An Open Letter to General Obasanjo
By Francis Anekwe Oborji
“The Law appoints high priests who are men subject to weakness; but the promise on oath, which came after the Law, appointed Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is made PERFECT for ever.” (Hebrews, 7:28).
His Excellency, General Olusegun Matthew Obasanjo
Former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Sir, permit me to address this letter to you as a mark of my respect for your person and what you are for us in Nigeria and Africa, an elder stateman and most respected former President of Nigeria alive today. I hope and pray that my letter will receive your cordial and urgent attention since the point it raises is one that you and I share together as Christians from that geographical expression called Nigeria.
Sir, I write you not about the crucial role you are playing these days with our other elder statemen to help Nigeria navigate through its present political crisis for a credible election this February 2019. To this, however, I must commend you. I commend you for that effort in spite of the reservations I may have as a person in some of your past and even present political calculations, which in no small measures contributed a great deal in creating the unpleasant political scenario we are grappling with in the country today. This, however, is a point for another day.
Whatever is the case, I still see you as one among the few remaining elderly Nigerian elites, ex-generals and politicians with high standing, not afraid to make their positions known at any critical moment of our recent history as a nation state. Sir, I must congratulate you for that steadfastness and contribution to nation-building both in Nigeria and in other troubled African nations.
However, my main purpose in writing you this letter is to let you know how disappointed I felt as a person and Christian in particular, reading from our Nigerian Newspapers and social media, the recent statement accredited to you, where it was alleged, you said, inter alia: “Jesus, the only Messiah I know, was imperfect…”
According to media reports, Sir, you made that statement when you led His Excellency, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and other PDP leaders to Island Club, Lagos on Wednesday, January 30, 2019, to mark the 75th anniversary of the elite club.
That means you made the statement for political purpose. However, this is not the purpose of our present letter. As a person, and in all sincerity, I have nothing against His Excellency, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, nor will I be ever against him becoming the next President of Nigeria if the electorate decides so. All of us are on the same vanguard of praying and hoping for a new leadership and a new political system in Nigeria other than what we have today.
In fact, if Atiku is the choice of majority of Nigerians, it will be a victory for the masses. Moreover, if Nigeria is restructured to reflect its multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural diversities, that will be the greatest achievement of the present generation of Nigerians and those yet unborn. Again, this is not the reason for writing you this letter.
Back to the main point of my letter. Sir, in that your talk at the Island Club, Lagos, it was reported in the media that you uttered the following statement:
“On an occasion in the past when I said that someone was not a Messiah, some Nigerians out of bad belle were up in arms. For me, as a Christian, the only Messiah I know is Jesus Christ and even then, the man aspect of Him was imperfect while the divine aspect of Him was perfectly messianic.” (General Obasanjo).
Sir, your last sentence in the above statement is the bone-of-contention. It has a serious doctrinal error and theological problem. For someone like you, whom we were told, just bagged a doctorate degree in theology (or was it in religious studies or sociology of religions?), though in your ‘70s, to say such a thing and in the present political and religious charged atmosphere of Nigeria, leaves much to be desired.
Sir, setting up the divine nature of Jesus Christ against his human nature is not what the Christian Creed teaches us. Creating polemic in the 21st century on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, who is truly God and truly Man, is to say the least of some one of your caliber, who, apart from his intimidating political profile in the country, is also a doctorate degree holder in religious studies.
In fact, if it has been another person of less caliber and theological exposure that said those things, I would not have bothered to write this letter. But considering your person and the influence of whatever you say at the political and religious scenes of Nigeria, I felt the urge to call your attention to these doctrinal errors and theological problems in your assertion that “the Man aspect of Jesus is imperfect.”
Sir, do you know that your statement that the “human aspect of Jesus is imperfect”, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Biblical doctrine of God. One of the wonders of the Old Testament tradition was the conviction that God shared in the afflictions and sufferings of his people, a concept probably unique among the religions of the ancient world, and that has been rediscovered dramatically by Jewish scholars in our day.
