The Nestorian Threat to Christmas
[Author’s Note: In 1972, when Tim and I were students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, he wrote an article entitled “Hermeneutical Nestorianism.” Although I haven’t seen this article in 40 years (it may still exist at the bottom of a closet), I remember it vividly and have drawn on it for this piece.]
At Christmas we often sing of “Emmanuel, God with us” in praise of the incarnation of God as the man Jesus. The angel announced this startling news, and throughout the Gospels Jesus confounds, confuses, and infuriates his hearers by claiming, in word and deed, allusion and action, to be none other than God himself.
Although fully divine, Jesus was fully human as well. Had he not been, his life and death would have no redemptive value whatsoever. That God himself passed the death sentence on our sin and disobedience, then came to suffer that sentence himself, after having lived a perfect, sinless life, trading his reward for our punishment is the Gospel in its most concise form. For his sinless life to matter, and be sufficient to earn God’s favor, he had to do it as a man, not a divine being for whom nothing was very difficult.
This is not easy to comprehend, and yet it is the heart of the mystery of salvation. It is no wonder that the early Church worked hard to protect this truth from variants that would have tilted the nature of Christ into one of two heresies: Nestorianism (and several other related heresies) taught that Jesus was fully human, and though certainly specially anointed by God, was not fully God as well. On the other hand Docetism (and several other similar teachings) taught that Jesus was fully God, but only masquerading as human, not really subject to the sorrows, temptations, and trials of human beings.
Docetism seems to have run its course—we don’t hear many people today insisting that Jesus was God and only appeared to be human. But the family of Nestorian views is another matter. It is the preferred stance of the modern world—Jesus was a fully human being, and although given special gifts and grace by God, he was still just human, a first century Semitic man of his time, limited and even (some assert) flawed.
While I am accustomed to hear non-believers talk about how Jesus was a good man and a good teacher, but not God Himself, it comes as more of a shock to find professing Christians leaning towards this view. Nestorianism has snuck in the back door, as a hermeneutical stance towards the Bible. What happened?
According to John’s gospel, Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word (John 1:1-14). In Jesus Christ, God has fully expressed and revealed himself to us. As we have seen, the Word made flesh is both fully human and fully divine. God has also revealed himself through his written Word, in the Bible, and throughout the centuries the Christian church has insisted that the Scriptures were also both human and divine. It is a human document, written by a variety of human authors, and in specific cultural and historical locations, using human language.
This means that in order to understand a biblical text you must understand what the human author meant to say with the particular vocabulary, idioms, reasoning, images and literary devices of the time. And yet the Bible is also fully inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Behind all the human authors is one divine author, perfectly preparing, inspiring and directing them all to write exactly what he wants them to write. In the Bible we see a document that is fully human but also no lessfully divine, with one Mind behind every word. As Jesus was fully human but without sin, the Bible is fully human but without error in all it teaches.
However, a form of Nestorian thinking is now being applied to the Bible—by Christians. The thought is that while the Bible certainly has many great things in it that are inspired by God, it has much that is now outmoded, regressive, or just erroneous, because ultimately it is a human book and God’s power has not been able to prevent these mistakes and outmoded teachings.
But what if we asked this question: Could the Omnipotent Creator of the universe sovereignly rule the world through his providence so that the writers of the diverse genres and documents which make up the Scripture would be the perfect vehicles for the transmission of the truths he has chosen to reveal? That’s pretty much a “Duh!” Common sense suggests that the God who spun the worlds and who now holds every atom of it together would have no trouble communicating flawlessly with his creatures. And as the Psalms tell us, the words of God are flawless (Psalm 12:6) and perfect (Psalm 19:7 and 119:96).
But most importantly, this high view of Scripture was Jesus’ own. He insisted that not a letter or even a part of a letter in the Word of God would be proved false (Matthew 5:17-18) and that no Scripture, even a single word, could be set aside and ignored (John 10:35). At the end of his life, even in the face of painful death, he insisted that the Scripture had to be followed and fulfilled in everything (Matthew 26:54). He died quoting Psalm 22:1. Something like 10 per cent of all Jesus words in the gospels are references to the Old Testament. That’s how important, flawless, and perfect the Scripture was to Jesus.
And here we see how Jesus-Nestorianism is connected to Bible-Nestorianism. First, if the Bible is just a collection of ancient texts of varying genres and cultures, then it is not telling the coherent story of redemptive history. The narrative arc of God’s work in saving his creatures, beginning before the foundation of the world, continuing through the flawed and sinful people of the Old Testament, and climaxing in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus is an imaginative fiction.
More importantly, if you insist that the Bible is more human than divine, because it contains the outmoded and erroneous, then of necessity you have a Jesus who is more human than divine, because he was mistaken in one of the foundational beliefs of his life—the perfection of the Scriptures. A lower view of the Bible leads to a lower view of Jesus.
If we say then he, too, is flawed, and no longer the fully divine God-man who is able to save us from our sin, then there is nothing to celebrate at Christmas.
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