Jesus, humanity, and doubt - an interesting exchange between scholars

In my ongoing attempts to keep everyone abreast of the latest theology blog kerfuffles, here is an interesting one that pertains to a topic we have touched on in forum discussions-- the full humanity of Jesus and his mental state at various points in his incarnate experience.

For Easter, Nijay Gupta and A.J. Swoboda published a short CT reflection on the internal struggles (“doubt”) Jesus faced in his humanity. They examine a few passages they think point to these moments of human vulnerability.

What Jesus brought with him into our world was his godness , which included a deep trust and faith in his Father; part of what he received from us in his humanness was our ability to doubt—and doubt he did.

Doubt is a real part of human experience. And Jesus was so committed to entering humanity that he dared to enter human doubt as well.

This set off quite the storm of responses, notably this one by Brandon Smith and Madison Pierce, published on Ed Stetzer’s CT blog

Jesus was finite and socially-constrained in his humanity. That doesn’t diminish the fact that Jesus is God with us in our suffering, but we cannot assume that taking on flesh requires the assumption of every aspect of humanity’s fallen heart, mind, or will.

(…)

Defining “doubt“ would demand more space than we have here. But we think it is helpful to say that, generally, Jesus’s life and ministry was not marked by doubt. Instead, it was marked by perfect obedience and steady confidence in his identity and vocation. As we have sought to demonstrate, emphasizing these things is more faithful to the tough texts above. Doubt is not proper to humanity, and certainly not necessary in God’s mission to redeem humanity. The doubt brought about by Satan’s temptation of our first parents blossomed into sin and death, but Christ’s full faithfulness secured our redemption. Our comfort in times of doubt rests on this truth.

Nijay and A.J. respond to the critiques here:

Part of the ongoing problem, it appears, is there remains a lack of agreed-upon, biblically-determined, and user-friendly definition of “doubt” that can speak to the diversity of biblical literature in both the Old and New Testaments and the nature of human experience. Undeniably, if one defines doubt exclusively in negative terms (“distrust,” “unbelief,” “lack of belief,” or “rejection of God”) then clearly we would agree: Jesus never doubted. But this was an imported assumption by many who read the article. We weren’t using doubt in this “vice” sense. We were using “doubt” in the modern, conventional sense of a “feeling of uncertainty,” reservation, reluctance, and hesitancy (see Merriam-Webster, OED). While we wish we could retroactively be more sensitive to this in our original article, we are profoundly grateful for the tension points this conversation has exposed.

(…)

But we continue to believe that the category of “doubt” might actually be helpful in bridging people to the gospel of Jesus. And here is why. We have all come to see it for ourselves: there is a generation of people who are walking away from the faith, our churches, and our families over these issues of doubt and deconstruction. They want to follow Christ but see so much in Christianity that does not reflect who he is. Whether it is this conversation or not, the church of Jesus is in deep need of theological reflection around the doubt and deconstruction experiences. Without it, we will see one generation after another walk away from the church because we have not thought in a more robust way about this experience. In the end, we increasingly suspect that there is a lurking Docetism alive and well in our various ecclesial tribes. By this we mean that the contemporary church’s failure to wrestle with the full humanity of Jesus keeps us from understanding ours. We can’t become the humans God calls us to be if we fail to see the kind of human God became when he walked on our planet in Jesus.

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I haven’t had a chance to read all the articles linked here yet (though I’ve started the last one - which seems very good, and perhaps a little too apologetically generous to would-be detractors, I think - at least based on what I’ve seen so far.)

Here is an observation about temptations (from my own personal experience). I don’t experience real temptation, i.e. the kind that presumably Christ faced, as a dialogue with a shadowy demonic figure that is obviously evil. If I’m in conversation with somebody named “Satan”, then the choices for how to respond become pretty obvious at that point - sort of like if a stranger at the door announces himself to you as: “Hello, my name is Bill, and I’m here today to see if I can swindle you out of a lot of money, may I come in?” Your choices seem fairly clear-cut in such an unrealistic scenario. Bill may offer you some pretty tempting stuff, I guess; but you could hardly be unclear about whether this will be a good thing or not. Temptations (real ones) don’t work like that. Temptations are things that I would very much prefer doing, and even though my conscience may always be there hovering to make me uncomfortable, I still manage to convince myself that somehow, some way - there may be extenuating circumstances here - something that would justify my making such a choice. And my inner lawyer / PR coordinator kicks into high gear and efficiently turns out the reasons why this time perhaps this isn’t so wrong; and besides … que the excuses [great reasons] why I should get what I want, etc.

