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Was Jesus God?

By The Rev. Dr. Cn. Christopher Brown

Every Christmas we hear calls to reject the commercialism of the season and focus on the genuine meaning of the holiday. But that “meaning” is more than just a generic expression of peace and good will. The meaning of Christmas is this: God has become human; “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14a) At a particular point in time and space, God became one of us…and changed everything.

A priest I know was once approached by a woman in his congregation who said, “I finally get it! I never realized that Jesus is God!”

My initial reaction to this was: “Why was that news to her?” But I should not have been surprised. It is all too common for Jesus to be portrayed as a great teacher, advocate for the oppressed, or example of human compassion, without reference to his divinity.

Jesus’ Divinity Denied

Increasingly it is said that Jesus himself never claimed to be divine, nor thought of himself as such, and neither did his earliest disciples. Rather, it is claimed, the traditional belief in Jesus’ divinity is a theological fiction that was concocted by the Church as Christianity lost its connection with its Jewish roots and was assimilated into Greek and Roman culture.

This view is typical of Unitarianism and Islam, and was popularized by Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code. But one also hears the claim that Jesus was not divine, nor did he speak of himself as such, within academic departments of Biblical Studies, and even seminary faculties.

These are the much publicized conclusions of a highly visible group of New Testament scholars known as the “Jesus Seminar,” that includes such well-known figures as John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg. (Marcus Borg, an Episcopalian, makes a distinction between the “pre-resurrection” Jesus who is simply human, and the “post-resurrection” Jesus who is the object of faith, and is a somewhat symbolic figure whose connection to the historical Jesus of Nazareth is not entirely clear to me.)

On the Reliability of the Text

To respond to the claim that Jesus was not, and did not claim to be divine, it is not enough simply to counter with the response, “but the Bible says….” The point of departure for the Jesus Seminar, and others with similar views is the insistence that the Bible cannot be taken at face value. They assume that if one wants to get at the real truth behind the text it is necessary to read between the lines.

These writers resort to a rhetorical sleight of hand by fostering the impression that contemporary scholarship speaks with a single voice and that only those who cling to a narrow biblical fundamentalism dispute their scholarly conclusions. This is a false dichotomy that obscures the broad range of opinion in the world of New Testament studies, and in fact numerous scholars trained in the “historical critical” method of interpretation regard the New Testament witness to Jesus’ teaching, death and resurrection as fundamentally reliable.

Three Questions

Was Jesus God? Did Jesus claim to be divine? Did the earliest Christians believe him to be divine? These are separate questions.

There are some who affirm the statement of the Creed that the Son is “one being with the Father,” while denying that Jesus said this of himself, or even that the earliest Christians would have thought in these terms. It is a common notion in mainline seminaries that the Church starts with a “low Christology” and only arrives at a “high Christology,” or the full recognition of Jesus’ divinity, after decades if not centuries of pious reflection. We might call this a “soft” orthodoxy, since, in the end, it asserts the Creeds are correct, that Jesus really was divine. Yet it concedes too much to the skeptics and fails to read the Scripture carefully, nor is it attentive to earliest post biblical literature, such as the writings of early first century Christians called the “Apostolic Fathers.”

By contrast, a robust orthodoxy can take a careful look at the sources, and respond to each of these questions in the affirmative:

Did the earliest Christians believe Jesus to be divine?

For Paul, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossian 1:15). John identifies him as “the Word that was in the beginning with God and was God” (John 1:1).

There are some counter examples; a Jewish-Christian sect called the Ebionites insisted that Jesus was merely human– and as a result became increasingly isolated in the world of early Christianity.

More typical of the post-apostolic Church are the views of Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote a series of letters while on journey to Rome to face execution in 107 A.D. Ignatius refers to Jesus as “God” sixteen times in seven letters. He speaks of himself as “chosen through true suffering by the will of the Father in Jesus Christ our God”; he speaks of the blood of Christ as “God’s blood”; he calls Jesus “God incarnate” and declares that in Jesus, “God was revealing himself as a man”; “For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan.”

Another remarkable text from the early second century, the Epistle to Diognetus, says of God the Father, “he sent the Designer and Maker of the universe himself, by whom he created the heavens,” and “He sent him as God; he sent him as man to men.”

In 150 A.D., Justin Martyr wrote, “Christians adore and worship the Son as well as the Father,” and asserted “Christ, the Word incarnate, is divine.”

Irenaeus of Lyons was arguably the first Christian theologian. In his book, “Against Heresies” (185 A.D.), he says of Jesus, “He received testimony from all that He was very man, and that He was very God.”

These quotes are typical of a wide consensus in the early church.

Did Jesus Think of Himself as Divine?

The Gospels repeatedly indicate that Jesus understood himself as divine. This witness is so pervasive that it is hardly likely to have been fabricated by the New Testament writers.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus clearly asserts his unity of being with the Father: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

John 5:18 indicates that that Jesus’ opponents sought to kill him because he specifically “called God his Father, making himself equal with God.”

Admittedly, much of the scholarship regards John as historically unreliable; more the fruit of the Church’s later reflection than the actual words of Jesus. Fair enough; without conceding the point, we can set John aside for the moment, and look at the three “synoptic” Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Jesus is somewhat cagey about his identity in the synoptic Gospels. New Testament scholars refer to the “Messianic Secret,” in which Jesus silences the demons who identify him; he plays down his messianic identity because his audience is expecting a conquering warrior king like David, rather than a suffering Messiah who will “give his life as a ransom for many.”

Nevertheless, many of Jesus’ words and actions indicate an awareness of his self identification with the God of Israel. He claims a divine status when he tells the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven you.” The scribes are scandalized, and they complain, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7b). But, of course, that is precisely the point!

Most important, is Jesus’ audacious and persistent identification of God as his “Father”:

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).

Jesus claims for himself the divine action of revelation, “no one knows the Son, except the Father, and no one knows the Father, except but the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27).

The Real Message of Christmas

Christmas celebrates the Incarnation – not a metaphor, but an event in time and space when God became human. (“Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…being born in the likeness of men,” Philippians 2:6-7.) For Christians to minimize this truth with a thousand qualifications is simply a loss of theological nerve in the face of the secular hegemony of modern culture.

Athanasius, the great defender of Christ’s divinity in the fourth century, said, “God became human, that human beings might be made divine.” He meant not that we actually become gods, but rather that when Jesus becomes human, he transforms our humanity in the process. As a result, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), fellow heirs with Christ, and sons and daughters of God by adoption (Galatians 4:5). His point was that if God had not become human like us, we would have been left to our devices, mired forever in sin and despair. But rejoice, for to us a child is born; come let us adore him!

The Rev. Dr. Cn. C. Brown is rector of Christ Church, Potsdam and a regular contributor to The Albany Episcopalian

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