Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Admissions and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Jesus, Part 3

Was Jesus the Christ?

The application of the title “Christ” to Jesus most likely did not come until after Easter. If any of the disciples understood Jesus as the Christ before Easter, their recorded behavior in the gospels was nonsensical.

Where did the word Christ emerge? Christ is our English translation of the Greek word christos, which means “messiah,” “savior,” or “redeemer.” But Christos is an attempt to put the Hebrew word mashiach, which meant “God’s anointed one,” into Greek. In early Israel history the king was also called God’s anointed one.

Jesus did not call himself by any of the exalted titles by which he is now known. John Knox, the famous sixteenth century Scottish clergyman, who is considered the founder of Presbyterianism, argued that “thinking that Jesus thought of himself in such grand terms raises serious questions about the mental health of Jesus.”

Most Christians think of Jesus as God. The fourth-century Nicene Creed declares Jesus is “God from God,… true God from true God,… of one Being with the Father” and affirms that Jesus was active in the creation of the world – “through him all things were made.” Christians address prayers and sing hymns to Jesus, but, in my opinion, Jesus and God are two separate beings.

As Marcus Borg writes, “Anybody who has the mind and power of God is not one of us, no matter how much he may look like us. Moreover, whenever we emphasize the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity, we lose track of the utterly remarkable human being that he was.”

Yes, Jesus was the Christ – God’s anointed one – but not God.

Son of Man, Son of God

The Book of Ezekiel was the first to introduce the phrase “son of Man” in the sixth century BCE. It is what God called Ezekiel. It simply designated him as a human being and had no divine connotations. In the Book of Daniel, however, his “Son of Man” was the name of a supernatural divine figure who would usher in the Kingdom of God and put an end to the persecution of the Jews. Daniel’s “Son of Man” also traveled on the clouds of heaven and God gave him dominion, glory and kingship. Matthew attached these images to Jesus in his gospel.

John Shelby Spong suggests that “son of man” may not be the best translation of the Aramaic phrase bar enas, which literally means “one in human likeness.” When the phrase is translated into Hebrew it becomes ben adam, which simply means “a man” or “a human being.” Both bar enas and ben adam are translated into Greek with the words ho huis tou anthropou, and from that Greek phrase we get “son of man” in English. I’m very willing to accept the idea that “son of man” simply means “a human being” and has no divine connotations.

Marcus Borg writes that “son of God,” in the Jewish tradition, was a relational metaphor; it pointed to an intimate relationship with God, like that of a beloved child to a parent. In Hebrew Scripture Israel is called “son of God,” as were the kings of Israel and Judah. Closer to the time of Jesus, Jewish healer/mystics were sometimes referred to as God’s son. Several of Jesus’ titles in the New Testament were also titles of Caesar. On coins and inscriptions, Caesar was referred to not only as “lord,” but also as “son of God,” “savior,” “king of kings,” and “lord of lords.”

In the book of James, supposedly written by Jesus’ brother, there is no reference of Jesus as the divine son of God, his atoning death on the cross, or his resurrection. For James the Christian message is the message that Jesus proclaimed, not Jesus the person.

According to sixteenth century Italian reformer, Faustus Socinus, “son of God” was not a statement about Jesus’ divine nature but simply meant that he was specially loved by God. I like the idea that “son of God” means an intimate relationship with God or a person who is specially loved by God, but the phrase has no divinity attached.

As far as I’m concerned, Jesus was not literally or physically the “son of God” in any divine way. I believe he was a son of God in a spiritual sense and is worthy of being emulated.