It was not a Western theologian but a Japanese, Kazoh Kitamori, who, in a book produced in 1946 after the horrors of World War II and Hiroshima, contented that the essence of the gospel is the “pain of God.” Another Asian theologian, C.S. Song, while criticizing Kitamori for internalizing the pain of God as conflict between his wrath and love, agrees that “God’s headache is the beginning of theology.”
Sir, this shows that the concept of God who suffers with and for his people is a central one for the Christian faith, where in the person of the Son God demonstrates his identity with the sufferings of humanity. This is not “imperfection” nor is it a “diminution” of the Godhead, but, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of its crowning achievements and one that cannot be neglected without jeopardizing the whole basis of Christian faith itself.
A leading African theologian, Charles Nyamiti from Tanzania has expressed this view forcibly as follows:
“What is new to the African (concept of God) is the fact that God’s power is manifest in weakness: in Christ’s humility, meekness, forgiveness of sins, and – most astoundingly – in suffering, his death on the Cross, and its glorious saving consequences in Christ himself and in the whole of creation” (Charles Nyamiti’s “African Tradition and Christian God”).
On the basis of all these, Sir, I would like to draw your attention to the following points, which bothers on the doctrinal and theological problems any discerning eye is bound to deduce from your statement that “the man aspect of Jesus Christ was imperfect while the divine aspect of Him was perfectly messianic.”
Jesus as Man is Sinless
Sir, do you know that by saying that “Jesus as Man is imperfect”, what you are saying in effect is that Jesus is a sinner. This I am sure you may not have intended, but unfortunately, that is the implication of your statement. By saying that “Jesus as man is imperfect”, you are invariably saying that Jesus was a sinner and so have corrupt human nature like all sinful humanity. But this is very far from the truth of our Christian faith, otherwise we shall not be talking of “Virgin Birth” and of Jesus as “a man like us in everything, except sin” (cf. Philippians 2:6-11; Hebrews 4:16).
In the first place, let us consider the general meaning of the two words, “perfect” and “imperfect.” According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the word “Perfect”, means having everything needed. It means been complete, or been in perfect condition, without fault. The opposite is “imperfect.” The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, also defines “Imperfect”, as follows: “faulty or defective; not perfect… imperfect knowledge, understanding, etc.”
In plain language, therefore, ‘imperfect’ means “faulty or defective.” The word “fault” is the modern man’s language for sin. Instead of some people acknowledging they have sinned or wronged you, they would simply say, “I am at fault. In other words, to say that Jesus is “imperfect as Man”, is like saying that Jesus is a “sinful man” or that he is at fault. Which is blasphemous and heretical.
Sir, to appreciate the gravity of the implications of your statement on the human nature of Jesus, I would like to refer you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which has the most excellent teaching on the theme under consideration:
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the unique and singular event of the Incarnation of the Son of God does not mean that Jesus is part God and part man, nor does it imply that he is the result of a confused mixture of the divine and human. “He became truly man while remaining truly God. Jesus Christ is true God and true man. During the first centuries, the Church had to defend and clarify this truth of faith against the heresies that falsified it.” (CCC n. 464).
In Biblical tradition, Jesus Christ is described in the Letter to the Hebrews, as the one with the highest ‘perfection’, the appointed Son of God, who is made perfect for ever:
“Such is the high priest that met our need, holy, innocent and uncontaminated, set apart from sinners, and raised up above the heavens; he has no need to offer sacrifices every day as the high priests do, first for their own sins and only then for those of others; this he did once and for all by offering himself.” (Hebrews 7:26-27). Furthermore, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes: “Since in Jesus, the Son of God, we have the supreme high priest who has gone through to the highest heaven, we must hold firm to our profession of faith. For the high priest we have is not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin.” Hebrews 4:14-15).
