This is day 2 of the Hashivenu Forum in Los Angeles (see yesterday’s post for more about Hashivenu). We heard a paper today by Mark Kinzer, “Finding Our Way Through Nicaea: The Deity of Yeshua, Bilateral Ecclesiology, and Redemptive Encounter With the Living God.” We also had a great deal of discussion about Rabbi Kinzer’s paper, including responses from two other scholars, Darrell Bock and Paul Saal.
The Nicene Creed is recited in many churches, but as someone brought up in discussion, is little understood. When you ask the question, “Is it right to say that Yeshua is God?” you will find a number of misunderstandings whether you say yes or no.
If you say yes, someone will object, “There is more to God than Yeshua.”
If you say no, someone will object, “But the deity of Yeshua is part of apostolic faith.”
What Mark Kinzer does in his paper is explore Christian and Jewish thought and suggest that we, as Messianic Jews, stand in between and can possibly take the “two communal traditions as one ruptured whole” and “perform a tikkun — a repair of what was broken.”
Messianic Jews cannot simply accept the Nicene Creed at face value. Neither can we reject its truth claims out of hand.
The Nicene Creed has problems for us:
(1) The role played by Constantine is problematic, bringing political ends into a theological discussion.
(2) The Nicene Creed is unilateral, bringing the voice of the multi-national church to the table, but excluding the Jewish followers of Yeshua of that time from the discussion.
(3) The Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) made statements of a blatantly anti-Jewish tenor.
(4) The Nicene Creed is structurally supersessionist, omitting Israel from the story completely.
Yet, the Nicene Creed set about to deny some things we too, as Messianic Jews, would want to deny:
(1) That Yeshua is not eternal, but has a beginning.
(2) That he was created.
(3) That he is of a different nature than God.
(4) That he is changing and mutable.
The Nicene Creed is about the church’s struggle with Arianism. The Arians were committed philosophically to a completely transcendent God. But such a God cannot enter into human history and something like the incarnation is impossible when your view of deity admits of no immanence. Another way to say that is that if God is wholly other, absolutely beyond time and space, then God cannot be present with us. Thus, the Arians had to believe Yeshua was not God, but a created being sent by God.
Kinzer uses one simple text to show how the apostles dealt with the mystery of Yeshua’s relationship with the Father:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
This passage, from 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, is known in much literature as the New Testament Shema. It is Paul adopting the language of Deuteronomy 6:4 to express the relationship between Yeshua and the Father. The Shema is expanded to include Yeshua in “a differentiated but singular deity.”
One God – the Father – from whom . . .
One Lord – Yeshua – through whom . . .
In other words, existence comes from the Father but is carried out through the Son. Paul uses God and Lord (Lord here is the usual way in Greek the apostles denote God’s name). The Father is God and Yeshua is the Lord (confusion creeps in here because Lord does not always mean deity, but it is almost certainly meant here).
The idea is that the Father is transcendent and the source of all things and the Son is the agent through whom the Father’s work is done and the two are one. Hebrews 1:3 says it well:
The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things.
Kinzer’s paper goes into much more depth, but I am trying to be both brief and to simplify the language here.
What will surprise many readers is to know that Judaism, not only in the Second Temple period, but also throughout the Middle Ages, deals with a controversy that is parallel to that of Nicaea.
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that it was pronounced to be avodah zara to believe in Yeshua’s deity and in the Trinity.
But even after that, and certainly before it, Judaism has had discussions at great length and of tremendous importance trying to balance the idea of a transcendent/separate/wholly other God and an immanent/present God.
One example is the medieval battle between the Karaites and normative Jews. The Karaites were against the rabbinic writings but believed the written Torah. They were rivals and often debated and criticized the rabbis. Rabbinic literature has many anthropomorphisms of God.
One of the clearest and most unusual is talk of God laying tefillin (wearing phylacteries) and holding arguments about Torah matters with the angels and so on.
The Karaites criticized this kind of talk making God to be comparable to a man. Saadia Gaon and others retreated to a sort of philosophical God. They said that the Shekhina and other mediate forms of deity (angel of the Lord, Wisdom, the Word, the Glory, etc.) were created forms without the substance of God. They were more like holograms, as we might say, than emanations of God.
But this means that God has never actually been present. So the mystics and kabbalists reacted against this sanitized God. They ultimately came up with something that is very familiar to anyone who knows a little kabbalah:
(1) The Ein Sof is God in his actual being, unknowable, separate, and wholly other.
(2) But the Ein Sof sends out emanations, the sefirot. They come in gradually lesser degrees of holiness, which are classically numbered at ten.
There is evidence in the Hebrew Bible that something like what the mystics describe really is going on.
So the controversy in rabbinic Judaism is such that outside criticism caused some rabbis to propose something similar to the Arians whom the Council of Nicaea opposed. These rationalists described a wholly other God who cannot be present with us. Just as the Nicene Creed found a solution in a binitarian view of Father and Son, one and distinct, the Son radiating from the Father, so the mystics of Judaism proposed sefirot emanating from the direct, unknowable being of God.
It is common in Christian circles for people not to understand the relationship of Father and Son. Many people confuse Yeshua with the Father and fail to see a clear differentiation. Yeshua mediates the Father but does not replace. Yeshua is subordinate to the Father, but not because he is of a lower kind of deity.
Paul Saal demonstrated how in popular discussion people can be unaware of the differentiation of Father and Son and can cry heresy when someone is simply restating what the Nicene Creed affirms. He once explained to someone that Yeshua is not God in the sense of being the Ein Sof. Rather, Yeshua is like the sum of all the sefirot. The person claimed that Saal did not then actually believe in the deity of Yeshua! Yet Saal’s description mirrors not only the Nicene Creed, but also Hebrews 1:3.
Kinzer’s paper wraps up with a description of Messianic Jewish theology as a protest against the boundary drawn by mainstream Judaism against the deity of Yeshua. There are other boundary breakers too, such as the Lubavitch who believe their deceased rebbe is divine.
Kinzer says that MJ will only survive if we succeed in our protest against the boundaries. If MJ is never credited as a Judaism, but is always regarded as avodah zara, then we will likely fade away in time.
We are repairing the broken pieces, standing between church creeds and rabbinic discussions, and trying to make them whole. We are looking for a way to express what Nicaea affirms and what it denies in Jewish language. Our commitment to Yeshua’s lordship must not diminish and hiding our belief in it from public view will not serve us. At the risk of being misunderstood by our Jewish people, we have to affirm that Yeshua is God, even when we don’t have time to explain all the possible misunderstandings. And the idea of a divine Messiah is something difficult to describe in Jewish language because of the many centuries of boundary drawing. We pray for tikkun olam.