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 scripture. But 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 everywhere. But 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.”