The Divinity of Jesus — Part 3 of 3

This is the third post in the series. The first is here, and the second here. I’m going to use some jargon I introduced in those posts, so I suggest you look there first.

In the last two weeks I’ve read two books by Larry Hurtado. “How on Earth Did Jesus Become God” (Wm. B. Eerdmans 2005) and “Lord Jesus Christ” (also Wm. B. Eerdmans 2005). Both concerning the devotion to Jesus in the early church. I enjoyed them very much, and found sections quite transporting. But I found both books rather like walking into the end of an argument. Hurtado expends a lot of effort in both books arguing against a viewpoint I didn’t hold, and couldn’t see the merit in. In particular the “How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?” book didn’t appear to concisely answer its own question (it is a series of edited lectures and papers, rather than work composed from scratch). So this series is my attempt to synthesize and perhaps rephrase what might be his argument, if I’m understanding it. Any oddities here are therefore my responsibility, any nuggets of truth are probably his.

So here’s how I read it.

  1. In the very early period after Jesus’s death, one or more of his disciples had significant religious experiences that led to a significant religious innovation: the worship of Jesus. This was cultic, not theological.
  2. Jesus’s early followers were Jews, and therefore deeply embedded in a religious world that accepted a whole pantheon of spiritual beings (i.e. were etically polytheistic), but only allowed worship of one of them (i.e. monolatrous).
  3. Worship of two figures (Jesus and God) therefore produced a theological tension with the emic view that there was only one god.
  4. The development of Christology (i.e. the understanding of who or what Jesus was) was motivated by this tension.

That seems to me to be logical and sensible. Though, again, I confess I haven’t read the counter-arguments.

While reading the books (this bit isn’t contained in them, not that I can find, anyway), I found myself thinking in terms of this contradiction:

  • I worship supernatural being A.
  • I worship supernatural being B.
  • Only one supernatural being is worthy of worship.

There are a few things that can resolve this:

  1. i) stop worshipping A or B;
  2. ii) emically decide that your worship of A or B isn’t ‘really’ worship;
  3. iii) emically unify A and B, to claim they are the same being;
  4. iv) abandon the last statement: your claim to be monolatrous.

Christianity initially seems to have done (iv) – the earliest descriptions of Jesus worship are based on the idea that Jesus is worthy of worship. And he is worthy explicitly because the capital-G God made him so. God raised Jesus to be the name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow (Phil 2:10 – Hurtado examines this hymn in some depth). This maintains an emic monotheism, but gives in to an explicit polylatry.

But that position seems to be relatively unstable – the temptation is to either see Jesus as not as worthy of worship (why worship the intermediate, when you can worship the real thing), or as too significant (how do you maintain your emic monotheism with Jesus around? – we see this temptation in John’s gospel with Jesus explicitly identified as divine in his own right). So it seems to have developed quite rapidly into (iii): what might be called binitarianism, the belief that Jesus is really the same being as the capital G, God. Christianity emically refuses to become polytheistic, and decides its polylatry is ‘really’ still monolatry.

A schematic of the development of early devotion to Jesus

But there are other ways it can resolve, and here I want to return to the example of Catholic saints. They receive cultic devotion that clearly shows that forms of Catholicism are polylatrous. But the resolution chosen is (ii), the catechism interprets this worship as not-really-worship (so a synonym such as ‘veneration’ is used, with a theological explanation of how veneration differs from worship). Emically it has a different status.

Certain forms of what we might call Gnosticism seem to have done (i) – they abandoned worship of the capital-G God, in favour of Jesus worship. Theologically treating the creator God, and his creation as wicked, and Jesus as the ultimate saviour from the trials of physicality.

I could also imagine resolving the tension by admitting a form of polytheism, by making the de-facto etic polytheism into an emic principal. Yes there are more than one God, and Jesus is the example. My knowledge of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not huge, but my understanding of their interpretation of John 1:1 is that they believe Jesus is a god. That may be an example.

