Thursday, July 08, 2004

The doctrine of Christ's divinity challenged

My good friend, Edgar Foster, the author of Christology and the Trinity (see the previous post, below, from June 3, 2004), has been corresponding with me about the subject of his book. As a Jehovah's Witness (JW), he questions the traditional Catholic teaching on the divinity of Christ, as did the ancient Arians of the 4th and 5th centuries. Foster (whose remarks I will render in blue) begins by summing up our recent discussion as follows:

Foster: I know that the original point of an argument can sometimes be lost after a number of emails, so I'm going to take the time to refresh your memory, in order that it will be clear why I answered you as I did. First, you argued that only God has the prerogative to forgive the sins that humans commit against other humans or against God. Second, you said that Scripture contains multiple "attestations" to Jesus' divinity, even if it does not explicitly call him "God," though I am aware that you believe there are explicit references to Christ's divinity in Holy Writ. But my point was that Matthew does not indicate that one should infer Jesus is Almighty God (the second Person of the Trinity) because he healed the paralytic and pardoned his sins (as qualified above). Rather, the Matthean narrative suggests that Christ was a man (Acts 2:22) invested with great authority by God, rather than being God himself. Other texts, such as Jn 5:26-27, indicate that Christ can and could forgive sins because he is/was the God-appointed Son of Man (somewhat akin to the exalted figure in 1 Enoch), not God Himself. Whatever "attestations" one may see in Scripture with respect to the divinity of Christ, Mt 9:7-8 certainly does not appear to be one of such "attestations."

Blosser: I don't recall having tried to build a case for the divinity of Christ from any of these aforementioned texts. Your earlier summary of the points I was making about the multiple attestations of His divinity through the divine prerogative of forgiving sins, and so forth, are accurate, as far as I can see. Not only do I think that a case cannot be made for Christ's divinity from these verses you cite, but I can well imagine that not even those in the crowds present at the healing in Matt. 9:7-8 may have all inferred His divinity from His miracles. Their awe at God's mercy was probably evident; but I don't think they necessarily all inferred that this man, Jesus, was also Himself God. That was a discovery that probably didn't dawn on many of them for some time, and then only as a gradual process, as you suppose (though you would certainly not call it a "discovery," but rather some sort of "construction").

Foster: There are a couple of problemata that I discern with your divinity-humanity denial argument. First, if I remember correctly, the Gnostics (as a social movement) may or may not have been around in the first century. Thus, while it is often thought that John was doing spiritual battle with the Gnostics in his Epistles, the Johannine text does not explicitly say who John's opponents were. Second, if John was opposing the Gnostics as you say (which I don't necessarily disagree with), I think it is somewhat misleading to contend that the Gnostics did not deny his "divinity." The fact is that the Gnostics did not believe that Christ was "divine" in the strongest sense of the term (Professor Dale Tuggy makes a helpful distinction between being "divine" in a strong or weaker sense in his online papers on the Trinity). That is, they (i.e. the Gnostics) did not think that Christ was God (with a capital 'G'). As you noted, the Gnostics thought that the Creator/creature chasm could not be bridged. Therefore, Godself [...]

Blosser: O HEAVEN HELP US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT THAT

Foster: [...] could not literally reside among men and women. Instead, the Gnostics contended that God sent a salvific agent to redeem all of the "elect" who are capable of knowing the divine through self-knowledge. And even this agent only appeared to be human.

Blosser: Fair enough. The Gnostics are a mixed bag. For the most part they were dualists, and so would have recognized two co-eternal divine principles or beings. So the notion of THE God of monotheism would be excluded anyhow. My main point was that earliest heretics had trouble with the notion of Christ's humanity, rather than His divinity, and therefore the earliest of the Catholic Church's creeds, the Apostle's Creed, emphasizes His HUMANITY (as does the Apostle John (both in his Gospel and First Epistle), rather than His divinity, which would later surface as a locus of concern.

Foster: You're right; the Israelites did not know that Christ was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. But my statements here constituted a reply to your argument that only God has the prerogative to forgive sins (commited against other humans and presumably against God). I was trying to show, as EP Sanders states, why Jesus did not have to be God in the flesh in order to pardon errors. He forgave sins in his capacity as High-Priest. I.e., he was God's priest-designate while he subsisted in the flesh.

