Some years ago I had a lengthy conversation with a former Catholic brother-in-law of mine who joined a religious group that calls itself Christian but rejects the divinity of Christ, the Iglesia ni Cristo . I explained that Christ’s divinity is pivotal to Christianity. Without an acceptance of it, no religious group can rightly claim to be Christian. My brother-in-law insisted, however, that Christ’s divinity was an innovation of the Catholic Church, appearing at the Council of Nicaea. I admitted that Nicaea (A.D. 325) utilized technical, systematic language to assert unambiguously Christ’s divinity, but in doing so it only crystallized New Testament teaching.
He challenged me to show him where the Bible states that Jesus is God. I quoted passages in John where Jesus himself affirms His divinity without using the word “God” for himself. Unimpressed, he requested passages where the actual word “God” was used for Jesus. I proceeded to quote and explain such passages. My brother-in-law was not converted. But I left him with plenty of food for thought. Here, I would like to provide you with some material for reflection in case you encounter in your ministry a person in league with my brother-in-law.
Iglesia ni Cristo
All Christian denominations accept Jesus as Lord and God. But some religious groups professing a belief in Jesus deny His divinity, His equality with the Father. Among these are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Iglesia ni Cristo.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses acknowledge Jesus as God’s agent through whom God’s kingdom will be established and the means by which sinners may be reconciled to Jehovah. “Their Christology is vague but resembles a crude form of Arianism.” 1
The Iglesia ni Cristo , Tagalog for Church of Christ, regards Jesus as its founder but rejects His divinity and that of the Holy Spirit. The Iglesia holds that Jesus is merely human. He is, however, the Son of God, established as Lord by God. Unlike other men, He never sinned. Appointed Savior by God, He is the sole mediator between man and God. 2
Founded in the Philippines in 1914 by Felix Manalo, the Iglesia ni Cristo is intensely anti-Catholic. Having grown rapidly, it has “become one of the largest rivals to Catholicism in the Philippines.” 3 Claiming to be the true church of Christ, it currently boasts of over two hundred congregations outside the Philippines in 67 countries. The world-wide population is estimated to be between three and 10 million, making it larger than the Jehovah’s Witnesses but less well known since most of its members are Filipinos — the majority former Catholics. 4
Since the Iglesia ni Cristo draws most of its members from the predominantly Catholic Filipino population, it seeks to undermine the credibility of Catholic doctrine, more than prove the correctness of its own positions which cannot withstand scholarly scrutiny. “The Catholic teaching that most draws Iglesia ’s fire is Christ’s divinity.” Iglesia members argue that Jesus is not God because He is not the Father, “the only true God” (Jn 17:3). A recent Iglesia pamphlet contains these words: “Jesus Christ, the Son, is not the Father in heaven whom He prayed to when on earth; therefore, Christ is not God.” 5 What Iglesia fails to recognize is that as a man Jesus needed to pray to God, as a monotheist there could be only one God, and as a Jew the one God was the Father. Nevertheless, Jesus is God.
Christ Claimed to Be God
Although Jesus is not the Father and never says He is, in the Gospels He does claim to be God, without utilizing the word “God” for himself. He cannot, since the term signifies the Father. We will examine two passages found in John’s Gospel.
The first is John 8:58. “Jesus replied [to the Jewish leaders]: ‘I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham ever was, I Am.’ ” 6 The statement affirms His personal divinity in two ways. One, it is a declaration of absolute pre-existence, that is, eternal existence. Two, it recalls a name belonging exclusively to Yahweh.
God has no past or future. He exists in the eternal present. He possesses himself in one unending moment of eternity. God’s pre-existence before the universe is different from ordinary, relative pre-existence, like that of mother before child. Jesus does not claim relative pre-existence. He does not say: “Before Abraham was born, I existed.” He says: “Before Abraham ever was, I Am.” His intention is to declare that He exists prior to Abraham the way God does. He claims to partake of God’s eternal existence.
