When Did Jesus Become God?
[God is another name for personhood. The Christian mutation is the development of personhood in freedom and love.]
In an article on “The Emergence of Devotion to Jesus in the Early Church,” Australian theologian Anne Hunt writes:
Our familiarity as Christians with Christian faith’s conviction that Jesus is divine, and that God is triune, tends to dull our appreciation of how utterly revolutionary and radical that development in the God-consciousness of Jesus’ disciples really was. They, like Jesus, were Jewish. Faithful to their tradition, they held an exclusivist monotheistic notion of God and of devotion to God. Yet, their experience of Jesus resulted in a truly amazing change in their God-consciousness and a radical reinterpretation of their faith in the one God, that was eventually to come to expression in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.” [i]
I find this shift truly fascinating. How did an entirely new understanding of God emerge through the life of a young Jewish man, namely, Jesus of Nazareth? Scholars agree that the religious mentality of the first Christians was shaped by the Jewish tradition, as the disciples sought to understand the significance of Jesus’ life in relation to the Old Testament. The death of Jesus and the experience of Jesus’ resurrection led the disciples to exclaim that Jesus is Lord.
The late Benedictine scholar, Sebastian Moore, tried to reconstruct the psychological experience of the early disciples. What accounted for this radically new experience of God in the person of Jesus was a new consciousness that no longer reflected a strictly monotheism (one God) but a new understanding of God’s power, a shared power expressed in a binitarian view of God (Father and Son) that would eventually evolve into the doctrine of the Trinity. According to the late New Testament scholar, Larry Hurtado, the early disciples underwent a mutation of consciousness that led to a Scriptural basis for the Christian revolution. Whereas the Old Testament used imagery of divine agency, such as we find in Psalm 110:1 and the Book of Daniel 7:14, so too New Testament writings such as Romans 1:1-4 used divine agency to describe the divinity of Christ, “descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” Similarly, in Acts 2:36, Jesus’ resurrection is seen as involving his exaltation to a heavenly position of central importance for the whole redemptive program of God. Essentially, as Hurtado points out, Jesus of Nazareth became associated with divine agency, which Paul inherited from the first circle of Palestinian Jewish Christians and in his own reflections upon the significance of Christ.
The early Christians expressed their new consciousness of God manifested in the risen Christ through prayers and devotions, modifying ancient Jewish prayers with their belief in the risen Christ; for example, the Eucharistic prayer of the Didache adopts the thanksgiving prayer of Nehemiah 9 and adds to it the risen Christ: “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you have revealed through Jesus, your Son. To you be glory forever” (Did 8). According to Hurtado, early Christian devotion constituted a significant mutation or innovation in Jewish monotheism. By “mutation,” he writes, “I mean that earliest Christian devotion was a direct outgrowth from, and indeed a variety of, the ancient Jewish tradition. But at an early stage it exhibited a sudden and significance difference in character from Jewish devotion.”[ii] Hurtado argues for the emergence of an astonishingly close association between God and Jesus Christ and for a binitarian monotheistic pattern of worship and prayer in which reverence is accorded to God and Christ early on. The disciples experienced a new energetic presence of God in the person of Jesus, and it sparked within them a new religious awareness of God’s imminent power of love. The transition from the Jewish Jesus to Jesus Christ, Son of God, erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually, or incrementally or late, Hurtado writes. With its origins in Jewish Christian circles, it quickly spread.
If the disciples had a unique awareness of Jesus as God, it was because Jesus himself manifested a new consciousness of God’s presence. As Carl Jung noted, Jesus came to a new level of God consciousness within himself, undergoing a process of individuation and attaining a new level of freedom and thus a new sense of mission. Monotheistic religions have avoided the psychic dimension of human personhood, according to Jung, which has led to a thwarted understanding of God. Christians, in particular, have excluded the psychic dimension of Jesus’ life from any doctrinal consideration, but this is exactly what is distinct about Jesus of Nazareth, a new awareness of God’s immanent presence that led to his radical actions of inclusivity, healing, compassion and ultimately self-sacrifice.
