This interview was originally done for the video series titled You’re Included. The technical quality was not sufficient for it to be included in that series, but we have been able to transcribe the interview.
Mike Morrison: We’re talking today with Myk Habets, head of Carey Graduate School and Carey Baptist College in New Zealand. Myk, it’s a pleasure to have you with us [Myk Habets: Thank you] – or for me to be with you, since this is your turf.
MM: Thanks. You’ve done a number of interesting studies and research. One that I was particularly interested in was in what you wrote about in your book on The Anointed Son: A Trinitarian Spirit Christology. You had some interesting things to say about how we understand who Jesus is. Jesus is very important to Christians. How do we go about learning who this person is?
MH: Good question. I wrote the book partly to present to the academic community, in the hope that that will filter down into classrooms, pulpits, proclamation, that when we start, we start with Jesus himself (that’s a no-brainer) Jesus is risen, ascended to the right hand of the Father. So if we return to Scripture, the Gospels, the epistles, again and again, and what we see there is a number of perspectives on who Jesus is that are utterly complementary, but if we don’t see them in their different perspectives (if you like, stereoscopically), then we just see them myopically, then we get a distorted view of Christ. So I wrote this book from one perspective, which I think has been eclipsed, and we need to hear that message again. Christ’s relationship to the Spirit, a Christology that starts from below, these sorts of approaches.
MM: What you mean by “from below”?
MH: When we go to the Gospels, we see in John that he starts with this wonderful prologue – John 1:1-8 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So it starts, if you like, up in the heavenlies. It’s this insider’s view. Here’s the Logos, the second person, who condescends and becomes – verse 14 – takes to himself human flesh. Brilliant – wonderful – orthodox.
But the rest of that Gospel and the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) don’t start above at all – they start with “here is a person, Jesus of Nazareth.” Here is someone born to Mary (in a particular way, nonetheless). He’s walking along and he calls people to “Follow me. Leave your nets and come follow me.” They’re not following God – that’s not their self-consciousness – they’re following a rabbi. They’d been passed over or they hadn’t wanted to go into the priesthood. They were fishermen and tax collectors and various disciplines, and this Jewish rabbi, this Jewish man who they see, who they sense, they hear something (I don’t know) authoritative, attractive, compelling. In some sense he’s what they’re looking for before they knew what they were looking for, I think that’s the sense we get.
As they journey with Christ, as he teaches them, as they watch him, and they hear, as they see the conflict and the fray [3:43], both the positive and the negative, they come to realizations. So in the middle of that ministry, Peter confesses, You are the Lord. And he almost is rebuked for it. You’re right, says Jesus, but you don’t really know that – that was revealed to you by the Spirit. Give him as least a pass, you know! It’s not until after the cross and resurrection where they fully understand, this Jesus is the Messiah.
So we think of the two disciples walking home on the road to Emmaus. Jesus has died. He’s been buried, he’s in the ground. They don’t know of the resurrection. For them, it’s finished. They had invested three years in following a rabbi who turns out to be a hoax, who turns out to say things like, Worship me. Pray to me. I and the Father are one. I share the divine identity. And they start to believe him. Jews.
MM: They said, We had hoped he would be the Messiah.
MH: That’s right – and now he’s dead. God doesn’t die. Messiah’s don’t die. “That’s it. Sorry.” I think they’re walking home embarrassed, they’re walking home ashamed, going back to their old communities, their old jobs, their old life, and they’re looking back to a community that’s going to say, “You got it wrong.” More than that, “You’ve probably betrayed your entire Jewish heritage. You’re idolaters.” This is probably where they’re starting, and they’re walking back depressed, and this one journeys with them: “Why are you so sad?” I love God’s irony. There is humor there. “Have you not heard? Are you the only one in Israel who doesn’t know?”
Then he explains to them who he is from the Old Testament, and they come to know as they meet in the house, sort of a (many would say; I think it’s right) a Communion meal, and he is revealed to them, and they come to an understanding.
That would be a Christology from below, that works its way to above. An understanding of the humanity of Jesus, and who he is as a historical person; then it quickly moves to an expression, “You are the Son of God. You are that Word that John talks about.” A Christology from below, to above, has to complement a Christology from above (John’s stuff), to below. That’s the plan.
