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Theology

Does the New Testament Call Jesus God?

Note from Rowland: I believe this is an excellent article addressing a very important question. Note that Dr. Vincent Taylor is not denying the Divinity of Christ (and, interestingly, capitalizes personal pronouns relating to Christ, a practice which is not customary among contemporary progressive/liberal – and even most conservative – scholars). For more on this mainline NT scholar see http://www.bible.ca/trinity/trinity-Taylor.htm or to track down more on Vincent Taylor in Expository Times see http://ext.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/75/6/164 ).

Anyone out there want to modify the ideas/phrasing here from the works of later scholars?

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[From Expository Times, January 1962, Vol. 73, pp. 116-118]

by Vincent Taylor, D.D., F.B.A.

THIS is a question of considerable importance since it not only concerns the interpretation of a number of New Testament passages, but also bears on the modern problems of Christology. It should be recognized at the outset that the question is not whether Jesus is divine, but whether He is actually described as THEOS and whether we… are justified in speaking of Him as ‘God’. Some scholars do speak of Him in this way, while others who hold the highest estimate of His Person hesitate to use this name and feel a sense of uneasiness when they hear it applied to Him. By way of example we may compare the way in which Professor Leonard Hodgson speaks of Jesus in his Gifford Lectures, For Faith and Freedom, and the usage of Professor James Denney discussed in his correspondence with Sir W. Robertson Nicoll as revealed in the Letters of Principal James Denney to W. Robertson Nicoll [1883-1917], 120-126.

Professor Hodgson says that the life of Christ was the life of One for whom we can find no place in our thought ‘short of acknowledging Him as God’, and again that we cannot account for what He was and did by thinking of Him ‘as anything less than God’ (pp. 83-86). In a letter to Principal Denney, Robertson Nicoll said that, for all his apparent orthodoxy, there was a singular vein of scepticism in Denney, and Denney admitted that the aversion he had to such expressions as Jesus is God was linguistic as much as theological. ‘Jesus’, he wrote, ‘is man as well as God, in some way therefore both less and more than God; and consequently a form of proposition which in our idiom suggests inevitably the precise equivalence of Jesus and God does some kind of injustice to the truth’ (p. 57).

The contrast between these two points of view is very marked, and it must be considered which of them commands the greater support on exegetical and theological grounds.

[I]

The relevant New Testament passages are comparatively few. Bultmann observes that ‘in describing Christ as “God” the New Testament still exercises great restraint’. Except for Jn 1:1, Bultmann observes, ‘where the pre-existent Logos is called God, and Jn 20:28, where Thomas reverences the risen Christ with the exclamation, “My Lord and my God” this assertion is made — at least by any probable exegesis — only in 2 Thess 1:12, Tit 2:13, and 2 Pet 1:1’. To these he adds in a footnote, ‘The doxology in Rom 9:5 is scarcely to be referred to Christ; in Jn 1:18 and 1 Tim 3:16 “God” is a secondary variant’. These last named passages cannot be dismissed so easily. All these passages must be examined. Meantime we may note that he says that Ignatius, on the contrary, speaks of Christ as God as if it were a thing to be taken for granted, in such phrases ‘God manifested himself as man’ (Eph 19:3), ‘God’s blood’ (Eph 1:1), ‘the bread of God, that is, the flesh of Jesus Christ’ (Rom 7:3). As early then as the first decade of the second century this custom of speaking of Christ as ‘God’ was beginning to spread.

In examining the New Testament passages we may with advantage begin with the earliest, Rom 9:5. It stands as the climax of a list of privileges possessed by the Jews, and in the Revised Version reads as follows, ‘And of whom is Christ as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.’ In this Version Christ is described as God, but in the margin two alternative renderings are given in which the closing words read, ‘He who is God over all be (is) blessed for ever’, or after the word ‘flesh’, and so with reference to Christ, ‘who is over all. God be (is) blessed for ever’. The American Revised Standard Version reverses the arrangement and has the doxology to God in the text. Moffatt does the same.

