Table Talk: If you were arguing against the Christian belief that Jesus is God Incarnate, what would you say? What opinions have you heard from others? What do you think are the strongest arguments opposing the idea that anyone could be fully God and fully man?
[“Table Talk” is an opening question or topic for discussion at the beginning of our time together. The intent is to help group members (around tables, with four to six at each table) build connections with each other, as well as to guide thinking in a direction related to the passage.]
A few weeks ago during our discussion we talked about the Trinitarian structure of the Creed. One participant commented that in conversations about “God” people were more or less receptive. However, when the talk turned to “Jesus,” the attitude often changed. Sometimes the chat turned into a debate or even an argument. Often the subject was dropped and the conversation moved to a less volatile topic. While Christians do not find the phrases “His only Son” or “our Lord” controversial, others do. We started our time trying to think from that other perspective. Why do people find that part of the Creed (and that core of the Faith) objectionable or even offensive?
Several members of our group posed those kinds of questions: How could God die? How could God be inside a person? Did Jesus ever actually claim to be God? Who can get past the idea of a virgin birth? If those are the kinds of questions the Creed raises, then it is critical for us to understand and be convinced about what we mean by “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.”
Finding a passage in the Bible that supports those statements is not difficult. The problem is narrowing it down to a single passage. Most books about the Creed cite a collection of verses throughout the Bible. However, since one of the goals of our group has always been detailed, methodical, inductive study, we looked at one familiar section of Scripture together: Philippians 1:29‑2:11.
In our discussion of the passage, several words stood out. As we discussed these words, we noted the possibility that they could be misunderstood or even intentionally distorted:
- He was in the form of God and the form of a servant. Does that mean His identity was just like God and like men, but not real, almost as if He had a disguise or costume?
- He was made in the likeness of men, and in appearance as a man. As with the word “form”, was His humanness an illusion, a kind of camouflage to blend in without really being one of us?
- Humility and obedience are mentioned. Does that mean He was subordinate to God, to the Father? Was He a lesser god, or a second-rate deity?
- Equality with God is mentioned. He didn’t “grasp” that equality. Does that mean He never fully achieved it, that He never quite made it up to God’s level?
- Emptying Himself is mentioned. Did He cease to be God? Did the divine nature leave Him before the crucifixion since God can’t die?
Those are the kinds of questions (along with a multitude of others) that orthodox Christianity faces, both now and in the early centuries. We believers may not think of those questions because we have centuries of Church history, and often we have years of sermons and Bible studies and Christian books that lay a foundation for us. For the first few hundred years, those were very real “hot topics” in the church, in evangelism, and among skeptical unbelievers. The Creed was an ongoing attempt to clarify those kinds of questions, both for sincere seekers and severe cynics.
The vocabulary Paul uses in Philippians can provide at least a bit of help. The words “form,” “appearance,” and “likeness” may appear to be synonyms in English, but in Greek they have more distinct meanings:
|form, μορφή, morphē||“the morphe of a definite thing as such, for instance of a lion or a tree, is one only, while its schema [appearance] may change every minute”
“morphe always signifies a form which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it”
|appearance, σχήμα, schēma||“‘external bearing’ or ‘fashion’ which in general distinguishes this word from [morphē, form], ‘what is essential and permanent”|
|likeness, ὁμοίωμα, homoiōma||“’a thing made like’ something else…the ‘likeness’ or ‘form’ in ὁμοίωμα may be accidental, as one egg is like another”|
Hopefully, those intentional distinctions provide some clarity. Jesus had the form, the definiteness and permanence that truly and fully expressed the being of God and the being of a servant. He was fully God and fully human. He was in the likeness of men (plural) and the appearance of a man (singular). He fit the general characteristics of all human beings, and He was a specific individual man, a Jewish carpenter in the first century. I suspect if you saw Him on the street, He would be just one more person, as human as the next man.
