A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, November 04, 2011

What Is Heresy? #6

Ebionitism: Jesus as Merely Human

Before we get directly into Ebionitism and its problematic nature, it is important to note what McGrath reminds us of in his book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. The church's examination of the "classic" heresies of the patristic period (the first five centuries) were motivated by the "genuine concern to ensure that the Christian faith was represented and articulated in the most authentic and robust forms" (p. 103). What most people think of when they hear the term "heresy" harkens forward from the patristic period to the Middle Ages where Heresy was dealt with in a legal sense and in which movements were not truly heretical theologically, but were declared as such because they presented a serious challenge to the authority of the pope. Inquisitions and burnings at the stake understandably has left a sour taste in the mouths of many people. But the rejection of the notion of heresy on account of this is to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." If there are no theological boundaries, then Christianity has no identity of its own that makes it Christianity. Thus, without the possibility of heresy, there is no orthodoxy, and there is no Christianity.

Like so many Christological heresies, the problem with Ebionitism was not so much found in what it affirmed, but in what it denied or failed to assert. In Ebionitism, Jesus was presented in typical Jewish categories-- he was a prophet, a new Elijah, a high priest of Israel. Recent scholarship has questioned the accuracy of the historical usage of the term "Ebionitism," but the bone of contention with Ebionitism was its "low Christology" where Jesus was asserted as human but not divine, though he was believed to be "spiritually superior to ordinary human beings but not otherwise distinct" (p. 106).

Ebionitism was ultimately rejected, not because of what it affirmed about Jesus, which was true, but because it "was perceived to be inadequate to do justice to the full significance of Jesus of Nazareth" (p. 106). To demontrate the point, McGrath refers to Mark 2:1-12, the healing of the paralytic. For the Ebionites, the healing itself was not problematic; it was Jesus' declaration to the man that his sins were forgiven. The scribes in the story rightly picked up on the implications of Jesus' words, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Thus, while Jesus was clearly steeped within the Judaism of his day, and a competent understanding of his ministry necessitates an understanding of his Judaism, there are things happening in the gospels that do not neatly fall within the traditional Jewish categories and paradigms of first century Judaism. Some innovation, some re-thinking was needed, and the Ebionites resisted that innovation. McGrath refers to Karl Barth who criticized Ebionitism because it treats Jesus as "essentially a heroic human being or as a human being who was 'adopted' by God" (p. 108). It may be the case that some forms of Ebionitism did not deny the deity of Jesus, per se, but rather that some saw no need to assert it. In this form Ebionitism becomes a functionally low Christology, with the same result as denial.

Now, it needs to be said that part of the context of the church's rejection of Ebionitism was that, by the early second century, more and more Gentile bishops were attempting to work through what it meant for Christianity to have been birthed from within Judaism, but yet to be distinct from it. McGrath needs to be quoted in full:
This approach to Christology sat very uneasily with the growing perception that Christianity was distinct from Judaism, however their present relationship was to be understood. The Ebionites perceived Jesus of Nazareth as a reforming Hebrew prophet. While Marcion's view that Christianity should totally disassociate itself from its Jewish origins won few supporters, it was a telling indication of the way Christianity now saw itself-- as a new universal faith that acknowldeged its origins within Judaism but also transcended its ethnic, cultural, and religious limitations. Ebionitism trapped the new faith within a Jewish matrix, making it a prisoner of its own history. The future of Christianity as a faith in its own right-- rather than as a Jewish sect-- depended upon the church's developing new categories for making sense of Jesus of Nazareth (p. 110).
The re-emergence of Jewish Christianity in the later years of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, has led to a renewed interest in the Jewish Jesus and rightly so. In the history of the church and in the history of scholarship, Jesus was, in significant periods, divorced from his Judaism and his Jewish context, and that never should have happened. So, while the recovery of the Jewish Jesus is to be welcomed, that does not mean that we must reject or simply ignore the claim that he was more than a prophet or a heroic man who had a God-intoxicated relationship with the divine. The Christian Gospels in the New Testament, which are also very Jewish, suggest otherwise.

In our next post, we will take a look at another heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus outright, but for different reasons than the Ebionites-- Docetism.
Previous Posts in the Series:

1 comment:

PopLid said...

"If there are no theological boundaries, then Christianity has no identity of its own that makes it Christianity. Thus, without the possibility of heresy, there is no orthodoxy, and there is no Christianity."
Currently,there are somewhere north of 35,000 sects that call themselves Christian. From the reading that I have done, I seriously doubt that there have ever been less than 20. When there were 20, if that was the smallest number, Ebionitism was one of them.
Who within the 34,980 sects that grew from those original sects, is qualified to define and declare any of the 20 or so originals as a heresy?