Most Christians know you’re supposed to say that Jesus is divine. After all, you’ve got the Trinity, so you know you have to connect the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in some way. And you’ve probably heard that Jesus needs to be divine for salvation to work. It might be tragic for some random human to get crucified, but it’s hardly going to save the world. If Jesus is going to accomplish our salvation, he has to be divine.
But what if he was just mostly divine?
That’s the question I received in an email from a friend the other day. He knew perfectly well that the gospel doesn’t work unless the Son is divine, but he still wanted to know if mostly divine was good enough.
Princess Bride Theology
If you’re like me, anytime “mostly X” comes up in conversation, you hear echoes of Miracle Max from The Princess Bride. And I can imagine how the relevant christological conversation might have unfolded:
Inigo Montoya: He’s divine. He can’t be otherwise.
Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly divine. There’s a big difference between mostly divine and all divine. Mostly divine is slightly not-divine. With all divine, well, with all divine there’s usually only one thing you can do.
Inigo: What’s that?
Miracle Max: Go through your clothes and look for loose change to tithe.
Okay, maybe it wouldn’t have gone quite like that. But you get the point. Does it make sense to draw a distinction between “all divine” and “mostly divine,” affirming only the latter of the Son?
This approach would seem to have some real advantages. On the one hand, you’re still saying that the Son is divine. So you don’t seem to have any problems affirming that he is the Savior of the world. Since he’s not as divine as the Father, though, you have a neat way of distinguishing the Son from the Father, thus avoiding all the complex logical problems those goofy trinitarians face.
Mostly divine. Sounds good.
Miracle Max was Right
You probably won’t be surprised to hear, though, that this isn’t the first time that “mostly divine” has been proposed in Christian theology. It’s actually a proposal that goes all the way back to the early church. And the early church agreed with my hypothetical Miracle Max: there’s a big difference between “mostly divine” and “all divine.” For them, there was a big difference between God and everything. That was a sharp line you could draw across everything that exists.
This seems obvious to those of us who have grown up with the assumption that there’s a fundamental divide between God and everything else. After all, he’s God and we’re not. Right?
As obvious as that might sound, though, that wasn’t something the early church could just assume. There was a widespread worldview that believed everything existed as a kind of emanation from the divine being. So it made sense to talk about one thing that alone was truly divine (e.g. the Father), some other thing that was slightly less divine (e.g. the Son), and then continuing down the scale to things that were less divine (e.g. angels), and less (humans), and even less (e.g. flamingos), until you got down to things that are so loosely connected to the divine being that it’s hard to imagine why they even exist (e.g. cats).
In the early church, then, a lot of people would have agreed that “mostly divine” makes sense. But after considerable discussion, the early church rejected this conclusion.
The Divine Slippery Slope
One reason the early church rejected “mostly divine” was that it opens a door that is very difficult to close. As Gregory of Nyssa explained, once you open the door to thinking that there are gradations of deity, it becomes very easy to think that everything is divine:
“When people believe that there is not one single object of worship, but are in their minds carried away to various divinities, there is nothing to stop their idea of the divinity extending throughout creation; the supposed divinity within creation will become a precedent for the same idea of what is found to be next, and that in turn of the next, and as a result of this the error will flow down through everything, as the first falsehood penetrates those adjacent till it reaches the last.”
And he was very aware of how likely it was that the people in his context would draw this very conclusion:
“To show that I am not making improbable suppositions, I will call as credible testimony to my case the error still prevalent among the Greeks. They were filled with awe in their untrained and infantile mind by the beauties of creation, and did not use the wonder of what they saw as a guide and pointer to the thought of the transcendent beauty, but stopped short at what they could comprehend, and felt awe towards every part of creation by itself. As a consequence of this, they did not fix their idea of the divine on any single one of the things they saw, but reckoned every visible thing in creation to be divine.”
So once you’ve concluded that “mostly divine” is a viable category, it’s quite easy to conclude that everything is divine to some degree or another.
Mostly Divine and the Gospel
And here’s where things get really serious. If we say that Jesus is “mostly divine” in a way that means he is simply “more divine” than everything else that exists, if he is just higher on the chain of deity than everything else, then the worship he deserves and the salvation he offers is only quantitatively different than what we can achieve for ourselves. We’re further down the chain, maybe, but we’re still divine to some extent . So, although Jesus might be in a better position to accomplish salvation, it’s not a unique position.
The early church radically disagreed. Jesus accomplishes salvation because he is qualitatively different than we are. He isn’t just more divine. He is God. No matter what we do, we can’t cross the God/creature divide and do anything that can effect our own salvation. That truth lies at the core of the gospel.
Although “mostly divine” might sound like a tempting option when faced with the complexities of trinitarian theology and the obvious inadequacies of a purely human Jesus, the early church was convinced that “mostly divine” pointed down the road toward the divinization of all creation in such a way that the Son would lose his distinct role in salvation, and we would lose the vital distinction between God and his creation. In other words, “mostly divine” undermines the gospel itself.
The Slide Toward Self-Salvation
According to the early church theologians like Gregory of Nyssa, then, saying that Jesus is “mostly divine” isn’t just a different way of speculating on the mystery of the Trinity, another way of grasping something ultimately lies beyond our comprehension. As much as they would have agreed that we cannot understand the ineffable nature of God, they were still convinced that certain ways of speaking about God were necessarily dangerous because of their implications for how we understand salvation itself.
“Mostly divine” was one of those.
Everything that exists can be divided into one of two categories: divine and not-divine. If you put Jesus on the not-divine side of the line, even if you qualify it as being “mostly divine,” then you make it appropriate to worship something that is less than divine, and you also think salvation can be accomplished by a creature. Once you’ve done that, it becomes very easy to worship the “divine” in each of us and think that any creature can accomplish its own salvation…even me.
Self-salvation. That is the constant temptation of the human person.
That’s part of the reason the early church rejected any attempt to say that Jesus was less than divine. For them, it wasn’t enough to reject the conclusion that Jesus was “not divine.” According to them, even “mostly divine” was inadequate. Only “fully divine” truly secured the gospel and the salvation of the world.