The authority of Jesus


This topic requires you to understand and debate two views of Jesus:

  • Jesus was both God and human; second person of trinity, Son of God the Father.
  • Jesus was only human.

You then need to understand & debate the implications of these two views including Jesus’ value as a role model, with reference to his teachings on non-violence in the sermon on the mount.

The sermon on the mount, Mathew 5:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,[h] let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,[i] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The traditional/conservative view of Jesus is that his authority derives from God’s authority because as part of the trinity Jesus is God, he is the son of God in a literal sense. Some early Christian sects, denounced as heretical, and contemporary liberal Christians however deny that Jesus is the son of God in a literal sense and see his authority instead as similar to the prophets, derived from their special relationship with God, or they might simply see Jesus as just as a teacher of wisdom, like a moral philosopher, and therefore a good role model.

The conservative view: Jesus’ authority as God’s authority

The traditional/conservative view of Jesus’s authority is that it is God’s authority because, according to the trinitarian doctrine, Jesus is God. He is the Son, second person of the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Trinity. Christianity is a monotheistic religion, meaning belief in only one God. However, the doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God in three persons; Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It holds that:

  • The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons (hypostases)
  • Each Person is fully God; the three are coexistent, coeternal and coequal
  • There is one God; the doctrine does not split God into three parts

This means Jesus was the Son of God in a unique sense. The traditional Jewish view of a messiah was equivalent in meaning to ‘Son of God’ in the sense of someone chosen by God to perform certain deeds. However in Jesus’ time the meaning in Greek changed to a human who was elevated to the divine. The Church fused the two meanings in the Council of Chalcedon in 451 so that Jesus was thought of as both fully God and fully human. The God of Christian monotheism was thereby declared a triune God. He is one Substance (‘ousia’) yet three Persons (‘hypostasis’). Jesus has two natures (human and divine). He is Fully God and Fully Man, joined in hypostatic union. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal.

The Incoherence of the trinity. The Unitarian liberal theologian Channing argued that the Trinitarian view of Jesus is one of “infinite confusion”. How could one being be both human and divine, weak and almighty, ignorant and omniscient? Something could be either human or divine, but not both. These are two different incompatible states. Divinity is infinite, humanity is finite; something cannot be both infinite and finite. John Hick agrees and illustrates this argument; to say Jesus is God is like saying that a circle is also a square. Hick goes on to conclude that Christ being a mere human solves the paradoxical implications of the trinity.

The trinity is a mystery to be taken on faith. Theologians like Augustine and Karl Barth admit that the trinity is a mystery which must be taken on faith and that all human attempts to fully understand the trinity through reason are misguided. Barth said he was ‘relieved’ that Augustine admitted that his word “person” was just a manner of speaking for the mystery of the trinity, and Barth claims “A really suitable term for it just does not exist”.


Biblical evidence for Jesus being God (the trinity)

John 10:30. Jesus said, “The Father and I are one”. This quote seems to suggest that The Father and The Son are one being which would entail co-equal and co-eternal. This provides biblical evidence for the trinitarian view.

Arians respond with a different interpretation – that Jesus did not mean that he and the Father were of one substance, but of one purpose. They think the context of the quote shows that Jesus was referring to being of one in their pastoral work and purpose. They point out that in John 17:21 Jesus prays that his disciples “may all be one”, where “one” is the same Greek word used in John 10:30. This suggests that the use of ‘one’ does not refer to substance or being, but something like purpose.

John 1:1-3. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made”.

John 1:14. “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”.

“The Word” refers to Christ. These verses from John suggest that Christ The Son is co-eternal with The Father, because he pre-existed the creation of the world, and co-equal with The Father, because through him all things were made.

Many scholars, including Hick, make a development argument regarding Jesus’ divinity. John was the latest Gospel written and clear statements of Jesus’ divinity do not exist in the earlier Gospels, which casts doubt on the authenticity of John. The earliest gospel is thought to be Mark, which begins with Jesus’ baptism making no mention of a divine birth and Jesus is depicted as a prophet. Matthew and Luke were written next and mention Jesus’ divine birth. John was written last and presents the son (The Word) as having existed even before the incarnation. Hick’s argument is that Jesus being the son of God in a unique sense was a later invention and thus an idea of human origin. Hick applies demythologisation to the idea of the incarnation, concluding that it conveyed the idea of embodying a conviction in life. Jesus embodied ‘the goodness and love of God’.

However, even in Mark, often thought by New Testament scholars to be the first gospel written, there are presentations of Jesus that seem to suggest his divinity. During Jesus’ baptism God speaks and says: “you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Jesus quiets a storm like God does in the story of Jonah and walks on water like God does in the book of Job.

Bart Ehrman claims that the argument of development should be taken to apply to what Jesus said about himself, rather than merely what the narrative features of the gospels suggest about Jesus. Ehrman accepts that such features of Mark’s gospel show that Mark understands Jesus to be divine, but argues that this does not show that Jesus himself thought of himself as divine. It is only in gospel of John that Jesus makes clear statements of divine self-identification and although there is dispute over the dating of the first gospels there is considerable agreement that John was written last and is therefore subject to this development criticism focused on what Jesus said about himself.

