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No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

I confess up front that this is a question I never imagined that I would examine in this blog.  I had assumed that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians would not be reading No Other Foundation or any Orthodox work, and anyway, such groups were too exegetically moronic to warrant serious attention.  The Christadelphians, for example, offered as proof for their doctrine that Jesus was not divine the fact that He died, and since God could not die, Jesus could not be God—as if they had never heard of the incarnation.  The J.W.’s famously translated John 1:1 “In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word as a god” (i.e. not true God, but a demi-god of sorts), in daring defiance of the Greek.  I therefore decided that time needn’t be spent in refuting such views for the same reason that I wouldn’t spend time arguing with flat earthers or people who declared the moon landing was a NASA hoax.  I will be dead soon enough, and time is precious.

       Imagine my surprise to find that the view that Jesus was not divine was not confined to J.W.’s and Christadelphians.  When perusing Facebook (just one of my bad habits) I found a debate televised on Faith Unaltered between Dr. Dale Tuggy (who denied the divinity of Jesus) and Dane Van Eyes (who affirmed it).  Apparently cults like the J.W.’s were not the only ones now denying the divinity of Christ.  Who knew?

       So, what is the Biblical case for Jesus of Nazareth being divine?  I take it as given that He was completely 100 % human and shared all the attributes of humanity (sin alone excepted).  Was He also 100 % divine?  I will leave to one side the further question of exactly how full divinity and true humanity could co-exist in a single individual—though I will drop a “spoiler” and say that my money is on the notion of a “hypostatic union” as elaborated by St. Cyril of Alexandria, and not on the notion of a “conjunction” as elaborated by Nestorius of Constantinople.

       I should also say that divinity is not subject to being partial.  In one sense, being God is like being pregnant:  either you are or you aren’t.  You can’t be “a little pregnant” or “partially pregnant”; you are either completely and truly pregnant or else not pregnant at all.  The Old Testament faith is therefore different from paganism.  The pagans believed in demi-gods, and that the line between the divine and the human was porous.  Hercules could be fully human and also half-divine; Caesar could become divine after death. But Judaism knows that the distance between Creator and creation is infinite.  Unless one is fully divine, one is a part of the Creator’s creation, ontologically separated from the Creator by an infinite and unbridgeable distance.  It is this understanding that must be read into the New Testament texts, since they were written (with the exception of Luke-Acts) by Jews and all of them within a Jewish context.  No one in our Lord’s Jewish audience believed that there could be such a thing as a semi-divine being.

       So, what do the Gospels say about Jesus?  The texts can be arranged in three groups.

       The first group makes the obvious point that Jesus was a man like any other man (setting aside for a moment His virginal conception).  That is, He was born like others were born, was raised in a family, and had a job (that of carpentry and building).  As a human being He was subject to the limitations common to humanity:  He tired, hungered, thirsted, wept, felt pain, and could die.  His conscious knowledge was limited:  when a woman in a crowd secretly seized the hem of His garment, He asked who touched Him; and He said that He currently did not know the date of the final consummation (Mark 5:30, 13:32).

       In other words, He lived as Jew among Jews, reading the Torah and worshipping the God of Israel.  He taught men to pray to Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament and His Father (though of course by then the divine Name was no longer used in everyday speech) and told His followers to seek His Father’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:9, 33).  He taught that He had been sent by the Father into this world (John 10:36, 20:21), that the Father was the only true God (as opposed to the false gods of the pagans), and that the Father was His God (John 17:3, 20:17).  (We will examine the saying in John 14:28 later.)

       If these were the only verses in the Gospels describing Jesus we would all have to side with Dr. Tuggy and run out to join the nearest Kingdom Hall and start handing out those idiotic Awake! magazines.  But there are other verses as well.

