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.

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