What We Believe and Why
The Deity of Christ
The Faith of the Early Disciples
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
The Deity of Christ
His Virgin Birth
It was a wonderful thing that Jesus Christ did for religion—nothing less than the rediscovery of God. We cannot read the New Testament without finding the wonder and surprise of that discovery on almost every page. Religion in Christ's day had become formal, conventional, fixed and hard. Even those who were faithful in their performance of the routine of worship lost its spirit. Are there not similar conditions today? God is lost now, as He was then, in "the maze of religious machinery."
And God was indeed lost then—wholly misunderstood. God had become a sort of Magnified Man sitting in the center of the universe, ruling things and judging people. There grew up a religion which made it [1/2] more important to observe rules and keep feasts and fasts and follow customs and conform to ceremonies than to love and serve. God became cold, distant, unapproachable.
Then Jesus Christ brought God back to men. Religion became fresh, real, wonderful, beautiful. God became near, human, friendly, approachable. Worship became devotion to a Person. Service became the glad labor of those who were fellow workers with God. The God of Jesus was Friend and Father; a Friend to be known, remembered, honored, into whose likeness men grow through companionship and intercourse; a Father who cares for His children and will do all that a Father can to win them to love and loyalty; a Father who comes forth to meet His returning children with forgiveness and pardon; one who goes out to seek and to save as a shepherd seeks the wandering sheep on the mountainside. In other words, God is like Christ; like Him as He walked with His disciples through the fields and hills of [2/3] Galilee; like Him as He talked with them in the intimacy of daily life and slept with them under the stars; like Christ in His devotion to truth and right, no matter what it cost or in what it ended; like Christ as He led His friends in the path of duty; like Him as He sacrificed and suffered, that they might know and care; like Him in His gentleness and goodness, but like Him in His hatred of sin as well as in His love of sinners; like Christ in His presence and power—not the power of force that compels, but the power of love that wins and attracts.
God is like Christ. That is the essence of Christianity. It is not enough to say that Christ is God-like; no, God is Christ-like. "The heart of God is as the heart of Jesus." That is our standing ground amid all the changes of time. That is our faith, though all things on earth shriek denial against it. That is the heart's assurance amid life's dark mysteries, when trials beset and sorrows befall us. That is our constant belief [3/4] when wars ravage the earth, when social injustice ruins the souls of the poor, when the heavens are as brass and the earth totters under our feet.
God is like Christ. It is what He Himself said when He declared that those who had seen Him had seen the Father—and whoever recorded the words, they have in them the ring of truth. God is like Christ. That is what St. Paul meant when he spoke of the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That is what another sacred writer meant, when he spoke of the God who in other times was made known through the prophets, but was now revealed in His Son, the Effulgence of the Father's glory and the very Stamped Copy of His substance. That is what St. John meant when he said that the life was manifested and that he had seen it and was bearing witness and was showing unto men that eternal life which was with the Father and had now been manifested, "That which we have seen and heard," he writes, [4/5] "that which our eyes have looked upon and our hands have handled of the Word of Life, declare we unto you." There is in the very words a gladness of surprise, a reverent astonishment, a breathless devotion, an awe and wonder that hushes and stills us. The God of Jesus is the only God we can really believe in. If God is not what Christ said He was, He ought to be—we can never again be content with anything less. Christ let men read down deep into His heart and then told them that God was just like Himself. He called on men to follow him, to live His life, to think His thoughts after Him, to test by the beauty and glory they saw in Him every idea of God they had ever had, and to find in Him truth and life.
How comes it, then, that men have minimized this central truth of the Christian religion? Because in days past Christian teachers, in proclaiming Christ's deity, have made Him remote and unapproachable. [5/6] Because Christian theologians became hardened to a dogmatic task and in the attempt to define Christ in exactly the right words, forgot sometimes to follow the God whom He revealed with reverence and humble sincerity. Because of the hard and dogmatic way in which the truth was taught. There are two ways of teaching doctrine. It may be taught as a revelation leading to life, giving to life value and rich abundance; or it may be made a shibboleth to shut out all who cannot frame their lips to pronounce the test word aright. Doctrine may be concentrated into tabloids of truth, pestilent little pellets offered for spiritual health but thrust down one's throat if not voluntarily accepted, and therefore bitter to the taste and repellent to the recipient.
