The Deity of Christ (pt. 7)
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 the final part of this dialog.
C: Claiming and proving are two different things. But they don’t even claim it. Occasionally some of their followers have attributed deity to them. But, you name a great religious leader, and you will find that he did not present himself as divine.
I: You mean that only Jesus of Nazareth ever said, ‘‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” or anything like it?
C: Compare Confucius, who, as you know, was really a skeptic. He took one world at a time. He was very sagacious about laws of conduct for this world, but dubious about the future world. He was satisfied to be a moral legislator for this sphere in which we live.
I: What about the “Enlightened One,’’ Buddha?
C: Gautama, the Buddha, was an atheist.
I: Yes, I suspected that.
C: It is easy to demonstrate that Buddha was further from theism than was Confucius. While Confucius was insecure about the future, Buddha didn’t even entertain a belief in a personal deity. He was a pantheist in the pure sense of the word. He certainly was not laying claim to being God when he didn’t believe there is one. The same is true of other Eastern religious leaders such as Mahavira, Zoroaster, and so on. None of them ever laid claim to being deity.
I: The greatest religious influence in the world today, next to Christ, is Mohammed. His followers seem utterly devoted to him
C: He categorically repudiated deity. As you know, the great creed of Islam is there is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. The Muslims are rigid monotheists. While Mohammed is, for them, the greatest prophet, he is merely a prophet and in no way deity.
I: As a matter of fact, I understand that the Muslims have a high view of Jesus. They believe He was virgin born, was sinless, did miracles, and is coming again. But they certainly do not believe that Christ is God. Nor do they believe Mohammed is God.
C: In fact, they consider belief in the deity of Jesus Christ, whom they admire as a prophet, to be the greatest blasphemy of the Christian church. I’m even told that, because Christians worship Christ, Muslims do not like to be called Mohammedans for fear people will think they worship Mohammed. They admit that Christians worship Christ, which they consider our worst sin. They do not want people to suppose they worship Mohammed. Neither Mohammed nor his followers have claimed deity for him.
I: Likewise the Jews don’t think that their Moses was God, or that Moses Maimonides of the Middle Ages, their second great Moses, was God either. They, too, would regard the Christian notion that Jesus Christ is God as a form of blasphemy.
C: Yes. In John’s Gospel they accused Jesus of blasphemy because, being a man, He made Himself to be God.
I: I get the point. And I’m going to be ready the next time I hear students confidently remark that all religious leaders lay claim to being deity. To be told that Jesus made a unique claim should have quite an impact on them. I can only hope it makes them think more seriously about Christ.
C: It’s real irony, isn’t it, that this unique event, the incarnation of God in human flesh, should be made out to be a commonplace, as if all religious leaders taught such doctrine.
I: What do you do when sophisticated people such as George Bernard Shaw, for example, say things like, “Yes, Jesus did think of Himself as God. We have to admit that He suffered from megalomania.’’ In some ways, that’s the most devastating criticism of Christ one can hear. It patronizingly grants that Christ made this claim. Then on the basis of that assertion, Shaw, Bunby, and others go on to question Christ’s sanity. I hope you’ll forgive me, my good Christian friend, for raising a question like this. I know how much it must hurt you to hear anybody questioning the sanity of the Lord and Savior of mankind. You must consider that blasphemy and suffer from merely hearing such speech. At the same time, as you know, probably better than I, that sort of thing is said and comes from some very influential sources. What do you say to such a thing?
C: Don’t apologize for mentioning it to me. You’re perfectly right. It’s hard speech, and I detest it. I do consider it blasphemy. At the same time, it comes from responsible sources and must be faced responsibly. From where George Bernard Shaw stood, it was an almost inevitable rational conclusion. And I often cite Shaw precisely because he admits Christ’s claim to deity. There are plenty of people who try to ignore that or turn it aside or denature it. Shaw is to be commended, as others, for “telling it like it is.” I’m sure Shaw himself would have been much more comfortable with a Christ who didn’t make such claims. He must have been tempted, as were other liberals, like H. G. Wells, to say that Christ was merely a man among men, never entertaining any grandiose illusions about Himself. Shaw knew better than that. Don’t ever apologize for raising any kind of blasphemy that takes the form of an argument against the Christian religion. Such things cannot be turned off. Though horrible, they have to be dealt with squarely, in honor and integrity.
I: Thank you. How do you do that?
C: Well, what I say is simple enough. I agree with the Shaws of the world. If this man Jesus were merely a man, and laid claim to deity, He would be sick, and probably worse than sick. He would not be worthy of a following. He would be
out of his mind. I suppose I would ridicule Him more than Shaw does if I were standing where Shaw stood. But Shaw’s mistake is that he just gratuitously assumes that Jesus Christ is not God.
I: That’s true. He takes it for granted that Christ is merely a man, just as most people take it for granted that any man is just a man. Hardly anybody can imagine God’s actually becoming man. The almost inevitable assumption is that any man claiming to be God has to be out of his mind. What other conclusion could you draw? I think you’re on target with respect to Shaw’s mentality. It is virtually the mentality of the human race. I plead guilty to it myself. Until I started to talk seriously about these matters, I would have assumed as self-evident that Jesus Christ was merely a man. If you had proved to me then that He claimed to be God, I would have turned Him over to a psychiatrist.
