Was Jesus “God”?

Jesus’ “divinity” is an important question.  For, among other things, it bears on the issue of the “divine authority” of the Catholic Church which claims to speak in Jesus’ name, and from there the reduced, subordinated validity of every other church, religion or religious tradition on the face of the earth.  The rationale for this strange arrogance is very simple: If Jesus is “God” and founded the Church to be his exclusive and abiding representative on earth … indeed, his continuance … then this Church which is the very body of Christ, is also iden­­tified with “God,” speaks infallibly and must be obeyed with the same complete surrender as if it were “God” himself. 

This claim to be “God’s” exclusive agent on earth enjoys some unique protections.  It can never be lost, passed on or shared with others or even verified and reaffirmed because “God” no longer speaks on his own, but “only through the Church.”  There is no way to verify if the Church still is “God’s” spokesperson (or if it ever really was) or if maybe that job has been passed on to another, or to others or to no one.  We have nothing but the Church’s word for it.

The circularity is flawless.  “God” in the person of Jesus, made the Church “divine.”  The Church speaks with “divine authority” and therefore infallibly.  And in 325 at the Council of Nicaea the Church “infallibly” declared that Jesus is “God” of the “same substance” homo-ousios, (homo = same, ousios = substance) as the Father.   

Divinity and Philosophy

The Nicaean way of declaring that Jesus was “God,” was philosophical.  That’s why they used the strange word homo-ousios; it was a philosophical word.  It is not found anywhere in scriptureBut while Nicaea defined Jesus’ relationship to the Father philosophically, it never told us what we should mean philosophically when we say “God.”  So what you mean by saying Jesus is “God” will depend on your definition of “God.”  If your “definition” of “God” is theist-humanoid, then your idea of Jesus’ divinity will follow suit.  In this case, Jesus will be “God,” a separate being, a “person” like us, but all knowing and all powerful, who thinks and decides in reaction to the sequence of human events occurring in time.  “God’s” will becomes “command­ments” for us to obey; and the Church, as the voice of Jesus, tells us which commandments those are.  It will also follow that If Jesus is “God,” in this sense, and at the very same time “God’s” son, then there must be at least two “persons” in “God.”

But if your concept of “God” is pan-en-theist … which means, as the scholastics said, that everything that exists participates in the esse (“to be”) which is “God,” then all things are “God” to some degree because they exist.  All things exist by participation in “God’s” existence.  “God” is everything’s existential energy and no one thing is “God.”  “God” transcends that kind of singularity because esse energizes everything that exists making it exist.  In this case, Jesus is “God,” to a degree greater than most of us (for he was clearly a very holy man, and holiness has to do with esse), but he is not something “substantially different” from us.  In fact, because of participation in being, nothing is “substantially” different from anything else.  Things are different from one another according to a certain proportion of esse … evident in what they do, how “good” they are and how much “good” they do (how “holy” they are).  There is only one “substance,” Spinoza said … and that substance is “God” and we all participate in that substance to one degree or another.  That is what existence means — it means to be in and a part of “God.”  We are all “God” to some degree … because we exist.   Paul seems to have been in agreement with this philosophy.  When he was speaking to the philosophers in Athens as reported in Acts 17, he said “God” was:  “… in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Personally, I would rather Spinoza had used a different word.  “Substance” for us connotes some kind of “stuff” or even a “thing.”  So, because esse is energy and not a “thing,” substance can be misleading.  The term originated with Aristotle.  In Greek he used the word ousía.  It meant something that existed on its own apart from other things; he never used it of “God.”  So as applied literally to “God” it’s a borrowed usage, and not exactly appropriate.  We can call an individual organism a “substance,” according to Aristotle, but we cannot call “God” a substance except by analogy So Spinoza’s (and Nicaea’s) use of the term is problematic.  Why did he do it?  Because he was trying to use Aristotle’s categories to express “participation in being.”  For Aristotle a substance was something that existed completely on its own.  By that definition, concluded Spinoza, there is only one substance in the entire universe —  “God” — because only “God” exists on “his” own … everything else exists in him.  I believe the use of the word substance was a poor choice and it is the reason Spinoza has been falsely labeled a pantheist and not recognized as a pan-en-theist.  He said all created things are “modalities” of the one “substance” meaning they had their existence in and from and according to the “character” of “God.”  It was unfortunate that he could not come up with another way of saying what he meant. 

