by Robert Reiss
from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017

One of the most interesting parts of this year’s conference for me was the discussion about Christology that followed Adrian Thatcher’s talk on trinitarian theology.

What does it really mean to say that all three persons of the Trinity are equally divine?

The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, starts his book Our Cosmic Habitat:

‘The pre-eminent mystery is why anything exists at all.’

It is an issue worth pondering, as it is possible to say that the word God is what we mean by that pre-eminent mystery. But then to say that a human being, however remarkable, was equally as divine as the reason why there is a universe at all (or multiverse as Martin Rees believes) is a category error. We are not comparing like with like. That becomes a particularly sharp issue in the context of a multi-faith world. Of course, Hinduism might have no difficulty in saying that a human being shares in divinity, but for monotheistic religions like Judaism or Islam the Christian claim about Jesus being divine becomes a critical issue.

This is carefully discussed in Deep Calls to Deep; Transforming Conversations Between Jews and Christians. The former Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews and its Chief Executive conceived the book (SCM 2017), and they brought together a group of academics and practitioners from both religions to engage over a five-year period in theological discussion under the chairmanship of Rabbi Tony Bayfield.

Section 7, entitled Christian Particularity, starts with an essay by an Anglican priest, Patrick Morrow, on Incarnation and Trinity, where he gives a defence of the Chalcedonian Definition:

‘Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in Humanity, truly God and truly a Human Being… in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.’

Morrow recognised that within Christianity there is a range of ways of talking about the divinity of Jesus, and that some would not automatically go to Chalcedon for a contemporary exposition of that belief, but he thought it was only fair to bring to the discussion a defence of that orthodox view.

Perhaps not surprisingly it provoked strong responses from the Jewish participants. One Orthodox Rabbi said ‘I found a world that is foreign to me and with which I cannot engage.’ Other Jewish responses spoke of Judaism not having a doctrinal belief system but being a way of life lived before God who is understood as unique, single and invisible. Rabbi Bayfield himself, commenting on the section as a whole, noted that

‘almost all the other Christians in the group wanted to explain Trinity, incarnation and resurrection differently from Patrick but the range of responses was as great as that evinced by the Jews when discussing the nature of Torah.’

Clearly it was a lively discussion! Rabbi Bayfield continued:

‘For me Christ as God Incarnate can be approached as a metaphor for the Divine response to human suffering… a major theme in Rabbinic thought follows Rabbi Akiva in teaching that God is deeply affected by our suffering.’

That reminded me of John Hick who, after editing The Myth of God Incarnate in 1977, wrote The Metaphor of God Incarnate sixteen years later.

Incarnation as a profound metaphor may not be as definite as Chalcedon, but equally it may have much to teach us, particularly if we see the statement ‘Jesus is God’ not as saying that Jesus is God-like, but that God is Jesus-like. The whole issue makes me wonder whether a future annual conference could be devoted to exploring a credible Christology in a world of many faiths - and none.