The person of Jesus Christ is the question of who Jesus was. There are three options the spec wants you to consider – the son of God, a teacher of wisdom and a political liberator. Proponents of these views point to different aspects of Jesus’ life as evidence for their overall view of who Jesus was.
The Son of God view
Almost all Christians think Jesus is the son of God, but some see him as a lesser being or even as only human.
The Trinity Is the doctrine that God has three forms; father, son and holy spirit. 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 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. They are contradictory qualities which cannot inhere in the same being, or that being would have contradictory qualities. 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”. The application of human reason to understanding God is not something Augustine or Barth would accept.
The success of Barth’s argument here depends on whether they are right that the Bible supports the trinitarian view and also on whether he is correct in his rejection of natural theology and the power of reason to provide us knowledge of God.
The Biblical evidence for the trinity
The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. However, trinitarians believe that we need the concept of the Trinity because they argue it accurately captures the way that the Bible refers to the relationship between The Father and the Son.
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. It also suggests that Jesus thought of himself as divine.
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. In John 17:21 Jesus prays that his disciples “may all be one”, where “one” is the same Greek word as in John 10:30. This suggests that the use of ‘one’ does not refer to substance but something like purpose.
Jesus’ “I am” statements from John.
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.
Hick: Jesus did not seem to believe he was divine.
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.” Hick points out that the label ‘son of God’ was a common title in Judaism when referring to a very special human chosen by God, not a truly unique divine person. For example, Adam was called the son of God.
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. It is therefore subject to this development criticism focused on what Jesus said about himself.
The miracles of Jesus arguably show he was the son of God and presumably that he thought he was divine. He walked on water, turned water into wine, raised people from the dead.
Old testament prophets also did miracles. Couldn’t Jesus’ miracles at most show that he was a prophet, as is thought in the Islamic religion?
There could be something special about Jesus’ miracles, however. Moses parted the red sea, but only under God’s instruction. Jesus’s power to do miracles seems to be totally under his control e.g. the water into wine miracle where he was reluctant at first but then decided to do it. Some theologians also argue that they showed insight about the nature of God. Jesus’ miracles can be interpreted similarly to parables, as illustrating his teaching and demonstrating understanding of God.
Reimarus (18th Century German Philosopher) was the first influential thinker to analyse the historical Jesus; to try and figure out how accurate the Early Church’s presentation of Jesus’ teachings actually was. He accused the apostles of changing the view of Jesus, pointing out that Jesus and the apostles said different things. Reimarus believed that Jesus was just a human who was deluded about being the Messiah. After the Crucifixion, his disciples hid his body so they could pretend he had been resurrected. The disciples then edited Jesus’ claims about an impending apocalypse, transforming them into claims about timeless spiritual truths.
Jesus only did miracles to the faithful. When ‘sensible’ ‘learned’ people requested a miracle for examination, Jesus refused. This meant no sensible or learned people could believe in him. Jesus’ miracles were only written down 30-60 years after his death, and in a language that Palestinian Jews could not understand. It was also a time of ‘greatest disquietude and confusion’ where very few who knew Jesus still lived. The gospel authors thus had little fear of being understood or refuted, especially considering they also told Christians that it was soul-saving to just believe and have faith. This made it easy for the gospel authors to ‘invent’ the miracles of Jesus, whether out of well-intentioned deceit or simply their own credulity.
“and both of these, as is well known, prevailed in the highest degree in the early Christian church.” – Reimarus.
The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
According to the Bible, Jesus rose from the dead three days after being crucified. This is often seen as the most important Christian doctrine. St Paul went as far as to claim that if the resurrection did not happen then faith is pointless. The traditional argument is that Jesus rising from the dead shows that he was the son of God in a unique sense. The question of whether we have good historical grounds for believing that the resurrection happened thereby becomes significant to the debate over whether Jesus was the son of God. No old testament prophets were resurrected. It also suggests that Jesus would have thought of himself as divine.
N.T. Wright defends the son of God view on the basis that the resurrection can be justifiably believed in as a historical event. Wright’s argument for the resurrection as a historical event is that the Jewish theological beliefs on the Messiah and resurrection of the early Christians underwent radical “mutations” that were completely contrary to and thus could not have been derived from traditional Jewish thought. Wright claims that these astonishing transformations in what was a very conservative religion must “force the historian … to ask, why did they occur”. Wright’s proposal is that they occurred because the bodily resurrection of Jesus really happened and the Gospel authors simply wrote down what happened.
The empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances are also part of Wright’s case for the resurrection. The empty tomb being discovered by women followers in what was a patriarchal society where women’s testimony was not valued in court suggests it was not made up. If it were made up, the authors would have made it men who discovered the empty tomb. Wright concludes “that is why as a historian I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”
Keith Parsons responds to the argument that the radical transformation of Jewish theology is best explained by an actual historical resurrection. He points out that according to the gospels “Jesus’ ministry contained many heretical elements” e.g. Mark 2, Jesus is condemned as blasphemous for claiming authority to forgive sins. In Mark 2:28 Jesus claims to dictate on the rules concerning the sabbath. Parsons concludes that since Jesus’ teaching was so heretical, the arising of radical beliefs about resurrection and Messianism in the disciple’s minds “hardly seems to require supernatural explanation”. Parsons goes on to suggest the difficulty of deciding on the criteria by which we could determine whether a change in theological thinking was too great to have been of human origin.
The teacher of wisdom view.
The moral teachings of Jesus suggest he was a teacher of morality and wisdom.
The Parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11–32) shows Jesus’ teachings on repentance and forgiveness. A man with two sons is asked by the younger one for his share of the inheritance early. He then wastes his wealth and has nothing. He returns to his father and repents, saying he has sinned against heaven and his father. The father forgives him, calling for a feast to celebrate his return. The older brother working in the field refuses to join this celebration though, feeling it is unfair that he worked hard yet received no such celebrations, while the other wasted their wealth and does. The father says to the older brother “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found”.
The sermon on the mount, including the beatitudes. Matthew 5:16-41.
The fulfilment of the old Law
Eye for an Eye
Although Jesus gave moral teachings, they are not the teachings that a mere human teaching of wisdom would have the right to give. For example, Jesus said “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39). To take the teachings of Moses and then say ‘But I tell you’ implies that Jesus thinks of himself as having greater authority than Moses. Arguably only God has that much authority.
C. S. Lewis’ trilemma develops this kind of point. Lewis argued against the view that Jesus was merely a moral teacher, which he regarded as ‘patronizing nonsense’ and an incoherent interpretation of Jesus’ sayings. Lewis argued that the claim to forgive sins which were not committed against yourself is only a moral teaching if ‘the speaker is God’. Jesus could only have been a morally good teacher of wisdom if his claim to forgive sins was backed up by the authority of being God, since only God has a right to forgive sins. There are thus three options; Jesus was either God, insane or evil. He cannot be only a moral teacher.
There are other options however, such as that Jesus’ belief that he was divine was an honest mistake that he was genuinely deluded about. That delusion need not affect his moral reasoning overall and thus he could have been a mere human teacher of wisdom who incorrectly thought himself divine.
John Hick, Bultmann & the resurrection
John Hick claimed that Jesus was not the son of God in a unique sense and was only a ‘guru’ and moral ‘role model’. Hick was influenced by Bultmann. Bultmann & demythologisation. Bultmann thought that the Bible had become difficult for modern audiences to accept because of how scientifically and historically minded people have become since the enlightenment period. The main issue was that the Bible contains supernatural occurrences, or ‘myths’. Bultmann observed that two theological approaches developed in response to this problem.
- The literalist approach was to believe the myths literally by denying the modern advances in knowledge that contradict them. Bultmann rejected this sort of blind faith as spiritually empty.
- The liberal approach ignores the myths and focusing only on the moral teachings found in the Bible. Bultmann rejected this approach because it reduces Christianity to a mere moral philosophy, a set of teachings, rather than an encounter with a way of life.
Bultmann thought there was another approach to the myths in the Bible, which was not to ignore them, nor take them literally, but take them as a record of human spiritual experience which had been put into words fitting ancient culture.
If we could translate the myths into words which would fit modern culture, we might be able to reveal the deeper truths about spiritual experience that they were intended to express. Bultmann called that process ‘demythologizing’, whereby we unearth the deeper meaning the mythic stories were expressing about the early Christian’s encounter with a new spiritual way of life; the early message of Christianity which first spread the faith. This might then give modern audiences a confrontation with the call to a spiritual life committed to Christ.
For example, the resurrection and Easter, when demythologised, is not about the rising of Jesus but the raising the early church due to the raising of faith of the disciples which inspired them to preach. Successful preaching and spreading the message of Jesus causes resurrection to take place within individual people.
Hick, following 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 the Gospel accounts of the resurrection couldn’t be taken as historically valid sources for the following reasons:
- Their discrepancies.
- Jesus appeared in a locked room with his disciples, making the rolling away of the stone covering his tomb confusingly pointless if he could simply have appeared where he wanted at will.
- Jesus’ disciples and Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize him at first.