But perhaps we can.  Can we find another word for the existential energy which is “God” by the pan-en-theist definition?  Maybe borrowing from the imagery of electromagnetism or gravity, we could use “force” … or “field” or perhaps even the word “energy” itself to help imagine “God.”  Would that work?  Unfortunately, our thoughts are pinned to images.  Use the wrong image and you end up with the wrong thought.  I believe we have consistently misconceived “God” because we continue to associate the notion of “God” with the wrong image.  And the image we have always used is a human person like a “king” or a “father” or a “judge.”  That imagery makes “God” like us humans (anthropoi) and male humans to boot, and so we call that kind of thought “anthropomorphic.”  All people are separate individuals.  “God” is not.  “God” is more like a force-field that we are part of than any individual entity, human or non-human.

Another possible image is “light.”  This was a favorite of the Fathers who took it from the neo-Platonists.  Light originates in the sun and shines on all things on earth making them visible.  All light, even the moon’s, is a reflection of the sun’s light.  But everything is “lightsome” and visible because everything participates in the light of the sun.  Nothing has “light” on its own; its light is a “modality” of the sun’s light … it is a reflected light.  The sun alone has light on its own. 

These images at least help us to move away from the anthropomorphic (humanoid) “God” who is like a human “person,” only smarter and more powerful.  If that were true, it would mean that “God” was not very good at all for “God” does nothing when major catastrophes — like the holocaust, or the Haitian earthquake — occur.  “Persons” who refuse to do what they are capable of doing when catastrophes happen in their presence are considered morally derelict and held in contempt by us … and if they had a responsibility to act besides, we may hold them liable to criminal conviction and punishment. “God” could not possibly be such a “person.” 

Hence I conclude that there is no such “God” as conceived by the Book.  The theist-humanoid “God” does not exist.  But if we live in a pan-en-theist world, then “God” is that in which we live and move and have our being, and Jesus can only be “more divine” than the rest of us … but we are all “divine.”

Divinity and the New Testament

Now, we can also come at this question of Jesus’ divinity from another angle altogether, and we arrive at the same conclusion.  Starting from the New Testament, we can actually see how it was only little by little that Jesus came to be called “God” in the sense that people usually mean it today.  In the beginning, no one thought Jesus was “God.”

In the documents called the synoptic gospels it is recorded that Jesus never claimed to be “God” and on at least one occasion, expressly denied it.  But that’s no surprise.  The Jews were very strict monotheists.  There was only one “God.”  There is no way Jesus’ message would have been accepted by the Jewish people if they had heard that he was claiming to be “God.”  Even if Jesus performed miracles, the Jews would never have called him “God,” it would have been blasphemy to them.  Elijah the prophet once raised a woman from the dead; and they knew he was not “God.”  Jesus never even claimed to be “the Messiah” according to some scholars.  So how did the “God” thing come about?  It started with the Greeks who had an entirely different concept of divinity from the Jewish concept.

A way to understand this is to read the account of Paul and Barnabas’ missionary activity in Lystra of Lycaonia recorded in chapter 14 of the Acts of the Apostles.  When the people saw Paul and Barnabas heal a cripple they exclaimed:

“The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, Hermes.  And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice.  When Paul and Barnabas heard this, they tore their garments … and said, Why are you doing this, we are men of the same nature as you.  [Acts 14:14-15]

This illustrates exactly the difference between the Greek and the Hebrew concept of divinity.  The Greeks were accustomed to a multitude of gods who took human form and acted like human beings.  When the people saw the miracle, they immediately assumed those performing it were “gods.”  But it was so shocking to Paul and Barnabas that they tore their garments in horror at the blasphemy.  Clearly for Paul, performing miracles did not mean that someone was “God.”  When he spoke about Jesus’ resurrection he never said “Jesus was God and therefore could never die.”  He always said that “God raised Jesus from the dead.”  And it was the same for Jesus; when he performed miracles, the people knew “God’s” power worked through him, but no Jew thought he was “God.”