But there is a more powerful way in which the words “I Am” declare Christ’s divinity. The words “I Am” summarize the faith of Israel. They form that name upon which the whole history of Israel was focused. Christ ascribes to himself God’s own self-designation. The name “I Am” belonged uniquely to God. Unlike other Old Testament names, it could not, under any circumstances, be applied to anybody but God, for it was clearly, according to the Septuagint, 7 the very name that God gave himself. At the Burning Bush when God sends Moses on a mission to His people in Egypt, Moses indicates that the people might wish to know the name of his sender. “God said to Moses, ‘I Am who I Am. This. . .is what you must say to the sons of Israel: I Am has sent me to you’ ” (Ex 3:14).
Some biblical scholars think that, in uttering “I Am” in John 8:58, Jesus very clearly affirms His divinity. Bruce Vawter, in The Gospel According to John , describes Jesus’ statement as “one of Jesus’ most emphatic affirmations concerning His divine nature.” The implications of Jesus’ words are noted by the Jewish authorities who pick up stones to hurl at Jesus for His supposed blasphemy, but He slips away. Elsewhere, Jesus uses “I Am” for himself but less forcefully. 8
The second text to be examined is John 10:30: “The Father and I are one.” 9 Again the Jewish leaders want to stone Jesus. Their wrath is stirred by Jesus’ affirmation of unity with the Father. The oneness Jesus claims by the sentence “The Father and I are one” is operational. The Father and Jesus are one in their activity. Jesus performs His miracles together with the Father. But this operational oneness implies a unity in divine life. Such a oneness has yet deeper implications. It points to metaphysical unity: unity in divinity. 10
Noticing that the officials are gathering stones to hurl His way, Jesus petitions them to explain for which of His good works they want to execute Him. His request reinforces His previous statement of oneness with God. He is declaring that to condemn Him for His affirmation of oneness with the Father is likewise to condemn Him for works performed in conjunction with the Father. Jesus has His miracles in mind. The miracles give substance to His words. Only they are worth condemning because only they prove anything. Only God can perform divine actions. Christ is united to the Father in power, life and divinity. He is God.
For the first time in John’s Gospel, the religious authorities levy an official charge of blasphemy against Jesus. It is a specific form of blasphemy, one in which a mere mortal claims to be God. Claiming to be God is exactly what Jesus is doing. He is claiming to posses the divinity of the Father.
Divine Titles Given Jesus
That the New Testament recognizes Christ’s divinity is witnessed by the fact that it attaches to Jesus two titles reserved for God, the titles “Lord of lords” and “King of kings.” In Deuteronomy 10:17 and Psalm 136:3, God is designated as Lord of lords. In 1 Timothy 6:15, He is called both Lord of lords and King of kings. Yet in two passages of Revelation, both titles are attached to the Son, Jesus. In Revelation 17:14 we read “They [10 kings] will go to war against the Lamb; but the Lamb is the Lord of lords and the King of kings, and he will defeat them. . . .” In Revelation 19:16 we read regarding the Word of God: “On His cloak and on His thigh there was a name written: The King of kings and the Lord of lords.”
The Word “God” for Jesus
The New Testament goes further, attaching the actual word “God” to Jesus. A dramatic passage where this occurs is found in the prologue to John’s Gospel, John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word: The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The term “Word” ( Logos ) is vague. One could translate it as “Wisdom,” 11 “Idea,” “Knowledge,” or “Rationality.” In Chinese, Logos is often translated as Tao , the force that holds the universe together and makes it function properly. The important thing is that the Logos who becomes the man Jesus [“The Word was made flesh, He lived among us, ... the only Son of the Father...” (1:14) 12 ] was God.
The Greek term for God is Theos . It is always preceded by the definite article ho when the one God, and not a pagan god, is designated. So the New Testament, written in Greek, always says ho Theos , instead of just Theos . Curiously, in the clause “the Word was God,” the ho before Theos is missing. Why is uncertain. It could be that the author of John was attempting to be grammatically correct. In Greek, definite articles are usually dropped following the verb “to be,” that is, for predicate nominatives. But they are not always dropped 13 — certainly not in the case of the one God, ho Theos . In the clash of “rules” did the author of John give preference to ordinary grammatical usage?
