Let’s define “Jesus is God” to mean one or more of these: Jesus is numerically identical to the one God, YHWH, or Jesus fully possesses the divine nature of the one God, or Jesus is one “divine person” within the one God.
The New Testament gospels are centrally concerned with Jesus, and with the one God. But how do they relate the two – or the one – of them together? The reflective reader has three options; she must deny one of these three:
- The New Testament gospels agree in their core claims about Jesus and God.
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t teach that Jesus is God.
- John teaches that Jesus is God.
Observe how weak 1 is. It doesn’t require belief in inerrancy, or even in any sort of inspiration for these writings. 1 doesn’t even say that the NT gospels agree in all their claims, or in all their teachings, or in all their historical claims, but only in their core claims about the man Jesus, and about the one God. That is what one would expect, if the gospels really emanated from the broad circles of the apostles in the first century. Note also that 1 is consistent with, but doesn’t require, belief in the traditional authorship of the gospels.
Two recent books highlight two of the three ways to respond to this problem.
- Bart Ehrman denies 1. We can call this the skeptical way out, as the denier of 1 is skeptical that the NT gospels share any coherent, consistent message about Jesus and God. The skeptical way is based on a conviction that 2 and 3 are true. Don’t misunderstand – this is not by definition an anti-Christian way! Many Christian theologians and other scholars, and not only those way out in left field, take this view.
- Ehrman’s evangelical critics deny 2. Call this the catholic way out, as it depends on arguments which go way back in the catholic (or proto-Catholic, or proto-orthodox) tradition, starting in the second century. This tradition considers 3 obviously true, and argues for a denial of 2 by urging that the synoptic gospels imply, hint at, suggest, or assume that Jesus is God (as defined above). Jesus, it is argued, forgives sins, heals, speaks with authority, and so on – which properly understood imply, hint at, suggest, or assume that he is God.
- But the conversation so far is incomplete. There is, obviously, a third way out – denying 3. Perhaps John, on careful re-examination, doesn’t teach that Jesus is God – again, either God himself, a possessor of the whole nature of the one God, or a “person” within the one God. This is the re-interpreter’s way out. This is what biblical unitarians think. But it’s not necessarily an “anti-trinitarian” view, as a number of scholars, considering themselves fine, upstanding trinitarians and indeed traditional Christians deny 3. Again, some “liberal” theologians opt for this way. But this is not a new way; it has always been an option. Even so, those who deny 3 nowadays must re-interpret, getting around long traditions of catholic interpretation.
Who’s right? A choice, it seems, must be made. Which way out do you take, and why?
Having a hard time picking? The costs of any pick are significant – so much so that some will avoid picking, instead mumbling something about “tensions” in the gospels. In our next post, we’ll count the costs of each option. Maybe reflecting on those can help one to decide.
Do you want new posts from this blog in your Inbox? Subscribe via email – upper right.