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The Humanity of Jesus: Like Adam and Eve or You and Me?

Over the centuries, Christians have understood Scripture’s claim that in Jesus Christ the Word was made flesh in a variety of ways. We Seventh-day Adventists have revisited this territory in our much shorter history. Early on, the first Christians eventually prevailed against Arianism, the view that the divinity of Jesus is secondary and subsequent to God’s. So did the first Adventists. To this day, neither Christianity in general, nor Adventism in particular, has completely won the struggle against all forms of Doceticism, the tendency to think that Jesus appeared to be truly human but actually wasn’t.

Today Seventh-day Adventists understand the humanity of Jesus in two primary ways. Some hold that it was more like that of Adam and Eve before the Fall. They adopt this position primarily because they are concerned that if we make Jesus too much like us he will cease to be our Savior. Others affirm that it was more like ours after the Fall. They favor this stance largely because they are concerned that if we make Jesus too unlike us he will cease to be our Example.

A third position says that he experienced our infirmities but not our propensities. This alternative has not yet taken hold. Because it sharply divides things, I don’t know if it ever will.

A new book by Herbert E. Douglass retraces fifty years of Seventh-day Adventist thinking on this topic from the point of view of an “insider” who has some reservations about what has happened. Its title is A Fork in the Road: Questions on Doctrine: The Historic Adventist Divide of 1957. It can be purchased from Remnant Publications. I recommend it.

Forthcoming Adventist Today biographies of Raymond Cottrell and Desmond Ford will review some of these same events from two somewhat different additional perspectives. These should be helpful as well. Papers from the fall 2007 conference that Julius Nam, Jerry Moon, and Michael Campbell organized at Andrews University are available on the Internet. Julius Nam has written an excellent dissertation that will be published soon.

If I had to choose one of the two primary options, I would vote for the view that the humanity of Jesus was more like ours. I inherited this option from my parents and from most of my mentors at Loma Linda University. Also, it is my impression that in the main this is what we find in the writings of Ellen White. That this is the stance of Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg, two theological giants of our time, also influences me.

Yet I like to think that I have some reasons of my own. One of these is that psychology teaches us that the relationships we have help us become the persons we are. It is not as though we first fully develop our identities and then enter into relationships with others whose own identities are also already wholly established. Rather, every person with whom we relate makes some contribution to our never ending process of becoming unique individuals, and we do the same in return. Each of us is more than the sum of his or her relationships. Yet relationships make an inescapable contribution to identity.

I could believe that the humanity of Jesus was more like that of Adam and Eve before the Fall only if I held that none of the relationships he had throughout the whole of his life with ordinary people like you and me made any contribution to his identity. This would amount to a Doctrine of the Immaculate Relationships of Jesus. I can’t go that far.

To my way of thinking, this is an overwhelmingly decisive consideration. It is one thing to suggest that his miraculous birth spared Jesus from having a human nature more like ours. It is another thing to say that God performed another big miracle, or countless small ones, guaranteeing that none of his relationships with ordinary people made even the slightest contribution to his identity. The only other option that I can think of is to say that relationships contribute to identity in none of our lives. I’m not prepared to dismiss all the contrary psychological evidence, however.

The behavioral sciences always matter in discussions like these; so do the other academic disciplines. We should always check with them because they might prove helpful.

Yet the longevity of these discussions may be limited because all the positions presuppose an assumption that is outmoded and unbiblical. This is that we can talk about the “nature,” “substance,” or “essence” of a person as though it were an “unchanging thing.” It may have once made sense to think this way. It no longer does.

For centuries, the words substance, essence, and nature referred to that which is what it is without regard to changes in relationships and time. The idea was that the substance of a thing can change without this being apparent. This is what the Roman Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation teaches. It holds that in the Mass the substances of the bread and wine actually become the substances of the body and blood of Jesus while remaining the same in their outward appearances.

According to this kind of thinking, the opposite can also occur. The “substance” or “essence” or “nature” of a thing can remain the same even though everything else is always changing. This seems to what we are seeking when we ask about the human “nature” of Jesus.

But “substance thinking” is outmoded and unbiblical. Human persons are not solid blocks of ice that seem to be changeless and impenetrable. They are bubbling streams of water that pick up much as they flow. This does not mean that Jesus was blameworthy in any way, only that he was truly human.

For centuries doctrinal studies of Jesus Christ (Christologies) have distinguished between his “nature” and his “work.” This is almost a practical necessity; however, it can be misleading because in him “Being” and “Act” converge: Jesus is as Jesus does.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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