Friday, April 24, 2009

"Buddhist" Bishop-Elect Revises Liturgy for Baptism

Even though only the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has the authority to revise the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer, "Buddhist" bishop-elect of Northern Michigan Kevin Thew Forrester has taken it upon himself to revise the liturgy for Holy Baptism.

Here's an example from an Easter liturgy at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Marquette, MI in which Mr. Forrester has taken the liberty to rewrite the Presentation and Examination of the Candidates for Holy Baptism (I've added a couple of headers in red to provide points of reference for the discussion to follow):


Presider: The Candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented.

Parents and Godparents: I present N. to receive the Sacrament of Baptism

Presider: Will you be responsible for seeing that N. is brought up in the Christian faith and life?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you, by your prayers and witness, help N. to grow into the full stature of Christ?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Do you seek to awaken to the eternal presence of God, who is your very heart and soul?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

The Renunciations
Presider: God forever invites you to let go of self deceit to dwell in the house of honesty, where eternal Hope reigns. Will you accept this invitation?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: God forever invites you to let go of all fear to dwell in the house of courage, where eternal Faith reigns. Will you accept this invitation?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: God forever invites you to let go of all anger to dwell in the house of serenity, where Love reigns. Will you accept this invitation?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

The Act of Adherence
Presider: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as the way of Life and Hope?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Presider: Do you put your whole trust in Christ’s grace and love?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Presider: Do you promise to follow Christ as the way of life?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

We stand as we are able.

Presider: Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support N. in her life in Christ?

Assembly: We will.


See the Easter booklet here, and the program insert here.

There are some who charge that the baptism administered to this child is not valid, but from my perspective, the validity of the sacrament is not in question (in spite of the illegal liturgical revision, the sacrament was administered with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit).

My concerns center around the theological shift taking place with Forrester's revision. Comparing the revised Presentation and Examination of the Candidates to pages 301-303 in The Book of Common Prayer, the first thing that strikes me is the addition of this question to the two that precede the renunciations in the Prayer Book:

Do you seek to awaken to the eternal presence of God, who is your very heart and soul?

It's not entirely clear in this context what exactly the language of "awakening" refers to. But read in the larger context of Forrester's other writings, it carries gnostic or "new age" overtones that suggest a theological anthropology in which one's true self ("your very heart and soul") is identical with "the eternal presence of God." Our "salvation" lies in waking up to this "true self." Our problem is a lack of proper knowledge and insight about our divine nature, not anything as dire as the Christian conception of sin.

Perhaps this explains the absence of the renunciations, in which the baptismal candidate (or, in the case of infants, his/her parents and godparents) say "no" to three levels of evil:

1. Cosmic Evil - Nature and History Are Unmanageable

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer I renounce them.


2. Systemic Evil - Human Affairs and Social Systems Are Unmanageable

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer I renounce them.


3. Personal Evil - Our Lives Are Unmanageable

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.


The renunciations in the Prayer Book acknowledge the tragic reality that our world is messed up by sin and evil, and they affirm that a central vocation of the Christian way of life is to say "No!" to this sin and evil. By contrast, Forrester cuts out the renunciations, replacing them with"invitations" to let go of self deceit, fear and anger. Regardless of whether or not this sounds more Buddhist than Christian, this suggests that our lives and our world are manageable. We can simply choose to accept an invitation to live another way. We have the power to do this within ourselves. The consequence of this revision is an utter failure to take seriously the Christian claim that something is deeply awry with God’s good creation, that there is a desperate need for healing and redemption that requires divine intervention from a Savior, and that those who pledge their allegiance to this Savior commit themselves to ongoing resistance to the sin and evil that run amok in the world. Instead, Forrester's revised liturgy suggests (like his Trinity Sunday sermon) that there's no need for outside intervention and divine transformation. We don't need a Savior, we just need to accept the invitation to live our true selves.

Just as troubling is the way in which Forrester has revised the act of adherence. If the renunciations state the overwhelming magnitude and unmanageable character of the problem of sin and evil, the act of adherence acknowledges where we find the answer. Taken in conjunction with the renunciations, the language affirms the need for conversion. As Leonel Mitchell notes, the language of "turn to" in English "translates the Latin 'convertere,' from which we derive the word 'convert' [Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse, 1985), p. 98] :

1. Conversion: We Affirm A Power Greater Than Ourselves That Can Save Us

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.