A more likely explanation is that the author doesn’t want his readership to get confused and think he is declaring that the Word was God the Father, the only Hebrew understanding of God. That would be unacceptable. Jesus is God but not the Father. Nor did the author wish to say that the Word (Jesus) is somehow divine but not quite God since he avoids the word “divine,” theios in Greek. He clearly wants to say that the Word is God, but not in the sense of “the Father.” 14 He positively chooses the word “God” for Jesus.
The clearest use of the word “God” for Jesus occurs toward the end of John’s Gospel. The apostle Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the apostles on Easter night. When informed about His appearance, Thomas indicates he needs proof before he will accept the idea that Jesus is alive. A week later Jesus appears again. This time Thomas is present. Jesus invites him to place his finger into the nail marks of His hands and his fist into His side. He tells him not to doubt anymore. “Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (20:28). 15 The ho is not missing before Theos . John is not afraid here to use the full term for God. He has had ample opportunity to prepare his readership for this climactic moment. 16 There is zero chance that the readers are going to think the evangelist is saying that Jesus is the Father. Caution is no longer needed. 17
Thomas is not the only Biblical figure to call Jesus God. In Hebrews 1:8 God the Father calls Jesus God. The author of Hebrews contrasts Jesus, Messiah and Son of God, to angels. He quotes several passages from the Old Testament, considering them words of God since God is the Bible’s ultimate Author. He says angels are like servants whereas the Son has dominion. “God has never said to any angel: ‘You are my Son....’ When He brings the Firstborn into the world, He says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship him’” (Heb 1:5,6). Finally, God addresses His Son. “To his Son he says: ‘God, your throne shall last for ever and ever...’” (1:8). This last passage is from Psalm 45:6. In it the Psalmist addresses the future Messiah as God. For Hebrews this ultimately is God the Father designating Jesus as God.
The Apostle Peter seemingly designates Jesus as God as part of a compound title when addressing his second letter to the universal church. He writes: “From Simeon Peter. . .to all who treasure the same faith as ourselves, given through the righteousness of our God and savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). Peter definitely uses a double title for Jesus later in his letter. He talks about “the eternal kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:11). “Here there can be no reasonable doubt that ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’ constitute a compound title for Jesus” — and not successive titles, one for the Father, one for Jesus. 18 Logically, on the basis of parallelism, the words ‘God’ and ‘Savior’ should also apply to Jesus as a compound title. In all likelihood, that is what Peter intended. 19 Scripture scholar Eugene Maly sees it that way. For him Peter attributed impartiality to “Jesus Christ who is both God and Savior.” 20
Systematic Formulations of Nicaea
The New Testament lays the foundation for the Church’s definitive teaching on the divinity of Christ. This teaching was made crystal clear at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, when the Church produced the Nicene Creed.
This creed, which did not invent anything, was needed to refute decisively the teaching of Arius, an extremely influential fourth-century cleric who denied the divinity of the Word/Son of God and therefore of Christ, His incarnation. Arius held that the Logos, with God as His source, was a creature of God, His most perfect creature but still a creature and not God. 21 Arius had an uncanny ability to interpret the words of Scripture to support his heretical position. As a result, no Scriptural statement could be used effectively to refute his views. 22
Nicaea presented New Testament teaching in terms that Arius could not twist and adjust to support his own faulty position. Contrary to what the Iglesia ni Cristo thinks, Nicaea did not invent the divinity of Christ. Rather, it stated Biblical/traditional teaching in crystal clear fashion, using technical, systematic language. “We believe. . . in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, light from light, true God from true God; begotten not created, consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father.” 23
The Son is not a creature. He is of the very substance of the Father. Even though the Father is His Source, He is God. The Arian heresy was rejected and with it the future Iglesia in Cristo heresy. TP
1. T.C. O’Brien, ed., The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Western Churches (Washington, D.C.: Corpus Publications, 1970), p. 415.
2. ‘‘ Iglesia ni Cristo ,’’ Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
3. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith, gen. ed. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 479.
4. “ Iglesia ni Cristo ” Catholic Answers . 1979-2008, July 29, 2009, p. 1 of 4.
