“Do you believe in the leadership of Mike?”
“Yes?” I muttered unconvincingly. But I didn’t know what I believed. I was new in town, and had never lived in a place with such rabid, overactive basketball fans. The season hadn’t started yet, so I’d never seen the team play. But the fans were already working themselves up into a frenzy.
Our team was the Wisconsin Way. I knew that much. And I knew that the team captain, the lead player, was named “Michael.” I also knew that the team had a star player, an overwhelming talent, whose name was “Mike.” If this wasn’t confusing enough, sometimes when a fan got excited, he or she would yell something about “Mikey.” I couldn’t fathom who they meant! Was this yet a third player? Or was it Michael, or Mike, or both? And if it was both, still, were they one player or two?
I wanted to fit in with my fellow fans, so when people asked me if I believed in the leadership of Mike, I learned to say, “I absolutely do.” But I still didn’t know what I was professing.
Was the point that Mike just is Michael, that they are one and the same? Or was the point that Mike truly is a leader, that he has that quality? If this latter, I realized, that Michael and Mike might be one or two. Again, I was sure that Mike was the true star of the team, a future hall-of-famer, and I was sure that Michael (whether this was just Mike or not) was the team captain. But I wasn’t sure how the two (?) of them were related. This abstract expression “the leadership of Mike” just confused me.
Finally, I saw the Way play. “Who’s that?” I said, pointing to a tall, muscular black man.
“Well, that’s Mike, obviously,” said the kid sitting next to me. (I’d been to embarrassed to ask an adult.)
“And who’s that?” I pointed at a much shorter white man.
“That’s Michael, the leader of the team. You believe in the leadership of Mike, don’t you?” The kid was testing my loyalty.
“Yes, yes I do,” I said. I realized that this just meant the belief that Mike, by his star play, would lead them to victory. Of course, Michael was still the team captain, the leader of the players. And then it dawned on me, as I listened to shouts of my fellow fans, that both Michael and Mike were nicknamed “Mikey.”
“Go Mikey!” I cheered, as Mike drove down the court.
“Pass it to Mikey,” yelled the kid.
Finally, this team made sense to me.
In my parable, God is Michael, Jesus is Mike, “Mikey” is the phrase “the Lord” in the New Testament, and the fans are evangelical Christians, their saying being not “the leadership of Mike” but rather “the deity of Christ.”
What is this thesis of “the deity of Christ.” Some understand it to be the claim that Jesus just is God himself, that they are one and the same, numerically one. (So, “Jesus” and “God” would be co-referring names, like “Dubya” and “George W. Bush.”) It would seem that some Christians thought this. They were mocked by the ancient catholic philosopher-theologian-apologist-polemicist Tertullian as “patripassians,” that is, as people who believe that the Father suffered, which Tertullian and most other ancient catholic theologians thought absurd. How? Jesus suffered on the cross. If he just is God (aka the Father), then that is to say that God suffered on the cross. Is it absurd that God should suffer? Many theologians nowadays think that both sides of the question can be argued.
But in any case, a barrier to this interpretation of the “deity of Christ” (that Jesus and God are one and the same) is that it seems that the two of them have differed and do differ. For instance, according to the New Testament, Jesus stands at the right hand of God. (You can pick whether to take this literally or metaphorically; it doesn’t affect the present point.) But God doesn’t stand at his own right hand. Again, God sent his one and only Son to save us. But Jesus didn’t send his one and only Son to save us. We all know that one being can’t be and not be a certain way, at the same time and in the same way. So it would seem that Jesus and God are two.
The mainstream ancient interpretation of “the deity of Christ” was not a statement of identity between the deity (God) and Christ, but rather a statement about how Christ is, a qualitative claim about Christ, that he is divine, that he has the quality of deity. And this was eventually expressed by saying that he was one person with (or “in”) two “natures” – a human nature and a divine nature. To believe in “the deity of Christ” was to believe that he also had, in addition to his human nature (like yours or mine), a divine nature.
What does all of this have to do with the Trinity? Maybe less than you think! Present-day evangelicals tend to focus on “the deity of Christ,” vacillating between the two interpretations just sketched (and perhaps others too, such as that Jesus is a part of or a member of God.) In many minds, the “deity of Christ” issue is the same as “the Trinity.” These have in common that both are opposed to the idea that Jesus was “just a man,” in the sense of just another very spiritual and admirable person, a guru and “spiritual leader” if you like, but not in any sense the “Son of God,” not in any sense the uniquely best revelation of who God is. But the Trinity and the deity of Christ are not at all the same claim.
You might think that this is a picky point. Don’t all acknowledge the deity of the Father? Now add to this the deity of Jesus. We’re 2/3 of the way to the Trinity right? Just add in the deity of the Holy Spirit, and we have the Trinity.
But no, we don’t – not if the Trinity is a triune god, a tripersonal god. There have been many Christians, many learned and fairly mainstream Christians, who have believed in the deity of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, but have not believed in a tripersonal god.
Somesuch are modern day “Oneness” Pentecostals. They stoutly deny traditional trinitarian claims, yet make the three assertions just noted. But they think those are just three names for one self, for one unipersonal god. Something similar seems to have been the view of some ancient catholics who historians now call “monarchians.”
Other Christians, in for instance the third or the eighteenth centuries, believed in the deity of Father, Son, and Spirit, but identified the one true God not as the Trinity, but instead as the Father alone. Famous examples include the learned Anglican minister and philosopher-theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) and the towering intellectual of early catholic Christianity, the philosopher-theologian-apologist-biblical-scholar Origen. (185-254)
How could they believe in the deity of each of the three, and yet be monotheists? Again, they held the one God to be the Father only. The Son and Spirit they held to be divine in lesser ways or degrees than the Father.
Do you think that deity/divinity doesn’t come in different kinds of degrees? Or do you think that each member of the Trinity must be divine to the same degree, or in the same way? They would deny both claims, as they firmly held the view that it would be a contradiction for another being to also be divine in the way that the Father (aka God) is divine. They would also point out that in the Bible angels and saved humans are described as divine or as “gods,” though obviously this doesn’t put them on a par with Yahweh (=the Father, God) or even with the Son (=Jesus).
The point is this: the “deity of Christ” is not the same claim or set of claims as “the Trinity.” The best way to understand each is and has always been in dispute. But we know this. People like Origen believed in the deity of Christ long before anyone believed in a tripersonal God. (c. latter 4th century) And after there were doctrines about how God is tripersonal, still some very learned Christians, like Clarke, didn’t believe those, but did believe in the deity of Christ. The Trinity implies the deity of Christ (that is, that Christ has a divine nature), but the deity of Christ (that Christ has a divine nature) doesn’t imply the Trinity, however the Trinity is understood. If both are important to argue for, then it is crucial to see that successfully proving the deity of Jesus doesn’t thereby prove the Trinity, but only takes a first step towards doing so.