Does Jesus reveal to us what it means to be perfectly human?

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Marc Cortez has written a book called ReSourcing Theological Anthropology: A Constructive Account of Humanity in the Light of Christ. I haven’t read the book, but I know a man who has, and I propose to take issue with the central thesis of Cortez’s book on the strength of Owen Strachan’s mostly enthusiastic review. The problem is that theology is so bent on imposing its totalising programme on scripture that it is unable to grasp the evangelical force—not to mention the exegetical integrity—of the narrative-historical reading.

What does it mean to be human?

The question arises because in the secular West being human is no longer a fixed condition determined from creation by God. In a godless age the nature and goal of humanity is up for grabs. So if our secular societies are furiously debating what it means to be human, it’s not surprising that Christians want to throw in their apologetic two cents—and as always, the answer has to be Jesus.

Cortez’s central argument, then, appears to be that theological anthropology “must be reinterpreted in light of the supernatural telos we see in Jesus”. Humanity is “inherently and inescapably Christotelic or Christological”. We see in Jesus not only the renewal but also the consummation of creation. Therefore, we must “see ourselves as grafted into the story of Christ, headed where Christ now is, able to glorify our Savior by union with him”.

But what exactly are we to understand by the humanity of Jesus? Strachan considers three aspects of Cortez’s thesis: the nature of the temptation of Jesus; the relation between his humanity and his Jewishness; and Cortez’s reluctance to make “gender essentialism” a significant factor in our definition of what it means to be human.

The question about race is thinly developed, and the third—at least as far as Strachan comments on it—has nothing to do with Jesus. The argument about temptation, however, is worth looking at because I think that, when properly understood, it points clearly in the direction of the real significance of the man Jesus for the telos—the goal—of the New Testament.

The temptation of Jesus

The question about temptation, as far as the theologians are concerned, has to do with how we understand the incarnation. Cortez’s view is that Jesus took on our fallen humanity and therefore experienced not only external but also internal temptation. Strachan prefers to stress the “righteous nature” of the God-man, God in human form, who obeys the Father in the power of the Spirit, and has no evil desires.

Either way, the concern is with the theoretical account of Jesus’ humanity and, in particular, with how it combines with his assumed divinity. The biblical data is considered solely for the purpose of informing this debate, which means that the original context from which the data has been mined is entirely disregarded. The theologians, as a result, leave us with what is at best a highly misleading impression of what the New Testament is all about—and I stress at best.

When the New Testament speaks of the “testing” of Jesus (“temptation” is a poor translation), it is not trying to answer a question about his unique divine-human ontology. It is not his humanity that is at issue but his faithfulness.

The interest of the New Testament in the testing (peirasmos) of Jesus lies in two areas.

First, it is a measure of the fact that he refused to take the Satanic path to kingship and glory. He was tested with respect to his vocation as the Son of God (Matt. 4:1-10; Lk. 4:1-12; cf. Matt. 16:23; Mk. 8:33). The “hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11 says at least that he rejected the model of the oriental god-king and obediently took the way of suffering, and for that reason was exalted, to be confessed eventually as Lord by the nations.

The New Testament is not interested in a sinless Jesus other than in the sense that he was faithful to this demanding vocation. He was the son who “learned obedience through what he suffered”, as the writer to the Hebrews says, and who in this way “was made perfect” (teleiōtheis) (Heb. 5:8-9).

The fact is that Jesus did not come to Galilee, directly following the politically significant arrest of John the Baptist, and proclaim that a new humanity or new creation was at hand.

Secondly, he is seen as the faultless model or paradigm for the faithfulness of his followers, who were bound to suffer the same opposition and persecution. This too we find in Hebrews: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). He is therefore a high priest who is able to “sympathise with our weaknesses”, because in every respect he “has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15, modified translation).

To be an imitator of Christ is to share in his sufferings in the hope of sharing in his vindication and glory: “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction” (1 Thess. 1:6).

Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). Who are these “brothers”? They are those who suffer with Christ, as Christ suffered, so that they might be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17). Through their suffering—the “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” that they will be subjected to—they will be “conformed to the image of his Son”.

When it is asserted in 1 Peter that Jesus “committed no sin”, the point is clear. He suffered, setting an example for Peter’s readers to follow; he did not revile in return, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the just judge (1 Pet. 2:22-23). He committed no sin specifically in the sense that he remained faithful and obedient when persecuted, and Peter expected the “elect exiles of the diaspora” to behave in exactly the same way—to suffer without sinning.

So it is a theologically motivated over-interpretation of the texts to say, as Strachan does, that Jesus experienced the full range of suffering and trial in his earthly life as the “true human”. He actually experienced quite a narrow range of suffering and trial, though it was undoubtedly severe; and he suffered not as the true human but as the true Son—the one appointed by YHWH to deliver his people from the consequences of their rebelliousness and rule over the nations.

