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In "How God Became Jesus" Charles Hill Shows How Ehrman's Central Thesis is the Book's Central Problem

Categories Theology

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I have been making my way through Bart Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God (HJBG). As an historical theologian I was most interested in his two chapters on how he conceived the so-called “christological evolution” after the New Testament. He devotes two chapters (ch. 8 and 9) to the apparent “numerous views of Christ throughout the second and third Christian centuries.” (HJBG, 286) 

Thankfully, Charles Hill responds in two chapters of the newly released response book, How God Became Jesus. In them he explains what happened early in the Jesus movement and how its leaders handled the paradox of Jesus’ deity and humanity.

In one of the more helpful sections, Hill drills down into one of Ehrman’s foundational arguments, represented by Ehrman's self-coined neologism: Ortho-paradoxy.

Hill draws our attention to two of Ehrman's reasons for his new word: 

  1. “Some passages of Scripture appear to affirm completely different views.” (HJBG, 326)
  2. “Different groups of heretics stated different views in direct opposition to one another, and the orthodox thinkers knew that they had to reject each of these views.” (HJBG, 326-327) 

Ehrman believes such paradoxes are “brutal,” (HJBG, 326) though Hill isn’t sure why (177). Throughout chapter 9 Hill ably explains why they are not and deconstructs Ehrman’s central thesis, showing how it is the book’s central problem.

Brutal Fact #1: Ortho-Paradoxy and Scripture

When Ehrman gives examples from Scripture that affirm "completely different views" he turns to the Gospel of John and 1 John. Though Hill affirms this is understandable, given “Each of these books openly and unabashedly affirms both Jesus' deity and his humanity,” he argues these examples pose two problems for Ehrman.

First, because Christ's humanity and divinity arise from books early Christians deemed to be Scripture, “it was not simply an 'ortho-paradox'—one that resulted from the later orthodox struggling to come to grips with two apparently irreconcilable affirmations. It was a paradox from the beginning.” (178) In other words, that Christ was both God and Human was a New Testament paradox.

Ehrman’s second problem is “more serious” Hill argues: “‘these passages of Scripture [that] appear to affirm completely different views’ are found integrated in single books, or in the mind of one and the same person.” (178)

Both the Gospel of John and 1 John held Christ’s preexistence alongside Christ’s incarnation, leading Hill to conclude, “We have no indication that the author(s) of these books thought this was embarrassing, that the two ideas about Jesus Christ were ‘completely different,’ ’contradictory, ‘or in direct opposition to one another.’” (178-179) The same for Paul, as well as the author of Hebrews. 

From the beginning, then, the New Testament openly taught and its writers unabashedly believed Jesus was both God and Human. Hill insists “this is a problem that goes to the heart of Ehrman’s book and to the heart of the historical reconstruction of early Christianity as evidenced by Ehrman and others.” (180) 

Brutal Fact #2: Ortho-Paradoxy and the Orthodox

When we move deeper into the Church’s story what do we find? 

“Once again we might be led by Ehrman and others to suspect to hear panic in [the early Church fathers’] voices,” Hill writes. (185) Ehrman would have us believe they “tried to cover up and hide from view” so-called “ortho-paradoxes.” Not so, says Hill. Instead they “celebrated” them, and “what they were celebrating had been celebrated in their Christian communities for a long time.” (185)

One important early Christian thinker Ehrman uses to build his case is Justin Martyr. He claims Justin believed Christ “did not always exist” (HJBG, 334) and was “brought into existence,” (HJBG, 331) readings which Hill insists are “misleading.” (186)

Instead Hill argues, “Justin is emphatic on the distinction between being begotten and being created.” (186) Such distinction is reflected in the Nicene Creed, which maintains Jesus was “begotten” and “not made,” while still “Of one Being with the Father.” Ehrman gets into more trouble when he “muddies the waters by mixing up the terms ‘being’ and ‘person.’” (188)

For the orthodox, Ehrman writes, “it was concluded that Christ was a separate being from God the Father.” (HJBG, 326) Yet Hill rightly notes, “for the orthodox he was a distinct person from God the Father, but the same being.” (188)

Again, that Christ was both God and Human, was merely a paradox held from the beginning; certainly not an embarrassing one.

 

In the end Hill reminds us, “The terminology was not taken from some procedure of analytical logic that had nothing to do with Scripture, but instead came directly from the practice of the exegesis of Scripture as relating to theology and Christology.” (189)

Thus for both the New Testament and early Christians, Jesus’ deity and humanity were not “ortho-paradoxes,” doctrines that needed to be hammered and honed in the face of heretical diversions and divisions. 

They were merely paradoxes. “Amazing and awe-inspiring, and in some wonderful way, harmonious and glorious.” (179)

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Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.

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