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Early church view on Jesus as God’s Son debated

[SLIDESHOW=42051,42052]NEW ORLEANS (BP) — A noted evangelical-turned-agnostic and a well-known agnostic-turned-evangelical were the featured speakers at the 12th annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Bart D. Ehrman, author of numerous best-selling books including “How Jesus Became God,” “Jesus, Interrupted” and “Misquoting Jesus,” dialoged with Michael F. Bird, a lecturer in theology at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia, and the editor of “How God Became Jesus” and author of the award-winning “The Gospel of the Lord.”

The Greer-Heard forum is a venue in which respected scholars of differing opinions dialogue on critical issues in religion, science, philosophy, or culture. It’s designed to help students and ministers learn to think critically and to be prepared to engage secular society.

The forum’s theme, “When Did Jesus Become God?” posed the question of when and how the early church came to believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God. The title was a play on words of Ehrman’s book “How Jesus Became God” and the book Bird edited, “How God Became Jesus” that were released on the same day two years ago by publishing houses under the same parent company.

Ehrman, a self-described “agnostic with atheistic leanings,” is a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor of religion who has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and early Christianity. He drew from the Gospel of Mark and other passages to make a case that no one — not Jesus’ disciples, family members, or the Jewish rulers — believed Jesus was the Son of God during his lifetime. The resurrection changed everything, Ehrman said.

“The earliest Christological views, in other words, the earliest views of who Christ was, are views that at the resurrection God made Jesus a divine being,” Ehrman said Feb. 12-13. “It was at the resurrection that Jesus became the Son of God.”

Calling this view “adoptionist Christology,” Ehrman said that believers over the next two centuries debated what it meant to call Jesus the Son of God and gradually pushed “the moment of exaltation backwards” from the resurrection to His baptism, to His birth, and then to viewing Jesus as the pre-existent, eternal Son of God.

Bird responded by acknowledging that early Christians did engage in debate and struggled “to find the grammar, the language and the framework to express who Jesus is,” but disputed that early Christianity was adoptionistic.

Bird also disputed Ehrman’s claim that no one knew Jesus was God’s Son, adding, “The demons knew.”

Pointing to Jesus’ baptism to say that the voice from heaven was a revelation of Jesus as God’s Son rather than a sign of adoption, Bird noted that Mark’s lack of details about Jesus’ early years runs counter to the thought in antiquity that adoption by a deity could be earned.

Further, Bird said, if a voice identifying Jesus as God’s Son indicates adoption, then “Jesus was adopted three times,” referencing Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, and the declaration by the Roman centurion at the cross that Jesus was God’s Son.

Regarding early groups and adoptionistic ideas, only one strain of one group — the Theodotians — were authentically adoptionist, Bird said.
“What that means is, the first and earliest Christology was not adoptionistic,” Bird said.

Bird pointed also to adoptionism’s failure theologically. Jesus’ being “adopted” at some point and becoming divine falls short of what Scripture teaches about grace and works and is “incongruent with the witness of the New Testament as a whole,” Bird said.

“Adoptionism inevitably, inevitably, includes the belief that one can be self-justified before God and is at odds with the Gospel of grace as the early church knew it,” Bird said.

In the question and answer session that followed, Ehrman was asked directly if he believed in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior for his sins. Ehrman said, “No, I don’t believe any of that.”

Ehrman said he became an agnostic 20 years ago for reasons unrelated to his studies as a textual critic.

“The reason I left Christianity altogether is unrelated to my scholarship,” Ehrman said. “I simply could no longer believe that there was a God who was active in a world where there was just so much pain, misery and suffering.”

Bird followed up with his testimony of being raised in a non-Christian home that was unsympathetic to Christianity and said his conversion changed his life. When people ask why he is a Christian, Bird said he likes to respond by telling why he remains a Christian: “I believe in the utter ‘worship-ability’ of Jesus.”

Engaging an unbelieving world

More than 600 attended the event that included presentations the following day by Simon Gathercole, Cambridge University; Larry W. Hurtado, University of Edinburgh; Dale Martin, Yale University; and Jennifer Wright Knust, Boston School of Theology.

“At NOBTS we believe conversational apologetics is an essential component of a strategy to share the Gospel with an unbelieving world,” said NOBTS president Chuck Kelley. “We believe providing an opportunity to engage unbelievers is a part of the educational process. We don’t just read the books. We listen to the arguments and respond.”

Kelley said the forum allows students to engage speakers directly in Q&A sessions or over lunch as well as providing interaction with non-believers throughout the conference.

“Because the event is open to the public at large, the chapel is always full of all sorts of people with all sorts of opinions,” Kelley said. “Seminary students may find themselves sitting next to atheists, agnostics, or skeptics.”

The forum is made possible through the gifts of William Heard, a Louisiana Baptist layperson, and his wife Carolyn Greer Heard. Carolyn Greer Heard passed away Feb. 14, the day after the conference.

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  • Marilyn Stewart