Somewhere in the Christmas season between singing the first carol and opening the last present, several related questions cross many minds: Was Jesus of Nazareth really the son of God? Was he truly conceived by the Holy Spirit? Was his mother genuinely a virgin? In short, does the Christmas story actually make sense?
Our first response must be that absolute proof either way is impossible. The best we can do is to follow our best reading of the evidence. Requiring evidence that is preponderant or clear and convincing makes sense. But insisting that it be beyond a reasonable or possible doubt is asking too much. Theology is not mathematics. But neither are law, history, surgery and most other legitimate fields of study and practice.
Although it is obvious, we must also state up front that these questions cannot even surface if one holds that religious language tells us much about those who use it but virtually nothing else, that the God whom Jesus claimed as his Father does not exist and never has, or that there never was a historical Jesus of any sort. These are illustrative non-starters and there are many others.
Another challenge is that many of Christianity’s most important conclusions were formulated and expressed in ways of thinking that are increasingly doubtful even though they probably were the best alternatives at the time. This makes it difficult to keep them in mind.
The outcomes of the very important Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD are a case in point. Among other things, they depict Jesus as “of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood.” They went on to declare that this was “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence.”
One embarrasses one self, perhaps without knowing it, if one dismisses such lines as mere gibberish because each detail heads off an influential but erroneous belief even though today many of us don’t remember what these were. Yet it is true that thinking in terms of “substances” and “natures” as did a number of the ancient Greeks loses credibility among many contemporary people with every passing year.
These Greek thought patterns strike me as almost as foreign to ancient Hebrew ways of thinking as they are to ours and this is especially decisive when we are talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Most of us with European backgrounds are Greek enough in our thinking that we typically try to figure out what a thing can do by first determining what it is. But it seems to me that the Hebrews often did it the other way around. They figured out what a thing is by first determining what it does. “Being” or “Act:” which comes first? For the Greeks we are discussing, “Being” did but for the pertinent Hebrews it was “Act.”
We often see the more Greek pattern in books about the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. They often begin with discussions of his “nature” and then move on to considerations of his “work.” But in addition to not being a very Hebrew way of structuring a line of thought, this requires us to answer questions about the virgin birth of Jesus and his conception by the Holy Spirit and similar things very early and often that is as far as we get.
How much better it is to begin with the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus and only then ask what all this suggests about who he was! If on these grounds we conclude that he must have been the unmatched human presence of God, it is easier for us to understand the accounts of his conception by the Holy Spirit virgin birth and so forth as ways of making this clear.
It would be easy to misunderstand me to mean that the stories we have inherited about the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth are nothing but figures of speech. This is not what I am saying. To be sure, all language is more or less figurative. But for me this is the wrong point to make at this juncture. I take these stories literally. I don’t know how to be clearer than this.
Yet I inferentially believe that these stories are literal. I do not begin with them but with what the New Testament otherwise says about Jesus. Also, I scarcely understand the birth of any baby; the birth of this One is something I do fathom not at all.
If we stand at Christmas we might never see Easter. But if we stand at Easter, we almost certainly will see Christmas.
Having said all this, after making my own position as clear as I can, I add that one can be a genuine Christian even if one takes these stories to be nothing but figures of speech that convey in narrative form that in Jesus of Nazareth God uniquely became one of us. On this I stand squarely on the New Testament because no where do I recall it saying that in order to be a true Christian one must believe that these stories are literally true.
Jesus told a rich young ruler that in order to be saved he should keep God’s commandments. (Luke 18: 18 – 25. All citations are from the New Revised Standard Version.) Paul and Silas told a jailer in Philippi that he should “believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16: 11 – 40) And according to the First Letter of John, “every spirit that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” and that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, has been born of God.” (I John 4: 2 & 5: 1). This is what counts most of all.
Take these stories literally if you can; take them figuratively if you must. Either way they can bless you!
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2061