Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Did Jesus Claim to be God?

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14).
Did Jesus teach his divinity? It’s trivial to show that the various authors of the New Testament called Jesus God. John 1:1-3 is the example that immediately springs to most people’s minds, but it’s throughout the writings of the apostles. (If anyone wants to take a brief tour, John 1, Col 1, and Heb 1 cover the bases well.) But what if they imposed that notion on Jesus after he was gone? That is what many people today allege — that Jesus did not claim to be God and would have been appalled at the notion. So we’re going to look at examples of Jesus claiming deity.

You won’t find Jesus saying, “I’m God” in scripture. Besides the fact that he wouldn’t have been properly understood, it would have landed him charges of blasphemy. But he did claim to be God. How?

Bowman and Komoszewski, in Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, demonstrate that Jesus (and the apostles, on his behalf) laid claim to the prerogatives of God. They organize the evidence using the acronym HANDS:

  • Honors: Jesus shares the honors due to God.
  • Attributes: Jesus shares the attributes of God.
  • Names: Jesus shares the names of God.
  • Deeds: Jesus shares in the deeds that God does.
  • Seat: Jesus shares the seat of God's throne.
If I were trying to convince a skeptic or doubter of the deity of Christ, I would prefer to cite examples from Mark or the material common to Matthew and Luke (that allegedly from the hypothetical earlier document called “Q”) because skeptics and liberals believe that to be older material, allowing less time for legendary development. (They tend to ignore the fact that Paul’s letters, with much higher Christology than the gospels, probably predate the gospels.)

Jesus claims the honors due to God: Jesus allowed himself to be worshiped, something no angel ever permits (eg, Rev 19:10), for example

  • “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him...” (Matt 28:17).
  • “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:28).
Jesus claims (or demonstrates) the attributes of God: Jesus was (and is) a man, so that complicates his sharing the attributes of deity, but he still claimed or demonstrated several, including:
  • Jesus claimed pre-existence: Matt 23:37, John 8:58
  • Jesus demonstrated omniscience: Mark 2:6-8, John 4:17-18
  • Jesus claimed omnipresence: Matt 28:20
Jesus claims the names of God: Jesus never said, “I’m YHWH,” but he did the next best thing in John 8:58 — “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “before Abraham was born, I am.” He was claiming to be the “I AM WHO I AM” of Ex 3:14, and the Jews of his day knew it, which is why “they picked up stones to stone him” (John 8:59).

Then, in the Great Commission, Jesus changes the Jewish bapismal formula. His followers would not baptize in the name of YHWH. They would baptize in the name (singular) “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).

Jesus claims to share in the deeds that God does:

  • Jesus claims to be able to forgive sins: Mark 2:5
  • Jesus controls the elements: Mark 4:35.41
  • Jesus claims to be able to give new Law or change the old: Mark 10:2-12, 13:31
  • Jesus claims to be the one who will judge humanity: Matt 16:27 (also see below)
  • Jesus claims to be able to do anything for his followers: John 14:13-14
Jesus claims to share the seat of God's throne: That is, he claims that he will rule as and/or with God. Jesus frequently referred to himself as the Son of Man. There is a little bit of ambiguity in that name. It could just mean “human.” Or it could refer to the supernatural entity Daniel saw who walked into the throne room of God Almighty and sat down (Dan 7:13). He finally made it perfectly clear that he meant the latter:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” (Mark 14:61-64)
See also Matt 11:25-27, 25:31, 28:18.

As it turns out, Matt 28:16-20 contains an example of every one of these classes. Mark 2:1-12 contains at least three.

Dan Brown made the claim that no one thought of Jesus as divine before the 4th Century. The truth is that the earliest debate over the nature of Christ was whether he was really human. You hopefully now see why. The early church had no doubt that Jesus claimed to be God, and they worshiped him as such from the very beginning.

