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The Necessity of Jesus' Divinity

Thomas Whitley

I heard a sermon today on John 1, yes John 1. On this, the Sunday before Christmas, someone thought that John 1 was a good place to settle. I see the logic in settling on this text from this person’s point of view, as his focus was the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. However, there were some major flaws in his sermon that need to be highlighted. Let me state before going any further that I fully recognize my bias. I have a particularly low Christology, one that is at odds with much of the first chapter of John. My problem with this sermon, though, was not that this preacher and I have different christologies. No, my problems lie in other statements he made.

He sees the paradoxical statement that Jesus was fully human and fully divine (100% human + 100% divine = 100% Jesus?) as essential to anything that can remotely be called Christianity. Three statements, in particular, stood out to me as rather egregious.

How could total God become human flesh? Don’t try to explain it. Just accept it.

This is a debate that Christianity has been having for millennia and one that it should keep having. I am all for a lively debate on this subject. What I cannot condone is telling people to simply accept some statement that I, or someone else, made. If I am willing to “just accept” a statement you say, then how do you or I know that I won’t “just accept” a statement that someone else makes? I much prefer the approach of allowing people to think for themselves and to ask tough questions, not to “just accept” something I tell them.

One of Christianity’s main weaknesses, in my opinion, is its inability and lack of desire to teach true critical thinking skills. I am becoming more convinced that much of religion is simply a power struggle and those in power do not want the laity questioning anything because it will detract from their power. Thus, faith becomes merely a string of statements by our pastors and Sunday School teachers that we “just accept” because we are taught that questioning is wrong. Church leaders somewhere got the idea that it was their right to tell us what to believe instead of walking alongside us in this journey of faith. The church, I am sad to say, has largely let them do it.

I, however, do not “just accept” anything that anyone says. No one and no thing in my life has that privilege; not my wife, not my parents, not any news source, not any professor, not any history book, not even the Bible, so I am certainly not going to “just accept” something that a preacher says.

Nothing less than [‘God became flesh’] is historical Christianity.

I almost fell out of my chair when I heard this statement, being a historian of early Christianity. This statement is completely and utterly 100% false. “Historical Christianity” is extremely diverse, with groups holding widely divergent viewpoints. While Jesus lived no one, as far as I can tell, thought anything of Jesus other than that he was a regular human being. No one thought he was divine. He may have been viewed as special, a great leader, etc., but no one talked about the “divinity of Jesus.” It is only after his death (the debate ranges widely as to when these views started to emerge) that people began to consider that Jesus may have been divine. The Resurrection Narrative no doubt helped fuel this conversation. To say that “Nothing less than [‘God became flesh’] is historical Christianity” is simply a farce.

To offer a few examples of differing views in the early Christianities. The docetics believed that Jesus only “appeared” to be human, but that he was actually fully divine with no trace of humanity in him. Many gnostics believed that everything spiritual was good while everything physical was bad, thus many gnostics were also docetics. Adoptionists believed that Jesus was fully human and was only “adopted” by God as his “son” at his baptism and that God later left Jesus at his death on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), because nothing divine could experience pain of any kind, let alone sin-bearing pain. If anything, “historical Christianity” is much more divergent that most Christians have ever imagined and most Christians make the naïve mistake of thinking that what they believe is what has always been believed. This is promulgated in large part by pastors who make erroneous statements such as this one.

Further, the heart of this statement was that no one who says that maybe God did not become flesh through Jesus can call themselves “Christian.” I obviously disagree with this historically, as there were countless early “Christian” groups that held a myriad of beliefs on the humanity and/or divinity of Jesus and they should all be considered “Christian.” Moreover, I disagree with this statement in a contemporary setting. Certainly, no other person should be able to tell me how I may or may not label myself and just because my specific beliefs may not match up lock-step with your beliefs does not give me the right to say you are not a Christian nor does it give you the right to say that I am not a Christian. We can vehemently disagree, but at no point should the claim be leveled that one or the other is not “Christian,” because we all define this term with reference to ourselves. On the other hand, Jesus was not a “Christian,” so I would not be particularly put out not to be called one myself.

It is pure blasphemy to make Jesus less than deity.

All three of the statements are connected and this one should be seen in light of real “historical Christianity” and not some version of revisionist history that so many pastors like to espouse. If there is anything blasphemous about a statement that does not espouse Jesus as deity, then it is simply that someone’s personal beliefs or views have been offended. In the ancient world a statement that one was a deity was considered by many to be blasphemous and now a preacher tells me that saying Jesus was not divine is blasphemy. To uphold this statement I would have to believe that we who live approximately 2,000 years after the time of the New Testament are somehow more qualified to make statements about Jesus than those who actually knew Jesus. I simply do not believe that to be true. On top of that, it strikes me as a particularly arrogant position and reminds me of a person that I used to be that I hope never to become again.

The difference between me and pastors who would make statements like these is not simply that we have different christologies, but that we fundamentally disagree on how one can get at Truth. This preacher believes he has already attained all that can be known about some Absolute Truth and does not, cannot, entertain the thought that he may be wrong about some part of it, or all of it. I believe that even if there is such a thing as Absolute Truth, the possibility of me finding it completely in this lifetime, let alone by the age of 25, is utterly remote and thus I always maintain that I may be wrong about any or everything that I believe. To be sure, I have very strong and compelling reasons for believing everything I believe and for not believing that which I don’t believe, but I am not fettered to this particular set of beliefs forever and thank God for that. I used to think I had found Absolute Truth and that all who disagreed with me were destined for Hell. I knew the Truth. I had the answers. Everyone else was wrong. And I was only 16.

We can and will often likely disagree on various points of theology, chistology, ecclesiology, etc. but just as I work not to make statements that have no historical or factual basis, I hope you will do the same.

As to the title of this post, where do you stand on the humanity/divinity of Jesus? Does your position affect your faith? Why or why not?