Dr Dale Tuggy has recently published a two-part blog article addressing the divinity of Christ: “Do the Gospels disagree about Jesus and God.” He proposes that a reflective reader must deny one of these three statements:
1) The New Testament gospels agree in their core claims about Jesus and God.
2) Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t teach that Jesus is God.
3) John teaches that Jesus is God.
If after having read these, you are feeling that our unitarian philosopher has stacked the deck, I suspect you may be right. What exactly, for example, does he mean when he says “Jesus is God”? He tells us right off the bat: “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.” Dale gives us three possible construals of “Jesus is God.” They are not synonymous. If I affirm “Jesus is God,” does that mean that I am affirming all three? If I deny one, am I denying the other two? What kind of game is Dale inviting me to play? And what does one do if one is convinced that New Testament christology does not neatly fit into Dale’s categories?
Dale surveys each choice in reverse order in part 2 of his article. A few brief comments on this lazy Sunday afternoon:
3) Dale expresses his disappointment that post-Christian Bart Ehrman still follows the two-millennia view that the author of the Gospel of John presents Jesus as a divine figure, as “qualitatively equal to God.” Given Ehrman’s critical stance toward orthodox Christianity, I suppose it might appear puzzling that he missed such an obvious opportunity to demonstrate that the divinity of Jesus is no where taught in the New Testament; yet to his credit Ehrman is unwilling to deny the obvious.
Dr Tuggy, on the other hand, believes that the Johannine proof texts dissolve under careful examination, as argued by the post-Reformation unitarian minority report. All I can do is express my extreme skepticism. I am not a biblical scholar and have not been following recent scholarship; but I doubt that the majority judgment can be so easily dismissed. I have yet to see compelling reasons why we should not stick with Raymond Brown’s magisterial Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel According to John. Brown certainly believes that John presents Jesus as divine but notes the difficulty of directly asserting this divinity within a Jewish context:
The Prologue’s “The Word was God” offers a difficulty because there is no article before theos. Does this imply that “God” means less when predicated of the Word than it does when used as a name for the Father? Once again the reader must divest himself of a post-Nicene understanding of the vocabulary involved …
The New Testament does not predicate “God” of Jesus with any frequency. … The reluctance to apply this designation to Jesus is understandable as part of the New Testament heritage from Judaism. For the Jews “God” meant the heavenly Father; and until a wider understanding of the term was reached, it could not be readily applied to Jesus. This is reflected in Mark x 18 where Jesus refuses to be called good because only God is good; in John xx 17 where Jesus calls the Father “my God”; and in Eph iv 5-6 where Jesus is spoken of as “one Lord,” but the Father is “one God.” (The way that the New Testament approached the question of the divinity of Jesus was not through the title “God” but by describing his activities in the same way as it described the Father’s activities; see John v 17, 21, x 28-29.) In vs 1c the Johannine hymn is bordering on the usage of “God” for the Son, but by omitting the article it avoids any suggestion of personal identification of the Word with the Father. And for Gentile readers the line also avoids any suggestion that the Word was a second God in any Hellenistic sense. (I:24)
Commenting on the Apostle Thomas’s confession in John 20:28, “My Lord and my God,” Brown writes: “It is Thomas who makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh” (II:1047).
Dale comes close, I respectfully submit, to special pleading. Even if a handful of guys in the Society of Biblical Literature are vigorously pushing the thesis that the Johannine Christ is nondivine, that doesn’t mean that it should be taken seriously. The Bible guild thrives on exotic hypotheses. Get back to me in fifty years.
2) The synoptic Gospels do not explicitly declare that “Jesus is God.” Yes. But why would we expect them to? The Gospels are not theological treatises. They come to us in the form of historical narratives. The synoptic evangelists do not present us with extended theological reflections on Jesus—they simply tell his story. And within this story, the God who sent Jesus is clearly distinguished from Jesus: God declares Jesus to be his beloved Son, and Jesus prays to God as his Father. It would have made no sense whatsoever for Jesus to have said “I am God” or for the evangelists to have said “Jesus is God.” If “God” equals “the Father of Jesus,” then Jesus cannot be “God.” The synoptic evangelists rightly refrain from making such a contradictory and confusing identification. Jesus is not the “self” that the Father is. It would take several centuries before the Church would find the appropriate conceptuality by which it could confess “Jesus is God” without conflating the Father and the Son, compromising the humanity of Jesus, or falling into polytheism. In the first century that conceptuality was not available to the evangelists (see the judicious discussion by Raymond E. Brown, “Does the New Testament Call Jesus God?“).
1) Do the Gospels agree in their core claims about Jesus and God? Before we can answer this question, we need to ask this counter-question: do narratives make claims and how do they do so? Reading a story is different from reading a three-volume systematic theology. Take, for example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The characters in the story do not mention Ilúvatar (God) and rarely speak of the Valar, nor does Tolkien intrude himself into the story to tell us about them. Does this mean that within the narrative world of Middle Earth that Ilúvatar and the Valar are non-existent or irrelevant to the story? Of course not. But if you want to find out about them, you have to read the Silmarillion and JRRT’s letters.
I think we need to be careful talking about the core claims of the Gospels, as if the Gospels ever stood by themselves, each being considered a self-sufficient and complete statement of the beliefs of the apostolic Church. The early Church certainly did not treat them as such—hence four Gospels not one. And we can be quite sure that early preachers and catechists supplemented the Gospel narratives with theological interpretation not explicitly found in the narratives, as evidenced by the rest of the New Testament.
In the synoptics Jesus doesn’t speak a great deal about “who” he is or about his relationship with God—his focus is on the Kingdom now breaking into history in his preaching, miracles, and table-fellowship—nor do the synoptic evangelists often intrude themselves directly into the text to express their own christological views, as John does in his Prologue. I am not in any way suggesting that the synoptic evangelists are presenting us “straight” history—of course they aren’t. But I am suggesting that we need to be cautious about pressing the differences between the Gospels, as if we knew, for example, that Matthew would have vigorously disagreed with the high christology of the Fourth Gospel. The Johannine thunderbolt, anyone? “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27).
Christians have long recognized the differences between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the Gospel of John; yet they have insisted that the four must be read and interpreted together. As the great Origen wrote: “Now the Gospels are four. These four are, as it were, the elements of the faith of the Church, out of which elements the whole world which is reconciled to God in Christ is put together” (Comm. Jo. I.6).
Hence I must refuse the Tuggy Trilemma.
P.S. Yes, I know it’s not a true trilemma … but I like the the ring of “the Tuggy Trilemma.” 🙂