The Trinity – Jesus as God – The Names Used

The Trinity – Jesus as God … Names Used

I expect I should include a disclaimer at the beginning of each of these posts. First, this topic, along with the Trinity is larger than any one man should tackle and one that has been grappled with for centuries by some of the greatest theological minds. So why am I venturing down this road? Because it’s important to me and something I want to understand with some assurance.

Second, in this post and others, I am not saying that Jesus is NOT God. What I am saying is it is hard to demonstrate such a position from what we see in the NT. That does not mean he is not divine or preeminent or transcendent over time, it simply means making a case for him as God seems challenging.

And finally, in these posts I am not saying the Trinity is not a valid doctrine. What I am saying is it is hard to build a logical case for the Trinity based on either OT or NT teachings.  However, if I come to the text with the idea that the Trinity is there then certainly evidence seems apparent just like such “doctrines” as predestination, eternal security, limited atonement and the like. But it also seems odd that for such a pivotal doctrine of the NT church neither Jesus nor the Apostles seemed to make a clear case for the Trinity.

When we look at the idea of Jesus as God and the Trinity one is virtually dependent on the other. If Jesus is not equal to God then a case for the Trinity breaks down. If the Trinity is not valid, then Jesus as God the Son breaks down or at least becomes a moot point. [Note: the Holy Spirit is not part of this discussion at least at this point.] If we leave the Trinity out of the equation, Jesus, God’s Son takes his rightful place in the economy of God as the Messiah: The savior of the world. Otherwise, as soon as we posit the idea that Jesus is God we must explain how there can only be one God according to the OT as expressed both in Ex 20:1-6 and the shema, Deut 6:4.  It is at best a stretch without something like the Trinity – God in three persons.  That becomes hard to do if what God says about Himself is true – “…the LORD is one.”

In the ANE, names are critical points of both identification and a description of character. When it comes to God, there is primarily one name YHWH and several titles: El Shaddai, El Elyon, God Most High, etc. Regarding Jesus, there is again one name – “And you shall call his name Jesus…” with several titles; Christ, Messiah, Son of Man and Son of God. As noted in an earlier post there are some significant issues that must be addressed when talking about Jesus as God, not the least of which is the name Jesus and how Jesus identifies himself, how others identify him and how God the Father addresses him.  If we exclude, the “I am” sayings in John where Jesus ascribes certain titles to himself, he most often uses “Son of Man” or “Son of God.”[1. Luke 12:28, 22:69] * when identifying himself.  In the Gospels the idea of Jesus as God the Son, is conspicuous by its absence. It’s not even implied yet the Son of Man and the Son of God are frequent and distinct.   (We’ll look at John 1:1-4 separately in other posts.)

All three of the synoptic gospel writers make it plain – even in looking back to write their stories – that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  Mark says it best when the first words of his account are clear and simple:   The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Each of the Gospel writers, regardless of their personal time with Jesus, when writing their account of the birth, life and death of the Messiah they speak of him as the Son of God.  One of Jesus’ faithful disciples Peter also makes it clear when asked, “But who do you say that I am?” He responds with “You are the Christ.”  In Matthew that statement is expanded to read, “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.”  There’s not an inkling of equality with God or such a notion as God the Son. Peter has learned, and Jesus seems accepting of what he has learned, that Jesus is the Christ the “Son of the living God.”  John, even in light of how he opens his book, says clearly in 1:34 “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” Expanding that idea, John says in his purpose statement, “…these (things) have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…”   This is important considering his statement that “the Word was God.” And, lest we forget, Satan when he tempts Jesus in the wilderness says “If you are the Son of God…,” knowing full well that he was!  Would Satan dare take on God himself under any terms?

Hoping not to over simplify this idea, how Jesus is described by those who lived with him, wrote about him and spent intimate moments with him, it seems clear that they understood him to be who he claimed to be – the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah. Why we should inflate that notion with something more it seems to me is unacceptable. Furthermore and perhaps most important, God the Father states on more than one occasion that Jesus is his “beloved Son.”  Not his co-equal, but his “beloved Son.” We should not over look or ignore that simple scriptural witness.

