Christ's Divinity in Romans 9:5

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Someone emailed me asking what I thought about different translations that give very different readings of Romans 9:5. The issue has a bearing on whether this verse affirms Christ's deity, so it makes a big difference to those who believe that the Bible doesn't teach Christ's deity. I don't think much rests on this verse for those who think the Bible teaches that doctrine over and over, as I believe, so even if this verse doesn't teach the deity of Christ that doesn't mean that other passages don't. The grammar of the verse is technically ambiguous (as is the earliest translation I have access to, the Latin Vulgate), but I think there are good arguments for thinking it probably does refer to Christ as God, and I don't think the arguments against that view are very strong.

Here are some possible translations of this verse. First are those that unambiguously call Christ God.

To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Rom 9:5, ESV)

Then there are the ambiguous ones, which seem to be consistent with taking 'God' to be in apposition to 'Christ' or 'Messiah' but are also consistent with seeing the phrase as a separate blessing tacked on after a comma:

to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Rom 9:5, NRSV)

Some translations go further and unambiguously separate out the blessing of God as a statement of its own, which means it's not allowing it to be attributable to Christ:

to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen. (Rom 9:5, RSV)

I should note that the NIV, TNIV, NET, NLT, NKJV, Message, and HCSB are with the ESV on this, taking the unambiguous attribution of deity to Christ.

The KJV, ASV, JB, and NASB are with the NRSV in translating the text ambiguously. The more natural reading in English seems to be that of apposition, but it's possible for it to mean the blessing to be of God and not of Christ.

The NEB, REB, NAB, TEV/GNB, CEV, and (not surprisingly) NWT take agree with the RSV, unambiguously directing it to God and not Christ.

[An interesting fact: In searching for what different translations have to say about this, nearly half of what I came up with was nutty KJV-onlies trying to say that the NIV and modern translations are perverting the Bible by saying Christ is over all rather than God over all, when the NIV translation is actually the more conservative one theologically. The KJV fails to bring out Christ's deity, and other nutty non-KJV-onlies have criticizes the Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation for going with the KJV reading on this, as if that's revisionist. I'm not going to link to any of that, because I don't want to boost any of the ridiculously high Google ratings of stuff that doesn't deserve to be read, but a quick Google search is how I found them.]

One problem is in punctuation. The older Greek manuscripts had none. They didn't even have spaces between words, never mind marks between different parts of sentences. If you punctuate it one way, God is blessed forever as a separate statement, resulting in the RSV translation and the others like it. A different punctuation leaves it open that Christ is God over all and blessed forever or that Christ is over all, God blessed forever. In the first of those options, we get the ESV translation, and with the second we end up with the NRSV translation. Either allows for Paul to be saying Christ is God, but the ESV one requires it to be saying that. Many who translate it as the KJV/NRSV does do think it's claiming deity of Christ, so perhaps it's more helpful to look at commentators and their arguments for exegeting and interpreting the text rather than simply issues of translation. If the middle view is the correct translation, there's still an issue of what Paul meant by it. Did he mean to attribute deity to Christ?

Scholars concluding that Rom 9:5 does not ascribe deity to Christ (not that Paul doesn't but that this verse doesn't):

Meyer (1872), Abbott (1881), Burkitt (1903-1904), Lietzmann (1933), Gaugler (1952), Luz (1968), Reicke (197?), Kuss (1976), Schweizer (1976?), Robinson (1979), Kaesemann (1980), Wilckens (1980), Zeller (1985), Luebinkg (1986), Dunn (1988), Schmithals (1988), Ziesler (1989), Stuhlmacher (1994), Byrne (1996)

Scholars concluding that Rom 9:5 does intend to call Christ God:

Calvin (1540), Haldane (1958), Stuart (1862), Dwight (1881), Hodge (1886), Liddon (1893), Shedd (1879), Gifford (1886), Moule (1887), Sanday and Headlam (1902), Denney (1904), Zahn (1910), Sickenberger (1923), Dodd? (1932), Lenski (1936), Nygren (1944), Lagrange (1950), Huby (1957), Leenhardt (1957), Schlatter (1959), Schmidt (1963), Fahy (1965), Murray (1965), Michel (1966), Best (1967), Schlier (1977), Althaus (1978), Cranfield (1979), Metzger (1980), De Villiers (1981), Bruce (1985), Morris (1988), Harris (1992), Fitzmyer (1993), Stott (1994), Mounce (1995), Moo (1996), Schreiner (1998)

C.K. Barrett (1957, rev.1991) can't decide which he thinks is more likely.

From the ones mentioned in commentaries I read on this (which, before I should go any further, I should link to: Douglas Moo's New International Commentary on the New Testament volume and Thomas Schreiner's Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), it seems to be that a greater number of authors support the view that Paul did mean to call Christ God. I will admit that the commentaries I'm relying on for this information support the view I'm arguing for, but I don't think they were deliberately selecting more authors who supported their position, because most of these names are top-notch scholars, and these lists are far more comprehensive than anything I could think of, so I have to think they looked hard for as many as they could come up with. The head-counting method isn't a substitute for exegesis, but it does show that many scholars accept the arguments I'm about to give for taking this verse to be calling Christ God, which I'll move to, after I consider the opposing arguments and why they're not very convincing.