So the one who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” was the true God, the maker of heaven and earth, who became a man for the sole purpose of dying on the cross to rescue us from the consequences of our rebellion against him.

For more on this topic, see William Lane Craig, “The Self-Understanding of Jesus” in Reasonable Faith.

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The History of the Deity of Christ

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” Col 1:15).

ballot box

Was Jesus only declared God because of politics? That’s another claim that skeptics will bring up. It reached the public's imagination in the 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. There are many historical inaccuracies used as plot points in the book. One was a claim by a character, Ian Teabing, that until the Council of Nicea (AD 325) “Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.” At Nicea, he says, Jesus was declared divine by “a relatively close vote.” Many readers of the novels have assumed its many statements of “fact”, including this one, were true. Is it?

William Lane Craig points to the work of several scholars as demonstrating that “within twenty years of the crucifixion a full-blown Christology proclaiming Jesus as God incarnate existed.”1 It is clear that Paul, who died around around AD 64-68, taught the deity of Christ (eg, Col 1:15-17, Phil 2:6-11). And it was not long before heresies appeared. The earliest we know of actually appears in the New Testament. A form of docetism, these people believed that Jesus only appeared to be human. This seems to be directly addressed by 1 John 4:2 ( “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”) and possibly by some of Paul’s writings (eg, 1Tim 3:16).

There were groups who questioned the deity of Christ, though. One, the people that prompted the Council of Nicea, was called the Arians. Arius taught that Jesus was not fully God. Rather, he was the “firstborn over all creation” — the first and greatest of God’s creatures, a perfect being, but not equal to God the Father. Note that this is far from being a mere man. Arius revered Jesus but simply thought he was not quite God. In fact, his goal was not to “demote” Jesus but to treat the scriptures and the honor of God with respect. And his ideas found a lot of supporters. (They survive today in the Jehovah's Witnesses.)

The resulting drama was so divisive that Emperor Constantine insisted that the church leaders get together and work things out. So the Council of Nicea was called together. In a first for the Church, her leaders gathered together as guests of the Roman Empire with all the pomp and luxury that implies. Despite the claim of modern conspiracy theorists, the historical record shows that Constantine’s instruction to the assembled churchmen was basically “fix this” — not instructions on how to deify Christ.

After lengthy debates, the assembled bishops agreed on the terminology that we still use today, that the Son is of the same essence as the Father. Far from being a “close vote,” it was something like 300-2 (two sources disagree over exactly how many bishops were in attendance).2

We absolutely cannot let skeptics rewrite Church history. Though it was not entirely without debate, belief in the deity of Christ appeared early and was a part of Christian teachings for 300 years before Nicea and most certainly was not an invention of Constantine. It was a product of the teachings of the apostles and the Lord himself.

For more on this topic, Roger Olson and Adam English’s Pocket History of Theology offers a relatively short summary.

1 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith
2 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church vol. 3

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Links: Arming for Battle

"We are at war. 

It’s not a war of bombs and bayonets. It’s not a war against flesh and blood. In fact, it’s not a physical war at all. It’s a spiritual war."
That's from Tim Barnett, one of the speakers at Stand to Reason. He reminds us that we are in a spiritual war, and that it is a battle against ideas. More importantly, our kids are going out into the battlefield. Are we arming them and training them for the battles ahead? 

I encourage you to read the whole piece, Training Students for War. He talks more about this conflict and our need to prepare, and he links to some of STR's resources that can help us do the work. 

♞ One of their new resources that isn't in that piece is Tim's new YouTube channel Red Pen Logic with Mr. B. In these short videos, he combines humor and clear thinking to demonstrate how to approach the memes and catchphrases the culture throws at us. I highly recommend it.

♞ Another new site to help us prepare our kids for the real world is Mama Bear Apologetics. Even though it's geared towards moms, plenty of dads listen to their podcasts and read their blogs and book. Check out their recent post, Teaching Our Kids to Spot Empty Statements. If you like what you see, check out their other resources. I really like these ladies; they're nowhere near as stuffy as some of the apologetics podcasts out there, but they produce very serious content. 