So Jesus became a God because a religious experience motivated a religious innovation: that his followers should worship him (anathema to the monolatry of Judaism at the time). This led to theological tensions, which were initially resolved by claiming that the one God had made Jesus worthy of worship, and finally resolved by the emic decision that Jesus is the same as the one God and therefore is intrinsically worthy of that worship.

Does it make sense? Is it true?

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24 responses to “The Divinity of Jesus — Part 3 of 3

  1. Pingback: The Divinity of Jesus – Part 2 of 3 | Irreducible Complexity

  2. Hello,
    I am a Christian and this exploration seems to be discussing the concept of the Trinity. 3 in 1. In Christianity, Christians worship God the Son (Jesus), God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit. They are all one. They work together in perfect unity, which is why there is a claim to one God. And yet even in Genesis God speaks by saying “we” not “I”. You should check it out it’s very interesting.

    So to relate back to part 3 of 3: yes only one supernatural being is worthy of worship. God. Meaning all “parts” of “Him.” I’ve had this confusing concept described to me in a metaphor before, which seems to better explain how this works. I’ve heard the Trinity described as a braid before. There are 3 parts but they are all woven completely together as one. You can’t just hold up one strand and call it a “braid”. It’s incomplete without the other two parts.

    Jesus is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Father is God. They always existed (maybe for Jesus not on this earth). The Trinity is something that I’m not going to pretend to understand completely. I am no theological expert, but I’m just trying to shed some light on the concept. Hopefully this has been helpful…and I am totally open for comments. 🙂

  3. Ian

    Nikki, thanks for taking the time to comment, and welcome to the blog!

    This series of posts is trying to describe how Christians like yourself came to believe in something like the trinity. The trinity itself took a long time to happen, for about 300 years after Jesus’s death, it wasn’t a central teaching of the church (what we call a ‘doctrine’). It is a fascinating story.

    The specific details of what you believe as the trinity came about as a result of several (centuries) long debates in the early church, and several councils of bishops who met to discuss the options. You’re right it is very hard to explain, and that is because the doctrine was the result of several rather fudged compromises (known as ‘creeds’). One group would say one thing (Jesus is the same substance as the Father, say), then later another group would say something else (Jesus and the Father have two natures), and because everyone had agreed to the earlier version, the new version had to be true in addition. And then in another language, those words would mean something slightly different again. The trinity was a doctrine originally formulated in a particular dialect of Greek, and some of the subtle nuances (over which people killed and were killed) just don’t have equivalents in English.

    Even ideas that are in the New Testament have histories. You mention the idea that Jesus always existed, for example. We can trace that back to a group of early Christians we term the ‘Johannine community’, for example. Around 60 years after Jesus. They are the group responsible for John’s gospel in your NT, and their view of Jesus was very different from the community to whom Mark’s gospel was written, for example. For the writer of Mark, Jesus was not pre-existent.

    I’d suggest that you might want to look at my post on Translating Genesis 1 or my comment on Elohim (the name translated ‘God’ in Genesis 1) and Monotheism for some more information on the plural form of God. The consensus among experts is that the plural form has nothing to do with the trinity, but goes back to the days when Judaism was a polytheistic religion. We can see other traces of these ancient beliefs in the Hebrew bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). Lots of the different names of different gods came to be used as different titles for the same one God, when Jews began to be exclusively monotheist.

    The history of how Christianity has come to teach what you have been taught is fascinating, and I’d really encourage you to find out more about it. It can seem a little threatening at first – because you probably assume that these doctrines are the way they are because they’re just true. Whereas in fact they have interesting, complex, and at times rather unpleasant, histories. But I’d encourage you to work through that, and find out more about your faith.

