The Deity of Christ
In what follows I ll attempt to answer two questions. The first is, why doesn t the Bible just come out and say Jesus is God ? The second is to ask, in the absence of such an affirmation, whether we can mount a credible argument for the deity of Jesus.
It is frequently asserted that the Bible doesn t say—in so many words—that Jesus is God. For some it then follows that the Bible doesn t affirm that Jesus is God. So why doesn t it just state, with a single argument-settling sentence, Jesus is God ? At a glance that sentence seems straightforward enough to be coherent and not particularly dangerous. But once we acknowledge what people throughout history have done with the words of the Bible, we might begin to see some of the challenges of the statement Jesus is God .
Consider the sentence Tony Abbott is the prime minister . That could also be expressed as The prime minister is Tony Abbott . They are interchangeable because Tony Abbott is a singularity which is completely and totally represented by the words Tony Abbott . Furthermore, prime minister is a singularity, a category that is—at present and in Australia—fulfilled by Tony Abbott. So because of the grammatical simplicity of both Tony Abbott and prime minister they are interchangeable in these sentences.
The sentence A book is paper is true because the thing being talked about ( a book ) consists of paper. But it is not true to say paper is a book . We instinctively know that some things represent simple and undifferentiated categories while other things are more complex. I can have paper that is no way associated with books. In that sense book and paper are not convertible, and the verb is just became more complicated. That is to say, in the sentence about the prime minister, is functions like an equals sign, while in the second, it cannot function this way because paper does not equal a book.
This distinction needs to be applied to the person of Jesus. While it is mostly proper to say that Jesus is God, it is problematic to say that God is Jesus. We know that God does not equal Jesus since the former consists of three persons. To say that God is Jesus fails to account for the Father and the Holy Spirit.
This language problem was faced by the writers of the New Testament. How could they, in a strictly and even dangerously monotheistic environment, speak of the deity of Christ without conflating him with the other members of the Trinity?
Some writers go to great lengths to define the relationship between Jesus and the Father. For example, John 5 shows Jesus affirming his deity: he is the source of life and he will in the end be the judge of life, two activities which get to the very essence of what the eternal God does. But this chapter is also careful to insist that Jesus is not a separate deity; he acts in obedient submission to his Father, who has granted to him the prerogatives of life and judgment. Thus when Jesus was confronted with the charge of making himself out to be God, he replied by saying yes, but not as a separate and second deity. He is united with the Father in his person and actions.
So like Jesus himself, the NT writers had good reason to be cautious, and in their caution they avoided the simplistic formula Jesus is God , even as they endorsed his deity. Because this assumes an answer to our second question, the best course of action would be to turn to the NT to ask what it says in support of the deity of Jesus Christ. But since we have only a few paragraphs left, and the NT has rather a lot to say about Jesus, it might be most efficient to consider four scholars who have attempted to work through the issues and concluded in favour of Jesus deity.
In recent years, Christology has become a hot topic in academic circles, not least because of the contribution of evangelicals in the UK. This isn t intended to be a review of books, or even an invitation to read them—some of the material is quite technical. It is offered as an affirmation of the firm basis upon which rests our shared faith in Jesus, the Son of God and savior of the world.
Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor at University of Edinburgh, has tried to approach the question from a historical rather than doctrinal angle, entertaining the hope that historical discussion can generate dialogue where doctrine sometimes cuts it off. In this he has succeeded: a subsequent volume represents lectures that he delivered at Ben-Guryon University in Israel. His position is that some things are historically verifiable, including what he refers to as early Christian devotional practices . His argument is, first, that despite all its diversity, the strands of first century Judaism from which earliest Christianity emerged were monotheistic. Second, it is historically indisputable that these early Christians worshipped Jesus, prayed to him, and sang songs to him. Such devotional activities are found throughout the New Testament, and are also mentioned in several significant non-biblical sources from Jewish and Roman authors. In addition to being dispersed across geographical and cultural lines, they are also remarkably early. Hurtado observes that already by the Pauline epistles, some written barely more than a decade after the resurrection, Paul can simply assume without defense or explanation that Jesus ought to be worshipped. Indeed Hurtado suggests that this activity was current within months of the passion of Christ, and was probably the reason Paul persecuted the church before his conversion.
In the end, Hurtado’s historical argument cannot prove Jesus deity, but it provides firm evidence that the earliest church, arising from those who knew him, affirmed it.