We can personify evil in how we talk about it to others or how we may teach some things about it. But if I imagine that evil is entirely “over there” and not in me at all, I think that’s denying what evil really is. And if we think that evil was merely an obviously personified thing for Christ … as in he was literally talking to a figure named ‘Satan’ out in the desert - so any results of this conversation are already a foregone conclusion for this God-man, right? I mean - why is he even talking to Satan at all? Just give him the old heave-ho right from the start and don’t let him get into your mind - would be the obvious solution.

But that’s not the way temptation works. And if Christ wasn’t tempted in exactly the same ways we are, then a serious wedge is driven between his alleged experience of “humanity” and ours. And that is the more seriously heretical direction to take that I will not follow. Those who want to think of Christ as having some sort of special remove from us in that he gets to address his temptations conveniently labeled as “evil” complete with a name that he already knows will be a culprit, - defenders of that narrative have ironically crushed the very doctrinal truth they were at such pains to protect (the 100% divinity and 100% humanity of Christ). Because if Christ wasn’t tempted just as we are tempted then the claim that he fully experienced humanity is (I think) fatally compromised.

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Good points. I agree.

I could not help but notice a presumably unintentional but unfortunate equivocation in the first article…

What does Jesus do? He starts getting cold feet: “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” A moment later, of course, he shakes this off and confesses, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39). But this is not faith replacing doubt; it is faith moving forward in spite of doubt. Jesus didn’t want to take that cup of suffering, but he still did.

I don’t know anyone that would disagree with the way they describe this in the final sentence… that “Jesus didn’t want to take that cup of suffering, but he still did.” that seems straightforward enough and consistent with the Scripture… it is in equivocating “not wanting to do something” with “doubt” which seems problematic. There are lots of things i choose to do that at a deep level I don’t want to do… but i would hardly say that means i am experiencing “doubt.”

So I have to say i am confused by the first article’s use of the word “doubt”. what, exactly, are they claiming that Christ actually doubted? I couldn’t figure that out, except that they are describing his “not wanting to do something” that he yet chose to do as “doubt”, which seems a terrible misuse of the word “doubt.”

Even so, I am more troubled by what seems an intentional eisegesis regarding Jesus’s temptation in Matthew 4…

There, he has to wrestle with the Devil’s words: “If you are the Son of God” (Matt. 4:3). These words place seeds of doubt in Jesus’ head. One wonders if they played like a tape in his mind at points where he suffered or experienced loss because of his ministry.

There is absolutely no indication in the text, either in Matthew or the parallel in Luke, or anywhere else in Scripture to my knowledge, that Jesus was “wrestling” with these words, or that Satan’s words “placed seeds of doubt in Jesus’s head.” These particular ideas I’m afraid exist solely in the imagination of the authors, and hence i personally don’t find it surprising to find others responding and critiquing their imaginative take on the text.

From the third article where they clarified:

We weren’t using doubt in this “vice” sense. We were using “doubt” in the modern, conventional sense of a “feeling of uncertainty,” reservation, reluctance, and hesitancy (see Merriam-Webster, OED).

The idea being, if there is zero internal struggle, can we really call it a temptation? See Merv’s post.

The current topic linked above is almost entirely devoted to this issue. We’ve been going round and round for a bit and having a discussion that I enjoyed and learned from.

Vinnie

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I wonder if notions of “doubt” and “temptation” are different to us moderns than whatever the original concepts were in the minds of 1st century readers. Those terms come laden with implications of internal struggle for us, but I wonder if that’s how they were read back then. We get hung up on what it means for Jesus to have an internal struggle… but are we overcomplicating it? Does “temptation” require an internal struggle with evil, or merely an awareness of multiple paths one can take and then choosing only one of them? In the wilderness, Jesus is presented with three viable paths to kingship: 1) eliminating hunger, 2) using his power to make himself impervious to injury, or 3) joining Satan’s hierarchy and obtaining power the way everyone else did. He chooses instead to follow the path the Father had revealed to him, as grueling as that would be. In the Garden, he asks the Father to let the cup pass… to do something else. But in the end, he chose again to follow the Father’s path. At every point, he saw the alternate possibilities, but chose to submit to the Father’s will.

