Was Jesus Perfect God and Perfect Man at the Same
According to Orthodox Christian belief, Jesus was
perfect man and perfect God at the same time. This belief is necessary for
salvation according to the Athanasian creed held dear by most Christians. Modern
Christian scholars reject this idea not because it is difficult to understand
but because it cannot be meaningfully expressed. The doctrine cannot be
stated in any way that is free from contradictions. It is impossible for
Jesus to have been perfect man and perfect God at the same time, for this would
mean that he was finite and infinite at the same time, that he was fallible and
infallible at the same time. This cannot be.
What the creed denies is also quite significant. The
creed was formulated in response to the claims of various early Christian
groups, and so includes clauses that deny the beliefs of those groups. In
response to the Arians who believed that Jesus was not God, the Council of Nicea
(325 A.D.) decreed that he was fully God. In response to the Apollinarians
who believed Jesus was God but not fully human, the council of Constantinople
(381 A.D.) decreed that Jesus was fully human.
Then there was Nestorianism: the belief that started
when Nestorius denied that Mary could be called “Mother of God.” To
him, Mary was mother of the human Jesus only. This implied that
there were two Christs: one divine, the other human. Against Nestorius,
the council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) decreed that the two natures of Jesus cannot
be separated. Everything Jesus does is done by both the humanity and
divinity in him. Likewise, everything that happened to him happened to
both the man and God that he is. Therefore Mary gave birth to both, both
died on the cross, etc.
At yet another council, the council of Chalcedon (451
A.D.) the creed received some finishing touches and the Athanasian creed was
declared official church teaching. Most Christians are not familiar with
the detailed implications of the creed and in their own minds conceive of Jesus
in the very ways the creed was formulated to deny. This tendency results
from the fact that the creed’s definition of Jesus is impossible for any human
mind to comprehend. One can only repeat the words, but cannot grasp the
meaning of the required belief. Therefore most just repeat the creed with
their lips but in their minds turn to views of Jesus that are less taxing on the
intellect, even though those views were declared by the Church to be heretical.
The orthodox doctrine is logically impossible. As
Huston Smith, scholar of comparative religion, points out, it would not have
been logically impossible if the creed said that Jesus was somewhat divine and
somewhat human. But this is expressly what the creed denies. For
orthodox Christians, Jesus cannot possess only some human qualities; he must
possess all. He must be fully human. At the same time, he cannot
possess only some divine qualities; he must have all. He must be fully
divine. This is impossible because to be fully divine means one has to be
free of human limitations. If he has only one human limitation then he is
not God. But according to creed he has every human limitation. How,
then, can he be God? Huston Smith calls this a blatant contradiction.
In his book The World’s Religions, he writes:
We may begin with the doctrine of the Incarnation,
which took several centuries to fix into place. Holding as it does that
in Christ God assumed a human body, it affirms that Christ was God-Man;
simultaneously both fully God and fully man. To say that such a
contention is paradoxical seems a charitable way to put the matter — it
looks more like a blatant contradiction. If the doctrine held that
Christ was half human and half divine, or that he was divine in certain
respects, while being human in others, our minds would not balk. (The
World’s Religions, p. 340).
If it was said that Jesus was partly human and partly
divine that would not be logically impossible but only scripturally impossible.
The Bible nowhere teaches that Jesus was divine in any way. Furthermore,
if he was only partly divine then he was not the One True God of the Old and New
Testaments. God is All-Powerful, not somewhat all-powerful; God is
All-Knowing, not somewhat all-knowing.
C. Randolph Ross is a Christian. In his book Common
Sense Christianity he debunks the orthodox view “not because it is
difficult to understand,” he says, but because “it cannot meaningfully be
said.” He rejects it because “it is impossible,” he says. (Common
Sense Christianity, p. 79). His arguments are so persuasive that I can
do little better than just repeat them. To be human means to be limited, lacking
in knowledge, prone to mistakes, imperfect. To be God means just the
opposite: unlimited, complete in knowledge, infallible, perfect. You
cannot have it both ways. You cannot say of one person that he was both.
Either he was one or the other.
THIS IS NO PARADOX
To those who say this is a paradox, Ross answers
nicely. It is important to understand first of all what is a paradox.
A paradox is something that seems impossible but can be demonstrated to be
true. On the other hand, the creedal statement may seem true to some
people but logic demonstrates it to be false. Ross argues with an example
that makes the point succinct:
“Ah!” some will say. “That’s the
paradox!” No, it isn’t a paradox. This is a very important
point, so please take special note: a paradox is something which seems
impossible but which is demonstrably true. Thus, it was a paradox when
some scientist carefully analyzed bumblebees and concluded that according to
the laws of physics they couldn’t fly. There was contradiction and
apparent impossibility, but bumblebees kept on flying.