If Jesus is not God’s equal in all ways, does that make him less divine? Does it diminish his role as Savior or Messiah?  Does that negate his resurrection or his sitting at the right hand of God? To me these are central questions.

Now I know this study is not exhaustive. I’ve not even looked at the Epistles. So there are a great many leaves left unturned, some of which we’ll look at when talking specifically about the Trinity. Nevertheless, when hearing people say Jesus “claimed to be God” or “Jesus is God” or refer to Jesus as God, it makes me wonder, “Is that true?”

* 78 Verses in the Gospels have “Son of Man”, all used by Jesus to identify himself.  8 verses in the Gospels have “Son of God” as used by Jesus.

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3 Comments

Filed under Bible Study, God, God the Father, Gospel of John, Gospel of Mark, Gospels

3 responses to “The Trinity – Jesus as God – The Names Used

  1. Ben

    Norm, Again there are many good and interesting points here to consider. And I fundamentally agree that the evidence for the Trinity is not merely something so clear that all questioning is excluded; however, I think the biblical text point in a direction that leads to a Trinitarian reading, particularly in terms of the economic Trinity–that is, in terms of how we see God acting as Father, Son, and Spirit. Your focus on the key titles of Christ (Messiah), Son of God, and Son of Man is fundamental. To this I would want to add Kyrios (Lord) since it is the Greek translation of Yahweh in the LXX.

    But I’ll return to this in a moment. First a couple of points about evidence and methodology, since you made that a key point of your series.
    You speak as if evidence is lying on the surface of the text ready to be easily understood. When we come to narrative texts like the Gospels (or Acts), we don’t expect the theology of the text to be as directly stated as it is in non-narrative texts like Paul’s letters or the sermon of Hebrews. For instance, when it comes to the most fundamental act of God in history—the death and resurrection of Christ—the gospel writers do not simply say this is why it happened and this is what it means. They focus on the story, the events that happened. We have to be synthetic in our analysis of the text, drawing together what the gospel writers expected to be understood by hearing the voices of characters in the narrative (e.g., the demons and the disciples) and by considering the quotations and allusions to the OT given by the gospel writers that help us understand what has occurred.

    Another issue related to evidence and methodology is how much of a distinction do you want to make between Jesus and the gospel writers’ perspectives? You appear to be alluding to a distinction between what Jesus thought about himself and what the gospel writers affirm about him, which opens the whole can of worms about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith discussion. There are two issues with this. First, we can’t get back to the Jesus of history except with recourse to the gospel writers. So it’s very difficult, or may I say impossible?, to try to get inside Jesus’ head as if we are objective interpreters independent of the gospels. Second, I don’t believe you want to say that the gospel writers got it wrong about Jesus anyway, and so it seems a little counter-productive to drive a wedge between their accounts and Jesus himself. Accordingly, I look forward to your discussion of John 1 where John frames the narrative with his explanation. However, if you work from a hard distinction between the gospel accounts and Jesus, then I will grant you that extra work has to be done to explain some items.

    Now, to the titles. I think the deciding evidence is not merely the terminology of ‘son of God’ vs ‘God the Son’ but we have to consider what the gospel writers and Jesus understood by the terminology. Much has been written on these titles so I won’t get bogged down in a detailed discussion, but I think to make a case you or I would need to demonstrate what these titles meant in their OT and second Temple context. I think the ones you mentioned are centrally connected to Jesus as the Davidic King (cf. Matthew 22:42), who thus is God’s son (2 Samuel 7) who has been elevated to God’s right hand and thus sharing his authority (Psalm 110). However, this expected king as we see in Daniel 7 is not a mere human. This expected king is the divine ‘Son of Man’ who is God’s agent in the world. Jesus makes clear allusions to this Daniel 7 passage when he speaks of himself as the Son of Man (e.g., Mk 14.62; Dan 7.13). Thus, Jesus is fully the Jewish Messiah king, but this kingship points to something beyond mere humanity. What clinches this then is the title Kyrios. The OT title of Yahweh has now been given to Jesus (whose name by the way means Yahweh Saves), thus showing that he is doing what Yahweh does. As a result of the narrative portrayal we see the economic Trinity at work. This connection to OT theology is the center of the argument, and I’m only scratching the surface, so let me point you to some recent work by Richard Hays’ that draws this out: http://www.baylor.edu/truett/index.php?id=61952. But all this means that we need to pay more attention to what OT passages like Psalm 110 and Daniel 7 portray since the gospel writers themselves point to these texts.

