Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Proper Understanding of "Jesus is God"

Many fallacious arguments have arisen over a misunderstanding of the statement "Jesus is God". In this post, I seek to explicate a common misunderstanding of the statement, and argue for a proper Biblical understanding of the statement. In future posts, I intent to to give a number of arguments that rely upon the common misunderstanding of the statement, and show how they are invalid given the proper Biblical understanding.

The Phrase In Question


The statement in question comes straight from the Bible itself, in modified form. John 1:1 says "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The word "Word" (logos) refers to Christ, who became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14). If the Word was God in the beginning, then there is no reason why the Word is not God now. Jesus was God, is God, and will always be God. Indeed, the word "was" is the imperfect form of the Greek eimi, which in this context speaks to the Word's eternal existence as God, being God even before there was a temporal universe. As Robert L. Reymond writes in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith,

...three times en, the imperfect of eimi, occurs, expressive in each case of continuous past existence.

In the first clause, the phrase "In the beginning," as all commentators observe, is reminiscent of the same phrase in Genesis 1:1. What John is saying is that "in the beginning," at the time of the creating of the universe, the Word "[continuously] was" already - not "came to be." This is clear not only from the imperfect tense of the verb, but also from the fact that John declares that the Word was in the beginning with God and that "all things were made by him, and without him nothing was made which has been made" (John 1:3). In short, the Word's preexistence and continuous being is antecednetly set off over aginst the becoming of all created things. (p. 299)

John 1:1 proclaims the eternal existence of the Word as God. Thus, it is Biblical to say that Jesus is God. This is a statement of the deity of Christ, and should be used as such.

Predication and Identity


Clauses which contain the copula "is" are often either functioning as a predication or a statement of identity. A predication is an assertion that something is true of the subject, while a statement of identity is an assertion that the subject and the predicate are identical. For example, the statement

That blog's background is ugly

is a predication of the quality of ugliness to the background of "that blog" (whatever blog is being referred to in the context of the statement). The statement

David is the father of Solomon

is a statement of identity: it is claiming that the individual denoted by the term "David" is identical to the individual denoted by the term "the father of Solomon".

Predications and statements of identity work differently in English. In general, for some individual "x" and some predicate "P", one can express that

x is P,

but not that

P is x.

In terms of the example above, I can say that

That blog's background is ugly

but I cannot say that

Ugly (or the property of being such) is that blog's background.

The latter sentence is ungrammatical as a predication (if I am not being poetic), as it (grammatically) asserts that the quality of ugliness is the background of the blog in question (not a quality of the background, but the background itself). But this is not a predication.

On the other hand, statements of identity work differently. In general, for some individuals "x" and "y", one can express that

x is y

as well as

y is x,

and both are true and equivalent expressions. In terms of the example above, I can say that

David is the father of Solomon

just as easily as I can say that

The father of Solomon is David.

The two statements are both true, and mean the same thing. Hence, the differences between predications and statements of identity.

Understanding the Statement in Question


The statement in question is most naturally understood as either a predication or a statement of identity.

As a Predication: The statement predicates deity of Jesus. That is, it asserts that Jesus possesses the divine nature, as a member of the Trinity, homoousion with the Father.

As a Statement of Identity: The statement declares that the term "Jesus" is identical to the term "God".

At the outset, the predication understanding seems to be the right one, as it is consistent with the statements of historical credal orthodoxy. Furthermore, it is arguably the proper interpretation of the third clause of John 1:1 ("the Word was God"). In this vein, Robert L. Reymond writes:

That John wrote theos, anarthrously is also due most likely to his desire to keep the Word hyopstatically distinct from the Father to whom he had just referred by ton theon. If John had followed 1:1b by saying "and ho theos was the Word" or "and the Word was ho theos," he would have implied a retreat from, if not a contradiction of, the clear distinction which he had just drawn in 1:2b, and thus fallen into the error later to be known as Sabellianism. Ladd concurs: "If John had used the definite article with theos, he would have said that all that God is, the Logos is: an exclusive identity. As it is, he says that all what Word is, God is; but he implies that God is more than the Word."

Here then John identifies the Word as God (totus deus) and by doing so attributes to him the nature or essence of deity. When John further says in 1;2 that "This One [houtos, the One whom he had just designated "God"] was in the beginning with God," and in 1:3 that "through him all things were created," the conclusion is that as God his deity is as ultimate as his distinctiveness as Son, while his distinctiveness as Son is as ultimate as his deity as God. (Ibid., pp. 300-301, emphasis mine)

Thus, the assertion that "Jesus is God" is a predication of deity to Jesus is arguably the proper Biblical interpretation of the equivalent version of this phrase where it appears in John 1:1.

On the other hand, there are a number of problems with taking the phrase "Jesus is God" to be a statement of identity, as is commonly done in various contexts:

  1. The terms are not identical in an orthodox theology. The term "God" encompasses the Trinity and its Persons, while the term "Jesus" only encompasses the Person of the Son.

  2. The statement is not used as a statement of identity in an orthodox theology. Orthodox Christians who assert that "Jesus is God" would not also assert that "God is Jesus". To assert the latter is either to be muddled in one's thinking, or to consciously deny the Trinity. If someone refuses to assert that "God is Jesus" while freely asserting that "Jesus is God", then such a person does not understand the statement in question to be a statement of identity, though he may be confused about this.

  3. If the terms are identical, then Unitarianism obtains. Jesus is one person, and thus to make the terms "Jesus" and "God" equivalent is to make the other trinitarian persons to be merely modes of expression or revelation of the one true person who is expressed in Jesus. In essence, to make these terms equivalent entails a Sabellian or modalistic view of the Trinity: namely that God is one person who reveals himself in different modes or personages. Hence, unitarianism, if the statement in question is both true and a statement of identity.

  4. If the terms are identical, then numerous absurdities logically follow. By the Indiscernability of Identicals, if two terms x and y are identical, then whatever is predicable of x is also predicable of y, and vice versa, in an extensional context (which this is). For example, "having died" is predicable of Jesus. If "Jesus" and "God" are identical terms, then "having died" is also predicable of God, by the Indiscernability of Identicals. Put another way, if "Jesus" and "God" are identical, since it is true that Jesus died, it is also true that God died. I intend to discuss these absurdities at greater length in a later post.


Conclusion


The statement "Jesus is God" is most naturally taken to be a predication of deity to Jesus, and this is arguably the proper Biblical understanding of the phrase, as used in an equivalent form in John 1:1. On the other hand, the consistent Biblical Christian has no reason to understand it as a statement of identity, and indeed, the consistent Biblical Christian has good reason to reject such an understanding. In future posts, Lord willing, I intend to state and analyze a number of arguments that rely upon an understanding of the statement in question as a statement of identity, and show how such arguments are invalid given the proper Biblical understanding.

Soli Deo Gloria!