Things would not be so bad if the doctrinal differences turned on minor issues. But this is not the case. Christians with opposing theologies hold contradictory views about essential, defining truths of Christian faith—whether an individual salvation or damnation is pre-determined by God or dependent upon one’s own free-will choice; whether or not righteous works are a requisite for salvation; the relative roles of divine grace and human effort in accomplishing salvation; the necessity or non-necessity of baptism; what sort of worship is or is not acceptable to God; I could go on.
At the same time, contemporary Christians are not oblivious to the New Testament call to unity. They know (1 Corinthians 1:10). They know that there are to be no divisions among them. “We are one in the spirit,” and “In our hearts we are undivided,” are common anthems.
So, how do they account for the thousands of denominational, non-denominational, and personal factions within Christianity? Very few adopt what seems the ready answer—that something is dreadfully wrong in the Christian world.
Instead, they look for a way to explain away the pluralism. They argue for unity within the diversity. One common approach is to insist that their competing theological views are nonetheless grounded in one and the same Jesus. They hold that if one looks carefully enough, one may discover, beneath these varied doctrines, an essential or universal Christ who is capable of incorporating all of his contrary doctrinal species.
This same Jesus establishes their oneness and makes their doctrinal differences superficial.
But while it is a common notion, there is a problem with this justification of Christian pluralism. Let me state it outright before we begin to examine it. You see, this same Jesus that conflicting denominations look to as the source of their unity cannot be anyone real. It is only an abstraction, an intellectual construct.
Now, “the same Jesus” defense would be perfectly legitimate if Jesus Christ were a great ideal that only demanded that we acknowledge it in some form or another. But that is not who Jesus Christ is. He is a person, an existing individual, who desires to embrace us in a concrete, active, interpersonal relationship of love. And in sharing that union with Him, we are to become one with each other, in the same way that the members of the Trinity are one.
It is as we reflect on the personhood of Christ that this “same Jesus” concept begins to break down. The incarnation is the foundational truth of Christian life. “The Word, the Son of God, became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14). The great mystery is, that in becoming human, Christ remains divine. He is one person with two natures. In His single being, these two natures exist—according to the famous Chalcedonian formula, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly and inseparably. Jesus Christ is not an ideal. He is not some indefinable, boundless, ineffable spirit. He is a person.
So let us consider what is the most fundamental characteristic of personhood? Obviously, it is some degree of limitation. What makes persons distinguishable as persons is that they are who they are, and they are not who they are not.
As an individual person, I cannot have the characteristics of all persons. I cannot be 5’7’’ and 6’4’’ at the same time. I cannot be simultaneously overweight and underweight.
The same is true when it comes to my intellect, my emotions, and my will. I can possess a myriad of different thoughts and feelings. Over time I may experience changes in what I believe to be true and the way I see the world and in how I feel about people and circumstances. I may will something in one moment, and in the next, will something contrary.
But as a person, I cannot in the same moment be a contradiction. I cannot in the same moment be convinced that the world is both round and flat. I may vent rage toward someone in this moment and experience perfect calmness toward that same person at another time, but I cannot in the same moment feel rage and perfect calmness toward that individual.
In this moment, I can intend to leave my computer and get a cup of coffee, or I can will not to get it. But I cannot will both to get the coffee and not get it.
All this is just as true of Jesus Christ as it is of anyone. Even in His divinity, Jesus Christ is a unique person. He may be one with the Father and the Spirit, but He is neither the Father nor the Spirit. With humanity joined to His divinity, He becomes even more bounded. So, just like any other person, Jesus Christ is who He is, and is not who He is not.
For instance, (Philippians 2:5-11) tells us that the Christ is humble and not proud. He is infinitely gentle with repentant sinners, as we read in John 8, and tough on the self-righteous, as we are taught in Matthew 23. There are people He will let into heaven and people that He will not, as (Matthew 25:32-33) teach us. And, as we read in verses 34-46, He has very particular criteria for making that determination.
When it comes to His mind, heart and will, what is true of us is also true of the Lord Jesus Christ. He cannot be contradiction. In the same moment, He cannot love us and not love us. What He wills for us, He cannot in the same moment not will.
In fact, there is an important way in which Jesus Christ is even more limited in his personhood than we are. How so? Well, we observe that while our understanding, our emotions and our wills cannot contradict themselves in the moment, they certainly can do so over time.
Some truths I hold today are the antithesis of truths I held years ago. I feel entirely differently now about certain people, issues and circumstances than I did back then or yesterday or even an hour ago. Today, I will things that I would never have willed in the past.
What is more, it is possible for me to possess, in the very same moment, a different set of beliefs, feelings and desires for different people in my world. At the same time, I can be angry toward some, and compassionate toward others. I can will good for one and bad for someone else. My standards of judgment may differ radically for different individuals.
But odd as it may sound to our Platonically influenced ears—and I will have more to say about that later—Jesus Christ is much more restricted in His personhood than I am, for even in His humanness, He possesses the unchangeableness of divinity.
Unlike changeable me, Jesus Christ is incapable, Saint James tells us, of “variation or shadow of turning.” (James 1:17).
The writer of Hebrews—whom, by the way, the Eastern Orthodox generally hold to be Saint Paul—concurs. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:11).
What Christ holds to be true today, He has held to be true since before eternity. After all, He is the truth. (John 14:6). What He wills now is what He has always willed. What He feels now for His creation, and especially for His human creatures, is exactly what He has always felt.
What is more, the scriptures teach us that unlike me, Jesus Christ does not have different feelings, desires and standards of judgment for different individuals or groups. The blessing of His incarnation shines on all humanity. (John 1:9). Just as Adam’s failure brings death to us all, so Christ’s resurrection gives immortality to all. (1 Corinthians 15:22). In judging us, Christ applies one standard, for there is no partiality with God, as we are taught in (Romans 2:6-11).
With that, let us return to the matter of the “same Jesus” defense. As I said earlier, Christians in general dismiss their doctrinal differences by assuring themselves that behind their contradictory images of Christ stands one and the same person. But when we understand that, first of all, Jesus Christ is a distinctive individual in whom there is no contradiction, variation or change, and secondly, that He desires to enter into an interactive, interpersonal, relationship with us, and thirdly, that the genuineness of that relationship is evidenced by unity of mind, will and act with other Christians, then doctrinal differences are no longer superficial. The specifics of our beliefs become critical.
And this has serious implications for professing Christians. We will talk about those implications next time as we pick up this presentation.