Jesus was God’s son, but not his “only son.” Hundreds of thousands of sons and daughters of God have spread God’s message of love. Are they not sons and daughters of God? Of course, they are! There are many humans who have an intimate relationship with God and who are specially loved by God. “Only” is the problem – “Only Son” sounds like “our-way-or-no-way” theology, which is not realistic to me. I believe that Jesus is our best revelation of God, but that is not to say that he is the only revelation. A Marcus Borg quote says, “God is defined by Jesus, but not confined to Jesus.” Jesus never claimed he was God’s “only son,” but others certainly make that claim.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I am a son of God – maybe not a very good one, and certainly not on the same level with Jesus, but nevertheless, a son of God. We are all sons and daughters of God. There are some who have more special relationships with God than the rest of us, but we are all still God’s sons and daughters.

My objection to “son of Man” and “son of God” is when those phrases are used to single out Jesus as some supernatural divine figure that makes him less than human.

Is Jesus the Only Way to God?

Exclusivism says that Jesus is the only way, however, he is the Savior only of those who choose to believe in him. Only they will go to heaven. There is no salvation in non-Christian religions.

Universalism or Pluralism says other religions can be true and lead to God. In other words, Christianity is not the only way of salvation, but one among several. It is not the absolute, unique, and only way to God.

Inclusivism is the belief that God is present in non-Christian religions to save adherents through Christ. Salvation extends to those who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Salvation extends to everyone who in some way (known only to God) accepts the grace of God and is withheld only from those who reject the grace of God in whatever way it presents itself to them, whether or not they have heard of and believe in Jesus.

My preference is inclusivism, but universalism is a close second choice. The problem with exclusivism is Jesus being “the only way” – it’s the same “only” as in God’s “only son.” If a person from another religion is as near to their God as I am to mine, who am I to question their method of arriving at that position? How can it possibly be that God is known in only one religion and even more exclusively in the “right” denomination of that religion?
In a poll taken in 2002 in the United States, only 17% of the respondents affirmed the statement, “My religion is the only true religion.” That’s encouraging!

Are God and Jesus the Same?

Leslie Weatherhead wrote that if we equate Jesus with God we say more about Jesus than the evidence warrants. God does not pray to God as Jesus did; he would be praying to himself! When Jesus died on the cross, did God die? Of course, not! If Jesus is God, why would he use language like, “If it be possible…” (Matthew 26:39)? If Jesus considered himself God, why would he make a statement like: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17)? Philippians 2:6 says Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Mark says Jesus said: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). These quotes seem to be denials by Jesus that he is to be equated with God. It is clear that Jesus never spoke of himself, and probably never thought of himself, as God.

If God created the Logos, the Word, then the Logos is essentially different and distinct from God. Jesus called God his “Father;” paternity involves prior existence and superiority over the son. The Christian scriptures tell us God is met in Jesus; that to see Jesus is in some sense to see God.

One of the earliest and most widespread Christian heresies was “Docetism,” which affirmed that even though Jesus seemed to be human, he was really God. Even though this thought is heretical, many inside and outside the church consider it standard Christian belief.

Jesus was a Jew trying to reform Judaism; he was not trying to found a new religion. In addition, his early followers were Jewish, as were all of the authors of the New Testament. A large majority of modern non-evangelical Biblical scholars consider it unlikely that Jesus ever spoke of himself as the Messiah, the son of God, the Light of the World, and so forth.

And it is very likely that Jesus did not view his death as the purpose of his life.
Too often, in my opinion, people completely equate God and Jesus. It had been several years since I’d read J. B. Phillips’ Your God Is Too Small, but when I re-read it recently, I was mildly shocked to find that Phillips equated Jesus and God. There seems to me to be a huge difference between a human, even a human who became the Christ, and God. Please don’t misunderstand, I believe Jesus became the Christ; he is our best revelation of God in human terms, but God is God, and we (humans) are not. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, people worship Jesus more than, or rather than, God.

In a personal note from John Shelby Spong in response to a question from me on this subject, Spong graciously responded, “Identifying Jesus with God is not what classical Christianity sought to do. That is a much later distortion. The early Church tried to protect full humanity and full divinity in its Christ claim. It failed and the Divine Christ is the result. We can do better.”