2. Conversion: We Affirm That We Can Trust The One Who Has This Power

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer I do.


3. Conversion: We Acknowledge Jesus Christ As The One Legitimate Power And Authority Over Our Lives

Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer I do.


In contrast to the Prayer Book's language about accepting Jesus as Savior, Forrester's revised language is about accepting Jesus as "the way of Life and Hope." And in contrast to the Prayer Book's language about following and obeying Jesus as Lord, Forrester's revised language is about promising to follow Jesus as "the way of life." In short, Forrester's revision rejects Jesus as Lord and Savior, and thus the need for conversion as understood in a Christian sense.

This revision is consistent with Forrester's addition of the language about "awaken[ing] to the eternal presence of God" within one's self coupled with his jettisoning the renunciations. That language suggests that all of us are divine sons and daughters of God. There's nothing unique about Jesus in that respect. Instead of being our Lord and Savior, Jesus is more like a sage who shows us the path to enlightenment which leads us to recognizing our own divinity. We'd know this truth if we could only see it. So Forrester's revised liturgy affirms conversion (or "enlightenment") to the truth of our own divinity rather than renunciation of sin and evil and conversion to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Forrester's writings and sermons are sufficiently distressing to call into question his fitness, not only to be a bishop, but to even be a priest. Add to that the fact that Forrester adds stuff to the liturgy like a reading from the Qur'an in place of the appointed lesson from the apostle Paul, while also taking away from the liturgy the renunciations, and also so thoroughly revising the theological grounding of the act of adherence that it bears little resemblance to anything specifically Christian.

Given what we know from his sermons and liturgical experimentation/revision, I think there is little basis for believing that Mr. Forrester, if consecrated as a bishop, will heed the call "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 517). It's much more reasonable to expect that he would continue doing what he's already been doing: departing from the core tenets of the Christian faith and revising the liturgical practices of the Episcopal Church accordingly.

My discussion of the renunciations and the act of adherence draws on John Westerhoff and Caroline Hughes' Living Into Our Baptism: A Guide to Ongoing Congregational and Personal Growth in Christian Faith and Life Revised Edition (Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, 1992), pp. 28-32.

24 comments:

Christopher said...

Fr. Owen,

You hit on precisely all of the problems wrong with the Baptismal portion of this liturgy. It hints toward the same types of matters I saw in "The Wisdom Jesus". And btw, they're both drawing from a very selective reading of the same scholarship, such as that of Dr. Winkler. The Baptism is valid, the rite is illicit and I think erroneous at best and borders on heterodoxy. Jesus shares with us in our human nature save all things but sin; we don't share with Jesus in his divine nature.

The eucharistic prayer is also problematic in the Easter Vigil in which this baptismal rite is found. There is an acclamation about Jesus being weaved together by the Holy Spirit just like us that pushes at His only-begottenness. I don't think I could say it in good conscience.

bob said...

As long as you remain an Anglican you can look forward to this. It doesn't not change. It makes up it's faith as it goes along. There's no reason to keep being surprised by this.

Caelius said...

The Renunciations seem to borrow from Henri Nouwen.

plsdeacon said...

While the matter and form are correct for the Baptism, I believe that the intent is serously lacking. I doubt very much that Forrester intended to do what the Church does in Baptism. As opposed to dying and being raised to new life, it seems that Forrester is trying to awaken inner knowledge.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Joe Rawls said...

A bit of Gnostic Lite, a bit of Buddhist Lite. If I were a drinking man, I'd be reaching for a Bud Lite right about now.

I'm an EFM graduate, I say the Jesus Prayer on a regular basis, and I try to expose myself to the full range of Christian contemplative literature. It's never occurred to me that God is "my very heart and soul". Am I doing something wrong?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments on this posting thus far.