Blosser: That's a very good argument, but I'm not sure that it works. It's true that a high priest can forgive sins. For that matter any priest can forgive sins. My priest absolves me of my sins when I go to confession. So it's true that one doesn't have to be God to forgive sins committed against third parties. So you score on that point. Yet it ordinarily makes not sense for one human being to forgive another of sins he's committed against a third party. To do so he needs divinely-conferred authority of the sort exercised by those upon whom Jesus
conferred (after breathing or sending the Holy Spirit upon them) the power of "binding and loosing." This authority isn't something just anyone possesses, but only those upon whom the authority has been gifted. Furthermore, this authority is exercised only within the context of a formal sacramental rite--a covenantal transaction involving confession, sacrifice, absolution and penance. This follows in the OT tradition of forgiveness being tied to a "sin offering." Without the shedding of blood, "there is no remission"; etc. In the OT, the blood was that of animals. But as the writer of the Book of Hebrews makes clear, there is no value in the blood of animals, as such. The value of these OT sacrifices was by way of sacramental participation in the Precious Blood of Christ, which alone possesses the infinite value necessary to atone for man's sins against the infinitely Holy God. But on the basis of what sacramental (covenantal) transaction did Jesus go about forgiving the sins of third parties if he was only a human "High Priest"? Did he offer any animal sacrifices? One could speak of His own sacrifice (ancicipatorily), but His own Blood that hadn't been shed yet. How would it have made any sense for Him to forgive the sins of third parties on the basis of His own anticipated sacrifice then? Further, if he was anything less than the divine Son of God, how would His own sacrifice have paid for the transgressions of mankind against the infinitely Holy God? (Can one help but think here of St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo?)

Foster: (1) The NT does not support the notion of a "ministerial priesthood." We've been through this before, though I'm now reading Sullivan's From Apostles to Bishops and I'm even more convinced now that there were no "priests" or parishes in the first century ecclesia.

Blosser: The NT does indeed support the fact of a ministerial priesthood, even if contemporary theologians, Protestant or papist, buy into the post-Kantian historical-critical categories of historical skepticism that lead them to suggest that virtually nothing of the Christian Faith as we know it can be reconstructed from the "historical data" of the NT. I'm dismayed that even Catholic theo-imbecil-ogians have bought into that phenomenal-noumenal, fact-value bi-frick-cation that leaves them skeptical about anything pertaining to empirical-historical facts. But Kant is dead, and his philosophical constructions are refutable, and the biblical data are rife with plenty of examples of priests (presbyteroi). Ignatius attests to it. Didache attests to it. It's nutty to question it.

Foster: (2) I'll do some research and get back to you today or tomorrow, but I'm fairly certain that Israel did not have a clergy/laity distinction, even though they had priests. One can't retroject Catholic concepts into the OT either. :-)

Blosser: Give me a break, my friend. If they had priests, they had non-priests. That's a distinction. Priesthood and people: that's clergy and laity.

Foster: (3) I think I earlier pointed out that the entire nation of Israel constituted a "potential" priesthood to and for God. This proposition is supported by verses found in Exodus and Isaiah (Exod 19:5-6; Isa 61:5-6).

Blosser: I never disputed that, nor would I. Just as I wouldn't dispute that the whole Ecclesia that constitutes New Israel is a "potential" priesthood to and for God. That doesn't eliminate the ministerial priesthood. Isn't that called the logical fallacy of division?

Foster: I believe that your explanation violates Ockham's principle of parsimony. Christ could have forgiven sins without being God in an ontological sense. The only thing required for him to pardon error was the divine investment of authority as the Shaliach of YHWH since one ancient Jewish principle was, "The one sent is as the one sending him." In other words, the envoy *legally* represents the one sending him forth. Therefore Christ (as the Shaliach of YHWH) could absolve human sins based on his position as God's High Priest and eschatological Judge. The Matthean narrative of the paralytic shows that God gave a man (not a God-man) the authority on earth to forgive sins.

Blosser: Yes, but the "one sent" in the Bible is always in possession of certifying credentials. One can't just appoint himself "one sent" and expect to speak for God. The rebellion of Korah (Number 16) makes that clear. In each instance, God's representative must await lawful ordination before God blesses his efforts and the latter is entitled to speak for God. (To do justice to this notion of lawful appointment-- either directly by God or by a lawfully delegated human representative-- I would need to go into far more detail than I have time for here, so I am counting on your indulgence of this point: if it is contested, I will simply have to go gather my sources and give you the
further data you need.)