  4. i have a more participatory view of the Trinity. the trinity being a symbol of God as the ground of being and panenthesistic. i talk about it in my post called A New Understanding of the Trinity there is a strain in Christian history that runs through Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and picked up on the mystics and desert fathers throughout history and now is being picked up by the emergents and progressive social justice types. i think this is what our creeds were POINTING too until we started getting really literal and doctrinal about things.

    i think your descriptions and posts have been right on for the majority of Christians throughout church history. well done!

    in my confirmation class, when i was talking about the Trinity the kids got all confused and stated “how can 1+1+1=1? that equals 3!” and i stated “with God and the infinite, you never use addition, you always multiply. so it’s 1X1X1=1. take for example you have infinity bottles of beer on the wall.. you take one down, you pass it around, you have infinity bottles of beer on the wall. so it is with God.”

    i’m not sure if this is new thinking or heretical or something, i think i read this in Niebhur, Tillich, Barth, and the Neo-Orthodox tradition… but those who have Augustine and Aquinas as their heads of theology go in a different direction… thus many of our churches still have God as a man in the sky and a medieval style theology that irks you and me.

    it’s very prevalent and it depresses me. it’s all over the place. so despite the fact that Nikki and I are both Christians, i’m closer to you Ian, than i am with her views.

  5. Ian

    Thanks 01.

    “so despite the fact that Nikki and I are both Christians, i’m closer to you Ian, than i am with her views.”

    Yes, I think when you get to any kind of Christian non-realism, then there is only a paper thin gap to me. It is about labels then. I choose to identify (at least here) as atheist, specifically as a statement about that kind of sky-daddy doctrine. You, presumably, chose to identify as a Christian, also because of the social and professional opportunities it confers.

  6. there’s also the ethical framework that i like too… i also think that the gospels point to an existentialist way of being, and that’s the vein of theism i’m in. i could be a UU but i’m too “Jesus-y” for them.

    i was talking with Ghost-Wife yesterday and she said something really interesting. she stated that as for the trinity she didn’t believe in the creator/father part but she totally got the Jesus/Spirit part. that kind of rocked me a little bit because she was 1. a modalist and 2. right on the money on how many of my fellow liberals think. God as a being doesn’t work anymore, it doesn’t do the job like it used to. the prime image of God for my wife and many of my friends is not a father, not a dude with a white-beard but energy, a force. something that can be sensed when it moves. something that can be seen in the life and teachings of Christ. for them, the cross is not the central image of Christianity, it’s the table. Jesus spent more time there than on the cross and what he did there has far more practical implications there.

    inviting all to the table, sitting, talking, eating, and giving thanks for it. that to me is the ideal model for life. we gather together not because we believe the same thing or we’re trying to convert each other, but to learn one another’s stories and get to know one another. that way, when push comes to shove and conflict comes (and it will) we’ll remember out table-fellowship and our commonalities (even if it’s just the fact we’re both humans) and we won’t resort to war or scapegoating. idealistic? yeah… but there’s worse things to believe.

    /off soapbox.

  7. Ian

    Thanks, this comment also speaks to my reply on the other post!

    “the cross is not the central image of Christianity, it’s the table.”

    Nice.

    “there’s also the ethical framework that i like too…”

    That really puzzles me. Because I read the NT a lot, and I don’t get the sense of an ethical framework that is the slightest bit either workable or pleasant. Jesus is a git as much as he’s a great moral teacher, Paul even more so. I get that each church tradition cherry-picks the bits they want, and ignores the rest. And I suspect you are smart enough to be self-aware of that process. But then why is the ‘ethical framework’ you’ve synthesized, a draw to Christianity?

    “/off soapbox.”

    No, don’t. Its important stuff. I appreciate the insights.

  8. Pingback: The Cross and The Table — Vox Pops | Irreducible Complexity

  9. So, before some early disciples made the innovation of worshipping Jesus, how was he viewed? Isn’t that a key question, no?

    I see your main point being that early Christians had to decide how attached they were to being call “monotheists”.

    Seems to me like Brits and Canadians want to keep saying they have “Socialized Medicine” no matter how many free market bandages are applied.
    Smile.

    Your concluding paragraph seems common sense to me. Like you, I’d like to know what the other positions are.

    BTW, I don’t know if it is me, but all the emical, etical stuff seemed unnecessary.

