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Article No. 37

Did Christ think the world was flat? (Part One)

Yes, of course he did! But the question leads us into an area seldom discussed. It is the area of the understanding of the relationship between the humanity and the divinity of Christ.

This subject could lead us into a discussion on the meaning of the atonement, and the nature of the sacrifice Christ made, but I do not want to follow that line here. Instead I want to try to catch a glimpse of how we visualize the Christ of the gospels. I want to raise the question: how do we decide what we regard important in the gospel accounts, and what we quietly drop out of our thinking? What do we accept at face value?

To us today the question about whether the world is flat seems almost absurd. We ‘know’ that the world is a sphere, spinning in space, in the midst of a vast cosmos, in which we are a tiny speck. But if one goes into the open on a clear night, it is patently easy for any right minded person to assume that we are stationary and that the sky is moving round in the heavens! That is what most of mankind thought and fully accepted until only a few hundred years ago. Anyone going out on a clear night could see it for himself. The early Greeks apparently decided that the earth was a sphere, but it was obvious to most of the rest of mankind that the earth was the centre of the universe. Most men in most centuries never doubted it.

So the question turns out to be a simple test of how we look at Christ. Was he an ordinary man? Was he a man of his times? Or do we think that he had knowledge or mental powers beyond that of the men and women around him? Did he have what I shall call ‘superior knowledge’ ?

One might think at first that he must have had superior knowledge. If he was divine then he must have known all things, mustn’t he? But then one has to remember that he was human – fully human. And would he have been fully human if he had access to superior knowledge? Such knowledge would place him in the ‘more than human’ category. We could no longer identify with him. Somewhere Paul talks of Christ as being in all ways like us (Hebrews 2.7). How could he be a normal human being if he had all this extra knowledge ?

If Christ had been reported as saying anything significant that depended, say, on the earth being flat, we would have to discount what was written because we now understand these things better. The same principle applies to us today – our up to date knowledge is still partial and will be overtaken in a few years time. They will automatically disregard a lot of what we say today because their knowledge will have moved forward.

Many things have changed and moved on in the last two thousand years. Easier to say what hasn’t changed! The list of such differences could go on and on. Our worldview is vastly different today than it was two thousand years ago. Do all these changes in ideas and concepts matter?

Once one recognizes the problem, we have to make adjustments to our understanding of what we read in the gospels. We can see that some of the ideas and concepts that were current in Jewish thinking two thousand years ago are no longer acceptable to us. There are many such. The Jewish patriarchal attitude to women is now seen for what it was - a form of insidious domination of women by men. Another example is the overwhelming maleness of the Jewish God (despite some references in the Old Testament to God as mother). Today we see clearly that God includes both male and female, for we are made in ‘his’ image. One could go on and on.

The weeding out of superseded ideas and concepts do matter – in fact, I see them as tremendously important. The mind set and ‘world view’ of the people two thousand years ago was totally different from ours and we need to recognize the processes going on in our own heads when we ‘interpret’ to ourselves what we read from gospels written all that time ago. In effect we translate what is in the gospels into our own understanding, our own world view.

The fact that Jesus was human means that he, too, absorbed whatever were the current ideas and concepts. If most men thought the earth was flat, then so did Christ. To say that in no way diminishes his divinity. But as a consequence, we have to distinguish between what we can accept and what we must pass over as less relevant in the gospel account. We have to make adjustments.

Our own twenty first century mindset and world view will be superseded in due course. Our interpretations are subject to the same later assessment. In years to come, others will look back at us and say – did they really think that?

This is all very relevant to how we read the bible. If we read it as though it is meant to be taken literally, to be literally true and therefore not needing interpretation, then of course we go down the line of the fundamentalist. This seems to me to be a mechanical view of scripture, and one which leads into unreality. But if we say ‘This holy bible is God’s word to us and is meant to be read, with the help of the Holy Spirit, with as much understanding as we can muster’ – then we make the opportunity for God to break through the fixed ideas and concepts that we inherited as young people. We can also make allowance for ideas and concepts which are no longer working for us in today’s world. The Lord is then more able to work his creative magic in our minds and hearts. I believe that we should read the gospels, indeed the whole bible, as openly as we can.