It is well known the greatest of the commentators range themselves on each side, Sanday and Headlam, G. G. Findlay, P. C. Boylan, and many others in relating the doxology to Christ, but others, including H. A. W. Meyer, J. Denney, C. A. Anderson Scott, C. H. Dodd, and other commentators in maintaining that it is addressed to God. The dispute continues. Among more recent commentators Anders Nygren defends the rendering of the Revised Version, but Bultmann, J. Knox, and C. K. Barrett refer the doxology to God. For my own part I think the balance of opinion falls on this side, and that Christ is not addressed as God. As so many have observed, Barrett contends that nowhere else does Paul call Christ God. ‘Phil 2:6’ he says, ‘is not a real parallel’. ‘Is it likely’ he asks, ‘that he would here run counter to his general practice?’, although he admits that it is not impossible, The New English Bible reads, ‘May God, supreme above all, be blessed for ever ! Amen.’

The only other Pauline passage which has been claimed as a reference to Christ as God is 2 Th 1:12, ‘according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ’, but this interpretation is so dubious that some commentators do not even mention it. It is manifest that Paul is speaking first of God and secondly of Christ.’

A single passage in the Epistle of the Hebrews may be mentioned, but it supplies no ground at all for the supposition that the author thought and spoke of Christ as God. The passage is a quotation from Ps 45:7-8 in Heb 1:8-9 which is applied to Christ, to show His superiority to the angels.

But of the Son he saith, Thy throne, 0 God, is for ever and ever And the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity Therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee With the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

The Psalm is Messianic and the divine name is carried over with the rest of the quotation. Like Paul and John the writer frequently uses the name ‘the Son’, and he does so in introducing this very quotation. He has no intention of suggesting that Jesus is God.

We reach a more difficult issue in the Gospel of John. Here, in the Prologue, the Word is said to be God, but, as often observed, in contrast with the clause, ‘the Word was with God’, the definite article is not used (in the final clause). For this reason it is generally translated ‘and the Word was divine’ (Moffatt) or is not regarded as God in the absolute sense of the name. The New English Bible neatly paraphrases the phrase in the words ‘and what God was, the Word was’. In a second passage in the Prologue (1:18) the textual evidence attests ‘only-begotten God’ more strongly than ‘only-begotten Son’, but the latter is preferred by many commentators as being more in harmony with Johannine usage and with the succeeding clause, ‘who is in the bosom of the Father’. In neither passage is Jesus unequivocally called God, while again and again in the Gospel He is named ‘the Son’ or ‘the Son of God’. In a third passage, however, there is no doubt that the name ‘God’ is assigned to Him. When Thomas is bidden to see the hands and side of Jesus, he cries in adoring love, ‘My Lord and my God’. This cry is spontaneous and devotional and illustrates an aspect, and not the whole, of the Evangelist’s Christology. Like the author of Hebrews he thinks and speaks of Christ in the category of Sonship.

In the Fourth Gospel we approach nearest to the use of THEOS as a Christological title. Two late passages, however, must be mentioned in which the application of the name is dubious. The first is Tit 2:13, ‘looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ’. Much discussion has centred upon this passage. The point at issue is whether the Greek should be rendered ‘the glory of our great God-and-Saviour, Jesus Christ’, or ‘… of the great God, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ’. The grammarians range themselves on both sides, for in koiné Greek the rendering of the article with ‘Saviour’ is possible even when it is not actually repeated. The theologians are also divided. The New English Bible has ‘the splendour of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus’. In a non-Pauline writing of late date this translation is quite possible, but it is not certain. A similar situation is present in the second passage, 2 Pe 1:1 in the phrase ‘the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (NEB, the justice of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ) but here again alternatives which distinguish two Persons are possible. The issue is even less important in view of the fact that 2 Peter is a pseudonymous writing later in date than the time of Ignatius.