MM: Some modern theologians also struggle with this – Christology from below and above. Scripture has both – why don’t they have both?
MH: What’s happened in modern theology from the Enlightenment, the historical-critical method kicks in, and there’s a hermeneutic, a reading that’s suspicious, so that the miracles go out the window, the supernatural is out, Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologization, trying to take the myth out. So what’s happened is a Christology that starts below never got anywhere but below. So we end up with a holy man, a great prophet, an inspired Jew, but he’s just a man.
For that reason, evangelicals, conservative Christians, orthodox Christians – Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox alike – said, “well, that’s not Christianity. That’s not the God-man.” In reaction, but an over-reaction, to throw the baby out with the bathwater, now Jesus is almost only divine for many people in our churches. The humanity becomes affirmed doctrinally (I’ll pass my exam – tick – he was fully human) but we don’t actually believe it in our practical day-to-day life. I think we doubt that Jesus is as human as you and I are.
MM: So we imagine a Jesus who’s going throughout life in kind of an unreal way.
MH: Not human-like, yeah. In the early church (this is just repeating early church problems), I think for a number of Western Christians (maybe in the East as well) conservative, orthodox, well-meaning (I’m not saying that they did it deliberately), but the way they preach and proclaim and read Scripture, all we are seeing is God with a meat suit on – eyebrows and legs and arms – the flesh is instrumental.
At its worst, it’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian. When Jesus is on the cross, he starts whistling. “It’s OK – don’t worry. I’m God. This is easy-peasy stuff.” When that happens, we go back to the Scriptures and we see Jesus is tempted in every way as we are, but [in the thinking of many people] he’s not. He’s Superman. He’s Clark Kent, he pulls his shirt back, and he’s Superman – he’s the Logos. So we have instrumentalized the human flesh.
The early church has names for that. It’s Apollinarianism, where the human mind of Christ, the human will of Christ, is gone, and in its place is the Logos, so God directly acts on the flesh of Jesus. It’s purely mechanical, instrumental. We don’t teach that directly, but we teach that indirectly in many of our churches.
MM: Because we are too interested in worshipping Jesus?
MH: We get to the divinity too quickly, if I can put it that way. We should get to the divinity, but we’re not holding the full humanity of Christ at the same time. The rub is: when things don’t go well for me, when I’m tempted, when people around me are sinners (as I am), when stuff happens in life, and I come to God, where is my sympathetic high priest, as Hebrews talks about? “Yes, Jesus, I know you became human, but not really. It was easy for you. Yes, you were tempted, but not internally – only externally. It was easy for you.”
When that starts to happen, we have a cleavage between Jesus and me, between his humanity and my humanity, and when that happens, the Father is so far behind the back of Jesus that we lose sight of him. I think that’s what people are saying when they say, I lost my faith. (Not all of them, but many of them.) I would say, I’m not sure you had faith to begin with. I’m not sure it was ultimately there – I think something was missing. That could be turned into an evangelistic tool.
MM: It’s like, What kind of God don’t you believe in, if you lack faith?
MH: What kind of God are they believing in? They are believing in a God who is different from Jesus, a God who is so far behind the back of Jesus, as Tom Torrance might say, that they can’t actually see the real God. He’s a monad, he’s a thing, he’s – to be blunt – he’s an idea [MM: an abstraction], an idol. And when you’re tempted, when you’re struggling, when you’re in situations where you need God, that sort of a God cannot help.
Whereas Jesus shows, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” If we follow that logic, “if you have heard my pronouncement of forgiveness, you have been forgiven by God. If I love you, the Father loves you. If you are united to me, you are united to the Father – you’ve become his children. Our Father, our God.”
MM: You’re weaving themes from John in there. Earlier you said that Matthew, Mark and Luke started with a Christology from below, with an ordinary human, but John has helped in completing…
MH: Absolutely. John starts from above, but after the prologue, after verse 18, he comes back below. Because how do you speak of a real, genuine, historical Jesus unless you do the below?
