The Deity of Christ (pt. 6)
During his long, fruitful ministry, Dr. John Gerstner, mentor to R.C. Sproul, wrote a series of primers on various points of theology which were later printed in Primitive Theology. Over the coming weeks we will be sharing his “Primer on the Deity of Christ” as a series of blog posts. Interestingly, the primer is in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue is between ‘‘Inquirer,’’ who is an educated, thoughtful person becoming convinced of the truths of the Christian religion (though not yet converted to them), and “Christian,’’ an experienced evangelical minister. Here is part six of that dialog.
I: So some unbelieving critics were reversing themselves? They were, at least this man Wrede, saying that the earliest Gospel and the earliest records represented Christ as God. Is that the point?
C: Correct. You can see it in the very opening verse of Mark’s Gospel. There we read: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’’
I: That was the statement of Mark and not of Jesus, was it not?
C: Yes. Consequently, we cannot say that it was a self-disclosure of Jesus Himself. Nevertheless, the very fact that Mark, a follower of Jesus, attributed deity to Him must, we suppose, have come from Christ Himself. You remember that the reason the statements in John affirming His deity were supposed to be later was the supposed late date of John. The notion was that there were no claims for deity early in His career and in the following years; only after a century and a half did the church attribute to Jesus a deity He never claimed for Himself. But here in what the critics consider the earliest Gospel, and at the very first verse, we have a statement by Mark that Jesus is the Son of God. It’s hard to believe he could have gotten such a notion from anyone but Jesus. There certainly was no time for an elaborate evolutionary development of this doctrine from something not found in the sources at all.
I: I see your point. You say this man, Wrede, was a critic. Does that mean that the critics had changed their minds by the beginning of this century and recognized that Jesus was thought to be and taught to be divine at the very beginning of His ministry?
C: Not all of them. But at least some critics believed it; form criticism and Wrede and Schweitzer definitely acknowledged that it was in the record and not a later importation.
I: Then, there was a sudden influx of higher critics into the church at the turn of the century?
C: No. Sorry to say, there was not.
I: I don’t understand. You said they did recognize that Jesus was indeed divine, did you not?
C: They recognized that some of the sources said Christ was divine. Some of them even recognized that Christ Himself said He was divine. But most critics themselves did not believe He was divine. You see, some of the more liberal scholars, who did not believe Jesus was divine, claimed that He didn’t either. Yet radical scholars were beginning to acknowledge the clear evidence that both Jesus and the early church believed Him to be God. Those who denied that had to admit that they were no longer loyal to Christ and the early church, though they once claimed to be.
I: This interests me very much, as you can well suppose. These critics were like me, were they not?
C: You mean that they knew that Christ is God, but had not yet been converted?
I: Yes. Are they not in exactly the same situation?
C: No. Not quite as hopeful a situation as yours. You see, they simply acknowledged that Christ and the early church believed He was divine. They didn’t believe it themselves. You do believe it. You are persuaded not only that Christ taught His deity and the early church believed it, but that it is true. Unlike these critics, you think that He is God, though you are not certain you have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Recognizing the same facts as you, they made no pretense of personal belief in them. You do, though you have not come to trust in Christ as your Savior.
I: Yes. That’s my situation. I am persuaded He is divine and that if I believe in Him, He would be my Savior. Yet, I’m not convinced that I have that kind of saving belief. I see the difference. Why don’t these critics believe what Christ Himself claimed? The early church, which comprised witnesses of Him, believed it. I think I know the answer to my own question.
C: I think you do. too.
I: Was it the old naturalistic bias?
C: I think so. Why would people note that Christ said He was God, and that the people closest to Him believed it, and that there was evidence of miraculous power, which showed He was sent from God, and not believe it themselves? Why would they disbelieve unless they simply rejected sound theistic thinking and evidence of a revelation from God? That wasn’t always clear in their writings. Though they didn’t always say why, I suspect that common to their unbelief was their naturalistic bias against the supernatural.
I: Maybe you and I should talk with people like that today.
C: Indeed we must. Let us now turn to the Gospel of Luke for a verse or two there on the deity of Christ. It might be well to start with a statement of Jesus that suggests to many people a denial of His deity.
I: A denial?
C: Yes. That is what the famous British scholar H. G. Wells thought it to be. He wrote an article years ago entitled ‘‘Man among Men,” intending to show that Christ was merely a human being. Others too have claimed that when Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “Why do you call Me good? Only God is good,” He denies that He is God.
