Against The Star Trek Christology

The Reformed churches and theologians opposed the Anabaptists on a number of issues beyond the most obvious question, namely baptism, one of which was a widely held view of Christ’s humanity which the Melchiorites (followers of Melchior Hoffmann), Menno, and others taught: the doctrine of the “celestial flesh” of Christ. Caspar Schwenkfeld (1489–1561) taught that we eat the “celestial flesh” of Christ by an inward spiritual feeding. Calvin traced this doctrine to the Manichees and Marcionites (Institutes 2.13.1). In the 3rd century, Tertullian, the father of Latin (Western) church opposed the doctrine of the celestial flesh in defense of the true humanity of Christ: “For One who was to be truly a man, even unto death, it was necessary that He should be clothed with that flesh to which death belongs. Now that flesh to which death belongs is preceded by birth.”1

In the Belgic Confession (1561) the Reformed churches denounced the “celestial flesh” Christology as heresy against the ecumenical faith:

Therefore we confess (in opposition to the heresy of the Anabaptists, who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of his mother) that Christ is become a partaker of the flesh and blood of the children; that he is a fruit of the loins of David after the flesh; made of the seed of David according to the flesh; a fruit of the womb of the Virgin Mary, made of a woman, a branch of David; a shoot of the root of Jesse; sprung from the tribe of Judah; descended from the Jews according to the flesh; of the seed of Abraham, since he took on him the seed of Abraham, and became like unto his brethren in all things, sin excepted, so that in truth he is our Immanuel, that is to say, God with us (art. 18).

The “celestial flesh” Christology did not die in the 16th century. It lives among American evangelicals. I hear it regularly and had a question about recently via Twitter. The question often comes in this form: How did Jesus enter the room with locked doors? The question is in reference to John 20:26–29:

26Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (ESV).

What many American evangelicals seem to assume is that Jesus de-materialized and walked through the door and then re-materialized. It seems plausible because they have seen it on television and in films. There are some unstated and often unexamined assumptions in such a view and not a few biblical and theological problems.

First, the problems.

  1. The text neither says nor implies that Jesus’ de-materialized and re-materialized. What it says is that Jesus entered a room even though the doors were locked.
  2. Though many assume that the passage intends to teach that Jesus’ humanity was substantially changed by the resurrection, the passage itself is at pains to teach us the opposite.
  3. The “celestial flesh” Christology is the result of the confusion of the two natures, in contradiction both of Holy Scripture and the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD).
  4. One of the most problematic of the un-stated assumptions is that we know Jesus’ humanity must have changed because we know that doors do not.

Second, some replies:

The scene occurs after the resurrection but (obviously) before the ascension. Jesus had a resurrection body, about which John comments implicitly in this very passage. John tell us that the disciples were “inside” (ἔσω). He uses a genitive absolute to tell us the circumstances in which Jesus entered the room, “with the doors being locked” (τῶν θυρῶν κεκλεισμένων). The mystery and the miracle is that Jesus entered a room with locked doors.

There are good reasons for thinking that Jesus’ humanity, though resurrected remains consubstantial with ours. Hebrews 2:17–18 connects Jesus’ consubstantiality to two aspects of our redemption: the propitiation of the divine wrath on the cross and his intercessory high-priestly ministry for us now. Scripture says:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (ESV).

Notice that Hebrews teaches us that Jesus humanity is consubstantial with ours both in his crucifixion, before the resurrection, and in his ascension after the resurrection. Neither the resurrection nor the ascension entail a substantial change in our Lord’s human nature. Neither resurrection nor glorification entail a communication of the properties of the divinity to the humanity. Jesus’ humanity is portrayed for us in Scripture as local, not ubiquitous. We know that we have a representative in heaven, pleading our case, as it were who is like us in every respect, sin excepted (Heb 4:15). Our helper shares our nature, not one like it.

The Heidelberg Catechism is helpful here:

47. Is Christ then not with us even unto the end of the world, as He has promised?

Christ is true man and true God. According to His human nature He is now not on earth, but according to His Godhead, Majesty, Grace, and Spirit, He is at no time absent from us.

48. Since his human nature is not present wherever His Godhead is, are not then these two natures in Christ separated from one another?

Not at all; for since the Godhead is incomprehensible and everywhere present, it must follow that the same is not limited with the human nature He assumed, and yet remains personally united to it.

This is the Christology of the Definition of Chalcedon. He is, as the ecumenical church confesses, “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” Following Chalcedon, we distinguish the two natures without separating them. The properties of each nature remain in their union (ἕνωσιν). His humanity retains its natural properties, even in his glorification (hence “being preserved”). We confess one person with two distinct natures. We confess a communion of properties and in that sense a communication, but the properties of the deity are not communicated to the humanity nor the properties of the humanity communicated to the deity.

This is the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed:

34. Who although he be God and man; yet he is not two, but one Christ.
35. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God.
36. One altogether; not by confusion of substance: but by unity of person.
37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and man is one Christ.