- The gospel writers wrote long after Jesus’ life, so they were not eyewitnesses.
Hick concluded that instead of being viewed as historical record, the resurrection story should be demythologized and viewed as symbolising ‘God’s gift of renewal’ and ‘life transcending death’. This suggests that Jesus did not rise from the dead and was not the son of God in a unique sense.
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.
N. T. Wright’s criticism of Bultmann. Wright claims that the sources we have for history, such as the Gospels, do not merely and simply tell us something about the gospel writers, but that through their writing we can actually learn something about historical events. So, Wright claims Bultmann goes too far when he reduces the meaning of the Gospels to mere expressions of deeper truths about how the writers felt. Wright acknowledges there is some truth to that but claims that the Gospels actually do also tell us something about what happened in the past.
“Of course, in principle, writers who intend to write about other things than themselves will give you quite a lot of themselves en route, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t telling you about things that actually happened. Yes, you have to read them critically, but you have to be a realist as well. So critical realism.”
The Liberator view
Luke 10:25-37 – The parable of the Good Samaritan. The Jewish law said to love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus says to do this to receive salvation. Someone then asks him who counts as a ‘neighbour’. Jesus then told a story of a man attacked by robbers and left for dead on a road. A priest and a Levite walked past, not helping. However then a Samaratan, someone thought of as a lower class of people at the time, stopped to help the injured man. Jesus points out the Samaratan was a neighbour to person in need. “Go and do likewise”, Jesus says. Jesus used marginalised people as examples in his teaching. The message seems to be not to have prejudice or bias against someone because of their group. This was also a radical change from traditional parables which focused on the teachers of the law as exemplars.
Liberation theology – agreed with Marx’s criticism of capitalism. It began in 1964 by young catholic theologians in Brazil who reinterpreted the Christian message to focus on poverty. They believed that Jesus’ true message was in favour of economic justice.
Paulo Friere influenced liberation theology, inventing the term ‘conscientisation’ which describes the awareness someone can come to of the power structures in a society. Freire thought that education should be used to transform society to fix unjust power imbalances.
The preferential option for the poor is a term first used by Father Pedro Arrupe which refers to the way the Bible and Jesus showed a preference for poor people. Jesus also seemed to say the poor and less fortunate were blessed, especially in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount.
For Libertation theologians the Kingdom of God is about fixing this world, not about the afterlife. Christians should work for justice by fighting exploitation and oppression. Latin America was undeveloped and was facing a choice between continued capitalism or socialism.
Liberation theology is a Christian movement in theology and as such it is founded on the teachings and example of Jesus. It’s validity is thus dependent on its being Biblically supported, which is debated. Jesus certainly said many things that seem anti-wealth, but the question is whether they go as far as justifying liberation theology’s view that Christians should do more than charity by taking a structural approach to dealing with the causes of economic inequality.
Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ – Matthew 19:24.
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also”. Matthew 6:25-34.
If Jesus is saying give up all your possessions and that there shouldn’t be rich people – that sounds quite anti-capitalist.
Counter interpretation: arguably this at most shows that Jesus thought rich people should give to charity, it doesn’t suggest he wanted to overturn or address the causes of economic oppression/inequality. Kloppenburg, a Catholic Brazilian bishop, makes this point. He first argued that fusing theology and political action diminishes the spiritual message of Christianity. Liberation theology focuses on the injustice and sin in the structure of society, but Jesus spoke about the sin and forgiveness of individual people, he didn’t speak about society in general. There is too much focus on the ability of people to achieve liberation when in fact it comes from God, Kloppenburg argued. Jesus does seem to be pointing out that living for money is bad, but he doesn’t seem to be saying that we should actively try to overthrow the unjust social structures that result from living for money. In fact, when questioned whether Jews should pay an unjust tax, Jesus said yes: ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesers’. That quotes seems to suggest Jesus saw a fundamental disconnect between the human political society and living for God.
Exodus story: involves the liberation of Jews from the oppression of the Pharaoh and arguably shows that God is not only concerned about liberation at the individual level. This could be taken to counter Kloppenberg’s argument. God clearly cares about freeing people from social oppression which seems to back up liberation theology. Christianity sees itself as an expansion of the Jewish covenant to all humanity, which would make this quote relevant to all oppressed people.
Furthermore, if enough individuals followed Jesus’ teachings, the economic consequences would be structural. If individuals following Jesus’ teachings liberates the poor by destroying the structural causes of economic injustice and inequality, Jesus’ teachings should be seen as aimed at that.
