The Divinity of Christ: A Response to Roger Olson

The Divinity of Christ: A Response to Roger Olson December 24, 2011

In the same 24 hour period, Roger Olson and Daniel McClellan posted on the subject of the divinity of Christ. Roger Olson tries to make the case that this doctrine should be regarded as a Christian essential, and I must say that I find his case not only weak but extremely problematic.

The New Testament evidence, even when one includes the Gospel of John in the mix, is far from clear in asserting anything that resembles the later doctrines of the Trinity and the various related articulations about the identity of Jesus. Recent discussions of relevant New Testament evidence need to be considered (see my discussion here on my blog of recent books by Richard Bauckham and James D. G. Dunn, as well as my book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context). As a result of the failure to include such considerations, and the use of simplistic claims and arguments, Olson’s post ends up sounding like merely an example of unpersuasive conservative apologetics.

To address each of Olson’s points briefly: First, it is simply not the case that worship (except sacrificial worship) was offered by Jews to God alone and no other. Olson’s second point is undermined because there are few who would deny that elements of the mythical and the legendary made it into the Bible, to say nothing of later Christianity. I suspect that even Olson would say that there were people in the second century saying things about Jesus that he would disagree with, and so unless he is going to accept those claims, then I don’t see how his second point has any logical power to it.

Olson’s third point is likewise irrelevant, since there were early Christians who spoke consistently of God having raised Jesus from the dead. The question of whether one believes in the resurrection is distinct from the question of whether God raised Jesus or Jesus as God raised himself. His fourth point is without force, since unless one regards everything that Jesus is depicted as saying in the Gospel of John as historically accurate, then a fourth option is available: that Jesus did not make the claims for himself that later Christians would make for him. On his fifth point, I don’t have a problem with redefining salvation as traditionally understood, and so perhaps this point would have been better skipped. But at any rate, I doubt that Christian theologians would have any problem coming up with an answer to this objection, and it may be that earlier theologians argued that Jesus being both divine and human is essential to salvation is because they believed Jesus to be both divine and human, at least as much as the other way around.

On Olson’s sixth point, it is indeed appropriate for Christians to recognize that Jesus was not the only figure through whom God spoke and acted if one does not view Jesus as divine, or even if one accepts him as fully human in the way the New Testament indicates. Ancient Jewish Christians spoke of Jesus as the one in whom the same Spirit who had spoken through the prophets finally came to rest, making him the climax of prophecy, not something in a different category. Unless one is going to deny ancient Jewish Christians the label “Christian” then this is not a problem.

I was tempted to say that Olson doesn’t really have a seventh point, since denial of the divinity of Jesus is denial of the Trinity. But of course, that isn’t necessarily the case. One could indeed say that there is a pre-existent second person of the Trinity, but deny that that figure was so identified with the figure of Jesus that it is appropriate to speak of the divinity of Jesus or of Christ. But either way the seventh point is either open to dispute or a mere tautology.

In concluding Olson writes,

Of course, IF someone is willing to do all those things, there is little I or anyone else can say to dissuade him or her from denying the deity of Jesus Christ. The only question then becomes “Why do you still call yourself ‘Christian’?” And then the question to that person’s church becomes “Why do you allow this?”

My suggestion is that a person in this category could answer that if the historical evidence points to neither Jesus nor his earliest followers having the view of Jesus as divine or the Trinity which later Christians had, then how can anyone fault people, much less deny them the status of Christians, because of this point? On the one hand, that would seem to deny the status of Christians to Jesus’ own apostles. On the other hand, it seems to deny the Protestant principle of seeking to recover the earliest, authentic Christian faith. Even the Gospel of John if included in the mix as authoritative on these matters still has Jesus speak of the Father as “the only true God.” And so as Olson surely knows, there have been plenty who assent to conservative Protestant principles about Scripture and who deny the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus on that basis. Whether they are right or wrong is not the issue – the issue is whether they are being unfaithful to Christian principles in general and Protestant ones in particular.

