Chapter 4: This Man Hath Borne Our Griefs
Probably the greatest of these early interpreters, and certainly the most influential, was Paul. Although it would be a mistake to suppose that Paul speaks at every point for all the early church -- that he surely does not do, as he himself lets us know in no uncertain terms -- still he represents more clearly than any other early Christian leader the direction which Christian reflection upon Jesus actually took. The future of Christian theology, at least down to and including our own day, belonged to Paul. This chapter will be devoted to a brief examination of the place which the human Jesus occupied in his thought.
Whatever else the first reader of the Pauline letters may miss, he is certain to be struck by what would appear to be an almost complete lack of interest in the words and acts of Jesus. With the sole exception of a single allusion to Jesus’ last supper with his companions, nothing which could in the ordinary sense be called an act of Jesus or an incident in his career is so much as referred to, and in only a few highly dubious passages are his words quoted. To one who came to the Pauline letters directly from a reading of the Gospels, this feature would appear particularly strange. Why, he would ask, this abrupt change of emphasis? Why this sudden silence about matters which have so far seemed of the greatest importance?
The answer to such questions cannot be found in an assumption of ignorance on Paul’s part. He must have been familiar with much of what became our Gospel tradition. He tells us that early in his career he spent two weeks with Cephas, who is almost certainly to be identified as the Peter who was one of Jesus’ disciples, and on that occasion became acquainted with James, the brother of Jesus. This is only one of the many contacts which Paul is known to have had or may confidently be presumed to have had with actual companions of Jesus. That from such associations he would not have gleaned important information about Jesus is highly unlikely. Besides, his letters show that Paul had a vivid sense of the personality of Jesus. Although he quotes his actual words seldom if ever, evidence is not lacking that he had a clear impression of the kind of person Jesus was. But such knowledge could hardly have been conveyed to him by the more primitive Christian community apart from a considerable amount of reminiscence as to Jesus’ words and deeds.
Although attempts to prove that Paul had been actually acquainted with Jesus during the ministry in Galilee and Judea have not been successful, nevertheless there is a sense in which Paul did undoubtedly know Jesus, the human, earthly Jesus -- knew him better than many a person who had seen and heard him. This would have been through his vivid, imaginative appropriation of the memories of Jesus’ companions. Indeed, Paul tells us in so many words that he has "known Jesus after the flesh," and it is almost certainly to this kind of indirect, but not on that account less clear and lively, knowledge that he is referring. But he could not have known Jesus, even in this sense, without knowing more than a little about Jesus’ life. All of this, however, far from explaining his silence, makes it even more surprising.
This silence becomes a little less perplexing, perhaps, when we recall that the letters of Paul are genuine letters, addressed to actual churches, that their contents are in large part determined by the requirements of particular concrete situations, and that therefore they cannot be expected to indicate to modern readers the entire content of Paul’s missionary preaching and teaching. Doubtless he was accustomed to say much more about the earthly career of Jesus than the letters would lead us to suppose.
It is noteworthy that Paul’s letters are not the only early Christian documents which are strangely lacking in information about Jesus. What does Hebrews tell us, or any of the Pastoral Epistles, or I Peter, or James, or Revelation? Indeed, does any New Testament book, outside of the Gospel group, give us any significant amount of information about Jesus’ life and words? And yet it is clear that the writers of these later documents must have known and depended upon the tradition which by this time had taken final form in one or more of our own Gospels. Obviously they took for granted in their readers a knowledge of the tradition about Jesus, and their silence does not indicate ignorance. The same thing can almost certainly be said for Paul.
Still, even when the largest weight is given to these considerations, one is forced to recognize that Paul could have had no very lively biographical interest in Jesus. If I may finish the quotation I made a moment ago: "Although we have known Jesus after the flesh," he writes, "we shall know him so no more." Paul or Paul’s school could never have produced Gospels like Matthew and Luke. Jesus the teacher, who all but dominates these Gospels, does not clearly appear in Paul at all; neither does the healer or the man who went about doing good. It is impossible to escape the impression that the incidents of Jesus’ career were relatively unimportant to Paul.
To say this, however, is not to say that the earthly career of Jesus was not important to Paul; only the incidents of it were unimportant. Taken as a whole it was of the greatest possible significance. That Jesus had lived and died, a man -- yea, a Jew -- , was an indispensable item in his theology. But the earthly career was important not primarily because of what it was in itself but because of the place which it, considered as a whole, had in a great story of salvation which began in heaven, had its center in the human life of Jesus, and returned to heaven for its ending. It was the fact of Jesus’ humanity which was important to Paul, not the incidents of Jesus’ career, although it was implicit in Paul’s view of the theological meaning of Jesus’ humanity that the human life should have possessed a very exalted moral character. It is with this meaning of Jesus’ humanity in the thought of the man who after Jesus dominates the New Testament that we are now concerned.