Moreover, the fact of Christ's deity was emphasized at the expense of His humanity. The Christian faith is the treasure box of the riches of God. When I go to a safety vault to unlock my deposit box I need two keys. [6/7] When we would unlock the treasure box of God's truth, we need the key of Christ's divinity, but we need also the key of His humanity. The faith of Christianity declares that Christ is not only perfectly God, but completely Man. He entered into human life to translate the thought of God into human language and the life of God into a human example.
Men are essentially single-tracked in their road to thought. They usually see only one truth at a time. Theologians, keen on preserving the truth of Christ's divinity, minimized His humanity. So there came the cry which was the characteristic note of the passing generation, "Back to Jesus"; back from creeds and councils, back from dogmas and conciliar decrees, back to the Jesus Who lived among men.
Behold Him now where He comes,
Not the Christ of our subtle creeds,
But the Christ of our hearts and homes,
Our hopes and prayers and needs,
The brother of want and blame,
The lover of women and men,
With a love that puts to shame
All passions of mortal ken.
 We needed to be recalled to this truth. If this paper could be longer, it would be easy to show how the Church has again and again been recalled to it. The singular fact is, that the real battle of the Church has always been the struggle to maintain the reality of Christ's humanity. In the early councils it was never so hard to define His deity as to safeguard the completeness of His humanity. Yet it was done successfully, without diminution of His Godhead, and it must be done now.
We needed, I say, to be recalled to the truth of Christ's human life and example. The preaching and teaching of this truth has been very real and very moving. The life of Christ, as it has been pictured for us of recent years, has indeed a haunting beauty; it casts a spell upon the mind; it hushes the heart. We see Christ as we never saw Him before, in relation to the world's life and the world's need. We appreciate much in His words that had been forgotten. We find in His example [8/9] inspiration that had been almost lost. The thought of His cross as the greatest act of heroism and self sacrifice in history has made the world know Him, not simply as "Jesus, meek and gentle," but as the "strong Son of God." We know now that He never came to make life easy; He came to make men strong and great.
Yes, it was needed, and it is all very beautiful. But it is not enough. We can never build a real and vital faith on a human Christ. We must indeed see the value of Christ's teaching, realize the worth and wonder of His example, know His solution of life's problems, see the power of His human faith and love to set in order a confused and distressed world; but we need more. Unless His voice is the voice of God, how can we know that His system will ever work? His teaching may be very beautiful, His life very wonderful, His thought of God very moving; but how can we be sure that He is not a dreamer whose dreams can never come true? Unless we have the conviction [9/10] that His voice is the voice of God for us, His leadership can never be a sure leadership for all ages.
More than that. What is our greatest need, the real hunger of our hearts? Is it not to know what God is like, and be sure? If Christ is only a man, what does He know of God more than the rest of mankind? His thought of God is truly high and splendid because He was the best and noblest of men; but He may have been mistaken. Indeed, apart from the resurrection, which declared Him to be the Son of God with power, was not His life built upon a mistaken theory and therefore bound to end in failure? His faith would not stand the strain of contact with a rough world. He tried it out and it proved to be a mistake—a glorious mistake, but a tragic one in its ending; a dream—a dream of beauty and splendor, but an impossible dream notwithstanding.
No; it is one thing to have wonderful teaching about God; but it is another thing [10/11] to have a Christ who speaks, and has a right to speak, with the authority of God. If His voice is not God's voice, it cannot come to us with assurance. If His cross is but the world's worst tragedy, instead of God's adventure for a lost race, the spring of hope is gone from our hearts. If His proffered forgiveness and help are not by God's authority, we have heard but a swan song of gracious kindliness from a visionary lover of mankind. If those who have seen Him have not seen the Father, then nobody knows what God is like and nobody ever will know. There is no stopping place between faith in Christ's divinity and blank agnosticism.