I: That does seem to be what He’s saying.
C: The question is whether that is what He is intending by those words.
I: What’s this distinction between what He’s saying and what He’s intending?
C: Well, we earlier mentioned that He said He was the vine and we are the branches. When He said that literally, His intention was that He is the life-principle of Christians, who bear fruit by His indwelling presence. The form of words may convey a deeper meaning than the words themselves. In the present instance, there is no parable or figure of speech. Christ is using plain speech. But is it not possible that He means something other than those words normally convey?
I: I would have to admit that it’s possible. Just as I suppose you will admit the burden of proof is on the person who seeks some meaning other than the obvious one H. G. Wells took from it.
C: Yes, I must shoulder this burden because I am arguing for an interpretation other than the obvious one. Are we agreed it is not out of the question that Christ may mean something other than what the words normally mean?
C: The first thing that alerts us is that this remark is a question rather than a statement. Christ does not say that He is not God. He simply asks the young man why he calls Him good inasmuch as only God is good. That is certainly not the same thing as denying that He is God.
I: Still, He does go on to assert that only God is good, does He not?
C: Yes, He does say, ‘‘Why do you call Me good? None is good save God.” The way we usually read that, and even enunciate it, is that Christ is denying that He is God because He’s denying that He is properly called good. Nevertheless, strictly speaking, that is not what it says. Christ is simply addressed as good master, and He quizzes the addresser on why he calls Him good. By pointing out that only God is good, He could be saying that the reason He is good is that He is God. Could that not be the meaning of the words?
I: Yes. I guess that is a possible construction. Nevertheless, you yourself admit that’s not the first thing that comes to mind.
C: Granted, but we have also seen, time and again, that the first thing that comes into one’s mind is not always the last thing to stay there.
I: Yes, I know, and I admit that could be the case here. At first glance, Christ is denying His deity. At subsequent glances, He may not be doing that. In fact, one has to grant that Christ is not denying His deity. He may actually be asserting it in the form of a question. He may be saying to the rich young ruler, ‘‘Since you call me good, do you realize I am God, inasmuch as only God is good?’’ That interpretation is possible. It remains to you to show its feasibility and probability.
C: Of course we already have clear evidence from other places that Jesus is God. He knows that He’s God, and He tells people that He is God: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” When we remember that this is the same person who says, “Why do you call Me good? None is good save God,’’ that does put a different light on that question, does it not?
I: Yes, it does. Admitting that Jesus Christ is God, we would have to say that this question actually probes the ruler’s mind to see if he recognizes that fact, rather than implying a denial of it. That is a cogent argument, given the other data we have about Jesus Christ. The more I reflect on it, the more I like that interpretation. I realize now that it can be the only legitimate one, given the identity of the questioner.
C: On the other hand, if we didn’t know that Jesus Christ is God, we would not think He was intending a subtle assertion of His deity by that question. It would be more naturally taken as an implicit denial. Knowing that Jesus elsewhere plainly says He is God, we realize His question must be a subtle way of bringing the rich young ruler to a recognition of implied deity.
I: At least it would be a gentle rebuke advising the young man not to be careless in his use of language. That is, the only proper use of the word ‘‘good” belongs to God. Did you say there’s something else in the passage that seems to suggest the deity of Christ?
C: Yes, in the very conversation Christ had with this rich young ruler.
I: Reading it again. I see no other indication that Christ says He is God incarnate.
C: Christ tells the young ruler that if he wants to be perfect (reach his goal of eternal life), he must sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Him.
I: That shows that Christ is the determiner of eternal life.
C: And only God is the determiner of eternal life.
I: But can’t you, as a minister, tell me or anyone what is necessary for eternal life without being divine? Can you not advise us what God requires without being God?
I: Are you claiming deity for yourself?
I: What am I missing here?
C: As a minister, I can tell the general, not individual, terms of eternal life.
I: Please explain.
C: I can tell you, or anyone, that it is difficult to be rich and a Christian. I can advise you that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through a needle’s eye. What I cannot do is tell you that you are worshipping mammon, and you must give up all of it if you would be saved. Only God can do that.
I: In other words, only God can see into the hidden heart of men?
C: That is the difference between Christ and the servants of Christ.
I: I am convinced about the deity of Christ. I know there is much more in the Bible that you could cite in proof, but you have given me enough. Except—
I: I can’t help wondering whether other religious leaders don’t claim deity, too.
Excerpted from Primitive Theology