The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life
On Christian Doctrine, Part 2
In Part 1 of this series on Christian theology, we took a brief look at some of the competing ideas alive in the early Christian church concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, and the nature of his relationship to God. We briefly compared the interpretations of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.
While John taught that Christ’s life and relationship to God was a unique historical event, Thomas believed that Jesus was a paradigmatic example of the relationship that all persons have to the divine. These imply radically different concepts of salvation: for John, salvation consists in affirming Christ’s death and resurrection, while for Thomas it consisted of coming into accord with your personal relationship to God.
For those who have studied Indian philosophy, the resonances between Thomas’ soteriology and Indian models of liberation, such as those taught by the Buddhist, Jaina, and Advaita Vedanta schools, is immediately apparent. It is interesting to note that Thomas is believed by some traditions to have traveled to India, and an extant community of South Indian Christians traces their own lineage back to Thomas.
The extra-canonical Acts of Thomas describes his ministry and martyrdom in India. It begins with an episode in which Christ, after his resurrection, instructs Thomas to go to India to teach, and Thomas replies “How can I, who am a Hebrew, go forth and preach among the Indians?” (1) When he refuses to go, Christ sells Thomas into slavery to an Indian trader, who brings him home, and there his adventures begin.
I am not certain to account for the apparent significance of this Indian tradition claiming a lineage back to Thomas and the affinities the Gospel of Thomas shows with Indian philosophy. Thomas’ gospel is quite early – earlier than the Gospel of John – and if extraneous religious ideas were interpolated onto the gospel, one would expect that to occur at a relatively late date. The Acts of Thomas dates to the third century, for example. It’s a mystery to me, what is going on there.
In Part 1 of this series, we also looked at the doctrine of the Trinity and the unsuccessful attempt by the church to exclude female representations of divinity, which has everywhere been challenged by the Cult of Mary. It is worth noting that the early churches in the Arabian peninsula and in Egypt may have glorified or even deified the Virgin. The religious historian Jonathan P. Berkey notes that in the centuries before Muhammad, many Arabs appear to have interpreted the Trinity as consisting of God, Jesus, and Mary. In support of this reading, Berkey cites a Koranic verse in which Jesus denies being the Son of God (2):
And when God said, ‘O
Jesus son of Mary,
didst thou say unto men,
“Take me and my mother
as gods, apart from God”?
[Jesus] said, “To Thee be
glory! It is not mine to
say what I have no right
Berkey notes the proximity of Arabia to the Ionian colony of Ephesus, which, as we noted in Part One of this series, was a prominent center of goddess worship, and the site of a great temple dedicated to Artemis Ephesia. It was at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE that Mary was affirmed to be “God-Bearer” (Theotokos).
It is also worth noting that the Christian church assimilated the iconography of Mary with the infant Christ from an ancient tradition in Egypt, depicting the goddess Isis and the baby Horus.
The religious imagination will not tolerate suppression of the divine feminine for long, and institutional attempts to eliminate it are constantly challenged by forceful, spontaneous attempts of the psyche to formulate symbols of this kind. Mary the God-Bearer lies within easy reach of Mary the Goddess-Mother, as the Koran and other evidence from the Middle Ages will corroborate. As a caveat, however, it should be borne in mind that the Western Church values Mary’s status as God-Bearer primarily in the light of what it says about Christ’s divinity, not for what it says about Mary.
The Problem of Christ’s Dual Nature, Both Human and Divine
Continuing our evaluation of Christian doctrine, I would like to look at the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures, as it was formulated in 451 CE at the Council of Chalcedon. It is my belief that this Council painted the church into an unenviable corner, insisting upon the literal truth of a doctrine that cannot be accepted as such.
By the time of this council, it had already been established at Nicea that Jesus Christ was the third persona of the Trinity. In addition to being the Logos, co-eterntal with the God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, he was also believed to be the human son of Mary.
According to church doctrine, Christ was incarnated, lived as a man, suffered death, and rose again, and this human death was vital for the atonement of human sins. The conceptual vocabulary of atonement in early theology was closely modeled on contemporaneous legal doctrines of atonement for transgression. Based on a tradition dating back to the Code of Hammurabi, which famously called for “an eye for an eye,” atonement for transgression required a penalty of the same type as the transgression. Only by dying a human death could Christ’s atonement redeem human life.
We are therefore left with a logical problem. The Nicene Creed proclaimed Christ to be of one essence with the Father; he is eternal, unchanging, and beyond suffering. But as Jesus, he was incarnate in the field of time, suffered, and died.
How does this work? Is the immortal Christ different from the human Jesus? Did Christ have two distinct natures that somehow coexisted in the person of Jesus?
These doctrinal questions may seem trivial, but in their own clumsy way they get at very deep questions about what Christians mean when they talk about salvation, and what they mean by their cardinal doctrines. I am not myself a Christian, but as a person who takes spiritual problems seriously, I think it is important to understand what is going on here. It is not only historically important, but it is necessary if one wishes to come to terms with the rich and ancient tradition of Christianity, and to see what it may have to offer to Christians and non-Christians alike.
