Van Ens: Is Jesus God incarnate or merely a teacher of godly morality? (column)
Christians differ about the identity of a Jewish baby named Jesus, born in a Bethlehem manger long ago. Believers in traditional Christianity identify him by the Hebrew name “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
In contrast, progressive Christians regard baby Jesus as a strictly human moral teacher. He educates us to become civil, humane and fair in dealing with others.
Traditional Christianity equates Jesus with God. Progressive Christianity identifies him as a teacher of godly morality. Who is correct about the “good news” Christmas brings?
Traditional Christians take to heart what an angel announced to shepherds near Bethlehem: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
These Christians believe in actual angels. They are confident that baby Jesus matured to bridge the gap between humanity’s faults and God’s mercy. Jesus saves us from our worst selves.
Traditional Christians also remember that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name; rather, it’s an ancient title. It is wrong to refer to the baby lying in a manger as “Jesus Christ.” This description lacks the definite article: this infant is “Jesus, the Christ.” Rooted in biblical Greek language, “the Christ” is synonymous with the Hebrew title “Messiah,” God’s special envoy sent from heaven to earth.
Consequently, Jesus, the Christ, is more than a godly looking infant. He is God humanized, what’s divine wrapped in human flesh, say traditional Christians.
In its second stanza, the Christmas carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory” announces Christmas’ “good news:” “Shepherds in the field abiding/ watching o’er your flocks by night/ God with us (Emmanuel) is now residing/ yonder shines the infant light.”
Want to hear God’s voice? Listen to Jesus. Desire to see God? Gaze into Jesus’ eyes. Yearn to feel God’s loving heartbeat? Take Jesus’ pulse. This is how traditional Christians interpret the Christmas story that identifies Jesus.
Thomas Jefferson clashed with traditional Christians over this Nativity interpretation. He declared this traditional reading of what happened at the first Christmas amounts to superstition. Angels don’t exist, Mary wasn’t a virgin who conceived, and Jesus wasn’t divine, Jefferson said. He emptied Christmas of the miraculous, what he dismissed as “superstitious.”
Jefferson believed reading these accounts as literally having happened was akin to being duped by “mere Abracadabra” by which “the mountebanks (charlatans who sell religious quackery) calling themselves the priests of Jesus” hoodwinked gullible Christians (“Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” Gordon S. Wood, Penguin Press, 2017, p. 375).
Baylor University historian Thomas S. Kidd describes how Jefferson drained the biblical swamp of superstition. “… He ‘considered himself a Christian, in the only sense (Jesus) wished any one to be.’ He admired Jesus’ ‘moral doctrines’ as ‘more pure and perfect’ than any other philosopher’s.
“But to Jefferson, Jesus’ excellence was only human. Jesus never claimed to be anything else. His followers imposed claims of divinity on Jesus after he had gone to his grave and not risen again” (“Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father,” Yale University Press, 2017, p. 8).
What “glad tidings of great joy” are announced in the Bible? Is baby Jesus blessed with genes of a moral genius-in-the-making whose teaching makes our lives more gracious?
Or do Nativity narratives suggest an identity for Jesus beyond what our minds can entirely fathom: that God’s mind, spirit and will are one with Jesus, the Christ, as in no other human being?
Whose birth does Christmas celebrate? The birth of a moral exemplar or God’s entry on earth, cloaked in our humanity?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.