Beware “Theological Reductionism” that Overemphasizes the Deity of Jesus!

February 3, 2015

Is overemphasizing the deity of Jesus even possible? Mark 1:1-3 is a crucial passage for showing that such overemphasis is not only possible, but also is very widespread and has negatively affected the theological understanding of many believers.

The Proper Approach to Interpreting Mark 1:1

The Gospel of Mark begins with vital teaching about the gospel of Jesus Christ: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). This theologically pregnant statement juxtaposes many key theological terms: “gospel,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “the Son of God.”

Self-evidently, a right handling of this text is of preeminent importance. How then should we approach interpreting what Mark affirms here?

The Holy Spirit answers that question by how He has inspired what immediately follows in the passage: “As it is written in the prophets …” (Mark 1:2a). To interpret Mark 1:1 properly, we must relate it properly to how the Spirit has signified that Mark 1:1 is to be understood through our attention to previous biblical teaching.

What Does Mark 1:2-3 Itself Teach Us?

Before we can understand how Mark 1:1 relates properly with Mark 1:2-3, we must examine what Mark 1:2-3 teaches us itself. Mark 1:2-3 directs our attention to teaching found elsewhere in Scripture:

Mar 1:2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

A careful analysis of verse 2 reveals that this biblical citation speaks of three distinct persons:

(1) the Speaker of the statement (“I,” “my”);

(2) the one who is sent by the Speaker as His messenger and who will prepare the way of another Person to whom the Speaker addresses the statement;

(3) the One Whom the Speaker addresses the statement to and Whose face the Speaker will send His messenger before and Whose way the messenger will prepare before Him (the third Person spoken of in the passage who is the referent of both occurrences of the pronoun “thy” in this verse).

The Speaker is God the Father, the one whom He sends as His messenger is John the Baptist (cf. especially 1:4-6), and the third Person in the passage is Jesus (Mark 1:7ff.).

Because Mark 1:3 informs us that the messenger would proclaim that the One whose way he would prepare (Mark 1:2) is the Lord, interpreters rightly understand that the passage is affirming the deity of Jesus. Is this affirmation of His deity, however, the only essential teaching of the passage about the gospel of Jesus Christ?

What Mark 1:1 Signifies Based on Its Relation to Mark 1:2-3

Many interpreters hold that the phrase “the Son of God” at its essence signifies Jesus’ deity in this passage and support this understanding by noting how that phrase is used elsewhere and by how 1:3 speaks of Him as the Lord whose way the messenger would prepare. Arguing in this way, they affirm that the essential truth about the gospel that Mark is stressing here is that Jesus Christ is deity Himself.

All too often, as they handle the passage in this way, however, they lose sight of another essential truth that the passage plainly affirms about Jesus before it speaks of Him as the Lord—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a distinct Person from the Father who sent His messenger before Him to prepare His way and His paths! Yes, this passage affirms the full deity of Jesus Christ, but what it teaches about His deity is not the only essential truth that this passage provides us about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Discussion

When interpreters emphasize one truth that a passage teaches to such an extent that they obscure or minimize without biblical warrant other key truths that the passage also teaches, they are guilty of what I call “theological reductionism.” Such reductionism, when it is repeatedly done, easily leads to widespread neglect of key biblical teaching and the mishandling of key passages of Scripture.

Yes, Mark 1:1-3 affirms the deity of Jesus Christ as the Lord. No, the passage does not teach that Jesus Christ as the Son of the God means only that Jesus is God Himself.

Rather, through inspiring Mark 1:2-3 as the essential explanation of the meaning that He intends for us to understand about the gospel significance of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Holy Spirit teaches us to hold that “the Son of God” here denotes both His deity and His being a distinct person from God the Father. To emphasize the former at the expense of the latter is to be guilty of theological reductionism.

Moreover, the passage teaches us that the Father sent His messenger to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus to people as the Lord. The emphasis on the preparatory ministry of the messenger shows us that what would take place in Jesus’ life as the Lord was not a self-determined expression of and exercise of His own deity; Jesus came as the Lord whose paths His Father directed and determined.

Conclusion

Mark 1:1-3 teaches that a right understanding of the gospel significance of Jesus Christ as the Son of God includes both His deity and His distinction in person from God the Father. It also teaches us that another key truth about the gospel significance of Jesus Christ as the Son of God is that the Father prepared His way to come to people as the Lord.

We must take care not to reduce the vital theological teaching of this passage about the gospel in such a way that we communicate that the gospel at its essence is reducible to merely an affirmation of and an expression of the deity of Jesus Christ. To furnish people with a proper understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must communicate to them not only the deity of Jesus but also both His distinction in person from God the Father and the Father’s essential working in the life of Jesus.

Rajesh

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