So what if Jesus didn’t claim to be God

N. T. Wright suggests that the most succinct expression of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord.” Robert W. Jenson suggests that the most succinct expression of the gospel is “Jesus is risen.” Which one is right?

I’m confident one need never choose. How can one talk about Jesus’ lordship without talking about his resurrection, and how can one talk about Jesus’ resurrection without talking about his lordship over creation? But if I have to decide between the two, I think I’ll go with Jenson. Surely it was the message of the resurrection, published in Jerusalem after that wondrous Easter Sunday, that launched the Christian Church into the world as a vigorous missionary sect. To proclaim that God has raised Jesus from the dead is to proclaim that the long-awaited kingdom has arrived, though in a way that no one was expecting, to proclaim that Jesus’ love for his friends will triumph over all evil and death, to proclaim that all of humanity’s hopes and dreams have been fulfilled in the Messias, to proclaim that this crucified Nazarene is the final destiny of the world. The good news of our Lord’s resurrection is as thrilling and exciting today as it was two thousand years ago.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

I want to comment on one often-overlooked feature of this gospel message–it is a message of the Apostles. It is a message of those who claimed to have met the risen Lord. We cannot go around their back to confirm their message. There are no alternative sources to which we may turn. They either saw Jesus on Easter or they did not; and we either believe them or we do not.  All preaching of the gospel is a reiteration of the apostolic proclamation, in one form or another. If it is not, then it is not gospel that is being proclaimed. The paschal joy of the Apostles is the foundation of the Church.

When the Apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, they also had to provide answers to questions like “Who is this Jesus who has risen from the dead?” “What did he teach?” “What did he do?” “What does it all mean?” In response to these kinds of question the genre of gospel was born.  The Apostles are the mediators of our knowledge of Jesus. They provide us not just “facts” but “interpreted facts.” Their memories of the Nazarene are profoundly shaped by Pascha and by their experience of the Spirit in the eucharistic life of the Church. The Jesus of the gospels comes to us as processed by lives converted and transformed by their encounters with the living Lord. The gospels do not give us unbiased, neutral accounts. The Jesus of the gospels cannot be divorced from the Christ of faith.

Regarding this topic I have found Thomas F. Torrance’s book Space, Time and Resurrection particularly helpful:

It is to be remembered that Jesus himself was not a Christian, for a Christian is one saved by Christ. Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of understanding of God which took shape in the apostolic mind and which became embodied in the New Testament reports. This is why, evidently, so little attempt is made by St. Paul to ground his teaching about God, mediated through Christ and in the Spirit, upon the ipsissima verba or private religion of Jesus, although he does claim to be operating within, and continuing, the authentic tradition. (p. 13, n. 18)

Christianity is not the “private religion” of Jesus! This point is absolutely crucial, and if we could grasp this, then the popular books of a Bart Ehrman or a John Dominic Crossan would cease to trouble our sleep. Christians should only have modest interest in the historical reconstructions of the latest best-selling author. We are not terribly curious about the gospel according to Elaine Pagels. We are not driven to search for the “real Jesus,” as if he were a stranger to the community of saints and martyrs.

Skeptical scholars assume that the authentic Jesus can only be accurately known when the written sources have been critically sifted, shaken, purified, and reconstructed. I do not depreciate the work of the historians—I enjoy reading their work from time to time—but faith cannot depend upon the assured results of biblical criticism. These results are never assured and rarely stable. Why are there so many historical Jesuses? Why does the Jesus of Rudolf Bultmann look so different from the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan or Reza Aslan? Might it perhaps be that the gospels themselves resist the divorce of the Jesus of history from the risen Christ of faith?

As Torrance reminds us, the “historical Jesus” is incomprehensible apart from the faith of the Apostles. “It is the resurrection,” he writes, “that really discovers and gives access to the historical Jesus, for it enables one to understand him in terms of his own intrinsic logos, and appreciate him in the light of his own true nature as he really was–and is and ever will be” (p. 166).

Bart Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God has been generating a fair amount of buzz around the internet. I’m not really sure why. Surely we have seen even more radical presentations during the past century. I have not read the book, but over at his blog Ehrman summarizes his thesis:

Many believers – at least very conservative evangelical Christians and others who have not had much contact with biblical scholarship – will be surprised to learn that Jesus did not spend his preaching ministry in Galilee proclaiming that he was the second member of the Trinity. In fact, as I argue in the book, the followers of Jesus had no inkling that he was divine until after his death. What changed their views was the belief, which blind-sided them at first, that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Move along, folks. Nothing new here to see. Really.

