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In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush dated April 23, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote, “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.” Attached to the letter was a brief “syllabus” comparing Jesus to Greek and Roman philosophers and to the Jews.
According to Jefferson, Jesus’ “doctrines” included the following: (1) monotheism, (2) “universal philanthropy,” (3) an emphasis on attitude and not just action, and (4) “the doctrines of a future state,” which Jefferson believed to be an “important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.”
Notice what doctrine Jefferson conspicuously leaves out: Christ’s divinity.
For Jefferson, one should separate what Jesus said from what was said about Jesus. What Jesus said was morality. What was said about Jesus was theology. The former is historically authentic, but the latter is not.
Jefferson’s view is a common one. The notion that we can separate the morality Jesus taught from the theology others taught about him appeals to many who want a Christ-less Christianity. Proponents of this separation usually point to the Sermon on the Mount as Exhibit A in their case. Here, Jesus taught about morality, but said nothing about himself.
But that’s not quite right, is it? Notice Matthew’s description of the crowd’s response to Jesus: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7.28–29). What impressed the crowds was not the sublimity of Jesus’ moral teaching, but his indisputable authority. Throughout the sermon, Jesus keeps calling attention to himself. Consider:
- Jesus blesses those who are persecuted “because of me” (Matthew 5.11).
- He teaches that he is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets (5.17).
- When he says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago…. But I tell you…,” he both defines the true meaning of the Law against Pharisaic misinterpretation, and he deepens the application of the Law beyond what the letter of the Law requires (5.21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 38–39, 43–44).
- The phrase, “I tell you the truth” hints at Jesus’ authority to reveal truth about God and his will (6.5, 16, 25).
- And the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the wisdom of the person who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (7.24).
Admittedly, none of these clues is an outright statement of Christ’s divinity. And yet, they assume a far greater authority of blessing, interpretation, and revelation than a simple teacher of morality would ever make, lest he overstep the bounds of humility. Jesus was humble, but that humility included the recognition, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28.18).
At the end of the day, as we read the Sermon on the Mount, we have not understood it correctly if we simply admire the beauty of its moral message. We must go further and make up our minds about who Jesus is and why he has the authority to tell us how to live. And that, I would suggest, pushes us closer to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, which Jefferson tried so hard to avoid.