Often many who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus argue that there is not one place in the Scriptures where Jesus explicitly states that he is God. That, however, imposes contemporary linguistic standards on an ancient culture that appreciated subtlety of language — a subtlety we do not appreciate today. There are, in fact, numerous places that Jesus claims to be God: “Before Abraham came to be, I am” (Jn 8:58); “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30); “… who, though he was the form of God …” (Phil 2:6) etc.
How Jesus understood his oneness with the Father, in the context of his humanity, is a topic for another day, known as the problem of the consciousness of Jesus. What is abundantly clear, though, is that Jesus understood his uniqueness as the Son of God and that the early Church clearly worshipped him as God.
It is from Jesus’ own revelation that he shares in the divine nature — as does the Holy Spirit — that the Church slowly developed and crystalized its Trinitarian dogma. Yet this did not stem the tide of various misunderstandings about who he is, and so came many heresies about Jesus’ divinity.
Sure, we worship Jesus, but is he really God? This question boggled many early Christians who were influenced by Greek philosophy and who struggled to see how difference could be the basis of unity. Is he God, or God’s son? God can have no difference because if he does, he has parts, and is, therefore, not a simple unity and, thus, not God. This was no easy problem to overcome and came to a head with the heresy of Arianism, which claimed that Jesus is a sort of mashup of divinity and humanity — a demigod.
It its fight against Arianism, the Church finally clarified her understanding of the person and role of Jesus based on the revelation we received from him. In the Nicene Creed — the fruit of the conflict with Arianism — we profess that Jesus is “God from God … consubstantial with the Father.” Thus everything the Father has Jesus has. There is nothing lacking, second-class, or different in the divinity that both Jesus and the Father possess. No, Jesus is not some mixture of humanity and divinity, nor is he only God or he only man. He is both God and man, each fully and completely.
What does this mean for us? First, it means that Jesus has all the qualities of God and they are never absent from him in the Incarnation. Jesus never loses his divinity at any moment. He has all the powers and properties of God in his Incarnation. Yet, and this is the important point, this does not entail any sort of overwhelming or annihilation of his humanity. He is fully God and fully man, the divinity never overwhelming his humanity, the humanity never limiting his divinity. The two natures live in a perfect communion.
Second, we know that in becoming one of us, God touches every aspect of our humanity and indeed, all of creation so that it can slowly be brought back into communion with God. If Jesus is not fully God, then humanity is still stuck in sin because God has not touched creation to draw it back to himself. Only when Jesus is fully God is redemption truly possible.
Suffering and death
Jesus’ union with us included even suffering and death. This does not mean that God’s being is subject to suffering. Rather, it means that the Person of the Son, whose humanity perfectly is united to his divine person, dies on the cross, and where the Son is, God is there. Thus when Jesus dies, God enters in the realm of the dead, bringing to life those who are dead and separated from God. When Jesus suffers, God is in the midst of the suffering. He is not suffering in his being, but now present, in the humanity of Jesus, in all human suffering.
And, finally, alongside Jesus’ claims of divinity came the promise that he would rise from the dead. That, in fact, gives credence to all of his claims because it makes possible what only the power of God can accomplish.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.