In other words, in no way has the Biblical faith and the early Church associated Jesus Christ with “sin or imperfection”, be it his divine or human nature. The Biblical faith and the Church have always confessed Jesus Christ as the sinless Incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. In the Gospel of John, we see Jesus confronting those who were trying to deny his sinless humanity:
In all truth I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave. Now a slave has no permanent standing in the household, but a son belongs to it for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will indeed be free. … Can any of you convict me of sin? If I speak the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever comes from God listens to the words of God; the reason why you do not listen is that you are not from God.” John 8:34, 46-47).
Therefore, Sir, I know you might have not contemplated very well on the doctrinal and theological implications of your statement on the human nature of Jesus when you uttered it and the context in which you said it. In nutshell, however, the implication of your statement is that you have denied the ‘humanity of Jesus as the sinless Incarnate Son of God.” In addition, you have taken us back to the early centuries’ Christological heresies, which have since been condemned by the Church concerning the doctrine on Jesus as truly Man and truly God.
Moreover, without knowing it, your statement sounds to be an offshoot of modern man’s reliving of the old heresies. To this end, I would suggest that whenever you can, kindly read Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World (March 19, 2018). In the document, the Pope warned us of the dangers inherent in promoting such heretical tendencies in our contemporary world.
Pope Francis describes the modern heresies as neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism, and calls them false spirituality (cf. Gaudete et Exsultate, n. 35). This problem also formed the theme of a new document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), titled, “Placuit Deo (On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation (2018). Sir, it would be appreciated if you could make out time to read these two documents.
Jesus Is True God and True Man
Sir, your statement about dichotomy in the humanity and divinity of Jesus is not only blasphemous but also contradicts what the Apostles’ Creed teaches about the uniqueness and unicity of the two natures of Jesus, divine and human. I mean where you said: “… the man aspect of Him (Jesus Christ) was imperfect while the divine aspect of Him was perfectly messianic.”
Although, I don’t understand in what sense you are using the word “messianic” in this context. So, I will just concentrate on your characterization of Jesus’ human nature as imperfect, until you expatiate on what you mean by “messianic” in that context you applied it, which for me, is like superimposing and mixing-up two different theological treatises just to impress your audience. However, with regard to the point of my letter, perhaps, it may interest you to consult the teachings of the Church on the “12 Articles of the Apostles’ Creed”: – “The Profession of Faith”, Christians of the mainline churches recite at every liturgical celebration, especially on Sundays. I would appreciate it highly if you could read in particular, the second article of the Apostles’ Creed on our faith in Jesus Christ, namely:
“I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, The Only-Begotten Son of God, Born of the Father before time began, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; Begotten, not made, one in substance with the Father; And through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven ….” (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed).
From the Apostles’ Creed, Sir, you will discover immediately, that the Church Fathers who received it from the Apostles and handed it down to us through the Councils of the early centuries, were never ambiguous in their choice of words. That is, in their safeguarding the authentic doctrine on the uniqueness and unicity of the two natures of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is “truly God and truly Man.” The Early Church in the Apostles’ Creed guarded against creating dichotomy between the two natures of Jesus Christ, divine and human. Both the Apostles and the Early Church Fathers, who handed over to us the Creed, were always conscious of the uniqueness and unicity of the two natures of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Again, I will like you not to forget that your statement on the “human nature of Jesus being imperfect”, was one of the first heresies the Church had to confront with in the early centuries of Christianity. The first centuries’ heresies denied not so much Christ’s divinity as his true humanity (Gnostic Docetism) – which is similar to what your statement on the “human nature of Jesus as being imperfect”, is insinuating. From apostolic times, the Christian faith has insisted on the true incarnation of God’s Son “come in flesh” (1 John 4:2-4; 2 John 7).
In the third century, the Church in a Council at Antioch had to affirm against Paul of Samosata that Jesus Christ is Son of God by nature and not by adoption. The first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 confessed in its Creed that the Son of God is “Begotten, not made, of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.” The council condemned Arius, who had affirmed that the Son of God “came to be from things that were not” and that he was “from another substance” than that of the Father” (Council of Nicaea I (325).
