Sinless Jesus? – April 2007

Question: I think that many process thinkers are open to the possibility that during the life of Jesus, there were times when he did not choose to respond to God’s initial aims for him. That is what makes him so distinctly human. Yet, there is clearly something about his life and death that created a vast field of force that continues to draw people to him and his life. So, my questions are: 1) To what extent do you think that this field of force is created around the idea that Jesus is unique because he was perfect on earth (which I do not believe he was)? 2) Do you think that the sinless image of Jesus is more real than the Jesus who walked upon this earth? (I am thinking here about Whitehead’s tendency to philosophically agree with Aristotle over Plato that actualities are more real than ideals.) I am, of course, also open to hearing other ideas about the sinless nature of Jesus or the current influence he has in human life.

Publication Month: April 2007

Dr. Cobb’s Response

At the outset, it is important to remind ourselves that process thinkers vary greatly, so there is no single position of process thinkers on an issue of this sort. At best we can say a few things that all would reject. We would all deny that Jesus is metaphysically different from other human beings. This is not to deny that God was in Jesus, since God is in every creature. It is to deny that the way God was in Jesus is metaphysically different from the way God is in other creatures. Without qualification, Jesus was a human being.

Many process thinkers are not Christians, and if they attended to this topic at all, they would not be likely to doubt that Jesus was a human being much like others. Among Christian process thinkers there is a range of viewpoints about Jesus. Some simply emphasize Jesus’ humanity and resist any talk of his being different from other people. However, I am one of those who emphasizes differences among human beings, and who thinks that Jesus was quite different from myself and from other historical figures whom I have studied.

One rather common way of formulating the difference between Jesus and the rest of us has been along the lines to which the questioner is objecting. In this view Jesus differs from us in that he was fully responsive to the call of God, that is, to the initial aims derived from God. I share the doubts of the questioner about this. I do not know any basis for making such a statement.

A strict Biblicist could appeal to Hebrews 4:15. There we are told that Jesus was tempted (or tested) as we are but did not sin. But even for a strict Biblicist it is a considerable stretch from this verse to the assertion that from birth to death Jesus never “missed the mark” to even the slightest degree.

Presumably the author is referring to the temptations of Jesus at the outset of his ministry and in Gethsemane. Here Jesus dealt with fundamental alternatives to the mission to which he was called, and he rejected them. The author of Hebrews wants to assure his readers (see also 2:18) that Jesus understands what it is like to be very seriously tempted, but that he also shows that one can resist. I think he is right on both counts.

But I see no justification here for supposing that the author of Hebrews taught Jesus’ absolute sinlessness or ideal response to every initial aim he received from God from birth to death. His emphasis is on Jesus’ being tempted as are we. In any case, even if I were persuaded that he held to the extreme doctrine, I would not see that as a reason for our doing so. How could he know anything of the details of Jesus’ thoughts and acts as a boy or even during his ministry?
This does not mean that we have a lot of evidence of Jesus’ sinning. I will, nevertheless, identify a couple of New Testament stories in which I find it hard to think that Jesus was continuously responsive to God in a full way. The one that seems to me most clearly to show Jesus as something less than perfect is told in Matthew 12:18-22.

Jesus was hungry and, seeing a fig tree, went to it to get some fruit. There was none on it. He cursed the tree and it died. This became the occasion for telling the disciples that with sufficient faith they could perform miracles. But this seems to be the kind of use of his powers that he rejected as a temptation at the outset of his ministry. It is understandable, of course, that a tired and hungry man would be angry to find the fig barren of fruit, and that he would express that anger. But it is hard for me to imagine that in doing so Jesus was fully conformal to God’s ideal aim for him.

Another example is in Mark 24:21-28. Jesus resisted helping a Syro-Phoenician woman because he has understood his mission as directed only to Jews. I suspect that even before this incident there was a subtle call to broaden his horizons. But here he affirmed the limitation to the Jews in language that must have been quite offensive even then. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I cannot reconcile that response to the woman with absolute sinlessness. But the point of the story is that the woman’s response broke through his resistance, and he acted in the end in accordance with God’s call. In short, the story as a whole shows how remarkably sensitive Jesus was to God’s call, in this case largely coming through a foreign woman.