Let me try to simplify: under the Mosaic covenant, God gave Israel the Levitic priesthood for the ongoing administration of His people. It was through these delegates that the means were prescribed for the Israelites to live and worship in a manner prescribed by God and therefore pleasing to God; and it was through these delegated priests that God prescribed for the Israelites the manner in which their sins were to be forgiven by God. This required various rites, including a sin offering, washing, purification, sorrow and penance, etc. (One thinks of Yom Kippur.) These prescribed patterns were in force down to
the time of Christ. Jesus and His parents are recounted as having went up to Jerusalem to fulfill various prescribed rites of the Old Covenant. Jesus Himself was subject, or subjected Himself, to these requirements, "that all might be fulfilled." A priest could forgive the sins of an Israelite against a third party because he was delegated by God and God's lawful delegates to excercise this authority in God's name.

The question concerns Jesus' authority. Now a traditional Catholic such as myself recognizes (probably even more than a JW, in this case) that Jesus has authority because he sees that authority as DIVINE. But we're talking about a case in which, as a JW would insist, Christ's authority is not divine. You're wanting to argue that Christ could forgive by virtue of delegated authority from Jehovah God. To argue that case, you have to establish two other things: (1) that Christ's authority was not itself divine as proper to His own divine nature, but a DELEGATED authority from God understood as other than Christ; and (2) that Christ had the authority to exercise that delegated authority independently of the lawfully instituded forms of religious authority in existence in His own day.

But I don't think you can make either case. First, could Jesus have claimed no more than DELEGATED authority from God? This may seem plausible, inview of His frequent deference to the Father (often designated, as JWs like to point out, as simply "God"). But the JW answer may not be as easily supportible as first supposed. For one thing, Jesus not only claimed to be "Lord of the Sabbath" (Mk 12:8; Lk 6:5; Mk 2:28), but authority over the Torah (Mt 5: 22, 27, 32, 34, 39). Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man, tr. L. Wilkins and D. Priebe (2nd ed., Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977) writes:
"Jesus set his EGO against and above the authority of Moses himself, without any kind of justification. However, the authority above Moses himself, which Jesus here claims forhimself, can be none other than the authority of God. Thus ... Jesus makes himself the spokesman for God himself." (p. 56, cf. p. 251)
Could Jesus have claimed to have this divine authority not because of being God, but merely as a delegate, as a JW may suggest here? William G. Most, in his volume, The Consciousness of Christ (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Publications, 1980), notes that the Jewish cultural horizon of the times (the SITZ-IM-LEBEN, if you will) "did not envision any delegated authority that could change the Torah, as is evident from Mk 2:7 (a claim to forgiveness of sins apart from Torah procedures was considered a claim to divinity by the scribesand Pharisees). Hence this claim of Jesus must have expressed a conscious claim to divinity." (p. 82)

William Most continues:
"Further, if His human mind registered only a belief that He had delegated authority, where would it get such a notion? If it was by revelation, why would God have made a special revelation that wa so incomplete? If the notion came from a vague self-perception, how substantive was it? To be a prophet, even to be a Moses, would not give rational grounds for the power of modifying the Sabbath. It was strictly unheard of. Really, there could be no earthly justificatin. The human intellect of Jesus would have been deluded in formalizing so unheard of a revolution with no authorization. We conclude: His human intellect operated in harmony with His divinity." (pp. 82-83)
Moreover, as I have noted, Jesus claimed authority to forgive sins; and there is something quite extraordinary about this. E.g., seeing a paralytic let down through the roof before Him, Jesus said (Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26; Mt 9:2-8): "My son, your sins are forgiven." His miracle of healing, here as oftentimes, was administered with an absolution of sins. The extraordinary nature of His declaration of absolution can be seen from the reaction of those present: the scribes and Pharisees murmured in their hearts: "Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Then, knowing their thoughts, Jesus responds: "Why question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your pallet and walk.'"

William Most comments:
"It is as if Jesus had said: 'If I say, your sins are forgiven,' no one can check that. But if I say, 'Get up and walk, anyone can verify it.' So Jesus cured the man. All three Synoptics add ... 'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, he said to the paralytic ....'