To me, Colossians 1:15-17 (and other similar verses) is simply impossible to believe: “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” I can agree with the first phrase – “Jesus is the image of the invisible God” – but not with anything else. Jesus did not create heaven and earth and does not now and never has chosen the world’s rulers. This Colossians except goes beyond equating Jesus and God, it claims that “all things” were “created through him and for him.” The author claims that Jesus “is above all things” – even God – and he is the sole reason that everything in the world does not disintegrate. To me, this scriptural passage sounds like one of the early church’s heresies, Docetism, which claimed that Jesus was not really a man; he was incorporeal (he was not composed of matter; had no material existence), so he could not physically die.

In her novel I, Judas, Taylor Caldwell has Jesus make this statement: “The Son is not as great as the Father, though in time some will unwisely call me God.” Of course, that is not a Biblical quote, but it pretty much sums up my thoughts about whether Jesus and God are the same.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he wrote, “Though he [Jesus} was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited (or grasped)…” (Philippians 2:6).

In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, Paul wrote that “there is one God, the father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” He clearly considers God and Jesus two beings, two entities, not the same.

Lord, King, Prince, or Master

I have never lived in a monarchy, therefore, words like Lord, King, Prince or Master have little meaning to me. Since those terms are products of a monarchal system, they suggest subjugation, being conquered and controlled, and being enslaved.

• Lord is defined as a ruler, master;
• King is a male ruler of a nation,
• Prince is the son of a sovereign ruler;
• Master is a man who rules others, has control over something or one who owns a slave.

All of these terms have been used to describe Jesus, but for me, at least, they are poorly chosen terms. The least offensive to me is Prince, while the most repulsive is Master. Jesus and those who penned the Bible were, of course, very familiar with monarchal governments, so the terms were much more meaningful to them.

I understand that “Jesus is Lord” is saying that “Jesus is Lord, Rome is not” and I understand the metaphor that if Jesus is Lord, then all the would-be lords of our lives should not be our rulers. However, I still do not like these words that derived from a domination system and their connection to Jesus.

Would Jesus Want to Be a Christian?

If we ask the nonreligious what being a Christian today means, it is likely they might say that followers of Jesus are preoccupied with abortion and homosexuality. Professing Christians can be scary when they defend what they think is Biblically prohibited. Poverty, homelessness, a widening gap between the have and have-nots, and divorce seemingly become unimportant or at least, not as important, and are pushed to the back-burner. The Bible teaches us about being hypocritical, presumptuous, insensitive, judgmental people. The so-called “religious right” appears to have hijacked Christianity and hate, not love and understanding, spews from their mouths.

Many individuals in the Christian church today sing “Hallelujah” and talk about how much they love the Lord, but when it’s time to walk the walk, their spirit evaporates. Micah 6:8 says we should do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with our God.

The more I consider the way Christianity is practiced today, and from what I know of the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus, I doubt Jesus would find much attractive about Christianity. I also think today’s church would not like Jesus if he showed up today; in fact, they would probably consider him a heretic and some religious zealot(s) would plot to kill him just as they did thousands of years ago.

Jesus’ message entailed a love of God and a compassion for all humans. Is the Christian church living up to those standards? In most instances, I sadly doubt that it is.

Was Jesus a Prophet or a Mediator Between God and Humankind?

In Matthew 13:57 and Mark 6:4 Jesus calls himself a prophet: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own house.” In Matthew, during Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when people were asking who he was, the crowds answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21:11).

During the Emmaus incident in Luke, during a conversation with the unrecognized Jesus, the two disciples described Jesus as “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19).

1 Timothy says, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6a NRSV; italics added by me for added emphasis).

As I see it, Jesus was not a prophet as one who predicts the future. He may have been a prophet in the same sense as the Old Testament prophets who were God’s messengers to the people – they were God’s representatives who chastised the people to return to God and live in God’s kingdom.