As to what churches ought to say, and Baptist churches in particular since Olsen gives them an explicit mention, then “soul competency” or “soul freedom” might indeed be an appropriate response, not because “anything goes,” but because the church and its pastor might indeed have considered the issue in detail and have found the sorts of claims and arguments Olson makes to be simplistic, if not indeed wrong.

Let me end by encouraging discussion and inviting Roger Olson to reply if he is so inclined. Let me also add that Dan McClellan’s post which I mentioned at the start of this post also addresses some of the very same texts that Olsen has in mind, offering a different perspective on them. (And on a related note, don’t miss Dan’s latest post on the fake Jordanian lead codexes.) And of course, I’ve posted on these matters on this blog before, and discuss the relevant Jewish and New Testament evidence in my book, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context.

On a lighter note, Olson’s list only goes up to 7, and that is just as well, since look what modern formatting does to the entry number eight in this post by Ben Witherington. 8)

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  • Ah, now I remember why I quite following Witherington.  Thanks.

  • Stevencarrwork

    In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks of how God appointed apostles.  Nobody thinks this means that Jesus appointed apostles, because to Paul it was clear that Jesus was not God.

    • Dave Anfenson

      lol, that’s a little simplistic.

  • Stevencarrwork

    Paul is very clear about the nature and pre-existence of Jesus, and that Jesus was not God, did not appoint apostles (that was the work of God).

    1 Corinthians 8 ….yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’

    Jesus was the Lord through whom all things came.

    For Paul, Jesus was the image of God, but not God ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’

    • Michael Wilson

       Steven, mostly correct. You do seem to have some trouble understanding how language is used.  It is not clear that Jesus “did not appoint apostles”. That would be a clumsy reading of the text. If you ask around, you will find most people comfortable with assigning responsibility for action to causes not immediately involved. Since Jesus is only the servant of God, it is in fact God who called the disciples in the Gospels. Paul credits God with initiating Paul’s own experience of Jesus. This language in no way argues against Jesus himself appointing apostles. Other passages in the Pauline letters seem to indicate that one in fact became an apostle by having a revelation of the risen Jesus. It also doesn’t apply as evidence that Jesus did not call disciples while alive, as it only discusses the apostles.  I know you mention this point a lot, but it doesn’t support the position you are arguing for. Otherwise, yeah, I agree, Paul doesn’t see Jesus as God or as a deity apart from God. It seems surprising to western readers, but if you looked into ancient Jewish literature, you would see that Paul’s attitudes are not unknown.

  • Stevencarrwork

    I totally missed the bit in Paul where Paul says that Jesus called the disciples.

    How clever of Mr. Wilson to read between the lines so that when Paul says God appointed apostles, he meant that Jesus appointed apostles.

    • Michael Wilson

      Classic Steve Carr. My post isn’t that long however so I don’t think anyone will believe your misrepresentation of what I said over what I actually said. Merry Christmas!

  • That’s the trouble with mythicists. On the one hand, they can believe that Paul thought that God created through Jesus, but not that God called apostles in the same mediated fashion.

    On the other hand, they are largely unaware that the same sort of language that Paul uses in reference to Jesus is used by Jewish authors in reference to Torah, and it was only with time that such language came to be taken literally as referring to a literal pre-existence of Torah, rather than as initially of the Wisdom of God which was embodied and expressed through the Torah.

  • kevin

    Thanks for pointing Olson’s post out. I’m frankly amazed at the logic in some of his points. I think I will have to write up a response later today too.

  • Craig Wright

    In John 5:18-23, the author is pointing out the strong Jewish reaction against Jesus.  He says that the Jews are drawing the conclusion that Jesus is making himself equal with God, and then goes on to say that the Son should be honored in an equal manner with the Father.

    • Stevencarrwork

      ‘In John 5:18-23, the author is pointing out the strong Jewish reaction against Jesus. He says that the Jews are drawing the conclusion that Jesus is making himself equal with God, and then goes on to say that the Son should be honored in an equal manner with the Father.’

      Paul says the crucifixion was the stumbling block for Jews. That and the lack of miracle stories.  (1 Corinthians 1) If Paul thought of Jesus as God Incarnate and somebody to be worshipped in an equal manner with the Father, he never seems to report that as a problem with the Jews.