What came from the human side of Christ sprang out of concepts and ideas which were appropriate for that time and place and background. He was fully a man of his time. That does not detract from his divinity, his mission, nor from the value and validity of the gospel record. It simply means that we have to have open minds so that we can learn to distinguish what to accept and what to gently lay aside. In this we must have the help of the Holy Spirit without whom we cannot even begin to understand spiritual matters. The eternal truths that Christ uttered sprang from his divinity, as brought out by the Holy Spirit, and they are true for all time.

Thus when Christ told the story of the prodigal son he revealed the nature of the Father, and he spoke by the Holy Spirit. When he spoke of some other matters (for example, the end times, and the Jewish eschatological viewpoint) I believe he spoke out of his human understanding, trained and taught as it had been in that Jewish society for thirty years.

Can we ‘divide’ Christ like this? Or does it make a mockery of the idea of him as a whole person – the only whole person the world has ever seen? I believe not only that we can, but that we must attempt to distinguish what in the message of Jesus sprang from his human side – his Jewish side, his ‘child of that age and place’ side, from what comes to us as truth today from the Holy Spirit.

We also have to recognize that similar considerations arise about the writers of the gospels – they too were creatures of their time and their writings were filtered through and reflect a mindset which was rooted in their time and place. This is particularly important because each of them brought a different outlook and personality to his task.

This approach helps us with the statements Christ made that, today, we do not follow. For example on divorce. We attempt to resolve the difference between what Christ said ( Matt 19.9) and what our practice in the Church today. We explain the difference by saying that Christ’s way is the ‘ideal’ ! But we accept the ideal as out of reach! Is it not more honest, more accurate to accept that Christ spoke as a man of his time and embedded in his message is the truth of God – but mixed in with it are some attitudes, concepts and ideas that were local and temporary? The ideal is still certainly a marriage for life, but we have to recognize that for many people these days that is an impossibility.

I am not saying that the bible is not the Word of God, and exactly what we need. What I am saying is that we need to read it critically and with as much understanding as we are capable, always looking for the light the Holy Spirit shows us.

I want to suggest criteria for the truest picture we can make of what Christ taught. The position we must start from is :

- that as we, being human ourselves and able to understand what being human means, ought to allow nothing that in any way makes Christ less than or more than a full human being. He was fully, completely, and throughout his life a normal human being.

- that we hold that he was also divine – but by that we do not mean that his divinity in any way impinged on his humanity. It was an added dimension, not anything that changed the way he ate, spoke, thought, lived – and died. [As I said earlier, I am avoiding getting sidetracked here into a theological discussion about the significance or meaning of his death on the cross and the meaning of the Atonement. That momentous event will have to be considered in another article.] His humanity we think we understand, his divinity we cannot understand – it is a mystery. And how the two could co-exist in one life is a mystery too.

He was totally human and thought the world flat, and he was divine.

Although he was an ordinary man, Christ did not only ‘show’ us what the Father was like – he provided the bridge for us to be able to cross over into full communion with God. He accomplished the necessary work so that anyone thereafter could be restored to a full communion with God.

So what is the gospel? It is good news – that Jesus has provided the way to salvation for us. Salvation is knowing God as our Father and being in right relationship with Him, and now we can know God in the deepest, fullest way available to any human because Christ, by his sacrifice, opened the way for us.

But why did Christ have to think that the world was flat? Because he was fully human and to be fully human in those days (or any other period) meant that he did not have exceptional (‘superior’) knowledge that other humans alongside did not have. He did not access some secret fund of knowledge beyond the reach of others. The only difference was that he accessed the Holy Spirit – a gift he has now given to us.

In other words we must allow of for the advance of humankind along a path of knowledge and understanding. Once you allow that, then you must accept that Christ was, humanly speaking, a creature of his place and time. It follows that a rigorous examination of each word of the bible is not only desirable, it is essential. We have to interpret what the bible is saying to us today because it was written in a different age (and language). Our mindset and world view are different.

Clearly we have only touched the fringe of this subject and I hope to return to it at a future date.

Tony Cross

September 2003

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