For nearly twenty centuries, the Christian Church has claimed that Jesus Christ was no mere man, but rather is both God and man. From the ancient creed of Athanasius to the Reformation catechism of Westminster, the Church has claimed that Jesus Christ was, and continues to be, “God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.”
Yet for many modern people, this claim seems absurd. Most will admit that a man called Jesus lived in Palestine some two thousand years ago. Yet most will insist that whoever this Jesus may have been, he cannot be as the Church has claimed. For such skeptics, the question thus becomes: who is the historical Jesus?
A range of alternative theories have been proposed. In the twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann attempted to “demythologize” the Gospels by denying the historicity of everything in them which he deemed objectionable to modern man. His goal was to find the historical Jesus, but by the time he was finished Bultmann concluded that he did not have enough left over to tell him anything substantial. In the twenty-first century, Dan Brown has attempted to do something similar on a more popular level. In his novel The Da Vinci Code, Brown has one of his characters make the bold claim that the deity of Jesus Christ was fabricated by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
Aside from these more complicated proposals, the most popular explanation for the historical Jesus among those who deny the Bible was that Jesus was simply a good moral teacher. In sense he was like Buddha or Confucius: an inspiring guru, but certainly not the God of the universe.
What do all of the above proposals have in common? They claim to be open-minded, but in reality they are closed-book. All of them refuse to open the Bible and take what it says about Jesus on its own terms. Assuming in advance that the Bible cannot possibly be true, they have no choice left but to cast about for some alternative explanation of the identity of Jesus. The results are often creative – but they are hardly credible.
The only credible way to answer the question of the historical Jesus is to answer it from the primary sources – the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What do we learn when we take this approach?
What we see is that dispute about the identity of Jesus is nothing new. His opponents said he was demon-possessed (Jn 8:48). The crowds thought he was an Old Testament prophet brought back to life (Lk 9:7-9). His disciples confessed him to be the Christ – the promised Messiah of Israel (Mk 8:29). Jesus himself claimed to be the Son of God (Mt 26:63-64), equal to the Father (Jn 10:30).
It is this latter claim – Jesus’s claim to be God – that rules out the most popular alternative explanation to his identity. C.S. Lewis explained the significance of this in 1943 in his book Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Lewis’s conclusion stands to this day. The Bible does not permit us to write Jesus off as simply a “great moral teacher.” He was either a liar or a lunatic – or he is the Lord of the universe, God in the flesh. There is no alternative.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church believes what the Bible says about Jesus. Together with the historic Church, we confess that the historical Jesus was, and continues to be, “God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.”
There is no question more relevant to human life today than the question of Jesus. If Jesus is who the Bible claims he is, then every issue of human life and destiny depends on having the right relationship to him. Do you have this right relationship?
To learn more about the historical Jesus according to the Bible, join us for worship at Resurrection OPC this Sunday!