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“Binitarian,” “Dyadic,” “Triadic”: Early Christian God-talk and Devotion

September 10, 2012

Back from the annual meeting of the British New Testament Society (King’s College London, 6-8 Sept), I want to report on, and engage briefly, the plenary lecture by Professor Anthony Thiselton:  “Must We Rest Content with ‘Binitarianism’ in New Testament Studies?”  I respect and admire Professor Thiselton greatly, and this is not in any way intended to refute or negate his lecture.  But, given that he opened with a reference to some of my own work on early Jesus-devotion and the re-shaping of Jewish “monotheistic” devotion to include the figure of Jesus, I want to attempt briefly some correction and clarification on a couple of matters.

First, in publications stretching from my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism down through later works such as Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003) and How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?  Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (2005), I’ve focused on what I repeatedly call “devotion”.  I’ve also explained repeatedly that by “devotion” I mean both the religious beliefs and, crucially, the religious practices of early Christians (and those of the religious context of earliest Christianity).  I don’t recall ever referring to “binitarianism”, but instead to a “binitarian devotional pattern” (and similar phrasing).  Whereas many scholars have addressed the “christology” of ancient Christian texts, I myself have attempted to broaden the focus to take in the devotional practices, especially those expressed in corporate worship, of earliest Christianity. 

In this, I align myself with the broader focus that characterized the early 20th-century “religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (“history of religions school”), although I differ in important matters with some conclusions of that earlier work.  Indeed, in his endorsement of my 1988 book, Martin Hengel referred to it as reflecting a “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule,” citing the work of a growing number of scholars (e.g., Alan Segal, Carey Newman, David Capes, and subsequently Loren Stuckenbruck, Charles Gieschen, and others).

In characterizing the “pattern” of earliest Christian devotional practice, I have noted that there are typically two figures identified as recipients of devotion:  God and Jesus.  My focus in noting this has been that it comprises a remarkable, and to my knowledge singular, “mutation” in what otherwise seems to have been Jewish devotional practice in which a second figure (Jesus) was included in such a programmatic manner with God as rightful recipient of corporate devotion.  (I may say that it is now nearly 25 years since I first published this view of matters, and I have yet to note any significant correction or refutation of it.  It still appears that the devotional pattern reflected in the NT is, in its time and setting, novel and without real analogy or precedent.)

But Professor Thiselton’s lecture focused more on how the “Holy Spirit” (or “Spirit of God”) features so prominently in the NT and in subsequent early Christian religious thought, and he urged that there is an organic historical connection between the kind of beliefs that we have in the NT writings and subsequent doctrinal development that led to the doctrine of the “Trinity”.  His lecture drew upon his forthcoming book, The Holy Spirit in Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today (Eerdmans).  That is, Professor Thiselton’s book and lecture focus more on the beliefs of early Christianity and the statements of these beliefs in early Christian texts/writers. 

Over the years, I’ve frequently had comments and questions asking something such as “But what about the Spirit?”,  and I’ve typically responded by underscoring the point that my emphasis has been on the devotional/worship practice of early Christianity, and that in this the Spirit does not really feature as a recipient in the way that God and Jesus do.  Of course, the Spirit is prominent in the NT!  Of course, the Spirit is integral to the religious outlook of those believers reflected in the NT.  Indeed, the Spirit is portrayed as profoundly involved in early Christian worship/devotion, inspiring and empowering it.  But the Spirit does not feature as identified recipient of earliest Christian devotion.   To address the place of the Spirit in the NT takes us into the religious outlook, the conceptions, and the language used to express them, whereas I have focused on the devotional practice and the recipients of that practice.

Until recently, I used the term “binitarian” to characterize that devotional practice/pattern, and I repeatedly explained that by that term I meant simply a pattern in which we find two distinguishable but uniquely linked figures:  God and Jesus.  More recently, I’ve begun to use the term “dyadic” (from “dyad”), to avoid accusations/suspicions that I was trying to sneak in doctrinal/conceptual developments later than the NT.

In my own recent book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), I shfited focus to the “God-discourse” that we find in the NT, and noted that this has a “triadic” shape.  That is, we have ubiquitous references to “God”, “Jesus” and the “Spirit”.  Indeed, I document the greater frquency of references to the Spirit in the NT in comparison with the OT and other Roman-era Jewish texts.  This “triadic” shaped discourse obviously helped to drive and shape subsequent doctrinal reflection that led to the doctrine of the “Trinity”, although that subsequent doctrinal reflection also involved the incorporation of issues and conceptual categories additional to those reflected in the NT.