Chris, I think your observations about all of this are spot on, particularly the selective retrieval of the scholarship cited and the illicit character of the theology enacted by Forrester's revised liturgy. I would go further than calling this heterodox, however, and say that we're now talking about heresy. And if that's the case, we don't even have to go to the possibility of Forrester's consecration as a bishop to sound the alarm; his status as a priest who says and does these things should offer sufficient reasons for his removal from Holy Orders. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

bob, in spite of how what I've just written may suggest otherwise, and as tempting as it may be on a bad day, I actually don't share your pessimism. After all, I am one among many Episcopalians who don't buy into this heretical hooey. Indeed, we may very well be the "silent majority" - and certainly the "diverse center" - of the Episcopal Church. Furthermore, the Church in every age has had to deal with this kind of stuff. Perhaps in our time there is more of it to go around, but we're not unique in having to deal with heterodox and heretical challenges to authority. And so to abandon the Church because of stuff like this is, IMHO, deeply tragic. The Forrester case seems to be uniting Episcopalians across the theological spectrum. I think it's important to stay the course and to stand united - not merely on what we oppose - but also on what we all agree is essential.

Caelius, I had the same thought as you. I, too, heard echoes of Nouwen's book Lifesigns, where he talks about being freed from captivity in the house of fear to live in the house of love, behind Forrester's use of the language of accepting the invitation to "dwell in the house of X." I do not, however, read Nouwen as being theologically on the same level with what I read in Forrester's writings and liturgical revisions. Please feel free to say more about your observations.

Phil, given what I've written on several posts about Forrester's writings and liturgical shenanigans, I agree with you that the intent is lacking for this particular baptism. Having said that, I'm willing to espouse a generously orthodox appraisal of this baptism by saying that, Forrester's intent notwithstanding, the use of water + the right words = a valid baptism.

The question of intent may be clear in this case, but I submit that it can be an issue in any given case. What if I'm having a bad Sunday morning and my mind and will aren't focused as they should be on what I'm doing and intending when I administer the water bath? (That's certainly happened before in my role as celebrant for baptism and also for the Eucharist.) Does that deficiency in me, as the minister, make the sacrament of baptism invalid when I use water and the right words of administration? Unless I'm willing to concede ground to Donatism, I don't think so.

And Joe, it sounds to me like you're doing nothing wrong!

plsdeacon said...

Normally, you discern intent by using the words that the Church uses. For example, if a heterodox priest, who does not believe that Jesus really rose from the dead in the Resurrection says the Eucharistic prayer as written, then his intent is discerned to be what the Church does - even if he preached a sermon that said Jesus was just a nice guy and no more divine than either of us. The sermon, while an important part of the Liturgy, is notpart of the elements of making Eucharist. However, if the same priest substituted a different prayer - one that expoused his adoptionistic heresy for the Eucharistic Prayer, then his intent is not to do what the Church does.

However, the renounciations and acceptances as well as the statement of faith is a part of the essence of baptism. They are part of the intent. It is clear from the liturgy that Forrester does not believe in the Trinity (not the modalism in Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer). He does not believe in Jesus as Savior - only Guide to the divine in all of us.

Since the intent is clearly lacking, I would probably ask that Harrison be conditionally baptized if I were the clergy in charge of a congregation.

Joe, given what you have said, I don't see anything wrong in what you are doing. It is possible to remain orthodox in your beliefs and use meditation techniques that borrow from the buddhist or other faith traditions. Contemplation and Meditation are Christian techniques as well. The Jesus Prayer has a long tradition of use as an aid to meditation.

Bryan Owen said...

Phil,

While I agree that the evidence in this case overwhelmingly suggests that the intent is lacking, and while I agree that the renunciations and adherences are important parts of the baptismal liturgy, I still think we have to cut some slack on this one point: if Forrester complied with what is printed in the service bulletin, he used water and the proper words of administration for the baptism. That, according to our Prayer Book, is both necessary and sufficient to make it valid.

And so I disagree with you about doing a "conditional baptism" because of what the Prayer Book says about that:

"If there is reasonable doubt that a person has been baptized with water, 'In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (which are the essential parts of Baptism), the person is baptized in the usual manner, but this form is used"If you are not already baptized, N., I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (BCP, p. 313).

In this case, there is no "reasonable doubt" that the child was baptized with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And since (as our Prayer Book teaches) these are "the essential parts of Baptism," Forrester's defective intent is (thanks be to God!) irrelevant to the validity and efficacious character of the sacrament.

BillyD said...

If we're going to start examining intent as closely as Phil seems to want, we're going to have to start (re)baptizing more people than the ones that Fr Forrester is responsible for. There are lots of Protestant groups whose ideas about baptism do not line up with Anglican views, after all.

plsdeacon said...