Richard Bauckham, former Professor of New Testament at St Andrews University in Scotland and now Scholar in Residence at Cambridge University, continues to work on the New Testament’s view of Jesus. His main argument overlaps at points with Hurtado’s, but ultimately moves in a different direction. He observes that an ancient Jew doesn t ask the question, What is God? This is a later more philosophical question that doesn t receive much attention in the Scriptures. The biblical question is instead about identity, Who is God? The answer comes back, God is the one who created the world, exercises sovereign rule, will judge humanity in the end, etc. All cultures had their own god or gods. The Bible claims that there is only one, that his name is YHWH (often rendered as the Lord ), and that he is present and active on behalf of his people.
So how can we accept that Jesus is God? Bauckham demonstrates that the NT answers the question of divine identity with the person of Jesus. It is Jesus who creates, who rules, who redeems, who will judge in the end. It is he who bears the name the Lord . And it is he who receives the worship of the people of God. If the question is asked, who is God, the answer of the New Testament is that Jesus participates in the divine identity.
Simon Gathercole teaches New Testament at Cambridge University. In The Pre-Existent Son he discusses the view of Jesus presented by Matthew, Mark and Luke. While he offers a number of useful insights into, for example, the titles used of Jesus, his greater contribution is an exploration of the I have come statements found in the gospels. He argues that I have come coupled with an expression of purpose (such as …to seek and to save the lost ) provides a window into the overall agenda of Jesus first advent. The real value of this line of thought is that I have come plus purpose implies a coming from somewhere. Some reduce this to the notion that Jesus has come from Nazareth. But this overlooks the cosmic scope of his statements—e.g. I have come to cast fire onto the earth (Luke 12.49); Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword . Gathercole argues that this coming from somewhere is a coming not merely from Nazareth but from heaven itself, and is thus an expression of his heavenly identity. And this, in short, suggests both pre-existence and deity.
The most recent of our scholars is Christopher Tilling, who in 2012 published his PhD thesis under the title Paul’s Divine Christology. This volume, like Gathercole’s, focuses on only part of the NT, in this case the writings of Paul. Like Bauckham, Tilling argues that the Bible generates categories which are then filled by the person of Jesus. The unique contribution of Tilling, however, is to develop Paul’s talk of Jesus as a relational category. That is to say, one can explore how the Old Testament speaks of Israel’s relationship with God and then find similar statements in the New Testament concerning Jesus. For example, one can discuss all of life as regulated by the relational words, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind . When Paul speaks of his own apostolic motivations he casts it in the same terms of love and loyalty to the Lord. This Lord in context repeatedly turns out to be Jesus.
Tilling’s discussion of 1 Cor 16.22 can serve as a useful illustration. Most Christological discussions of this verse tease out the meaning of the Aramaic maranatha. Tilling, however, gets greater mileage out of exploring the context, which allows him to develop what it means to address Jesus as Lord and as the object of the mini-prayer, to invoke his name this way in Corinth (given that Jesus lived and died in Palestine), to invite believers to communicate with the risen Lord Jesus, to speak of his coming, etc. Paul has assigned language and concepts from one who as God of the OT is expected to arrive , and who will act as judge and vindicator of his people on the day of the Lord (which in 1 Cor 1.8 has become the day of our Lord Jesus Christ !), to the person of Jesus, who is to be loved—so that a lack a love for him is grounds for anathema . That is, the OT says to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind, and Paul pronounces a curse on those who don t love the Lord, now seen to be Jesus. And this he says as Paul appeals to him to come: maranatha. This Lord, this Jesus, is for Paul to be loved. And he is the one who determines eternity based on ones response to him. Jesus is none other than the Lord whose return Paul eagerly awaits.
From here the conclusion is simple: Jesus is more than an exalted human being. The Christian relates to him as one capable of hearing prayers from around the globe, as judge whose coming is the day of the Lord , as the one who holds eternal destinies in his hand, and as one concerning whom words like love have fundamental significance. Who can this be other than the God disclosed in Scripture?
These four scholars can contribute to our understanding of Jesus as divine. They offer insightful arguments that overlap at various points—inevitably perhaps since they are exploring much of the same biblical material, and reading with similar emphases. But they aren t presented here as four links in a chain. Instead, they are four braids in a strong cable, and can help us affirm the gospel we proclaim. So even though the New Testament doesn t use the words Jesus is God , we can be confident that it asserts his deity throughout. This matters not because we are saved by assent to the notion, but because we are saved by Jesus the divine Son.
*The four books discussed above are as follows:
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
Gathercole, Simon J. The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
Tilling, Chris. Paul’s Divine Christology. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012.
Philip Kern lectures in New Testament.