Back to our two natures problem, then. Different people tried to respond to it in different ways. Nestorius, for example, argued that in Jesus there were two persons and two natures. And a school called the Monophysites believed that there was only one nature within Jesus – a single, unique nature.
Both of these positions were rejected by the orthodox church as heretical, and, as you might expect, these kinds of disagreements led quickly to political violence, arrests, depositions, and threats of war. So goes the history of the church.
The Council of Chalcedon was called to settle this dispute, and they arrived at the following definition of faith:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it is to be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, perfect in divinity, and perfect in humanity, true God and true human, with a rational soul and a body, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity, in every way like us, with the only exception of sin, begotten of the Father before all time in his divinity, and also begotten in the latter days, in his humanity, of Mary the Virgin bearer of God.
This is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, manifested in two natures without any confusion, change, division or separation. The union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person and hypostasis. They are not divided into two persons, but belong to the one Only-begotten Son, the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. (4)
They are of one substance but two natures? Joined in one person, without any division or separation? This is no answer to the question; it merely restates the problem.
Regular readers may recall that we recently looked at the nature of mysticism on Mesocosm, and we found that mystical symbols refer to a domain that lies beyond language and thought. Mystical symbols frequently invoke contradictory or paradoxical language to evoke a domain that lies beyond the reach of logic. Can we not simply accept the Council’s solution as a statement along these lines?
We cannot, for the mystical symbol is a symbol, that refers to a reality outside of itself. The Council’s formulation, on the other hand, insists on a literal reading of the symbol. It does not only assert a paradoxical formulation of Christ’s nature, but also insists that we take it as a factual description.
In my opinion, this represents the worst tendency in western theology: it takes itself too seriously, too literally. A study of Buddhist logic, by contrast, offers a deeply refreshing alternative – problems of this type are built in from the ground up. I may return to this topic in a later post.
For now, suffice to say that the language of spiritual symbols is the language of poetry, not science or history. You cannot pin down what religious symbols “really mean,” certainly not by applying metaphysical distinctions such as substance versus nature. One is reminded of Molière’s doctor, who, when asked how it was the medicine puts people to sleep, replied “by virtue of its dormative faculty.” As Nietzsche remarked, such answers belong in comedy.
I will suggest a alternative reading that distinguishes between Jesus the person, and Christ the symbol.
With respect to the literal, historical truth, the evidence strongly indicates that a man named Jesus taught in Galilee during the time of Pontius Pilate, and he was executed for sedition. His ministry was probably something along the lines of the teaching we get in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – an eschatological teaching of the Essene variety.
That is, his primary message was probably something along the lines of “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 3:2). Like many Jewish teachers in Judea in his day, he appears to have believed that a literal end of history was coming soon, and that the dead would experience bodily resurrection right here on earth, similar to the teaching of the Zoroaster.
In the meantime, before the end of days, Jesus appears to have affirmed the Old Testament injunctions to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” (Deut 6:5) and to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” (Lev 19:18).
Now, sometime after the death of Jesus, certain of his followers began to hold the story of his death and resurrection as primary. John and Paul taught that Christ’s resurrection signified atonement for all who would choose to believe in him. This is a completely different teaching that is virtually undetectable in the earlier gospels.
The message of redemption through belief in the resurrection of a God was by no means new. Countless regional variations of this mystery had existed throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, including the cults of Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus. Important elements of this aspect of Christianity are demonstrably drawn from the Demeter rites at Eleusis as well, along with the cults of Isis, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.
When we evoke the possibility of redemption through the spiritual affirmation of the resurrection of a dying God, we are talking about a religious symbol of great antiquity and wide distribution. As rational people, we simply must look at the abundance of cognate symbols in the region, and make some kind of sense of what that implies for the nature of the story of the Gospels.
This is not to say that the religious symbol of Christ is not important or powerful – on the contrary, its wide distribution is testimony to the degree to which it is valued by those to whom it speaks. But the fact of the matter is that Christ, taken as the third persona of a triune Deity, is a symbol. The person Jesus is not the same as thing as the Son of Man, attendant upon the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14), and he is not the same kind of thing. To try to interpret the symbol as a fact is to miss its meaning.
What, then, is its meaning?
I would personally submit that the ultimate meaning of the Christ symbol, as with any religious symbol, consists in the living response that it evokes in the human heart, whatever that might be.
In the next post in this series, we will look at Christ as a religious symbol in the context of another place where orthodox doctrine in the Western Christian Church really missed the boat – the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius over the doctrine of Original Sin.
1) “The Acts of Thomas.” fr Barnstone W. The Other Bible. HarperCollins. 1984. p. 465
2) Berkey JP. The Formation of Islam. Cambridge University Press. 2033. pp. 45-6
3) Arberry AJ. (trans.) The Koran Interpreted; A Translation. Touchstone Books. 1955. 5.115. pg. 147
4) Gonzalez JL. The Story of Christianity; Volume I. HarperCollins. 2010. pg. 301