Paul saw Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises of the One God to the Jewish people, and through them to the world.  If he spoke of Jesus as having had a cosmic existence before his birth as a man, it could only have been in Philo’s terms of the Logos-Sophia, meshing Greek philosophy and the Bible — God’s word and wisdom — a kind of divine craftsman, like Plato’s demiurge, an angel-like creature through whom “God” created and re-created the world.  There is no way Paul could possibly have conceived of Jesus as homo-ousios — of the “same substance” as the “father” — it would have been blasphemy.  Paul called Jesus “the first-born” of all creation.  That was a clear statement that he was a “creature,” not “God.”  Paul’s Jewish faith would not have permitted him to call Jesus “God” in the Jewish sense.  But it didn’t prevent him from suggesting that he was a “god” in the Greek sense. 

But in any case, I believe that Paul was being carried along by a poetic insight, not by an attempt at philosophical science.  The cosmic Christ was a metaphor drawn from the imagery of the Book of Wisdom conflated by Philo with Plato’s demiurge and the logos of the stoics.  The cosmic Christ was a transcendent imagery for Paul designed to translate “Messiah” into categories that Greeks would understand.

Following in the Alexandrian tradition of Jewish Philo, early 3rd century Christian “Fathers” who were also from Alexandria — Clement and his disciple, Origen — clearly stated that whatever “divinity” Jesus had was “subordinate” to that of the  Father, preserving monotheism and the imagery of the Logos-Sophia found in “John” and Paul.  But in moving the notion of a cosmic Christ from poetic metaphor to an undisguised attempt at nailing down a “scientific” philosophical fact, these philosopher-theologians created an incoherence that, in the long run, was not sustainable.  For their concept implied the existence of different “levels” of divinity.

In the 4th century, Arius agreed with the “subordinationism” of Clement and Origen.     He had correctly identified what was ab initio, ab omnibus et ubique — the ancient formula for what all Greek Christians had learned in the beginning (from Paul) and believed everywhereBut in 325 the Roman Emperor, who was not even a Christian, pushed for using that strange Greek word homo-ousios to describe Jesus that meant of the “same substance” as the Father.  Many of the bishops who did not want to contradict the Emperor not only rejected Arius’ claims, but reluctantly decided to accept the emperor’s preferred term.  They said Jesus was homo-ousios — Jesus was “God” exactly as the Father was “God.” 

This was an innovation.  Arius was right, but it is hardly surprising that people would find the idea of two or more “levels” of divinity unsustainable.  “Subordinationism” was a complicated and incoherent concept.  The idea that “God” meant only one thing — “God,” — was far simpler, and even though it entailed claiming that “God” had two aspects, Father and Son, which were inter-related “persons,” it seemed easier to grasp.  Hence the Council of Nicaea, in trying to be as philosophically scientific as they could, “created” the doctrine of the Trinity … moving us so far from Paul’s attempt to translate “Messiah” as to make it incomprehensible.  The homo-ousios bore no resemblance to “Messiah” much less to Isaiah’s “suffering servant” whatsoever.  The fact that all these terms and notions were simply poetic metaphors got lost in the Greek obsession with the “truth” as philosophical “fact.”  This should be a lesson for us.

Can we still say “Jesus is ‘God'”?                               

Someone might say, well, if Jesus is simply “more divine” than the rest of us, and not “God” in an absolute sense, shouldn’t we stop calling him “God”?  What is the value of doing that?  

I believe we can call Jesus “God” if we clearly understand that it is a metaphor.  That means that it’s a symbol of what we all are — “God” by participation — and Jesus is more “godlike” than most of us because he was a very holy man.  It also means that if we follow his “way” we become more like him and therefore more holy, more “godlike.”  This way of looking at things captures the spirit of the ancient Church which said that in Jesus, humans could become “God” like him. The Greek Fathers called it theosis, “divinization,” becoming God.  Jesus led the way.  He showed us the face of “God” in his own life and if we imitate him, we will too. 

The very notion of a divine / human conjunction highlights the fact that “holiness” is a human potential and human phenomenon.   There is nothing holy that is not human.  All of non-human creation may be “sacred” to us because we recognize the existential energy, the esse, which is “God,” functioning there, but it is not “holy” as we humans can be holy because it cannot “do good” by consciously loving in order to creatively bring forth new life.  Only humans can do that.  Holiness is existence, esse, using its creative potential on purpose to preserve and bring forth more existence.  Holiness is esse’s creative power, consciously activated.  Nothing else can do that except human beings, as far as we know.  It is what makes us more “divine” than anything else in the world.  That we hold up Jesus as an icon of this divine humanity, keeps the symbol of what we all are and what we can become before our eyes.  That Jesus is “God” is a metaphor for the “divine” potential in all of us.

