This guest post was written by James Parsons.
Millions of dollars are spent every year on Christian Religious Studies for the sole purpose of learning the art of exegesis and hermeneutics. These are two fancy words that simply mean the analysing of scripture for proper interpretation and how to apply that interpretation. It’s big business for Christian institutions, and in most cases, it’s big trouble.
People skilled at exegesis and hermeneutics do not simply interpret the meaning of an author’s words. They also seek to harmonise two or more opposing, and sometimes contradicting points into a unified theological idea. That is what demonstrates the mastery of their craft.
This all started centuries ago with the Seven Ecumenical Church Councils, whose goal was to unify Christian beliefs. They set out to show that all scripture demonstrated ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’, while eliminating conclusions that demonstrated scripture saying ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’. From this position, ‘heretic’ became a dirty word used to describe anyone who opposed these unified beliefs. And so, the process of unifying contradicting statements within the Bible as one singular acceptable expression became the most important part of Christian thought. And the more important it became, the more it became big business to teach exegesis, keeping people within one uniform belief system.
So what would happen if we threw away traditional exegesis and stopped trying to unify contradicting statements from different authors to match those preconceived Biblical teachings from the Church Councils? Instead, what if we learned to take each author as their own spiritual expression and away from the confines of doctrinal unity? How about we move away from this process of starting from an author we agree with, and projecting his thoughts onto another author who actually seems to disagree? In other words, let Paul say what he wants to say and let Mark speak for himself? How would that change our hermeneutics? Would the Bible lose it’s beauty and unity? Would it become less meaningful and more divisive within the community?
I believe this is best demonstrated with the following question:
Do all New Testament authors agree on the nature of Jesus’ divinity?
At the First Council of Nicaea, it was decreed that Jesus was a pre-existent, eternal divine being that became incarnate through the Virgin Mary. But do the authors of the New Testament speak in unity concerning this idea?
1. Pre-literary traditions: Jesus was adopted at the resurrection
Pre-literary traditions are statements in the Bible that scholars believe circulated before the Biblical writings themselves. For example, there are occasional writings from Paul where he seems to be quoting something. If this is correct, then what he is quoting pre-dates Paul’s writings. In the beginning of Romans, Paul writes: “…concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord…”. It’s possible that Paul is reciting an early Christian tradition that believes Jesus was the Messiah by way of King David, and became Son of God at the resurrection. One reason why this is believed to be a quote that pre-dates Paul is that it is inconsistent with Paul’s own view of Jesus as expressed elsewhere.
We see another pre-literary tradition in Acts 13 where the writer mentions that they are preaching a certain message from before the writings of this book: “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers…He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You.'”
So, it appears that one of the earliest beliefs held by the first followers of Jesus was that he was adopted as God’s Son at the resurrection….NOT that he was eternally divine and became flesh.
2. Paul’s view: Jesus was an angel who humbled himself and was raised up by God
Paul’s views differed from the pre-literary tradition. This can be seen most clearly with the picture he lays out in the Philippians poem:
“Who, being in very form God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
Paul thought Jesus pre-existed as a great angel before becoming human. Angels are described as God-like beings who live in the Heavenly realm of God. In Paul’s view, this is where Christ was presiding. As an angel, Christ did not desire equality with God. Instead, Christ – knowing the heart of God in humility – gave up his seated place in the Heavens and followed God’s example by humbling himself, becoming human to serve others, obedient even to the point of death. In recognition of Christ’s great humility, God raises Christ to the highest level and proclaims that Jesus is the name at which “every knee should bow.” In other words, God is so enamoured by the humility of Jesus that he gives him an equal share in his power.
3. Mark’s view: Jesus was adopted at his baptism
Mark is universally recognised as the earliest written Gospel. A large portion of the Christian tradition held the ‘adoption at resurrection’ view, but the author of Mark seems to think Jesus was adopted instead at his baptism. Scholars believe this is why Mark begins his Gospel at that event, with “immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.'”
4. Matthew and Luke’s View: Jesus didn’t exist until his conception
While Mark begins his Gospel with Jesus’ baptism, Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with the Virgin Mary being told she is to give birth to a son. There is no evidence to suggest that they believed Jesus had always existed; rather that his existence began at the specific moment when God impregnated Mary. This, too, was an early view among Christians that circulated at the same time as the others; although it was only later written down.