MM: John is the one who tells us that, even after the resurrection, Jesus ate fish.
MH: Barbeque on the beach. Wonderful. “I’m not a ghost. I’m real.” Wonderful stuff. It’s utterly complementary; there’s no sense that from below and from above are different Christologies – they are different methodologies to get at the same thing. You can look at any thing from a multiple perspective, and it’s the same thing you’re looking at. I think that’s why we have four Gospels: multiple perspectives which are utterly complementary. I think what we’ve done in part of our wisdom tradition is that we have muted part of that discussion – the humanity part. “Yes, we’ll affirm it, we’ll affirm it.”
In the early church, Athanasius – one of the heroes of theology – who says that Jesus is homoousios – the same stuff, substance, essence as the Father and the Spirit, of the same stuff homoousios with you and I in our humanity. The great Athanasius – you read in [his book] The Incarnation and he comes to those texts where Jesus hungers and thirsts (and I don’t know that God eternal, the Father does), and he begins to equivocate: “This is Jesus’ humanity, it’s not Jesus’ divinity talking.” That’s Nestorian!
MM: It’s like splitting…
MH: Yeah, like two persons into one [sic]. He wasn’t a Nestorian – he fought against them – but on a practical level, he was struggling with “Jesus is too human. It feels like we are dragging him down.” Whereas I would go to the Scriptures. We’re not dragging him down – he’s giving himself to us. The great Colossians, Philippians stuff. “Have this attitude in yourselves that was in Christ, who humbled himself, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.” We’re not dragging him – God is – to the point of a servant, a slave, a dead slave.
MM: We’re not doing that to him – he initiated it himself.
MH: The Father in Christ was doing it, the Spirit with Christ – it’s genuinely Trinitarian. If we know Jesus we know the Father and the Son, but we only know Jesus as this God-man – not just God, not just man, but the great God-man. And having divinity and humanity together, as the Scriptures do, gives us a holistic Christianity. I think it’s utterly practical, even though you start off abstract, highly theological, some would say esoteric, John 1:1, “in the beginning was the Word” – how does he know? Well, he does know, because that’s what Jesus reveals.
MM: Jesus’ death on the cross is very important as part of Christianity. What he did for us is very important. Is that the best focus for us to have, in thinking of what Jesus did for our salvation?
MH: In a world of sin and the fall, the cross was necessary – otherwise why did God do it? So yes it is, but the cross is not what saves us. The blood of Christ is not what saves us. It’s Christ of the cross, it’s Christ who has blood, it’s Christ who is the point. The cross makes very little sense without the incarnation, without a holy life, without a life lived up to and beyond that point. We’re not diminishing the role of the cross, but as Paul said, “If Christ hasn’t been resurrected, your faith is in vain.”
So even though Christ says on the cross “It is finished,” it is a reference to the whole work. It’s not trying to atomize it, itemize it. (“It’s now finished, so I don’t have to die” – since he said that before he died – I’ve heard that from some students, who are asking good questions.) It’s the whole package: the life, the death, the resurrection. The death is important, the cross is important, the payment of sins, the substitution, but if we return to our Scriptures, it’s the life of this Jesus Christ – the whole life, so the incarnation itself is atoning – that’s where I think we need to be.
MM: By incarnation, you don’t just mean the birth?
MH: No – the whole life as a man. So if the Logos, the eternal Son, takes to himself a human nature, as Chalcedon and the other creeds affirm and as Scripture tells us, if he takes to himself a complete humanity, a humanity like yours and mine, he has human will, human mind, human emotions. He also has divine will, mind and emotions, because he is divine, but in one person. Technically we call that a hypostatic union: divine and human natures “glued” together (crudely speaking – that’s not right, but it will do) existing together, but one person.
Now, if we follow that logic, from the moment of Jesus’ conception, he lives the human predicament, the human life. He himself is sinless, and never sins, but he inhabits a humanity that can sin, that can feel sin, that can feel temptation. He inhabits a humanity can we say, post Genesis 3 – your humanity, my humanity. And step by step (in the early church the term was prokopē – to beat one’s way against the wind, like a boat going into the wind has to tack, tack, tack, or a woodchopper chopping) – to tack, prokopē, to cut one’s way forward – this is Jesus’ incarnation. Every temptation common to man, he’s felt. And what’s he done? He’s resisted.