5. Is Christ God? (Quezon City, Philippines: Iglesia ni Cristo Central Office, 2009), p. 2.
6. The Jerusalem Bible , Garden City, Doubleday, 1966. All my biblical quotations are taken from The Jerusalem Bible.
7. “The Hebrew for ‘I Yahweh’ or ‘I He’ is translated in the Greek O.T. simply as ‘I am’ ( ego eimi ); and since the predicate is not expressed, that translation puts added emphasis on existence.” Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), p. 138. “The absolute Johannine use of ‘I Am’ has the effect of portraying Jesus as divine with pre-existence as His identity, even as the Greek O.T. understood the God of Israel.” p. 139.
8. In John’s Gospel Jesus attaches to himself on a number of occasions God’s name for himself, that is, He uses the “I AM” without predicate. One example is found in 8:24. “Unless you come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” Another example occurs in 8:28; “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM.” Still another is found in 13:19. “When it does happen, you may believe that I AM.” Translations by Raymond Brown, New Testament Christology , p. 137.
9. “‘The Father and I are one.’ The Jews fetched stones to stone Him so Jesus said to them, ‘I have done many good works for you to see, works from my Father; for which of these are you stoning me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘We are not stoning you for doing a good work but for blasphemy: you are only a man and you claim to be God’” (Jn 10:30-34).
10. Vawter considers the words, “The Father and I are one,” to be one of Jesus’ “hard sayings” that provokes the wrath of the Jews. “Father and Son are one in mind, will, and action. This presupposes the even more essential one of which He speaks in 1:1 [in divinity]; Jesus does not say merely that He and the Father are ‘at one,’ but one thing ( hen ).” Cf., “Gospel According to John,” p. 445.
11. Although it could be translated as “Wisdom,” it is not synonymous with Wisdom in the Old Testament Wisdom tradition. The Wisdom tradition “would never suggest that Wisdom has any form of equality with God.” Pheme Perkins, p. 951. Wisdom is God’s effulgence, but not God. Cf. Vawter, “Gospel According to John,” p. 422.
12. That the Word of God who is God should become man represents an astounding, utterly new revelation in regards to Judaism. “This is the tremendous mystery of the incarnation.... This is one of the most serious and sobering statements in the Gospel, the magnitude of which it would be difficult to exaggerate.” Vawter, “Gospel According to John,” p. 423.
13. The rule of dropping the definite article before the predicate nominative is not hard fast. It is not dropped, for example, in John 11:25: “Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection.’” The definite article ho is present. Cf. Raymond Brown, Jesus: God and Man (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1967), p. 26.
14. “He desired to keep the Word distinct from the Father ( ho theos ).” Ibid. p. 26.
15. To an extent Thomas’s expression parallels what we find in the Psalms wherein the Psalmist cries out in response to God (the Father); “Awake, and be vigilant in my defense; in my cause, my God and my Lord” (Ps 36:23).
16. “Thomas’s confession is the culmination of the Gospel’s christology...” Pheme Perkins, p. 984.
17. According to Raymond Brown, Thomas’s words, “My Lord and my God” offer us “the clearest example in the New Testament of the use of ‘God’ for Jesus...” Cf. Jesus: God and Man, p. 28. “My Lord and my God, “according to Bruce Vawter, is “the most explicit expression of faith to be found in the Gospels.” Cf. “Gospel According to John,” p. 464. The combination of the words “Lord and God ( kyrios theos ) is “the name of the God of Israel ( Yahweh Elohim ).” Ibid. John 20:28 constitutes a serious problem for leaders of the Iglesia ni Cristo that they cannot handle. “When confronted with this passage in a debate with Catholic Answers founder Karl Keating, Iglesia apologist Jose Ventilacion replied with a straight face, ‘Thomas was wrong.’” Cf. “Iglesia,” Catholic Answers , p. 2.
18. Brown, Jesus: God and Man , p. 22.
20. Eugene H. Maly, The Epistles of Saints James, Jude, Peter [New Testament Reading Guide 12] (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1960), p. 57.
21. Daniel Helminiak, The Same Jesus: A Contemporary Christology (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986), pp 99-100.
22. Ibid, 100 and 102.
23. The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation , trans. John Clarkson, et al. (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1955 (1969), pp. 1-2 (no. 2). My bracket.
DR. DECELLES, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Marywood University, Scranton, Pa. He has taught Christology for 40 years at the college level.