Summary of First Thursday Discussion, March 12th, 2015
A newspaper review of a book on Inter-Faith Dialogue (Muslims, Jews and Christians) set us thinking about the day’s Gospel passage, where Jesus is depicted in a vitriolic argument with “Jews who had believed in him” (John 8:31), but who he later describes as “from the devil” (verse 44). Such passages have been used to justify extreme anti-semitism, up to the Nazi Holocaust. Do they reflect attempts by Christians, in the final decade of the first century, to distinguish themselves clearly from the Jews (who had rebelled against the Romans thirty years before) and so ingratiate themselves with the imperial authorities? Or are they genuine memories of arguments that happened during the ministry of Jesus? Did Jesus seem to many simply to be a Jewish heretic (compare, for example, Luke 4:25 to 29)?
He claims that what he is saying he saw “in God’s presence” (verse38)- debates of that kind had gone on throughout Jewish history (eg Jeremiah chapters 27 and 28). In the Hebrew Scriptures God’s presence can be made known to the world in many ways- through God’s glory (shekinah), spirit (ru’ach), wisdom (chochmah) and word (davar). The “word” (logos) was also a key part of Greek philosophy, as the “clue” or “essential meaning” of all things. John’s Gospel says that this “Word of God” became “incarnate” in the life of Jesus. In other words that what God had been saying for generations through the prophets is repeated in Jesus’ teaching. So the question was whether what he says is consistent with what God is known to have said before. The debate in the Church would then be about how that “Word” can be taken to other nations- do they need to be circumcised to receive it?
But the New Testament wants to say more than that- it insists that God has done something new and definitive in Jesus, although this is not a “new religion” but a fulfilment of what the Jewish Scriptures had promised. Using the concept of the Suffering Servant of God (in the second part of Isaiah) it says that God’s love has confronted the power of sin (idolatry and injustice) in the world, especially at the Crucifixion, and has done what law and ethics on their own could not do- breaking the hold of sin over the life of the world. And that those who follow Christ must confront the world’s evil in the same way (“take up their cross”- Mark 8:34). Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, in his book “Cur Deus Homo?” (“Why did God become man?”) said that God needed to inflict the just punishment for sin on an innocent substitute in order to be able to forgive. That understanding became dominant in the Western European Church, both Catholic and Protestant.
Doctrines of the Trinity (God as three in one) were worked out over some years as attempts to put what the Church believed into words. When Constantine the Roman Emperor decided that the Christian faith was the only power that could save his Empire from total collapse it became politically necessary to define those beliefs clearly- if the Church was disunited how could it help to unite the Empire? Hence the creed of the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). One result of that was the exclusion from full citizenship of the Jews, who remained convinced that Jesus’ teaching had distorted the Hebrew Scriptures, or perhaps that the New Testament account of his ministry had turned him into something he never was.