Fundamentals #2: Deity of Christ

pantokratorI’m continuing a series on the fundamental truths of Christianity, as outlined 2 generations ago. The so-called “fundamentalist/modernist controversey” pitted conservative theologians against liberal theologians in the early 1900’s.  Marsden’s book, Reforming Fundamentalism, gives an excellent history.

Today’s fundamental is one of those truths that highlights the nature of theological development.  Theology is clarified and articulated in times of CONTROVERSY. When there’s doctrinal slippage — as in the outright denial of the deity of Christ — the church rightly reemphasizes historic truth.

Most conservative theologians hold fast to the deity of Christ; it’s the true humanity of Christ that needs emphasis today, but that’s for another post.

Here are some of the notes I use when I teach college/seminary classes on theology… Be nice… this is more of a fat outline than a well-written article, and it’s more academic than populist…

The Deity of Christ

The deity of Christ “may be called a prime article of revealed theology; effecting not only the subsistence of the Godhead, but the question of whether Christ is to be trusted, obeyed, and worshipped as God, the nature and efficacy of His atoning offices, the constitution of the Church, and all its rites.  He who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ is a Christian; he who does not (whatever his profession) is a mere Deist.” (Dabney)

We call ourselves Christians.  What do we believe about Christ, or more importantly, what do the Scriptures reveal about Christ?

I.  The Scriptural Texts Testifying to His Deity.

A. Isa 7:14, cited in Mt 1:21-23.

79-Holy Spirit ComingJesus is Immanuel – God with us.  Isaiah chapters 7-12 are often designated the Book of Immanuel and constitute a growing revelation of the person so named.  So, in 7:14 Immanuel is to be born of a virgin.  In 9:6 this same person is specifically named as God. NOTE: the phrase translated “Everlasting Father” is better translated “Father of Eternity” (S.L. Johnson).  In ch. 11, Immanuel is seen as ruler of earth.  This is one and the same individual, later named Jesus in the first gospel.

B. John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word..
en  archee    `een  ho logos
and the Word was with God….
kai ho logos `een pros ton theon
and the Word was God.
kai theos `een ho logos.

This verse sets forth John’s clear teaching that Jesus is God.    The opening phrase, an allusion to Gen 1:1, takes us beyond the beginning of creation.  The word “was”  is durative – it expresses an ongoing period.  The word “in”  is temporal – it expresses a “time when”,-here in language of accommodation.  There is no way for a human to describe the dateless past other than to simply say “In the Beginning…”

Logos is a Jewish-Platonic-Stoic term very familiar in intellectual circles in John’s day.  It had become a technical term just as “Messiah”.  “Neither term is a complete presentation of the Person of Christ, but both are useful.  It is however, very difficult to translate Logos into English because of the double idea in it of Reason and Expression.”  (A.T. Robertson)  John uses the term to indicate the eternal relation of the Logos to God and to outline broad features of the Incarnation.

The Logos “was with God.”  There are two important conclusions from this assertion: 1) that there is a distinction of some sort between God and Logos; and, 2) that there is an intimate, ongoing (the durative verb “was” again) relationship between God and Logos.  Thus, the two are distinct yet possess a certain relationship.  The next phrase states this relationship.

“And the Word was God.”  The literal word order in Greek is correctly rendered in this translation.  Greek word order differs from English word order.  Here is the rule: “In copulative sentences [sentences with the verb “is”], if expressions are convertible, then the article [the word “the”] distinguishes the subject from the predicate, though there are exceptions.”  (Moulton,Howard, and Turner, v.3, pp 182,3).    Therefore, in the Greek word order, the subject of this sentence comes after the verb, but we know that it is the subject because of the article.  So, while Gk word order says “god was the word” the  correct English order is “the Word was God.”

Note John’s use of the imperfect tense of the verb “to be”.  If John had simply stated that the Word “IS” God, using the present tense, he would have set up a confusing equation (God=Word).  But by using the imperfect (ongoing past) tense John avoids a complete equation, which is consistent with the distinction of persons implied by verse one.  Therefore, he says that the Logos is God, but not that all of God is the Logos.  The equation does not work both ways.  To say that Bill is human is not to say that all humans are Bill.  The only conclusion from this verse is that the Logos is eternal God yet distinct from the Father.