Along the same lines, in an ancient context does “doubt” have all the same connotations of mental struggle so in vogue these days? Or is it simply not acting in trust? Matt 28:17: “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Here doubt is contrasted with worship. Faced with a risen Jesus, you can worship or you can refuse to worship. Would the gospel writer have even recognized our modern concept of an interior struggle to reconcile various propositions and desires?

From this perspective, the questions about Jesus, humanity, and doubt lose complexity. Sure, Jesus was tempted like any other human, in that he could see choices in front of him – some more desirable than others – and had the power to choose among them. But he never “doubted” because he always chose the path that was in accordance with the Father’s will. Clearly it wasn’t always easy (witness the struggle in Gethsemane). But in the end, although he was tempted just like we are, he never sinned.

Modern American Christianity has produced a bunch of people who think that intellectual certainty is a requirement for discipleship, and that if they can’t be intellectually convinced to their satisfaction they won’t follow. But this is just a worship of Reason, not Christ. Yesterday was St Thomas Sunday; and while Jesus did give Thomas the proof he desired (as Jesus already had done for all the other disciples), Jesus also told him he’d have been better off not needing it. In other words, Thomas should have just trusted when Jesus said over and over that he was going to rise from the dead. God knows that Jesus had already given him every reason to do so. The disciples’ problem wasn’t lack of evidence, but lack of will to act based on what they’d already seen.

Modern intellectual “doubt” is a red herring. Either follow, or don’t. Understanding is not required.

Follow what exactly? I think some understanding is required.

I don’t think so. In the gospels, at the outset Jesus just says “Follow me”. Nobody knows what they’re getting into. Understanding comes later, but it’s not necessary for following. Following, however, is necessary for understanding.

The disturbing idea expressed by the authors in Steltzer’s blog is that they seem to state obedience and faithfulness are mutually exclusive with doubt, when in fact they are not. Jesus demonstrated his obedience and faithfulness in the face of doubt, serving as an example for us when faced with dark times.

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Yes, I’m definitely Team Vijay in this little dustup.

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I’ve often felt that I’m running crosswise with Calvin lately; so imagine the pleasant surprise at discovering that Calvin may actually be an ally for those struggling in and with doubt! I was glad to see those references to Calvin’s own writings in Nijay Gupta’s second article.

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Jesus had been around Galilee for most of his life until then. I don’t think he was totally unknown to them, so it wasn’t blindly following. They didn’t know all what they were in for, but they trusted him

I could have told you that. :upside_down_face:

Prince trumps toad.

And yes I read them all. Gupta and Swoboda are refined by fire, in fact the exchange is essential for their view to be refined, against genuine, utterly unmovable, fundamentalist, heterodox opposition. Doubt is perichoretic to being human: we evolved ‘fallen’.

Sure, they may have thought they were following “the Messiah”, but they had no idea who he really was or what he was really doing. They were, in a sense, quite blind. They had to follow first in order to see.

My point is that if someone thinks they can’t follow until their intellectual doubts are addressed to their satisfaction, then they’ve got the whole discipleship thing backwards. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We’ve produced a generation of Christians who are incapacitated by intellectual “doubt”, and now there’s a cottage industry exploiting them.

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And just to elaborate: the problem isn’t that they doubt. The problem is that they don’t doubt enough. Chesterton explores this brilliantly in his “Introduction to the Book of Job”:

In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.

The whole piece isn’t long, and well worth a read.

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Agreed and good points. (My point was that it was not totally blindly following, hypnotized and following the Pied Piper. Even Nathaniel was given some evidence.)

We agree then.

Vinnie

The churches want to be ones exploiting people. If people won’t just shut down their thinking and do what they’re told then how are the churches going to get good people to do evil things and feel that enticing rush of absolute power without any petty concerns for what is right and good? If the churches don’t have the power they know they deserve then they’ve got to invent some imaginary enemy which is trying to exploit people instead. (sarcasm font)

Curious thing about the phrase “cottage industry” which refers to people doing things for themselves. That is the enemy of church, I guess, this pernicious idea that people can think for themselves, make their own decisions, and run their own lifehow shocking… mustn’t have any of that!

…posted by a Christian who is not trying to use religion as a tool to rule the world.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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