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The Scriptural Image Of Jesus Christ As God
In the New Testament, especially in St John's gospel, but also in certain writings of St Paul, Jesus is explicitly referred to as God. However, before examining the use of the title 'God' for Jesus Christ in the Scriptures two preliminary points will made regarding the general meaning of the expression 'God'. Firstly an etymological analysis highlights that the term 'God' is derived from the Greek verb 'to run' (theein) or 'to burn' (aithein) denoting the idea of God's "continuous movement and the consuming of evil qualities". Not only does this betray God's continuous concern (or providence) for what He has created but also His personal mode of existence. That is to say, insofar as God is forever ex-static (i.e moving outside of Himself) He is also personal since a person by definition exists only to the extent that an 'other' is beheld. Far from being an abstract idea, God is a personal existence - indeed three Persons who continuously move outside of their divinity to relate with the world. In this way, God is truly experienced on a personally intimate level and not simply logically accepted.
Having briefly outlined the meaning of the term 'God' from a linguistic point of view, several considerations must be brought to the fore regarding the use and original meaning of God in general. We note that the term 'god' was originally used as a generic noun to simply denote any deity of the transcendent realm. That is to say, just like the expression 'human being' denotes all those creatures who share a set of common properties, which include, amongst other attributes, reason, thought, will judgement, imagination, memory so too the name 'god' signified a transcendent reality. There were many 'gods' in the ancient world and each had their own proper name. And so the proper name of the God of Israel was "I am who I am" (Ex 3:14). Such a name was used by God to proclaim to His people that He was entirely transcendent and that not any one name could contain Him, much less define Him – He simply was who He was.
It was later that the term 'god', as a generic name for the deity, came to be used, by the Jewish nation, as the proper name for 'God'. The Israelites did this because, for them, there was no other god except their God. This point is important because it can explain the use of the term 'god' in its broader sense in the Scriptures. For example, all those who hear and abide by the word of God are called gods. In quoting Psalm 81:6 (according to the Septuagint), Jesus said:
"I said you are gods, son of the Most High" (Jn 8:41).
This is to be understood in reference to the gift of eternal life bestowed on all those who follow Jesus, becoming 'gods' by grace (cf 2Pt 1:4). It must be remembered that in the Greek language, when the term 'god' is used with an article as in, 'o theos' the title 'God' is reserved almost exclusively without exception to God the Father alone. Therefore in being named as 'o theos' the Scriptures show Jesus Christ to be divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father. And so, this detail is also an important argument for all those who, on the basis of this more general use of the term 'god' argue against the divinity of Jesus Christ. After these preliminary remarks about the expression 'god' in general, we now turn our attention to examine its use in reference to Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel according to St John
In the New Testament one can distinguish at least three explicit verses which refer to Jesus as God: two references in the gospels and one in the letters of St Paul. In fact in the Gospels the only application of the term God (o theos) to Jesus Christ is found in the gospel according to St John – one reference at the beginning of the gospel and one towards the end. As it is well known, in the opening verses of the prologue of the gospel, the pre-existent Word is referred to as God: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (kai theos en o logos)" (Jn 1:1) . This verse makes explicit the fact that Jesus Christ, the pre-existent Logos of God, whilst distinct from God the Father is also divine with exactly the same divinity as His Father - that is to say, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Logos is perfect God. From this verse alone, we see that in the Son of God who was made flesh, the fullness of the deity dwelt bodily (cf Col 2:9).
There are some who maintain, however that since the definite article before the word 'God' (in the third clause of verse one) is missing in the original Greek, the verse can then be interpreted to mean that Jesus was a 'god' in the broader sense of the word but not God in the full sense. And so they conclude that this verse in no way betrays the divinity of Jesus Christ. By way of a reply to this assertion based on grammatical syntax (which is nonetheless, admittedly never entirely binding), it can be argued that the article was not needed because of the fact that the word 'theos' appears at the beginning of the clause in question and predicate nouns preceding a verb do not require the article. However beyond the 'linguistic' response, the unanimous interpretation given to this verse by the entire early Church, all testifies to the fact that this verse was understood as a declaration of Christ's divinity. And so, the Patristic tradition argued that the articular ellipsis in the phrase 'the Word was God' skilfully declares the consubstantiality of the Logos with the Father without confusing the Persons. That is to say, without the definite article, it can safely be concluded that Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, whilst remaining indivisibly distinct from God the Father, was nonetheless of the same essence and of the same being as God – i.e. not a lesser God. Therefore the phrase emphasises Christ's intimate and eternal relationship with the Father whereby the two, though distinct cannot be thought of apart – that is they are perfectly united in an unconfused manner. And being 'God from God', Jesus Christ was able to reveal perfectly to the entire world all that God was, and will be, from the very beginning until the end of time.