However, for an individual to be both perfect and
imperfect is the reverse of this: it may seem true to some, but it is
demonstrably impossible. And not just impossible according to our
understanding of the laws of nature, which can be wrong (as with the
bumblebee), but impossible according to the rules of logic upon which all our
reasoning is based. (p. 82)
Let me elaborate this last point. Human
observation and analysis can turn out to be incorrect. This was the case
with the scientist who figured that according to the laws of Physics bumblebees
could not fly. The flaw in his procedure is that our understanding of the
laws of nature is always improving. New knowledge often declare old to be
false. But with the rules of logic things are different. What is
true by definition will always remain true unless we start redefining things.
For example, 2+2=4. This equation will always remain true. The
only way this can ever become false is if we decide to change the definitions of
the component parts. Now, by definition, a thing cannot be the opposite of
itself. A thing cannot be perfect and imperfect at the same time. The
presence of one of these qualities implies the absence of the other. Jesus
was either one or the other. He cannot logically be both. Ross is
very eloquent on this:
To say someone is perfect and imperfect is like
saying that you saw a square circle. This is an impossibility. Are
you saying the circle was not round, in which case it was not a circle? Or
are you saying the square was circular? This is not a paradox; this is
meaningless nonsense, however imaginative it might be. (p. 82)
To develop this point further, I tried to relate it to
what can and cannot be said about Jesus according to the creed. In the
diagram we see a figure that is somewhat round and somewhat square. It is
unorthodox to say that Jesus was somewhat man and somewhat God. Even the
models that combine a circle and a square one inside the other do not work, for
in each case you have two objects clearly separable. Orthodoxy does not
allow this for the two natures of Jesus. To satisfy the requirements of
orthodoxy we must find an object which is at once a circle and a square. By
definition, such an object cannot exist (see accompanying diagram, next
The difficulty is not with believing what the creed
says. The problem is that the creed in effect says nothing. When we
are told two opposites what then are we to believe? Ross puts it nicely:
To say that someone is perfect and imperfect at the
same time is to say that “X” and “not-X” can both be true. This
is either to abandon the meaning of these words or else to abandon logic, and
in either case this means we are speaking nonsense that can have no meaning
for us. (p. 82)
The orthodox say that Jesus was imperfect with regards
to his human nature but perfect with regards to his divine nature. The
problem with this position is that it implies the existence of two persons
occupying the one body of Jesus: one perfect, the other imperfect. You
need for this two minds, two wills, two characters. But the creed does not
allow this necessary conclusion and insists that Jesus was not two persons but
one only. Now, this one person had to be either perfect or not, infallible
or not, unlimited in knowledge or not. You cannot say of the same person
that he was both.
When Jesus faced death on the cross according to
Christian belief, either he faced it with the human belief that he would be
raised on the third day, or he faced death with the infallible knowledge that he
would be so raised. If he believed with human faith in God’s power to
raise him then he himself was not God. If, on the other hand, he faced
death with infallible divine knowledge that he would be resurrected, then he was
not taking any real risk in letting himself die. If the divine nature in
him knew he would be raised, but he did not know this, then it was not his
divine nature. If the divine nature knew something he did not, we are back
to two persons.
This could get more difficult to explain as we look at
the deeds reported of Jesus in the gospels and ask whether the divine or human
nature or both performed those deeds. Let us consider the episode where
Jesus curses the fig tree. First, the account as it appears in Mark:
Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig
tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached
it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.
The he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
(Mark 11:12-14, NIV)
As a result, the tree withered from the roots (v. 20).
Now, a few things are clear from this episode.
- Jesus did not know the tree had no fruit until he
went up to the tree and found nothing but leaves.
- When Jesus saw leaves from a distance he hoped to
find fruit on the tree.
- It was not fig season, and this is why the tree had
no figs. This comment from Mark clearly, implies that it was a
perfectly good tree. If the tree was barren, Mark’s comment about
the season would have been pointless and misleading.
- Jesus did not know it was not fig season. If
he had known this, he would not have expected the tree to have fruit, and he
would not have cursed the tree for having no fruit.
- The whole thing began when Jesus felt hungry.
Now it is easy to understand that the human Jesus felt
hunger, and that the human Jesus did not know it was not fig season and so
mistakenly expected the tree to have fruit. A divine Jesus would have
known all these, and would not have to go to the tree to discover it had no
fruit; he would not have been hungry in the first place.
Now the cursing of the tree is a little more difficult
for those who assert the divinity of Jesus. His miracles, they say, are
performed by his divine nature. Okay, so the divine Jesus cursed the tree.
But why? Why ruin a tree which in Mark’s view was a perfectly good
tree? Come fig season this tree would have had fruit and others could have
eaten from it. The reason was that the human Jesus made a mistake. But
why did the divine Jesus act upon the mistake of the human Jesus? Does the
human mind in Jesus guide the divine nature in him? Actually, there is no
warrant for all this speculation, for scripture nowhere says that Jesus has two
natures. Those who want to believe contrary to scripture that Jesus was
fully human yet fully divine can go on speculating.