All the relevant passages have been mentioned and we may accept Bultmann’s words as an understatement, ‘In describing Christ as “God” the New Testament still exercises great restraint.’

The reasons for this restraint are not far to seek. It is due in large measure to the profound effect of the monotheism of the Old Testament upon the New Testament writers. I have said elsewhere of Paul’s Christology, ‘He will not compromise his belief that God is One God, not even for Christ’s sake’, and this is true also of the author of Hebrews and John. It is also due to the fact that in the New Testament period the time has not yet come to define the relationships which exist between the Father and the Son. If they are not defined, neither are they obscured. ‘Only-begotten’ is as far as John is prepared to go.

[II]

The question may be asked, What is the value of the inquiry we are making? Are the names we assign to Jesus Christ of practical importance, or is their interest merely academic? I have no doubt that their importance is very great indeed. First, the habit of calling Jesus God tends to restrict unduly our understanding of the riches of the Divine Being. We stand on a slippery slope which may easily lead to a Sabellian interpretation of the Person of Christ. I do not mean that all who speak of Christ in this way are Sabellianist in theology, but that this is the tendency of their Christology. The widespread, but probably doubtful, rendering of 2 Co 5:19, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself’, is perhaps a sign of this tendency. The margin of the New English Bible translates the passage much better, ‘God was reconciling the world to himself by Christ’. Doubtless each Person of the Trinity is interpermeated by the other Persons, so that it can be said with Paul, ‘For it is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells’ (Col 2:9 [NEB]), but nowhere else does the Apostle speak of the divine indwelling in Him. He appears to avoid the language of immanence when speaking of Christ. And rightly, for to describe Christ as God is to neglect the sense in which He is both less and more, man as well as God within the glory and limitations of His Incarnation.

Secondly, then, the wonder of the Incarnation is compromised. It is well known that the New Testament does not hesitate to describe Jesus as a man. Paul does this in Rom 5:15 and Ph 2:8, and the author of the Pastoral Epistles in 1 Ti 2:5. Now if we call Jesus God, we may find it difficult to refer to Him as a man, that is, if by this term we mean a separate individual. We may prefer to think and speak of Him as Man. In a well-known passage in Atonement and Personality R. C. Moberly wrote, ‘If He might have been, yet He certainly was not, a man only, amongst men. His relation to the human race is not that He was another specimen, differing, by being another, from everyone except Himself. His relation to the race was not a differentiating but a consummating relation. He was not generically, but inclusively, man’ (p. 86). Atonement and Personality is a great theological classic, but this particular argument is an example of losing the substance when grasping at the shadow. ‘Man’, in the sense in which Moberly uses the term, is a meaningless abstraction. It is part of the price we have to pay when speaking of Christ as ‘God’.

And this is not all. The Gospels clearly show that the knowledge of Jesus was limited, that He asked questions for the sake of information, that His understanding of Nature and the world was that of His day, that He challenged the rich ruler who addressed Him as ‘Good Master’ with the question, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’ These issues have constantly caused embarrassment and must continue to do so if without qualification Jesus is described as God. Honest historical criticism becomes very difficult on this basis, and what is even more important, no fitting grasp of the reality and depth of the self-emptying of Jesus is possible. It might be thought that, in using restraint in speaking of the Deity of Christ, we are robbing Him of His true dignity, but so far from doing this, we are enhancing it, since it is of the nature of Deity that it can stoop to the depth of man’s need in a sacrifice to which there is no parallel. The one clear ascription of Deity to Christ, ‘My Lord and my God’, in the New Testament is addressed to Him in His Risen and Exalted life, and breathes the atmosphere of worship. This is the sphere to which it belongs, but we are most likely to kneel in adoration if we have first entered into the truth of the words, ‘For the divine nature was his from the first; yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, revealed in human shape, he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death — death on a cross’ (Ph 2:6-9 [NEB]).

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