  10. [after reading comments:]

    @ Ian :
    Great explanation to Nikki. That was a post in and of itself. Fantastic!

    @ Ghost :
    I think Ian was right. Then, due to investments, liberal [even way back in time] kept the terms but messed even further with theological gymnastics. It happens in ALL religions. It is not about truth, but how do you keep flying the same flag when allegiances have changed. It is all about commitment to the flag, not to the truth. IMHO. But as long as everyone plays nice, I am cool.

    Ian said to you “because of the social and professional opportunities it confers.” — wow, do you agree? I think you could have made any religion or atheism embrace the same ethical framework you prefer. I think Ian is spot on — and that is OK.

  11. Ian

    Thanks Sabio.

    BTW, I don’t know if it is me, but all the emical, etical stuff seemed unnecessary.

    Larry Hurtado spent a large amount of the book arguing about whether second temple Judaism was monotheistic or not. Some people claimed that is was not (and I suspect they were claiming, as I do, this etically), while he was vehemently pointing to Jewish writings and saying “Look they are maniacally invested in their monotheism” (of course an emic source). I felt it was crucial, if I was going to argue that Judaism, and in fact Christianity was polytheistic, that I made it totally clear what I meant by that, and how I could make that claim when clearly both religions are highly explicit about their monotheism.

  12. “Ian said to you “because of the social and professional opportunities it confers.” — wow, do you agree? I think you could have made any religion or atheism embrace the same ethical framework you prefer”

    i don’t know. i guess i like the social opportunities yet there’s more to it, it’s not just social it’s also about working together to create a better community and that comes from the faith/action tension found in Christianity. not saying it’s unique to it or anything, just that it really jazzes me up and gives a plan as to how the world should be.

    professional opportunities… maybe. i could have been a councilor or therapist or chaplain. i feel like this job is the only one i can do, thus i’m “called to it” just as you and Ian may be an exact fit for what you’re doing now. i don’t know if i could make any religion or atheism embrace the same framework, it’s way different motives than Confusion/Taoist/Muslim /Jewish social work looks like. much different than pagan… i dunno…

  13. Ian

    I sense maybe my reactions (poss. Sabio’s too, but I don’t want to speak for him) and yours, 01, are coming from slightly different ends. Hard to describe, but I’ll have a go.

    I see Christian doctrine as having no deep connection to the kind of ethical and social framework you work within and are excited by. It does have connections, but I’d say those are contingent: they are a factor of the way your liberal denomination has evolved, on the back of the social and cultural forces that shaped your religion. So therefore I conclude that it is actually the ethical and social framework you are excited by, not the religious content.

    You see the ethical and social framework you are excited by, and find that it only exists within the bounds and withing the stories of Christianity. It doesn’t matter to you whether there is any ‘deep’ connection, it matters that there is a connection, and that within Christianity you can argue for your model of how the world should be. Therefore, you conclude, that it is pointless to try to split hairs about where Christianity ends and the social and ethical call begins. Practically they coexist in your ministry.

    Now, the language in those two paragraphs is my own, and probably biased in some way to my opinions, though I’ve tried to be as fair as my prejudices allow 🙂 But something like that seems to be at work. Does that land with you?

  14. Nikki

    “So, before some early disciples made the innovation of worshipping Jesus, how was he viewed? Isn’t that a key question, no?”

    Just as Christians hold the hope that Jesus came as the Messiah, believers before the disciples held the hope that he would come.

    …and in response to this last bit from the first reply:

    “because you probably assume that these doctrines are the way they are because they’re just true. Whereas in fact they have interesting, complex, and at times rather unpleasant, histories. But I’d encourage you to work through that, and find out more about your faith.”

