Testament, when we read the word ‘God’ the chances are we’re reading the Greek word ‘Theos’. And usually when we read God / Theos it is God the Father who is being referred to. However, in a number of passages this same word ‘God / Theos’ is also used to refer to Jesus. Systematic Theologian Wayne Grudem notes that in all these cases “…the word is used in the strong sense to refer to the one who is the Creator of heaven and earth, the ruler over all.” Here then an explicit reference to Jesus as ‘God’ in the same sense as The Father is ‘God’ is made. Here are some of the passages in question – why not read them and reflect on them?
John1:1, John20:28, Romans9:5, Titus 2:13, Hebrews1:8, 2Peter1:1
Christ called ‘Lord’ (Kyrios)
The Greek word Kyrios is used in a number of different ways in the New Testament. Sometimes it is simply a polite term (like Sir), sometimes it means ‘master’ of a slave for example. But much of the time it means something more substantial and important. Frequently in the New Testament the word Lord / Kyrios is used where the Hebrews would use Yahweh. Infact in the Greek translations of the Old Testament, Yahweh is translated ‘Kyrios’ 6814 times!
Thinking back to our series on Exodus we recall that the name Yahweh was the specific and special name given to God, The God. Yahweh was of course the one who described himself as ‘I am’ the eternally existent creator of heaven and earth, the source of all that is and the origin of life, the God of gods, and the Lord of lords. And so in this context, Kyrios as the translation of Yahweh takes on enormous significance.
In the New Testament there are numerous instances in which this word ‘Kyrios’ is used in this sense (as a translation of Yahweh) to describe Jesus Christ. One such example, repeated in readings every single Christmas is when the angel proclaims “For to you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke2:11). A well known bible scholar, commenting on this announcement makes the point that although this term for Christ is familiar to us, “we should realize how surprising it would be to any first century Jew to hear that someone born as a baby was the Messiah, and that this one who was the Messiah was also ‘the Lord’ – that is, the Lord God himself!”
Here are some more instances in which Jesus is called ‘the Lord’:
Luke1:43, Matt3:3, Matt22:44, 1Cor8:6, Heb1:10-12, Rev19:16
Christ as ‘Word’ or ‘Logos’
Read John 1:1-14
In these well known verses from John’s Gospel, Jesus is given a particular name, laden with imagery and implication. Christ is referred to as ‘The Word’ and according to John ‘The Word’ was with God, and ‘The Word’ was God – echoing the beginning of Genesis chapter 1.
In these opening verses of his Gospel John makes clear a startling fact, that Jesus Christ, the baby born in Bethlehem had always existed. Not as a baby, and later, not as a man, but as ‘The Word’. John implies that God the Son, who was incarnate in Christ was always fully God and that he wasn’t created at a certain point, and therefore a demi-god, or of less fully divine than the Father. The Word has always existed in full divinity and community in the Godhead.
And therefore at the point in time at which the Word was to become flesh, God was to reveal himself in the incarnation, the eternally existent Word had the fullness of his divinity made known in the person of Christ. Hence the assertion in the creed that notes and acknowledges the role of the Holy Spirit in his conception. Fully God and fully man – the work of the Spirit and the work of Mary.
Jesus claims divinity for himself
Read John 8:48-59
As well as there being numerous examples of biblical writers referring to Jesus as God and therefore divine, Jesus himself also makes a number of explicit claims with regard his divinity.
One such example can be found reported in John8. In this particular encounter Jesus tells a group of people that Abraham (the father of the Jews) had seen the day of the Christ. Quite naturally his opponents challenged this saying to Jesus that this was impossible, Jesus was not even 50 years old and Abraham had died many centuries before hand. How could Jesus have seen Abraham? Jesus responds and in verse 58 of John 8 says “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” In his response Jesus calls himself the very name of God revealed in Exodus3:14. He claims or himself the title of the eternally existing One, the God who is the source of everything including his own existence, the One who has always been and will always be. The crowds were so shocked by this statement that they tried to stone Jesus, but Jesus escaped.
There are many who will say that ‘Jesus never claimed to be God’ – they’re wrong. It is impossible to ignore instances like this in which Jesus clearly, explicitly and strongly claims divinity for himself.
Reflect and Pray: In many parts of the world Christians still face terrible violence and persecution for confessing that Jesus is God. Take some time out now to pray for the persecuted church around the world – asking that those whose confession of Christ as divine will lead to suffering and harm, would be strengthened in their faith and given great courage.
And now for some apologetics…(giving reasons for our faith)…
Again this bit is optional but probably worthwhile as we’re called to always be ready to give reasons for the hope that we have…and this applies to interfaith dialogue too…
The Jehovah’s Witnesses challenge this reading of the first verses in Johns Gospel claiming that the Greek text can legitimately be translated as “…the Word was a god…” – implying that the Word is not fully divine, but one of a number of heavenly beings. This interpretation is non-sense and has not gained backing from any recognized Greek scholar anywhere.
Their argument rests on the lack of the definite article (the) before “God” in the sentence “The Word was with (the) God, and the Word was (the) God.” They take this to imply that the Word is ‘a god’ not ‘The God’, translating the sentences “the Word was with (a) god, and the Word was (a) god”.
It is well known however that the sentence in Johns Gospel follows a regular rule of Greek grammar, and that the lack of the definite article simply indicates that “God’ is the predicate rather than the subject of the sentence.
Interestingly the rule of grammar which the Jehovah’s Witness apply to these verses in Johns Gospel is different to the rule of grammar they apply to the rest of the book…inconsistent and very naughty!
Reflect and discuss: Has anyone ever challenged you and asked questions about the divinity of Christ? If so, what were the circumstances and how did you respond? Did you feel able to respond?
If you were asked the same questions again, how might you respond? Do you feel confident in doing so?
Some further reading:
If anyone wants to explore any of these ideas in more detail consider reading:
The Supremacy of Christ – Ajith Fernando, Crossway Books 1995
Understanding Jesus: Who Jesus Christ Is and Why He Matters – Alister McGrath, Zondervan Books 1987