You Might Have the Wrong Jesus
Growing up in a Mennonite community meant hearing of many people with the same name. It seemed as if parents a couple of generations before me didn't mind sharing their son or daughter's name with a few others, meaning an influx of children named John or Peter or Henry or Dave. These often shared last names, too. Nowadays, to mention one of these names, you must spend a great deal of time explaining who they are by location or relation to avoid mistaking them with another of the same name. It's so commonplace we even have a name for it too: "The Mennonite Game."
The person mistaken most often and widespread of any historical figure has to be Jesus Christ of Nazareth. From the early church period through the Reformation to today, who Jesus is and what He does for us has most often been the case of controversy. Either Jesus is portrayed as too human, or He is portrayed as too divine.
The early Church wrestled with the divinity of Christ for various reasons. To start, the Old Testament revelation of God being One (Deut. 6:4) weighed heavily on their understanding of the apostle John's description of Christ as the logos (Word). Perhaps it was Plato's philosophy of Being and Becoming (that God as perfect Being could never become something) or their attempt to gain the same societal privileges as Judaism that brought them to see Christ as someone less than the Father—or even created by the Father.
However, a council in Nicaea convened and upheld the biblical understanding of Christ as truly God and truly man, eternally begotten of the Father. Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria at the time, was a crucial figure in defending the deity of Christ, and his argument was simple: Jesus had to be truly God and truly man at the same time for our salvation. Only God can pay the wages of man's sin, but only man can die, so only one who is truly God and truly man can atone for our sins.
As the medieval Church progressed in the west, it developed an understanding of Christ too deified to approach. In the east, the Church stayed as close as it could to the Nicene Creed. The western Church's understanding of Christ led them away from the apostolic faith by claiming Mary, the mother of Jesus, could put in a good word to her son on behalf of pious believers. Surely Jesus would listen to his mother, they thought. This, however, proved disastrous for the Church. Because Jesus was out of reach, those who wished to come to Him had to jump through the proverbial loopholes set by the Church, which turned Christianity upside down.
The 16th Century Reformation made great strides in correcting this pernicious error, especially Martin Luther, who championed Christ as our Great High Priest. Luther taught that Christ willingly hears our prayers and resides closely with us through His Spirit.
Imagine for a minute living your entire life believing you had to perform certain rites, pray certain prayers, and perform enough good works for a slim chance of Christ noticing your needs. Then, you hear of Christ who cares for you, who Himself helps you and is gracious to you, and feels with you because He once walked among us. Correcting this error proved to be one of the most important doctrinal and practical changes of the Reformation. It was as fresh air and clean water to a polluted desert. They didn't overcorrect by denying Christ's divinity and upholding His humanity. Instead, they returned to the equation of the early Church: truly God, truly man.
R.C. Sproul once made an important distinction between saying Jesus was "fully God and fully man," and saying Jesus was "truly God and truly man." He pointed out that using the term "full" speaks of substance, meaning Jesus could not be divine in any way if He was fully man. However, the term "truly," describes the mystery of the union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ.
Where our modern enlightened and industrial age gets Jesus wrong is in overemphasizing Jesus' humanity over His deity. This is because, first and foremost, we see ourselves as self-sufficient. We are a lot more inward-focused than previous generations, which causes us to care most about the practical and the present. Thus, we drift towards the humanity of Jesus over His deity, and many have forgotten His deity entirely.
I have noticed this drift over the past ten years as a result of a just-follow-Jesus theology. For whatever reason, Christianity in large turned to this practical model of Christianity, a model where we are called to act in the same way Jesus acted. As a result, our eyes are turned away from Jesus's doctrinal and theological teachings to His practical teachings and works, most notably loving others. And the result of that is a Jesus who tries to appease the culture. In overemphasizing the humanity of Christ and focusing on His love, we now have a popular version of Jesus with no idea of sin, holiness, or regeneration; a Jesus who is okay with sinful lifestyles because He "loves everyone."
The danger in overemphasizing either Christ's deity or humanity is not so much a practical thing (although we heavily experience it); it is in our departure from Scripture. I will admit, I followed the just-follow-Jesus theology for a short while after high school, but I soon realized just how much of Jesus's teachings they skipped, let alone the men Jesus commissioned as His mouthpieces to the world. Because of this, it seemed as though the further one advanced into that theology, the further one drifted from reality and the Bible's responses to real and pressing questions. It created a fantasy world.
When Jesus is stripped of His deity, and thus His divine power and holiness, we are stripped of a Jesus who can save us, and thus a Jesus who gives hope to the downtrodden and rest to the weary. But the opposite is true, too: Jesus without His humanity is a Jesus who cannot relate to us—a Jesus who cannot reach us. Make Jesus too human, and you have a relatable Jesus without the power to save. You are left with a Jesus who needs your help. Make Jesus too deified, and you have a powerful but distant, unrelatable Jesus. You are left with a Jesus who only notices you if you've worked hard enough to produce enough good works.
What must we do to keep the balance between Jesus' humanity and divinity? I think the best place to start is the early Church, where the most significant struggle over this concept played out. Then, turn to the Reformation in the 16th Century, where the contrast of an overly deified Jesus showcased the biblical Jesus. There you will begin to see how necessary it is to your faith to understand Christ right, and there you will find that proper understanding, especially in these words:
[Jesus Christ] the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried. The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end.
We must reclaim that old creed and never let it go.