Ted Grimsrud—December 8, 2022
Many years ago, I had a friend who was probably the most principled person I have ever known. As a young college professor, he was denied tenure in large part because he sided with a student in a dispute with one of the school’s high administrators. My friend and his family then moved to a new town on the other side of the country.
A few years later, he was offered a teaching job at another college. However, he didn’t take the job because he could not sign the school’s doctrinal statement. The school dean argued with my friend—“Nobody takes this statement seriously. Just sign it; we don’t care if you agree with it or not.” What was the issue? The divinity of Jesus Christ. The doctrinal statement said something to the effect that “we believe Jesus Christ is God Incarnate.”
Now, my friend was hardly a liberal. He was kind of a biblical literalist, and he didn’t think the Bible itself taught that Jesus is God. He didn’t give much weight to the later creeds and confessions that make that affirmation. At that point in my life, I hadn’t really questioned the standard “orthodox” view, but my friend’s costly commitment to his belief system impressed me. So, I started thinking about this question, “is Jesus God?” I still haven’t figured it all out, though.
What’s the question?
One of the difficulties I have is that I can’t quite figure out what the statement “Jesus is God” actually means. It seems a bit like saying that in the 4th quarter of a close basketball game, Steph Curry is a cold-blooded killer. You have a sense of what the statement means, but it’s a metaphor. A person playing basketball is not in any literal sense a killer. But Curry can be like a cold-blooded killer when he ignores the pressure and makes a crucial shot that leads to his opponent’s defeat.
Perhaps the parallel would also be the case—Jesus is like God in how he practiced compassion and opposed domination. Or, we could say, Jesus is godly or God-like. But the simple statement “Jesus is God” does not make the same kind of sense. So, I wonder if it is, actually, in its literal sense a serious question. Doesn’t the question often operate more as a kind mystified boundary marker. Like with my old friend’s job interview, isn’t it often the case that people who use this question as a sign of whether one is inside or outside don’t actually know what they are asking but rather are simply trying to find a way to draw some lines of exclusion?
Like a lot of Christian dogmas, this one too easily has become a slogan, an unquestioned assertion that signals “safe” or “unsafe” but does little to illumine actual convictions or to encourage transformative living. While I am not a biblical literalist when it comes to these kinds of issues, I do think we should be attentive to the Bible’s silence about so many of the sacred dogmas of the Christian tradition. I tend to think that the emphases we see in Jesus’s life and teaching and in the broader biblical story are good ones for us to be attentive to. If the Bible does not need strong statements of Jesus’s divinity in order to be clear about what matters most, maybe we shouldn’t either.
Two different senses of “God”
Of course, part of the issue with the question, “Is Jesus God?” is what kind of “God” we are talking about. What seems often to have happened with the doctrine of Jesus’s divinity in the history of Christianity is that it leads to shaping our sense of what matters most about Jesus by our understanding of God as an almighty person in heaven. Thus, we get the emphasis in numerous creeds and confessions on Jesus’s Virgin Birth, sinless life, and identity as God Incarnate—with little or nothing said about Jesus’s life and teaching, his message of compassion toward the vulnerable and resistance toward the powerful.
Thinking about Jesus as God often leads to thinking about the things that make us think of Jesus as different from us and about the things that have to do with what we believe about him. Then we spend less time thinking about what Jesus did in his ministry and what he taught. Because of that, I tend to be skeptical about that confession. So often, Christianity has become a religion about Jesus. In practice Christians accept the very practices that Jesus taught and witnessed against (such as warism, excluding and oppressing vulnerable people, and glorifying wealthy and powerful people).
It is possible, though, that thinking about a close link between Jesus and God could lead to a different type of thinking. If instead of thinking of God as “the Almighty,” we think of God as love, then to link Jesus and God closely together could be helpful and empower us to live transformatively. We could recognize that Jesus helps us better understand what God actually is like.
Thinking about God can be quite abstract and speculative. We are vulnerable to associating God with the powerful and wealthy human beings and to associating God with the nation-state within which we live. We could confess, though, that Jesus is profoundly God-like and that that confession should push us to look closely at Jesus’s life and teaching to understand what it means to be God-like. In that case, we will be more likely to recognize God as present with the vulnerable and as opposed to the powerful and wealthy elite human beings.
