Friday, December 30, 2005

Lesson 3: Deity of Christ (Part 1)

(This is based on John Gerstner’s Primer on Biblical Inerrancy from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.)

Today we take up the doctrine of the deity of Christ; the proclamation that Jesus if far more than a good teacher, far more than a prophet, far more than an angel: He is God. To prove this, we will look for both indirect and direct evidence from scripture.

Starting from this lesson we take as given what we all previously acknowledged: the bible is the infallible, inerrant, inspired word of God. This means we can trust the words of Christ as presented in the bible which, in turn, means that we can allow for Jesus to attest to His own divinity.

The absolute most direct possible statement, of Jesus saying “I am God,” is not found in scripture. However there is a wealth of scripture that leads to that inevitable conclusion.

One technique that is sometimes useful for determining whether a saying of Jesus is proclaiming His divinity is to repeat what He says but imagine that we are saying it about ourselves. If it sounds like blasphemy for us to say it, then it is an indirect piece of evidence that Christ is declaring his own divinity.

This doctrine of Christ’s divinity is constantly under attack from within the Church. From our study of Church History we recall than in the fourth century the church faced the Arian Heresy, which taught that Christ was a created being. At the council of Nicea in AD 325, the Church upheld as canonical the doctrine that Jesus was begotten, not made—and that his divine nature is of the same essence as the Father. That is, Jesus is not just similar to Deity, He is Deity.

Similar attacks on the deity of Christ have appeared throughout church history, and are still with us today.

The doctrine of the deity of Christ is the most important doctrine in Christianity. We will discuss other doctrines—predestination, justification, the nature of the Atonement etc. All these doctrines are subject, most would say, to reasonable debate within the family. Most people would say, for example, that one can be a proponent or opponent of Augustinian predestination and still be a Christian. The doctrine of the deity of Christ stands alone in that we all agree that you cannot be a Christian and deny that Jesus is God.

Some try—some claim that accepting Christ’s moral teachings is what makes one a Christian. You will find this view in the lunatic fringe liberal wing of Christendom. We will look at this in more detail, but for now we point out the obvious: virtually nobody denies that Christ’s moral teachings are “good.” If accepting that Christ’s moral teachings are correct, then not only are radical Protestants (such as Bishop Spong and Bishop Robinson) Christians, but so are Mormons and Moslems. Not only that, most atheists, by that definition, are Christians—for most atheist parents will attempt to teach their children, in some form, to love their neighbors as themselves.

Jesus as a Moral Teacher

Without question, Christ is a teacher or morality. But is he only a teacher of morality, or is he something more? Can one be a Christian simply by attempting one’s best at following Christ’s moral teaching?

The answer, according to Jesus, is no. Jesus himself tells us that he is more than a moral teacher: he is the source of our morality—so much so that we not only will not but we cannot follow his moral teachings without his power within us. This is in fact the message that distinguishes Jesus from other moral teachers:

Obey the golden rule, you can will yourself to do it!—human moralists

Obey the golden rule through my power which dwells within you—Jesus’ teaching

This is very significant. Christ’s teaching on morality goes way beyond his instructing us to obey the moral law—even though at times He does simply issue commandments and maxims. However, we find an important teaching in this regard in John’s gospel:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
when Jesus tells us that He is the vine, his disciples are the branches, and the fruit they bear are the good works or, said in another way, the fruit they bear is moral conduct. Here Christ is teaching something significant: while the branch bears fruit, the ultimate source is the vine. While praising his teaching, Non-Christian moralists, while praising His moral teaching, would never ever give Christ the credit to be the source of their morality. No, they would claim something good within themselves as the source of their morality; they are in fact quite proud of their morality—which demonstrates that those non-Christians who live exemplary moral lives are only superficially following Christ’s teachings.

It is interesting to note that evolution claims that man’s morality evolved. They point out that our survival is enhanced by living in regulated, moral societies. That seems reasonable. But it also seems irreducibly complex. If we imagine a situation prior to the evolution of morality, a situation in which it was every man for himself—how did a mutated moral agent survive long enough to pass along the morality gene? It certainly is not obvious that evolution can explain morality.

At any rate, Jesus is certainly teaching the following: My disciples will display morality, and I am the source of that morality. Christ teaches us the golden rule:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7:11)
All “moralists” accept that, but He also teaches that our ability to fulfill all that commands rests in His power (as the vine) and not in ourselves. This view, which is equivalent to the view of doctrine of the total depravity of man, will never be accepted by non-Christians.