The next occurrence of the title 'God' applied to Jesus Christ is to be found in Thomas' confession of faith in Jesus Christ, where he professed the risen Lord as 'my Lord and my God' (Jn 20:28). St John's Gospel relates that when the disciples were gathered again in the house, in the evening of the first day of the week after Christ's resurrection, Jesus appeared to all of His disciples (cf Jn 20:21ff) except for Thomas which the gospel notes was not there. The passage continues, that eight days later, when the disciples were gathered together again, Jesus appeared to them again - this time Thomas was with them – and said: "Peace to you!" (Jn 20:26). The resurrected Lord then turned to Thomas and said to him to reach out his finger and to touch the side of Christ. The invitation extended to Thomas to put his fingers on the hands and side (cf Jn 20:27) of the risen Lord, dispelled all forms of doubt that bound Thomas and led to the proclamation of the divinity of Jesus – an affirmation that was made only by Thomas and not the other disciples.
It is precisely for this reason that it would be more correct to see in Thomas' desire to touch Christ, not an indication of doubt, but more an insatiable desire to immerse himself fully, with fingers and hands, in fact with all his senses into the mystery of the resurrected Lord so as to relive to some extent the humanity of Christ. Unlike the other disciples who simply saw Christ and rejoiced, Thomas wanted to embrace the reality of the resurrection with his entire being. And it was this desire which led him to his confession of faith of "my Lord and my God!" (Jn 20:28). Furthermore, the use of the personal pronoun 'my' in this declaration of faith was not an impersonal or abstract recognition of the divinity of Christ but a personal affirmation and a total dedication of Thomas' entire existence to the risen Lord as God. For this reason many exegetes are correct in seeing in this confession, which stands at the end of the gospel, a direct correspondence with the prologue's declaration of Christ's divinity.
In St Paul's letter to the Romans
There is one passage in St Paul's letter to the Romans where Christ is referred to as 'o theos'. In highlighting the unbelief of the Jews in chapter nine despite God's continued blessings – exemplified in His bestowal of the various covenants, the law, the promises and His glory – Paul also came to affirm the divinity of Christ:
"to them [the Israelites] belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen" (Rom 9:5).
This passage belongs to that part of the letter to the Romans in which St Paul underline the continuity but at the same time discontinuity between the Jewish and Christian faiths, which, at the time, was one of the most important theological and pastoral concerns of the early Church. Yet, for our purposes, this important text also refers to Christ as 'God', who is to be 'blessed forever. Amen'.
At this point it must be noted that much of modern scholarship rejects the claim that Rom 9:5 is a reference to the divinity of Jesus, seeing it instead as a doxology to Jesus the Messiah – i.e the Son of God - and to God separately. The reason for this is that the original Greek text would not have had punctuation marks and therefore, depending on how one punctuates this sentence determines the meaning as well. And so, the reading which is favoured by many biblical scholars today would have a full-stop placed after the word 'sarka'In this case, a distinction is introduced between the words 'Christ' and 'God', whereby Christ and God the Father are seen to be over all. That is to say they see this verse as a reference to two different entities – to Jesus Christ as the 'anointed One' of God (but not God) and also to God the Father who is blessed forever. In other words, they argue that 'theos' in this case is not a description of Christ but a reference to God the Father. Such an interpretation however has not been the widely accepted one throughout the ages of the Church's history of Biblical hermeneutics.
The claim of the Christian Orthodox tradition, on the other hand, that the verse in question is a reference to the divinity of Jesus Christ is reached, by having a comma, and not a full-stop placed after the Greek word 'sarka'. In this case, the phrase does not describe God the Father and the Son of God, but rather the expression 'God blessed forever' qualifies who the Messiah is – i.e. 'God over all who is blessed forever'. Read in this light, the passage, Orthodoxy would assert, unambiguously describes Jesus as God (though not o theos who is usually God the Father in the Scriptures). That this is most likely reading is evidenced in the writings of the Patristic tradition, which has interpreted this verse as a proclamation, by Paul of Christ's divinity. Indeed, many Fathers understood this Pauline verse to be a Trinitarian confession of faith. And so, Origen (d. 253AD) for example, upon whom many subsequent fathers relied wrote:
"It is clear from this passage that Christ is the God who is over all. The one who is over all has nothing over him, for Christ does not come after the Father but from the Father. This Spirit is also included in this… So if the Son is God over all and the Spirit is recorded as containing all things, it is clear that the nature and substance of the Trinity are shown to be one and over all things."
