2013-12-20

Jesus is not Superman: Virgin Conception and the full humanity of Christ

Tanner's painting of the Annunciation, which is may favorite artistic depiction.

When I posted elsewhere on a discussion of the Virgin Conception, one responder had a very unique take on the matter. Since Jesus had to do miracles and eventually rise from the dead, the responder reasoned, then Jesus had to be something other than human: Something super-human. And so he wrote: "The virgin birth establishes that Jesus is not really a human."

I can see how someone might get there, if they were positing that Jesus is essentially some kind of "superman" who merely appears to be human but is really invincible. The interesting thing is that this is not the direction that either Matthew nor Luke take the Virgin Conception, and a "superman" version of the Incarnation was sternly rejected by all seven of the original Ecumenical Councils.

For instance, Luke has the most detailed description of the Virgin Conception, and also the most detailed description of Jesus' growth and maturation as an actual human. Our only first century stories of Jesus' childhood come from Luke, where he is portrayed as a normal biological child, although with great wisdom. Both Matthew and Luke are keen to show Jesus as suffering, weak, and even tempted (cf. Matt 4; Luke 4). Luke especially is careful to show that Jesus was only able to do his miracles by relying on the Holy Spirit (just as any other prophet- cf. Luke 4.18-21). And Matthew and Luke both show Jesus suffering emotionally and physically, just like any human, during his passion and death.

So whatever the Virgin conception and incarnation mean, for the Bible writers they did not mean that Jesus was somehow less than human, like an invincible being pretending to be human. Rather, to use the language of Paul, it seems to mean that God "emptied" Godself, voluntarily limiting Divine power, to become fully human (cf. Phil 2). In Jesus, the Divine transposes itself into a human key, so we can hear God's voice. Thus, while the person that is Jesus of Nazareth is the same self-consciousness as the Eternal Divine Son, his powers-- omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence-- are emptied and confined within the limitations of normal human life. Thus, whatever good deeds or miracles Jesus does, he does as any other prophet would do, by relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit, not by "turning on" his own latent superpowers.

The first Seven Ecumenical Councils-- from Nicea in 325 to Chalcedon in 451 to Nicea II in 787-- carefully rejected any theory of Incarnation that made Jesus less than fully 100% human and 100% God. Docetism was rejected for making Jesus into a sort of Divine hologram of a human being. Nestorianism was rejected for positing that Jesus was not a united divine-human person. Apollinarianism was rejected for taking away Jesus' human soul, and only leaving him with a human body. Monophysitism was rejected because it said the Divine nature overwhelmed and subsumed his human nature, with no real humanity left.

Many say these issues are absurd theological hair splitting. But there is a deep truth that they are trying to preserve: In order to reunite humanity with God, God has to be on both sides of the equation. God somehow had to reach to the full depths of the human situation, while also reaching to the heights of Divinity, to "bridge the gap" between the two.

And that is why the "Chalcedonian Definition" of the Incarnation is the "gold standard" for Orthodox Christian theology. It defines the bounds of Christological thinking as a union of two natures-- human nature and divine nature-- in the one united personality of Jesus Christ, without dividing or confusing the two natures, without falling off into a rejection of Jesus' full divinity, nor ignoring his full humanity.

This is why "superman" is not an analogue to the incarnation, nor a successful interpretation of the relevant data. And for the early Church, the affirmation of the Virgin Conception was directly tied to rejecting "superman" theories, and striking the divine-human balance, not rejecting Christ's humanity in favor of his Divinity, nor privileging his humanity over his Divinity.

This is because the Virgin Conception is seen as an affirmation that Jesus is fully human like any other human-- with human DNA, a human body, a normal human process of development and maturation-- while also affirming that this human life was uniquely caused by God, in order to be an embodiment of the Second Person of the Trinity.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.