Jesus is our mediator between God and humankind.

Jesus Was a Model

I like some of the things I’ve read about the Cathars, a Gnostic sect from southern France in the thirteenth century. One of their beliefs was that the life of Jesus was a model the good Christian must strive to copy. Faustus Socinus, a sixteenth century Italian reformer, thought that Jesus had not died to atone for our sins but was simply a teacher who “showed and taught the way of salvation.” The ultimate tribute to Jesus is for us to attempt to live our lives more like Jesus lived his life. Maybe that is what resurrection really is – he was resurrected within us and lives through us as we strive to imitate his life.

I prefer the Jesus of no supernatural events or miraculous apparitions; no actions contrary to history or logic; and no inconsistent details that raise unanswerable questions. I prefer the Jesus whose good works and kind words live thousands of years after his death.

The highest compliment we can ever pay anyone is to want to be like that person. If Jesus had been accused of being “only an example,” I imagine he would have replied, “What is wrong with that?”

In order to know God, we must emulate Jesus. And if we emulate Jesus, a resurrection will occur; not literally, but spiritually. Jesus will live again.

What the Jesus Seminar Concluded about Jesus

In 1994, in an address to the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk, the founder of this group of scholars, summarized the conclusions of his fellows concerning Jesus:

• Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was born of a virgin;
• Jesus did not threaten with hell or promise heaven;
• Jesus did not ask us to believe that his death was a blood sacrifice for our sins;
• Jesus did not ask us to believe that he would be raised from the dead;
• Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was the messiah;
• Jesus did not regard scripture as infallible or even inspired.

Another Author’s Conclusions about Jesus

Roger Wolsey, Director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO and author of Kissing Fish: Christianity For People Who Don’t Like Christianity, recently posted on Facebook (November 2, 2013) some rather bold and straight forward statements about Jesus that may be shocking to most Christians, but I agreed with what he wrote. Here is a portion of his post:

“Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t ‘die for our sins.’ Jesus wasn’t killed ‘instead of us.’ None of us living today killed Jesus. God didn’t ‘need’ Jesus to be killed… And it isn’t particularly necessary for Jesus’ resurrection to have been a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one.”

He went on to say that Christians are correct in honoring and celebrating “Jesus as a unique and fully incarnate (poetically speaking) manifestation (poetically speaking) of God.” Jesus deserves our devotion; we should cherish him and revere him, but “we should pray to the God Jesus prayed to, not to Jesus.”

My Conclusions about Jesus

Even though Jesus was ignored by secular historians, I’m convinced that he was a real person who lived sometime during the first three decades of the first century CE. His ministry was centered in Galilee, but he traveled to Jerusalem, at least once. He spoke some, but not nearly all, of the words attributed to him in the New Testament.

Paul’s introduction to Romans comes closest to stating what I believe about Jesus. Beginning with the third verse, the Revised Standard Version reads, “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” The Living New Testament translates it as “It is the Good News about His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who came as a human baby, born into King David’s royal family line; And by being raised from the dead He was proved to be the mighty Son of God with the holy nature of God Himself.” The King James translation says, “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead.” (Did you notice a particular word that was missing in the above quoted verses – “only,” as in the “only Son of God”?) The words in italics in those translations are my additions, of course, because they are the most important words and phrases to my Christology. Jesus was born according to the flesh as a human baby. He was designated or declared the Christ; he became the Christ because he attained a spirit of holiness, a holy nature that is as near to God’s own nature as any human can attain. Former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong explains Paul’s rather unorthodox point of view as follows: “Please note that ‘God,’ by which Paul presumably meant the creator Father, ‘designated’ Jesus to be ‘son of God.’ God was the one who was doing the designating. Jesus was the one who was being designated. There was here no sense of divine equality or of what later came to be called incarnation.” Philippians 2:9 says, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” In other words, God honored Jesus by bestowing on him the title of Christ. I believe Philippians 2:6-9 clearly states that Jesus was a completely human male who is subordinate to God. Proverbs 8:22-31 states that Jesus was created by God… and was subordinate to God. If Jesus was created by God, there must have been a time when Jesus did not exist.

