Saturday, October 11, 2014

Early Christian Confessions: An Inter-textual dialogue

One of the earliest Christian confessions is "Jesus Christ has come in flesh" (1 John 4:2, 2 John 7; dated around the end of the first century; and Polycarp to the Philippians 7:1, dated middle second century).  These references all describe the statement as a "confession," that is, a formal statement of religious belief. The words of the confession do not connote, however, how the confessor understands the expression, but merely states that Jesus Christ "has come" to a location described as "in flesh," which begs the question: where was he prior to having come to the "in flesh" location?
The Gospel of John 1:1-18 may perhaps clarify somewhat his previous location.  John describes the Word as Jesus Christ (1:17), who existed before creation (1:1-5), and who later "became flesh" (1:14); that is to say the divine Word was "en-fleshed."  Oddly John 1:14 does not claim that Jesus Christ became human (ἀνθρώπινος), or even that he became a man (ἄνθρωπος), but rather that he became "flesh" (σάρξ).  Was the confession in the Johannine letters and Polycarp intended to communicate the idea that his being "in flesh" was a state foreign to his prior state, as is suggested by the second half of John 1:14: "and he took up (temporary) residence (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us"?  Not being equipped to read minds, all that I can say is that such an explanation is a possible understanding of the confession.
The confession basically only claims that Jesus Christ is not a "phantom," a condition suggested by the disciples' experience in Mark 6:50, where it is suggested that το the disciples he briefly appeared to be only a ghostly apparition.  On the contrary, the confession affirms that he is actual substantive flesh (and blood), such as the rest of us are (1 John 1:1).
            The confession does not speculate on the nature of his fleshly condition, but such a speculation does exist in Paul, where he states that the "flesh" of Jesus Christ was of a different kind than that characterizing the normal human condition.  Paul asserts that God sent "his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3)—meaning that his flesh only looks like that of the rest of us sinful fleshly human beings; his "flesh" is distinctly different.  These are very strange words indeed, suggesting that the flesh of Jesus was of a different sort and that it was only "similar" to the sinful flesh human beings share.
The Pauline statement and the idea also fit an early Christian hymn, which Paul quotes: that Christ was "born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:7); that is to say, he was not really a man or a human being, but he only appeared to be a man.
            A confession in 1Timothy echoes language similar to Philippians  2:7, the Pastor (a name given by scholars to the author of the Pastoral Epistles) begins a confession as follows: "he was made visible in flesh" (1 Timothy 3:16).  This statement takes up a middling position affirming that he was "visible in flesh" but not agreeing with either John 1:14, where he became flesh and Romans 8:3 where his flesh was of a different sort.  Prior to his having become visible in flesh, the suggestion seems to be that he was invisible, a state that is characteristic of deity (Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17, Hebrews 11:27).
            Paul describes on one occasion that he came into the world in the manner of a human birth: "when the time had fully come God sent forth his son, born of a woman" (Gal 4:4), but the "sending forth" language suggests something more than a natural birth occurred.  The birth narrative in Luke also has the façade of a natural birth (Luke 1:31; 2:7), but clearly something else is going on (Luke 1:35).  Matthew's story also shares the façade of a natural birth, but clearly it is not (Matthew 1:18, 24-25).
            Summarizing the view that seems to be reflected in these early texts, it appears that Jesus Christ was not conceived as a human being. Rather he was a "divine Other," who did not share the human condition, but only took up residence among us "in flesh."  Imagine my surprise then to read the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (in 451 AD); in seeking to resolve the Christological disagreements in the church, the Council decreed that Jesus Christ was "truly God and truly man"; he had two natures, human and divine, both of which resided indivisibly in the same persona.  This orthodox creed, which has existed in the Western church since the middle of the fifth century, is that Jesus Christ was "fully God and fully human."  It is somewhat ironic, however, that the earliest followers of Jesus do not seem to share that confession.  What do you suppose might have been the motivation for ignoring the views of the earliest followers of Jesus?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...


8:3 further says "he condemned sin in the flesh," I would submit that sin could not be condemned in the flesh unless the flesh was fully human, rather than a look alike. However the modern mind might like to characterize the meaning of "likeness," the context only allows a definition of fully human flesh.

Gene Stecher

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
I am not sure I understand the logic behind your argument that "sin could not be condemned in the flesh unless the flesh was fully human." Romans 8:3 seems clearly to rule out such a reading for the flesh by which he condemned sin was plainly only "like ours." Our flesh is sinful (8:3), but his was different in that it was only "like ours." Our flesh is morally weak (Rom 6:19), has nothing "good" in it (Rom 7:18), lusty (Gal 5:24), defiled (2 Cor 7:1). Those "being in our flesh are not able to please God" (Rom 8:8). Therefore, sure enough, Christ was "in flesh," but it couldn't have been like ours; it was only "like ours" (Rom 8:3); that is, It was "his flesh" (Eph 2:15, Col 1:22), something of a different "kind" of flesh (1 Cor 15:35-41 for different kinds of flesh). All of these concepts have nothing to do with reality in the world. We are discussing the logic behind early Christian confessions.

Anonymous said...

Charlie, you asked, "What do you suppose might have been the motivation for ignoring the views of the earliest followers of Jesus?" I think they just morphed in different ways when they hit the Gentile culture. I've recently been looking at Trinitarian views and proto-Trinitarian views and it seems to me that the elevation of Jesus and the personification of the Holy Spirit could have originated with several figures called heretical in the second century, just looking at some of the literature called "Gnostic." My number one suspect is Valentinus. (I just finished writing a heretical essay on the issue.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some confusion arises because the NT mixes the subject matter of two issues: Jesus' origins and Jesus' nature. Clearly, most of the NT presents Jesus as originating in God's place, then moving for a time to humanity's place prior to returning to God's place. Paul saw God's place as the place of spiritual body (1 Cor 15) and humanity's place as the place of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3). In Jesus, spiritual body and sinful flesh merged and spiritual body proved to be the dominant force, and God decreed the same opportunity for all humans. So Jesus' divine origins transformed his sinful human origins,

This whole thing is a lie if average Joe human being doesn't have equal access to the divine possibility. Spiritual body is achievable from a position of sinful flesh because Jesus demonstrated that it was achievable. This, I submit, was in the minds of those church councils which declared Jesus fully divine and fully human.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa

Anonymous said...

Dennis, here's a quote from the "second-or-third-century Valentinian 'Treatise on the Resurrection'" which speaks to the development of the 2nd person of the Trinity almost as it was declared at Nicea. Regarding "the Lord...the Son of God was Son of Man. He embraced them both, possessing the humanity and the divinity, so that on the one hand he might vanquish death through his being the Son of God, and that on the other through the Son of Man the restoration to the fullness might occur..." (Karen King, "What is Gnosticism?", 2003, 212)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, forgot to sign my name.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.,