Some will say that everything is possible with God, and
that we are using words here with their human meanings. This is true.
Everything is possible with God. We believe that. If you tell
me God did such and such and He is such and such I cannot say it is impossible.
But what if you say “God did and did not,” or “He is and is not?”
Your statements are meaningless. When you say that Jesus is perfect
God and perfect man at the same time you are saying two opposite things. Therefore,
I reply, “Impossible!”
So what we need here is to hear it said with meaning.
If you think that the words have a different or deeper meaning, when
applied to God I cannot help agreeing with you. But I would like to know
with what meaning you are using those words. Ross explains:
If you wish to redefine some of these words, that’s
fine, as long as you can tell us the new meanings that you are using. The
usual practice, however, seems to be to say that while one cannot say
precisely what these new meanings are, one is nevertheless sure that they fit
together in a way that makes sense. This, of course, is simply an effort
to duck the requirements of logic. But if you do not know the meanings
of the words which you are applying to Jesus, then you are simply saying
“Jesus is X” and “Jesus is Y,” X and Y being unknowns. This, of
course, is to say nothing at all. (p. 83)
As a result of this confusion, many Christians revert
to the idea that Jesus had two natures that are separable. Sometimes he
acts as a human and sometimes he acts as God. This, of course, is not
supported by scripture, and it would have been wiser to move to the scriptural
position that Jesus was a man and a servant of God (See Matthew 12:18, Acts
3:13, Acts 4:27 in the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version).
William Ellery Channing is one of many Christians who
have moved to that scriptural position. He wrote thus:
Where do you meet, in the New
Testament, the phraseology which abounds in Trinitarian books and which
necessarily grows from the doctrine of two natures in Jesus? Where does
this divine teacher say, "this I speak as God, and this as man; this is
true only of my human mind, this only of my divine?” Where do we find
in the Epistles a trace of this strange phraseology? Nowhere. It
was not needed in that day. It was demanded by the errors of a later
We believe, then that Christ is one mind, one being, and, I
add, a being distinct from the one God. That Christ is not the one God,
not the same being with the father, is a necessary inference from our former
head, in which we saw that the doctrine of three persons in God is a fiction .
. . . Jesus, in his preaching, continually spoke of God. The word
was always in his mouth. We ask, does he by this word ever mean
himself? We say, never. On the contrary, he most plainly
distinguishes between God and himself, and so do his disciples. (William
Ellery Channing, Unitarian Christianity and Other Essays, edited
by Irving H. Bartlett (U.S.: Liberal Arts Press, 1957) pp. 17-18)
Channing contends that since the doctrine of the two
natures is “so strange, so difficult, so remote from all the previous
conceptions of men,” it would have been taught with utmost clarity in the
Bible had it been a necessary belief for Christians. But no such
teaching can be found in the Bible. Some Christians say, however, that
some passages ascribe divine qualities to Jesus and others human qualities.
To reconcile all these necessitates the said doctrine. Channing
replies that those passages that seem to ascribe divine qualities to Jesus can
be easily explained without resorting to the doctrine. He regards with
disdain what he understands to be the solution proposed by other Christians:
In other words, for the purpose of reconciling
certain difficult passages, which a just criticism can in a great degree, if
not wholly, explain, we must invent a hypothesis vastly more difficult, and
involving gross absurdity. We are to find our way out of a labyrinth by
a clue which conducts us into mazes infinitely more inextricable. (p. 17)
Many, like Channing, after thorough study have
concluded that Jesus was simply a man chosen by God to deliver His message.
The mighty works he did were by the permission and aid of God. Jesus
of his own could do nothing. The book The Myth of God Incarnate,
edited by John Hick, is a collection of essays written by practicing Christian
theologians and clergymen. Anyone who still has a doubt about this matter
should read that book.
Finally, we must turn to God for His guidance. He
sent His final book, the Qur’an to rescue mankind from the theological traps
of humanly invented dogmas. The Qur’an addresses Christians and Jews:
O people of the Scripture! Now hath Our
Messenger come unto you, expounding unto you much of that which ye used to
hide of the Scripture, and forgiving much. Now hath come unto you light
from Allah and a plain Scripture, whereby Allah guideth him who seeketh His
good pleasure unto paths of peace. He bringeth them out of darkness into
light by His decree, and guideth them unto a straight path. (Qur’an
Say: O People of the Scripture! Stress
not in your religion other than the truth, and follow not the vain desires of
the folk who erred of old and led many astray, and erred from the plain road.
Let us pray to Allah for His help. Nothing is
possible without His help. O Allah! Guide us and guide all of
humankind on the straight path.