Christians believe in God. And Christians believe in Jesus Christ. How should we think these two (?) relate to one another? Consider this following inconsistent triad:
D: Jesus and God have differed.
N: Jesus and God are numerically one.
I: If any X and Y have ever differed, then they are not numerically one.
One can’t consistently accept all three. If any two are true, the remaining one must be false. (Go ahead: work through the combinations.)
So a thoughtful Christian ought to reject at least one. But which?
I suggest: whichever we have the least reason to believe is true. But which one is that?
We have as much reason to believe I as we have to believe anything.
Suppose I is false. Then we have some X and Y which at some time have differed (e.g. at a certain time this X was hot and Y was cold, X was here and Y was over there, X was awake and Y was asleep, X knew that P and Y did not know that P) and yet are nonetheless numerically the same. That is, one and the same thing (call it X or call it Y) at one time differed from itself – at one time was a certain way and was not a certain way. But this is obviously impossible.
So supposing I false implies a contradiction. I must, then, be true. And once you grasp the impossibility just noted, you can be very sure I is true – as sure as you’re sure of anything.
So I is off the table. It’s down to D or N then. Which should a Christian deny?
Why believe D? The Bible. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we are told, Jesus didn’t want to die, but God wanted Jesus to die. (Jesus prays to God hoping to change his mind, but eventually acquiesces in God’s will for him.) Or: traditional catholic theology. God is triune; Jesus isn’t triune. Or God is the font of divinity; Jesus is not the font of divinity. God sent one of his three “Persons” to earth; Jesus did not send one of his three “Persons” to earth. Or (see the icon above) God sat one one side of Abraham’s table and Jesus sat on the other. Or God (if you think the one true God is a group) surrounded the table, and Jesus didn’t. Insert your own favorite difference here, based on either your understanding of the Bible, or your favorite theological theory about God and/or Jesus.
Why believe N? Two reasons.
First, there are a handful of passages in the Bible which many people read as Jesus claiming to be God himself. And if Jesus is God himself, then he and God are one and the same, that is, numerically one.
Secondly, there are traditional arguments of this form:
- Jesus did/said/was truly described as X.
- Only God could do/say/be truly described by X.
- Therefore, Jesus is God.
X could be something like “truly say ‘I am’” or “non-culpably receive worship”. Note that 3 here is the same claim as N.
Note that both D and 1 depend on the Bible, on our believing what it clearly, indisputably asserts (that God and Jesus have different, or that Jesus did or said X or was truly described by.) Let us assume that it is both inerrant (in whatever sense you please) and perspicuous (again, however you understand that). On assumptions like these, you will be very sure indeed that God and Jesus have differed, and also that Jesus did, said, and was truly described in various ways. D and 1 are consistent with one another, and it seems that a Christian ought to have about the same reason to believe one as to believe the other.
Now add in premise 2 in the argument above – that only God himself could have done those things, said those things, been truly described by those titles, names, and so on.This is a piece of speculation. It is not self-evident, and we can’t derive any contradiction from the supposition that it is false. Nor is it anywhere clearly asserted in the Bible, or even uncontroversially implied by it. So in all honesty, you ought to have a few doubts about premise 2. Even if one believes it, one should concede that one is less sure of it than one is sure of 1.
So even if you’re very sure of 1, you should be a bit less certain of 2. And since you believe 3 on the basis of premises like 1 and 2, you should be a bit less certain about 3 than you are about 1.
Recall now that you granted that both 1 and D are on a footing because each is based on the plain statements of the Bible – the first ones being explicitly said, the latter being plainly implied by what was said. And we just saw that you have less reason to believe 3 (the conclusion of the argument) than you do to believe 1. But 3 just is N. So you have less reason to believe 3/N than you do to believe D.
It looks like you should deny N then, and accept I and D. That is, you think Jesus isn’t God and God isn’t Jesus – when we’re using the “is” of identity.
But not so fast. I said that some believe N on the grounds that certain passages just say or clearly imply that Jesus is God himself. e.g. I and the Father are one, or I am. So what if we set aside speculative arguments like the one above, and just rest on the scripture alone.
Take your favorite “Jesus is God himself” passage, and read the whole chapter. Hmmm… you notice that some things are said there which seem to reflect the assumption that God is someone else. Just take that fact that Jesus talks to God and has a personal relationship with God – and not, it seems, in the way that one talks to oneself, or has a quasi-friendship with oneself. Jesus talks to him, and he talks back. And as noted above, they had a sort of clash of wills which was worked out. Or the author seems to mention them as two different, named selves, and seems to think differently about them. Now look back at your favorite “Jesus is God himself” proof-text. There just has to be some other way to read it, right? It can’t be that the author than Jesus and God were one and the same and that they were not – unless you think the author is pitifully confused.
So you look around and see that various careful interpreters in your own preferred group (e.g. evangelicals, Roman Catholics, pentecostals, Southern Baptists, etc.) have taken your favorite passage(s) not to imply that Jesus is God himself (i.e. that the “two” are in fact numerically one). So even if you still think that the Bible implies N, you have some reason to doubt that it really does.
In contrast, you find that there simply are not reasonable readings of the passages which imply that Jesus and God have differed, which show that really, the texts don’t imply that. Readers don’t even try to come up with those, because on most versions catholic theologies and christologies imply the falsity of N. You can see that the texts do imply D, and indeed most likely your own theology implies D as well.
In sum, you have more reason to believe D than N. And you have more reason to believe I than you do to believe either D or N.
The only reasonable course, then, is to accept I and D, and deny N.