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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