In Matthew 5, Jesus also teaches of another source of morality: God in heaven. He tells us:
In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:16)
If the good works glorify God, then again, we can paraphrase Jesus’ teaching: Live morally, this will glorify God the Father. For this to be true, it must be that God, in effect, deserves the credit—is the source as it were—of our morality. Otherwise our moral actions would be self glorifying.

We see that on two occasions Jesus ascribes the ultimate source of morality as (1) himself , and (2) God the Father. So we can conclude that in doing so Jesus is indirectly claiming his own divinity. Imagine a moral though human teacher, for example, Aristotle. Would it not be absurd for Aristotle to claim that both he is the source of his student’s morality and that God is also the source?

Though indirect, it seems that Jesus’ claim of being more than the teacher of morality but also the provider thereof is tantamount to claiming His own deity. Furthermore, we see that anyone who claims to be a Christian because he follows the teachings of Christ is incorrect. To be a Christian is much more than to claim that Jesus’ teachings are a worthy basis for human society—that sentiment must be accompanied by an acknowledgement that we are such heinous sinners that we cannot hope to follow His teachings without drawing on His power

Identification with the Father as Proof of Jesus’ Divinity

Here is a more direct proof of Christ’s divinity. When Christ speaks to Philip, He says:
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)
This is, of course, equivalent to saying “He who has seen me has seen God.” What can Jesus mean by this statement?

One natural (though incorrect) way to interpret this statement is to say that Jesus meant something along the lines that God dwelt within him. But that is not what He meant. We can see that clearly if we note that God the Holy Spirit dwells within all believers. However, if Pastor Mike stood on the pulpit and stated that “He who has seen me has seen God” we would consider putting him out to pasture for his blasphemy. We know that Pastor Mike would never say that precisely because he knows that he is not God. Likewise, if Jesus knew that he was not God but just a moral teacher, he would not make such a statement. Therefore, the fact that He freely made the statement implies that He did claim divinity.

What Christ is really teaching when He states “He who has seen me has seen the Father” is nothing short of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. He is describing his unity with God the Father, appearing on earth in a human form with a complete human nature.

Now on another occasion Jesus said:
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one." (John 10:29-30)
So Jesus claims: “I and the Father are one.” First of all, we note once again the absurdity of a non-deity making such a claim. If I stated: “I, David Heddle, and the Father are one” you would surely be scandalized. Once again we have Jesus claiming his deity by making a statement that a mere rational mortal could never utter.

These two statements, taken together, provide an interesting proof of the doctrine of the Trinity—even though the Holy Spirit is never mentioned! Here is the idea:

The first statement, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” indicates an identity between Jesus and the Father. The statement “I and the Father are one” implies both an identity and diversity. In short, we see two persons—Jesus and the Father—but one Godhead. The reason that this can be viewed, in a sense, as a proof of the trinity (obviously to be supplemented with scripture related to the Holy Spirit) is that that a common objection to the trinity is not that it is three persons in one Godhead but that it is more than one person in the Godhead. But these two statements of Jesus already open that door—all that remains is to add the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Losing Disciples as Proof of His Divinity

In chapter eight of John’s gospel, we read the interesting account of Jesus losing disciples. The account begins with Jesus engaging in a dialogue (v. 31) with certain “Jews who believed on him”
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."(John 8:31-32)
By the end of the chapter, not only did these Jews not believe in Jesus, they wanted to kill him.

At first, they believed in Him. Then, they wanted to kill him. What happened in between? What happened was that in the course of the discussion they realized that Jesus was making claims that went way beyond the Jesus they “believed” in, a Jesus who was a great moral teacher or rabbi. They became agitated when Jesus taught that he came from the Father and was one with the Father. These disciples were getting the message, and they did not like it one bit. In due time they recognized that Jesus’ claim of deity, and they viewed His claim as blasphemy. The outrage of these Jewish believers can only be explained when we recognized that they certainly believed that Jesus was claiming to be God. In fact, scripture quite clearly speaks of their complaint: “You being a man make yourself out to be God.”

The statement “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” was made to believing disciples. They accepted Jesus’ claim of divinity. The statements from this portion of John 8 are made to believers who do not really believe. They reject the claim and try to execute Him.

To be continued.

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