The Jehovah’s witnesses display a profound lack of integrity in their exegesis of this verse.  They claim that the Word was “a god”, overly pressing the fact that there is no article with “theos”.    First, this view mis-states the use of the article in copulative sentences.  Second, granting the blatantly false translation that the Word is “a god”, we wonder what this means?  It is inconceivable that there be a plurality of divine essences.  Are there many equal gods?  Or is Jesus the only one who fits in this category?  Or is Jesus an inferior God (which is non-sensical)? John had the option of a perfectly good word for “godlike” – instead of saying “theos”  he could have said “theois.”  Third, how are we to explain the role of the Logos in creation (v. 14), especially in light of the 1st chapter of Genesis?  Finally, how can we deal with the rest of John’s claims regarding the essential deity of this person?  The JW’s distort Scripture to suit their purposes.

C. John 10:30.   “I and the Father are one.”

jesuscrossJesus had three options for the word “one” – he could have used the masculine, feminine, or neuter genders.  The word used here (“hen) is neuter gender, and could be translated “one thing.”  Notice the precision of Scripture.  Jesus’ choice of words bears on the oneness/unity of essence.  If he had used the masc/fem genders this would imply “one Person”.  Thus this is not an assertion of identity, but of unity.

The Jews regarded this statement as blasphemous.   This is only understandable is we concede the claim to deity.

Augustine comments on this verse,
“Hear both the “one” and the “are”:  in that he said “one” he delivers us from Arius.  In that he said “are”  he delivers from Sabellius.  If “one” not diverse.  If “are” both Father and Son.”

[Arius and Sabellius are early figures in the Christological controversey.  Arius made Jesus less than God.  Sabellius taught a successive trinity, not simultaneous existence.]

D. Philippians 2:6

There could not be a stronger statement of Christ’s deity.  Jesus is said to have “existed previously” in the “form of God.”  Jesus pre-existed his own birth. He is unique.  Who was he?  To exist in the form of God is to possess all the essential attributes of deity.

Ancient thought divided fashion (scheema) and form (morphee).  “St. Paul speaks of the Eternal Word before his Incarnation as subsisting in the form of God, as assuming at his Incarnation the form of a servant, and after his Incarnation and during his walk upon earth as being found in fashion as a man…  Doubtless there does lie in the words a proof of the divinity of Christ, but this implicitly and not explicitly….  Only God could have the mode of existence [morphee] of God…”  (Trench).

Form refers to that body of inner qualities that make a thing what it is.  Fashion refers to the outward appearance of a thing as it reveals the inner qualities.  Jesus Christ possesses all the characterizing things that make God God.  Thus, being in the form of God is equivalent to being in nature God. (see NIV)

The word “equal” is important.  Paul asserts that Jesus did not hang on to his state of equality.  The word “isa” is neuter plural (“equal things”), suggestive that he has the attributes of God, but he emptied himself voluntarily of the use of divine attributes and assumed humanity into his existence.  Notice, he emptied himself, not of his attributes, but of their use.  He did not cease to be God, as this would be impossible.

E. Titus 2:13  (cf. 2 Pet 1:1) “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Various translations have obscured the precise meaning of this verse.  Admittedly, the variety of opinion is understandable.  The Greek sentence is:

tou megalou Theou kai soteros hemon Iesou Christou.
the   great         God   and   Saviour   our        Jesus Christ.

There is a rule in Greek that “two singular nouns joined by the word kai [and] a single article join the two substances as one.”  This is called Sharp’s rule.  There is question, however, if this applies to Persons.  For example, Rev 1:9 (I, John, your brother and companion…), Phil 1: 7 (in the defending and confirming of the gospel…).  The single article points to both nouns, lumping them together as one.  Thus, in this passage Paul asserts that Jesus is both God and our Saviour.    Peter asserts the same in 2 Pet 1:1 (the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ…)  It is clear from these passages that the NT authors had no difficult in calling Jesus God (theos). (cf. Ep 5:5)

F. Hebrews 1:8 (a citation from Ps 45)

The Father addresses the Son, calling him God.  In v. 6 God is seen to be the speaker.  He continues as speaker into the eighth verse were he is addressing the Son.  “Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever.”  Thus, God addresses his  Son as God.

G. Romans 9:5

Any problems a person may have the deity of Christ are clearly rationalizations from a priori premises, not Scriptural.  The revelation of the Word of God clearly asserts the undiminished deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The authors of Scripture have no problem connecting him with the word God.  In this text Paul explicitly names Jesus Christ as God of all.

