Divinity of Jesus under fire

New debate cuts to heart of Christian doctrine

Saturday, December 6, 1997
By Lila Sarick
The Globe and Mail

The debate is as old as Christianity.

It began in the Bible, according to the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was.

Since then, religious scholars, preachers and the people who sit in the pews every Sunday have tried to explain a life lived 2,000 years ago shrouded in myth, mystery and dogma.

Every culture has always depicted Jesus in its own terms. Portraits of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus who was born in a snow-covered stable say little about the realities of first-century Palestine but volumes about the artist.

But the current debate goes further than cultural trappings. Questions about Jesus's divinity and the physical fact of the resurrection have become a doctrinal testing ground for Christians.

The Jesus Seminar, a group of New Testament and classics scholars who meet periodically in California, has given the debate a high-profile gloss.

The seminars are best known for their colour-coded method of voting on whether the words and the deeds attributed to Jesus were historically spoken or performed by him. Ater debating and reading each other's papers, scholars vote on whether Jesus's statement or deed is fairly attributed to him by casting coloured beads. Red means Jesus definitely said or did it, pink means probably, grey means perhaps and black means absolutely not.

Magazine articles and books by seminar members and their critics have become a booming industry.

Once a sleepy domain in the ivory tower, New Testament studies have become one of the most hotly contested fields in the humanities. It was into this ferment that the moderator of the United Church of Canada wandered two months ago when he expressed his views casting doubts on Jesus's full divinity and on his physical resurrection.

"I believe that in Jesus we know as much of God as is possible in a human being, but he did not reveal nor represent all of God," Right Rev. Bill Phipps has explained.

The disciples experienced a "profound event" after Jesus's death, but Mr. Phipps has said he does not need to believe in a bodily resurrection.

In retrospect, the moderator of Canada's largest Protestant denomination said he was surprised by the storm he generated, pointing out that these ideas have been current in theological school for years.

While he waited for the church's governing body to decide his fate, he concluded that he had stepped on two land mines.

The first, Mr. Phipps said in an interview, is people's deep spiritual yearning. The second is their realization that the world has lost its moral course.

Dallying in mine fields is dangerous, but the moderator was lucky. He was not removed from his post or even muzzled. But his remarks have rekindled the discussion, not just among the devout but among people who rarely show up in church, as to who Jesus was. For many, Mr. Phipps's remarks are heresy.

"The Bible says the fullness of God is in Jesus," said Rev. Graham Scott, a United Church pastor who heads one of the conservative movements in the church. "Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Both, not partly."

Scholars relying on new archeological finds in Galilee, near Jesus's birthplace, and ancient manuscripts discovered this century have suggested that Jesus was more Hellenized, or Greek, than previously thought.

Others, who wish to legitimize the church's political role, emphasize Jesus's social activism.

But conservative Christians reject these theories as too far removed from a literal reading of the text.

"I'm afraid the liberal approach to reading the book of Jesus ends up being a mirror. You end up seeing your own ideals coming back at you," said John Stackhouse, who teaches religion at the University of Manitoba.

"The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar looks an awful lot like what late 20th-century professional males would find as a hero in the first century and not someone who challenges you."

Jesus certainly preached about the poor and marginalized, but his most important job, his destiny, was to build a bridge between man and God, these conservative Christians argue.

"Jesus's concern for the poor and disadvantaged could certainly motivate someone to care for the poor and disadvantaged. If the concern for justice is divorced from the traditional spiritual teachings, . . . then we don't have a Christian clergyman anymore, we have a social worker," Prof. Stackhouse said.

Jesus had enough power to upset the social and political order, but he didn't, Prof. Stackhouse noted.

This view of Jesus is supported by an overwhelming majority of Christian Canadians and has remained constant over time, despite pronouncements from theological colleges.

In a 1995 survey, sociologist Reginald Bibby, who teaches at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, asked Canadians, "Do you believe Jesus was the divine son of God?"

Nationally, 72 per cent of Canadians said yes. Anglicans scored slightly below the national average, with 69 per cent believing in the divinity of Jesus and conservative Protestants (evangelicals) scoring the highest, with 96 per cent believing. United Church members, reflecting the group's mainstream position in Canadian society, scored almost the same as the national average, with 73 per cent believing in the divinity of Jesus.

In a poll Prof. Bibby conducted in 1992, 80 per cent of teen-agers believed in the divinity of Jesus.

"Even though people aren't actively involved in church, it doesn't mean their belief levels are low," Prof. Bibby said in an interview. "For the rationalists and theologians, they're really misreading the times. The average people are still holding onto these beliefs rather tenaciously." Rev. Robert Bater, a United Church minister and a participant in the Jesus Seminars, also uses the word heresy. "To say Jesus was God was never an orthodox position. In fact, it was a heresy."

The early church councils, which proposed that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, would be aghast at the statement that Jesus is God, he argued. "Jesus came to live an ordinary life, to wean people away from that need to be overwhelmed by something supernatural."

FOR Mr. Bater, the bottom line for Christians is a belief that Jesus was a unique messenger from God who revealed God's nature and will in a way never done before or since.

In his image of Jesus, compassion is paramount. Mr. Bater points to the parable in the Gospel of Luke of the wealthy man who ends up in hell not because of his beliefs but because he ignored the beggar at his gate.

One way to understand the current debate about Jesus is to look at the controversy when Charles Darwin introduced the theory of evolution.

"When people start to demonstrate that some of the ways are not essential to Christian faith, as Darwin did, as Galileo did, the response is to become more fervent and deny that," Mr. Bater said. "Only this time the issue is the life of Christ, not when the world was created."

Some scholars take an even more radical view of Jesus, portraying him as a "party animal" who enjoyed eating, drinking and socializing with society's outcasts.

Leif Vaage, a professor of New Testament at the Toronto School of Theology and a participant in the Jesus Seminar, deliberately used the words "party animal" to popularize academic jargon.

He said his Jesus is more like a street person or a hippie than a university professor and not necessarily someone you would like to invite for tea after church.

Reactions to Mr. Vaage's scholarship have predictably been mixed. "Some people within the United Church have told me this is the sort of history that makes it possible to believe again in the Christian project. Then, of course, there are other people who think it is a challenge to all that is good and holy in Christian belief."

Mr. Vaage is also a Lutheran pastor who preaches on Sunday mornings. When he reaches those scriptural passages that illustrate his research, he doesn't hesitate to explain his historical understanding of Jesus.

BUT he pointed out there is a difference between historical reconstructions and religious beliefs.

"In my own preaching, I happily talk about what is revealed of God through Jesus. I'm very careful to speak about Jesus and us and God in ways that respect the differences as a way of avoiding these polemical reductions in public speech."

In every age, suggested Very Rev. Douglas Stoute, the Anglican dean of Toronto, religious leaders walk the fine line of explaining the mystery of God and Jesus in their own terms while remaining faithful to the Bible and tradition.

The challenge for religious leaders is to bridge the gap between the subtle, sophisticated world of scholarship and their listeners in the pews who often bring with them a "Sunday school" image of Jesus.

"What frequently happens is a leader will say something bold and stark and that's where the trouble begins. You take scholarship and reduce it to a sound bite and the people are quite rightly confused. What Christian leaders need to be doing is exercising far more of their office of teacher. It's a dialogue, not just a sound bite."

But while religious scholarship has contributed to the mainline churches' understanding of the Bible, it has also stripped away something essential, he said.

"We have lost something of the mystery of that revelation by trying to boil it down to its lowest common rational denominator," he said. "You can both be mainline and embrace that mystery with integrity."