Resurrection: A Reality or A Pious Dream? Part VI: Matthew’s Story of the Galilean Appearances

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 4 June 2015 0 Comments
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Do you believe that the second person of the Trinity became a human being in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth? Does one of your books address this doctrine?


Dear Ed,

The way you pose the question makes it almost impossible to answer. The doctrine of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity is an idea that came out of the 4th and 5th centuries of Christian history. It is something that the primitive Christian community would never have recognized. In Paul's letter to the Romans, written about 58 CE, he argues that God has "designated" Jesus to be the Son of God by "the Spirit of holiness" at the time of resurrection. In this text God is clearly the designator, Jesus is the one designated; that is not co-equality. Trinitarian thinking had not yet developed. Mark, writing about the year 72 CE, has someone address Jesus as "Good Teacher." Jesus challenged that concept by saying “there is no other good save God alone.” That is not co-equality; that is not Trinitarian thinking.

So when you ask whether I believe that Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, became a human being in the flesh, it is to ask me whether 4th and 5th century Christian theology is accurate. I find the question not just impossible to answer, but also irrelevant to the search for Christian meaning. Behind those 4th and 5th century creedal and doctrinal explanations there is, I am convinced, a 1st century experience. It was best articulated by Paul when he proclaimed that “God was in Christ.” The experience was that people believed that they saw, met and engaged the reality of God in the person of Jesus. It meant that in Jesus the barriers in the history of our humanity that we had erected in the service of building our security systems were removed and that all boundaries to our achievement of a full humanity had been transcended. That is also my experience. I do not find that the literal language of 4th century theology that speaks of the “enfleshment" of God in Jesus, is a particularly meaningful way to say that to anyone. Yet that is what "incarnation" normally is interpreted to mean. That is also what the doctrine of the Trinity, was designed to communicate. That doctrine, which asserts that Jesus is the second person of a triune God, simply does not seem to add to my search for the heart of Christianity. I do not deny or dismiss either the doctrine of the Incarnation or of the Holy Trinity. What I do is to see both of these as 4th century attempts to make sense out of the Jesus experience. They are the explanations of a reality, which can never be the same as the reality itself. No explanation can ever do more than point to the reality it seeks to explain. It can never capture that reality. Explanation can also never be eternal.

I address my understanding of Jesus far more extensively than I can do in a column in my book Jesus for the Non-Religious. If you read that book, however, you will find that my starting point is radically different from your question. In my opinion the pathway into divinity comes in being fully human, that is in the understanding that God and human life are not two separate categories, but the divine is the ultimate and depth dimension of the human and that the pathway into the divine is found when each of us becomes deeply and fully human.

Christianity is a journey into God. Jesus reveals the divine in the human, but the two are never separate, so the divine can never finally “invade” the human since it is already there.

Keep on your journey. There is much yet to be discovered by you.

John Shelby Spong




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