The value of the Jesus-as-like-God metaphor
I think if we exercise care in using the metaphor, to link Jesus closely to God can be quite a helpful stance to take. I do believe that Jesus is special. The story of Jesus is a crucial story for my understanding of what matters most in life and a guide for how I want to live. As such, it is central for my faith. I believe that Jesus is a great prophet who shows us what God is like. When Jesus teaches love of enemies, he teaches us what God is like. When Jesus unconditionally forgives sinners, he shows us what God is like. When Jesus asserts that the rulers of the nations tend to be tyrants and that his followers must not be like them, he shows us God’s will for our lives.
When Jesus weeps in sadness as his friends’ death and in grief at the fate of Jerusalem, he helps us understand what God feels—as when he speaks angrily against the religious leaders’ oppressive ways. When Jesus remains steadfast in challenging the powers-that-be among the religious and political leaders of his day, he reveals that those leaders are not representing God but rather are rebelling against God.
So, Jesus is indeed like God. But this means something quite specific. Jesus, the great prophet, is like the God of the poor and vulnerable, not the God of the powerful and oppressive. Jesus is like the God of love and mercy, not the God of punishment and retributive justice. Jesus is like the God found in compassionate suffering with hurting and fragile human beings, not the God of quick fixes and intervening control.
Jesus, as distinctively God-like, has normative significance for people who seek healing and genuine justice in the world. For people who are at home in the domination system, the Jesus of the gospels must be crucified again and again—supposedly as an act of obedience to the god of that system. Such obedience, though, is a rejection of the true God that Jesus reveals.
I actually, perhaps surprisingly for some, find the teaching in the book of Revelation about the connection between Jesus and God to be helpful. The image of “the Lamb” in Revelation, as I interpret it in my recent book To Follow the Lamb, is an image meant to convey the sense that God is best understood in light of the persevering, vulnerable, suffering love that we see in the life of Jesus. Revelation, it is said, has the “highest” christology of the New Testament. That is, it presents Jesus in the most “divine” sense of all those writings. That may be, but we must be attentive to what that sense of “divinity” tells us about God. The Lamb is worshiped like God is in Revelation 5—meaning, I would say, that more than anything else the Lamb shows us what God is like: compassionate, committed to nonviolent resistance to empire, merciful, and practicing healing love.
So, is Jesus God?
I prefer not to use the straight-ahead statement “Jesus is God” because, for one thing, it doesn’t actually make sense to me. As well, for another thing, because of how that doctrine has so distorted the message of Christianity over the years in how it has turned the focus from the life and teaching of Jesus to doctrines about Jesus.
At the same time, I don’t want to separate Jesus from God. I want to say that Jesus is like God, Jesus is godly, Jesus shows us what God is like. I am not sure what I want to say about Jesus’s uniqueness. I like the idea of saying that Jesus gives us a normative view of what God is like and what we should be like. So, indeed, Jesus is special, a truly great prophet of God. However, part of the point of seeing Jesus as special is to confess that he is a force for connecting us with God—as our model, he shows us what authentic humanness is like, he is our sibling and friend.
Jesus gives us something concrete to keep in mind as we think about God. Another way to say this is that Jesus gives us guidance as we think about what matters the most, about what our hierarchy of values should be. So, I want to say a bit more than simply that Jesus is a good person. There is a normative dimension about Jesus. But not as entry point into a formal religion. Christianity is very problematic—it has value, in my mind, only insofar as it helps us to be fully human, peaceable, compassionate, and a healing presence in the world.
It is important for those who are interested in Jesus and who want to approach Jesus as our inspiration and guide for healthy and authentic living that we keep working at how best to understand the story the gospels tell. Christians still have not figured out what matters most about Jesus. We have quite a way to go to discern how best to learn from Jesus while critiquing and freeing ourselves from all the ways the Christian tradition has distorted his message. In distorting the message of Jesus, the Christian tradition has presented a distorted view of God.
It is as if we can’t simply reject Christianity, because the Christian tradition has given us the Jesus story. And yet, it is also as if we cannot simply affirm Christianity, because the Christian tradition has so distorted the Jesus story and thereby distorted the very story of God. I believe one useful path is to work within the Christian tradition, but to call it to account.
Jesus is our model for what it means to be human in the best sense. However, this is not a point of tension with his close link with God but because of it. That is, in light of the story of Jesus we may recognize that we see God the best in the human.