The golden thread
The golden thread is Reuther’s idea that there is a theme of liberation, including supporting feminist causes, in the Bible. This is a thread of validity, which we can disentangle from the patriarchal influences. However, the Bible also contains sexist patriarchal themes. These two themes – liberation and sexism – are inconsistent with each other. They cannot both be God’s authentic revelation. If we can find a way to separate the golden thread of authentic teachings which support feminism from the patriarchal threads, then Christianity might be redeemable.
Reuther describes this golden thread as the ‘prophetic-liberating tradition’. It includes:
- God’s defence the oppressed such freeing the Jews in Exodus.
- Jesus’ treatment of marginalised people (including the poor and women).
- Jesus’ criticism of the established religious views that serve to justify and sanctify the dominant, unjust social order.
- Jesus’ moral teachings like the golden rule.
This golden thread is the theme of liberation, which is God’s authentic revelation, the rest is influenced by patriarchal men. Identifying the golden thread gives us a standard by which to compare and judge other parts of the bible and ‘reject’ those that do not fit the liberation theme. The only way for the bible to be feminist is if it rejects the use of God to justify social domination or subjugation. Patriarchy is the idolizing of the male as representing the divine so it must be denounced as idolatry and blasphemy.
Reuther’s golden thread argument depends on her claim that a plausible reading of Jesus’ actions is that they were aimed at liberating of women from the unjust social order. Reuther claims Jesus supported feminist causes, which would suggest Christianity can be redeemed by living up to the example of Jesus. There are bible stories which seem to demonstrate this:
The woman at the well. There were racial, historical and religious tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans, yet Jesus began a conversation with a female Samaritan at a well by asking her for a drink, which was unheard of as the ancient Jewish view was that Samaritans were unclean. She responded by asking how he could ask her such a thing. The disciples are also shocked when they see Jesus doing this. Christian feminists interpret this story as showing Jesus’ willingness to challenge the discriminatory culture of the time.
Just because Jesus thought Samaritan women should not be seen as unclean however does not necessarily go any further than that and therefore doesn’t justify Christian liberal feminism.
The adulterous woman (John 8) is a biblical passage involving a woman who had committed adultery bring brought to Jesus by the Pharisees who asked Jesus if she should be stoned. Jesus said: “let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”. After the Pharisees leave, Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her, but that she should depart and sin no more. Control of the sexual behaviour of females through violence, imprisoning her within marriage and reproduction is often thought the most significantly destructive aspect of patriarchy by feminists, and it seems Jesus was in favour of the kind of progress that feminists want.
This story at most shows that Jesus was against capital punishment for adultery. He still tells the woman not to sin again and therefore Jesus is still in favour of what anti-Christian feminists regard as a patriarchally constructed conception of ‘sin’.
Jesus said to Martha (Luke 10) that she should not prepare food in the kitchen but join everyone else to listen to his sermon. This could suggest that Jesus was against the traditional social gender roles where women’s job is to prepare food in the kitchen.
Jesus was arguably just saying that his teachings/sermon was more important than preparations in the kitchen – but this doesn’t mean that women’s place overall isn’t in the kitchen. Jesus is not necessarily saying that.
Galatians. Probably the most significant pro-liberation & feminist Bible verse is from St Paul:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ”. Galatians 3:28.
The non-political reading of Jesus & the Bible. There are other ways of reading these passages which suggests they are not aimed at challenging or change social structures. If Jesus was the son of God, his actions and moral teachings might sometimes appear to challenge social order/structure, but that might just be because he treated everyone as spiritually equal.
Treating people equally might give the appearance of challenging the social structures that are responsible for inequality, but arguably Jesus was only intending to bring his message to all humans equally, as the son of God would do. Regarding all being one in Christ according to Galatians, the idea that all are equal in Christ might seem pro-liberation, but arguably it only refers to spiritual equality ‘in Christ’, not social equality in society. Furthermore, consider God’s creating of humans in Genesis 1:27: “male and female he created them.”
Furthermore, there are passages where Jesus seemed explicitly anti-political. He spoke about the sin and forgiveness of individual people, not about society in general. When questioned whether Jews should pay an unjust tax, Jesus said yes: ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesers’. This suggests Jesus saw a fundamental disconnect between social injustice and religious matters. After arrest by the romans, to explain why he did not fight against his unjust arrest, Jesus said that his kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18), which suggests he sees a disconnect between human politics and the kingdom of God.
We could try to defend Reuther by arguing that these anti-political passages are simply not part of the golden thread of liberation.
However, the problem with that is, these passages aren’t explicitly patriarchal or pro-oppression passages. They are only suggesting that Jesus is not concerned with political or social engagement.