For Christians, the divinity of Jesus is almost axiomatic. It’s arguably the belief that defines Christianity and most clearly sets it apart from every other religion in the world. However, things have not always been quite so simple. In the fourth century, a priest named Arius taught that Jesus was not God, and he started a debate that almost tore the Church apart. In time, though, the Magisterium was able to settle the issue, and the divinity of Jesus emerged as a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. Unfortunately, in recent times the ghost of Arius and his heresy have begun to rear their ugly head once again and threaten the faith of believers all over the world.
Jesus’ Divinity: An Innovation?
Many biblical scholars today (such Bart Ehrman, who has appeared on the TV show The Colbert Report multiple times) argue that belief in the divinity of Jesus developed slowly over time. They contend that Jesus’ first followers did not see him as God, and they claim that many books of the New Testament reflect this view. For example, while they often concede that the Gospel of John, the last of the four Gospels to be written, clearly teaches the divinity of Jesus (John 1:1, 20:28), they maintain that the other three do not. Instead, they say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all depict him as a mere human being.
I’d like to test this claim about the early Church and see if the oldest books of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, bear it out. If Paul believed that Jesus was just a human, then there is reason to think that belief in his divinity did in fact develop over time. However, if Paul’s letters teach that Jesus is equal to the Father, then that claim is called into question. Of course, an examination of the letters of Paul does not prove that the entire early Church believed in the divinity of Jesus, but it is an important piece of evidence. In this article, we are going to look at three passages in his letters and see how they teach that Jesus is in fact equal to God the Father and is thus divine Himself.
The Worship Due to God Alone
The first passage we’re going to look at comes from the letter to the Philippians. In it, Paul is praising the humility that Jesus displayed by choosing to become human and die on the cross:
Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
An Old Testament Parallel
When people bring up this text in discussions about Jesus’ divinity, they usually focus on Paul’s remarks that Jesus “was in the form of God” and that he did not grasp “equality with God.” However, I would like to focus on something else. I want to look at the end of the passage, where Paul says that every knee will bow at Jesus’ name and every tongue will confess him as Lord. These words are an allusion to an oracle in the book of Isaiah: “And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” (Isaiah 45:21-23)
Just as Paul says that every knee will bow to Jesus and every tongue will confess him as Lord, so too does Isaiah say that every knee will bow and every tongue will swear to God. Paul is taking these words about God and applying them to Jesus, so right away it seems clear that Paul believed Jesus to be divine, not just human.
But there’s more. If you read the Isaiah passage carefully, you can see that the context is strongly monotheistic. When it says that every knee will bow and every tongue will swear to God, it is saying this precisely because, as we read at the beginning of the passage, he is the one true God, the only one worthy of that worship. In other words, this passage is talking about the worship due to God alone, and by alluding to it, Paul is telling us that Jesus too will receive that worship.
Jesus versus Idols
This is significant because God cannot share this honor with anybody or anything he created. This is not, for example, the kind of veneration that we Catholics would ever give to Mary, even though we believe her to be the highest and most exalted creature. No, this worship is rightly given to God alone; he is the only one worthy of receiving it. As a result, if Jesus is anything less than 100% equal to the Father, Paul is a blasphemer. If Jesus is anything less than the one true God, Paul is essentially committing idolatry. However, if Jesus is in fact worthy of the worship that is due to God alone, then he is nothing less than God himself.
The next passage we’re going to look at comes from 1 Corinthians, and it is part of a discussion about food sacrificed to idols:
“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 text, Paul is contrasting the multiplicity of pagan gods with the one true God. He is telling his audience that even though other people worship many deities, we Christians know that our God is the only one worthy of that name.
Jesus Is Equal to the Father
What is significant for our purposes here is that Paul contrasts the false gods with both the Father and Jesus, implying that the one God whom Christians worship is comprised of multiple persons. If Jesus were a creature, it would be pointless for Paul to mention him. The whole point of this passage is that Christians believe in only one God, so it makes no sense for Paul to contrast the pagan deities with anybody else.
It would not help his argument, for instance, to talk about famous figures from the Old Testament such as Moses or Elijah. Since they are not God, they would be totally out of place in this context. Not even Mary, whom we Catholics honor above every other creature, belongs here. No matter how exalted she may be, she is still a creature, so she adds nothing to the contrast between the many false gods and the one true God.
However, Paul does contrast Jesus with these false gods, so it is clear that he views Jesus as more than just a creature. For Paul, he is in fact God. Even though he clearly distinguishes Jesus from the Father, he also asserts their equality just as clearly. Together, Jesus and the Father are the one true God, in contrast with the pantheon of pagan gods and goddesses.
Finally, let’s take a look at a passage from a little bit later in the same letter. This time, Paul is discussing spiritual gifts, and he is explaining that God distributes them for the good of the whole Church, not simply for the good of the individuals who possess them:
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
Paul is here contrasting the multiplicity of spiritual gifts with the oneness of God in order to teach the Corinthians that they should be united as one body. While the gifts may be numerous, they are all given by the same God. Likewise, even though the church in Corinth may be composed of many different people, they should be united as one, just as God is one.
However, on the surface, Paul’s argument doesn’t seem to work. He grounds the multiplicity of spiritual gifts first in the oneness of the Spirit, then in the oneness of Jesus (“the same Lord”), and then in the oneness of the Father (“the same God”). It seems like the gifts are coming from three sources, not one.
The only way this works is if the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one God. Like we saw with the last passage, Paul is here affirming both their unity and the distinctions among them; he again includes Jesus (and this time the Holy Spirit as well) in the identity of the one true God. In this way, they constitute only one source, so his argument does in fact work. The various spiritual gifts are distributed by one God in three persons, so the Corinthians should be united as one worshiping community.
The One True God
None of the passages we looked at use the word “god” to describe Jesus, but they don’t have to. If we read them carefully, we can see that in all three of them, Paul is clearly teaching the full equality of Jesus and the Father. In each of these passages, he strongly affirms that there is only one God (even if only implicitly, as he does in the first passage) while also including Jesus in the identity of this one God. In other words, he clearly puts Jesus on the divine side of the God/creature divide, which can only mean one thing: Paul believed in the divinity of Jesus just like we do today.
While this isn’t incontrovertible proof that this belief was there right from the beginning (we would have to look at a lot more than just the letters of Paul to prove that), it does provide strong evidence for it. Jesus’ divinity is present in the oldest books of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, so its attestation is just as early as any other ancient Christian teaching we know of.