If we could make our will God’s will and could attain God’s nature as completely as Jesus did, God might bestow on us the “name which is above every name.” In John 14:12, John has Jesus say that we could become like him and that believers would be capable of doing even greater things than he did.

According to Marcus Borg, four centuries ago, the verb “believe” did not mean believing doctrines. To believe meant “to belove.” It meant to trust, to commit one’s allegiance, loyalty, and love. Believing in a particular person – in this instance, Jesus – is very different from believing that certain statements about him are true. Surely, Christianity is a way to be followed more than a set of beliefs to be believed. I believe in Jesus and am willing to commit my allegiance, loyalty and love to him.

In Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper, Father Agostino Leyre summarizes what he has learned in the “Afterward” of the book: “His (Jesus’) teachings to John and to Mary Magdalene were aimed at showing us how to find God within ourselves, without having recourse to exterior artifices. Jesus was a Jew. He saw how the priests exercised their control over God by shutting Him up in the Tabernacle. And he fought against it.”

Arius of Alexandria (256-336) and his followers were the primary reason for the Council of Nicaea in 324. When the council sided with Athanasius, whose sole source was John’s gospel, while Arius quoted from all the gospels, the church became dominated by John’s view. When Arius’ side lost their fight with their Catholic brethren, they were labeled heretics. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton wrote that in his opinion the anti-Arius decision by the Nicaean council was “the greatest mistake” in Christian history.

Arius’ theology lives into the twentieth-first century in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (or the Arian Catholic Church). This Church’s creed is patterned after the Nicene Creed, except for its beliefs about Jesus in which in part says:

“And in his Spiritual Son, Jesus Christ,
Whom was born of Mary and Joseph,
Was not consubstantial nor co-eternal with God the Father almighty,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died, and was buried.
On the third day His Spirit was resurrected…”

I can agree with this statement about Jesus: He was God’s spiritual son; he was born just like all humans with an earthly mother and father (although I reserve judgment that his parents were actually Mary and Joseph); he was not co-eternal with God; he was crucified, died, and buried; and it was his spirit that was resurrected.

If we allow the spirit of Jesus to dwell within us, he is not dead; he is alive. If we love as he loved, if we live as he lived, if we do as he did, all of us can grow nearer to God. If we care for the needy, comfort the distressed, and befriend the rejected, we will be imitating Jesus and I believe God will be pleased.

A quote that I like a lot about the influence that Jesus had on the world is “One Solitary Life,” which Dr. James Allan Francis included in a sermon in 1926. His original has been edited several different times, but the following is perhaps the most well-known version:
“He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman… He never wrote a book, he never held an office, he never went to college, he never visited a big city. He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things usually associated with greatness… He was only thirty-three. His friends ran away… He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross… When he was dead he was laid in a borrowed grave… Twenty centuries have come and gone; and today Jesus is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever sailed, all the parliaments that have ever sat, all the kings that ever reined put together have not affected the life of mankind on earth as powerfully as that One Solitary Life.”
The following quote from the end of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus seems particularly appropriate to me:

“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words, ‘Follow me!,’ and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who hearken to him, whether they be wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labors, the conflicts, and the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery they will learn who he is…”

Now having written all of the above about Jesus, I must admit that my intellect and my emotions do not always agree. For instance, the last verse of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is very moving to me:

“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

And the fourth verse of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” is also very moving:

“What can I give him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: Give my heart.”

So, considering some of the things I said earlier about the humanity of Jesus, such an emotional response may not seem consistent, except as I said before, I think Jesus is the Christ, our best example of God in human terms.

Read Part 1 Here

Read Part 2 Here

Review & Commentary