I like the image that many writers will talk about in the early church where he inhabits a sin nature that has (we would say) a bias, a compulsion away from God. Genesis 3. But this is the perfect Son of God as a man. So each decision, each temptation, every moment of his existence from his conception, he’s turning that will back to the Father. Right up till Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done.”
Sweating as if drops of blood [Luke 22:44]. Is he play-acting? They wouldn’t say he is, but I think many people think he is. “He’s doing that for our benefit. He’s doing that to show us, This is what a human looks like, but it’s not real.” That’s not just what we read in that narrative. For all the faults of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it does get that right, the genuine anguish of Jesus in the Garden. But he does not give in to Satan, he does not give in to temptation. He overcomes as a human.
That’s what I mean by saying that the entire life of Christ is as important as the death of Christ, because it’s not Christ’s death which is important – it’s Christ that dies. So it’s a matter of emphasis.
MM: Other people died on crosses, too.
MH: If there was another person, for argument’s sake, who lived a holy life, but they had maybe told a lie, sinned once, their death is for themselves. At the very best, they could exchange their life for another. Our courts wouldn’t allow that, but you could say, yeah, one life for another.
What makes Jesus’ life and death, his sacrifice, his substitution, infinite? Something else is going on. It’s not just a perfect life – here is a humanity now completely conformed to God, and then on the cross, substituting himself for us (you know, those haunting words of Paul, Christ became sin [2 Cor. 5:21] – whatever the depths of that meaning), he exchanges his righteousness for our fallenness. We get his righteousness; he gets our fallenness, and he comes and defeats it.
MM: You commented that our courts of law don’t allow substitution. Why does God’s “court of law” allow it?
MH: Thank goodness it does! If we take a long view, we need to approach the Old Testament: What’s the role of Israel? I think this stumps many people, particularly Protestants who either never teach from the Old Testament because “it’s done away with” (I think you can understand that) – we’re not under the law but under grace. I think if we read the Old Testament, it’s all figuring and types prefiguring the coming of Jesus Christ.
This is how Paul talks about the law is a wonderful schoolmistress to bring us to Christ. So in that sense, through Israel God has formed a community (not taken a pre-existing one and “you’ll be mine”); he creates a community of people through individuals, gives them a blessing, enters into a covenant with them: “I’ll be your God, you’ll be my people; I’ll give you blessings if you do these things, curses if you do these things.”
He’s forming them through giving them the law, funny handwashing, don’t eat this animal, do eat that, the most religious elaborate cult the world has ever known. God is forming a people to know what it means to come into the presence of someone who is not an idol – someone who is not human – someone who is “our greatest aspirations”: God. “I’m holy – take off your shoes. I’m holy – prepare yourself. I’m holy – think different ways, act differently.”
All of that is in preparation for Jesus Christ, so that he comes, he is the fulfillment of Israel. He is all Israel. So he represents, he substitutes for all Israel. Time and time again, the Gospels are alluding to this, where Jesus re-enacts the story of Israel. Then we get the climax – not only is this for Israel, Israel (Jesus now) is the porthole through which all humanity will be saved. All humanity will have the Spirit, all humanity can have the promise, the ingrafting that Paul and others talk about.
So if we read the Old Testament, particularly Israel, as this long preparation for the coming of Christ, it makes a whole lot more sense of it.
MM: That gives us a context in which to understand this rabbi.
MH: That’s right, from page 1.
MM: We see that Jesus’ death was effective because of who he was. How else do we know it is effective, if we don’t already start by knowing who he was.
MH: In some ways you can’t. It’s in some ways circular. If we return to the Gospels, the Gospels were written last, and they were written after the events, after the resurrection, they were written after, when they had full understanding. The Gospel writers come back and they write Gospels – they write the story of Christ. Not biography, but a bit of that; not history, but a bit of that – this unique genre: Gospel.