Toward the end of the last chapter I quoted the words, "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself." These words are from the apostle’s second letter to the Corinthians and sum up as well as any equally brief sentence could the gospel which Paul preached. This message obviously takes its start from what seemed to him the inescapable fact that the world is divorced from God, at enmity with him. According to Paul -- and he shared this view with his Jewish contemporaries -- God had created man in his own image, and man thus partook of the divine nature. But sin had entered the world and to sin mankind had become enslaved. Sin for Paul was not an abstract thing -- that is, the mere act or condition of violating the will of God; it was something quite real and concrete, almost personal in character. It was a supernatural outside power which had attacked and conquered man.
Paul is no more clear than we would expect him to be as to how sin had found its way into the world. Apparently he thought of it as coming in with "Adam’s fall," the transgression of an ancient ancestor fastening sin upon his descendants; but he also thought of it as related to the activities of demons, about the existence of which neither Paul nor his contemporaries had any doubt. But whatever its source, sin has come into God’s good world and has subjugated it. So far as man is concerned, the point of the attack is what Paul calls "the flesh." Sin has established its throne there and has brought the whole of personality into subjection. Thus bondage and strife have become the lot of mankind. Man has become the slave of sin, in thraldom to the demons, hopelessly entangled, divided against himself, helpless and lost. And this disorder works itself out in destruction and death.
Man’s fellowship with God being thus broken, what is God’s attitude toward his creation? It is, according to Paul, one of love and grace. Here the influence of Jesus can surely be discerned. God wishes to set man free from his bondage to sin and death and thus bring about reconciliation. But how can he enable man to conquer the enemy, now firmly and triumphantly enthroned in personality itself? One answer might be that he has given the Torah, the Law. He has made known his will, first to the Jew and through the Jew to the world. The letters of Paul reveal that he had tried with desperate earnestness to find salvation in obedience to the Law. But he had failed; knowledge of God’s will and endeavors to keep it only deepened his despair: "O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?"
This cry, the full poignancy of which can be realized only when it is heard in the context which the seventh chapter of the letter to the Romans provides, is answered in the next breath, "I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord." For "what the law could not do, because it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh [that is, placed it under sentence of death], that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us." Although Paul uses other figures to describe this saving work of Christ (as, for example, his having become a new Adam, a new representative man, thus restoring in the race the image of God which sin had marred), this is his most characteristic interpretation of the meaning of the man Jesus and his work. The Son of God became a man in order that he might meet man’s enemy where that enemy had to be met if it was to be destroyed -- in the flesh.
In the cross the battle reached its awful climax. There Christ met in desperate struggle the principalities and powers which had established their dominion over human life. The struggle seems to end in his defeat, but only for a brief moment: the resurrection reveals that Christ has won the victory. Man is thus redeemed; the possibility of reconciliation has been opened to him; God through the sacrifice of his own Son has freed his creation from bondage and offers newness of life to mankind. This liberty and life are available in the fellowship of the church, the community which is the continuing body of Christ. Jesus in heaven awaits the time when he shall return to earth to bring to final fulfillment God’s purpose of judgment and redemption.
This summary of certain phases of the Pauline theology -- a summary much too brief to do even scant justice to the power and majesty of Paul’s thought -- is necessary as a background for the fuller discussion, to which we now turn, of the way in which Paul interpreted the significance of the earthly life of Jesus as related to this saving act of God.(Readers of C.H. Dodd will recognize my indebtedness to him in this summary. See also chapter 6., Book Two.)
It is of the greatest importance to note that Paul regarded Jesus as being in every sense a human being. Although, as we have just observed, he thought of Jesus’ life as the central element in a drama of cosmic scope and ineffable significance, that conception involved for Paul no qualification of Jesus’ humanity. Indeed, Jesus could not have played his part in the drama if he had not been a man, a man in the fullest, truest sense.
Few assertions about Paul’s thought can be made with greater assurance than this. Jesus had been "born of the seed of David," "born of a woman under the law." There could be no question at all on this point were it not for Paul’s occasional use of such phrases as "the likeness of men or "the likeness of sinful flesh." Why does he say in a passage I have already quoted, "God sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh"? Whatever may be the reason, he is not implying the unreality of the humanity of Jesus. His whole point in the passage is, as we have seen, that Christ by becoming human was able to meet and conquer man’s enemy, in the place where sin had established its hold upon mankind, in the flesh. The Son of God had not shrunk from coming even there and had thus defeated sin on its own ground. The same idea is to be met with in the letter to the Galatians, where Christ is said to have been born of a woman under the law that he might rescue those who are under the law. But the whole argument is pointless unless Jesus’ humanity was in every sense real. Besides all this, the value and significance which the death on the cross has for Paul is incontrovertible evidence of the apostle’s belief in the reality of Jesus’ humanity. It probably never once occurred to him to doubt it.
