(This article was written in the November 18, 1990 edition of The Bulletin.)
Many readers of this bulletin will be interested to know that on September 18, 1990, a number of brethren met at the building of the Beaver Dam church of Christ to hear John Welch defend his teaching that Jesus divested Himself of His divine characteristics and attributes while here on earth. John said much of the trouble was caused by his own misstatements and mis-writings. He said that when he said, "Jesus was a man, just a man, an ordinary man like you and me," he did not mean to imply that He was not divine. He further said that what he had written in his 1987 article "The Abdication of Jesus," when lifted out of context, "does look bad." That entire paragraph reads as follows: "The American Standard version replaces 'humbled himself' in this text with 'emptied himself.' Jesus, prior to his birth could adequately be described as equal with God. He divested himself of the glory, honor, divinity, godhood and became subject to the Father as a man. Whatever qualities and characteristics had been his as divine were foregone. Whatever privileges and powers there might have been were stripped from him. He was a man." John said in the future he will change "divinity" and "godhood" to "privileges of divinity" and "rights of godhood."
In a written reply, published in September 1990, to a July 1990 article in the Gospel Anchor by T. Doy Moyer entitled, "Did Jesus Give Up His Deity?," John wrote: "I state unequivocally, here and now, that I do believe in the deity of Jesus before, during, and after his period of time on earth. I stated it in the sermon [at the Shively church]. I stated it in my articles [in Faith and Facts], and he (brethren Moyer and Chappelear) have [sic] quoted me as saying it." He goes on to say in the next paragraph: "In light of this knowledge, why are they hurling debate propositions at me, when they know for certain that I agree with them? This insistence appears to take the issue out of the sphere of doctrinal discussion or real concern for my soul and into the area of a personal grudge."
Now, in a special issue on the deity and humanity of Jesus in the October Faith and Facts Quarterly, John makes a special pleading for sympathy by writing that at the open forum at Beaver Dam, "I told the audience of my mis-statements and that I believed in the deity of Jesus, before, during and after his period of time on earth. I then asked, point blank, if that was enough to end the argument. I was told "no." I do not know what else to do."
I really do believe that John knows what he needs to do (i.e., repent of his heresy); instead, he has chosen to protect himself by charging those who have opposed him as being dishonorable men who have purposely misrepresented him. This is, of course, totally untrue. All of the reviews of John's doctrine on the humanity of Jesus that I am acquainted with have never denied that John claims to believe Jesus was deity while on earth. As a matter of fact, when John preached his now infamous sermon at the Shively church in Louisville, he stated several times that he believed in the divinity of Jesus. I reported this in an article entitled "Blatant Heresy," July 15, 1990.
What I and others have said is that John cannot have it both ways; that is, he cannot say that Jesus was deity on earth and at the same time say he was just a man.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that what John now says he originally meant to say was that the Logos (viz., the pre-incarnate Jesus) divested Himself of all His divine attributes and characteristics and became a man. This is, in fact, what John had written earlier: "Whatever qualities and characteristics had been his as divine were forgone ... He was a man." This, of course, is exactly what I and others have charged him with teaching all along. But, because we have done so, we have been accused by John's defenders of not just misrepresenting him, but flatly lying about him. Such conduct is a shameful and disgraceful effort by men who evidently have no valid arguments to make in his defense.
Ironically, John himself has admitted that if his own questionable statements and writings would have been presented to him as if they had been written by some other brother, he probably would have written the brother up.
John has argued that his questioned statements about Jesus were taken out of context and are being used by those who are just out to get him. In truth, when one considers John's Shively sermon and his "The Abdication Of Jesus" article, written in the April 1987 edition of Faith And Facts Quarterly, in their entire context, one is shocked at his erroneous concept of Jesus. John's Jesus is God in the flesh, but, and this is very important, God emptied of all His divine characteristics and attributes. In other words, Jesus was a man, just a man, an ordinary man like you and me.
Consequently, and this is important to understand, when John uses the terms Godhood, Divinity, and Deity, he means the "person" of God, with or without His divine nature. John believes that Jesus actually exchanged His divine nature for human nature. According to John, the person who had been divine became human, i.e., "Whatever qualities and characteristics had been his as divine were foregone."