      The other problem, according to Romans 10, is that Jews had not heard of Jesus until Christians were sent to preach about him.

  • Craig, thank you for your comment. Do take a look at how I interpret John 5:18 and the passage it is a part of in my article “A Rebellious Son?” as well as in my book John’s Apologetic Christology.

    Kevin, if you write something related to what Olson wrote in his blog, do feel free to share a link to it in a comment here!

  • Brian

    Speaking of your book, James, I loved it. I’ll try to review it soon, I was considering doing it on amazon but apparently you have to purchase the book via the main website before you are allowed to review it.  I sadly, borrowed it from the local library.
    If I must say anything [to spoil the review] it would be that I admire the way you handled the material and your sensitivity to certain issues was much appreciated. 
    Also to clarify, I’m talking about “The Only True God”, I did however, read bits and pieces of your other book, “John’s Apologetic Christology” on googlebooks, though I must say, I’m relucant to buy it because it sounds like an older longer version of your newer book. Though it is still very good.

    • Brian, sorry for taking a long time to reply. The Only True God is focused on how early Christian beliefs about Jesus relate to Jewish monotheism. That is a topic that is also in view in parts of John’s Apologetic Christology, but the main focus of the latter is how the portrait of Jesus we find in the Gospel of John relates to and was developed in relation to earlier Jewish and Christian tradition. It is in essence my attempt to explain and account for why John’s portrait of Jesus has so many connections with and yet so many differences when compared to what other early Christians wrote.

      If you do a review, let me know – and if it isn’t too much trouble, please do post it on Amazon as well! 🙂

  • Stevencarrwork

    On the one hand, they can believe that Paul thought that God created through Jesus, but not that God called apostles in the same mediated fashion.

    This is because we are hamstrung by the texts. 

    Paul said God created through Jesus, and Paul says God appointed apostles. 

    Those of us who read the text of Paul notice the difference.

    Those of us who were brought up in a believing environment where they were told to harmonise Bible passages struggle to see the difference.

  • Craig Wright

    In Romans 10:9-13, Paul declares Jesus as Lord, and then in verse 13 (quoting Joel 2:32) he is using a reference to Yahweh as Lord.  Paul is writing in Greek and does not use the name, Yahweh, but he seems to blend the identities of “Lord” with Jesus and Yahweh.

    • Yes indeed, and in Philippians 2:6-11 Paul provides the theological background for his doing so, i.e. his belief that God had not merely exalted Jesus to his right hand, but bestowed on him the divine name (as was done in Jewish tradition to the angel Yahoel and Metatron, and in Samaritan tradition to Moses). And so once one is persuaded that Christ as God’s supreme agent has been given the divine name, it makes sense to look for texts about Yahweh in the Jewish Scriptures that could be viewed as referring to this name-bearing agent.

  • AFB

    My problem with the post is not “the deity of Christ,” I have no problem with that, but what is “D/deity”? The blogger cites John 10:30-33, yet doesn’t consider the implications of the of Jesus’ response to the charge “You, a man, make yourself G/god.” Is it not significant that he responds with a quote of Psalm 82:6, which says “I said you are gods, all of you, sons of the Most High” to defend his right to the claim to be the “Son of God” that “the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (ESV). Using a text that treats “gods” and ‘sons of God’ as synonyms to defend this particular claim implies that Jesus beleived himself to be a god, but not the one “true” God.

    Likewise, in John 17:3 Jesus addresses the Father as “you, the only true God.” Without assuming that Nicaea was the background for the New Testament (which it wasn’t), why would John present this to his readers/listeners when he really beleived that Jesus is “true god of true god”? One would expect that John would explicitly articulate such a reformulation of his faith along those lines repeatedly; instead, his explicit articulation of Jesus’ relationship to monotheism is to the contrary.

  • Steven Carr, mainstream scholarship opposes a harmonizing approach. Mythicism, on the other hand, insists on discord even where the evidence seems complementary rather than contradictory. Presumably it is your view that Paul’s thoughts on this matter changed between the Corinthian correspondence and his letter to the Galatians, where he says that he was called to be an apostle by God and Jesus?