♞ Finally, I encourage you to check out Alisa Childers' work. Her blog and podcast focus on teaching people how to detect and defend against what she calls "progressive Christianity" — namely, the use of Christian language to teach very un-Christian ideas. You might start here where she explains what the "historic Christianity" is that the progressives are deviating from.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Did Jesus Exist?

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2).
Is Jesus a myth? That is, did a person named Jesus of Nazareth actually live? A few decades ago the question would be too ridiculous to address; today, thanks to the internet, which allows everyone to spread their ideas no matter how baseless or bizarre, we have to take it seriously. Though there are very few actual scholars who hold this position, there are countless websites that spread the idea that Jesus never existed.

The “mythicist” views vary quite a bit, but their basic position is that Christianity was based on a mythological Christ figure. The gospels were allegories or, perhaps, a later attempt to make their mythical Christ appear to have been a real person. One version has him being some kind of sun god. They may even claim that the gospels were written hundreds of years after the time period in which they are set.

Thankfully, there are actual scholars who can rebut their theories. Even Bart Ehrman, a self-described “agnostic with atheist leanings”, famous for promoting the idea that the New Testament is corrupted, that the gospels are hopelessly contradictory, and that Jesus never claimed to be God, wrote a book aiming to prove that Jesus existed. Why? “As a historian I think evidence matters.”1

Pilate stone
Pilate stone

Ehrman doesn’t believe any of the gospels are eyewitness accounts. And that’s not a problem for him. “The absence of eyewitness accounts would be relevant if, and only if, we had reason to suspect that we should have eyewitness reports if Jesus really lived.”1 But there is almost no evidence for government officials and other such people you expect to find accounts of from first century Palestine. There are no contemporary accounts of Pontius Pilate. In fact, outside of accounts that mention him in connection to Jesus, we have one inscription with the name of this Roman governor. This is not uncommon in history. We can’t demand contemporary accounts of someone who was an itinerant preacher in a small Roman backwater province. But what we have is not bad, as history is judged.

Mythicists don’t accept the New Testament as evidence (a topic we’ll return to), so we’ll look first at the extra-biblical evidence for Christ. Josh and Sean McDowell helpfully divide the historical sources into “sources of little or no value,” “sources of limited value,” and “sources of significant value”.2 Of limited value are the brief mentions by Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and a few others. The more significant sources are Tacitus and Josephus. Tacitus wrote about the incident where Nero blamed Christians for setting Rome on fire. He said of the Christians, “Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for the moment, the deadly superstition broke out again, not only in Judea ... but also in the city of Rome.”

Josephus mentions Christ twice, once when he recounts the execution of James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” The other is a highly controversial passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum. It’s almost certain that some Christian copyist doctored the passage, but scholars today tend to believe they can extract something like what the original must have said:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.2
Craig Blomberg sums up the description of Jesus that can be drawn from non-Christian sources.

“Jesus was a Jew who lived in Israel during the first third of the first century; was born out of wedlock; intersected with the life and ministry of John the Baptist; attracted great crowds, especially because of his wondrous deeds; had a group of particularly close followers called disciples (five of whom are named); ran afoul of the Jewish religious authorities because of his controversial teachings sometimes deemed heretical or blasphemous; was crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate’s governorship in Judea (AD 26-36), and yet was believed by many of his followers to have been the Messiah, the anticipated liberator of Israel. This belief did not disappear despite Jesus’ death because a number of his supporters claimed to have seen him resurrected from the dead. His followers, therefore, continued consistently to grow in numbers, gathering together regularly for worship and instruction and even singing hymns to him as if he were a god (or God).”3

"Eye of Providence"
The extra-biblical evidence paints a pretty accurate picture of Jesus. To discount all of this requires either a massive conspiracy whereby ancient Christians inserted Jesus into all of these texts or for the ancient Romans and Jews to completely miss the fact that Jesus, like the central figure of all the pagan mystery religions, was not a real man.