Contrary to John's position, most Bible students believe that God cannot be divested of His divine nature and remain God with a capital "G." Ontologically (having to do with a study of the nature of being), God is His characteristics and attributes. Take these away from Him and He is no longer God. This means that if God is no longer Justice, Righteousness, Holiness, Love, Light, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, etc., then definitionally He is no longer God.
One of John's defenders has said that such a definition of God is solely the concoction of Aristotelian philosophy; but let it be noted that ontological affirmations about God are deeply embedded in the fabric of Scripture (cf. Exodus 3:14; Matthew 16:13; John 4:24; 10:30; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3; 2:14; etc.).
Who and what God is can never be understood on the basis of human speculation. Instead, these things can only be known as a result of the clear and explicit teachings of Scripture. Nevertheless, John Welch teaches that the pre-incarnate Logos gave up His divine nature in exchange for human nature. John's Jesus had no innate divine powers. The One who was the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person, who, while in the flesh, was upholding all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3), "had given up all the power and privilege of the son of God" and "had become in full point of fact a man" (The Word Became Flesh, pages 14,15).
Where is the Scripture that teaches such a doctrine? And, if one could be produced, would it not be a contradiction of Colossians 2:9 and Hebrews 1:3? Consequently, whatever Philippians 2:6-8 teaches, it cannot contradict passages that teach the Logos retained His divine nature even while in human flesh. But, John Welch's interpretation of this passage does clearly contradict these other scriptures and I and others have neither misrepresented nor lied when pointing this out. Instead of trying to conceal his false teaching concerning Jesus of Nazareth by saying he misstated himself, John needs to repudiate his false teaching. This is the only right thing to do.
No matter what John and his defenders are saying, the humanity of Jesus is not in dispute in this controversy. Those of us who believe the Bible know that Jesus was human (cf. Matthew 13:55; John 19:5; I Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 2:11, 14,17). The controversy occurs when one like John Welch comes along and teaches that Jesus was a mere man who had no innate divine characteristics or attributes. What Jesus knew, John indicates, He knew through learning or revelation; He had no innate knowledge of who He had been. Therefore, when Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I AM," He did not know this innately. When He said, "I am the resurrection and the life," He did not innately know this either. Consequently, John tells us that Jesus "feared death with all the fullness of fear that mankind knows." In explaining this kind of fear, John wrote: "Our fear of death is that question concerning the real existence of God and the life beyond. Our fear is not only of the pain of dying, but also of the unknown" (The Word Became Flesh, page 10). Unless John is no longer responsible for what he writes, he is saying that Jesus faced death without the innate and sure knowledge that there is a God or that there is life after death. In other words, when Jesus said He was the resurrection and the life, He was just "whistling past the graveyard." When Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I AM," what He really meant, according to John, was "Before Abraham was, I WAS." What He was really trying to tell us was that He had been Jehovah with all His divine attributes and characteristics, but now He was Jehovah stripped of all His divine attributes and characteristics; that is, He was "a man," "just a man," an "ordinary guy," just like the rest of us. What Bible believer could believe such a thing? Better yet, what faithful gospel preacher would preach such a thing?
John's problem is not that He merely mis-stated himself; his problem is that his whole doctrine concerning Jesus is wrong and has serious and eternal ramifications. The apostle John taught that anyone who denies that Jesus Christ, who is the "Son of God,"—and I believe this appellation includes "all the fullness of the Godhead" (Colossians 2:9)—has come in the flesh embodies the spirit of the antichrist and forfeits his right to salvation (cf. I John 4:3; II John 7).
Although Jesus was not a mere man, He was, nevertheless, a man. It would be just as wrong for one to deny the humanity of Jesus as it would be to deny His divine nature. Remember, when I say "divine nature," I mean "all the fullness of the Godhead" (Colossians 2:9). As God was "manifested in the flesh" (I Timothy 3:16), He was "in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Just because I cannot understand how this can be does not mean I can deny it. Scripture says this is the way it was, and I accept it by faith (Romans 10:17). All the humanistic arguments against Jesus retaining His divine attributes and characteristics and still being fairly tested or tempted are nothing but vain imaginations (cf. Romans 1:21; II Corinthians 10:5).
At issue in this controversy are not grudges and misstatements, as John hopes people will think. At issue is the question: "What think ye of Christ?"
There should be no controversy among Bible believers that God ("the fullness of the Godhead") was manifested in the flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (I Timothy 3:16).