By Rudy Barnes, Jr., April 19, 2015
Christian doctrine considers Jesus as the Christ, or God’s only Son and a coequal with God the Father in the Holy Trinity. Jews and Muslims consider Jesus a prophet, but not a divine being. Aside from church doctrine, what does The New Testament tell us about Jesus?
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe Jesus as a Jewish rabbi and prophet who taught the word of God, was crucified and then rose from the dead. Matthew and Luke have differing accounts of a virgin birth and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and Mark has no account of a virgin birth and its post-resurrection account is considered a later addition to the original Gospel. John’s Gospel has no miraculous birth and presents Jesus as the Logos, or the word of God made flesh, and it has its own unique post-resurrection account.
Paul’s letters were written before the four Gospel accounts. After a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was converted to Christianity and originated the atonement doctrine to explain the crucifixion and resurrection, and he predicted a Parousia in which a risen Christ would return in the end times to usher in God’s kingdom on earth.
Was Jesus the last in a long line of Jewish prophets who spoke the word of God in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament)? Or was Jesus something more, a divine being who is the second person of the Holy Trinity and in whom belief is required for salvation? A definitive answer will forever be shrouded in mystery, but an understanding of the concept of the Logos can put the unique Jesus of John’s Gospel in proper perspective with the other Gospel accounts.
The Logos is a Greek term for a mystical and divine power that emanates from God, but that is not God per se. It is translated as the Word of God in John’s Gospel, but in Hellenic Judaism the Logos had a meaning far beyond that of a mere word. It referred to divine reason, or the creative power of God, which in a Hebrew context was illustrated in the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis in which God said everything into creation; and as God’s wisdom it was personified in the Sophia of Proverbs 8:1-36 through 9:1-18.
Philo of Alexandria was from a distinguished Jewish family and a contemporary of Jesus. He was perhaps the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism and wrote extensively on the Logos; and while Philo had no knowledge of Jesus, his writings on Logos are strikingly similar to the way John’s Gospel describes Jesus as the Logos made flesh.
In Platonic terms Logos was “…both immanent in the world and at the same time the transcendent divine mind.” As with other Platonic terms that related to God, the Logos was the transforming power of God’s love that was personified in the I am sayings unique to John’s Gospel. That did not make Jesus the first or last human manifestation of the Logos, but a powerful example of the creative power of God’s love and God’s wisdom for his time and place.
So what? For starters, if the Church had promoted belief in Jesus as the personification of the Logos and the transforming power of God’s love and wisdom rather the one and only Son of God and the second person of the Trinity, then history would have been dramatically different.
It is not too late to get it right. The primary focus of the Christian faith should be to follow Jesus as the Logos or word of God rather than to worship Jesus Christ as God. If that were church doctrine, then Christian affirmations of faith would emphasize the service of love as set forth in the example of Jesus as stated in A Modern Affirmation, rather than belief in Jesus Christ as the only Son of God who sits at the right hand of God and judges the quick and the dead, as stated in the traditional Apostles Creed, where there is no mention of the teachings of Jesus. Both affirmations of faith are in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989).
The emphasis of church doctrine on belief in the divinity of Jesus rather than in the moral imperatives of his teachings as the onlymeans of salvation has created a credibility problem for the Christian religion. More and more people brought up as Christians are rejecting church doctrines that conflict with the teachings of Jesus and reason and are leaving the church as Nones. Robin R. Meyers has challenged modern Christians in his book, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (Harper One, 2009); but modifying ancient church doctrines to save Jesus from the Church is a formidable challenge.
Islam has an even more daunting challenge to establish credibility and legitimacy in the modern world. While Muhammad is considered a prophet and not a divine being, the Qur’an which he dictated is considered by Muslims to be the perfect Logos, or the word of God made book. The Qur’an asserts that belief in its perfection is essential to salvation and, like exclusivist Christian doctrines, the Qur’an states that unbelievers are condemned to eternal damnation. To further complicate matters, the Qur’an contains comprehensive and immutable laws that preclude modern concepts of democracy, libertarian human rights and secular law. Today Islam in the Middle East and Africa is a fundamentalist religion at war with modern and progressive values.
Christianity and Islam have both tried to put God in a box by limiting salvation to those who believe in the divinity of a man (Jesus for Christians) or a book (the Qur’an for Muslims), rather than following their teachings as moral imperatives. If Logosis indeed the word of God and was manifest in Jesus and the Qur’an, it is a living word that can and must be adapted to changing times. God did not cease to create or become mute after the crucifixion of Jesus and the death of Muhammad, and God has never favored any one religion over others.
If Christians and Muslims could see both Jesus and the Qur’an as manifestations of the Logosfor their time and place and interpret their teachings as standards of legitimacy for our time and place, then religious reconciliation and lasting peace would become possible. And if there were ever a timeless and universal statement of Logos it is the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors—even our unbelieving neighbors—as ourselves.
Notes and References to Resources:
This topic is related to the following Lessons in the J&M Book: Lesson #16 (parable of the wicked tenants, Mark 4:1-20); Lesson #17 (life after death and the resurrection, Mark 12:18-27; and Lesson #18 (the anointing of Jesus, Mark 14:3-8).
On the Logos and Philo of Alexandria, see The Encyclopedia Britannicaat http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/346460/logos and at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/456612/Philo-Judaeus.
The primary Resource for this website is The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammadon Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy. Its premise is that the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad are the word of God (Logos), and that God’s word is a living word that should be interpreted for changing times, using advances in knowledge and reason in the process. See the first two blogs posted on this website: Jesus Meets Muhammad, Then and Now, posted December 1, 2014; and Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014.
On Paul’s atonement doctrine as an explanation of the crucifixion and resurrection, see The Resurrection in a new light posted on April 5, 2015; on the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see blogs posted on January 11, 2015 and January 25, 2015.