 To say that Jesus was homo-ousios was a mistake made at Nicaea because it tried to turn a poetic metaphor into scientific fact.  But if we remember that it is a metaphor, to say that Jesus is “God” can symbolize what we hope to achieve by being Christians: that following his “way” will make us all more “divine.” 


11 comments on “WAS JESUS GOD?

  1. Bill Wilson says:

    Thanks for another brain-stretching post. I remember 50+ years ago in the seminary being told in a logic class that the argument from authority was the weakest of all arguments except in theology. Even then, the egregious circular reasing being this statement baffled me, although I was too young and guilt-ridden (see Gene Kenney’s post in NCR) to do anything with the queasy feelings I was experiencing. I no longer feel that guilt, and I accept no assertion based solely on authority. Old age has its rewards!
    Your discussion of how, in some sense, we are all “god”–however defined–brought to mind the Hindu concept “Tat Tvam Asi.” I like the concept of “modality” (Didn’t Duns Scotus say something like that?) and of “esse” as energy. The challenge for me is that these are such big ideas, it is taking a lot of brain power to get my mind around them. But that’s a good thing. Keep on sparking the debate. Be glad you don’t live in 15th century Europe, or the Pope’s minions would have you tied to a stake somewhere in Spain!

    • tonyequale says:

      Bill Thanks for your remarks. They reinforce my own perceptions, as I am sure our experience from our formation was the same. I think the application of metaphor to our current rituals and formulations can form a bridge to the new understanding that is emerging, despite the reactionary attempts to suppress and suffocate it.

      In this regard, you are right, I am lucky to be able to continue to propagate my “vision” because “back in the day” I would have been toast … burnt toast. Now, given modern technology I wonder if the Vatican would ever resort to remote pilotless drones to “take out” its enemies in far away lands. They can’t have done it yet or my house would be a crater already.


  2. theotheri says:

    Brilliant, Tony. Absolutely brilliant. Your post makes it much easier to understand how Christianity first moved east rather than west.

    Your two recent posts have filled me with astonishment as I recognize just how concrete our thinking in western Christianity has been. I always thought I grew up with a greater-than-average intellectual version of Christianity. We were not remotely fundamentalists and could look with a certain amount of disbelief at relics and holy water. We even discussed the Hebrew mode of thought, understood parables as metaphor, and found it completely unnecessary to believe that the Garden of Eden was a real place.

    But oh – I had no idea. We’d thrown out metaphor wholesale!

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and well-informed post.

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry, hi!

      Thanks. It was also a great surprise to me that the Vatican Catechism of 1992 insisted that the events of the garden actually happened, and that it was preceded by the fall of the angels which also actually happened. It insisted on the existence of Satan and Original Sin … all of which I had also thought (from my seminary course of study) were metaphors.

      But it is nothing new. They have been doing it across the board since Christianity clothed itself in Greek culture. We are all the inheritors of the Greek rationalist tradition. That means that since about 500 bce we have been seduced by the siren-call of “science” … to know the “truth,” actually, factually, scientifically. Philosophy for the ancients was their “science,” they used it as a tool for discovering the “truth.” We may know now that it wasn’t really “science” but they thought it was and, more importantly, they used it that way, they were working out of the same scientific aspirations and goals as modern scientists. In a real sense, nothing has changed. We are the same “scientific” people as we were in ancient times. The only difference is the tool we use. The scientific method of modern science, a tool forged and sharpened over the last 500 years, has superceded philosophy, but in all cases the intent was exactly the same: to know the real, actual, factual, provable truth.

      So we can forgive our forebears … they are only us dressed up in an old garment that no longer fits … but the body is the same. We understand what trapped them, because it continues to trap us. We cannot think poetically. We ask literalist questions of issues that have nothing to do whatsoever with anything but our crucified conatus … the irrepressible urge to live and live and live. We have been tricked by esse, existential energy — our conatus — into thinking it will never end. We have never understood (or forgiven) this “source of our sense of the sacred” for this major design flaw. We die drowned in a pool of longing, of existential thirst. It is our essential inescapable cross. No one can come down from it. No one can escape it or avoid it. All we can do is fling open our arms and accept it, and maybe even embrace it … in peace.


