June 2, 2010

Is Believing in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to Being Christian?

Read/Post Comments (1)

Someone recently asked me: “can you be a Christian without believing in the divinity of Jesus?” The short answer is—it depends on who you ask. Everyone believes their own answers to questions about personal religious faith are the right answers—would anyone admit their own religious beliefs are wrong? Not likely. Let’s change the question a bit to inquire about data rather than opinion: did every early follower of Jesus believe in his divinity? Of course we can never know what every follower believed, so we must ask the question another way: what do the extant early sources show about belief in the divinity of Jesus?

     From the beginning beliefs about Jesus were very different—the followers of Jesus believed different and contradictory things about him. In particular the canonical gospels show these surprising differences! No sources relating to Christian origins exist before Paul (@45). Beginning with Paul the extant sources reveal a striking diversity in belief, particularly with respect to belief in the “divinity” of Jesus. After the events of the 4th and 5th centuries (Constantine and the development of canon and creeds) one wing of the diverse movements that characterized the earlier period (1st through 3rd centuries) emerged dominant and its view of Jesus became the standard until the Enlightenment (16th century) when once again diverse views began to reassert themselves in polite religious society.

     One must remember that the Greeks and the Romans had bestowed divine honors on human beings many years before Jesus. The ancient Greeks believed that some human beings were born as a result of a sexual union between a God and a human being—they were, in a sense, a demi-god—i.e., half god and half human. In the Roman period the Roman senate conferred “divinity” on certain emperors. They did not become Gods but were conceived as “divine” in the sense that a “divine presence” resided in them. It is against this backdrop that the divinity of Jesus must be understood.

     There are at least four ways that the nature of Jesus was understood in early Christian texts. 1. He was not divine but was by nature essentially a human being whom God “adopted” for a special purpose on earth. 2. He was essentially a human being who came to be inhabited by a divine figure, the “Christ,” at his baptism. The “Christ” departed from him prior to his crucifixion. 3. Jesus was not a human being at all but rather completely divine; he was actually God and only appeared to be human. 4. Jesus (the Christ) was both divine and human, but he did not have two natures; rather his nature was at once both human and divine. Readers should recognize this fourth view as what became dominant in Christianity after the 5th century. Persons holding any one of these four views believed it was what Christians should believe—and would have rejected the other three as mistaken.

     One might well ask—well, which view is correct? My answer would still be: it depends on who is being asked. But it seems rather clear that there were people in the early period of the church who thought of themselves as Christians but who did not think that belief in the divinity of Jesus was an essential part of being “Christian.”

     There are also churches today who consider themselves Christian but who do not consider faith in the divinity of Jesus an essential aspect of “being Christian.” They organize their faith around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and have come together in The Center for Progressive Christianity for mutual support.

     What do you think about belief in the divinity of Jesus? Is it a necessary part of being Christian?

Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

The Center for Progressive Christianity

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:33am

Read your current comments. Will try to stay up with your writing. Sheri and I enjoyed the visit and would love to have you and Peggy down to South Carolina. We have had a few chuckles regarding the wedding party. As a native Californian I thought I had seen almost everything. Wrong again......

It was great seeing everyone and we look forward to the next event that brings us together again.

Posted by Murphy Levy on 6/6/2010 at 11:56am