But remarkable sensitivity is not the same as perfection. Indeed, strict perfection is hard to reconcile with being seriously tempted, a feature of Jesus’ experience that is highlighted in the Gospels. We can be glad that the authors of the gospels were not pre-committed to some idea of moral perfection. Unfortunately, interpreters of the Bible who are committed to that idea have too often presented even these dubious actions as ideal.

One difference between Jesus and me is undoubtedly that he was far more fully responsive to God’s call than am I. But that is simply a matter of degree. Far more important was the difference in the nature of the call. God called Jesus to proclaim and in some way to embody a fundamental alternative to the empire of his day, one that turned its values and practices upside down. God called Jesus to pursue this mission to the end even though it meant a terrible death. Jesus responded fully to that call. The result has been of enormous historical-spiritual importance to the world.

Of course, the result has been extremely ambiguous. On the one hand, it includes the emergence of countercultural communities in which mutual love played, and still plays, an enormous and redemptive role. On the other hand, it led to holy wars and crusades. Today Jesus inspires selfless sacrifice for the sake of the needy, on the one side, and wild fantasies about supernatural intervention in the last days on the other.

Too many people have redirected their attention from living faithfully in the way Jesus exemplified and taught to glorifying the teacher. Announcing his sinlessness is one form of such pointless glorification. Glorification of the teacher can actually be turned into a club to condemn those who do not subscribe to some of the teachings involved in such glorification. Jesus called on us to love one another and even our enemies, and too often his glorification has been turned into an excuse to hate those who follow other teachers, or even those who follow Jesus in a different way.

The emphasis that Jesus was a human being like us is a good antidote to this damaging glorification. Nevertheless, that is not where I end up. I also speculate about the person of Jesus in a somewhat traditional way. God’s presence in Jesus does not separate him from other people, since God is present in all of us, but the way that presence is expressed in Jesus’ sayings and action suggests to me that there are important differences as well as similarities. In Christ in a Pluralistic Age I speculated about those differences. I will not repeat those speculations here. I will only say that I speculate also about how the Hebrew prophets and the great mystics differ both from me and from one another and from Jesus, and also how Socrates and Gautama differ from all of these and from one another. I identify these differences as diverse “structures of existence.” In this context, I do not believe that speaking of Jesus’ differences from the rest of us is dangerous.

The practical reason for such speculations is to justify the idea that Jesus’ message has particular authority. What he teaches is quite at odds with common sense. If Jesus was simply one teacher among thousands, and if there is little support for his message from most of the others, the question arises: why do we keep reflecting about his teaching and trying so hard to come to terms with it? One answer is that many, even those who call themselves Christians, do not. But I believe this is their loss. I believe that God was in Jesus in a way that freed him to see the world as it is and to grasp God’s purposes for it, and I have thought it worthwhile trying to understand how that can be.

The questioner suggests that there are fields of force generated not only by Jesus himself but also by beliefs about him. That is an interesting way of putting the matter. She speaks of the field of force generated by the doctrine of his perfection. I would have thought that it was more basically the doctrine of Jesus’ deity that generated a field of force that has overwhelmed in many contexts the one that grew out of his own ministry and teaching. Since absolute perfection and deity may be quite closely connected, this may not be an important difference. In any case, I think we are in agreement that we need to rescue Jesus’ own field of force from being obscured and corrupted by this one.

In my view, in the United States today Jesus field of force has grown weak. Liberals have lost the sense of the supreme importance for the world of participating in that field of force, and those who focus on the creeds and on the Anselmian doctrine of atonement have virtually replaced Jesus’ field of force with another one. Yet it has never been more important than today that Jesus’ field of force challenge “the powers and principalities” that now rule us. Jesus taught that we cannot serve both God and Mammon, and it is clear that American society is organized for the service of Mammon. Jesus turned the value system of the Roman Empire upside down and was executed by the empire. The value system of today’s American Empire repeats that of Rome and, because of advances in technology, it is a far greater threat to humanity and nature as well. For the salvation of the world we urgently need to hear and heed the voice of Jesus.