    I don’t assume that they’re just true. I am very interested in learning all I can and coming to my own conclusions. I found it very interesting. Thanks for all your insight. 🙂

  15. well that’s funny because i’ve explored this quite often in seminary and pour over it in my journals for the past 5 years. and i’ve come to this preliminary conclusion on the subject:

    my religion and tradition is not about worshiping some man-in-the-sky being, or bringing everyone under the same banner (as Rome attempted) or what not. it’s about service and being one with the ground of being (Tillich), which honors all, humanizes instead of demonizes (Girard), and is nonviolent to a self-sacrificial level (MLK Jr., Ma Teresa, Nouwen) . it’s a tall order, but that’s what i’m after and see my tradition pointing to. it’s complex and hard and counter-intuitive from how i’ve learned and what our culture tells us to value and live and i misunderstand and fail at it often. yet it is what it is.

    while i agree with you that ” Therefore, you conclude, that it is pointless to try to split hairs about where Christianity ends and the social and ethical call begins. Practically they coexist in your ministry.” yet disagree with the first sentence, esp. ” find that it only exists within the bounds and withing the stories of Christianity.” i have found that it does not exist only within the bounds and stories of Christianity but in everything. it is like the sun, as i see everything BY it. thus i see you and Sabio as authentic and brothers on the journey, although we disagree about a lot of things. i see those who strive to better the world, to do so through nonviolence and service to be brothers and sisters regardless of culture or religion. we’ll disagree on the metaphysical stuff and even our motivations, yet i think this is beside the point.

  16. and i also agree that “Because I read the NT a lot, and I don’t get the sense of an ethical framework that is the slightest bit either workable or pleasant. ”

    self-sacrifice is not workable or pleasant any way you cut it and i deny it left and right, yet that’s what i’m called and try to provide. we all do in our own ways and i like hearing stories about those people who have gone before me gave of themselves and created something great that affected people for the better. i don’t always agree with what the bible points to or what Jesus teaches, but it’s the meditation and the struggles and the questions they raise that are important to me, not so much the answers. the answers are always contingent on circumstance it seems and i can interpret these stories differently on any given day. yet that’s why i read them and find beauty in them.

  17. Ian

    @Nikki

    I don’t assume that they’re just true.

    Thanks for calling me on that. It wasn’t a fair thing to say. Please be welcome to subscribe, and continue to comment or heckle whenever you like.

  18. Ian

    @01 (I must confess, I keep writing comments with your name in, then having to delete them :/) Thanks for that, I appreciate the clarification. Christian ethics seems to me to be totemic for you, rather than directly instructive. That’s an interesting angle I haven’t thought about before.

    My comment about it not existing outside Christianity was in direct reference to your statement “it’s way different motives than Confusion/Taoist/Muslim /Jewish social work looks like. much different than pagan… i dunno…”, by the way.

  19. Ian, thanks for your discretion. it helps to get another view on how i describe things and if they make sense. the ethics are sort of totemic/metaphorical for me, yet they run a little deeper. i guess i’ll have to get to work on describing the connection. i don’t think i have it explained exactly… and also i guess it depends on what type of Christian ethics we are talking about. Roman Catholic is not Eastern is not Protestant is not Pentacostal is not Jehova’s Witnessess is not Mennonite is not Old Order Mennonite is not Amish. i think i’m strickly in the Neo-Orthodoxy/Emergent/Progressive strain that may indeed have a totemic feel to them… haven’t explored it too much. thanks for brain candy!!

  20. Thew

    Hey Ian, I’m a Christian and I’m quite impressed by these posts. They’re really interesting, pretty technical, and very intellectual. Thanks for the insight. Have you had any experience with the Christian Church in your life? Have you studied religion in an academic setting? Do you believe in any God (or form of one)? I’m just very impressed by your posts and they made me wonder about your background.