Then came the Nestorian heresy, which regarded Christ as a human person joined to the divine person of God’s Son. Opposing this heresy, St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 confessed “that the Word, uniting to himself in his person the flesh animated by a rational soul, became man” (Council of Ephesus (431).
Christ’s humanity has no other subject than the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it and made it his own, from his conception. For this reason, the Council of Ephesus proclaimed in 431 that Blessed Virgin Mary truly became the Mother of God by the human conception of the Son of God in her womb. As the Council puts; “Mother of God, not that the nature of the Word or his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the holy Virgin, but that, since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word of God united to himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh” (Council of Ephesus (431: DS 251).
Sir, note that the Nestorian heresy which is also somehow similar to what you are proposing in that your statement on the supremacy of divinity of Jesus over his human nature, was the catalyst that led to the birth of another heresy, the Monophysitism in Egypt. This was a heresy in which the monks played a decisive role. In their desire for their transformation into children of God, they emphasized the divine nature of Christ to the extent of overlooking his human nature. This tendency was called Monophysitism (One Nature doctrine).
But at the next Council, that of Chalcedon (451), an extreme type of Monophysitism came under attack. Some monks held that at the Incarnation Christ’s human nature was absorbed into the divine nature. The Monophysites affirmed that the human nature had ceased to exist as such in Christ when the divine person of God’s Son assumed it. Faced with this heresy, the Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451 was convoked.
This doctrine was condemned and Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria who defended it was deposed. The Copts reacted very vehemently; they rejected the new Patriarch imposed by the Emperor and chose their own. All attempts at reconciliation failed because they would not accept the Council of Chalcedon which in their eyes had undone that of Ephesus. This meant that the Coptic Church was cut off from Constantinople as well as from Rome and denounced as Monophysite.
However, thanks be to God, since 1987, the Coptic Church in Egypt, the so-called Monophysitism, have since abandoned their extreme view. They have signed the Christological Agreement by the Orthodox Council of Churches in the Middle East, on 19 November 1987, after many years of mutual consultation. It unites again the Coptic with the Greek churches in one faith, after their separation following the Council of Chalcedon. The Copts accepted the Chalcedonian formula in a slightly different wording. In 1988 Pope St. John Paul II approved the Christological Agreement of the Middle East Council of Churches in a bid to promote ecumenical dialogue among the churches.
Note also that after the Council of Chalcedon, some made of Christ’s human nature a kind of personal subject. Against them, the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553 confessed that “there is but one hypostasis (or person), which is our Lord Jesus Christ, one of the Trinity.” Thus, everything in Christ’s human nature is to be attributed to his divine person as its proper subject, not only his miracles but also his sufferings and even his death: “He who was crucified in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, is true God, Lord of glory, and one of the Holy Trinity.” (Council of Constantinople II (553) DS 432).
All these implies that the Church since its beginning has always confessed that Jesus is inseparably “True God and True man.” He is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and Lord, became a man and our brother (cf. CCC n. 469).
My Other Worries
Sir, my other worries for which I decided to write you this letter is that going by antecedents of Nigeria’s recent political history, this is not the first time nor the second, you have made such unguarded comments about Christianity in your political rhetoric and maneuvering. You may remember in 1999, as a civilian President, in your first term, when you made the statement, “Even Jesus Christ if he comes down today will not be able to govern Nigeria?”
You made this statement at the time Nigerian Christians were very apprehensive, that you, as a Christian President could not halt the mad-rush of governments of the 12 Northern States, which were then adopting Islamic Sharia legal system in their states as against the Common Law enshrined in the nation’s Constitution. You will agree with me that your action and inaction at that critical moment of our nation’s history, was the beginning of the sowing of seed of new wave of religious extremism and Islamic terrorism that have today descended on the country in a way never witnessed before. Does it disturb you that the two terrorists groups, Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen militants and bandits have their base in the Sharia States of Northern Nigeria?