All this, of course, is no proof of what the Church proclaims. But neither is it a mere threatening gesture of protest. It is the solemn truth, expressed in a dilemma: Christ, or nothing; the certainty of God as Jesus proclaimed the Father, or blank uncertainty. I don't want any God but the God of Jesus Christ, nor do you; and if [11/12] we cannot be sure that our Lord spake that which He knew and testified to that which He had seen, we are all at sea again in our thought of God and I can find across the barren waste of waters no course to a safe harbor.
What, then, is the road by which we come to our faith in the essential Deity of Christ? By the same road along which the apostles reached their faith. They lived long enough with Christ and close enough to Him to discover, at last, the secret of His personality. In Bishop Gore's book, "Belief in Christ," we have a very vivid picture of the life of the apostles with their Master, and we see how the wonder of their experience grew until Christ came to have for them "all the values of God." They do not appear, at first, to have asked themselves questions about Christ's person and you cannot imagine His breaking in abruptly with any statement of His Godhead; but He came to hold in their lives [12/13] and in their minds that place which is the place of God only. He even claimed to be the ultimate and infallible judge of their lives. He declared that God had given to Him the right to judge men, that men might honor Him as they honored God. He deliberately trained the disciples to trust in Him utterly. "For a man to put himself towards any other human soul in the very place of God would be supreme presumption, the sin of all sins, and yet that is exactly what Christ did of set purpose. He led the disciples so to believe on Him as that they must discover Him to be either God or one usurping God's place." He made upon them an impression of unbounded authority and power which absorbed their souls.
Is it any wonder that gradually they came to see that He was all that He asserted Himself to be? Their belief in Him, but half formed at His death, was confirmed in His resurrection, through which He was seen as Lord of life and victor over the grave [13/14] and was "declared to be the Son of God with power." In other words, the disciples came to believe in Christ's Godhead through their experience of His human life. Coming so to believe, they passed on their faith as an inheritance to the Christian Church, an inheritance which the perpetual experience of Christ's power in those who believe has made continually more credible.
Again, Bishop Gore points out that this faith of the apostles was simple and unquestioning. It remained for St. Paul to give it form and expression as that became necessary, as of course soon happened; but when St. Paul set forth the truth on which they were already acting it was received without question. It is indeed the same fully developed faith as that of the Gospel which we call St. John's.
We think, some of us, I presume, that a right faith is of no special importance. There could be no more disastrous error. I have no doubt whatever in my own mind [14/15] that the chief cause of the moral laxity of modern life runs back into indefiniteness of belief. It cannot be questioned, I think, that in general (that is, taking people in the large) the way in which men behave depends on their attitude towards spiritual verities. If there be in general no definite belief as to the meaning and purpose of life, men are bound to lower their moral standards. If there can be found no real authority in the teaching of Christ, it will have less hold on men than it has now—and God knows that is little enough. If we have no certainty as to what God is or what He does, we shall have small incentive to serve Him. If Christ be regarded only as a human teacher, we shall have strange interpretations of His teaching—stranger even than some we have already.
A letter came to me the other day asking why one could not accept all this [15/16] without accepting the Virgin Birth of Christ. The writer says:
"I have, I think, the deepest faith in Christ and yet I find it hard to accept the story of His miraculous Birth. Other people, I find, are equally doubtful. Do you know and appreciate the reasons why the miracle is questioned? Is the matter of sufficient importance to faith to be made part of the Christian Creed?"
There are many reasons why people find it difficult to accept the miracle of the Virgin Birth of Christ. I think I know and appreciate them. One reason is, that very little is said about it in the Gospels, and not much stress seems to be laid upon it in the apostolic teaching. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the two Gospel accounts as we have them would ever have been questioned, were it not that modern teachers are anxious entirely to eliminate the supernatural from religion. I do not believe that they will ever do it and have much religion of any kind left. In these days [16/17] many people have difficulty in accepting the virginal birth of Christ, because they find it hard to accept miracles at all, and they think they can take Christ's life and teaching without them. Again, I do not believe the division is possible. Miracles are of the very warp and woof of the Gospel story and when you try to eliminate them altogether you haven't much of a life-story left —certainly not a consistent story.
Again, some feel that the story of the Virgin Birth detracts from the real humanity of Christ; others, that it casts reflection upon the holiness of married life, forgetting that the ages which gladly believed it had the highest ideals of the family; others, say that the manner of Christ's entrance into the world is not of importance, it is the fact of His coming that counts.
