In a recent article on the Answers in Genesis website, Simon Turpin, executive director of the UK branch of Answers in Genesis, attempts to answer the question Where Did Jesus Say, “I Am God; Worship Me”? Normally, my interest is not terribly piqued by such topics. I spent my evangelical childhood and adolescence studying apologetics; as a young adult, I read enough Bart Ehrman to know that reality is more complicated. But as I skimmed the article, I came upon a claim I’ve never seen before:
It is clear that the gospel writers and the authors of the epistles believed Jesus was God …. The question that we need to ask, however, is this: Did Jesus claim to be divine? By this, we do not mean that Jesus went around Israel saying: “Hi, I am Jesus, and I am God.” The reason Jesus did not do this is that he came to reveal the Father … and, in a monotheistic culture … he would not want people to think that he was saying he was the Father.
Turpin appears to be arguing that Jesus did not tell people he was God (even though he was) because the Jews were monotheists and would have gotten distracted by that. I genuinely don’t recall hearing this argument growing up, but I am fascinated by it. A god came down to earth and assumed a human body (an avatar, if you will), but declined to state that he was a god specifically because the people he lived among were monotheists and would reject the idea the pseudo-polytheism his divinity would create.
What even is this? All I can say for sure is that this would make an awesome science fiction and/or fantasy plot, and that now I kind of want N. K. Jemisin to write it. There’s intrigue, there’s subterfuge, there’s danger. On a storytelling level, I like this a lot. But on a theological level? On a theological level, I have questions.
I’ve personally watched the Trinity get in the way of Muslims’ willingness to listen to gospel presentations. If Jesus strategically decided not to state that he was God because the Trinity is confusing to monotheists, maybe Christians should let the idea go too? After all, wouldn’t that be following Jesus’ lead, here? Maybe believing in the Trinity isn’t actually all that important, in the big picture, If Jesus specifically omitted it?
Early Christians argued over who Jesus was precisely because he never directly claimed to be God. He was vague. Seeking to understand the relationship between Jesus and God the Father, early Christians came up with varying ideas—some argued that he was an ordinary person whom God raised up and elevated to some semi-divine level, effectively adopting as his son; others argued that Jesus was God’s son, preceding from him and subject to him. These early Christians, remember, did not have a settled canon of the Bible, and relied instead on a broad array of writings, some of which are now lost.
The doctrine of the Trinity took hundreds of years and multiple church councils to create. You would think that if it were all that important, Jesus would have been clear about it—what better time for a deity to speak directly to complicated doctrinal issues than when they’re literally here, in person!
Turpin argues that Jesus followed a show, don’t tell, approach.
A clear example of Jesus choosing to show who he is rather than proclaiming who he is comes after John the Baptist was put into prison and his disciples came to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” … How did Jesus answer John’s disciples’ question? Did he just come out and say who he was? No, Jesus didn’t come out and give a simple answer to who he was, but he does it in an implicit way by telling John’s disciples that they would know who he is by the things that he was doing:
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:4–6).The things that Jesus mentioned should have been evident to the disciples of John that the Messianic era was underway …. Jesus answered this way to show who he was rather than explicitly state it.
None of this makes any sense at all. Even Turpin ought to realize this. After all, he notes this:
The reason John’s disciples ask this question is that they, like many of their contemporary Jews, were expecting a royal, conquering Messiah and not someone who, in their eyes, had come to preach and work miracles.
Here’s the thing: the messiah was not supposed to be a deity. When Turpin claims that the things Jesus said he was doing (healing the blind, raising the dead, preaching the good news to the poor) should have made it “evident to the disciples of John that the Messianic era was underway,” I am left confused. The messiah was not supposed to be God. So even if this was Jesus “showing” that he was the messiah rather than explicitly stating that he was the messiah, this was not Jesus showing that he was God.
Besides, I know my Bible well enough to know that Elijah raised people from the dead. Oh, and he cured lepers too. The Old Testament is packed full of prophets who worked all sorts of miracles. Jesus stating that he cures lepers and raises the dead did not in any way signal divinity.
When it comes to the Trinity, Catholics have it easier than Protestants. Catholics believe in “Scripture plus apostolic tradition, as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, to which were entrusted the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles, along with the authority to interpret Scripture correctly.” Protestants believe in sola scriptura. Catholics can simply trust that the church fathers at those early councils got things right. Protestants can’t. (Mind you, this trust in church councils, and the church in general, to simply get things right creates a multitude of other problems for Catholics.)
When it comes to the Trinity, the New Testament is confusing at best. If the Bible were at all clear about this, it wouldn’t have taken hundreds of years and multiple church councils to work out the relationship between God and Jesus (don’t even get me started on the Holy Spirit). This leaves those like Turpin spinning words in an attempt to insist that really, really truly, this is perfectly clear—if you just squint.
Despite the New Testament’s ambiguity, the Trinity is, for all intents and purposes, universally accepted among modern Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike. In fact, Turpin’s article is aimed not at wayward Christians but at those looking for ways to convert skeptical Muslims by proving to them that the New Testament does indeed show that Jesus was divine, and not just a prophet.
It’s worth noting that this purpose—finding ways to convince those in a monotheistic culture of Jesus’ divinity—makes Turpin’s statement that Jesus left out his divinity so as not to turn off people in a monotheistic culture particularly interesting, and more than a little bit tone deaf.
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