In the early church, the first great theological threat came from what we now call “Gnosticism” (a later version of which is called “Manichaeism,” one of the religious stages that Augustine navigated before becoming a Christian). Gnosticism is difficult to pin down to a list of theological issues, because it had many facets, so let me explain it in three stages:
- Gnosticism starts with hard-nosed dualism, a separation of the physical and the non-physical world. In religious terms, this is a division between the physical world and the spiritual world. A version of this can be found in the idealism of Plato (one author characterized Gnosticism as “Platonism gone wild”), but from a theological perspective, this means that the physical world is inferior and sinful while the spiritual world is superior and true. The spiritual world is the realm of God (or the gods depending on your religious perspective).
- Because of this dualism, we must assume that human bodies are evil and sinful. This makes the Doctrine of the Incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus, preposterous. The Gnostics did not have problems with the divinity of Jesus, they denied his humanity.
- If Jesus were not truly human, then he was unable to do that most human of all things: die. Simply put, the non-human Jesus of the Gnostics could not have died on the cross, and therefore the idea of a perfect eternal sacrifice for human sins is not possible. For this reason, Gnosticism understood salvation as possible by the gaining of spiritual knowledge, esoteric secrets that would enable a person to transcend human frailty and be united with God. This is where the term “Gnostic” comes from, the Greek word gnosis means “knowledge.”
In the church today, Jesus is often treated as a non-human being. Many people think that his episode of temptations by Satan were something of a charade, that he could not have sinned. Artists often portray him as serene and other-worldly, lacking human emotions and concerns. Hollywood film productions featuring Jesus certainly did this for many years. In the epic Ben Hur (1959), the face of Jesus is never even shown, giving no opportunity to display his humanity. The last great film of this type was King of Kings (1961), which portrayed Jesus as immune to any sort of emotion. This is sometimes seen in Christmas art, where the Babe of Bethlehem is pictured as a fully cognizant adult in miniature. This is also why the suggestion that he might have been married is distasteful for many Christians, because that just makes him too human. (I am not suggesting Jesus was married, there is no evidence for this, but the possibility does not upset me theologically.)
How doe we overcome this Gnostic tendency in the church today, the avoidance of the humanity of Jesus? This is no easy task, and we need to be deliberate and careful. An overemphasis upon the divinity of Christ leads to a denial of his humanity. An overemphasis upon the humanity of Christ leads to a denial of his divinity. Consider this:
- The Gnostics saw Jesus as 100% divine and 0% human = heresy
- A later group, the Arians, saw Jesus as 100% created being and 0% eternal divinity = heresy
- Many have proposed a solution that sees Jesus as 50% human and 50% divine, or some variation of this = heresy also.
- The Orthodox solution is that Jesus is 100% human and 100% divine.
This does not make logical sense, but logic should never be the master or judge of theology and doctrine. There are paradoxes in theology that are beyond our comprehension. Our inability to grasp them fully does not make them untrue. This is where Christian faith is a matter of faith.
I am beginning a class on the letters of John, and John is certainly fighting some type of early Gnosticism within his churches. He makes a big deal about touching the human Jesus, an impossibility for a purely spiritual being. In our current struggle to convince unbelievers of Christ’s divinity, may we never forget his humanity.
Nebraska Christian College