Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Struggling Jesus and Word of Faith Christology

A couple of comments about Christology stood out to me recently.  This post is not entirely about the debate in the theology-blogosphere about whether God the Son is eternally subordinate to God the Father, in a functional sense.  But it will intersect with that debate, somewhat.  This post concerns Word of Faith Christology, or, more accurately, the Christology of some within the Word of Faith movement.

I was listening to a sermon online that was given at a church that I have attended occasionally.  The church can probably be associated with the prosperity Gospel and the Word of Faith movement.  At the same time, it does not just preach that believers can prosper financially or influence reality by speaking words of faith out loud, for it also talks about God’s broader work in the world.  The church talks about other topics besides how God can bless me, me, me.

The preacher is going through the Book of Ezra.  In Ezra 4, adversaries of the returning Jewish exiles approach the Jewish leaders and offer to help the returning Jews to rebuild the Temple.  The Jewish leaders reply as follows:

“Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us” (v 3, KJV).

The lesson that the preacher got out of this passage was that the Jewish leaders were being a bit presumptuous.  We will build, they say?  Apart from God, they can do nothing!

The preacher then talked about Jesus.  Jesus on the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).  Why did Jesus ask his Father to forgive the people who were putting him to death?  Why didn’t Jesus forgive them himself?  According to the preacher, Jesus was not making the same mistake that the returning Jewish exiles made in Ezra 4.  Jesus realized that he by himself could do nothing.  He by himself could not forgive those who were putting him to death, for, according to the preacher, Jesus was struggling with resentment and unforgiveness.  Jesus, in light of his own limitations, was leaving forgiveness to God, the only one who could forgive.

How orthodox that view is, well, that is a good question!  Christians believe that Jesus never sinned (II Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 9:28).  Could Jesus experience resentment and feelings of unforgiveness, without technically sinning?  On the one hand, such feelings would arguably go against love, which is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  Forgiveness of sins was also a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus exhorted his disciples to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22; Luke 17:4 mentions the criterion of repentance to receive forgiveness).  On the other hand, if Jesus had any feelings of resentment and unforgiveness, perhaps they could count as righteous indignation, which is arguably not sinful.  God often expresses that kind of frustration in the Old Testament.

There is also the issue of Jesus being God, even when he was a human.  Jesus had to depend on God because he by himself could do nothing, the preacher says?  But Jesus was God!  And yet, as seems fairly clear in the current Trinitarian controversy in the theological-blogosophere, orthodox Christianity seems at least to acknowledge the possibility that the situation with the incarnate Christ is not entirely the same as the situation with God the Son before he came to earth.  That is because the incarnate Christ had a human nature along with a divine nature, whereas the preincarnate Christ only had a divine nature.  Many who deny that God the Son was eternally subordinate to God the Father in function would say that such a concept of subordination posits two contrary wills between the Father and the Son, and that would be incorrect because the Father and the Son are united in their will: if the Son has to consciously obey and submit to the Father, does not that imply that the Son technically has a will that runs contrary to the Father’s will, and that the Son needs to subordinate that contrary will in obedience to the Father?  That cannot be, they say!  At the same time, those who deny eternal functional subordination on the part of the Son still have to deal with biblical passages about the Son submitting to the Father in obedience (Matthew 26:42; John 5:30; I Corinthians 11:3; Hebrews 5:8).  The route that they often take is to say that the Son, as a human being, submitted to the Father.  The Son did not submit to his Father before coming to earth, according to them, for the Son and the Father were united in will at that time.  But they maintain that the Son did submit to the Father in obedience after coming to earth and taking on human nature: Christ’s human nature adds something significant to the equation.  This, many of them say, is the orthodox Christian position.

That said, would such a position be consistent, on some level, with what the preacher was talking about in his sermon?  Jesus, in his human nature, had to depend on the Father because he was inadequate in himself to do anything.  Jesus still had a divine nature, though, but there are Christians who say that Jesus gave up certain divine privileges in being a human: those divine capacities were still present, but Jesus was not using them.  I cannot be too dogmatic here, however, for I would not be surprised if Christians would tell me that what the preacher said was unorthodox and that the church fathers would be appalled at his comments.

Now for the other comment on Christology!  I was home alone for the past few days, so I watched some things on television that I do not ordinarily watch, because they are not exactly the cup of tea of others in the household.  I was watching Joyce Meyer.  She has been associated with the Word of Faith movement, and, indeed, she has spoken about the importance of words and speaking words of faith out loud.

Joyce was talking about how Jesus at his trial did not say a word.  She said that this long puzzled her, but then it dawned on her why Jesus remained silent: Jesus was in a trying time and did not want to give the enemy (Satan) a foothold by speaking words of complaint and bitterness.  That reminded me of what that preacher said in that sermon that I heard.  Of course, there are other explanations for why Jesus was silent at his trial.  Jesus had a mission to die for our sins, so he did not fight his execution.  I Peter 2:23 states: “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (KJV).  Can this intersect, at least somewhat, with what Joyce was saying?

In terms of Christian living, what the preacher and Joyce said resonates with me.  I recognize my own limitations: I by myself cannot forgive, and thus I need to rely on God’s power and activity.  Or, at least, there are some days when it is easier for me to think good, loving, peaceful, forgiving, and compassionate thoughts, and some days when that looks like an impossibility.  Jesus in John 15:5 says, “without me ye can do nothing” (KJV).  And, in reference to what Joyce was saying, I may be simmering on the inside, but I have to watch what I say in those situations.  Often, it may be better for me to say nothing.  To speak in such a situation could disrupt my own peace and the peace of others (which is not to dismiss the appropriateness of confrontation, in certain situations).

But was Jesus on earth in the same boat that I, and many others, are in, in such cases?  Is it unorthodox or heretical to suggest that?  Jesus had a walk with God.  As a human, he showed us how to walk with God.  Did Jesus struggle, like we do?  Hebrews 4:15: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (KJV).

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