The experience of a new, immanent presence of God lies at the very origin of the development of the Jesus-devotion, which Moore describes in three stages. The first stage was an awakening of desire whereby the disciples experienced an ecstasy and joy in their interaction with Jesus in Galilee; a new and enthralling sense of God, a sense of God unburdened by sin and by guilt, a sense of God not remote or dominating, but a compassionate and loving presence. This stage was brought to a devastating conclusion with Jesus’ arrest and execution. Moore suggests that a second stage was precipitated by Jesus’ dreadful death in which the disciples experienced sheer desolation and a sense that everything was lost. Jesus’ death precipitated a profoundly spiritual crisis that was characterized by despair, desolation, shame, and confusion. Here Moore likens their desolation to the inconsolability of the dark night of the soul. It was a despair that only the experience of God could dispel; an inconsolability which only God could relieve. In a Jungian sense, the disciples underwent the death of the ego. Coming to terms with the experience of Jesus within themselves demanded a reconciliation of their own wounds with the power of God they experienced.
Moore suggests that the death of Jesus created a sense of the death of God in the disciples and that, with the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, they experienced the risen Jesus as nothing less than a renewed presence of God in their midst. The God of Jesus, the Father who had died with Jesus and who now declares his love in the resurrection of Jesus, the God who is the author of this entire loving and life-giving plan, re-emerged in a new presence. Moore describes the initial response of the disciples to the appearance of the risen Lord Jesus in terms of a realization that Jesus is God. At first, it was a case of a displacement of divinity into Jesus who became the center of their new God-consciousness. The disciples could not apprehend the extension of divinity from God to Jesus, however, unless something took place within themselves. It is on the level of personal consciousness that a new reality emerged. The paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to Moore, was the key to the radical transformation of their God-consciousness, a transformation which began with their experience of Jesus in his earthly ministry and purified by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Experience of the paschal mystery carried them into a radically new God-consciousness. Jesus’ paschal mystery emerged as the psychological pattern or the pedagogy, so to speak, through which their God-consciousness was utterly transformed. As Moore explains:
We talk about the Trinity as though it were from the start a highly recondite doctrine for which we have to seek analogies at the human level. Actually, it is given to us from the start at the human level, in a form that already contains the clue for thinking about it in itself… The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus is the estuary in which this river branches out into the Trinitarian mystery…the Father dependent for his manifest meaning on Jesus, the Spirit the abundance of this to-each-other-ness of Father and Son “poured out in our hearts.” [iii]
The disciples also experienced the Spirit as another power center for their new experience of God, a kind of “cyclic life flow” between Father and Son. This further extension of divinity emerged from a dawning realization and conviction that the oneness of Father and Son is itself a divine person, the person of the Spirit. In this way, Moore reconstructs the dynamics at play in the dawning realization in the disciples’ God-consciousness of the threefold differentiation within God. It is a pattern that unfolds in terms of firstly displacement of divinity into Jesus, then an extension of divinity from God to Jesus, and thirdly the emergence of a third divine one who is, in person, the cyclic life flow between God (Father) and Son, the Holy Spirit. The reshaping of monotheism into binitarian patterns of worship (Father and Son) and devotional practice thus became the means whereby the exalted Jesus became the recipient of worship along with God, giving way to a theological revolution.
The appearance of the risen Lord is precisely the experience of God brought to a new light of reconciliation, forgiveness and consolation through the power of divine love. God emerged newly alive for them in the very person of Jesus, alive as never before, with a new understanding of themselves and of Jesus, radically transformed, liberated and energized. [iv] This new power propelled them to live the Gospel with utter conviction that God was doing new things, expressed by the radical newness of Christ.