  • This is a very interesting exchange. I hope that Olson responds to your response.

    I have often though that much of the disagreements here are intensified due to the tendency for people to see the testimony of the NT authors (particularly the Synopics) as be formidable in their in a way that tends to isolate them, requiring them to make some sort of post-Nicean creed. However, I think that a hermeneutical assumption of intracanonical development of teh kyrugma not only contributes signifcantly to our Christology, but also upholds the traditional view of teh full deity of Christ. In other words, if we see the authors of the Synoptics as those who were wrestling themselves with the implications of Christ’s identity, we find much more sustainable testimony that Christ was everything that the Father was in his being.

    However, when taken individually, at best, we see, outside if John, a timidity in their confession as they seem to be holding par with the “messianic secret.” The confession was quite present: Jesus was more than a man. Jesus was more than the traditional view of what it meant to be a “son of God.” How this is systematically grasped was not the mission of any of the NT writers individually, but left in the court of the early church.

    • Jesus was “more than a man” in legendary miraculous tales “about” Jesus, which is not the same as saying exactly what Jesus was. As for the early church, it canonized verses at the end of Mark that few textual critics today regard as authentic. It also canonized epistles whose authenticity has been questioned by scholars. And sheesh, it is primarily the fourth Gospel that contains the most “divine” statments of Jesus starting off with the author’s words, not Jesus’, and then in the first chapter regals Jesus with title after title (everyone knew who Jesus was after first meeting him), and later goes on to fill Jesus’ mouth with a host of “I ams.” How authentic are such words?

  • Gary

    Just depends upon what a person defines as a “Christian”. If you want to expand it to be inclusive of everyone under the Son (purposely mis-spelled), I have no problem with that. You approach it from an academic point of view. I just approach it from a personal point of view, since religious beliefs are not facts defined by academics. Why worship Jesus, and go to church, if Jesus is not divine? Might as well go to a religion class. Maybe I should just stay home Sunday and watch football. I agree with Roger. His 5th point describes the expanded definition of “Christian”… “If Jesus was only a man, then he could only have been (at best) a prophet”. Which means “Christian” should include Islam. I attended some Unitarian meetings. They don’t believe in the Trinity, but they are inclusive of all. This is perfectly OK. But I don’t think they could be defined as “Christians”. Maybe more defined as Christian, and anyone else that wants to be included too. There were a good many atheists attending the UU church I attended (for a short time) as well. They wouldn’t even consider themselves “Christian”. I did the Mormon thing for awhile, and I don’t consider Mormons Christian, although they do believe in Jesus and his divinity. But as Dan implies, that belief is one that we may become like Jesus, i.e. Gods. So they believe in the divinity of Jesus, but it is not an exclusive club of three, but an all-inclusive club of everyone who does what their doctrine tells them to do…but decidedly not Christian, from my point of view. So I would support Roger’s POV.

  • Alethinon61


    Interesting post, and I agree with you about a number of details.  However, since you’ve rejected another writer’s view of what should be an essential belief for a Christian, I’d like to ask: What do YOU consider to be the essential belief(s) that one should have to legitimately consider oneself a Christian?  Is merely believing that Jesus existed and that he said some important, thought-provoking things (along with some other things that we may want to reject) enough, or is something more involved?  Please be as clear as possible and try, as much as possible, to refrain from ambiguity and/or equivocation.


    • Kaz, believing Jesus existed isn’t enough to make one a Christian. It makes one an ordinary human being. Historians agree on this point, irrespective of what their religious background may be or whether they have one at all.

      I think that the most essential element of being a Christian is embracing the challenging Christian message about a crucified Messiah, about victory through love rather than violence. It is about seeking to follow the way of Jesus. 

      I really don’t think it has anything much to do with beliefs in the sense in which that is usually emphasized in many forms of contemporary American Christianity. Even when Jesus interacted with Gentiles who could not be assumed even to accept the most basic tenet of Jewish doctrine, monotheism, we don’t hear accounts of Jesus focusing even on that important doctrine.