OK - I concede. I do agree that Forrester should be severly disciplined - perhaps even deposed (with trial) for what he has done. Of course, I believe that will not occur because his new bishop is probably going to be as "expansive" in his views as he is, but under the radar and without a paper trail. This is sad, but I am rather pessimistic about certain areas of the country. We have allowed bad theology to enter and take hold of the TEC (under the disguise of "comprehensiveness") for far too long. We no longer require bishops, priests, or deacons to understand and articulate the Faith before we ordain them. All we require is that they get the right boxes checked in the Ordination Process.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Thomas McKenzie said...

I think we should step back for a moment and consider how entirely sick this conversation is. You are having to have a serious conversation as to whether or not a baptism given in a supposedly Christian church by a supposedly Christian minister is even a Christian sacrament. Instead of discerning gospel fruits in his ministry, you need to decide if the sacramental language a bishop-elect invented meets the absolute minimum standard of being within our faith. Minimal standards should not be the issue; abundance should be the issue.

This is essential to the problems in the Episcopal "Church." Instead of moving forward in the Gospel, they have to argue about whether or not a particular leader is even a Christian. If you are sitting in the pew, or serving as priest in a diocese, and you have to seriously ask yourself that question about your pastor, then you should be out the door. This is not a game.

Bryan Owen said...

You make an important point, BillyD, about what would happen if we starting taking into consideration the intent behind the baptisms of the many Protestants who have since become Episcopalians. Many of those Protestant traditions reject things that are central to the Anglican understanding of baptism. I note in particular the notion of baptismal regeneration which, in spite of Puritan objections, remained in the Prayer Book and continues to have a strong presence in the 1979 Prayer Book. And yet, we don't require re-baptism or conditional baptism for these folks.

Phil, while my pessimism doesn't run as deep as bob's (see his comments above), I share your pessimism about any real discipline in this case. And I think that (sadly) the last three sentences of your comment are spot on. I've seen the results of this with persons who have graduated from seminary but have bombed the G.O.E.s, and not because the exams were badly or unfairly written, but because they simply could not articulate the faith of the Church, either because they didn't know what it is or because they did know but they did not believe any or most of it.

Once again, I'll say that the hopeful piece in all of this for me is seeing Episcopalians across the theological spectrum united in opposition to Forrester's election because we are united in support of the creedal or dogmatic core of the Christian faith. The Forrester case is, indeed, a wake-up call that the Episcopal Church has been infiltrated by both bad and heretical theology at all levels. It may not be as pervasive as the more stringent doomsayers cry, but it's there and, left unchecked, will spread and come to seem more and more "normal." We need to build on the unified opposition across the spectrum in this case to start saying "No!" in other cases.

And so, Thomas, you are absolutely right. This is not a game. This is serious stuff. I'm not sure it's helpful to describe the conversation we're having as "sick." Perhaps it's more accurate to say that there is sickness in the Church that needs healing. It strikes me as very healthy to have an open conversation about that.

Christopher said...

Fr. Owen,

I think you are correct. Most Episcopalians, I would dare say are your bog-standard Prayer Book types. I generally count myself among them. Day in and year out, in our regular praying from therein, we are shaped theologically, biblically, etc. That's why changing of the liturgy of our central rites strikes right to the heart. And this is not a minor change as in adding in a biblical canticle not authorized. This is an equivalent to a theological air-bombing campaign.

I'm not pessimistic, however. I think this raises opportunities for public engagement and a strengthening of teaching of the faith. That this has brought together voices from across the spectrum means that there is enough health yet to spot this as poison. And this is poison. It is antithetical to the Gospel.

I'm trying to be charitable and hoping someone might persuade Fr. Thew Forrester to step back from his words. But in the end, you're correct, these words are heretical and cut to the core of the Incarnation. They are gnostic and remind very much of the Gospel of Thomas. Such teaching makes unfit anyone who holds any public authority in this Church, and not only for the ordained. I would count any public teaching of this kind by a lay professor or Vestry member to be objectionable and just as actionable, even if our canons do not.

The underlying problem is twofold: we seem to have priests who have been trained poorly in theology.
And we have a flagging sense of any need for discipline at all even when someone teaches something contrary to the core.

