“Fully human, fully divine.” That’s how Jesus Christ was described by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. Christian theologians and philosophers had wrestled for several hundred years as they sought to come to terms with who Jesus was and is. That wrestling has not ceased in the 1600 years since.
Throughout the history of the Church, non-believers have objected to the Christian belief in Christ’s divinity. “Sure, Jesus was a good man, a worthy teacher, a courageous revolutionary. But quit with all that talk equating Jesus with God.” If only we could!
I find it interesting that for many who are able to put their faith in Jesus as one who is co-equal with God, the harder issue has been to believe that Jesus was truly human. The Docetic heresy of the second century found the idea of a human Jesus repugnant, arguing that the Lord only “seemed” to be human, only “seemed” to suffer, only “seemed” to be one of us. Such an enfleshment would be “unthinkable” for a truly divine being. But the early Church pushed back hard against Docetism, rejecting it as a dangerous misunderstanding of who Jesus was. Why? Because the human side of Jesus matters deeply to a vital faith.
One reason for the Church’s pushback was theological and philosophical. Many Greek philosophers considered matter to be inherently evil, which caused them to disparage the human body in favor of the human spirit. Plato had argued that the human soul longed to be free from the body like a bird from a cage. But Christians, in line with their Jewish forbearers, understood that the whole universe, including humans and matter, was created by God, and was therefore good. John’s teaching that the “Word became flesh” was understood as God’s affirmation of the human body. Against early false teachers, 1 John 4:2-3 argued, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
Another reason for the Church’s rejection of Docetism was practical and pastoral. When humans are going through great trials and temptations, it is extremely helpful to know that Christ our Lord knows and understands. The writer of Hebrews encouraged his readers to approach God’s throne boldly because Jesus sympathizes with our human weaknesses, having gone through his own testing. As such, Jesus is a high priest who intercedes on our behalf for God’s grace in our times of need. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later reflect that “only a suffering God can help.” In other words, for humans who have endured great suffering, the understanding that God has taken on human form and has stood in solidarity with human suffering on the cross makes a tremendous difference. God is not removed from our struggles. God came near. May we affirm with great gratitude that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human!