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Divinity in the dock
Frederick W. Marks
Homiletic & Pastoral Review - October 2002
It is a curious fact that beginning with the Gnostics and Ebionites of the second and third centuries and running on down to the Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses of our own day, there have always been putative Christians who denied the divinity of Christ. During the fourth century, when almost every eastern bishop, as well as most in the West, were Arians, and therefore heretics on this most fundamental of issues, the stakes were high. Men of the caliber of Athanasius were forced into exile. Ultimately, the Trinitarian dogma was upheld (at the Council of Nicaea in 325), but the Arian spirit continued to smolder and was never completely extinguished. Thus, while the vast majority of present-day Christians believe in Christ’s divinity, the challenge to orthodoxy remains, and the question, naturally, is why?
Skeptics reason as follows: how could God, who is all-perfect, take on an imperfect human nature? It seems a contradiction in terms. Secondly, why would a being who is all-powerful immerse himself in pain when he could have saved mankind by a split-second act of the divine will? Thirdly, Jesus behaved as if he were a person of finite capacity. He thirsted; he bled; and he prayed. To whom did he pray? To himself? He likewise deferred to someone whom he called his father in heaven. “The Father is greater than I,” he told his disciples, and to Zebedee’s wife, the mother of James and John, he confided that places of honor in the kingdom of God were not his to give.1 Critics suggest further that the gospels may be tainted—that the evangelists may have put words in Jesus’ mouth and pictured him as having claimed divinity when in fact he never did; also that propagandists may have tampered with the sacred texts. As a parting shot, they ask how Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could have recalled the exact wording of lengthy discourses.
None of the above problems is insuperable. God’s ways are not man’s ways. Given the fact that God’s superiority relative to mankind is infinitely greater than the superiority of an earthly father to a one-year-old child, how reasonable is it to suppose mere earthlings capable of plumbing the depths of Divine Providence? The Trinity has always been a mystery, and so it will remain. But while such mystery transcends reason, it does not contradict it. If a perfect being can create other beings that are imperfect, then conceivably he can assume or “take on” their imperfection while retaining his divinity. Hard to imagine, perhaps, but not beyond the realm of possibility.
It is interesting that the Greeks and Romans, who were known for their logic, had no trouble imagining gods walking the earth; interesting, too, that man is a mix of mortal and immortal elements. Imperfection coexists in every soul with a marvelous potential for perfection (realizable in heaven). Intimations of a bridge spanning the finite and infinite are found in Old Testament descriptions of God walking with man in Eden and talking with him on Mt. Sinai. Coincidentally, beings of pure spirit have been known to assume human form, as in the case of the archangel who approached Sarah and Tobias.
Once God grants us the beatific vision, we shall have no more trouble explaining the Incarnation than modern scientists have in explaining how a black cow can eat green grass and produce white milk. But in the meantime, we must exercise patience, along with humility.
Point number two: Jesus spoke as man because he was man—true man, as well as true God. The Church has always upheld Christ’s humanity. What is important is that Jesus was more than a man. Tears are human, and so is hunger. But no mortal in his right mind has ever claimed to be God. And Jesus, as we shall see, made such a claim many times over.
How much sense does it make, in the third place, to assume that people willing to lie would also be willing to die for their lie? One of the key arguments for the divinity of Christ is the willingness of a vast number of Christians, including eyewitnesses, to give their lives for the truth of the Gospel. According to Tacitus, dean of ancient historians, an “immense multitude” of Christian brethren underwent martyrdom within thirty to forty years of the Resurrection.
As for the suggestion that a Christian evangelist may have put words in Jesus’ mouth, this would have been duplicitous in the highest degree, not to say unChristlike and a violation of the Eighth Commandment. One of the principal themes of Christianity has been the value that it attaches to truth. Jesus set the compass in this respect, vowing that “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”2 Again, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”3 And yet again, “When he, the Spirit of truth has come, he will teach you all the truth.”4
How account for the fact that the Gospel of John, which affords most of the evidence for divinity, is also the gospel that furnishes a lion’s share of the evidence against it? John’s masterpiece might well be called the “Gospel of Truth” owing to its stress on intellectual integrity. Take, for example, its assertion that “truth came through Jesus Christ” and “they who worship him must worship in . . . truth.”5 John extols truthtelling in the first of two letters and quotes Jesus as praying that the Holy Spirit will sanctify his followers “in the truth.”6 Every quotation in the previous paragraph is taken from John. Finally, John alone among the evangelists makes a point of twice vouching for the veracity of his account, concluding his gospel with the assurance that “He who saw it has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he tells the truth . . . This is the disciple who bears witness . . . and who has written these things.”7
Clearly, all four of the inspired writers took extraordinary pains to ensure the accuracy of what they wrote. They present thousands of facts regarding persons, places, and events, all of them absolutely on target. Luke alone refers correctly to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands. In recent years, scholars have focused on a variety of alleged errors and contradictions in the New Testament, but none of these has ever been convincingly demonstrated.