One person in our group commented about the complications of the different words and all the difficulties they seem to raise. But the abstract terminology (and more to come in the Nicene Creed) is important for us. It was absolutely critical in the early centuries of the Faith. Such language was necessary to respond to heretics who used just such technical language to distort the meaning of Scripture. “Yet we shouldn’t disregard this as obscurant theological gobbledygook, because the history of the discussion is the history of trying to explain something important about God and Jesus.”
There is no good complaining that these statements are difficult. Christianity claims to be telling us about another world, about something behind the world we can touch and hear and see. You may think the claim false, but if it were true, what it tells us would be bound to be difficult— at least as difficult as modern Physics, and for the same reason.
The more we can search and understand and clarify our knowledge of the Triune God, the better we can serve and worship and commune with Him. Vague, nebulous ideas about God usually result in vague and nebulous service, worship, and obedience. Clear, precise knowledge (or at least as much clarity and precision as our finite minds can manage) lead us further up and further in to gazing on the beauty of the Lord (Psalm 27:4). John Piper describes the continuing discovery of knowledge about God and His ways as being “like throwing wood in the furnace of my worship. For me, seeing has meant savoring. And the clearer the seeing, the sweeter the savoring.” That can be our motivation for digging deeper into the Creed as well as wrestling intensely with Scripture.
Our discussion considered each of the three segments of this line of the Creed: Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. (This week we focused on the phrases that treat mainly His divine nature. Next week will focus more on His human nature – born, died, buried).
The name “Jesus” was the name of a specific person (as “in appearance of a man” as mentioned above). Jesus was a common name (Joshua, or Yeshua). The Creed affirms the fact of the human individual named Jesus. Christ is a title, the Greek word for anointed one, the Hebrew Messiah. There may be hints of divine mission or special status in the title “Christ.” The idea of the Messiah may not have been originally understood as divine, but it certainly implied the status of one who would “set things right” as one member of our group put it. He was predicted repeatedly in the Jewish Scriptures, and the Creed affirms that the man Jesus was the fulfillment of those predictions.
His only Son
The word “Son” immediately raises questions for some and strong objections for others. Muslims vehemently reject the idea. One member of our group who had spent significant time in Muslim countries told us that a common inscription is, “Allah has no son.” Others would understand a son to be subordinate to and less than equal to a Father. Chronologically, sons come after fathers. Arius, a teacher of the fourth century, claimed that Jesus was not eternal: “There was a time when he was not.” A son might be considered a created being, not an eternal creator Himself.
The passage we studied in Philippians 2 asserts that Jesus “existed” in the form (morphē, “which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it”) of God, a perfect expression of God, “the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3). John begins his Gospel with the fact that the Word (later identified as Jesus) was God in the beginning (John 1:1). Clearly Jesus was not created, but He was eternal. He said Himself that He shared the Father’s glory (an expression of the essence of God) “before the world was” (John 17:5). His equality with God as a Son was not something that He “grasped” in the sense of clinging desperately to it. Rather, He set that status aside. He emptied Himself of glory for the Incarnation on the mission of the Father. As one person in our group commented, as a Son, He had the DNA of God. Or, as Athanasius (c. 366) said, “the Son is everything that the Father is, except ‘Father.’”
Those possible misunderstandings or distortions mentioned earlier led to the Nicene Creed in 325 and its further refinement at Constantinople in 381. The most extensive elaboration on the Apostles’ Creed reflect the heresies rampant at the time:
|Apostles’ Creed||Nicene Creed|
|I believe in||I believe in|
|creator of heaven and earth.||Maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.
|I believe in Jesus Christ,||I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,|
|His only Son,
|the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God,
Light of Light,
very God of very God;
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father;
Through Him all things were made.
The Fathers at Nicaea made it clear: He was begotten, not made, not created. He was before all Creation and indeed He was an active agent in Creation. He is God out of God (perhaps another way of saying begotten). He is as much God (“very God”) as God can be. He is as indistinguishable from God as the light shining from a lamp is from the light in the lamp. He is of one “substance” with God: “Jesus shares the same essence as God the Father. He is comprised of the same ‘stuff’ or ‘being’ as it were (Greek ousia and Latin substantia). [This language] is the standard philosophical language of the day.” 