5. John’s View of Jesus
The last Gospel written provides yet another view of the nature of Jesus’ divinity. The writer of the Gospel of John believed that Jesus had existed for eternity, and had spoken the universe into existence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The Gospel of John stretches the idea of Jesus far beyond any other thoughts circulating among Christians in the first 100-200 years.
Many great traditional Biblical scholars have used their skills in exegesis to merge these conflicting views into one coherent proclamation, to match the Council of Nicaea decree: that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being that became incarnate through the Virgin Mary. Great effort has been made to provide evidence of scriptural unity and coherence.
I think washing over the differences of opinion about Jesus’ divinity ruins the overarching hermeneutic teaching.
Despite our many differing opinions about specifically what it means to call Jesus the Son of God, we can still come together in unity. Not a forced unity, achieved by insisting that everyone keeps to the same Creed, and throwing out any ideas that do not fit. True unity means working together with one purpose despite differences of opinion. True unity is agreeing to love our enemy as well as our neighbour.
This seems to get lost in the church today whenever “correct doctrine” becomes more important than compassion and humility, as exemplified in the Philippians poem. We seem to lose sight of the goal of loving people despite our differences. We miss the fact that even people in the Bible disagreed about Jesus…and that’s OK. We lose the beauty of stories because we’re more concerned with tying up the contradictions than allowing each book and each author tell us their own story.
Correct doctrine is not the beginning and end of Christian living. We need to learn to accept the differences in people’s views – even views of who God is – and allow our love to unify us.
James Parsons lives in the Oklahoma City, OK area. He is a husband, a father and a Former Evangelical/Fundamentalist turned Christian Universalist. James has two accredited BA Degrees in Behavioural Science and Christian Theology from Mid-American Christian University. James’ current interests are in the early historical records within Christian literature and the philosophical positions that have grown from those perspectives.
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8 thoughts on “What if the New Testament writers disagreed about one of the core beliefs of Christianity: the divinity of Jesus?”
You have confused the immaculate conception (which term refers to Mary being conceived without sin) with the conception and birth of Jesus by the virgin Mary.
Mary being conceived without sin? I am indeed thoroughly confused!
No longer confused! Immaculate conception refers to Catholic doctrine about Mary also being divine since conception. With you now. Thanks for the correction 🙂
I am not sure that the immaculate conception says anything about Mary being “divine,” just that in order for her to give birth to a sinless savior, she herself could not be tainted with “original sin.” Hence, from the moment of her conception, she was “immaculate” (i.e., free from “original sin”). I am not saying that is what the Scriptures teach; that is what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, though. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: (411)
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
411 The Christian tradition sees in this passage [Genesis 3:15] an announcement of the “New Adam” who, because he “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,” makes amends superabundantly for the disobedience of Adam. Furthermore many Fathers and Doctors of the Church have seen the woman announced in the Protoevangelium as Mary, the mother of Christ, the “new Eve.” Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life. (359, 615; 491)
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Not divine, but not tainted by original sin. Got it. You don’t get taught this stuff growing up as a Protestant, but it’s good to understand Catholic doctrines too – and not to muddle them up! Thanks 🙂
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The problem with the sentence regarding the Immaculate Conception has more to do with my poor sentence structure and trying to jam in too many thoughts than getting it confused. My point is to concisely narrate the beginning Gospels of Matthew and Luke with a combined understanding of doctrine and story-telling without bogging down the reader with long explanations for both. In doing so, I used a semi-colon to break the two thoughts up and move the narrative forward.
Fault of the editor I reckon. I’ve tweaked it, hope it makes sense now…
This post touches on a truth most of us in a reading-dominant culture can’t comprehend about the hearing-dominant culture of the early church: Before the Biblical canons, oral texts and traditions were the primary source of Scripture and religious thought.
We modern folk place finality on the “written” word. Once it’s in a book, the conversation is over. Either the book is right or wrong. But for the hearing-dominant ancients, this wasn’t so.
These early faith communities had ongoing conversations that wrestled with theology and daily practices, even after the oral texts became written texts. So it should be no surprise to find traces of Christological heterogeneity in the New Testament.
This is why systematic theology is problematic — it combines disparate concepts in Scripture that were part of a wider conversation to create a set of propositional correctness that leaves us with something like the doctrine of the Trinity, which would’ve been foreign to the apostles.
This isn’t to say there is no room for doctrine; these were the result of the kind of ongoing open conversation I think James advocates. We just need to remember that our theological constructs are not written on tablets with God’s finger. God’s revelation did not end with a canonized book collection, and it certainly doesn’t end with human-made doctrines.
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