       In a second group of verses we see how Jesus was given divine authority by the Father—an authority that set Him apart from all other men and that strongly suggest that He is divine.  Thus we see Him claim divine authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12), an authority all admitted belonged to God alone.  We see Him claiming that He would be the one to judge everyone at the Last Judgment—and that on the basis of how they responded to Him (Matthew 8:22-23, 25:31f).   We see Him claiming the same exemption from the Sabbath restrictions enjoyed by the Father, thereby making Himself equal with God (John 5:17-18).  This claim to sovereignty over the Sabbath was what He meant when He claimed to be “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28), for only God was Lord of the Sabbath.  This was recognized by those hearing Him make that claim of sharing God’s exemption from Sabbath law, for they tried to stone Him for blasphemy (John 5:18).

       We also hear many other amazing claims that a mere human being would never make.  He claimed that the Father showed Him everything that He was doing, so that the Son might do the same. He claimed to have received from the Father the authority to give life to the dead—and even more incredibly that the Father had given up His authority to judge all the dead at the Last Judgment in favour of the Son, so that Jesus would be the final Judge rather than the Father. He further claimed that the Father decided this so that everyone would give to the Son the same honour that they gave to the Father (John 5:20-23).  Accordingly, Jesus claimed that He would be the one whose voice would raise all the dead at the Last Judgment (John 5:28), and that the Father had made Him the source of life just as the Father was also a source of life (John 5:26).

       Despite His earthly birth and His known earthly family, He claimed to have come down out of heaven (John 6:50-51)—i.e. to pre-exist.  He claimed to speak and act for the Father so perfectly that to hate Him was to hate the Father, and to see Him was to see the Father (John 16:23-24, 14:9). 

       It is, of course, possible that the Father decided to give all His authority in favour of the Son, sharing with Him all this honour and glory even though the Son was not divine before He came down out of heaven, but simply a part of His creation.  This seems to have been the view of Arius and his “Anomeans” for whom the Son was of a dissimilar ousia or essence than God the Father—i.e. that the pre-incarnate Word was indeed a part of the created order.  (We remember again how the category of “demi-god” was not available to our Lord or His audience.  Arius seems to have been clear that the pre-incarnate Logos was a created being.) 

But this bestowal of full divine glory to a created being to the point where men worship the created being as they worship God flies in the face of Old Testament Judaism.  Indeed, Yahweh always made a point of saying that He would not share His glory with another.  This applied to pagan gods first of all, but it is even less likely that He would share it with a mere man.  Thus Isaiah 42:8 in which God declares, “I am Yahweh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images”.  Yahweh was a jealous God, as Israel found out to their cost.  Divine honour and worship must be reserved for Him alone.  This strongly suggests that the Father shared His glory with the Son on earth because the pre-incarnate Word which came down from heaven was fully divine.

We see this clinched in the third group of texts, which plainly and unambiguously declare the divinity of Jesus.  Heading this group is John 1:1 which reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  John would go on to explain that “all things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (verse 3).  He would also say that this Word, which existed with God from the beginning “became flesh and dwelt among us” (verse 14) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

A few exegetical notes:  “in the beginning” does not mean “in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry”, but hearkens back to the beginning of creation.  It deliberately echoes the phrasing of Genesis 1:1 which reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.  Either way though, the point remains, and constitutes the main theme of John’s Gospel:  the Word which was in the beginning with God and which became incarnate in Jesus “was God”.

The verse is precise in its theological detail.  Though the God with whom the Word was can be identified with “the Father”, the Johannine text does not say “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the Father and the Word was the Father”, for the Word was not the Father.  That is, the Word and the Father were distinct hypostases.  John calls the Father “God” in order that he might ascribe divinity to the Word while distinguishing the Word from the Father.  The verse might be translated “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the Divine One and the Word was divine.” 

The divinity of the Word is further revealed by John’s statement in verse 3 that “apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being”—in other words, the Father created all things through His Word.  Old Testament Judaism teaches that God alone is the Creator of the world, and this therefore means that the Word through whom the Father created was also God. (That, by the way, finds echo in the teaching of St. Paul when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:6 that the “one Lord Jesus Christ” was the one “through whom are all things, and we exist through Him”.  It is also what Revelation 3:14 means when it describes Christ as the “ἀρχὴ/ arche of the creation of God”, for ἀρχὴ here means “source, origin”.) 

