Lately, my wife and I have been watching a series of video lectures on the New Testament, part of the modestly-titled Great Courses brand. Pretensions aside, the Great Courses actually are pretty good, and this particular series examines the New Testament from a historical and academic (and therefore secular) point of view. My wife is a Christian and I’m not, and we’ve both gotten a lot out of them.
One thing I like about the lectures is that they force you to step back from modern, mainstream views on Christianity, and focus your attention on the text of the gospels themselves. As you’d expect from documents that are two millennia old, their meaning in many cases is hard to grasp. In particular, it’s far from clear whether the gospel authors themselves considered Jesus to be God.
At first glance, this may seem surprising. Nearly all modern Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses excepted, believe that Jesus was (and is) both fully man and fully God. But, as it turns out, this belief is never explicitly stated anywhere in the Bible.
Of the four gospels, John comes the closest to spelling it out. Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9.) Even this is oddly veiled and, in my view, ambiguous. After all, Jesus spoke in parable and metaphor; couldn’t he have meant that he was the path to the Father?
And remember, John was the latest of the four, written probably sixty years after Jesus’ death. The earlier three are even less clear. Jesus is presented as the Jewish messiah, the “Son of Man,” and the “Son of God.” But God Himself? Hints, perhaps, but nothing more. A modern reader, examining the gospels without a prior opinion, might be very puzzled about the exact nature of Jesus’ divine status. In fact, the early Christians were equally puzzled, with prominent sects promoting the idea that Jesus was subordinate to God. It wasn’t until the First Council of Nicaea, almost three centuries after the death of Jesus, that anything like a consensus was reached.
But here’s my question: does it matter? If you are a Christian, a believer, is the status of Jesus as God really part of the foundation of your faith?
John 3:16 is often cited as an encapsulation of the Christian belief:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
A belief in God, a belief in salvation, and a belief in Jesus as Christ and redeemer. It’s striking that Jesus-as-God forms no part of this core formula.
Though I’m not a Christian anymore, I was for a long time, and it seems to me that this question – while interesting – is not fundamental. If God sent Jesus to die for the sins of mankind, surely that’s the important part. Does his precise theological status really matter?
What do you think?