This is the first of some brief comments aimed at refuting the traditional but erroneous notion that “Jesus is God”. Nothing complex or daunting at first, just some thoughts “off the top of my head”.
By definition, the Christian God is said to be both omniscient and omnipotent. In the NT (New Testament), Jesus constantly prays to God. If Jesus were God, these prayer-instances would convey an utterly incoherent picture, namely “God-Jesus” praying to God. But God cannot pray to God. Thus, because Jesus prays, he himself can’t be God.
The NT Jesus himself gives no support to the notion that he is God. For example, in John’s Gospel – the Gospel said to contain the highest christology of all NT works – Jesus says things like, “I am a man who heard God’s word, and I obey it”; “I cannot do anything on my own, only as my Father commands me”; “the Father is greater than I”; “I ascend to your God and my God”, etc. From these passages it is clear that, far from being God, Jesus has a God, to whom he prays, and whom he obeys.
Moreover, still in John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as God’s messianic agent-emissary, or shaliah. In ancient times, and in ancient Judaism in particular, the agent and the principle were associated so closely that they were seen to share a legal identity. What the agent does for the principle is equivalent to the principle himself acting. What is done to the agent is equivalent to doing it to the principle. Hence, when Jesus says things in John such as “Who sees me sees the Father”, “the Father and I are one”, etc., he is illustrating his closeness to God as the shaliah. He is not making a claim to be the God whom he represents. John’s Jesus does exercise a divine authority, but only as God’s agent, not as some Trinitarian “son”.
The same factor is operative in the Synoptic Gospels, where, for instance, Jesus as the messianic “Son of Man” forgives sins. The typical Trinitarian explanation is that no one but God can forgive sins, so because he forgives sins, Jesus must be God. This is misphrased, because NT christology actually connotes it slightly, but importantly, differently: “In forgiving sins, Jesus is acting like God.”
That is, Jesus as shaliah is doing what God has deputized him to do: to forgive sins “on earth”. So the question, “Who can forgive sin but God alone?” has its answer from Jesus’ own ministry: “God forgives sins, and so does His special agent, whom He has ordained to forgive sin”. When the NT Jesus forgives sin, he is doing it by virtue of the power that God invested in him. The situation is much the same in those Gospel texts where Jesus empowers his disciples to forgive sins – a gift which, for all its power, did not turn Jesus’ disciples into God. As the Father deputized Jesus to forgive sins, so Jesus passed this ministry along to his disciples -without Jesus or the disciples being God.
One biblical unitarian, Anthony Buzzard, entitled one of his books, The Doctrin of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound. Although I disagree with much of Buzzard’s fundamentalistic interpretations, I believe that his christology is healthy and based on the monotheistic Jewish foundations of the NT. The Trinitarian “wound” fractured Yahweh’s unity and elevated his prophet Jesus to the status of “God”, thus alienating Jews, Moslems, and people of common sense throughout history. If this wound could be healed, we might see a great moving-together and new solidarity among the Abrahamic faiths. However, the task is daunting, since mainline churches teach Trinitarianism from birth, and insist upon catechizing converts into Trinitarianism. They say if one does not accept the Trinity/accept Jesus as God, then one is a heretic who has no hope of truly understanding Jesus, God’s nature … and has no hope of salvation. That is: Accept the Trinity – or else.
Since I am a Buddhist, this may not seem to be “my fight”. But it very much is my fight, because if Jesus was a human being who went through a spiritual transformation, then he is aligned with the many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in my Mahayanist tradition – mortal human beings who at some point realized their true spiritual identities. But if Jesus is eternally, ontologically “God”, then his mission and life become little more than E.T and his Adventure on Earth. Jesus moves from being a mortal human with human struggles to an “eternal Son” who briefly incarnates in a human body.
Thus, I believe that the highest teachings, mystical claims and ethics that the NT reports of Jesus are far too humanistically important to dismiss as mere Olympian proclamations of an “incarnate God”. My own bias favors the view of Jesus as a Jewish mystic in the stream of Jewish mysticism, who attained spiritual knowledge, rather than as a God laying down commandments through a temporary puppeteering of a human body. And I think the NT evidence supports this view, as does the extra-biblical evidence which has been pieced together over many decades. More on this subject will appear in later posts.