Implications of the view that Jesus’ authority as God’s authority & his value as a role model (e.g. sermon on the mount)

  • Jesus’ authority is absolute and the ultimate authority.
  • Since Jesus was God, the full extent of his moral goodness is probably beyond our ability to live up to.
  • Christians would follow the example of Jesus as best they could.
  • Jesus’ life is a very important way that Christians can learn how to live for God since having a real-life example of a human life lived by God is much more relatable and actionable than having a list of commandments to follow.
  • Jesus himself in his actions as a role model always turned the cheek – he never did violence and he allowed himself to be crucified.

The Liberal view: Jesus’ authority as only human

Liberal subjective views of inspiration began during the enlightenment period and accepted the scientific, historical and literary evidence of human influence on the Bible, which is thus not considered the perfect word of God but a product of the human mind.

This suggests that the scriptures were written by witnesses of God’s divine events in history like the incarnation, or times when God communicated or revealed himself. What came to be written down as a result however was merely what those people took away from such events, or from hearing about such events from the testimony of those who witnessed them. The words of the Bible are therefore just human interpretations of what the authors felt and understood of God’s revelation. The bible thus reflects the cultural and historical context of its human authors and requires continual re-interpretation to ensure its relevance. Liberal Christians will point out that Jesus himself seemed to be progressive in that in the sermon on the mount he modified some of the old testament laws.

There are many varieties of liberal theology which often disagree with each other. The one thing they have in common is the rejection of the Bible as the perfect word of God.

John Hick thought that we should view the Bible as a record of how ancient humans interpreted events like the life of Jesus. They wrote it down not as a set of historical facts but as stories which had a symbolic meaning. For example, the resurrection symbolises God’s gift of renewal and the possibility of life after death. Hick does not believe the resurrection actually happened. He views Jesus as a ‘guru’.

Hick, inspired by Bultmann, thought that the Bible contains ‘true myths’ meaning ‘not literally true’ but inspiring us spiritually and morally. Hick claimed the resurrection was a myth not a historical fact because of the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of it, the fact that Jesus appeared in a locked room with his disciples making the rolling away of the stone covering his tomb confusingly pointless and the fact that his disciples didn’t recognize Jesus at first. Instead, the resurrection story should be demythologized and viewed as symbolising ‘God’s gift of renewal’ and ‘life transcending death’.

Hick ultimately argued for the teacher of wisdom view, that Jesus was just a human ‘guru’ and moral ‘role model’.

Hick argued that the historical Jesus did not teach nor ‘apparently believe that he was God, or God the Son, Second person of a Holy Trinity, incarnate, or the son of God in a unique sense.’ The label ‘son of God’ was a common metaphor in Judaism referring to the messiah being a merely very special person chosen by God, not a truly unique divine person. For example, Adam was called the son of God. The incarnation was therefore metaphorical, conveying the idea of embodying a conviction in life. Jesus embodied ‘the goodness and love of God’. Hick argues the benefit is this avoids the paradoxes of the previous paragraph regarding the duality of Christ and the trinity.

Jesus’ role in our salvation shows he was divine. Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life to save us from our sins is called the atonement and is something only a divine being could do. A mere human’s death would not have the significance nor power to save us from our sins. Christians believe that Christ’s defeat of death when he was resurrected was an offer of eternal life to all who have faith in him. So, the resurrection story must have been true in order to make sense of the purpose of Jesus’ life in saving us from our sins, which is a prevalent biblical theme.


The moral exemplar theory of the atonement, such as the version proposed by Hick, doesn’t require that Jesus’ death had a literal and direct effect on our sinful state, so his theory of the atonement undercuts the importance of the trinity for salvation. Hick claims that Jesus was just a human and so certainly died, but that the power of his sacrifice was merely as an example of moral life so inspiring that it influences us to be better and thereby saves us from our sins in that sense. So, Jesus didn’t have to be a divine being to save us from our sins.

Subjectivity issue for Myth: Aren’t the ‘deep truth’ Myths intend to convey down to interpretation and therefore subjective? How could we ever know we had ascertained the ‘true’ meaning?

Unitarianism. W. E. Channing defended the unitarian view. He argued:

  1. The scriptures are in limited human language and thus require reason to interpret.
  2. Reason is a God-given faculty and thus it cannot be contrary to faith and we must use it. Although using human reason in theology is dangerous, it is more dangerous not to use it.
  3. “We object to the doctrine of the Trinity” because it subverts “the unity of God”.
  4. The trinity implies three persons who love and converse with each other and have different roles in our salvation. “if these things do not imply … three minds … we are at a loss to know how three minds [are to be formed]”
  5. The trinity is “unscriptural” because the idea that God is three persons is never found in the New Testament.
  6. If the Trinity were true, it would be important and expressed in scripture with “all possible precision” and yet it is simply not. “We ask for one [passage], one only, in which we are told, that [God] is a threefold being”.
  7. The Trinitarian view of Jesus is one of “infinite confusion”. How could one being be both human and divine, weak and almighty, ignorant and omniscient?

Implications of the view of Jesus’ authority as only human & his value as a role model (e.g. sermon on the mount)

  • Hick still thought that Jesus had great impact as a role model. However he was not divine and thus not to be taken as an absolutely perfect role model.
  • Hick still thought Jesus life as a role model was so inspirational that it encourages us to be less sinful and so saves us from our sins in that sense.
  • In general, viewing Jesus as only human suggests that as a role model he should be regarded like a moral philosopher, or like great literature such as Shakespeare. These can be useful inspiriting sources of guidance and insight about human life, but they do not have ultimate authority.