Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Heresy that became Orthodoxy

I recently heard a Baptist minister claim during a Sunday morning sermon that "Jesus is God!" This claim is heresy, if one judges by the views of the earliest followers of Jesus. Heresy is defined as "dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion, or practice." (I have deliberately cited a less ecclesiastical definition.) Prior to the 4th and 5th centuries, there was no "church" in the sense of a larger officially organized religious body. The word translated as "church," ekklēsia, in the New Testament is better rendered as simply a gathering or assembly, as it is properly translated in Acts 19:32, 39, 41.1

            The idea that Jesus is divine is an idea that eventually led to the post-biblical dogma of the Trinity and eventually to the worship of Jesus replacing the worship of Yahweh.2 Jesus is not Yahweh; he is Jesus, the son of Mary. To think of him in any other way robs him of his humanity. At the First Council of Constantinople in 381 the Christological controversies of the preceding centuries were finally resolved for the churches considering themselves orthodox.3 This Council formulated the doctrine of the Trinity, which

defines God as being one god existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit—three distinct persons sharing one essence.4

The difficulty with the dogma is that the New Testament does not reflect such an idea. It is an idea at which the church arrived at the end of a long process of divinizing Jesus. The Gospel of Mark (written around 70 C.E.) maintains a healthy distance between the distinct figures of Jesus and God. Jesus is portrayed as a man of humble Galilean origins: his mother was named Mary (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55-56; Gal 4:4); he had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3), was a skilled craftsman (Mark 6:3), was baptized by John the baptizer, who preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4; what do you suppose Jesus confessed?); Jesus prays to God (implicitly recognizing God's otherness, Mark 14:32-42); his last words from the cross were "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Mark 15:34). This final statement of Jesus in Mark clearly resonates with the absence of God. All this information echoes in my ear as "Jesus is human."

There is, however, reflected in the New Testament the outlines of a process leading toward the idea of a Trinity.5 For example, the names of  "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" are linked together in a baptismal formula (Matt 28:19, Didache 7:1), and a benediction (2 Cor 13:14). In the earliest Gospel, Mark, Jesus is portrayed as the Spirit-filled (Mark 1:9-13) announcer of the nearness of the reign of God (Mark 1:14-15), not his reign. At the end of the first century, on the other hand, the Gospel of John begins with "the Word" being in an intimate relationship with God from the beginning (but does not identify the Word as Jesus): "In beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word" (John 1:1-2).6 The shocked utterance of Thomas upon encountering the resurrected Lord is "my Lord and my God" (John 20:28). In this instance Thomas appears to announce the evolving faith of the church. And the high Christological confession of faith in Col 1:15-20 regards Jesus as divine but still short of being God (he is only the image of the invisible God, not God himself, and in him only the fulness of God was pleased to dwell). In Phil 2:5-11 Jesus is only in the form of God but enjoys equality with God. But nowhere is it claimed that Jesus is God.

The advancement of Jesus to the principal Deity is paralleled in Greco-Roman religions. Zeus replaced his father, Cronus, as the king of the Greco-Roman Gods, just as Cronus earlier had replaced his father, Uranus, as the king of the Greco-Roman Gods. Why should anyone in the Greco-Roman period be surprised that Jesus might replace Yahweh in Christian faith. It seems to be how people treat their Gods, or how Gods act between themselves.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The word ekklēsia does not appear in Mark, Luke, and John and only a few times in Matthew (Matt 7:38; 16:18; 18:17), where it is better rendered "assembly" or "gathering."

2Being divine is not the same thing as being a God in Greco-Roman culture; see Hedrick, "Is belief in the Divinity of Jesus essential to being Christian," The Fourth R 24.5 (September-October 2011), 15-20, 26.



5See Hedrick. "Belief in the Divinity of Jesus."

6Ernst Haenchen translates John 1:2 in the following way: "and divine (of the category divinity) was the Word." A Commentary on the Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 108.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Pondering the Inspiration of Scripture*

The Greek word graphē is usually translated by the English words, scripture or writing. By capitalizing the first letter of the word (Scripture) translators intend their readers to understand the word Scripture to be referring to Sacred Writings. According to the lexicons graphē is used exclusively so in the New Testament, regardless of whether, or not, the first letter is capitalized.

            Sacred Scripture is a writing believed to have been inspired by God, as it is stated in 2 Tm 3:16: "Every Scripture (graphē) is inspired by God (theopneustos)." That is to say, the writing is "God breathed," or infused by God. The ancient Hebrews believed that the prophets were inspired by God (Hos 12:10; 1 Kgs 13:20; 1 Kgs 17:1-2; Ex 12:1-2; Ex 15:1-2; 2 Sam 7:4-5; Neh 9:30; Zech 7:12; Ezek 24:20-21), and linked the prophet's inspiration to writings believed to be written by the prophet (Jer 30:1-2; Jer 36:1-2). Thus, the inspiration of the prophet came to be transferred to the "writings" of the prophet, and in this way the writing also became the Word of the Lord; as they believed the spoken word of the prophet was as well. The early Christians continued this practice of extending inspiration from writers to their writings, as 2 Tim 3:16 clearly shows (cf. 2 Pet 1:20-21).

            Truth be told, however, one can never know if a person is inspired by God and likewise one can never know for certain what inspires an author, even if the author specifies the source of inspiration. One only knows for certain what one is told. And the only way of telling if a text is "inspired" is by the judgment of literary critics on the literary excellence of the writing and/or the number of persons who opined it either inspired or inspiring. In both cases, however, that a writing is inspired by God or by the author is a matter of opinion. There are no objective criteria of a writing by which one can identify, or quantify, inspiration of texts. Inspiration is not a physical feature of a piece of literature like language, handwriting, and stated ideas. In the church, however, people believe the New Testament is inspired simply because they have been taught to think that way. It is a learned response and does not represent a critical judgment upon the inscription or inspiration of the texts.

            If one insists that a given text has been inspired, on what basis can one reasonably eliminate the human author as the actual genius behind the inspiration? Personally, I think that Psalm 23, a thoroughly religious piece, is both an inspired text and an inspiring text. It crosses the lines of most religions and offers strong encouragement for those walking through "the valley of the shadow of death." Another thoroughly secular piece in the New Testament that I consider inspired and inspiring is 1 Cor 13:1-13. God is not even mentioned in these sentences. I also consider the poem "The Road not taken" by Robert Frost to be both inspired and inspiring and it has nothing to do with religion or ethics.

I cannot say with any degree of confidence if it was the genius of God or the unknown human author that inspired these three narratives. It could have been both, I suppose; who can say with any degree of confidence? It is possible that "God" provided a degree of inspirational "spark" to motivate the writer's writing, but the psalm, the essay on love, and the poem were obviously crafted through the natural abilities of the human author. To call any of them "Word of God," however, is a bridge too far. Such a description overlooks the role of the human author in their creation.

What do you think?  

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*I have written earlier on this subject: see Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion, blog: "Revelation and Meaning," Saturday, August 31, 2013:

"Is the Bible Inspired?" Thursday, December 5, 2019: