A number of scriptural passages identify Jesus Christ as God along with God the Father. Yet some contend that the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 denied the divinity of Christ in applying the distinction God exclusively to the Father. Let's consider what Paul was actually saying here - and what he wasn't.
In a discussion over whether Christians could eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul agreed that idols were powerless and represented false gods, stating: "About eating food offered to idols, then, we know that 'an idol is nothing in the world,' and that 'there is no God but one.' For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through Him" (verses 4-6, HCSB).
So does the fact that "for us there is one God, the Father," mean that Jesus cannot also be God? Initially it might seem so. But consider a parallel question based on the same passage: Does the fact that "for us there is . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ," mean that the Father cannot also be Lord?
This is obviously not the case, for the Father is certainly Lord—meaning Master and Ruler. Jesus prayed, "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth" (Matthew:11:25). And Revelation:11:15 mentions the Kingdom "of our Lord and of His Christ." Jesus is indeed Lord, but obviously the Father is Lord above Him. This does not contradict Paul's statement. And neither do other verses that proclaim the deity of Christ.
Rather than excluding Jesus from being God, a careful reading of 1 Corinthians:8:4-6 should help us to see that He is included in the divine identity. Paul is briefly affirming the contrast between pagan polytheism (the belief in many gods) and true monotheism (the belief in just one God). But why doesn't he limit his affirmation that "there is no God but one" to stating only that "there is one God, the Father"? Why does he even mention "one Lord, Jesus Christ," in this context?
Surely it is because Jesus is an important part of what God is. As elsewhere, Paul shows here that while "all things"—the entire created realm, both physical and spiritual—is ultimately from God the Father, it was all actually made through Jesus Christ. And Jesus rules over it all as Lord under the Father.
Does "Lord" designate divinity?
Some maintain that of the terms "God" and "Lord" used here, only "God" designates divinity in context. It is true that the term Lord does not always denote deity. It can refer to any master—divine, human or otherwise. Yet we should note the parallelism in what Paul has written. He refers to the pagans' "so-called gods" as both "many 'gods' and many 'lords.'" Thus he includes the latter term "lords" as designating deity—whether the imaginary gods of the pagans or human rulers looked on as divine. In parallel, Paul refers to the true God as both "one God" and "one Lord." So "Lord" in this context likewise designates divinity.
In fact, the passage here recognizes far more power and rule belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ than what the pagan systems attributed to their various gods. This point is vital to understanding the matter at hand. Paul acknowledges the label of "gods" for the pagan objects of worship, each believed to have a limited sphere of power. Yet he points out that Jesus, "through whom are all things," is the Maker of all that exists, including ourselves!
By the very terminology Paul employs here, Jesus must rank as divine. For how can the imaginary Aphrodite or Venus, goddess of love appearing as the evening star, be classified as deity while Jesus, Maker of all the stars and of man and woman and of human love—having greater power and lordship than that attributed to all of the pagan gods and goddesses combined—not be classified as deity?
With this in mind, some label Jesus as a god—but that would imply power over a limited sphere. Yet Jesus has dominion over everything that exists with the exception of only one thing—the Father, who is over Him. Jesus is thus subordinate to the Father, but the Father has entrusted "all authority" and "all things" to Him (Matthew:28:18; 1 Corinthians:15:27-28). And as explained elsewhere, Jesus is in perfect and total agreement with the Father.
Both crucial to defining God
So if both Father and Son are God and both are Lord, why does Paul divide Them out as "one God, the Father" and "one Lord, Jesus Christ"? We are not explicitly told, but the classification is used elsewhere in Scripture. In Psalm:110:1, Israel's King David referred to an intermediary between God and himself as Lord. The verse begins: "The Lord [ Yhwh ] said to my Lord . . ." As the New Testament makes plain, Yhwh (the Eternal God) in this case designates the Father, who is speaking to the One who became Jesus Christ, David's immediate Lord, ruling on the Father's behalf.
We also have Jesus' own prayer to the Father the night before His death, wherein He stated, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John:17:3). Some regard this verse as likewise denying the divinity of Christ, but it assuredly does not. Besides the fact that Jesus said this while His power was limited in human flesh, when only the Father could act throughout the universe as God (John:5:30; 14:10), the obvious intent is that He was pointing to the Father as the true focus of our worship, with Himself as the Father's representative serving as intermediary.
This latter fact is evidently what Paul had in mind as well. In declaring the Father as the one God, he was referring to exclusivity of position, not exclusivity of divine nature. Just as Christ Himself did, Paul was acknowledging the Father as the Supreme Being over all and the focus of our worship. While "all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father" (John:5:23), it should be evident that our honor of the Son is still relative to our honor of the Father. We honor the Son in this way because the Father has so ordained it. Thus, the Son is not the one God in the sense of the Supreme Being—and Paul therefore did not include Him in that designation.
But this does not exclude the Son from being God in the sense of sharing the same level of existence with the Father and sharing rule with the Father over all—and of acting as God on the Father's behalf throughout eternity, past and future. For the Son is in fact God in this very sense. Yet had Paul referred to Jesus as God in this particular context of denying polytheism and labeling the Father as the "one God," it would likely have resulted in confusion for many. So he chose to use a different distinction, Lord —the same title Paul typically used for Jesus in his writings.
Designating Jesus as the "one Lord" stresses His role as the One who exercises God's rule over creation—the point being that the Father does not do so directly but acts through Jesus Christ. This fact is a crucial aspect of defining God. And particularly for us, just as David recognized, Jesus is our immediate Lord and Master—the Father being ultimate Lord and Master. But there is no division in allegiance, for devotion to Christ is the way we are devoted to the Father. So again, the fact that the Father is Lord does not contradict Jesus being the "one Lord." For their lordship is not divided. Rather, the Father rules through the Son.
This then, in stark contrast to the competing deities of pagan polytheism, is Paul's brief explanation of true monotheism—God the Father, who is supreme, working through the Son, who perfectly carries out His will, these two being one in unity. And it is through Jesus that we worship and serve the Father. Thus, we should be able to see that Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 was not denying the deity of Christ but was, rather, affirming it through carefully chosen wording.