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.
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.