"... The presence of this connection is of prime importance. If they were genuine miracles, the power came from God. For various reasons God might do such for a good pagan. But he could not provide miraculous power if it were used to prove a lie. The scribes consider that claim a claim to divinity. We grant that sins could be forgiven by a delegated power. But the scribes did not see that possibility (see verse 7). Hence, in that concrete situation, the miracle was used to prove a claim understood as a claim to divinity. God could not have supported such a claim by confirming it with a miracle if it were false. Jesus, therefore, did show an understanding of His own divinity on this occasion." (p. 83)
Foster: I am not saying that just anyone could become a priest. My point is that the priests in ancient Israel did not constitute a clergy class in the minds of the people who benefited from their expiatory or propitiatory services at the temple since they did not make use of such conceptual categories.

Blosser: I think you may be begging the question here. Not only is the case proved by Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16), where Korah and his supporters tried to usurp the prerogatives of the Lord's anointed (Moses and Aaron), overstepping their assigned places in the economy of the divine administration allotted to Israel at that time. It is demonstrated also by the divine formation of the Levitical priesthood and the numerous qualifications that had to be met (even if one was a Levite) to serve as a priest. How could it be said that there was no distinction between priests and non-priests in the mind of Israelites?

Foster: At the risk of sounding cocky or a wee bit "cheeky," I want to go on record as saying that God's name is almost certainly NOT represented in the OT as being "I Am" or "I Am That I Am." The NWT renders Exod 3:14, "I SHALL PROVE TO BE WHAT I SHALL PROVE TO BE" or "I SHALL PROVE TO BE" (Capital letters are used in the original). I also do not think that the relevant passages in deutero-Isaiah use the EGW EIMI formula as a form of the divine name either; nor is this formula employed as a divine circumlocution or periphrasis in Isaiah.

Blosser: Here it appears that JW scholarship follows the best scholarly traditions of Protestant historical critics. Granted, these folks have done some laudible work-- even Kittel, despite his having been one of the two leading Nazi theologians, produced an enduring legacy in his NT dictionary. Having said that, the fact remains that nearly all of its conclusions--including is so-called "historical," as opposed to "metaphysical," interpretation of YHWH-- is debatable and continues to be contested. The same is true of the several JW claims enumerated above. For that reason, I'm glad that your "cheekiness" is tempered by the caution of your qualifications ("... almost certainly ..."; etc.).

You state that God's name is represented in the OT as being "I Am" or "I Am That I Am." In its article on "Jehovah," the Catholic Encyclopedia offers a detailed analysis of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) in Part II ("Meaning of the Divine Name"). The scholarship goes far beyond what I am competent to assess, drawing on Targums and various ancient and modern sources. The analysis offered of Ex., iii, 6-16 is particularly interesting, showing how God returns three times to the determination of His name. I can't go into this beyond noting that in the second instance, the Septuagint's translation of the passage in which God answers Moses' question as to what to tell Pharaoh if he asks who sent him, and the Septuagint translators render God's answer and tell Moses to say to Pharaoh that "HO ON sent me to you." Of course, this is a mere detail and there is much more.

Again, you state that the JW translation renders Exod 3:14, "I shall prove to be what I shall prove to be" or "I shall prove to be" (Capital letters are used in the original). The Catholic Encyclopedia article considers a variation of that in conjunction with the question whether YHWH is the imperfect HIPHIL or the imperfect QAL, which might lead it to be rendered something like "He Who brings into existence," "He Who causes to arrive," or "He who realizes His promises." However, this interpretation is rejected preciely in the case of Ex. 3:14, and the authors insist that there is no trace in Hebrew of a HIPHIL form of the verb "to be." As yet uncontaminated by historical-critical currents of Liberal Protestantism, these authors conclude their lengthy analysis in Part II thus:
"Since then the Hebrew imperfect is admittedly not to be considered as a future, and since the nature of the language does not force us to see in it the expression of transition or of becoming, and since, moreover, early tradition is quite fixed and the absolute character of the verb hayah has induced even the most ardent patrons of its historical sense to admit in the texts a description of God's nature, the rules of hermeneutics urge us to take the expressions in Ex., iii, 13-15, for what they are worth. Jahveh is He Who Is, i.e., His nature is best characterized by Being, if indeed it must be designated by a personal proper name distinct from the term God (Revue biblique, 1893, p. 338). The scholastic theories as to the depth of meaning latent in Yahveh (Yahweh) rest, therefore, on a solid foundation. Finite beings are defined by their essence: God can be defined only be being, pure and simple, nothing less and nothing more; not be abstract being common to everything, and characteristic of nothing in particular, but by concrete being, absolute being, the ocean of all substantial being, independent of any cause, incapable of change, exceeding all duration, because He is infinite: "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, . . . who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty" (Apoc., i, 8)."
Foster: [Quoting H.O.J. Brown:] "In pre-Christian Judaism, the expression 'Son of God,' like 'Messiah' or 'Christ,' did not imply deity. A man's son is human like his father, but a 'Son of God,' in Jewish usage, is simply a man or an angel who fully does the will of God."

