The absolute worst place to discuss anything is the comments section on a website. Best construction: threads get too long to read (thus making it difficult to enter the discussion). Worst construction (although still true): comments sections have become the example par excellence of concupiscence, man’s inborn, churning propensity and desire for evil. When religion is involved, the wickedness of man goes into hyper drive, as internet atheists try to vanquish their Christian opponents. Typically, I like to read what liberal (not used as a political term here) theologians have to say about orthodox, historic, and confessional Christianity to help me better understand their arugments. Instead of wading into the mire of comments sections, however, I’m beginning a series of articles responding to liberal theologians’ critiques of orthodox, historic, and confessional Christianity.
First up is this post by Mark Sandlin. Sandlin’s article is actually the first in a short series of articles wherein Sandlin takes issue with several key points of historic Christian doctrine. These are not lengthy treatments, but Sandlin’s main purpose is trying to widen the tent of Biblical orthodoxy to include a greater variety of beliefs. He says, “Most institutionalized Churches define who is and who isn’t a Christian far too narrowly. There is an increasingly long list of tenets to which a person must dogmatically adhere in order to be in the club.” And, “I’m not trying to say I am right and others are wrong. I am saying Christianity should big enough for a variety of thought. I am saying God can handle our questions.”
In the article, “Jesus Is Not My God,” Rev. Mark Sandlin of the PCUSA, argues that Jesus is not God. You should read the article before going on (it’s not very long, I promise), but here are a few of the points he makes that I want to address here:
- Jesus taught about and worshipped God as “Father,” so as to teach us about the “nurturing nature” of God.
- Jesus did not worship Himself, so He didn’t consider Himself to be God.
- Jesus never called Himself God (at least in Matthew, Mark, or Luke—other than by inference)
- St. John has Jesus claiming to be God, but John should be disregarded, because it’s a later writing and because modern scholars say so.
- Jesus not being God is a good thing, because it enables Him to better demonstrate how to be the person God wants you to be.
First, Sandlin makes a great deal out of this idea that Jesus calls God “Father” to teach us about the character of God. I agree with Him on this point. However, His interpretation of a “nurturing” Father falls a little short of what it means to have God as Father. For Sandlin, it’s about being connected and made in the image of God, best exemplified in our loving one another.
For St. Paul, the idea of God as Father goes something like this: “But when the fulness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Galatians 4:4-7).’ God does intend to be a nurturing Father that is best exemplified by redeeming us from sin, death, and the devil by the shedding of Christ’s blood for us at Calvary. This same Father promises to hear our prayers (Ps. 50:15) and give us every good thing (Luke 11:13).
Second, Sandlin makes the claim that Jesus never worshipped Himself. Now, this is a complicated point, I’ll admit, but Jesus never worships the Holy Spirit, either. In reality, however, Jesus’ worship in synagogues and temple are directed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This means that His worship includes all three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (we’ll see in a different article, however, that Sandlin doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, either). What is more, Jesus accepts the worship of some people in the Gospels (cf. Matt. 14:33, 28:9, and 17, Luke 24:52). This should be contrasted with times that worship is not accepted by those who are decidedly not God (Acts 10:25-26 and Revelation 22:8-9).
Sandlin’s third point, that Jesus never referred to Himself as God—at least in Matthew, Mark and Luke—is a common one made by theological liberals. There are two main deficiencies in this argument. First, Jesus does explicitly refer to Himself as God in Matthew 11:27 (the so-called Johannine Thunderbolt). Here, Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see quite clearly from John 5:18 that to call God “Father” is to make oneself equal to God. In fact, this is what John shows as the event that sets in motion the plot to kill Jesus.
The other problem with this argument is that John’s Gospel is somehow not really authoritative. Since the days of higher criticism, so-called scholars have torn apart the Biblical canon, pitting one author of Scripture against another. We typically see Paul pitted against Jesus, for instance, in an effort to soften Christianity’s stance on issues like women’s ordination and homosexuality. Here, we see Sandlin using this same method in making an effort to undermine the divinity of Jesus to make his point. What is fascinating is that the early Church seemed to have no problem accepting St. John’s Gospel as canon (Martin Chemnitz makes a great case for this in The Examination of the Council of Trent: Part I—see pp. 91ff). Additionally, the modern scholar, Richard Baukham—a veritable theological powerhouse—affirms the same (see his book The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple).
The fourth point is connected with what I’ve just said. Sandlin, along with his “most modern scholars” would like to disregard St. John’s Gospel as a late addition. However, Sandlin has nearly two thousand years of history stacked against him and documentation of the Gospel of John in the writings of the early Church (not to mention the Epistles which predate the synoptics). Sandlin uses the apparent disparity between the synoptic Gospels and John on Jesus’ divinity to try to solidify his point that Jesus wasn’t God. On this issue, Martin Chemnitz, using Eusebius as a source, details that certain men attempted to stir up controversy in the Church after most of the Apostles had died by questioning the deity of Christ. It was in this context that John wrote the Gospel that bears his name.
The final point I’ve outlined seems to be what Sandlin is really trying to impress upon his readers—that Jesus not being God is actually a good thing, because it enables Him to better address how human beings, as God’s children, are supposed to be. Orthodox Christians shouldn’t be completely allergic to Christ as an example. However, this is quite clearly not Jesus’ main intent for assuming our human flesh. Jesus tells us explicitly in Matthew 20:28 that He came for the express purpose of saving sinners, giving His life as a ransom. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1 that Jesus came to save sinners. We see this language woven throughout the narrative of Scripture.
I realize Sandlin does not deny the atonement in his article, but neither does he affirm it. This is the real problem with seeing Jesus primarily as example. Jesus as an example doesn’t save anybody. According to Jesus Himself, we need a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees; we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5). Jesus can demonstrate this to us, but we cannot hope to follow. With Jesus simply as an example, we are left dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2).
However, this actually isn’t Sandlin’s most damaging point. It is, however, connected. If Jesus isn’t God, then we are in real trouble. If Jesus is simply a man, He is also under the curse of sin and unable to redeem anybody. Let’s assume, though, that human-only Jesus is able to escape original sin and still live perfectly according to the Law. If He’s only a man, His death still won’t atone for your sins. Psalm 49 says, “No man can ransom another or give to God the price of his life.” The only blood that can atone for your sins, let alone the sins of the whole world, is Divine blood. Psalm 49 continues, saying, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (v. 15).” St. Peter writes, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Peter 1:18-19).” If Jesus isn’t God, if we have hope in Him in this life only, we are most of all to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15).
I understand Sandlin’s desire to include more people in the Christian faith. God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner, and neither should we. But changing what the Christian faith is isn’t the way to do that.