1. The word for blessing is always used for God in the New Testament.
2. Paul doesn't call Christ God anywhere else.
3. There aren't any doxologies to Christ in the undisputed Pauline letters.
4. The closest expression to this found anywhere else is Eph 4:6, which does say God is over all.
5. God often does occupy the end of a section in Jewish writing.
6. Since the doxology at the end of Romans 11 doesn't refer to Christ, we should expect this one to be just about God also.
7. The context emphasizes Christ's affinity with Israel, and calling him God would decrease that sense.

The response last argument is fairly straightforward. Christ is also being contrasted with Israel, since he is the fulfillment of what they were pointing toward, and calling him God highlights how serious their rejection of him is. It's a rejection of God. Jesus himself makes the same point clearly throughout the gospel of John and in a few places in the other gospels as well.

Thomas Schreiner observes that the first six arguments start from what we can be absolutely confident Paul has written elsewhere and then conclude that he must not have done anything different here. That's not a very strong kind of argument.

The second argument isn't even clearly correct, and the third means little to someone who takes the biblical record as authentic and considers Paul's letters to have been written by him. I don't consider the disputed Pauline letters to be really under dispute. I've argued that the letters to Timothy and Titus are genuine works of Paul, and they're the most disputed of all the disputed ones. I don't think anything different about the ones I haven't happened to have written anything about yet (Ephesians, Colossians, and sometimes II Thessalonians). Even without those, there are undisputed letters that ascribe deity to Christ. Phil 2:1-11 is fairly clear, as I've argued elsewhere. I Cor 8:6's "one God ... and one Lord, Jesus Christ" isn't absolutely clear, but it seems to put God and Christ in parallel with reference to the ancient "God is one" formula from the Torah. The very next chapter in Romans cites some OT texts about Yahweh (which is always translated 'Lord' in the NT) and then applies these same texts about God to the Lord Jesus Christ quite unambiguously as if he is the Lord those passages speak of.

In the disputed Paulines, Colossians makes three claims that together seem to be associating Christ with God in a way hard to reconcile with OT claims about God's not sharing his glory with another if Christ really is another. 1:15 says Christ is the image of the invisible God, and 1:19 and 2:9 say that all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell in him bodily, a statement that seems to be saying something much more than that the Holy Spirit was dwelling in Christ the way he dwells in followers of Christ. I don't want to get into the debate about Titus 2:13, but I happen to think that verse also does apply the word 'God' to Christ. Col 1:13 gives Christ the role of forgiving of sins, which the gospels make clear was understood to be something only God can do. Col 1:15 also attributes to Christ the divine role of creation, and Rom 1:7 gives him the divine role of distributing grace. He is the judge, another divine role throughout the OT, in II Thess 1:7-9; I Cor 4:4-5; II Cor 5:10.

As for arguments that Paul did intend to call Christ God here, there are several.

1. Blessings normally start with the word for blessing, whereas here it would have to start with the word for God, since the Greek puts that word first. Some explain this by saying the word order is to emphasize God's Lordship, though Paul hasn't gotten to that issue and won't for a bit. The thrust so far is a lament over Israel's rejection of Christ despite the great blessings God has given to them. Emphasizing God's Lordship doesn't seem right just yet, so it can't serve as an explanation for an odd word order in a blessing. Bruce Metzger argues that Paul would not alter such a commonly heard formula of praise without good reason, and no convincing explanation of such a change has been offered.

2. The words sometimes translated as "who is" or "the one who is" most commonly take the form of a relative clause, modifying the word immediately before them. In this case, that's 'Christ', not 'God'. I know enough Greek to testify to this one myself. It has to be a convoluted expression with lots of words of other cases following a word in the same case as the "who is" for there to be any clear tie to the intended word, and in this case it would make Paul a much less careful writer than he tends to be.

3. Every time Paul gives a doxology (and this is true for others as well), it's tied to the immediate context and not just an independent diversion to praise God. See Gal 1:5; II Cor 11:31; Rom 1:25; 11:36; II Tim 4:18. Yet this doxology is in the middle of a lament for Paul's Jewish brothers and sisters. Paul's been talking about his longing for them to believe, yet they refused despite all God has given to them. A blessing to God just doesn't fit as a conclusion to the section. More needs to be said before that would make sense (and by the end of ch.11 we have that). On the other hand, Israel's privileges as the chosen people lead to the Messiah (Christ), and he is therefore blessed and deserving of blessing. The context fits a doxology to Christ much better.

4. The term translated "according to the flesh" usually appears in opposition to something else (e.g. according to the Spirit). It's hard to see what that might be if the doxology is a separate doxology to God, but if it's a continuation of the same sentence then it's saying that the Jewish people are Christ's heritage according to the flesh, but he's also God over all who is blessed forever. It even provides a climax to all the blessings given to Israel, that the predicted son of the house of David is in fact God blessed forever.

I don't think these arguments are absolute proof (though how many arguments ever are?), but I do think they lean strongly in favor of taking Paul to have called Christ God. I want to emphasize that elsewhere in Paul we have a clear emphasis on a distinction between the Father and the Son (I Corinthians 15:28 is fairly clear), and in other parts of the New Testament we have the same tension (John 13-17 contains many references both to Christ's dependence on the Father, including his submissive will, while clearly stating his divine prerogatives and his intimate connection with the Father from time eternal). The best short treatment I've seen of that issue is, of all places, the chapter in Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ that takes the form of an interview with D.A. Carson about the NT's testimony to Christ's divinity. Also see Mark Roberts' excellent blog series Was Jesus Divine?, which he spent over a month on and just finished recently.

1 Comments

Great scholarly analysis.

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