People have started wars, split churches, and even been burned at the stake over this simple question casually posed to me by my three year old son last night at dinner.
“Daddy, is Jesus God?”
It would have been easy to give the quick, standard, unquestionable answer I was raised with:
“Yes, Grady. Absolutely. Now finish your supper and don’t ask any more questions.”
Don’t worry, that wasn’t my answer. But reflecting on things a few hours later, and as a progressive educator, what I *wish* I would have said is:
“What do you think, Grady? What makes you ask that question?”
Of course, I didn’t think fast enough to come back with that response either. Instead, what I actually fumbled through was something more like:
“I don’t know, Grady. Some people believe that Jesus is God, and other people don’t.”
And then I tried to explain why some people do, and others don’t, until I found I was rambling at a level that was probably over his head, and quickly killing an otherwise perfect theological father/son opportunity for dialogue.
If you’re a new reader to this blog, and you’re still in shock over the fact that I don’t unquestionably and unwaveringly acknowledge the divinity of Christ…welcome to my blog, where heresy and orthodoxy share space! (please leave all crucifixes, burning stakes, and other implements of the Inquisition at the door before you enter — we’re a little bit sensitive about that here).
If anything, my two weeks studying Greek at seminary so far have reinforced my belief that we who call ourselves Christians know a whole lot less than some of us are comfortable with. Here’s a case in point: During the second day of class, we were reading the Lord’s Prayer in the original Greek (well…as close as we can actually get to the original, which isn’t really that close), and our professor stops at passage that loosely translates as “give us this day our daily bread.” Only, he points to the word that we translate as daily, and says, “Nobody really knows what this word means. It only occurs two places in the New Testament (both times in the Lord’s Prayer) and nowhere else in ancient Greek literature. The word ‘Daily’ is just a guess.”
So for all we know, Jesus could have said, “Give us this day our raisin bread.” I would certainly appreciate a daily ration of that. Now, I know that some people argue that it’s possible to be certain of the “big picture” despite small translation issues, and minor variances in manuscripts. I myself believe this is mostly true, although it seems to me (as an English major and student of language in general) that sometimes those “little” things can be pretty significant.
Back to Grady’s question. Is Jesus God? A google search on this question quickly turns up five dozen websites that all offer some variation of Josh McDowell’s “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” proposition — basically the idea that
- Jesus “said” he was God, and
- for someone to make such a claim, he would have to be
- a liar,
- crazy, or
- telling the truth
Even though I once used that whole shpiel (as a very young youth director), I’ve come to think it’s a ridiculous oversimplification and quite counterproductive. For one thing, I think Jesus actually was just a little bit loopy — as are most talented and passionate people who change history. But my bigger issue with the liar, lunatic, lord proposition is much more simple: Did Jesus actually ever say that he *was* God? In the gospel of Mark (the oldest of the gospels) he does not. In fact, Jesus’ favorite title for himself in all the gospels is not “Son of God” but rather “Son of Man” — in other words, Jesus himself preferred for us to focus on his humanity, not his divinity (well, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at least).
The most oft quoted gospel for establishing the divinity of Jesus is the gospel of John, which was written much later, when “institutional Christianity” was already well underway, and after Paul (who came onto the scene *after* the death of Jesus) had already fleshed out the basic theology/christology adopted by the early church. Even there, the most solid reference (in John) has Jesus saying “I and my father are one” (John 10:30 KJV). But is this the only way to translate that phrase? I haven’t broached this passage in the original Greek yet, but as we learn, I keep running into passages that can be reasonably translated in more than one way, sometimes making a striking difference in the ultimate meaning. Here’s another translation of that same passage: “I and the Father are one heart and mind” (MSG). I often think that of my relationship with Grady — despite the 30 years that separate us, sometimes we think and act a lot alike. One might say we “share a brain.” But I certainly don’t think that Grady is me, and I am Grady. And I think a reasonable person listening to Jesus say these words would NOT have instantly thought him a liar, lunatic, OR even a deity…unless it were someone already looking for words to trip him up with (like the Pharisees).
Speaking of “looking for words to trip one up with” I should probably go ahead and make the disclaimer that what I’m writing here represents exploration and journey for me, theologically — not something set in stone, that I believe unwaveringly, yesterday, today, and forever. (And yes, this paragraph is specifically addressed to my Committee on Preparation for Ministry).
In the end, this is an issue that is far from resolved, at least for me. I don’t judge others who have already settled on an answer to this one — I have good friends on both sides. Maybe Grady and I can explore this question together.
Later on that night, Grady asked another theological question:
“Daddy, why did people kill Jesus?”
I had a lot more fun answering this one. We talked about power, authority, money, and all the other things Jesus called into question. Whether Jesus was God or not, I AM pretty certain that Woody Guthrie had it right: If Jesus showed up today, preaching the same stuff he did 2000 years ago…we’d crucify him all over again. And by we, I mostly mean Christians.