We need not discuss all these objections. Certainly the Gospels show Christ as really and truly human. But they also show that He was, and claimed to be, and was accepted as being, divine. He is God and [17/18] Man—truly God and truly Man. Faith in Him means that we believe that He is the Eternal Son of God—a Person eternally existing and afterward taking human nature (not a new human personality) to Himself, and living a human life, that He might reveal in it what God's life is, and translate for us God's thought into our language.
If that is what Christ's coming means, how can one balk at the story of His unique and miraculous birth? His coming into human life is of itself so great and wonderful a mystery, that we are not surprised to learn that it was brought about in a unique way. It may be doubted whether those who deny the Virgin Birth do really, at heart, believe that Jesus is the Eternal Son of God. They are confused in thought and actually, it would seem, have a very dim idea of the meaning of the Incarnation. Instead of believing that Jesus Christ is God manifested in human life, they have a vague feeling that in some way our faith [18/19] means that He is a man who became exalted to the place of Deity.
Well, some one may ask, why not? The answer is clear. Because that would make Christianity, so to speak, a new paganism. It would mean what is technically called an apotheosis. It would be, as it were, "piling on" to Christ the attributes of Deity. It might show us how high goodness may reach; but it would not give us any sure revelation as to what God is in His inner being.
And it isn't Christianity. The wonder of the Christian faith is that God is Christ. Suppose we put the emphasis that way—instead of saying "Christ is like God," or "Christ is God," say "God is like Christ," and "God is Christ." That is a wonderful faith for those who feel the pressure of the world's darkness and despair. Where is God? What is He? What is He doing? Why doesn't He stop sin and sorrow? Our answer is: God is Christ. He is doing what Christ was doing. He does what Christ [19/20] did to stop sin. He is doing all He can without violating the free nature He has given us.
So, then, Christ is not a deified man. He is God come in man's nature. He is the God-Man; not a God-inspired or God-uplifted man. He is the eternally existing Person of the Son of God manifested in human nature.
That being the case, how can one stumble over the story that tells us that He was born in a unique way? Every time a child is born of human parents, a new personality enters into life. When Christ was born, it was the coming into human life of an already existing personality. With that fixed in one's mind, at once it becomes evident that the birth of Christ was a miracle, whether He was born of a Virgin or was not. Suppose Him to have been born of the marital intercourse of Joseph and Mary —that would mean a physical miracle more stupendous still; for how can one possibly imagine [20/21] a Divine-Human Offspring as the result of human intercourse?
What I am driving at is this: Do not start at the wrong end and ask people to believe in Christ because of the Virgin Birth. Ask them to believe in the Virgin Birth because of Christ. Because He is what He is, we believe He was born in a wonderful way.
Of what importance is the story of the Virgin Mother and the Christmas Angels? This discussion must have shown its importance. It helps us to understand the meaning of the Incarnation. It assists faith. Moreover, it is of immense practical moral value. Let me quote Bishop Talbot of Pretoria:
"Say what others may, I cannot agree that there is no meaning or value in the Virgin Birth and that it may without loss be dropped out of the Creeds. No; it fits in with the truth that, in the whole drama of Jesus, [21/22] the initiative, the action was God's. God, in a word, made a new start for the race. There was desperate need of a new start, not least in the vital matters of sex. Something, therefore, very vital is lost if the initiative in the birth of Jesus was but a husbands love for his wife. Something precious was retained if the initiative was from God."
The whole matter resolves itself to this question: What think we of Christ? Are we thinking of Him as a good man whose example ought to be followed? Are we thinking of Him as the best man the world has ever seen—so good that He had more of the divine in Him than all other men, though we all have in us sparks of the divine?
Or, do we think of Him as an Eternal Person, a manifestation of Deity—One who came to give the race a new start and bring to us fresh hope and offer us life and grace and set us an example by emptying Himself [22/23] of His divine privilege that He might live our life with our powers? I confess I find it much easier to believe this than to believe in a deification or apotheosis. Indeed, the one seems to be a meaningless juggling with words; the other seems to me so wonderful and unique that it compels faith.