The Humanity of God

Paradoxes lie at the heart of orthodox Christian theology. For example, God is incomprehensible and yet we can comprehend him enough to know and love him, God is one and yet he is also three, human beings are free and responsible creatures and yet they are also in bondage to sin and subject to God’s sovereignty, and at Holy Communion what the faithful receive is bread and wine and yet it is also the body and blood of Christ.

Another key paradox at the heart of Christian theology is that the fact that Jesus is both God and Man means that we can talk about the ‘humanity of God.’  What this phrase means is very helpfully explained by the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth in his 1956 lecture entitled ‘The Humanity of God.’

In this lecture he writes that the first thing we see when we read what the Bible has to say about Jesus Christ is God’s deity:

‘Beyond doubt God’s deity is the first and fundamental fact that strikes us when we look at the existence of Jesus Christ as attested in the Holy Scripture. And God’s deity in Jesus Christ consists in the fact that God Himself in Him is the subject who speaks and acts with sovereignty. He is the free One in whom all freedom has its ground, its meaning, its prototype. He is the initiator, founder, preserver, and fulfiller of the covenant. He is the sovereign Lord of the amazing relationship in which He becomes and is not only different from man but also one with him. He is also the creator of him who is His partner.  He it is through whose faithfulness the corresponding faithfulness of His partner is awakened and takes place.’[1]

In summary, declares Barth:

‘In Jesus Christ man’s freedom is wholly enclosed in the freedom of God. Without the condescension of God there would be no exaltation of man. As the Son of God and not otherwise, Jesus Christ is the Son of Man.’[2]

However, what we also learn from Scripture is that God’s deity is no ‘prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself.’ It is instead His freedom:

‘…to be in and for Himself but also with us and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man’s eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity! All that rather, in the highest proof and proclamation of His deity!  He who does and manifestly can do all that, He and no other is the living God. So constituted is His deity, the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Jesus Christ it is in this way operative and recognisable. If He is the Word of Truth, then that truth of God is exactly this and nothing else.’[3]

What all this tells us, argues Barth, is that:

‘…in Jesus Christ, as He is attested in the Holy Scripture, genuine deity includes in itself genuine humanity… There is the father who cares for his lost son, the king who does the same for his insolvent debtor, the Samaritan who takes pity on the one who fell among robbers and in his thorough-going act of compassion cares for him in a fashion as unexpected as it is liberal. And this is the act of compassion to which all these parables as parables of the Kingdom of heaven refer. The very One who speaks in these parables takes to His heart the weakness and perversity, the helplessness and misery of the human race surrounding Him. He does not despise men, but in an inconceivable fashion esteems them highly just as they are, takes them to His heart and sets Himself in their place. He perceives that the superior will of God, to which he wholly subordinates Himself, requires that He sacrifice Himself for the human race, and seeks His honour in doing this. In the mirror of this humanity of Jesus Christ the humanity of God enclosed in His deity reveals itself. Thus God is as He is. Thus He affirms man. Thus He is concerned about him. Thus he stands up for him.’[4]

There are three reasons why what Barth says in these quotations matters.

First, Barth teaches us the proper path for theological thinking to follow. If we want to think rightly about God and Man we must think about them as they are made known to us in the mirror of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. In Him we learn who God is and who we are and are called to be.

Secondly, what he says reminds us of the heart of the gospel. He reminds us that what the gospel message tells us is that the one true God, the maker of the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, freely chose to become human and to die for us when we had chosen to turn away from Him and had absolutely no claim on His compassion.  During Lent, as we prepare to celebrate the events of Holy Week, this is the message we need to keep at the forefront of our thoughts in order to have a right perspective on what we are going to be remembering.

Thirdly, what he says reminds us that for God, and also for us who are made in His image, freedom, authority and power are properly exercised when they are used in the service of others.

‘And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’’ (Mark 10:42-45)

[1] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, London and Glasgow: Fontana, 1971, pp.44-45. Italics in the original.

[2] Ibid, p.45.

[3] Ibid, p.46. Italics in the original.

[4] Ibid, pp.48-49.

Why does the Church of England website give an inadequate account of baptism?

Yesterday I was in an email discussion with someone about the Church of England’s view of baptism and my attention was drawn to the material on baptism on the Church of England website.