John notes that the doors were locked not that Jesus’ humanity temporarily changed. Thomas doubted and what did our Lord do? He instructed him to use his eyes to look Christ’s hands and to touch Christ’s side (v. 28). Thomas’ sense experience of our Lord is important since it refutes the docetic heresy, which teaches that Christ only appeared to be human. Our Lord contrasted those who have seen, i.e., those who were present and had a direct sense experience of Christ’s true, resurrected, consubstantial humanity and us who believe even though we have not the same empirical experience. The humanity they saw and touched was not a re-materialized humanity. John says:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1–3; ESV)

John’s very point, his intent, was to refute those who were calling into question the reality of Christ’s humanity. The great point is that Jesus had a true, real humanity of the sort we know.

Then it is objected but what about Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 15? This is challenging language to be sure but nowhere does Paul say that Jesus’ humanity was substantially transformed in the resurrection and/or the ascension. In v. 35 he says, “But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Paul replies, “You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (v. 37). He does not actually answer the question. He characterizes the resurrected (and glorified) body as “heavenly,” glorious (v. 43), “imperishable” (v. 42), and “spiritual” (v.44) but he does not say exactly what that entails. Again, we must keep our assumptions in check. E.g., We may not import into Paul a pagan “spirit-matter” dualism. That is not Paul’s frame of reference. Vos is almost certainly right (see Pauline Eschatology) when he says that “a spiritual body” (σῶμα πνευματικόν) is Paul’s way of saying, “that which is fit for heaven” rather than immaterial. Jesus’ resurrected and glorified body is material. It is not ghostly. It is not a “celestial flesh.” Paul is not juxtaposing the material with the immaterial but that which is glorified with that which is not.

One of the most troubling, if unstated, assumptions of the modern version of the “celestial flesh” Christology is its implicit Modernism. We think we know that doors do not change. It is such a basic assumption to Modern Enlightenment-influenced people that we do not even question it. It is so axiomatic that we assume that something else, namely Jesus’ humanity, must have changed in order for our Lord to enter the room even though the doors were locked.

In truth we do not know how Jesus entered a room with locked doors but there is good biblical evidence and ecumenical Christian truth to make us reject the “celestial flesh” Star Trek Christology. If anything changed, why not the door? After all, our Lord walked on water without changing his true humanity. That was a defiance of what we know in the ordinary providence of God. He still the waves. He raised Lazarus from the dead. He healed the lame and restored sight to the blind. During his earthly ministry, our Lord regularly defied or suspended what we ordinarily think of as nature. What is a locked door to the Lord of Glory?

NOTES

1. Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 527.

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9 comments

  1. I am curious: What do the Lutherans say to the issues your addressing? Is this an area of contention?

  2. I like the speculative illustration offered in the movie, “The Bishop’s Wife.” Cary Grant (playing the part of an angel) opens and walks out of a room where the door was purposefully locked, leaving the Bishop dumbfounded, amazed and somewhat scared.

  3. I don’t admire C.S. Lewis for his theology. But as pertains to this question, he may have been on to something. The door, and all things more connected to this fallen world than the age to come, are perhaps not more substantial than Christ’s glorified and material human body–but LESS so.

    Maybe the perishable elements of this age are no obstacles to Jesus, risen and triumphant; but comparatively whispy.

  4. Indeed, it is quite an assumption that the flesh of Jesus changed or was somehow ‘celestial’ rather than that the properties of the door were changed, or that the door was unfastened without a hand manipulating the mechanism. Water into wine was a change in property (I would argue the same for walking on the water – the properties of the water were changed). There is no requirement for local suspension or modification of the so-called ‘laws of nature’ (which are nothing more than conventional reformulations in mathematical form of the properties of nature anyway). Many of the recorded miracles are actions at a distance upon physical things.

  5. How should we understand Phillip being carried away by the Spirit in Acts 8:39&40? I know some folks see this basically as teleporting of ordinary human flesh by the power of the Spirit.

  6. Dr Clark, this is such a helpful post. One question I wonder about is the Ascension. How did Jesus’ human body get to heaven? Did he just got through outer space? Is heaven in an alternate dimension? Etc etc etc.

    I get asked this question from time to time and I do not know how to answer it.

    • Brad,

      The ascension is a mystery. Clearly reality is more complicated than it seems to the senses. Late-modern physics suggests as much. We must confess what we know to be true. Jesus is true man, glorified, and at the right hand of the Father. That is both literal truth and, as our Lutheran critics have long noted, figurative truth since “right hand” is way to speak of God’s power. We have to stand on Hebrews when it says that he is like us in every respect, sin excepted.

      That our Lord ascended was an accommodation to our sense experience. Of course heaven is not necessarily “up” but it is away or distinct from our experience of reality. We really do not know where heaven is only that it is and Jesus is there. We cannot say how he got (any more than we can say exactly how he walked on water) there but we must say that he is there.

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