If others demonstrated the same obedience and faithfulness under the same circumstances, they would be like him, they would be glorified with him, they would get some credit for the triumph of Christ, and they would get to rule with him.

New creation was not the gospel

The fact is that Jesus did not come to Galilee, directly following the politically significant arrest of John the Baptist, and proclaim that a new humanity or new creation was at hand. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mk. 1:14-15), which is a different matter altogether.

Jesus is presented in the Gospels, therefore, not as ideally human, somehow representative of all humanity. He is a Jewish, male prophet-reformer from Nazareth, a descendant of David, who has little time for the Gentiles, who does not marry, who has no children, who engages in a very small range of activities, who is the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel to call the nation to righteousness, who claims to be the greater king than David who will sit at YHWH’s right hand, who is rejected and killed, but who is not abandoned to death.

He is not the perfect human, he is the perfect—or perfected—king.

Yes, he is said to be like Adam or a second Adam but in the context of two circumscribed arguments. The analogy is used in Romans 5:12-20 to account for the fact that righteousness and life become available to many through the action of one man (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22). In 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 it is used to explain the difference between the perishable natural body and the imperishable resurrection body. Those who are raised will share the new ontology of the one who was firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20). But the significance of Jesus’ resurrection is not that he thereby became the ideal human, the telos for humanity. It is that he began a reign from heaven, at the right hand of God, that will continue until the last enemy is destroyed, at which point—this is crucial—the resurrected Son will hand back the authority to rule to the Father (1 Cor. 15:20-28).

The elevated description of Christ in Colossians 1:15-20 is a kingdom statement. The saints in Colossae have been transferred to the kingdom of God’s “beloved Son”, who, like Israel’s king, he is the “firstborn of every creature”, “high among the kings of the earth” (cf. Ps. 88:28 LXX). In him or by him “all things were created”, but these “all things” are “political powers” in heaven and on earth—“thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities”.

The writer sees Jesus as the “head of all rule and authority” (Col. 2:10), in anticipation of his eventual appearing to the world, when his rule will be publicly acknowledged by the nations (cf. Col. 3:4). Here, indeed, we have the supreme telos of New Testament Christology: the one who was executed on a Roman cross will come to rescue and vindicate those who believed in him and to be acclaimed as Lord and King by the nations (cf. Phil. 2:6-11; 3:2-21).

Even in John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth, Jesus appears not as the archetype of a redeemed humanity, not as a glorious new Adam standing in this new world, but as the Lamb (Rev. 21:14, 22; 22:1). He remains the one who was slain, who was declared worthy to open the seals of the scroll of God’s judgment on Israel and the pagan nations (Rev. 5-6), who would finally conquer the kings of the Roman empire, because he is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14).

The group of people that the Lamb is directly and explicitly associated with is the righteous and faithful church, especially those who would suffer because of their witness—the great multitude of people who had come out of the great tribulation, who had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”, who would be shepherded by the Lamb (Rev. 7:14, 17). To conquer “by the blood of the Lamb” was to triumph over death for the sake of the testimony to the one who would rule the nations (Rev. 12:11).

The answer isn’t always Jesus

So I suggest that it is methodologically unsound to put Jesus forward as the ideal human and as the biblical answer to modern secularism’s quest for a new anthropology. He transcends his historical male Jewishness, he breaks out of the apocalyptic narrative about suffering and kingdom, only as he comes to be seen as the embodiment or expression of the Logos or Wisdom of God. But that takes us backwards conceptually, towards creation, rather than forwards in the direction of an eschatologically defined humanity.

The New Testament argument is, first, that Jesus was the Son sent to Israel, who was faithful to death on the cross, who was raised, and who became judge and ruler both of Israel and the nations; and on the strength of that, secondly, that he was identified with the eternal Logos of the creator God. The church developed this identification into a theory of God as three persons. But as both humanity and new humanity, Jesus is the anointed Son who becomes king—or priest-king, after the order of Melchizedek—and who reigns throughout the coming ages for the sake of his people and to the glory of God.

So who should model an authentic, workable, plausible humanity in the twenty-first century? Well, the church, obviously.

Good post! I fell like this perfect human/fully human concept is something NT Wright started pushing pretty hard several years back.

Roger Sacco | Sat, 07/07/2018 - 11:12 | Permalink

If Jesus brain was resurrected hasn’t he been thinking new thoughts about God and His purposes for the past 2000 years?

Roger, wouldn’t it be cool if we had some way of knowing what Jesus has been thinking for the past 2000 years?! I suspect if he weren’t in heaven, depression would have destroyed him long ago.