They’re doing what I call a retroactive reading. It’s retro – it’s looking back – but it’s active, because it’s dynamic. They take this understanding of who Jesus is and they come back and write, theologically, his life. It’s real – it’s historical – it’s true, but nonetheless it’s a theological reading.
MM: All histories are written after the fact. We understand how the war turned out, so we can see what developed.
MH: So history is, in part, interpretation. So there is this circularity. The early church, and the medieval, would say this is faith seeking understanding. “I believe; help my unbelief.” [Mark 9:24] I understand I’m united to Christ; now I want more knowledge, more content, so I believe; now I want to understand. (It’s not “I won’t believe until I understand.”) It’s the mode of a disciple.
MM: Or they understand a little bit, they believe that much, and now they want to understand more.
MH: Absolutely. To increase their faith.
MM: You talked about how Jesus dealt with temptation, and how his experience is somewhat similar to ours. Could you elaborate a little more on that. We’re not God. How does this work?
MH: If we follow the Scriptures and then the tradition, if we look at the early councils – Nicea and Chalcedon and Constantinople and Ephesus, etc. – they’re ruling out options, largely. They’re very clever, in the sense that they’re not trying to say too much (it’s always good to try not to say too much). They are ruling out false options: Don’t think of Christ like this, like this. Through that they are building up a broad central conviction that this is how we should think about who Jesus is.
Some of the key elements of that: Jesus is one person; he’s the Logos. He doesn’t cease to be the Logos, doesn’t cease to be God, doesn’t even leave the presence of God in some sense, because he is God. So as the Trinity continues. In some sense the second person assumes to himself a human nature and is still one person, with a divine and a human nature. They say that the human nature remains intact, with all of its attributes, and so also the divine nature remains intact with all of its attributes. That’s hard to get our minds around, because there’s nothing else, no one else that we can say “that’s like him” or “her,” or “it.” It’s utterly unique.
To quote Athanasius, who kept saying this phrase: It’s God as a man, not God in a man. It’s God as a man who is tender, it’s God as a man who forgives sins, it’s God as a man who eats fish by the sea after his resurrection. It’s not God in a man – it’s not alien possession. So if it is generally God as a man as we read in the Scriptures, then when he’s tempted, the Logos is tempted through his humanity, and that’s the key, I think.
Through what humanity? We need to make a decision. It’s either a pristine humanity out here, like nothing we’ve seen anywhere before (and a big part of the tradition would say that – I don’t), or it’s a humanity like yours and mine – my condition, with this (Paul would say) sinful nature. Now, he’s not sinful, because he’s the Logos, but he takes a human nature which is (can we say) defective – faulty – and he redeems it. He perfects it.
MM: Physically, it was faulty: he was mortal.
MH: Absolutely. We can’t say a lot more about it, because it becomes rather abstract, but the fact that he was tempted, that he was like us, the fact that he is our redeemer, our substitute, that he lives the human life and he perfects it. It gives a lot of coherence to that.
The Spirit needs to come into that, which is a big theme in my work. What’s the role of the Spirit alongside Christ that is in some sense similar to the role of the Spirit in the Trinity? That needs to be articulated to get a fuller sense as well.
MM: I’m glad you mentioned the Spirit. In your book, your subtitle is “A Spirit Christology.” You’re looking at the relationship between the Spirit and Christ. You commented that we often overlook the role of the Spirit. How does that happen?
MH: This is one of the exciting things if we go back to the Gospels, and we re-read them and ask this question. Let’s look at each of the episodes, each of the chapters, each of the movements, the scenes. Let’s ask, Where’s the Holy Spirit? Whether he is expressly mentioned, or we know that the Spirit does this sort of stuff and so we can assume it rightly that he’s there. So where do we see the Spirit in the life of Christ? Why don’t we ask that question more often? You could say the same, Where is the Father? Let’s just deal with the Son and the Spirit.
How does Jesus come into the world? The miraculous conception of Mary. The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and she is with child. Curious fact? Not just curious fact – this is an indicator to a Jewish audience steeped in what we call the Old Testament, that this One has the Spirit from conception. This one was conceived by the Spirit (whatever that means), and there’s a deliberate contrast in the Gospels with his cousin John the Baptist. John was unique. In utero, he is in sense baptized in the Spirit. He leaps for joy by the Spirit. That is utterly unique. Jesus calls him the greatest prophet in Israel – the greatest, and yet he’s not worthy to stoop down and untie the sandals of his cousin Jesus. John, in utero, filled with the Spirit; Jesus conceived with the Spirit.
