On July 2, my fourth grandchild was born in Baltimore. His grandparents immediately made the six-hundred-mile trip to see him and celebrate his birth. Arriving at his home, congratulating the parents, and holding the newborn in my arms was a moment that will remain forever engraved in my memory. The joy of the moment was compounded by the knowledge that he was a healthy baby with a wide-open future. With much gratitude, we thanked God for Danielito. The visit to Baltimore was a historic event in the life of our family.
For Christians, the birth of Jesus is, in the first place, a theological event. It tells us something about God. The same is true of the Crucifixion. Both of these incidents in the life of Jesus can be studied by historians, but they cannot, as historians, see God’s action in these happenings.
Western Christianity has developed its theology on the foundation of the Crucifixion. The salvation of humanity took place on the Cross. The Crucifix is the Christian icon. By dying, Christ paid the debt owed by all sinners. Under the influence of Roman culture, Western Christianity understands redemption in legal terms. Every sin must be paid. The sinner needs justification. It should be noted, however, that when we think Jesus was born to die on the Cross we close down significantly the future of the baby born in Bethlehem.
In comparison, Eastern Christianity bases its theology on the Incarnation. Salvation was accomplished when God became flesh. The predominant icon is the Mother of God, with her child on her lap. The favorite theologian is not Matthew, the one preferred by Catholics, nor Paul, preferred by Protestants, but John, the evangelist of the God who became flesh to save humanity. Taking to himself human life, the Word (Logos) made possible the reception of eternal life by those who live in the flesh. Under Platonic influences, the Christianity of Greece, Serbia, Ukraine, and Russia understands redemption in existential terms. It is not willing but being that determines doing. Being born in Bethlehem, God reimpressed in the flesh the image of God that had been fading by the sin of Adam and Eve.
Within Adventism, the extent of the damage produced by the Fall has been a topic of much debate. I can well recall how, in my days as a student at the Seminary, my fellow students could spend hours discussing which nature Jesus took when he became human. Had he taken the nature of Adam before the Fall? The nature of Adam after the Fall? The nature of his contemporaries after more than one hundred generations of sinners? Everyone agreed he had been tempted, but did he have the inclination, the disposition, to sin? How could he have the sinful nature of his contemporaries and not be tainted by the sin of Adam and his descendents?
Many of my fellow students thought he had taken the nature of Adam before the Fall in order not to be touched by sin. Following this line of reasoning, the Church formulated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary with the passage of time. Neither from the father nor the mother did he receive a sinful inheritance. Of course, this only became necessary after St. Augustine formulated the doctrine of original sin as something transmitted by sexual acts.
Others of my fellow students thought that, had this been the case, Jesus walked the earth without experimenting temptation in the same way as his contemporaries and their descendents. Those who affirmed that the last generation to live on earth would lead lives without sin, of course, affirmed that Jesus was fully tempted and had shown that humans living in the flesh could resist temptation. He is the perfect model of the one who triumphs over temptation and sin.
For most Adventists, however, sinful human nature is not characterized by the loss of certain faculties or the disposition to sin but by a state of depravity that renders humans incapable of doing good. The human condition is hopeless. If this is the case, can we say that Jesus was born in this condition? Given this dilemma, it seems to me that most Adventists hold dear a Jesus who is totally divine. He was born with the full advantage of his divine prerogatives, which allowed him to keep himself out of the reach of sin. His participation in the life of humanity was only the means to his death on the Cross as the expiatory lamb.
The debates about the human nature of Jesus, which have consumed much energy among Adventists in recent decades, have been ridiculously sterile. Participants and spectators have not acquired knowledge through them. These debates demonstrate the desire to impose requirements of sanctity on those who wish to enter through the Pearly Gates of the eschatological Jerusalem. In other words, these debates allow some people to think they have the secret of salvation, and they dispense it with a reproachable paternalism. What these people posses, however, is more spiritual haughtiness than wisdom.
Those who insist that the Second Coming cannot take place before certain persons on earth live in perfect imitation of Jesus must construct a Jesus who lived without sin despite having all the sinful heritage of his ancestors. As the model to be imitated, he had no advantages. Christian life is life in imitation of the perfect model left by a Jesus who lived without sin in a fallen human nature.
No doubt followers of Jesus have always thought of him as the model to be imitated. But to use the model to determine its nature is a distortion of its function. Jesus is the model of faith. He was born like all of us are born and lived on behalf of his neighbors by the power of his faith. He did not go to Jerusalem because it was prescribed by his destiny, but because his faith in God allowed him. Paul refers to this aspect of his life when he repeatedly writes about “the faith of Jesus.”
Jesus was born to live the human life of faith, with full confidence in the power of God to vivify those who live under the power of death. For this, he was born “in the flesh.” By his life, he demonstrated that it is possible to live and to die “in the flesh” and to receive life by the power of God. That is what faith accomplishes, whether it uses as its icon the Crucifix or the Mother of God.
I would like to think that debates based on mentally constructed “natures” or “states of perfection” are similar to the proverbial debates held by our ancestors in the faith over the number of angels who could stand on the head of a pin.
Jesus was born, and “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” For the next twelve years, I will be saying this about my dear Danielito. During all these years, we’ll be helping him to develop the faith that gives eternal life.
Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1291