      And so please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that what we think is unimportant. What we think and believe regularly shapes what we do.

      But I am not certain that we have good reason to define the essence of Christianity in terms of doctrines and the acceptance of them.

  • Craig Wright

    I appreciate your answers to two passages I raised.  Your answers are responsive and succinct.  I am curious how you deal with the first chapter of Hebrews where the author is making a case that Jesus is greater than the angels, and has a more excellent name, in light of your research that Jews would accept an agent from Yahweh sharing divine names.

    • That seems to fit within the same framework of God bestowing the name on another, does it not?

      I also responded to your comment on Roger Olson’s blog, but he appears to have chosen not to approve it. That’s unfortunate, as I wanted to emphasize that seeking to place texts in their ancient context can indeed seem esoteric, because cross-cultural communication involves interacting with a world of language and thought that seems strange. And yet that is in keeping with the very incarnational emphasis that I would have expected Olson to appreciate. 

  • Bondboy

    Roger only responds to people who agree. I won’t read him anymore.
    I recently heard a sermon about Jesus and the rich young man. When asked how to inherit the life of the age to come, Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Now we all know the story in light of the fact that he didn’t, and it is seen as a tale of how difficult it is to achieve salvation and so on.
    But what if the man had done what Jesus asked? If he had sold his possessions and given them to the poor? Would he have been “saved” by works, despite not having developed theological beliefs?
    And why didn’t Jesus tell this man he had to assent to a list of hermeneutical positions? Jesus didn’t tell the man that he had to “believe” that Jesus would die for his sins, or that he was a member of the trinity.
    Jesus told people that God would forgive them if they forgave others. If correct theology was essential for salvation, was he not telling them a lie?

  • Gary

    Bondboy….. “I recently heard a sermon about Jesus and the rich young man. When asked how to inherit the life of the age to come, Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor.” As I remember, Jesus said to keep the commandments. The rich man then said he already did that, and what more did he lack. Then Jesus said if you want to be perfect….give everything away. But no one is perfect. I have no idea what the deep theology is, but I have a feeling that Jesus was saying, “I already answered your question, now buzz off”. The Monty Python translation.
    If Roger Olson isn’t publishing James answers, I guess I’ll have to stop reading Olson’s blog…seems rather rude.

    • Bondby

      Huh? I need a better reason?

      Besides, I wasn’t talking about James, it was my comments he wouldn’t publish.

  • Scott__F

    Funny, but in the United Methodist services I regularly attend, most, if not all, of the prayers are directed at God, not Jesus.  We pray that God’s, not Christ’s, will be done.  Seems like Christian life would be little different if Jesus were viewed as exalted rather than pre-existantly divine. Loved your neighbor? Check!  Clothed, feed, sheltered and visited one of the least of Christ’s brothers? Check!  Bumped into that Mormon lady from accounting while he was doing a ministry at the same prison?  Well met Sister!
    As a concession, you can continue to answer every question with “Jeeeesus” if you like…  😉

  • Craig Wright

    James, I just purchased two of your books with Christmas gift cards (The Only True God, and The Burial of Jesus).  I want to be well educated on the subject, and compare them with ones recommended by Roger Olson.  

  • I hope you find them useful! If and when you read them, please do stop by and let me know what you thought of them!

  • The author of Hebrews seemed set on the idea that Jesus was, in fact, divine. Hebrews 1, specifically!

  • Thank you for your comment, Joey. Have you read L. D. Hurst’s piece, “The Christology of Hebrews 1 and 2” or Ken Schenck’s “Keeping His Appointment: Creation and Enthronement in Hebrews”? Both do a good job of highlighting the combination of exaltationist and preexistence types of language in Hebrews, and attempt to account for them in a coherent fashion.

    Perhaps you could say more about how you understand this part of the Letter to the Hebrews?

  • Olu

    I came across this piece via Olsons’ blog ( twas generous of him to let this link stand, no ? wink ). Thanks for the resources mentioned in the post.

