Reno Omokri is a well-known political commentator who, from time to time, makes incursions into theology, and who, in recent times, has been recycling an old thesis that Scripture does not support the doctrine of divinity of Jesus. Christ, he contends, never claimed to be God. It was men who attributed divinity to him. Relying on the opinion of men about Jesus is, according to Omokri, the beginning of unscriptural practices into “Christendom”. But the fallacy of “unscriptural practices” is a matter for another day.
Omokri’s argument wears the appearance of truth. To buttress his point, he cites a number of Scripture passages: passages where Jesus prayed to Almighty God (Mark 14:35-36); where he cried on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46); where he made a distinction between Himself and Almighty God (Rev 1:1).
There are, in fact, many more passages he could have cited. For, as Raymond Brown, a most respected 20th century New Testament scholar candidly admitted in his book, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, “Throughout most of the New Testament there tends to be a distinction between God (=the Father) and Jesus.” Brown lists 11 of such passages, even though there are more, a lot more than Omokri did. For example, in Mark 10:18, in a passage that clearly distinguishes between Jesus and God, Jesus responded to the man who called him “good teacher” that God alone is good.
In John 14:28, Jesus says: “The Father is greater than I.”
In Ephesians 1:17, it is written: “The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory.” Surely, here too, there is a distinction between God and Jesus.
In 1 Timothy 2:5, could be read: “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Apart from these passages, one comes across passages in the New Testament where Jesus was hungry (Matthew 4:2); where he prayed (John 17); where he was tired – fell asleep in the boat (Mark 4:38); he was moved to tears (John 11:35); he was afraid of death (Mark 14:32-42). In fact, the first time they wanted to kill him, he escaped (Luke 4:28-30). Surely, God cannot be said to hungry, tired, sleepy, tearful, overcome with fear, running away from death. On the strength of these and similar passages, it is quite easy to conclude that Jesus is not God. That is why Omokri’s argument is plausible.
But it is one thing to be in possession of data, it is another thing to know how to gather and interpret them. And good judgment must be preceded and informed by right interpretation. Omokri is in possession of New Testament data on the person and humanity of Jesus, even as he does not seem to have all the data. However, since his professional training is not in the area of Biblical exegesis, he should not be faulted for his inability to subject the data in his possession to a theologically competent evaluation.
A careful evaluation of what the New Testament says about Jesus, not just of some passages, shows that there are New Testament passages that point to divine attributes in him. The same Scripture on which Omokri bases his thesis reports that Jesus said things that only God could have said, “your sins are forgiven” Those who heard him say those words understood that he was claiming a divine attribute – the ability to forgive sins – so they expressed dismay at what he said (Matthew 9:1-8).
Omokri argues that we do not have passages in the New Testament where Jesus claimed he was God. This may be true of the first three Gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke. But even in these three Gospels, one comes across a Jesus who, without calling himself God, spoke like God and acted like God.
In the Fourth Gospel, we find a Jesus reported as saying, “The Father and I are one.” For saying this, those who heard him fetched stones to lapidate him (John 10:30-31). And again, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
When Scripture reports him as calming the storm, Scripture also reports the reaction of the people around him. Seeing how he calmed the storm, they asked: “Who is this? Even the waters obey him.” They understood that in their Jewish religion, only God could calm the storm. If only God could dominate the waters, and this man was able to do so, who is he?
Since Omokri bases his position on Scripture, by which he means the New Testament, it is of utmost importance to be clear about what Scripture offers us. The Scripture of which Omokri speaks, and on which he bases his argument, does not offer us a biography of Jesus. What Scripture offers us are pieces of evidence of the content of the Christological faith of the early Christians. The whole discussion therefore boils down to one question. It is a question that Raymond Brown poignantly poses: Did the New Testament Christians call Jesus God? Or, to put it in another way: are there New Testament passages in which Jesus is called God?
The answer, upon careful exegesis, is unambiguously in the affirmative. There are passages in Scripture where Jesus is called God, and these passages provide evidence of the faith of the writers of the books of Scripture. Raymond Brown cites three of such passages in the New Testament – Hebrews 1:8-9; John 1:1; and John 20:28. Understanding how the first of the three shows that Jesus is called God by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews requires some exegetical exercise to which I would not want to subject the reader. But the second and third passages are quite easier to understand.
In John 1:1, the writer of the Fourth Gospel did not hesitate to write about Jesus in these words: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Here fact speaks for itself.
The third passage, John 20:28, is the exclamation of the Doubting Thomas upon the appearance of the risen Christ: “My Lord and my God.” But I shall add another passage.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians, telling them that Jesus always had the form of God, he used the Greek word morphe. The morphe of a thing is the nature of the thing. It is what makes a thing what it is. The morphe of God is what makes God what God is. Paul spoke of Jesus as one who had the nature of God, even as he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave.
What can be said is not that Scripture denies or is silent on the divine nature in Jesus, but that the New Testament contains passages that point to the human characteristics in Jesus, just as the same New Testament contains passages that point to the divine characteristics in him.
In the 4th century of Christianity, Arius, a presbyter of the Church in Alexandria, focused exclusively on his human characteristics and denied his divinity. What Omokri has done it to do what Arius has done.
But one may not focus exclusively on Jesus’ human characteristics in the New Testament texts while overlooking his divine characteristics in the same texts. To focus on one without the other would be an incomplete reading of Scripture, a cafeteria approach to New Testament data. When the Council of Nicaea affirmed his divinity in 325, and the Council of Constantinople affirmed his humanity in 381, both Councils were reading not into but out of Scripture. And later, in 451, the Council of Chalcedon would teach that, in one and the same person, are two natures—divine and human.
I must quickly add that Reno’s plausible argument is an echo of the astoundingly anachronistic approach to the history of Christian doctrine found in the claim of the author of the Da Vinci Code who said that the divinity of Jesus was absent from Scripture and was only brought into Christian consciousness at the Council of Nicaea. The claim is patently anachronistic because, whereas the Council of Nicaea took place in 321, the Fourth Gospel, written around 90 already points to Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. Evidence that belief in the divinity of Jesus was already there before Nicaea is also found outside Scripture. Pliny the Younger, a non-Christian Roman author, in his Epistle written in the early years of the 2nd century – two centuries before the Council of Nicaea – spoke of Christians in Asia Minor as singing to Jesus as to a God.
The Church Councils I have just cited were ecumenical councils, that is, councils of the whole Church. Their doctrines are not just personal opinions of pastors preaching in isolation from others. They are doctrines that the whole Church agreed to hold. That is why they are called ecumenical councils. Moreover, the Scriptural bases of their doctrinal assertions are those passages that point to Jesus’ human traits as well as to his divine traits. These passages point to what the early Christians believed about Jesus. They believed he was true God and true man. Either those early Christians were deluded or deceitful or truthful. So, we who read them in the 21st century have to make a choice.
If one were to see them as deluded or deceitful, one would cease to be Christian, because one would have repudiated the New Testament, which documents their testimony about Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Since the Christian faith concerning Jesus comes from the testimony of the early Christian writers of the New Testament, repudiating their testimony is repudiating the Christian faith itself. But one has a right to cease to be Christian. Omokri has a choice to make, and his right to make that choice is guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution, despite its many dangerous defects.
Rev. Fr. (Prof.) Anthony Akinwale, OP, is the Vice-Chancellor, Dominican University, Ibadan, Nigeria.