Imagine this scenario. You hear the doorbell ring, you open the door, and you see two well-dressed men standing on your porch with smiles on their faces. They ask you a seemingly harmless question about God, and then they ask you what religion you practice. You tell them that you are Catholic, so they ask if you believe in the Trinity. When you say that you do, they open up their Bibles and read this passage:
But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:8-9
Something like this actually happened to me a few months ago, and I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for this question. I read Scripture often, so I had come across passages like this countless times before (there are many, many others besides the one I quoted), but I had never thought much of the distinction they make between Jesus and God. I always just assumed that “God” here referred to the Father, so there was no problem.
However, that is not what the text actually says. St. Paul is not distinguishing between Jesus and the Father or between Jesus and the first person of the Trinity. No, he is distinguishing between Jesus and God, and the most natural way to interpret this is to say that for him, Jesus was not actually God.
This raises an obvious problem for Catholics, one that’s not easy to solve: How are we supposed to understand these texts? How can we salvage the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity in the face of this challenge? Simply put, how do we interpret the Scripture passages that say Jesus isn’t God?
The first step is to realize that many passages that distinguish between Jesus and God give Jesus the title “Lord.” Not all of them do this, but many of them do, and that is highly significant. Throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, the word “Lord” is used as a divine title. For example, several passages in the Old Testament use the Hebrew word adonay, which means “Lord,” to describe God (such as Genesis 18:27, 2 Samuel 7:22, Psalm 8:1, and Isaiah 4:4), and the New Testament follows suit by often calling him kyrios, the Greek equivalent (for example, in Matthew 1:20, Acts 2:47, and Revelation 4:8).
This gives us our first hint at a solution. By applying a divine title to Jesus, the authors of the New Testament were subtly teaching his equality with the Father, the one they called “God.” However, we have to be careful. While the word “Lord” is often used as a divine title, it can also be applied to created beings (such as in Matthew 13:27, where many translations render it as “sir” rather than “lord”). As a result, we cannot stop here. To prove our point, we need to go further and see if Scripture ever gives us any indications that when it calls Jesus “Lord,” it is, in fact, using that word as a divine title.
Calling on the Name of the Lord
And when we do that, we see something surprising: the proof was right under our noses all along. I want to look at two passages that clearly show us that Jesus is the divine Lord, and the first one is actually the passage I quoted at the beginning of this article. I only quoted two verses, but St. Paul continues his point in the next few lines as well. Let’s take a look at how he develops this argument:
But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:8-13)
The key here is the very last sentence, the second quote from the Old Testament. St. Paul takes these words from Joel 2:32, where they clearly refer to God. In context, Joel was saying that everyone who calls on God’s name will be saved, and St. Paul uses it here to prove his point that “the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.”
Now, at first glance, we may think that St. Paul is using the word “Lord” to refer to the Father, but that’s actually not the case. Rather, if we go back to the beginning of the passage, we can see that in this context, the Lord is actually Jesus. He tells us that “Jesus is Lord,” and when he talks about the Father, he calls him “God.” Consequently, when at the end of the passage he mentions “the Lord” again and applies to him an Old Testament quote about God, he has to be referring to Jesus, which means that Jesus is, in fact, the divine Lord, not just a created lord.
True and False Gods
Next, let’s turn to another passage from St. Paul’s letters that proves this same point. Like the first one we looked at, this one also requires some attention to detail and a close examination of its logic:
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)
In this passage, St. Paul is contrasting the many pagan gods with the one true God, but he does this in a seemingly strange way. If you read the passage up until the phrase “one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist,” it makes perfect sense. He contrasts the pagan gods with the one true God exactly as we would expect. However, he does not stop there. No, he goes on to throw the “one Lord, Jesus Christ” into the mix as well.
In other words, even though St. Paul clearly distinguishes between Jesus and God, he includes Jesus in the identity of the one true deity that Christians worship. He contrasts the false pagan gods with both God and Jesus, not just God, and this is strange if Jesus is a mere creature. Why would he do this if Jesus is not in fact God? Why would he include a created being in this contrast between the real God and false gods?
To see how odd this really is, imagine if a Catholic wrote something like this: “Pagans believe in many Gods, but we Catholics believe in one God, and one mother of God, Mary.” While that is technically not wrong, it is simply not something we would say. If we are contrasting the real God with false gods, we would just talk about God and leave any created beings, even the most exalted created being, out of the discussion.
Once we realize this, we can see that by contrasting the many false gods with God and Jesus, St. Paul has to be including Jesus in the identity of the one true deity that we Christians worship. Plus, he actually foreshadows this earlier in the passage. He tells us that “there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’” referring to the pagan gods, so he is telling us that he is using both of these words, “God” and “Lord,” as divine titles. As a result, when we see these false gods and lords contrasted with the one true God and the one true Lord, we have no choice but to conclude that St. Paul was in fact using the word “Lord” as a divine title for Jesus.
Why the Distinction Between Jesus and God?
Now, this still leaves us with one big question: if Jesus is, in fact, divine, why does Scripture distinguish between him and God, not just between him and the Father? The answer is that the authors of the New Testament did not have the sophisticated theological terminology that we use today to describe the Trinity. The language of “person,” “nature,” and “being” as applied to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit developed centuries after the New Testament was written, so the people who wrote it had to express this belief in other ways.
If we keep this in mind, we can see that when they distinguished between the Lord Jesus and God, they were trying to simultaneously express both the unity of the Father and Jesus as well as their distinction. They expressed their distinction simply by distinguishing between them, and they expressed their unity by applying equally divine titles to them. See, we often simply call God “God,” but that’s not actually his name. Rather, it is a title, just like “Lord,” so when the New Testament authors wrote about God and the Lord in the same breath, they were using both words as divine titles. They were teaching that Jesus and the Father are distinct but equally divine, not that Jesus is not God or that the Father is not our Lord. In other words, while we today describe the relationship between the Father and the Son with the language of multiple persons in one God, the writers of the New Testament used the language of one God and one Lord to mean the same thing.
And something similar applies to the passages that distinguish between Jesus and God without calling Jesus “Lord.” In these texts, the authors simply expressed the distinction between Jesus and the Father without focusing on Jesus’ divinity. Nevertheless, they still believed him to be God even when they did not explicitly teach this doctrine, just like they believed the Father to be God even when they did not explicitly say so (for example, in passages like Matthew 6:9, which simply calls him “Our Father” without explicitly saying that he’s divine).
All in all, it’s easy to understand why Jehovah’s Witnesses would jump on passages that distinguish between Jesus and God. At first glance, these texts really do seem like incontrovertible proof that Jesus is just a creature. However, if we pay close attention to the logic they express and examine their details closely, we can see that this is in fact not true. Rather, these passages actually undermine their case. They use very different language from the language we use today, but they still express the same exact belief: Jesus is truly divine and equal to Father.