John’s Gospel opens with this ringing affirmation of the divinity of Jesus and climaxes with it as well:  in John 20:28, after seeing the risen Christ, Thomas cried out to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (Greek ὁ θεός μου/ o theos mou—i.e. with the definite article, so there can be no J.W. nonsense about rendering it “a god” as they attempted in rendering John 1:1).  Coming as narrative climax of the Gospel, we see that this was John’s grand theme.

That was why in chapter 5 John related how Jesus made Himself equal with God (verse 18).  It was why in chapter 8 he shared the story of how Jesus claimed to be the “I am” (Greek ἐγὼ εἰμί/ ego eimi) who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (see Exodus 3:14)—a claim which naturally caused those who heard it to try to stone Him for blasphemy (verses 58-59).  And it was why he shared the story of how Jesus declared “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30. The word “one” is neuter in the Greek—i.e. one thing, one essence, not one person.  Christ was claiming identity of essence with the Father, not claiming to be the Father.

This last claim was clearly understood.  Jesus was not claiming to be merely of one will with the Father.  His hearers said that they were going to stone Him “for blasphemy, and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (verse 33).  Christ did not contradict their understanding and say, “You got Me all wrong; I was just claiming to be one in will with God”.  On the contrary, He pointed afresh to His divine authority as the Son of God, as the One in whom was the Father and who was in the Father (verses 34-38).

All of these texts clearly emphasize that Christ was given divine authority and glory on earth from the Father because of His divine status with the Father before He came down from heaven to earth.  In. His pre-incarnate state He was not an angel, a part of the created order.  As well as being contradicted by John’s Gospel, this notion is also explicitly considered and rejected by the Epistle to the Hebrews.  In chapter 1 of that epistle the author contrasts at length the status of the Son (as authoritative and regal) with the status of angels (as ministering spirits).  To make it doubly clear, the author applies a text in Psalm 102:25f which refers to Yahweh to Jesus (in Hebrews 1:10f).

We note finally and briefly that this was the teaching of the rest of the epistles as well.  The apostles routinely took Old Testament texts that spoke of Yahweh (e.g. Joel 2:32) and applied them to Jesus (e.g. Romans 10:13).  St. Paul taught in Philippians 2:6f that prior to His life on earth, the Word “existed in the form of God” and emptied Himself of His divine prerogatives taking on the form of a slave.  It was this divine self-emptying, this kenosis, that accounted for Christ’s human limitations, such as His hunger, thirst, lack of knowledge, and His mortality. 

We note too that this teaching was so much a part of the apostolic worldview that Paul could almost casually speak of “the appearing of our great God and Saviour, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13).  This teaching was faithfully transmitted as part of the Church’s apostolic Tradition.  As early as about 107 A.D. St. Ignatius of Antioch could write about Jesus and call Him “Jesus Christ our God” (Ephesians salutation).

To sum up.  Jesus worshipped the Father as His God for the same reason as He hungered, thirsted, and died—because He had become incarnate, emptying Himself and becoming one of us, sharing our limitations and our mortality.  The pre-incarnate love of the Word for the Father became His human worship of the Father after His incarnation.  He could call the Father His “God” not because the pre-incarnate Word was a part of the created order, but because through His kenosis He became human like us.  He was 100% God and 100% man, and in His humanity He showed us how to worship the Father.

A promised addendum:  in John 14:28 Jesus said, “The Father is greater than I”.  As usual, context is everything.  Jesus was not explaining the Christology of His pre-incarnate state to the disciples or discoursing on His own ontology compared to the Father—a subject which would have been meaningless to the apostles at that time and for which they cared less than nothing.  His disciples were frightened because He had just said He was going away (verses 27-28) and was about to be arrested and killed. 

The greatness of the Father Jesus referred to was not the ontological greatness of the Father compared to that of the Son; it was the Father’s sovereignty over the events soon to occur:  Christ’s enemies might entrap and defeat Him, but they could never entrap or defeat the Father.  The Father’s purpose for Christ’s victory would prevail no matter what.  A more detailed examination of the text can be found here.


Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.