The Humanity of Jesus: Interview with J.R. Daniel Kirk

The Humanity of Jesus: Interview with J.R. Daniel Kirk

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J. R. Daniel Kirk has recently published a book on the humanity of Jesus entitled, A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. As of lately, many scholars have argued that the earliest Gospels (Synoptics) present a preexistent Jesus who performs his duties because he is in fact God. Kirk seeks to argue that Jesus fits better within the framework of what he calls "idealized human figures." He writes "The category I posit here, ‘idealized human figures’, refers to non angelic, non-preexistent human beings, of the past, present, or anticipated future, who are depicted in textual or other artifacts as playing some unique role in representing God to the rest of the created realm, or in representing some aspect of the created realm before God," Continuing…” The categorization of "idealized human figure" seeks to chart a third way between a "low Christology" that defines Jesus as "a mere human being" and a "high " Christology that depicts Jesus approaching, or attaining to, the status of the God of Israel (what I refer to as "divine Christology") (page 3). We had the privilege to interview Kirk on his latest book—we hope that you the reader would read his book and dive into this deep and complicated subject—who is the Christ? - Casey Dayton

AT: Daniel what compelled you to write a book on the massive book (600 pages) on Christology? 

Kirk: Two things. First, in my life it took me a long time to stop trying to read Matthew, Mark, and Luke as though they were John. When reading John, "Jesus is God" is a helpful key to the narrative. In the Synoptic Gospels, "Jesus is the Messiah" is much better.  I want to share with people this map for reading the Gospels in a way that is truer to their own narratives and that helps Jesus come alive on those pages.

Second, Jesus as I was finding that leaving Jesus' divinity aside makes for much more coherent readings of these stories there arrived in NT scholarship a rushing tide of "early high Christology" that was all of a sudden encouraging everyone to read every NT text as bearing witness to (or at least reflecting a conviction about) Jesus' divinity. It seemed to me that NT studies needed a massive course correction. Hence, a massive tome!

AT: When people think of Christology they typically think "God in the flesh" in other words the Trinity—what do you mean by Christology? (I know this is broad but many people assume God almighty). 

Kirk: Christology is the study of Jesus or it might mean what someone thinks or writes about Jesus. When we equate "christology" with "God in the flesh" we have short-circuited the process of listening to whatever person or text from which we're hoping to learn about Jesus. "God in the flesh" might be the christology of a particular biblical writer, but it might not be. I argue in my book that Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is being depicted in greater continuity with Jewish precedents and expectations—not so much "God come down to be with us in the flesh" as "the human being in whom God's image and likeness is most clearly seen." I call this an "idealized human figure." This is a high, human christology. They depict Jesus as the messiah (the "christ"), but not as being inherently divine or preexistent.

AT: I have noticed from the beginning of the book you are unpacking your definitions concerning Jesus—you use a definition (phrase) to describe Jesus—idealized human figures…What was the function of idealized human figures and how does Jesus fit this description (You can briefly describe this—I know it's complex).

Kirk: In the same way that many folks think "God incarnate" when they hear "Christology," so too many of us will immediately think "flawed" or "mortal" or "sinful" or "limited" when we hear "human" (like when we say, "I'm only human"). Of course, these things are all true of our experience, but scripture and early Judaism alike tell a richer story about who we are and who we are supposed to be. Generally speaking, "idealized human figures" are representations of humans in literature that depict the person as somehow embodying likeness to God. This "likeness to God" includes being described with actions, ascriptions, or attributes that might otherwise be reserved for God alone.

Now here's where the whole category gets really important for my argument. A lot of people arguing for early high Christology will say things like, "Jews thought that only God could do x, y, or z. The earliest Christians show Jesus doing x, y, and/or z. Therefore the earliest Christians are depicting Jesus with as high a Christology as would ever develop later." In both the biblical text and extra-biblical Jewish texts, however, we regularly see people doing almost everything that scholars claim is reserved for God alone! These things can include ascriptions (such as worship), actions (such as sovereign rule of the world while sitting on a heavenly throne), and attributes (such as glory)

Yes, when a faithful Israelite points to such things it always indicates that God is present or at work. However, that presence or activity might well be mediated through any number of human agents (a Moses figure, a royal David figure, a glorious Adam). Once we see this pattern we can read the Jesus stories as indications that God is present in Jesus without simultaneously claiming that the stories are showing us that or how Jesus is divine.

But here's the real point: I'm less interested in showing that Jesus is not divine than in filling out the many, rich, and powerful ways that Jesus is ideally, quintessentially human. For many Christians the idea that Jesus is God is where we put all the good stuff (he's powerful, he can work miracles, he's sinless, he's wise, he rises from the dead) while the idea that Jesus is human is where we put his liabilities (he's mortal like us so that he can die). But this gets the story quite wrong. Whatever else Jesus may or may not be doing, he is living the life of a Spirit-empowered, body-curing, demon-sovereign, nature-ruling, human Messiah—and creating a people who will share in this reign.

