Reframing the Question of Jesus and Divinity

In today’s post I’m not particularly interested in the academic question of whether or not Jesus thought of himself as divine, or of how early the ancient church came to identify him with/as God. I’m more concerned with the modern side of history and what it might mean for us to say that Jesus is or isn’t divine. In fact, I’d like to sketch out two basic models for understanding the “divinity” of Jesus, a traditional authoritarian model and a more subversive model grounded in faith and risk.

The Authoritarian Appeal to the Divinity of Jesus

The classic church approach to this question is, like so many of our traditions, grounded in an authoritarian appeal to an inerrant Bible. A flat, literal, uncritical reading of scripture yields a systematic (and schizophrenic) concept of God which is then retrofitted onto Jesus of Nazareth. Our knowledge of “the God of the Bible” comes first, and then Jesus comes along to confirm and endorse it. In this model, believing that Jesus is God becomes one of many Christian shibboleths, like inerrancy or creationism, load-bearing doctrines that must be affirmed lest the entire house of cards should topple.

There are problems with this approach, to say the least. It is based on doctrinal necessity and self-authorizing “proofs.” It draws lines in the sand and fosters exclusion and insulation. It is grounded in authority and obligation instead of genuine spirituality. But worst of all, it sidesteps the salient question of how divinity is defined in the first place and assigns a specious prefab divine identity onto Jesus. It effectively marginalizes and muffles the real message of Jesus, which comprised a radical and subversive new vision of divinity.

The Subversive Divinity of Jesus

The heart of Jesus’ life and message was a corrective and shocking new vision of who and what God is. Before anyone called Jesus “son of God” or the incarnated revelation of God, he presented himself as a prophet in the manner of the great Hebrew prophets. Like his predecessors, he dared to speak on behalf of Israel’s God. More than any of them, however, Jesus pronounced a new and radical vision of God, a version of God so big, so inclusive, so forgiving that it angered the authoritarian religious watchdogs of his time.

Against the prevailing notions about God in his own day (many of which persist), Jesus projected a God who is not conflicted, who is not full of wrath, and who does not underwrite human divisions and hierarchies. The “heavenly Father” of Jesus is quick to forgive and pours his favor out on all people, especially “sinners” and the poor. The God revealed in Jesus judges all humanity on personal integrity and compassion rather than class or religious affiliation. This is a God unlike any other, a departure even from many scriptural formulations of the divine. The “God of the Bible” can be implicated in vengeance, war, blood sacrifice, and genocide, but the God of Jesus is made of love and mercy. In Jesus we find a specific and volatile revelation of God which, when unleashed, casts a critical light on all other claims and projections of divinity, even those found in the Bible.

In this model, an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity – whatever shape it takes – is a risky and vulnerable maneuver. It is a hopeful act of faith and imagination and a subversive critique of established dogma about the nature and character of God. There is no authoritarian mechanism to bolster and enforce this belief, it has to be rediscovered and taken to heart fresh every day. In fact, it may put us at odds with those with a vested interest in the old notions of authoritarian divinity, and it certainly robs us of any platform from which to condemn or control. It leaves us out in the open, without a safety net, unprotected from questions and doubts but fully reliant on the ultimate goodness of Jesus. 

To affirm the authentic revelation of God in Jesus is to accept his challenge to imagine a reality bigger and more fundamentally good than most humans have been willing or able to.