I would further offer that not all meditative practices are equal. Like Joe, I meditate using the Jesus Prayer and have since I was 18. That particular form of meditation by it's very nature, i.e., praying Jesus' Name, tends to guard against notions that we're awakening our own godhood. It conforms our heart and mind to His, rather than His to ours.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent observations, Christopher. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've written here and I am grateful for your constructive contribution to this discussion.

plsdeacon said...

Thomas,

You are right that this is not a game. It is eternally serious because we will worship what we perceive to be God.

What does it say about TEC that we are even having this discussion? What does it say about TEC that we can have a person elected bishop about whom there are such serious questions about his anthropology (what is man), christology (who is Jesus), and soteriology (what does it meant to be saved and how are we saved) and his subscription to the trinitarian faith.

I used to assume that priests and bishops and deacons held the faith by virtue of their seminary education. Then I got slapped in the face (figuratively) with reality and learned that I often believed the words of Holy Scripture and the Teaching of the Church than the "experts." I am afraid that the assumption of faith is no longer there.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Thomas McKenzie said...

One of my brothers here said "we seem to have priests who have been trained poorly in theology."

I disagree. I would think that most of priests in TEC are very well trained in theology. They are smart, educated, well-read, caring, thoughtful, and prayerful people. The problem is that many to most of them are trained well in heretical theology.

Education is not the problem. The content of the education is PART of the problem.

And when I said that the conversation was sick, I meant that it is sick that you all have to have it. Sorry to be unclear.

Tim Cravens said...

I completely agree with your analysis of this horrifying and heretical liturgy. I just want to add one other thing that really angers me about it -- it is less serious than the flaws you have pointed out, but quite telling nonetheless. I've always thought that the welcome of the newly baptized by the congregation ("We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.") is one of the most beautiful things in the 1979 BCP -- it is a marvelous and powerful summary of the ministry of the baptized. (When I was in college in the 80's, I attended a parish that had actually set those words to music, and would sing them several times as the priest carried the newly baptized baby up and down the aisles of the church.)

For that, Mr. Thew Forrester has substituted this: "God receives you by baptism into the Church.
Child of God, blessed in the Spirit, welcome to the family of Christ. Amen." This statement isn't heretical. And it is certainly not essential to the rite, as the renunciations and acts of adherence are (although I agree that the baptism is valid if illicit) -- but it is weak, watered down, and prompts me to ask, why on earth would any sinner redeemed by Christ's priestly act through the cross and resurrection want to hide that fact by getting rid of such a wonderful statement of that fact?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Tim, for offering your observations on the changes in the "welcoming the newly baptized" part of Forrester's revised liturgy as compared to the Book of Common Prayer. Even when they don't derail the train, small changes like that do affect the overall tone of the liturgy. Given the heretical character of the other changes in this particular liturgy, perhaps it's just as well that the beautiful and meaningful language from the Prayer Book doesn't get associated with it.

Christopher said...

Thomas,

Thanks for clarifying. I wish that that were true. However, it's been my experience that many of the priests trained in the last 10-15 years were trained in a pick-and-choose form of theologizing that doesn't seem to have a governing christology, for example. There isn't a lot of in-depth sinking into a few works. Instead, we get treated to a snippet of whatever was read this week without relationship to how say St Augustine and St Nyssa might be in conversation on Original Sin. Maybe that's just my experience, but I really don't get the sense folks were pushed to articulate a christological centre in their seminary days.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks for this careful analysis. My jaw dropped an inch or so when I read the "renunciation substitutes" -- kind of the typical "God's O.K., I'm O.K." theology that seems to be at the heart of KTF's view of the world.

Truth be told, I like the imagery of the House of X -- but renunciations are not just about location but orientation -- literally. (I always do the whole nine yards and am lucky to have a properly oriented church to do it in, so the baptismal party can turn to the west for the renunciations and then east for the affirmations.)

And I do like the phrase, "Jesus as the way of life." Again, not a substitute for obedience as such, but a wholesome concept.

Thanks again for your focus on this, and your clarity in laying it out.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Tobias. I value your take on things very much, and I appreciate your taking time to read this piece and offer your own thoughts.

David said...

Dear Fr. Owen,

Thank you for your starting and carrying on a cogent conversation about the meaning of baptism and the Christian faith - in the context of Fr. Forrester's revision of the liturgy.