Clearly, in his commentary, Origen, like many fathers, clearly believed that St Paul was affirming here that Christ was over all things as God, and therefore blessed forever.
Even though one cannot argue apodictically for either reading, the latter interpretation is more likely not only because this is in agreement with the Patristic tradition but also for at least the following three reasons: firstly, if the last phrase of the verse were a doxology to God the Father and not a description of Jesus Christ, then Paul would have begun his doxology, as he normally did, with the word 'blessed' and not 'God' as is the case in the original Greek. And so the verse would read: "Blessed is God forever!" and not as it stands in the verse "God blessed forever" . Moreover another consideration rightly noted by Behr is that if the title 'God' were not addressed to Jesus Christ then the participle, 'being' (o on) would not be required. As it stands now, this participial phrase is in apposition to the words 'o Christos' furthering qualifying who Jesus Christ was – i.e. God blessed forever. A third reason favouring the Patristic understanding is that other Pauline letters refer to Christ as God. An example is the letter to Titus in which Christ is referred to as both saviour and God:
"while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ" (Tit 2:13).
From all of the above it can be concluded with certainty that the Patristic tradition was correct in seeing in Rom 9:5 a clear statement of the divinity of Christ. Overall, then it seems most probable that Romans 9:5 contains the title 'God' for Jesus Christ.
Yet it must be remembered however that all these affirmations referring to Jesus Christ as 'God' are to be kept inseparably together with the rest of the New Testament writings where the Father of Jesus is the one God of Israel and it is on the basis of this, that Jesus, the Son of God, is divine as His Father is divine. Referring to His Father, Christ Himself said:
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn 17:3).
From this passage we see that the one true God is distinguished from Jesus Christ and yet identified with Him in so far as the gift of eternal life is granted to those who know God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was all that God the Father was yet without actually being the Father. And so our original remarks concerning the title 'God' in which it was argued that when the expression 'God' was used as a proper name it usually stood for God the Father, while when used as a common noun it could be applied to both the Father and the Son stand.
Far from highlighting any human limitations, the titles of Jesus which have been examined over the past few months in VEMA have shed light upon the divinity of Jesus without of course discarding His humanity. Whilst much Christological scholarship today focuses its examination of the Bible on those indicators which suggest Jesus' human limitations (eg His hunger, thirst, weeping, tiredness and fear), we have been able to show that the aim of the Gospel authors and traditional Christology concentrated upon presenting Christ as the Son of God sharing in exactly the same divinity as His Heavenly Father. Without denying His humanity, the New Testament writers and the patristic and conciliar decrees consistently affirmed the true divinity of Jesus, explaining that He was none other than the Christ (that is the Anointed One of God), the Lord, in fact God the Logos incarnate.
Immediately following the New Testament period, the Ignatian literary corpus would constantly refer to Jesus as God in line with the famous fourth century Nicene definition which declared that Jesus was 'of one essence' (homoousion) with the Father. However as we shall see, throughout the history of the Church, there was always opposition to the notion of Jesus' divinity in one way or another. And yet there were others, who tended to deny His full humanity in their desire supposedly to 'safeguard' Jesus from corruptible humanity which was part of the material world and therefore considered to be inherently evil.
1. St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 30.18.
2. Cf Christos Yannaras, Elements of Faith, trans. Keith Schram (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 27.
3. The original Greek is: "En arche en o Logos, kai o Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en o Logos" (Jn 1:1). Note the absence of the definite article in the last
4. It is significant that Jesus does not say to Thomas "do not be faithless" but "do not become faithless". In other words Jesus guards Thomas from an ensuing faithlessness and not one which already exists. Therefore Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for being 'doubtful'. I am indebted here to Harkianakis' exegesis of this pericope which can be found in: Archbishop Stylianos (of Australia), 'Thomas as Truth', in Incarnations of Dogma, in Greek (Athens: Domos, 1996), 77-81. phrase of the verse.
5. Cf. Brendan Byrne, Romans, Sacra Pagina Series, vol 6, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville: A Michael Glazier Book, 1996), 288.
6. Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 4:140.
7. Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, The Anchor Bible Series, vol. 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 549.
8. John Behr, The Way of Nicaea, vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2001), 59.
9. Other Johannine biblical references which desribe God as the only true God are the following:
"You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.”" (Jn 8:41); "Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (Jn 20:17). It must be noted that the Fathers explain this verse as a reference to the incarnate state of the Son of God. That is to say, in so far as Christ identified totally with humankind, except for sin, did He speak also of God, His Father as 'my God'.
10. John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, vol. 1, 64
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College