    Methinks the deep emotional resonance most trinitarians ( and i used to be one)  seem to derive from ‘high’ christology is THE biggest impediment to a change of mind on this issue. I also blame Nicean-induced endorphins and Jim Caviezels’ bloodied visage, btw.

    I wonder if you’ve done some work on Hellenistic Judaism and its contribution    ( or the lack thereof) to trinitarian thinking. Some conservative apologists routinely cite some strains of Judiasm from the 2nd temple era as “proof” of pre-Nicean gobbledygook.

  • I don’t want to assume that my later comment simply wasn’t approved, since as you say, he let this one stand. I know that occasionally people have asked me about a comment they wrote, and either it never got through or ended up in a spam filter without me realizing it. It is always better to assume that a technical hiccup is to blame until there is clear evidence otherwise.

    The Only True God does indeed begin by surveying some neglected evidence regarding Hellenistic Judaism, focusing on what outsiders perceived about Jews, and also on Jewish epigraphic evidence.

    I keep hoping the book will get re-issued in paperback – there were actually plans to do so before the economy made the publisher put that on hold. But in the mean time, if the hardcover is too pricey, you can recommend it for purchase by your local public library!

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Professor McGrath,

    I’m with you on your position re. pre-Nicene monotheism. 

    Could you explain to me, please, who the church is married to?  To Jesus or to Yahweh?  Yahweh was the husbandly owner of Israel.  Has that changed under the New Covenant?  Can the principle of shaluach account for the Church being married to God THROUGH Jesus? (2 Cor. 11:2)Thanking you,

    • That’s a fascinating question! Ephesians likens the relationship of the church and Christ to the relationship between husband and wife (or the other way around, to be more precise), and Revelation depicts the new Jerusalem adorned as a bride, connecting this with the marriage supper of the Lamb. There’s also some such imagery in the background in John 4, in which the discussion at a well fits a classic trope of finding a wife in the Bible. And so this is one of the places where Christ seems to take on a role of God from earlier Scripture. Presumably if worship was deemed acceptable towards the agent, then such a transfer of imagery would have been too. The Jewish depiction of the Messianic age as like or involving a wedding banquet will also have played a part. 

      The above should not be taken to mean I am downplaying the innovative character of this Christian development, and I suspect that this aspect you’ve highlighted with your question may have been one of many factors that played an important role in the development of Christology. 

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Prof. McGrath,

    I was wondering if the significance of the Church being married to Christ does not find similarity in the Torah being given to Israel as a king giving his daughter in marriage.  I think of Ex. Rabbah 33 where this is clearly stated.  But also the exclusivity of the nation Israel receiving the Torah and no other nation (Sanhedrin 59a).  Israel would therefore belong to one husband only (Torah) and the Torah would be Israel’s alone.  This exclusivity concept is the same as in marriage (cp. Pesachim 49b v.9). But then again, it is the Church who is female and Christ who is male, not the other way around as is depicted above…Just my thoughts…

  • That’s an interesting suggestion – the Wisdom imagery in the New Testament which is applied to Christ is closely related to the Wisdom imagery applied to Torah in other strands of Judaism. It is an insightful proposal to see the marriage imagery as reflecting a similar transfer of imagery from Torah to Christ!

  • Dave Anfenson

    I fear you are responding to arguments with a lot of one liners that don’t really interact with what Dr. Olson is saying. His arguments have a lot of historical weight and you simply brush them aside. Also, by saying that this is “far from clear,” says more about your assumptions than the actual texts in the Bible. I wouldn’t say it’s crystal clear, but there is certainly a lot of evidence in the NT for the deity of Christ.

    • Presumably by “historical weight” you mean what was later defined as orthodoxy, and not the historical evidence for what the New Testament texts meant in their original Jewish context? Saying that there is “a lot of evidence” in the New Testament for the deity of Christ is a one-liner that doesn’t interact with what I am saying. Certainly by the time we get to the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted as the Word-made-flesh. But even there, he is depicted as calling the Father “the only true God.” And so perhaps, especially given your unfounded accusation against me, you might want to actually interact with what I am saying and discuss specific evidence?