I have many questions that spin off this discussion. I would appreciate any feedback you and the other bloggers can give. If these questions get to far a field and interfere with the intent of this blog feel free to let me know and I'll certainly discontinue.

One on-going theme seems to be the uniqueness of Jesus' (in terms of his divinity) and how he would differ from us and/or other religious figures.

I get confused when Jesus is thought of has utterly unique and different from us not only in 'degree' but in also in 'kind'. The reason being that if he is so completely different from us then how could we 'ordinary people' be expected to be disciples, to follow him, and become like him. I thought that was the basic idea of Christianity and it seems to me to be what the 'historical' Jesus was about - calling students/disciples to become like him the teacher/master/Lord?

In addition there is that later theology by some writers saying that 'he became what we are so that we could become what he is'. Also it seems that there are some N.T. passages that at least hint at our becoming like Jesus by actually participating in the divine nature (2Peter 1:3-4).

And there is the common language we use like we are 'sons and daughters of God' all over the N.T.

So I guess I wonder why we cannot be like Jesus and if we cannot then what is the point of following him and what is the point of Christianity?

I do have lots more questions but this would be place to start. I hope you can help me with some of these questions.

Thanks,
David FA.

Bryan Owen said...

David,

You're asking very important questions that go to the heart of the Christian faith.

The orthodox position on Jesus may be summarized as follows:

1. Jesus Christ is fully and completely God.

2. Jesus Christ is fully and completely man.

3. Jesus Christ is not two persons but one.

Here's how I teased out the implications of all of this in a sermon on the Prologue to the Gospel according to John:

The birth of Jesus marks the Incarnation of the Son of God in the person of a baby Jewish boy from Nazareth. In ways that proved decisive in later centuries as the orthodox understanding of Jesus' identity was hammered out, John’s Gospel makes clear who and what we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. John’s "Prologue" lays the groundwork for the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that Jesus Christ is "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father." Why is that important? It’s important because the reality of our salvation turns on whether or not God really became a human being.

There are two extremes that the Church has often fallen into which John’s "Prologue" allows us to steer a middle way between. One extreme is to say that Jesus is a divine being who cloaked himself in the appearance of flesh and blood, so he wasn’t really fully human. The other extreme says that Jesus is just a human being, no different than you and me. Specially favored by God, to be sure – perhaps even the adopted son of God – but not a divine being at all.

The problem with these views is that in both cases Jesus cannot be a savior. If Jesus is just a divine being, then the chasm between God and humanity created by human sin remains unbridged, and our salvation unaccomplished. As one Christian writer puts it, "salvation must reach the point of human need. Only if Christ is fully and completely a man as we are, can we … share in what he has done for us" [Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way]. Likewise, if Jesus is just a human being – even the best of human beings – then we remain stuck in our sins. "For, only God can save us. A prophet or teacher of righteousness cannot be the redeemer of the world" [ibid.].

Rejecting both of these extremes, John tells us that the same Word that was with God in the beginning and that was God "became flesh and lived among us" (Jn. 1:14 NRSV). And so Jesus Christ is fully and completely God. But Jesus Christ is also fully and completely human. In the Incarnation, the two natures of humanity and divinity are wed into one Person. And so in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ the God-Man is able to make us "children of God" (Jn. 1:12 NRSV) and "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4 RSV). That is the sacred mystery and the divine gift we celebrate during the 12 Days of Christmas.

So while Jesus is, indeed, utterly unique (no one else has been both fully human and fully divine!), his full humanity means that he was/is able to not only sympathize with our weaknesses and sufferings (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16), but also that he is able to show us what a fully human life lived in accordance with God's will actually looks like. He models that for us as the supreme example precisely because he is who the Church says he is. Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptisms, we are empowered to grow more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus, the God-Man. We are adopted through baptism as God's sons and daughters. We become partakers of God's divine nature without ever becoming ourselves fully divine (as the Eastern Orthodox might say, human beings participate in the energies of God, but not in the essence of God).

I don't know if I've even begun to answer your questions, and I hope I haven't muddied the waters any further!

Bryan Owen said...

One more thing: if you're interested, David, I highly recommend the following books for further reflection on these and other matters concerning the heart of the Christian faith:

1. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine

2. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters

3. Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way