We rarely see the word ‘Christology’ on news portal. It’s an academic term referring to the scholarly study of Jesus. This word is most often found in seminary libraries. It is also not a word that the Christian clergy often uses in preaching. Yet, ‘Christology’ was in the limelight of several news websites this week—thanks to a Christianity-bashing seminar held at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM).
Besides warning the audience of the threat of “Christianisation”, as if it was some kind of social disease, the speakers at the seminar alleged that Christians have understood Jesus wrongly. Contrary to churches’ teaching, “Jesus is only a human slave to Allah,” and “The Christian gospel is a fake gospel.” One speaker then concluded, “Every Jesus follower should enter Islam, if not it would be a betrayal to Jesus” (Melissa Chi, ‘Gospels are ‘fake’ as Jesus was ‘human slave to Allah’, don claims,’ and ‘In UiTM, lecturer gives 10 reasons why Christians should be Muslim,’ MalayMailOnline, May 6, 2014).
No doubt, the main difference between Islam and Christianity lie in their respective understanding of Jesus. As the speakers have noted, the two religions disagree over ‘Christology’. And since this word has made its public appearance in a university and local news portals, presented only from Muslim understanding, a perspective from a Christian is necessary.
For two millennium, churches have been teaching that Jesus is God-Man—which means he is 100% God, 100% man (somewhat like one of Malaysians’ favourite drinks, kopi cham— 100% coffee, 100% tea.). So Christians fully agree with Muslims that Jesus is a human. Yet Christians also affirm that He is God. It was this teaching that Jesus is God-Man which gave rise to the idea of ‘Trinity’.
Christians believe that Jesus is God-Man because this is how the four testimonies (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the Bible describe him. These testimonies have been in existence for more than 500 years before the emergence of Islam.
The earliest surviving evidence of these testimonies are the papyrus fragments known as P52, P90 and P104, which are currently being kept in England’s John Rylands University Library and Sackler Library respectively. All three are dated to the first half of the second century; that is around 100 to 150 A.D., which is about 400 years before Prophet Muhammad was born.
Although the four testimonies describe Jesus as God-Man in their own unique way, there are several themes that overlap. I’ll highlight just 3. They are the (1) things that Jesus say, (2) things that Jesus do, and (3) Jesus self-identity.
Things Jesus say
When Jesus says that he forgives sins, the people who hear him find it offensive. The reason for the offence is because there is a general understanding that only God can forgive sins, it’s the exclusive power of God. No mere human can do that, it’s a prerogative belonging to no one else except God. Therefore, when Jesus’ contemporaries hear him forgiving sins, they burst out, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21)
As Michael Bird, an Australian theologian writes, “The offense that Jesus’ words provoke is by his presumption to speak with a divine prerogative. Clearly Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness in such a context was tantamount to assuming the authority to forgive on God’s behalf.” (How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature, Zondervan 2014, 58.)
I understand that most Muslims also affirm that no one can forgive sins except Allah. Hence it may be difficult for them to accept that these early testimonies narrate about Jesus forgiving sins. This must be blasphemous to them as much as it was to the people around Jesus. And precisely because it was blasphemous it showed that Jesus, though a human, did actually claim to be God. If he did not, there would be nothing blasphemous.
Things Jesus do
One of the most astounding things that Jesus did was his choosing of the twelve disciples (Mark 3:14). It was a significant symbolic act to re-constitute God’s people, represented by the twelve tribes of Israel. The Jews in Jesus’ time were expecting God to come and regroup them in that way. Yet, Jesus did it.
What does this tell us? That Jesus was delusional, thinking that he was God? That’s exactly what Jesus’ own family thought. When they saw Jesus re-constituting God’s people, they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). This goes on to show that Jesus’ own family recognises that he acts as if he is God.
As Tan Kim Huat, a New Testament scholar comments, “Jesus’ action in calling the Twelve is then seen as significant in that a new creative act […] is being performed. Moreover, the number Twelve recalls the concept of the formation of the nation and also its reconstitution […]. Israel’s prophets proclaimed that in the last days God would act powerfully to save and reconstitute the nation (Isaiah 49:6; Ezekiel 45:8; cf. Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30).” (Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, Asia Theological Association 2011, 80-81.) And Jesus came and did what only God would do.
Besides saying and doing things only God could say and do, Jesus goes so far as to accept the one thing only God can accept: worship. The early testimonies about Jesus tell us that he accepted homage which were reserved only for God.
Jesus teaches, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Luke 4:8). Jesus is not nonchalant with regards to worship. He knows that his fellow human beings should only worship God. Yet he allows his disciples to worship him (Luke 24:52). This is a strong evidence that Jesus thinks that he is God.
What I have written above is an extract from a more detailed treatments of this subject (you can read it here if interested). Nevertheless, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that Christians’ understanding of Jesus is not without basis. It’s rooted in these early testimonies. And according to them, Jesus speaks as if he is God, acts as if he is God, and perceives himself as God. Therefore, Christians came to think that Jesus is God-Man.
As one testimony records, “In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God. […] The Word became a human being and lived here with us. We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us. […] The Law was given by Moses, but Jesus Christ brought us undeserved kindness and truth. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is truly God and is closest to the Father, has shown us what God is like. (John 1:1, 14, 17-18, Contemporary English Version). This is Christianity’s Christology.
My Muslim friends would question the historicity of these early testimonies in preference for their own sources. These testimonies predate Islam by 500 years. So in terms of historical reliability, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are much closer to the time of Jesus than of other sources.
A side note: If Christianity’s understanding of the Trinity as “one God in three persons” is true, then Jesus as God the Son being sent by God the Father does not deny the fact that Jesus is God-Man nor contradicts the belief in one God. It’s only problematic to those who are unable to comprehend what the Trinity means.