As we all know, websites are now the first port of call for anyone wanting to find out more about a particular organization, in this case the Church of England. This means that if an ordinary member of the public wants to find out what the Church of England believes about baptism they will naturally turn to the information on baptism on the Church of England website. If they do this, however, they will be misinformed.

There are two sections on the Church of England website dealing with baptism.

The first section is entitled ‘Adult Baptism.’ Its account of what baptism is states:

‘Baptism is a response to God’s love – a desire and a commitment to respond to God’s call to follow the example of Jesus Christ. It is also a celebration, a time to come together with family and friends; remembering that you are loved by God, are part of a wider community and have a place with God’s people.’[1]

The second is entitled ‘Christenings for Children.’ This provides a link to a site called ‘First Steps on an Amazing Journey’ which gives two accounts of what baptism is. The first, in the subsection ‘What is Christening?,’ declares ‘During a christening your child will be baptized with water. It’s the start of an amazing journey of faith for your child and a special day for all your friends and family.’ The second, in the subsection ‘What happens at a Christening?,’ declares that baptism with water is ‘a sign of a new beginning and becoming a part of God’s family.’ [2]

The problem with these accounts of baptism is not that what they say is wrong, but that they fail to give a full account of what baptism is about.

The authoritative Church of England account of what baptism is can be found in Article XXVII of the Thirty Nine Articles. This states:

‘Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christian men are discerned from other that be not christened, but is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God, by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. ‘

The first key point about this account of baptism is that it views baptism in ‘instrumental’ terms. What this means is that in baptism God conveys something to the person who is baptized through the work of the Holy Spirit. When it says that through baptism certain things are ‘by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed’ this means that God actually bestows them on the person baptized just as traditionally the signature and seal on a legal document bestowed money, property or other benefits on its recipient.

If we ask what the things are which God bestows the answer is that God bestows new birth (John 3:5, Titus 3:5), membership of his people, the Church (Romans 11:17-24, 1 Corinthians 12:13), forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), adoption as God’s children (Galatians 3:26-27), confirmation of faith and an increase of grace.

When the article says that ‘faith is confirmed and, grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God’ the point is that the recollection of what God has already given at baptism leads to prayer to God for further blessing which in turn leads to God granting an increase in faith and a growth in grace in the life of the believer.

It is also important to note that according to Article XXVII the benefits of baptism are only effective in the lives of those who receive baptism rightly. ‘Rightly’ here does not mean that the right acts have been performed in the sense of the candidate being baptised with water in the name of the Trinity. What it means is that those who have been baptised must receive rightly what God has given to them and what this involves is explained in the Prayer Book Catechism in which the question ‘What is required of persons to be baptized?’ is given the answer ‘Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in the Sacrament.’

Baptism gives the person baptised God’s gifts of new life, membership of the Church, forgiveness of sins and adoption as God’s child, but in order to be fruitful these gifts have to be received and the way they are received is through repentance and faith. In the case of an adult being baptised repentance and faith are present at the time of baptism and in the case of an infant they follow on from baptism as the infant is brought up as a Christian and learns how they need to respond to what God has done for therm.

What is currently said about baptism on the Church of England website simply does not do justice to the teaching about baptism given in Article XXVII and the Prayer Book Catechism . Specifically, it does not make it clear that God is the primary actor in baptism and that baptism is the instrument through which he acts, it does not say anything about new birth, the forgiveness of sins, the confirmation of faith, or the increase of grace and it is silent about the need for baptism to be rightly received. Furthermore, there is no link to the Church of England’s historic statements of faith so that visitors to the website can read the Church’s official teaching about baptism for themselves.

If it is said that these are ideas which are just too difficult for website readers to make sense of, the answer is that there are plenty of people around who understand accepted Church of England teaching and can convey it accessibly in contemporary terms (as generations of Anglican clergy have done when preparing people for baptism and confirmation). It is just a matter of asking them to overhaul the website material.

In summary, this section of the Church of England website needs to be revised to give a more accurate picture of what the Church of England actually believes about baptism and questions need to be asked about who vets what is put up on the website.

Endless trouble is taken over the authorization of liturgical material because this is the public expression of what the Church believes. Why isn’t similar trouble taken over authorizing what is on the Church’s website since this is just as much a public declaration of the Church’s faith?