Once again, we should not be deterred by unfamiliar language or by an approach that seems too academic or philosophical:
faced with the slippery way the Arians cited and interpreted the Scriptures, the fathers of Nicaea subjected passage after passage from the Scriptures, from the Old Testament as well as the New, to careful comparative scrutiny, with strict attention to the scope, time, place, person and matter in question, and the distinctive biblical way of speaking, in order to elucidate their true and right sense and to collect from them as honestly as possible the exact meaning of what was being conveyed.
The “slippery way” Biblical language can be used necessitated the use of even more precise terms. If your opponent is using philosophical or scholarly language, you may need to use the same kind of language to express Biblical truth: “[The Nicene Fathers] found themselves reluctantly compelled to have recourse to non-biblical terms and phrases … in order to express more decisively the religious force … and meaning … of biblical statements about the indivisible unity of Jesus Christ with the Father.”
The Nicene emphasis on the “begottenness” of Jesus perhaps is more clear in the illustrations of C. S. Lewis:
When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set— or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one. It cannot breathe or think. It is not alive. Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man.
Because He is the begotten Son (cf. Hebrews 1:1-8), He can communicate exactly what the Father is like:
7 If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” 8 Philip *said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus *said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; – John 14:7-9
Creation is a wonderful vehicle for revealing the existence of God. Seeing His Almighty power is an important testimony to who He is. However, it is because of Jesus, the only Son, that we have personal, inside information: “In Jesus Christ we may share in the very knowledge which God has of himself.”
“Jesus is Lord” may be one of the simplest and earliest Christian creeds. “The confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthains 12:3) was clearly regarded by Paul as a superb summary of the gospel.” “Lord” may be the most common way we address God in prayer or talk about Him. We may not consciously think about the implications of the word when we say it. The Christians in the ancient church had to think of it. The “political correctness” of their day said that “Caesar is Lord.” To affirm those words of the Creed were tantamount to sedition, or at least lack of patriotism. Michael Bird draws a chilling comparison, standing at a dinner in a Berlin hotel in the 1930’s and saying, “Jesus the Jew from Nazareth is the true Fuhrer.” Today, the affirmation of Jesus as Lord is “deeply offensive and disturbing stuff to postmodern sensibilities. Confession of Jesus as Lord implies that all religions are not equal.”
Bird also makes a troubling statement: “The term ‘Lord’ has become one of the most lifeless words in the Christian vocabulary.” The initial reaction in our group was generally to reject that charge. But as we talked about it, it seems we use the word with little thought of its weight and depth. We say the word as a convenient, generic term, not as an affirmation of the Ruler of our lives. One person suggested that we fill the word with whatever meaning we want at the moment, what we want Jesus to be: boss, comforter, leader, deliverer. What gives the word the “life” that Bird sees missing is the full recognition of Jesus as fully God and fully Man and what that means. Given the current trajectory of our culture, we soon may have more opportunities to understand the weight of the declaration, “Jesus is Lord.” May the Creed and the Faith it expresses challenge us to more fully recognize Him as “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.”
 J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953), 127.
 James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976). 417.
 James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 619.
 James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 449.
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 17; Kindle Edition location 1313.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 157-158; Kindle Edition location 1967.
 John Piper, Think (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 26.
 Athanasius quoted in Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (London: T&T Clark Cornerstones, 2016), Kindle Edition, location 3026.
 Alistair McGrath, “I Believe” – Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 1991).
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 17; Kindle Edition location 1248.
 Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (London: T&T Clark Cornerstones, 2016), Kindle Edition, location 3096.
 Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (London: T&T Clark Cornerstones, 2016), Kindle Edition, location 3101; Some of the technical terms from the original quotation have been replaced with ellipses to avoid distraction.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 157-158; Kindle Edition location 1978.
 Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (London: T&T Clark Cornerstones, 2016), Kindle Edition, location 1695.
 Alistair McGrath, “I Believe” – Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 1997), 43.
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 17; Kindle Edition location, 1476.
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), Kindle Edition location 1493.
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), Kindle Edition location 1486.