Now back to the New Testament. Is it fair to exclude the New Testament documents from the evidence? Ehrman says no:

“Whatever else you might think about the books of the Bible—whether you believe in them or not, whether you consider them inspired or not—they are still books. That is, they were written by people in historical circumstances and contexts and precisely in light of those circumstances and contexts. ... To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.”1

Whether we treat the New Testament documents as historical records or not, there is no basis for believing that Jesus did not exist. The “Jesus myth” theory is the myth.

For more detail on this topic, I recommend "The Historical Existence of Jesus" in Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell.

1 Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, emphasis in original
2 Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict
3 Craig Blomberg, “Jesus of Nazareth” in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics

image credits: The Pilate stone, SA-2.0, creative commons
"The Eye of Providence", by de:Benutzer:Verw├╝stung, public domain

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Introduction to Christology

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph 2:19-20).
Now we come to the core of Christianity, the person and work of Jesus Christ. It may seem odd to say that it is Christ, not God, who is the core of our faith, but it is what Jesus did — his work — in which we place our trust, and his character and teachings are the ultimate revelation of God. As William Lane Craig said, “The Christian religion stands or falls with the person of Jesus Christ. Judaism could survive without Moses, Buddhism without Buddha, Islam without Mohammed; but Christianity could not survive without Christ.”1 That’s probably why God the Father is covered in two lines of the Apostles’ Creed while it takes ten lines to cover the fundamentals about Jesus. The Nicene Creed goes into even more detail:

“[I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”

People today have as many misguided ideas about Jesus as they do about God. Everyone wants to have their own personal Jesus. Pop culture, New Agers, and political parties all want to give you their version of Jesus. Their version always looks an awful lot like them. It’s fine if everyone wants to have their own take on the Tooth Fairy, but we have to base our beliefs about Jesus on the real man and the life he really led. We are no more entitled to our own personal Jesus than we are to our own personal Abraham Lincoln. The facts have to be our guide, in this case the facts as recorded by his friends and followers. That some people don’t like the facts does not make them any less factual.

The scriptures say that Christ is the chief cornerstone of the Church. He determines the shape of what she can be. When we try to build something out of line with him, the whole structure falls apart. History has shown that to be true time and again. So we’re going to spend some time learning about the real Jesus of history as revealed by the apostles who knew him and their disciples.

1 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith

image credit: Cornerstone, R Miller used by Creative Commons

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Humanity: God's Image Restored

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (Rom 8:19).
God is not content to leave his image marred in humanity.

God had a plan, conceived before the foundation of the world, whereby he would rescue his rebellious, broken images. The first big truth about humans is that we are immensely valuable to God. The second is that we are all in rebellion against God and so deserve destruction. The third is that God plans to set all that right at great cost to himself.

Tim Keller writes, “The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone.”1

People who think that Christianity is down on people have not listened to the whole gospel. Not only does God want to rescue us from the consequences of our sin, he plans to make us more than we ever were. The image of God will be repaired when his people are united with him through Christ. Don’t read that too quickly. United with him through Christ.

He is not going to just fix us. We’re getting an upgrade. We’ll go deeper into this later, but God’s plan is that those he redeems should become his children, “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17, cf Tit 3:7, Gal 4:7, 1Pet 3:7), who will “participate in the divine nature” (2Pet 1:4). CS Lewis wrote:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal."2

God’s plans for redeemed humanity are glorious. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1Cor 2:9). Until that day, we wait patiently for the restoration of all things and work to make sure that as many people as possible are in the company of the redeemed.

For more on this topic, I recommend “The Weight of Glory” by CS Lewis.

1 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
2 CS Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory, emphasis in original

Part of Christianity 101