    I truly agree with you that too many Christians today don’t wrestle with reason, history, philosophy, competing theologies, and scientific evidence when it comes to faith. Good point that Christians should learn more about their faith and the sometimes disheartening facts behind them. Likewise, I believe that those who don’t subscribe to the Christian faith should struggle to learn about the deeper spiritual mysteries of the world – not just miracles and marvelous wonders, but the deeper ontological, motivational, and purposive functions of human beings. Science does this to a certain extent, but without faith in the supernatural or the spiritual, it seems to me that we lose the idea of a soul (which could be belittled to the mere historical level or could actually be a reality). The conclusion that comes without a belief in some sort of supernatural being tends to end up at a very material level, which seems (at the very least) hard to swallow. But in regards to the more fundamental issues of the world, the Christian take on the wrongdoing in the world has been one of remarkable truth, in my experience. More than that, the possibility that there is a God who is love is one that I have found to be true given a holistic (but I must admit, still somewhat biased – we all have to come from some perspective) interpretation of the Bible. What are your positions on these things? Can you direct me to posts of yours in which you have discussed matters like this?

    And it sounds like you’ve read a good amount of bible! That’s cool – it’s always encouraging to hear that someone who doesn’t believe in the Christian God is still trying to give Christian texts a chance, experience aside. As a general comment to your response to Nikki on the trinity, do you think that (in your reading of the Bible) the trinity is or is not inherently present within the Bible? Why?

  21. Ian

    Thanks for the comment Thew, and welcome to the blog.

    For some more information about where I am in relation to Christian teaching, you might want to try this post.

    I have lots of experience with various Christian churches, I have studied religion academically, I do not believe that God has any existence outside of human minds, but I do believe one can usefully talk about that God nonetheless. I’ve tried to do this in several posts, for example this one.

    Your second paragraph seems to me to be a form of appeal to discomfort. You would find it “hard to swallow” that there is no supernatural, you do not want to “lose the idea of a soul”. That’s fine, of course, I don’t want to quibble with what you would want. I don’t share those same desires, however. I find it very easy to come to terms with there being no supernatural (whatever that might mean) and I have no need for any idea of the soul – it just doesn’t explain anything for me, neither scientific, nor psychological. As for miracles: well I’ve never witnessed any, though I once claimed to have. And I’ve never seen any evidence for them in any other circumstance.

    “who doesn’t believe in the Christian God is still trying to give Christian texts a chance”

    In my experience, genuine study of the bible is one of the most effective ways for folks to lose their faith. I’ve seen many dewy-eyed undergrads look at the bible properly for the first time, and find that their faith is without foundation. The sad fact is that the bible is full of vile commandments, confused histories, plain misinformation, interesting myths, and nuggets of great humanistic teaching. To see some broad holistic interpretation is to really miss the point, I feel. Or at the very least to misunderstand what the bible is, how and by whom it was written.

    do you think that (in your reading of the Bible) the trinity is or is not inherently present within the Bible?

    No, how could it be? It wasn’t even thought of for 300 years after the bible was written. We know exactly how the doctrine was arrived at, by whom and when. Its only appearance was a much later alteration of 1 John, known as the Johannine comma.

    Having said all that (you invited me to disagree with you, after all). Let me say that you *are* welcome to stick around and join in the community here. And to robustly put forward and defend your views. There are others who come here regularly who are also Christians. Once we get down deeper past the level of the stories and mythologies, we have a huge amount in common.

  22. Thew

    Thanks for caring that I make my way closer and closer to truth. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come to realize that the experiences you had with Christianity were false? Maybe you could give me your testimony of becoming an atheist?

    Thanks for the challenging thoughts, Ian. They’ll keep me thinking. I love the method of reading of the Bible that you propose in your version of the good news – it’s raw and real, which is the way that all bible-readers should approach the bible. Christians need to ask more questions. I believe that God gave us brains so that we could use them.

    “Once we get down deeper past the level of the stories and mythologies, we have a huge amount in common.”

    Couldn’t agree more! Let’s find truth, shall we? Other than that, thanks for the welcome. I look forward to reading your other works!

  23. Ian

    Cool, thanks Thew.

    Maybe you could give me your testimony of becoming an atheist?

    Might be interesting, I’ll have a think how best to put it. I’m not sure I’ve constructed a story around it myself.

  24. Ian

    Oh, and the experiences I had with Christianity weren’t false. They just weren’t what I was told they were or told myself they were. They were perfectly real and true.

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