The Christian mutation was a theological revolution and an evolution of the human person. The power of the monotheistic God was awakened in the human person as the shared power of new life, revealed in Jesus Christ and energized by the Spirit. The language of Trinity was shorthand for the shared power of love, extended from divinity into creation. God was the experience of a new power unlike any worldly power brought to a new consciousness in the human person and into a new level of engaged action. The transition from monotheism to binitarian theism and eventually to trinitarian theism is an evolution of religious consciousness that had radical implications for a new presence of God in the world and a new type of person on the cusp of a new world order.
The politicization of God at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem led to the hellenization of doctrine that yielded to abstract philosophical language divested of its psychic dimension. The language of divine nature, essence, being and substance became logical semantics; the Christian mutation was aborted, and the revolution of divine power ushered in by Jesus of Nazareth never matured. Instead of a new divine power of love acting in the world in and through the human person, what emerged was the internalization of divine power expressed in a patriarchal God. As one scholar wrote, it is odd to argue that the Word become flesh to reinforce male superiority but the arguments after Nicea were philosophical differences of understanding, based on Greek terms to describe substance essence, nature and person. Emphasis shifted from orthopraxis to orthodoxy, as doctrine was institutionalized. The triumph of a patriarchal institution suppressed the human psyche and rendered the Christian mutation impotent.
Moore recognized that devotion to Jesus and creedal formulations mean little or nothing if not grounded in personal experience. The continuing vitality of Christianity in contemporary culture demands an effective mediation of the mystery of Jesus in distinctly psychological terms. In Moore’s words:
It seems to me that a primary theological need in our time is for the psychological to mediate the transcendent. Until this comes about, the psychological dimension remains subjective, the transcendent dimension extrinsic. The perennial vigor of Christianity stems from a dangerous memory, of the experience of a group of people being brought to a crisis whose issue was such a freedom in the face of our mortality as can only come from the transcendent ground of being. [v]
The only real purpose of Christianity is to awaken the divine transcendent at the level of the psyche; anything else is deadly. The divinity of the risen Jesus and the trinitarian nature of God’s being are not just theological doctrines but deeply psychological realities. The experience of the mysteries at a profoundly psychological level is necessary prior to their expression in prayer and devotion and prior to the articulation of doctrine. The task of mediating religious meaning and faith to contemporary consciousness demands an expressly psychological mediation, a deeply personal awakening whereby the Jesus story meets and transforms one’s own deeply personal story. [vi]
If the Christian mutation had escaped the politics of power and the grip of patriarchy in the first four centuries, we probably would have an entirely different church and world. But the new movement was too young and too fragile to do so. The institutionalization of Christianity gave it the power to shape the first thousand years of western civilization, giving birth to a psyche without a God and a humanity without any real collective purpose.
We are at an entirely new level of life today in a much larger and expansive universe. We know so much more about matter and mind, and we now have an opportunity to change the course of history by bringing the Christian mutation into alignment with modern science and cosmology. Unless we do so, we face dire consequences up ahead. As long as the human psyche remains evicted from its natural home in divinity, we are empty human shells seeking our deepest ground of meaning. It is time to recognize the transcendent divine ground within us and undergo the mutation that can lead to a richer reality of planetary life, fully alive in the glory of God.
[i] Anne Hunt, “The Emergence of Devotion to Jesus in the Early Church: The Grass Roots Derivation of the Trinity,” Australian ejournal of Theology 4 (February 2005). https://www.scribd.com/document/123281764/Anne-Hunt, emphasis added.
[ii] Larry Hurtado, Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Lexington Press, 2018), 103.
[iii] Sebastian Moore, “Four Steps Towards Making Sense of Theology,” Downside Review 111 (1993): 79.
[iv] Sebastian Moore, The Fire and the Rose are One (New York: Seabury, 1980), 105.
[v] Sebastian Moore, Jesus the Liberator (New York: Crossroad, 1989), x.
[vi] Hunt, “Emergence of Devotion to Jesus,” 12.