Charges of tampering are equally tenuous. Had such mischief occurred during the lifetime of eyewitnesses, the resultant errors would surely have attracted attention and been corrected. Had it occurred at a later date, there would have been too many untampered copies abroad in various parts of the world for the discrepancies to have escaped notice. Rectification, once more, would have followed. How account, in addition, for all the embarrassing passages in today’s text that would never have remained if tamperers had had their way—passages such as Jesus’ admission that “of myself I can do nothing.”8
One can go further. Out of thousands of manuscript copies from all over the world containing portions of the New Testament and dating as far back as the first half of the second century, differences of wording are rare and not a single one of them has any appreciable bearing on dogma. By the same token, Paul’s letters, which attest to many of the ideas and events of the gospels, are accepted by scholars as independent accounts written within twenty-five to forty years of the Resurrection. One more indication of reliability.
Beyond this, not a single Jew from the early centuries ever questioned the truth of the gospel narrative except insofar as it relates to the Resurrection. Jewish leaders could easily have issued denials. Politically, they were in the driver’s seat. They had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Interestingly, though, they refrained, and even today, there are Jews who believe in the Resurrection because this is what reason dictates.
As for the evangelists’ ability to record Jesus’ exact words, the answer may again be simply stated. Jesus promised his followers a special form of enlightenment which would call to mind everything he had said.9 This was the “Spirit of Truth,” which would descend upon them at Pentecost to teach them all things.10 Even without supernatural help, however, the memory of the average person at the time of Christ was superb. Paper being costly, as well as scarce, students did not take notes; and so they had to remember. The rabbis used to say that a good pupil was like a cistern that never leaked.
So much for charges of padding and tampering. We must turn now to the crux of the issue, which is Jesus’ definition of who he was. The Jewish name for God was “I am” (Exod. 3:14) and Our Lord used it on more than one occasion to refer to himself, most notably when he said, “Before Abraham came to be, I am.”11 Then again, “so that you may believe that I am.”12 Observe that Jesus does more than take the name of God; he also claims preexistence; and such a claim appears more than once. Thus, “Father, glorify me with thyself with the glory that I had with thee before the world existed”; “Thou [Father] hast loved me before the creation of the world”; and “I [Jesus] saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” It was doubtless with words such as these in mind that John composed the celebrated prelude to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus] and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”13
Those who deny Jesus’ divinity must reckon with another singularity: namely, Jesus’ claim to be able to forgive sin. As his compatriots well knew, this was something only God could do. Consequently, they judged him blasphemous.14 And how did he respond? He carried on unfazed, going so far as to deputize his apostles.15 Allied with the power to forgive is, of course, the power to send souls to hell, and this, too, he claimed, remarking that “All judgment is with the Son.”16 He said he would come on the clouds of heaven accompanied by his angels to separate the sheep from the goats.”17 At the same time, he promised heaven to the penitent thief and told Judas that it would have been better for him if he had never been born.18
What manner of man? Peter and Paul were quick to remind their listeners that they were only human like everyone else; but Jesus, who extolled childlike simplicity and spent the better part of his life as a carpenter, insisted that he was greater than any preacher, wiser than any sage, and holier than God’s Temple.19
On occasion, the Nazarene went even further, allowing people to worship him. Among those who knelt in awe were the wife of Zebedee; a synagogue ruler; a Canaanite woman; a leper whom he had healed; doubting Thomas (who hailed him as “my Lord and my God”); and the apostles as a group.20 They knew what they were about, for here was an individual who claimed to possess all that the Father possessed, who insisted that he alone “knew” the Father, and who matched words with action.21
In the last analysis, it all boils down to a remarkably simple choice: either Jesus was God or he was the greatest braggart and liar the world has ever known. Liars do not conjure up immortal parables, however. They do not go down in history for their teaching. Neither, as a rule, do they embrace poverty, show boundless compassion, sacrifice their lives, and forgive their enemies. No serious scholar has ever suggested that Jesus was an egomaniac or megalomaniac because the evidence is just not there. Our Lord did not seek to overwhelm people with his miracles. On the contrary, he is known to have pleaded with them not to spread the news! 22
There were times when Jesus hinted at his true identity by asking leading questions. For example, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God.”23 At another point, he challenged his audience to explain how David could refer to a messiah to come from his [David’s] own blood as “My Lord.”24 In both instances, one can well imagine a twinkle in the eye of the divine teacher.
Still another reason for believing that Our Lord claimed to be God is the testimony of his apostles. Peter refers to him not only as “God” but also as “the author of life,” while Paul credits him with “all the fullness of the Godhead.”25 John uses the term “the Alpha and Omega”—he “who is, who was, and who is coming.”26 Then there is Jude, who has Jesus keeping the fallen angels in chains and saving the Israelites in Egypt.27 Such conviction, coupled with soaring eloquence and a willingness to lay down one’s life, speaks volumes.
