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.


Elizabeth said...

Charlie, how do you compare your pastor at the Kansas City church you now attend with the church you attended in Springfield? Do you have a preference for one or another? Anything stand out to you overall?

My neighbor just recently told me about her pastor (she also attends a Baptist church here in St. Louis) asking the entire congregation to stand up and pray with him for the leaders of our nation and its present "crisis." Do you have a problem with preachers speaking out on political issues?

My understanding is that the entire concept of a "Holy Trinity" is a pagan concept... There's no other way to see it, in my view. I guess I'm a heretic. Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

The development of the “identity” of Jesus is interesting. There seems to be confusion in the second and third centuries. Ignatius, of Antioch, seemed to have a couple of notions of the identity of Jesus Christ. He used the phrase “Jesus Christ our God” in the Ephesians salutation, “...who is God in man” (7.2), and “...our God, Jesus the Christ (18.2). He used “Jesus Christ our God” again twice in the Romans salutation and “... our God, Jesus Christ” (3.3). In Smyrnaeans 1.1 it is “Jesus Christ the God.” In other passages, however, sometimes close to these, he identified God as the Father, and spoke of the birth of Jesus and Jesus as the son. He has a nifty metaphor: He links parishioners (stones of the temple), God (the building), Jesus (the engine/cross) and Holy Spirit (as rope) in Eph. 9.1, but doesn’t knit the three into one.

I think it is probable that different groups in different areas had differing views. Justin Martyr, Apology, 1.61, Ignatius (above), The Shephard of Hermas, Similitude Five, 6.5-7, Irenaeus, AH 1.2, The Gospel of Truth, 10.7-8, from A New New Testament (In other translations, like Layton or Robinson, 24), Athenagorus’ Plea, 10, Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 2, and others have their own takes defining what or who Jesus was that seem to be early attempts at defining Jesus. Metaphor comes to mind in those, too, which seems a clue to the development of what became a “literal” statement of faith.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Dennis,
Thank you for these citations and for pushing the discussion into the second and third centuries. I am struck by how close Ignatius's comments are to how John's Gospel reports the confession of Thomas. In many ways John reflects second century ideas, more so than middle first century.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Elizabeth,
1. I generally do not trust ministers who are "true believers" and in all candidness avoid them as much as possible. I would not risk revealing myself to them. In the church we are now attending the previous interim minister recently left and the church now has a new interim minister. I come closer to having a good relationship with the previous interim minister than with any pastor I have had in the past or present.
2. This is a difficult and thorny question that has many sides to it. A pastor must minister to all sides of the political spectrum. If s/he aligns her/himself too closely to one side of a political issue s/he risks alienating the other side of the issue. In my experience ministers usually see this issue in terms of how would it affects the strength of the congregation: speak out too strongly on an unpopular issue and reduce the numbers in the congregation you serve, is how most would see the issue. All that said, a minister will pick and choose carefully the political positions for which s/he advocates. All that being said, to be true to his/her "calling," in my view, a minister must speak out on certain moral issues, which are usually political.
3. I would say that a "Holy Trinity" is a political response to a logical problem in early Christianity--but it is not the only possible response. You may be a heretic by the conventions of early and current Orthodoxy. But what you must remember is that the term heretic is what one side of a question calls those who disagree with him, while those on the other side are calling him the heretic.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

The only interpretation of the Trinity, if such actually exists, that ever made sense to me is the behavioral one: God behaves as creator, redeemer, and counselor.

Perhaps the earliest suggestion that Jesus had something in common with God is his identity as King of the Jews implied in Mark 15; Psalm 2 designates the kings of Israel as sons of God.

Jesus got a further identity boost in Romans 1:1-6 where we are told that the resurrection gave him status as 'Son of God in power" as declared by "the Spirit of Holiness." I view this as probably an interpolation to Paul's original letter which possibly started at 1:7.

To get to the above identities one must fight through all the scriptural designations of Son of God at baptism, at birth, being the Word or in the form of God from the beginning, etc., as well as the reaction to the Greco-Roman environment making Jesus a competitor to worshipping Caesar as God (See Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 2004).

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

These are helpful points. I don't think you mention Mark 10:18 where Jesus is addressed as "good teacher," which Jesus denies, saying "Why do you call me good? No one is good except for God alone." The Jesus Seminar voted it gray, but it may show that in Mark's time at least, someone thought it necessary to state that Jesus was not God.
Dennis Maher

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks Denny,
I take you point and will add it to the list.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dennis,

Thanks! Can't remember the last time I even thought of the "no one is good except God" saying.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.