Later this humanity was to be not only doubted but denied. The so-called Docetists, an important minority in the church of the second century, found intolerable the idea that the Son of God had actually become a son of man -- the thing was not only metaphysically impossible but morally repugnant; therefore the earthly, human Jesus was an appearance only. His humanity was only a seeming fact. His flesh was not real flesh; his suffering not real suffering; his death not real death. Paul had probably never heard of any such doctrine, but if he had known it, he would undoubtedly have rejected it as decisively as the later church rejected it. Not only would it have seemed to him obvious and undeniable that Jesus had been a man; it was necessary that he should have been. Only a man could have done the work he had to do.
I am inclined to believe that Paul would also have rejected the many views, later to emerge in the church, which agree in asserting that humanity and divinity were in some way merged or identified in Jesus; that he was man but also and at the same time God; that the divine Son of God became man, but without ceasing in any important way to be divine; that Jesus was in every essential respect what he had been before the creation of the world and was aware of himself as being such. This general view finds its fullest and clearest New Testament expression in the Fourth Gospel, was elaborated in the great creedal discussions of several centuries later, and was finally and definitively formulated by the Council of Chalcedon in 451: "One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one person.
Such language presupposes centuries of discussion and would have been unintelligible to Paul. But even if he had been able to understand it, he would, I am sure, have distrusted it as involving too important a qualification of Jesus’ humanity. Paul knew the earthly Jesus not as God, not even as a God-man; he was in every sense a man.
Paul was not alone in this. Although the earliest church thought of the significance of Jesus in the highest possible terms -- he was the Messiah who would soon come in glory -- nevertheless it did not for a moment doubt the full reality of his humanity. That was too near and obvious a fact to be questioned.
These earliest believers solved the problem of the relation of the human and divine in Jesus in precisely the way one would expect -- by resort to a view which, in a later form, came to be known as "adoptionism." This is the view that Jesus was a human being who, either at birth or at baptism, was chosen for the role of messiah, or "adopted" as God’s Son. Adoptionism in this strict sense did not belong to the earliest church, but something closely resembling it appears in the obviously primitive account of the apostolic preaching in Acts: "God hath made this same Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ." Here the "adoption" is represented as occurring at the time of the resurrection.
The same idea is expressed again later in Acts, where the divine pronouncement of approval, "Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee," marking presumably the moment of "adoption," is associated with the resurrection. The adoptionist view is also usually ascribed to Mark, whose Gospel begins with an account of Jesus’ baptism, the coming of the Spirit upon him, and this same pronouncement of approval, although I believe there are good grounds for questioning that conclusion. According to this conception, God chose the man Jesus for his messianic work and either at his baptism, his resurrection, or at some other time, inducted him into that office, which he would soon return to fulfill.
It is clear that the "adoption" was first thought of as occurring at the time of the resurrection -- the resurrection being itself a sign and seal of God’s supreme approval. The letters of Paul more than once suggest that he also held some such view. "Born the son of David according to the flesh, declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead," he writes near the beginning of Romans. "He was obedient even unto death; wherefore God hath highly exalted him," he writes to the church at Philippi. But, in spite of what would appear to be the plain meaning of such statements, Paul cannot be regarded as an adoptionist. For "adoptionism" excluded the idea of pre-existence, and for Paul that idea was undoubtedly important. We have seen that for him Jesus’ earthly career was the second act in a drama which began in heaven. But how can this fact be harmonized with Paul’s consistent recognition of Jesus’ humanity and with his conception of the supreme significance of the resurrection?
Paul’s answer, if it had been possible for him to conceive of such a question, would have been startling. He would have said that the Son of God "emptied himself" when he became a man. That is, he ceased in effect being the one and became the other. He surrendered his deity and entered upon an altogether different mode of existence. The characteristic Greek conception of humanity and divinity fused and all but identified, which soon became the normative doctrine of the church, would have been impossible for Paul, and his words give no support to the supposition that he held it, For him a great gulf lies between both the pre-existent and the post-resurrection glory on the one hand and the earthly life on the other. References to the "glory" of the earthly career, which abound in the Fourth Gospel, are nowhere to be met with in Paul. He knows the earthly life as a normal and even more than usually humble human life, glorified only in and after the resurrection. But the resurrection represents a change no more abrupt than had the original taking of human nature by the Son of God.
