It’s very hard to know where to start with this blog post. I have to say straight up that I hope you won’t think that I’m being irreverent in looking at the issue that I’m digging up here, because I can tell you now that this whole thing has arisen from reading the Bible and not from some obscure internet source or something. That all sounds very foreboding. In actual fact, I don’t think that anything I write will be too shocking to you, I just want to bring up something to consider, something that may possibly have been overlooked; I know that until recently, I never really thought to hard about this.
Most Christians that I know, including myself, normally take it for granted (for obvious reasons) that Jesus is God, that Jesus is perfect, and that he is equal in his godhood with the Holy Spirit and the Father. It’s the standard concept of the Trinity. Passages such as the start of the book of John (the Word was with God and the Word was God…He was in the world etc.) and Philippians 2:6 (Jesus…being in very nature God…) provide sound Biblical evidence for Jesus’ equality with God and, by extension, perfection. Furthermore, the way Jesus spoke about himself also indicates that he is God, claiming the ability to forgive sins, and also claiming the divine name of ‘I am’ for himself on several occasions. All this is well and good, but it all makes the following verses from Hebrew a bit problematic:
“It was fitting that God…should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.” – Hebrews 2:10 (italics mine)
“God said to him, ‘You are my Son: today I have become your Father.’” – Hebrews 5:5 (italics mine)
“He learned obedience through what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” – Hebrews 5:8-9 (italics mine)
Hopefully, the italics illustrate the problem here. Why would Jesus, who is in ‘very nature’ God, need to be made perfect? Surely, as God, he is already perfect! And why would God need to ‘become’ his father? Surely, if the Trinity has always existed, the Father and Son have always been in that relationship! Some Christians have responded to this by completely reinterpreting the nature of Jesus as God. John Milton, the author of the greatest English epic poem ever written, Paradise Lost, believed that Jesus was not God, and was another spiritual being inferior to the Father, made perfect through his resistance of temptation (described by Milton in Paradise Regained). This is not a position that I am inclined to advocate.
I do not think that the questions posed by these passages in Hebrews pose some sort of fatal challenge to the doctrine of Jesus’ godhood. For one thing, I think the verses that are explicitly for Jesus’ godhood outweigh any doubts that these verses may cast, especially if the verses for are coming from the gospels, which many of them are. That said, I do think that the verses in Hebrews should not be ignored. Clearly, the author of Hebrews is trying to say something important, and if it was not consistent with the accepted teachings of Jesus, then it would not have been included in the canonical Bible. Thus, some other explanation is needed.
Sorry to disappoint, but I simply don’t have the wisdom or the knowledge to provide a fully adequate explanation. What I can do, however, is to posit some possibilities; I can make a couple of suggestions that may prompt you to coming to terms with the matter yourself.
I’ll deal with the second verse first, ‘today I have become your Father’. To me, the simplest way of reconciling this with Trinitarian doctrine is to say that, although Jesus and God had been Son and Father before Jesus was born on Earth, Jesus’ existence as a human revealed that relationship clearly to the world for the first time. Up until the birth of Jesus, there was no clear concept of a Trinity (as far as I’m aware), and the concept of God having a Son, also fully God, the same person but not the same person, was not really developed. Therefore, the appearance of Jesus brought this fact to the attention of the world, who were forced to either accept it or reject it. In a sense, the relationship was made real to us. On another level, if we use this quote in conjunction with its context in its earlier usage of Hebrews 1, we can see that it is used to distinguish Jesus from the angels. This is an important blow to anti-Trinitarian doctrine (such as that held by Milton), because Jesus is clearly distinguished from the other, non-godly, spiritual beings.
The other two verses are harder to explain. I haven’t come up with anything that completely satisfies me to reconcile these with the doctrine of Jesus’ perfect godhood, but I do have some incomplete musings that may help to shed some light on the matter. My argument here is essentially that Jesus is being made into the perfect sacrifice. He was perfect before, as God, but his tribulations on Earth proved beyond doubt, to Satan and to mankind, that Jesus was completely perfect and that his sacrifice was sufficient to ensure that all of humankind could potentially be forgiven.
Now, I am wary of reading things into the text that simply aren’t there, especially as I can only work from English translations and not the original words of the author, but these are the most plausible arguments that I can come up with. I will stress again that throughout this process, I have at no point thought that Jesus was not God, and though that has inevitably biased my arguing, I feel that it is important to make my theological standpoint clear. I am sure that John Milton would have interpreted these passages differently, but I can’t sit down and talk to him about it, so I’ll never really know.
In conclusion, passages such as those in Hebrews can be of great value to Christians. These parts of the Bible are completely canonical, and yet they still prompt us to examine our assumptions and stop ourselves getting bogged down in dogma and unbiblical tradition. When we become aware of challenges like this, we should not run away from them and leave them to ‘holier people than us’ to sort out, we should tackle them head on, and come to know God better because of them.