Can you question the divinity of Jesus and still be a Christian?
By Janet Silman
friend of mine wonders if she is a Christian. I tell her I think so. She is involved heart and soul in her congregation, is committed actively to social justice, is one of the most faithful, compassionate people I know. She worships regularly, is baptized. For her, Jesus is a role model, teacher and amazing human being. But God in human form? Not necessarily.
To me, her questioning of Jesus’ divinity is healthy and honest. Who has the right to stop her if she wants to self-identify as a Christian?
From another perspective, if salvation depends on believing in Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God, you might say, yes, belief is necessary to be a Christian. As a child I went to a Sunday school where this was taught and doubting was dangerous. Later, in my teens, I found the United Church liberating because we were encouraged to wrestle with issues of faith and doubt, no holds barred.
In the Gospels, Jesus says, “Follow me”; he doesn’t say, “Worship me.” Following Jesus is harder than worshipping him. In Matthew, Jesus observes, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21). To me this suggests that believing Jesus is divine is not as crucial as doing the will of God. That’s why I think my doubting friend has no less right to call herself a Christian than, say, someone who professes Jesus as Lord and Saviour but whose actions violate his teachings.
When I was in East Germany in 1986, Christians told me how the churches were full in Nazi Germany, while under Communist rule they were almost empty. Perhaps empty churches are understandable under state atheism, but I found it haunting that they were full under Nazi rule. It raises the question of what is required in being a Christian. Is it a particular belief, a way of life or both?
In theological terms, understanding how Jesus is the Christ is called Christology. From New Testament times, there have been many different Christologies, sometimes categorized as “high” (emphasizing Jesus’ divinity) and “low” (emphasizing his humanity). In the New Testament, titles for Jesus that we assume are divine, such as “Messiah” (“Christ” in Greek) and “Saviour,” were not necessarily so. For example, in Judaism the Messiah was a human figure, while “Saviour” was a title for the Roman emperor.
It took the church a few centuries to define how Jesus was related to God, with the Council of Nicea in 325 declaring Jesus was “of the same substance” as the Father, and Chalcedon in 451 declaring that Jesus was of two natures, fully human and fully divine. The church used Greek philosophy to work this out, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with Greek philosophy, it doesn’t close the book on what it means to be human and what it means to be divine.
When the Greek creedal formulations focused on who
Jesus was — his nature, his being — it ignored what he
did — his teaching, his healing, his befriending, his incarnating God’s love and justice in our world. In making belief in his dual nature central to Christian faith, the church sidelined his actions and teachings. Believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and you are saved. Do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, and I guess you can’t be a Christian, hence saved.
While we inherit the wisdom of our Christian forebears, each generation and each of us as individuals needs to make that faith our own — not only in what we believe but also in how those beliefs direct our lives. If we take our faith seriously, just as we grow and change in other ways, our beliefs about Jesus will develop and change.
Questioning Jesus’ divinity may be more about a low understanding of human nature than a low Christology. While humans are capable of horrendous atrocities, we are also capable of goodness and self-giving love, attributes we associate with the Divine. Do we all have the Divine within us, whether a spark waiting to be ignited, flickering or burning brightly?
In a secular age where many people don’t believe in God, much less Jesus as the son of God, it seems to me that telling people they can only be a Christian if they have no doubts is needlessly restrictive. Could it even be unchristian?