If Jesus was not God…
Recently here I talked about the importance of the incarnation and the deity of Jesus Christ for Christian identity. In light of our more recent discussion of atheism and the use of transcendental argumentation to demonstrate the rationality of belief in God, I’d now like to put forth some thoughts about the deity of Jesus Christ in the same way: viz., What if Jesus was/is not God? The reason for this is the phenomenon of people often within Christian churches and organizations who deny the deity of Jesus Christ, and thus the incarnation, or redefine it so radically that it isn’t really “there” anymore. As anyone knows who has come here often, I believe belief in the deity of Jesus Christ, that the man Jesus Christ is also eternal God, of the same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit, is definitive of real Christianity (when by “real Christianity” we are meaning cognitively). Even the World Council of Churches agrees because it requires member denominations to affirm “Jesus Christ is God and Savior” which is why some denominations have never joined it.
The way I’d like to go about this today is to ask (in the style of the transcendental argument for the existence of God) what would be the case if Jesus were not God? What ought someone who denies the deity of Christ also believe precisely because they do not believe that? (The form of the transcendental argument for the existence of God is that a person who denies it ought to believe in nihilism but few do so they fall into inconsistency with themselves. Or, alternatively expressed, the reality of objective meaning and values require the existence of a supreme being such as God [not necessarily the God of the Bible].)
First, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ ought not to worship him; worship belongs only to God. At best, such a person should reasonably only venerate him as a saint or prophet. However, in my experience, many people who say they do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ participate in worship that includes worship of Jesus—especially perhaps at this season of the year.
Second, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ will have to come up with some explanation for why early Christians treated him as God. The anti-Christian orator Celsus, in On the True Doctrine (by which he meant a common Roman quasi-religion that mixed Stoicism and Platonism) ridiculed second century Christians in the Roman Empire for worshiping a man as God. To be sure some religious scholars have posited explanations for this, but others have pointed out how difficult that would have been (to elevate a mere man to divine status) so quickly and in such a cultural milieu (synagogues and Roman culture). If second century Christians were that wrong about something so important, then perhaps what we know as Christianity itself is based on myths and legends.
Third, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ will have to explain the resurrection of Jesus or deny it. As my mentor theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg so famously put it, the resurrection was God’s confirmation of the claims of Jesus Christ which amounted to deity (e.g., ability to forgive sins not on someone else’s behalf but by his own authority). If a person denies the resurrection, then Jesus is still dead and/or a ghost. Almost no one denies that the resurrection, including the empty tomb, was the cause of the rise of Christianity among the disciples (a category here not restricted to 11 or 12 but including all the first generation Christians in Palestine). If the empty tomb was a myth or legend (a la Bultmann’s and Tillich’s restitution theory) it is difficult to explain the rise of the Christian church and the martyrdoms of the disciples.
Fourth, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ will have to answer C. S. Lewis’ “Liar, Lunatic or Son of God” argument in Mere Christianity. Jesus claimed to BE the presence of the Kingdom of God among people. He claimed to have God’s own authority to forgive sins. He claimed to be “one with the Father” (as well as distinct from him). He did not deny the charge that he made himself equal with God. (Etc.) If he was not God, he was a blasphemer or a megalomaniac.
Fifth, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ will have to redefine “salvation” away from any recognizably orthodox Christian notion of it toward Pelagianism (for example). If Jesus was only a man, then he could only have been (at best) a prophet, a revealer of God’s will, an example to follow, but Christians have always believed that we need more than that. We need a mediator, a reconciler, a God-man, because of our alienation from God. We need a God-man for “divinization” (2 Peter 1:4).
Sixth, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ will have to explain why other men (and possibly women) could not have surpassed Jesus in terms of whatever Jesus was. If Jesus was just a man, even the greatest prophet of God up until his time, there is no good reason to suppose there have not been other equally great men, equally great prophets and even ones surpassing Jesus. This is, of course, the Bahai approach to who Jesus was and who other prophets were and are. In other words, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ should be a pluralist with regard to saviors.
Seventh, a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ will have to also deny the Trinity (and most already see that and do deny it!).
I’ll stop with seven reasons why the deity of Jesus Christ is crucial to Christian identity. After all, seven is the perfect number!
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?”
I have met Baptists who argue that they MUST allow deniers of the deity of Jesus Christ among them, as full members, because of the Baptist “doctrine” of “soul competency.” I believe that is a complete misinterpretation of soul competency. It cannot mean “anything goes.” And it rarely does mean that. What if a member revealed he or she is a White Supremacist? Or what if a member openly declared he or she thought genocide is a good thing? Or that abuse of children is good? Most Baptist churches (that make use of the concept of soul competency) would suddenly discover there are limits to soul liberty and competency when it comes to being a member. Now, I’m not comparing a person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ with White Supremacists or defenders of genocide, etc. I’m ONLY saying that “soul competency” has its limits; it did not mean to E. Y. Mullins (who was probably the first person to make use of that term if not that concept) that being Christian or Baptist is compatible with anything and everything. No church I know would allow absolutely anything—even Unitarian ones. Why do some Christian churches then allow members, if not leaders, to deny the deity of Jesus Christ—a doctrine so absolutely central and crucial to Christian identity?
One reason is that most self-identified Christians who deny the deity of Jesus Christ express their denial in such a subtle manner that it’s difficult for the theologically untrained to know quite what is going one. There is, for example, such a thing as “functional Christology.” In fact, that broad category pretty much covers most of the denials of the deity of Jesus Christ in modern theology. The idea is that Jesus “functioned” as God among people—by being the perfect revealer of God’s character and will (John A. T. Robinson’s “The Human Face of God”), or God’s “deputy and representative” among people (Hans Kung). The first formulator of functional Christology among Christians was Friedrich Schleiermacher who reduced Jesus’ deity to his intensity of God-consciousness that he was able to communicate to others.
Functional Christology is extremely clever and sometimes difficult to discover as such. People who actually believe in it will often talk about Jesus’ divinity, but, of course, they don’t mean he was/is ontologically one with God. All seven of my points apply to their functional Christology just as much as to outright denials of the deity of Jesus Christ (e.g., blatant adoptionism).
In my opinion, Christian churches have become wimpish about this matter. That is, with the exception of fundamentalists (who may themselves have a defective view of Jesus’ humanity!) and hyper-orthodox creedalists who would probably excommunicate someone for much less than denying the ontological deity of Jesus Christ! When I say Christian churches have become wimpish about this, I mean churches in the broad mainstream of Christianity including many evangelical churches. Many don’t even ask candidates for membership anything about their belief about Jesus Christ. So long as they say they “believe IN Jesus Christ” they’re included. Sometimes this arises out of naivety (about the prevalence of Christological heresies) and sometimes it arises simply out of desire to be inclusive. In either case it’s something that needs correcting. Here’s the question every church should ask of every candidate for membership and especially every candidate for leader (deacon, elder, pastor, board member, etc.): “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God and Savior?” The World Council of Churches asks that of every candidate denomination so why don’t Christian churches ask it of candidates for membership? They should start.