C: I agree. We, on the other hand, know that of course there isn’t any rational objection to the proposition that God could take upon Himself a human nature. Where we agree with Shaw is that we will assume a man is merely a man until there is evidence to the contrary. Short of that evidence, we will agree with Shaw that any person claiming to be deity is a “liar or a lunatic.’’ Shaw will have to listen to us at this point, will he not? He will have to give some proof that it’s impossible for God to take upon Himself human nature and remain God. Yet Shaw doesn’t do that, He doesn’t even attempt to. And I’m confident he never could if he did try.
I: But he must try. You’re perfectly right. He has no right simply to say something that is not demonstrative. It is not self-evident that God cannot take human nature upon Himself. It is self-evident that a man is merely a man unless there’s conclusive evidence to the contrary.
C: Until a person examines the evidence of Christ’s claim and shows that evidence to be false, he has no right to say that Jesus is not actually God.
I: We have found the very opposite. The evidence is in and it shows that, first, Jesus Christ claimed to be God, and, second, Jesus Christ proved Himself to be God. But yet—
C: What’s that?
I: I hate to bring this up at this late date.
C: If it is relevant, it’s never too late.
I: That’s the problem—I don’t know whether it’s relevant.
C: Maybe we had better hear what is on your mind and judge together whether it’s relevant.
I: Well, just the other day a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door…
C: And argued against the deity of Christ?
I: Yes Most of what he said was characteristically puerile. But one thing disturbed me.
C: What was that?
I: He reminded me that Christ is called ‘‘Son’’ in the Bible and even in Christian churches.
C: I can guess what else he said that disturbed you.
I: Go ahead.
C: My guess is that this Witness went on to say that Christ’s being called ‘‘Son’’ means He was born and therefore could not be eternal, and therefore could not be divine.
I: Exactly. I didn’t—and frankly, don’t—know how to answer that.
C: That is not surprising. At first glance, it is very puzzling. As we use the word son it always means someone born in time and not eternal.
I: You say, ‘‘As we use the word son.’’ Is there some special meaning when the word is used of Christ?
C: Right on the surface, there is. For example, when Jesus (or John referring to Jesus) says: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” (3:16), this is not a typical reference to a human son, but to the Son of God.
I: Granted, but still He is a Son.
C: Yes, but a Son of God.
I: I don’t get what you are driving at. Son of God or son of man, does the word son not mean “born’’ and therefore temporal?
C: It means ‘‘born,” but does it need to mean “temporal”?
I: I’m beginning to see the light. If Christ or the Word is the Son of God, He is born of God (Son), but eternally born (of God)?
C: If that were not so, the Word would not be His only (unique) Son. God is the Creator of all men, who in that sense are ‘‘sons’’ born in time.
I: But ‘‘His only Son’’ must be as eternal as He is?
C: That is the reason the church all throughout her history has adoringly referred to the Word as ‘‘the eternally begotten Son of God.”
I: The Witnesses will never believe that.
C: They should—
C: Because, first they agree that Christ is called the Son of the Father. Second, they agree that the Father refers to the eternal God. Third, they agree that the word Father has no meaning without an offspring (Son). For example, I, like some Witnesses, existed forty years before my first child was born. Only then did I become a father. There cannot be a father, or a Father, without offspring. Therefore—
I: Let me interrupt and see if I cannot state the inevitable conclusion (just as a Jehovah’s Witness should). Therefore, since the Father is admittedly eternal, His Son must also be eternal because the very term Father is meaningless or false apart from Son.
I: How could I have failed to see that? How could that Witness fail to see that?
C: The question is, How does anyone ever fail to ‘‘see’’ the deity of Christ?
I: Yes, how?
C: It is not because the deity of Christ is not plain enough.
I: How is it, then?
C: Suppose we let Christ tell us how one does come to see the obvious deity of Christ.
I: Does He?
C: He does precisely in the dialogue with Peter (Matthew 16:13ff).
I: What does He say there?
C: First, He asks the apostles, ‘‘Who do you say that the son of man is?”
I: I do remember And Peter answers, ‘‘Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’’
C: Correct, and it is Christ’s comment on that confession that gives us our answer to how one comes to ‘‘see’’ the deity of Christ.
I: Which is…?
C: “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
I: In other words, it is the Father who reveals the Son.
C: Just as we had noticed earlier when Christ said that no one knows Him ‘‘save the Father and he to whom He reveals Him.”
I: Where does that leave me? Or you? Are you telling me that we have spent an hour talking about the deity of Christ and I will never understand what you are saying unless God “reveals” it to me?
I: Then what is the point of our talking?
C: If God ever does reveal it to you, it will come out of dialogue such as this, just as it was revealed to Peter only after Jesus had explained it to him. You see, the true witness paints the picture. God gives the eyes to perceive it. God does not paint the picture, and we painters cannot provide eyes to see.
I: What am I to do?
C: Ask God to give you the eyes to see and the heart to confess: ‘‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’’
Excerpted from Primitive Theology