I gather from my web surfing that some of the brethren are upset by Ehrman’s assertion that Jesus did not claim divinity for himself and that therefore the followers of Jesus only came to a belief in his divinity after, and because of, his (alleged) resurrection from the dead. Even if Ehrman is correct, his thesis does not substantively challenge my Christian faith. Why should it?  Why should it matter if Jesus did not understand himself to be the Second Person of the Trinity?  He certainly does now! Recall the passage from Torrance: Christianity is not principally concerned with Jesus’ “private religious understanding of God,” even assuming we have access to this private understanding. Christian faith is grounded upon the risen Lord, as attested by his Apostles. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has firmly grasped this critical point:

Christians direct their faith not to the historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity between Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the reality of Christ’s power in the present. … Authentic Christian faith is a response to the living God, whom Christians declare is powerfully at work among them through the resurrected Jesus. (The Real Jesus, pp. 142-143.)

Pascha has changed everything. There is no other Jesus but the One who rose from the dead on Easter morning. There is no other Jesus but the One whom Peter, James, and John confessed as their Lord and Savior. There is no other Jesus but the One who meets us today in Word and Sacrament. Christ is risen!

(Go to “Historical Criticism and the Christ of Faith”)

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11 Responses to So what if Jesus didn’t claim to be God

  1. Matthew Livermore says:

    Reblogged this on Philosophy of Religion and TOK and commented:
    This is interesting reading for the light it sheds on religious language as presented in the Gospels.

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  2. Jason says:

    One of the main points that I understand from current textual criticism and analysis is that none of the gospels were written by the apostles, at least the strongest evidence suggests this fact. If the apostles are the mediators of our knowledge of Jesus, and no apostle wrote any account of the gospel, then we are to trust these unknown authors to accurately describe the apostolic account. Then the fact that the gospel accounts are so different adds to the dilemma. How would you, or do you, handle this issue?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jason, if the gospels and NT documents do not faithfully contain and reflect the apostolic tradition, then we are all cooked. At this point I rely on the judgment of Holy Church under the guidance of the Spirit. Just as we cannot get behind the gospels to find the “real” Jesus, so we cannot get behind the New Testament writings to determine the “real” apostolic tradition. We have no option but to rely on the texts as received by the Church as Scripture. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. 🙂

      This is a lot more of a problem for Protestants than for Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Indeed, IMHO the problem is insoluble for Protestants, which is why Protestantism has had such a hard time holding onto the apostolic faith since the advent of modernity and why astute Protestant scholars have turned to canonical and narrative criticism as ways to read the Bible as Scripture and not just as a collection of historical artifacts. See my series that begins with “Unitarianism and the bible of the Holy Trinity.”

      For a Protestant, TFT was so very catholic in his judgment on these matters.

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  3. ddisrupt says:

    Jenson’s point – & I think it’s the right one – is that Jesus announced his divinity in terms that would be familiar to any 2nd Temple Jew. Announcing that he was the Messiah was tantamount to announcing his divinity, given the way Jesus read the Old Testament. There were rival Jewish understandings of how the Messiah would operate, but according to Jesus’ interpretation, the Messiah would incarnate God’s presence. The resurrection does “change everything” in that it proves YHWH’s identification with Jesus. Jesus is not a half-baked Messiah/political upstart – Jesus is the Messiah who heralded the kingdom of YHWH and his claim was vindicated by the resurrection. “Jesus is Lord” ≈ “Jesus risen.”

    Jesus’ followers lacked the Greek Hellenistic categories for the trinity – instead they simply proclaimed him to be God once it was proven that he was the raised-from-the-dead-Messiah. Ehrman is probing at a sore point for Christians, by exposing the difficulty of expressing Christ’s humanity and divinity given the categories we use for deity. If we let the Biblical narrative guide us, we find that it contains the whole story – we just have to reshape our categories for “divinity” in its light.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you for your comment. Let me first register my agreement with your final statement that we must reshape our categories for “divinity” in light of the biblical narrative. Quite so.

      Could you unpack for us your statement that “according to Jesus’ interpretation, the Messiah would incarnate God’s presence.” Where in the gospels do you see Jesus interpreting Messiah along these lines?