As a matter of fact, every clear reference of Paul to the earthly life of Jesus is such as to suggest that he thought of it primarily as an act of indescribable self-abasement. Either every such passage simply emphasizes the humanity under some aspect of limitation, or else it cites the humiliation of the earthly career to illustrate how much God or Christ (Paul apparently makes no distinction between them in this connection) was willing to sacrifice for man’s sake. When Paul says, "He did not please himself," he is thinking not primarily of the human example of Jesus (although, as we shall see, that was implied), but of the act of the divine Son of God in emptying himself of his glory and becoming man. When he writes, "He was rich but for our sakes he became poor," he has this same infinite divine condescension in mind.
But the most striking evidence that Paul thought of the humanity of Jesus in such terms is to be found in the paragraph in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians from which I have already quoted -- the most important and extensive passage in his correspondence dealing with the meaning of the person of Jesus. In this passage Paul is exhorting the church at Philippi to unity and its members to mutual considerateness. He appeals to the example of Christ, who, he says, "though he shared the nature of God, did not regard even equality with God as too great a prize to forego. He laid aside the divine nature to take on the nature of a slave and to become like other men. When he had assumed human form, he still further humbled himself, and became obedient to death, even to death on the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him, and has given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and everyone should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the father."
It is important to note the force of the word "therefore" in the heart of this passage. Apparently Paul did not think of the exaltation as being simply a predetermined restoration of an original status. It is even suggested that Christ has been exalted to a place higher than the one he originally had (although this is not easily compatible with certain other passages in his letters), but whether higher or not, the new status is clearly different from the one he had surrendered,
We miss the power of Paul’s thought here unless we recognize its starkly paradoxical character, A divine person has ceased being a divine person and has become a human person. Paul would not have pressed that interpretation to the logical extreme. He took for granted some kind of continuity between the heavenly and earthly phases. Some inner core of being persisted throughout. (Perhaps this fact explains Paul’s use of such words as "likeness" to which we have already alluded.) The same person, in some deep naked essential of personality, who emptied himself of his deity also humbled himself to the death of the cross. This essential identity, without qualifying the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity, explains the fact that he was a unique man, able to conquer sin and to redeem other men from its power. Nevertheless, the discontinuity between the two phases of this person’s experience is so great as to stop only just short of a complete break between the two. He denied himself in a more radical, a more profoundly costly, sense than has ever been asserted of any other, either man or God. He emptied himself. He renounced his godliness, took the nature of a common man, entered fully and without reservation into our human life, sharing its limitations -- all its limitations -- from birth to bitter death at the hands of blind and brutal men. And his final exaltation was not the resumption of a temporarily surrendered Godhood -- his renunciation had been complete and irrevocable. It was the apotheosis of a manhood which had become inalienably his own.
The unqualified, complete humanity of Jesus early became a source of embarrassment to the church. The Synoptic Gospels, less than a generation after Paul, clearly reveal the existence of a tendency to deny the reality, or at any rate the normality, of Jesus’ manhood, and to lift the earthly life to the same level as that of the pre-existent glory and the post-resurrection exaltation. The appearance of the miracles (not including, of course, the miracle of the resurrection) is a sign of this tendency. Really great ideas can never be tolerated very long, and the conception of a God who became veritable man was too great to be long borne. The paradox was too stark to endure. And since a denial of the divinity of Christ was out of the question, the trend was toward a qualification of his humanity. This trend achieves its fullest expression, so far as the New Testament is concerned, in the Fourth Gospel, where a divine being is represented as becoming human, but without in any sense ceasing to be divine, and is carried to its extreme limits in the heretical teachings of the Docetists, who denied the reality of Jesus’ humanity altogether. But Paul either antedated or repudiated this trend. There is every indication that, far from being embarrassed by Jesus humanity, he gloried in it. It was a sign of how much God loved us. God in Christ loved us enough to become human for our sakes. To qualify the humanity of Jesus would have been to set limits to the love of God,
The death of Jesus has its supreme significance because it is the supreme manifestation of the reality of this humanity. The cross becomes the symbol of the whole meaning of Jesus’ manhood. In it the great drama comes to a focus of almost unbearable intensity. The sacrifice of God achieves there its ultimate expression; the struggle of the Man against the demonic enemies of man reaches its bitter climax. All that either God or man hoped for, or would ever hope for, hangs upon the issue, as he who had been the Son of God fulfills to its final anguish the destiny he has chosen. - . - He who had known the life of God now knows, even to its last utter loneliness, the life of man.