Thursday, January 19, 2006

Scripture and Jesus' Deity

My response to a discussion along conservative/liberal lines on Genesis 1, the Jesus Seminar and Jesus' deity.

My point of view is that the Bible is true, in everything that is significant to the Bible. However, the Bible does contradict itself in places. This shouldn't be a surprise, or a problem. We, as Mennonites, deal with this issue all the time. Jesus said "love your enemies". The OT says "hate and destroy your enemies" in certain places. This is a contradiction. Because we are followers of Jesus, we accept what He says, and assume that He knows better. All evangelicals have to deal with the same issue. After all, Paul speaks against Mosaic understanding of circumcision and sabbath. Jesus orders the priority of ethics in a different way than Moses did. We have to work with this.

My point is not to neglect any of the Scripture. However, we need to prioritize what we hold to and what we do not. I make priorities through the whole teaching of Jesus.

Sometimes, however, Scripture makes it's own priorities. Such is the case of the creation accounts of Genesis. What we need to remember is that Scripture does not have one creation account, but really four: Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Psalm 104 and Psalm 74:12-17 (although the last isn't meant to be a complete account). There are other references to creation, but these are the main narrative accounts. Much in these accounts are similar-- God creating the world through his word, and the items which are created. However, there are some things that a traditional view of creation doesn't see. First of all, the earth isn't created in these accounts. Gen 1:1 implies it, but when we get to the specifics, we find out in Gen 1:2 that the earth and the sea already existed before day 1. We also find out in Ps 74 that God battled Leviathan before day 1, which probably explains the chaos before day 1. But in looking at all the creation accounts carefully, we also discover that the order and timing of the creation isn't the same. Gen 2 has vegetation created in a completely different order than Gen 1.

What does this mean to me? That the order and time of creation isn't important to the final editor that placed both stories of Gen 1 and 2 together. What was important is that God created it from his word.

What I want you to note, however, is that I didn't get this from science, nor do I care to confirm what science said. I just don't care. But I do care about the significance of Scripture-- and it doesn't seem to me that the writers of the four accounts of creations actually cared about the time frame. The writer of Gen 1 did care a bit about the time frame, but only to make his point about the Sabbath, it seems.

My point of view of the Jesus Seminar is based on the same principle. That Scripture is important, and how it presents things are important. The Jesus Seminar comes from the point of view that somehow we can achieve the "real" (i.e. "historical") Jesus by a democratic process of determining the reliability of each paricope. I'm sorry, but this is not scientific, nor reasonable. Even Bruce Chilton, who was a part of this process, withdrew himself from it because they were more concerned with publicity than truth. Ben Witherington has written a good critique of the Jesus Seminar.

Yes, we need to look at the gospels to understand what they said, and recognize that we have different points of view. But to begin with a bias of "let's see how much in the gospels don't fit our presuppositions of what Jesus ought to be like" is ridiculous. John Meier's books A Marginal Jew is a much more historical approach. But what is better is Raymond Brown's approach of accepting the cannon as what we have and trying to understand the writers approach. We can't get past the apostles. The apostle's Jesus is the only Jesus we have. If the apostle's Jesus isn't adequate for someone, then they need to look somewhere else.

Okay, now let's look at Jesus' divinity. There are very few Scriptures that actually speak about Jesus' divinity, the most straight forward of this are the two passages in John: "The Word was with God and the Word was God" and Thomas' statement: "My Lord and my God." The most important thing is to note what the possibilities are when understanding these statements from a first century Jewish point of view. To call a man god seems blasphemous on the surface. But there are three Jewish possibilities:

a. Jesus is a powerful Lord under the Father. This is a strong possibility, because there was a sect in Judaism that accepted Moses as a "god" after he died. This would mean a powerful angelic being. (These texts can be read about in Dale Allison's book "The New Moses"). To hold that Jesus became this kind of being is basically the Uniterians point of view.

b. Jesus is the Father himself, who became human. This is the orthodox point of view, although is could be a modalist's point of view as well. This is what "in essence" means in the orthodox creeds.

c. Jesus was a powerful angelic being already, a "son of god" (as mentioned in Job 1), who assisted the Father in creation and then became human, and then was risen up above other "gods" in heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father, the god Most High. This is the Arian point of view.

All of these views have good Scriptural basis, and all of them can represent the whole of the New Testament (although I think the Uniterians have to make some leaps in exegesis defending their point that Jesus didn't pre-exist). But my point is this: The New Testament doesn't distinctly choose between these three points of view. Any of them could be true. And if we say that one is true, above the other, we are saying that something not found in Scripture is the truth. I can't do that. So I refuse to choose, and allow the NT to hold this as an enigma.

I guess what I'm saying is that we shouldn't look to orthodox theology or science or anything else to find the truth in Scripture. We just need to be careful readers of the Scripture. And then we will know what God wants us to know. But if we continually read into Scripture or take out of Scripture what God put in there, then we might as well chuck the whole thing and start with something else. At least then we'll be honest before God what we really believe in.

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