Blosser: Of course all men (generic) are "Sons of God," upon whom the Father sends rain and sunshine indiscriminately. We're also all "Sons of Adam" and "Daughters of Eve," etc. But there are also unique senses in which the term can be used: otherwise the centurion's words would have had no particular significance when he declared "Truly this was the Son of God," because if you had been standing at the foot of the cross, he might well have been saying it about you, or John, or the repentant theif, even. We've been through this before as well, and I have no desire to rehearse the entirety of it here.

Foster: Do you actually think that the Roman centurion recognized Jesus as "the Son of God," just like that?

Blosser: That would depend on what you thought he meant by "Son of God," of course.

Foster: Did he abandon his polytheistic worldview and express faith in the one God of Israel and His only-begotten Son?

Blosser: What makes you suppose he had to be a polytheist? There were quite a number of Roman soldiers among the occupying forces in Palestine who accepted the monotheistic
religion of their Jewish subjects. Either way, the point is moot. The significant point is that he obviously took Jesus to be someone extraordinary, not simply a "son of God" in the same sense that all men are "sons of God"; for he was emphatic. Whereas his statement wouldn't have elicited the slightest attention in polytheistic and pantheistic India, it did within the Palestinian context. That's significant.

Foster: I tend to doubt that the centurion's words should be understood this way, though I do not want to conflate the various senses of hUIOS either. But, syntactically, there is a good chance that the centurion did not declare that Christ was "the Son of God." Rather, Matthew records him saying, "LEGONTES ALHQWS QEOU hUIOS HN hOUTOS."

The [Jehovah's Witnesses'] NWT [New World Translation] renders this portion of Matthew 27:54: "Certainly this was God's Son." IMO, we could also translate this verse as follows: "Certainly this was *a* son of God."

Blosser: I agree that this would be a possible translation. I agree that it's even possible the centurion was a Roman polytheist. In this case, he may have been asserting no more than that he perceived Jesus to be an extraordinary holy man or some such thing. It's no less possible gramatically to translate the Greek as "THE Son of God," and to suppose the centurion in some way recognized Christ's divinity. The case can't be settled by reference to a text in isolation from the whole of Tradition (including the rest of Scripture).

Foster: [Quoting H.O.J. Brown again:] "A 'Son of God' is, of course, distinct from God, and the word 'Son' suggests both a later origin and a lesser dignity.

Blosser: Unless that Son happens to share the divinity and divine nature of His Father; in which case his "Sonship" and "subordination" in the economy of the Holy Trinity can hardly be adduced as evidence against His equality in nature with the Father (Nicea: ". . . begotten, not created . . .").

Foster: Sharing the "divine nature" of the Father does not entail that a Son of God possesses all divine properties in common with the Father (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). Additionally, if the subordination of the Son is ontological or immanent (AD INTRA) rather than economic or AD EXTRA, then the supposed equality of the Son with the Father is severely compromised. Some Trinitarians even argue that any form of Trinitarian subordination, with the exeception of incarnational subordination, dangerously implies that the Son is inferior to the Father. Both Millard Erickson and Kevin Giles proffer this argument. Indeed, it does seem very difficult to understand how the Son--per his putative divine OUSIA--can be subordinate to God as Son.

Blosser: First, of course it is true that Christians share in the "divine nature" of the Father as specified by 2 Pet 1:4 without themselves becoming God; just as, according to St. Athanasius, God became man in Christ without ceasing to be God. The manner in which Christ shares the Father's divine nature, accordingly, is rather different from the manner in which a Christian shares in it. Nor do I see how the subordination of the Son to the Father in any way compromises His equal divinity. Why think that? Why can't one be subordinate to another in one sense while being equal in another?