AT: How does the humanity of Jesus change how we read and witness God in the NT—specifically the Synoptics? Because I know for many people (maybe just me) we are taught that Jesus was God in the flesh and that is why he was able to perform miracles, casting out demons and speaking with authority—because only God could forgive sins…can you maybe unpack this for us?

Kirk: What we learn is that God desires to be made known through God's faithful people. This is what we might have learned from reading the creation story in Gen 1, from Deuteronomy's hope that a law-keeping Israel would make Israel's neighbors wonder about the wisdom of its God, from Moses bearing God's own glory on his human skin, from God's adoption of Israel's Davidic kings.

Once we see that Jesus does what he does because he is quintessentially and perfectly human, most of us have a completely new lens for thinking about humanity, salvation, and what God wants of us. To be human is to fulfill God's gift of ruling the world on God's behalf. This is why Jesus can exorcise, heal, forgive, walk on water: he is the king who is enacting the reign of God. Salvation is not simply being rescued from guilt, but being made participants in this new humanity that Jesus has begun. What God wants of us is to follow Jesus—not only in "taking up our cross," but also in feeding people like he and the disciples did, healing people like he and the disciples did, preaching like he and the disciples did, overcoming spiritual powers like he and the disciples did.

If we say that Jesus can do all these things only because he's God we miss (a) that other humans do these things as well, and more importantly (b) the life of Jesus that we see unfolding in the Gospels is the life God wants us to live, too. Like Jesus we are declared God's children when we receive the gift of adoption; like Jesus we have gifts that demonstrate that God rules, and like the disciples we can share that rule because the Messiah has come to take the throne and establish God's rule through and among humans.

Like Jesus, we are to be children through whom the world recognizes God is at work: "Let your light so shine before people that they will see your good deeds and glorify your father who is in heaven."

AT: I know that many of us who are reading this book will want to know if are you denying the Trinity and ascribing to something lesser? 

Kirk: No, I'm not denying Jesus' divinity or the Trinity. I am saying that not all of the NT writers had such a highly developed christology or theology. I'm also saying that if we listen closely we might find that most of us are ascribing something lesser to Jesus as a human than the scriptural witness demands. There's a bit of a paradox here—people might read it as "lowering" our Christology, when in actuality I'm asking for something much "higher" when we speak of Jesus than most people are comfortable with!

AT: Does Jesus the man fit into Paul's theology and the world of the NT? I mean many people say, "Paul taught that Jesus was God in flesh in passages like Phil 2:1-12 (the hymn)," do you believe that this is the case? 

Kirk: Generally speaking, I think that the Synoptic Gospels and Paul find their theological weight in the same place: in Jesus as a representative, idealized human figure. What the Synoptics call the "son of humanity," is akin to what Paul calls the "second Adam," is akin to what Irenaeus referred to as "recapitulation." So I would say that 99% of what Paul writes is best understood through his version of the "idealized human" paradigm.

There are a couple of places in Paul (maybe two, maybe three) in which he seems to assume preexistence. What I find so striking is that he almost never makes any theological hay out of this. The controlling narrative for Paul, the one on which he bases his arguments, is the movement from life to cross to resurrection.

AT: What do you hope to contribute with this book to the world of theology and academia?

Kirk: I hope that my book will push people toward a more robust account of Jesus' humanity. The idea that Jesus is awesome because he's God but he has to be human because we suck and he needs to die has a rich history but is woefully inadequate. I hope that even folks who don't, in the end, believe that the "idealized human" category is sufficient to explain Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels will at least recognize that it is necessary, and thereby start developing a more fulsome account of Jesus's humanity.

I also desperately hope (though it is likely a fool's hope) that we can leave behind the line of argument that says, "If Jesus is being identified with God, this is Christology as high as Chalcedon." The notion that "the earliest Christology is already the highest Christology" is wishful thinking of the kind that good scholarship must always be ready to subject to scrutiny and reject. It's time for the academy to leave behind the idea that divine identity Christology means that Jesus is God and recognize that being identified with God means that Jesus is quintessentially human.

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4 Comments

  1. Great interview ! Much to think about and consider… I’m buying the book right now !

    Billy North

  2. I haven’t read the book (yet). Nevertheless, this interwiew reminds me Saint Theresa of Avila who encouraged readers to meditate about Jesus who came in flesh. Many times, I am also missing this point of view in the sermons.

  3. Hi Bohous,
    Great insight. If there is one thing I do agree with is that the humanity of Jesus is often an underappreciated aspect of the gospel.
    Thanks for the comment!

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