Sir, could it be that you were able to uphold the secular nature of the Nigerian state at that time, reaffirm the sacrosanct of legal system of Common Law for the entire country, perhaps, things could not have gotten as bad as we have it now. That is, a near total collapse of our legal system and respect for rule of law and order. Added to this is the present descent to anarchy and totalitarian government in what is supposed to be a democracy in Nigeria.
Till today most of us have not been able to come to terms as to why you, a Christian President of Nigeria in 1999, was not able to stand firm and uphold the secular nature of the Nigerian state when it was threatened by some radical religious bigots and ethnic irredentists. Your only reason for allowing such ineptitude response to a national challenge, as deduced from your statement, is that, “even if Jesus Christ comes down from heaven today, he will not be able to rule Nigeria.”
However, Sir, permit me to tell you in passing that I do not share your view. This is because, if Jesus Christ is here to lead us physically, in Nigeria today, he will provide an alternative society and leadership, not like the types your kind and the present-day corrupt Nigerian leaders have been using in lording it over the poor masses. Jesus could have laid a new foundation for a new Nigeria. Jesus does not operate in a corrupt, selfish and wicked environment, which those who have been ruling the country, especially, since the Nigeria–Biafra War have created for their personal interests and lust for power.
Have you forgotten Sir, what Jesus did when he came in human flesh on earth to inaugurate a New Kingdom of His Father, a Kingdom of peace, love, mercy, righteousness, freedom, justice and equity! In fact, it suffices to read the Gospel story of the feeding of the crowd in the Desert with five loaves of bread and two fish, how Jesus refused his apostles’ request to send the crowd away back to the corrupt society they were running away from to follow Jesus. Did you notice how Jesus turned a Desert into a living environment, with abundant bread and fish to take care of the crowd? (John 6: 1-15).
This is how Jesus operates, and that is what he would do in Nigeria if allowed by wicked people to rule our lives today. If Jesus is here today to lead us physically in Nigeria, I can assure you, he will create a new society that is people-oriented, built from bottom-top and not top-bottom as we have it today in the country.
Jesus does not operate on a corrupt system, which is what the ruling class of Nigeria are using to manipulate and oppress the masses. Jesus does not operate on a system that is built on lopsided leadership, religious bigotry, ethnic-hate, Fulani herdsmen and Boko Haram terrorism and ethnic-cleansings of indigenous populations. These are some of the maladies inflicted on Nigeria by the present ruling class. Your Excellency, together with the rest of your colleagues, I wish to invite you and with respect, to kindly do some soul-searching concerning what we are passing through in Nigeria today, which, without missing words, is what happens in a failed nation-state.
Finally, Your Excellency, Sir, I am sure you remember your famous phrase, “CAN my foot!” That is when you used such a derogatory and disrespectful words in addressing the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). It was your response to the Chairman of CAN of Plateau State, who challenged you for ordering “Emergency rule” in the “Christian State” of Plateau while you could not do so in the Sharia State of Borno, where the terrorist activities of Boko Haram was beginning to threaten the peace of the whole nation as at that time.
Sir, I may be wrong. But permit me to say that one discovers immediately your parchment for quick verbal assault and unguarded comments on those things Christians revere and hold dear. Could it be that you had spoken of Prophet Mohammed (or any Islamic Organization) in this derogatory way you spoke of Jesus Christ’s human nature “as imperfect” (or called CAN “my foot”), I can assure you everywhere will be in flames in the whole country and Muslim world by now.
In conclusion, Sir, these are some of the urgent matters, I have decided to bring to your notice, to let you know how I feel and also how many Christians felt really disappointed by your wrongly characterization of Jesus’ two natures, divine and human. It is my candid wish that you find time in no distance future to correct these errors in public, and if possible, issue an apology to Christians for the way you have portrayed wrongly the true nature of Jesus Christ, who is “True God and True Man.”
Thanking you sincerely for your precious attention,
I remain, Yours Respectfully,
Francis Anekwe Oborji