    As a side note, you mention Deuteronomy 6.4 as evidence for God’s oneness. It literally reads: ‘Here O Israel, Yahweh our God Yahweh echad…’. Many translations thus read: ‘The LORD our God, the LORD is one’, but equally acceptable and accepted by other translations is this: ‘The LORD is our God, the LORD alone’. I don’t need to argue that the latter translation is better, but the ambiguity in the text means that it doesn’t automatically exclude multiplicity in God.

    Again, I offer these thoughts in the spirit of dialogue and hope this just furthers the conversation.

    thanks,
    Ben

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  2. Norm

    Ben, your contribution to methodology is great. I think we often get our minds set on one form of interpretation and understanding and think that it has function for all text equally. It seems that the Gospels are the field of harvest when it comes to understanding Jesus – who he is and what he teaches. It may be that the synoptic writers did not pen their accounts in the same vein as John, but it seems that Matthew and Luke certainly had an agenda and were focused on a particular purpose other than just a historical account.

    Regarding “kurios” – if the title was used exclusively with regard to Jesus than I would concur with your conclusion. However, the word seems to be used in a variety of ways and can often simply be translated as “master.” This, I think, goes to your observation about “ambiguity” in certain texts of Scripture. Simply because Jesus is address as Lord, does not mean, in each instance that the person making the address is thinking of Him as God or addressing him as God.

    I need to spend some more time with your comments to feel more comfortable with them. But I greatly appreciate your time and contribution.

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  3. Ben

    No time for a detailed reply but there are a couple of points to make.

    I don’t think we can exclude any of the gospel writers from ‘having an agenda’. The literary study of the gospels of the last 20-30 years has done emphasized exactly the fact that each has a particular perspective in not only the selection of material, but also its ordering and emphasis. Thus, we can’t separate Mark from Luke and Matthew just because he happens to have less teaching and therefore he is more historical. All three of the Synoptics are equally ‘biased’ and John’s bias towards teaching material is no less or more a bias than to narrative actions (healings and excorcisms, e.g.) that we might find in Mark. They all communicate something of a perspective of that writer. Also, there has been a turn of late (last decade or so) not to dismiss John so easily from historical considerations. We only know Jesus has a 3 year ministry from John, e.g. See James Charlesworth’s recent essay in the Journal for the Historical Study of Jesus which recounts John’s rehabilitation in academia.

    On the kyrios title, I fear that you too easily dismiss its application by the gospel writers. I’m not an expert here so I’ll have to point you to recent studies upon whose shoulders I stand. If you are convinced that Mark is the most historically reliable, then you should see a recent essay that explores the kyrios language in Mark as pointing to Jesus in the place of Yahweh: Daniel Johansson, ‘Kyrios in the Gospel of Mark’ JSNT 33 (2010): 101-124. And of course the magisterial study of Kavin Rowe on Luke responds even more strongly against your perspective: C. Kavin Rowe, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (BZNW, 139; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006). The gospel writers clearly associate Jesus with Yahweh texts, and Paul did even more clearly 20+ years previously.

    A question as well, what does ‘Son of God’ mean if not divine? That is, what meaning do you ascribe to that title since you aren’t comfortable with divine? I was reading a very interesting passage in early christology and the author makes this point regarding the cosmological perspective of the ancient world: ‘What is born of God must be God, and what is born of man must be man; that Christ, born of both, is himself each’ Steenberg, Of God and Man, 35. He argues for a traditional meaning of Son of God, but what would you replace it with?

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