What does a Jew hear? A Jew hears, here is one that’s anointed. Here’s one who is saturated (smeared, literal translation of “anointed”) with the Spirit. But in the Old Testament, who has Spirit? Prophets, priests, judges, kings (and not even all of them). King David is sort of a paradigm. He is anointed with oil, a symbol of the Spirit; the Spirit of the Lord rushes upon him. And the Spirit comes upon even panelbeaters – Bezalel, early on, he’s the guy that beats these big bronze shields for the tabernacle [Exodus 31]. The Spirit comes upon him. The Spirit rushes upon these people and sets them apart for ministry, for service, for something which they maybe could have done but not to the degree and not to the extent, not with the quality that God wants. A panelbeater can panelbeat, and not even be a Christian, but to produce stuff which is worthy to be in the tabernacle, you need God’s Spirit upon you.
The Jews read the conception narrative of Jesus (or they should, and so should Christians) and ask: “Here is one conceived… What is this saying?” It’s saying he is unlike any individual you have ever seen in history before, but we know about him. These allusions, these echoes in the Old Testament: I will give you Spirit-filled people, I will pour my Spirit out upon all flesh… There is one coming, there is the coming one, there is one greater than Moses, there is the greatest prophet, the greatest priest, the greatest king.
We’ve got all these things. What are we seeing in Jesus? Is he a great prophet? Could be. Will he be a great priest? Could be. Will he be a king? Could be. That’s the imagination as we go through the narrative. He’s actually all three.
So there’s the conception. We move to the baptism of Jesus, at the age of 30. At the age of 30, a Jewish man, if he is so trained and prepared to accept it, enters the priesthood. Here’s Jesus, at the age of 30, entering public ministry. He goes to John, who says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He baptizes Jesus and three things happen: the heavens open. Again, this is not a weather report (you know, it was 30 degrees, it was a mild wind that blew that day and the heavens opened). In the Old Testament, the heavens opened, you have one of two choices: run for the hills – God is judging, or you fall flat on your face in worship because he is about to bless. The heavens opened, [second] the divine voice says, “This is my beloved Son,” and [third] the descent of the Holy Spirit.
He already had the Spirit – he was conceived in the Spirit – so why a second pouring out? Here he’s being set apart as a prophet-priest-king – all three offices in one. He’s being set apart for the ministry of the Messiah, of the Anointed One. In Mark’s Gospel (fantastic – short, punchy, immediate – everything’s “immediately”), immediate the Spirit ekballo, threw Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan 40 days. Desert, wilderness, 40 days. This is, to a Jew, highly symbolic. This is the Exodus 1 rule. This is the 40 years in the desert. What did God’s son Israel do in the desert? Disobeyed. A two-big journey – 40 years? They disobeyed.
What’s Jesus going to do? That’s the tension, that’s the narrative. The Spirit pushes him after the baptism into ministry and for 40 days without eating, he defeats Satan. He resists temptation. How? The narrative sets it up. By the Spirit. Not because he’s the Logos, not because he’s God, not because there was a default option, [as if] he’s a robot with a default setting. He is a man, a God-man, who is so filled of the Spirit of God that he resists the ultimate temptation of the devil.
Mark says he comes back and in the power of the Spirit he does his ministry. His ministry is specific: he gives sight to the blind, he heals lepers, he heals paralytics. He’s doing all the things which if we read when we turn to the Old Testament, they say, this is what God will do in the last days. This is what God will do in the last days through an individual person – a prophet, a priest, a king – through someone special who has the Spirit. They begin to talk of him as the Messiah. And here Jesus does those ministries. The Gospels are telling us, by the Spirit, in the power of the Spirit, in the power of the Spirit. We are supposed to be getting the message. I think he’s this person the Old Testament talks about. I think he’s God’s fulfillment, God’s promise.