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      • ddisrupt says:

        Thanks Fr Adian.

        When Jesus, the Messiah, enacts judgment on the temple, he is enacting the judgment of YHWH. When Jesus forgives, he enacts the forgiveness of YHWH (who has the authority to forgive sin but God alone?). So as Messiah, he occasionally is YHWH’s representative – he is “God with us,” bringing mercy & judgment.

        I do think that you could fairly object that Jesus was just acting as a prophet (and prophets speak for God all the time) – but prophets did not proclaim God’s present forgiveness and judgment in this way – they raised the expectation of future forgiveness and judgment.

        That’s why I think it is incorrect to theorize that Jesus was at one stage Messiah, and the next “Lord.” He claimed to be a Messiah who acted on behalf of YHWH. The person worthy of acting on behalf of YHWH in these roles must somehow be divine – and so he was.

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have edited the second paragraph. I think it sounds a tad better, but I’m not sure.

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  5. Brian McDonald says:

    What’s really discouraging about this whole “debate” is that well over 100 years ago Martin Kähler, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian made Fr. Aidan’s identical point that “if the gospels and NT documents do not faithfully contain and reflect the apostolic tradition, then we are all cooked” in his l896 classic, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. Kahler’s short but very accessible work should have settled the issue once and for all since his formidable scholarship and theological reasoning agrees completely with Fr. Aidan’s common sense point that “we cannot go behind the apostles back” as though there were “alternative sources to which we may turn” or subtexts upon which we could cleverly reconstruct a different Jesus. And in SPITE of this we have Crossan’s Jesus Seminar and Ehrmann’s “textual criticism” about 120 years behind the times, pretending we really can get behind the apostolic witness and unearth a “historical Jesus.” (How conveniently coincidental that this reconstructed Jesus always happens to perfectly mirror the political or social agenda of the particular “Historical Jesus” guy who puts out his notions as the Latest Big Thing.)

    If it were just scholars stubbornly attempting to resurrect exploded theories from the century-before-last, it would perhaps be simply a matter for sardonic humor rather than real concern. Unfortunately people like Ehrmann create great damage by making people like Jason think they have a leg to stand on. It’s sort of like the people in my own discipline (literature) who go around trying to convince people that that there’s a real question of whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. No rational historian or literary critic doubts that Shakespeare authored the plays credited to him, but the layman is unaware of this when the media highlights the eccentrics who whatever their motives, gain publicity for themselves by touting absurd theories of alternative authorship.

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  7. Bill Barto says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Fr. Aidan! Having struggled my way through Torrance’s “Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons” while in seminary, I was pleased and intrigued by your quotation of Torrance concerning the unimportance of the private beliefs of Jesus. Reading Torrance frequently causes me to initially reject his thesis before I read through it again and gain more understanding and eventually reach an “aha” moment of sorts in which I lament my initial rejection. This may be one of those times! So what are those of us suffering from PTSD (i.e., post-Torrance stress disorder) to make of his statement, “Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ.” Doesn’t this tacitly move our understanding of the faith to a “Pauline priority” more typical of my evangelical brethren with a concurrent neglect of the Gospels and the events recorded therein? Doesn’t it give away too much in an effort to avoid the snares of the “historical Jesus”? Please forgive my question if it is unhelpful to the discussion, but this is a recurring issue in my understanding of Torrance (and others).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great question, Bill. The citation about Jesus’ private religion is provocative, isn’t it? But I think the point that TFT is trying to make is important—namely, we cannot properly interpret the words of Jesus apart from the risen Word who he is. One of the problems of historical-critical method is that it seeks to apprehend the historical Jesus apart from the resurrection faith, as if there is a disjunction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. TFT refuses that disjunction. Obviously, TFT is not depreciating the teachings of our Lord—quite the contrary—but he wants us to resist the temptation to rip them apart from Christ’s living person. Another way of putting it (and this is me, not Torrance): the words of Jesus must not be divorced from the living Tradition of the Church.

      TFT’s view raises all sorts of good questions, and I do not have an answer to most of them. 🙂 But I think he is absolutely right that we cannot simply rest content with historical criticism as practiced in the academic setting.

      As far as tilting things over to a Pauline priority—well, I think the Orthodox Church could use a healthy dose of Pauline priority and the proclamation of grace.

      What do you think?

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