If it were possible to make the case for divinity by pointing to a burst of miracles, then one would not have to attend so closely to what Jesus said. But alas, such is not the case. One does not have to be God to work miracles. St. Dominic raised men from the dead. So did Elijah. God, if he wished, could also empower mortals to raise themselves from the dead. All that may be safely said is that Jesus’ credibility is greatly enhanced by the unprecedented number and magnitude of his miracles because miracles, by definition, depend on the direct intervention of the Almighty, and God will not step in to endorse a falsehood.
But if miracles are not conclusive, what then? Once again, it is to Christ’s words that we must go. Listen to his response when he cured ten lepers on the border between Samaria and Galilee, and only one, a Samaritan, returned to give him thanks: “Has no one been found to return and give glory to God except this foreigner?”28 Why the phrase “to God” unless Jesus was himself God? The ideal place for thanksgiving would have been the Temple. Similarly, after telling his disciples not to let anyone call them “rabbi,” meaning “master,” because “only one is your master,” he allowed people to call him precisely this.29
Sign after sign points in the same direction. One might imagine a savant saying “I and the Father are one.”30 But what would one think if this same savant were to elaborate, as Jesus did: “He who sees me sees also the Father.”31 Under normal conditions, such language would be maniacal cant. Consider, in addition, his claim to be “the Son of God,” a title regarded by fellow Jews as blasphemous and hence deserving of the death penalty.32 Why, furthermore, would someone other than God tell Satan, who tried to seduce him with worldly promises, not to tempt “the Lord thy God”?33
Only God or a madman would claim to have “legions of angels” at his disposal. With cool insouciancy, Jesus informed his listeners that he wielded “all power in heaven and on earth,” also that he could give eternal life to anyone who believed in him and kept his word.34
Neither Mohammed nor Buddha ever spoke like this, and neither of them described himself as sinless, as did Jesus.35 Here was a man who set himself above the law when it came to Sabbath observance and payment of the Temple tax, one who described himself as more worthy of love than one’s own parents.36
Taken individually, none of the above points is necessarily conclusive. Viewed in their totality, however, and especially in light of Jesus’ humble birth, plain life style, and ignominious death, they are stunning. In all the annals of history, there is no one even remotely comparable to Our Lord. He worked miracles without invoking the name of the Father; he established a covenant between mankind and himself; he promised that his words would never pass away.37
Need one say more? The picture could hardly be more complete. And so it is that we return to our original question: why is it that men and women since the time of Tiberius have called themselves Christian while denying the divinity of Christ? As moderns we tend to think in terms of invincible ignorance, environmental conditioning, and social bias. Who among us is not keenly aware of the consequences of bad example on the part of orthodox believers, ourselves included? All of this is understandable; indeed, it serves a useful purpose. Nevertheless, one must not lose sight of the posture of Jesus. His people, like ours, witnessed bad example—Judas was a thief before he turned traitor (John 12:6). His people, like ours, were shaped by the conventional wisdom. Yet he held them to account: “If I had not come,” he thundered, and “spoken to them” and “done among them works such as no one else has done, they would have no sin,” but now “they have no excuse for their sin.” “Everyone who is of the truth,” he insisted, “hears my voice.”38
Whether one listens to Jesus or to Peter and Paul, three things are clear: first, that all men are expected to listen to the gospel when they hear it preached; secondly, that having listened, they are to recognize it as the truth and embrace it; thirdly, that sin lies at the root of much that passes for disbelief.39 In this respect, the Old and New Testaments are of a piece. Proverbs tells us that sin blinds men to justice, while Jesus states categorically, “everyone who does evil hates the light.”40 Knowing the psychology of sin, Our Lord urged his listeners to “repent” and “believe”—in that order. The very first note of his mission was “repent,” and thereafter, he hammered home the idea that “unless you repent you will all perish.”41
How many skeptics, shrinking from honest contrition, tailor their theology to a certain level of self-indulgence? Knowing that Our Lord’s commands were stiff—that he outlawed divorce and recommended celibacy, that he extolled poverty and promised persecution—they would sooner deny his divinity than open their lives to a wholesome discipline and suffer the loss of human respect. Deep down, they know that if Jesus was merely a sage, even the greatest of sages, then they are free to pick and choose among his teachings. If, on the other hand, he was God, they must hang upon his every word and act upon it.
If Jesus was God, then his promises, too, must be taken at face value. If he pledged to send “the Paraclete” to strengthen the Twelve and refresh their recollection of what he said, then one can count on the reliability of the gospels. If he conferred supreme authority in matters of faith and morals on a single individual, then one can rely on the pronouncements of such an individual today, for this was God’s will, and with God, all things are possible. In short, our every thought and deed, along with the conduct of our Church leaders, must conform to specifications laid down by the God-man, for, as Jesus declared, “He who loves me” keeps my commandments.42
1 John 14:28;
Dr. Frederick W. Marks is a research historian and essayist with degrees from Holy Cross College and the University of Michigan. His most recent book is A Brief for Belief: The Case for Catholicism (Queenship Publishing Co., 1999) He has taught courses on the fundamentals of the Catholic faith at the university level, as well as in various parishes.