II.  Scriptural Objections to the Deity of Christ.

A. Mark 10:18 (“So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” Mark 10:18, NKJV.)

1. Arius.

According to the witness of Arius, Jesus here repudiates the adjective “good.”  This interpretation asserts that Jesus is denying his own divinity by denying his essential goodness.

2. Ambrose, Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine.

According to these fathers, Jesus’ question is an incitement to inquiry.  He wants the ruler to come to right ideas of his person and life.  Goodness belongs only to God.  Is this what the man really wants to say about Jesus?   Jesus is not repudiating essential goodness.  He is rather dealing with the man’s heart.

B.  Mark 13:32 ““But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Mark 13:32, NKJV.)

How are we to reconcile the omniscience of the Second Person of the Trinity with the ignorance of Jesus Christ?  The answer lies in the emptying of Christ spoken of in Phil 2:9, ff (where emptying=kenosis).   The limitations of Jesus are voluntary.  And since it is impossible for finite beings to comprehend the finite, self-limitation is an essential element of divine manifestation (S.L. Johnson).

C. John 14:28  “The Father is greater than I”

Did the church overstate the case when it formulated the ascription of “co-equal” and “coeternal”?  cf. Jn 5:30.

1. For a created being, this statement would be superfluous and arrogant.

2. The superiority of the Father to the Son is spoken in a particular context.  It is the Son of Man in humiliation who proceeds to the Father to glorify him.

3. Compare the prayer if Jn 17:1-5.  Christ asks to receive back that of which he emptied himself.  He speaks of his office, not his essence.  God is not greater – the Father is greater.

It is possible for absolute (essential) equality to coexist with relative (economic) inequality.

3. The Early Church affirmed what Scripture always taught: that Jesus is God, equal with the Father and the Spirit

  • 74 AD The Letter of Barnabas “And further, my brethren, if the Lord [Jesus] endured to suffer for our soul, he being the Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, ‘Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness,’ understand how it was that he endured to suffer at the hand of men” (Letter of Barnabas 5).
  • jesuswalkingonwatercartdotcom140 AD Aristides “[Christians] are they who, above every people of the Earth, have found the truth, for they acknowledge God, the creator and maker of all things, in the only-begotten Son and in the Holy Spirit” (Apology 16).
  • 150 AD Justin Martyr “The Father of the universe has a Son, who also being  the first begotten Word of God, is even God.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch 63
  • 150 AD Justin Martyr “Christ is called both God and Lord of hosts.” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch, 36)
  • 170 AD Tatian the Syrian “We are not playing the fool, you Greeks, nor do we talk nonsense, when we report that God was born in the form of a man” (Address to the Greeks 21).
  • Click here for MORE.

4. The Council of Chalcedon. In AD 451, the leaders of the church gathered to answer a growing trend of those who in some way limited, altered, or denied the deity of Christ. The resulting creed summarized what the Bible always taught, what Christians always knew, and what true followers of  Jesus have always affirmed:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

“Jesus is God spelling himself out in language men can understand.” (S.D. Gordon)

“The most pressing question on the problem of faith is whether a man as a civilized being can believe in the divinity of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, for therein rests the whole of our faith.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

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3 thoughts on “Fundamentals #2: Deity of Christ

  1. Bill…

    In my mind, the most inscrutable part of the person of Jesus is this: That the Father provided to Him (The Son) the inheritance of the church. In other words, each and every person “born into” the Body of Christ is the gift of the Father to the Son. Each and every one of us is a gift to the Son. When I contemplate that truth, I am stunned, and my priorities always start to refocus on this “high calling” (2 Tim 1:9). If I am aware of this, how can I allow any day to pass without reading & contemplating Scripture? It was all possible because this Second Person was made flesh… i.e., the “mystery” to me is not how God became man, so much as how I ever became a member of the Body of Christ (as a gift from the Father to the Son) as a result.

    Grace,
    Joseph

  2. WOW, thankyou so much for this article. I feel like I’m getting a fantastic seminary education from just reading your blog. I hope to get the time to print it out and really go over it. Again, thankyou for taking the time to share these eternal truths with us.

  3. “He who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ is a Christian; he who does not (whatever his profession) is a mere Deist.” (Dabney)

    This is so important because I’ve met both Mormons and JW’s who will flat out say “I believe Jesus died for my sins and paid the price so I can be forgiven and go to heaven,” but what they may not say is that they don’t believe Jesus was God. They’re sneaky. Thanks for this Bill.

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