by Chris Ritter
It is rare for a coal miner to live a hundred years, but Leroy Harris accomplished that… and more. He was self-taught on harmonica, guitar and the dulcimers he made by hand. After dropping out of school at age twelve to support his family in the mines, he earned his GED. But Leroy’s education could not be captured on paper. As a local historian and civic leader he made life his school room. Our talks sometimes wandered into theology.
“God,” Leroy was fond of saying, “was Jesus’ first convert.”
I find myself thinking about Leroy’s provocative line from time to time. I take him to mean that the life of Jesus significantly altered our understanding of God. He was also pointing to a perceived disparity between the graciousness of Jesus and wrath of the Old Testament God. I am more comfortable saying that Jesus revealed the eternal God more clearly to us. (And there is plenty both of grace in the Old Testament and wrath in the New Testament). But Leroy had a point. From our perspective here on earth, after Jesus… God was never the same.
Skeptics are forced to portray the divinity of Jesus as the world’s biggest misunderstanding. You see this view captured in How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by Bart Ehrman. A former Fundamentalist (aren’t all these guys former Fundamentalists?) Ehrman portrays the story of early Christianity as a snowball of deification rolling through the first decades and centuries of the Common Era. Jesus was a remarkable rabbi whose story was embellished by his followers… until they saw him as God.
Christians must admit that this sort of thing happens. Call it the Paul Bunyan Effect. Once upon a time there was a particularly capable lumberjack operating in the forests of North Dakota. Later loggers, sitting around their campfires at night, would tell his tales. Embellishments based on the ideals of the group were natural and rewarded. Before you know it, old Paul was ten foot tall and could cut down a dozen trees with one swing of his axe. Just ask Babe his blue ox.
A Protestant might even argue something similar has happened within Christianity. Did not the Roman Catholic tradition slowly aggrandized Jesus’ mother? The humble Mary of Scripture was upgraded over the centuries to the Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, and Co-Redemptrix with Christ. Roman Catholic thinkers would argue that doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary are merely the natural out-workings of Scripture. The gravitational force of Jesus’s divinity necessitated the further reflection on the life of vessel that bore him. For those that see Catholic Mariology as Tradition run amok, we at the same time admit the Church is not immune to snowballing.
But this is not what happened with Jesus. What we find in the oldest records of the Christian movement is an “Early High Christology.” There is no time when Christians did not believe that Jesus is God.
Consider the “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2. The Pauline epistles are the oldest writ concerning Jesus. Philippians (AD 55?) contains lines of verse contemporaneously well-known to believers. In their hymns and spiritual songs, the first disciples praised Christ for shunning the privileges of his divinity in the Incarnation. “Though he was God” he laid this aside for us and for our salvation in the supreme example of humility. This Christ Hymn may be the earliest fragment of Christian thought.
The very first thing Christians said about Jesus was that he is God.
Is it possible the divinity of Jesus happened in the process of evangelization to the Gentiles? After all, the bar for divinity was infinitely lower in Roman culture than in the Jewish milieu. (Even living politicians sometimes qualified!) We have, however, entire books of the New Testament birthed from Jewish Christian communities. The highest Christology you could ever hope to find is in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Matthew’s Gospel, thoroughly Jewish, declares a divine Christ in the birth narrative (1:1, 3:17), Peter’s Confession (16:16), and upon Jesus’ own lips at his trial (26:63-64).
It’s hard to imagine a more inconvenient truth than the divinity of Christ. “Jesus is God” was anathema to Jewish ears. “Jesus is Lord” put Christians on the wrong side of Roman political orthodoxy. It took dogged insistence to maintain such claims.
Acknowledging an early high Christology casts new light on the Christological/Trinitarian controversies that ensued over the next five centuries. The principle friction was not whether Jesus is, in fact, God… but about how. Think about it: Believing in the divinity of Jesus created many more theological problems than it solved. Long-established norms were taken back to the drawing board to accommodate the Christian claims about Jesus. So committed were Christians to the divinity of their Savior that they waded through centuries of theological fog before a new Trinitarian orthodoxy emerged that satisfactorily accounted for the witness of the apostles.*
Skeptics can always argue that the first Christians (along with all the later ones) were wrong. But they can’t convincingly argue that the Christian movement started out as the mere sect organized around the teachings of a popular, apocalyptic rabbi. There must have been a Catalyzing Event that fueled their martyred insistence that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Leroy is right. After Jesus, God was never quite the same. But Jesus didn’t convert God. He unveiled God. We hard-heads weren’t taking the hints about his nature, values, intentions, and purpose. God had to get much, much more explicit.
*I am not saying there aren’t strong hints about the Trinity in the Old and New Testaments. These certainly exist.