      • theotheri says:

        Yes, Tony, it’s the way I have come to see it too. I have decided that this thirst for living is the way things are meant to be. Existence is good – rather than evil or even neutral – without our needing to add value to make it so. In which case, birth is beautiful. And life is beautiful. And because it is part of the same process, death must be in some ways beautiful too.

        It’s my current “meditation” (if I can elevate it to quite this level) to seek the beauty in death. It is easy to see in the fields and forests in October. Sometimes a mere golden leaf is breath-takingly beautiful, isn’t it?

        I admit it’s a little harder to see when I’m talking about the death of those I love. And the biggest challenge of all when I’m talking about my own dying. What me?!

        You also offer an interesting suggestion – that it is our rational science that is the real root of our dismissing metaphorical thinking. I’m not convinced that is the whole explanation. But I have argued for a long time that it is the power of modern scientific thought which has contributed so much to modern fundamentalist thinking in religion.

        I am positively shocked to learn that the1992 Vatican catechism teaches that Satan and original sin are not metaphors. It was bad enough when I learned that the present pope said that the fires of hell are real fires.

        Thank you again for your liberating posts.

  3. Anthony says:

    Well, of course Jesus was (is) God. And so are you, Tony. And so am I. Jesus was one who possessed a deeper understanding of his “God-ness.” Perhaps that’s what sets him, and the other great prophets apart.

    • tonyequale says:


      “God” for me is a metaphor. It is a word from the past that evokes an image and “definition” that I no longer consider valid. I can accept what you say as a kind of metaphoric short-hand for what I mean, because to go into a detailed re-definition of terms each and every time can be tedious. But it may continue to be necessary if there is confusion with past conceptual constructions. Non-metaphorically, Jesus was a human being of extraordinary depth. When they finally nailed him to the multi-millennial cross he has hung on since Nicaea, “God” was the tool they used to rob him of his humanity and build an imperial ideology for themselves. Thank “God” we are beginning to punch our way out of that bag. To understand the past and treat it with a certain deference through metaphor is not to agree with it. The past is dead.


  4. Harry MacVeigh says:

    Tony, what a piece you have written. It is the clearest concept of what god is. It is what I believe but was never able to express it as brilliantly or lucidly as you. Thank you. Harry

  5. theotheri says:

    Hear, Hear! I agree completely.

  6. Gerry says:


    Thanks for your profound post. It goes a long way to correct the historical record of how Jesus became to be thought of as “God”. But you are a philosopher/theologian and I am not. In this context, you have made a case that Jesus is more godlike than most of us because he was a very holy man. I agree. But what about the “historical Jesus”? For instance, do you agree with Bart Ehrman that Jesus was an apocalypsist, of whom there were others, e.g., John the Baptist? I think it is important to consider the historical Jesus if we are to de-mythologize the New Testament and so see Jesus for the very special place her holds in the history.

    • tonyequale says:

      Gerry, hi! … always nice to hear from you.

      I agree that identifying the historical Jesus is essential. I don’t claim to be a scripture scholar, but I do read as much as I can of people like Crossan, Ehrman, Borg rtc. I think the primary thing in adjusting our vision of who Jesus was and what he was trying to say is to realize that he was a human being — that he may have been an apocalypsist is secondary. Understanding that what earlier generations in our tradition called “God” is simply human wholeness, is sufficient and necessary to terminate the religious mystification that has alienated us from ourselves and served to justify the authoritarian basis of exploitation. Calling him “God” turned Jesus from being a companion in our struggle for autonomy and maturity, dignity and equity, and into an instrument of our abasement, humiliation and exploitation. With a “same-as-the-Father-God” who would do this to men, men had the ultimate bad example and encouragement to, in turn, do it to women. Jesus is our brother in our efforts, both women and men, to be human beings and insist that we be treated that way. The oppressive dehumanization that he challenged made him subversive without uttering a word of rebellion. They had to neutralize that subversive power; they couldn’t do it by crucifixion … so they did it by making him “God.”


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