So, those interested primarily in the beliefs and religious outlook of earliest Christianity will perhaps find useful this more recent book, God in New Testament Theology.  In any case, I offer two concluding observations:  (1) The NT reflects a dyadic devotional pattern, in which God and Jesus feature as the programmatic recipients of devotion, especially corporate worship-devotion; but (2) there is a clear triadic shape to the God-discourse reflected in the NT.  In short, I am not an exponent of “binitarianism” (whatever that is), nor have I primarily been concerned to offer a theological evaluation of the evidence of earliest Christian belief and/or devotional practice.  My aims have been primarily to analyze these matters and describe them accurately.

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  1. Vicky permalink

    There’s a new book that talks about how the Gentile followers of Jesus changed the discussion of God in the early days of Christianity. It seems like a big conspiracy to me. In this book Lawrence Goudge proposes that the Jewish followers of Jesus preserved the beliefs and practices of the original apostles: Peter, James and John. Therefore, the true heretics were those who created the new religion of the dying God (anathema to Peter James and John). Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs exposes the church’s hypocrisy in first silencing those who truly followed Jesus and then exterminating them, just as they did the Cathars.  I just learned of a new book – Cover Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs by Lawrence Goudge. I found it here Let me know what you think of it.

    • Dear Vicky,
      There are from time to time various such sensationalist books by pop writers out for a fast buck. Stick to those who’ve actually done the work on the historical sources, share their findings with other scholars for critique (instead of pop publishing bypassing critique).

  2. Professor Hurtado,

    you said something important in your post (something I agree with, btw): “I may say that it is now nearly 25 years since I first published this view of matters, and I have yet to note any significant correction or refutation of it.”

    While over years you effectively responded to some criticism (e.g. to J Dunn), I couldn’t find any reply to the (interesting) arguments of P. Fredriksen in her review of “Lord Jesus Christ, Devotion to Jesus in Early Christianity”.

    The review, originally published on Journal of Early Christian Studies (Volume 12, Number 4, Winter 2004) is available here:

    Click to access Lord-Jesus-Christ-devotion-to-Jesus-in-Early-Christiantiy.pdf

    In particular, she strongly challenged your definition of monotheism, which she alleged to be “non-historical” – thus undermining (in her view) the foundation of your arguments.

    I do not expect a full response to her article here, of course. However, regardless of her conclusions, do you consider her argument on ancient monotheism as a valid point of view?

    Many thanks,

    • Lorenzo: Prof. Fredriksen and I had a few animated email exchanges after that review appeared. I didn’t recognize my views in her portrayal of them in that review. I’ve written at least two major articles on defining “ancient Jewish monotheism”, the thrust of which has been that it did not necessarily involve a denial of the existence of other divine/heavenly beings, but instead was expressed primarily in an exclusivist worship scruple. In fact, in her own work it is clear that she agrees that those who identified themselves as Jews typically avoided cultic worship of other deities, thereby distinguishing themselves in the ancient Roman world (until the Christians came along!). So, e.g., her references to other things, such as Jewish donations to temples, or Jewish participation in gymnasia or town councils (in which some form of acknowledgement of other deities was often involved) are, to my mind, beside the point. Of course, devout Jews who lived in diaspora settings had to negotiate their existence. But she and I agree that Jews avoided transgressing the command not to worship other deities.
      This makes the programmatic inclusion of Jesus as almost co-recipient of worship with God highly significant in history-of-religions terms. Neither she nor anyone else has in fact provided a full analogy or precent. Period.

      • Professor Hurtado,
        thank you very much for your quick and clear reply.

        I didn’t really want to revive any old polemics (that I wasn’t aware of) and I agree that Fredriksen didn’t apparently get the point right..
        In fact, she didn’t apparently find much historical facts to criticize – other than disagreeing with the definition of “monotheism” and its importance for the novelty introduced by early Christianity in Judaism framework.

        It seems to me that criticism, over years, always missed the point by focusing too much on the apparent “theological” issue (binitarianism) rather than keeping the focus on cultic-devotional practices: in my understanding, “binitarian” refers more to the kind of (proto)Christians devotional practices rather than to a systematic theological formulation (like later “trinity”).
        I believe that, at least at the beginning of Christianity, theology presumably developed *from* some “spontaneous” Jesus-oriented devotional practices (not the other way round).

        Thank you for your time, take care

  3. …my emphasis has been on the devotional/worship practice of early Christianity, and that in this the Spirit does not really feature as a recipient in the way that God and Jesus do. Of course, the Spirit is prominent in the NT! Of course, the Spirit is integral to the religious outlook of those believers reflected in the NT. Indeed, the Spirit is portrayed as profoundly involved in early Christian worship/devotion, inspiring and empowering it. But the Spirit does not feature as identified recipient of earliest Christian devotion. To address the place of the Spirit in the NT takes us into the religious outlook, the conceptions, and the language used to express them, whereas I have focused on the devotional practice and the recipients of that practice.

    Your emphasis on “recipient” makes me wonder, is it fair to describe the devotional/worship practice you discuss here as prayers of adoration (in which Jesus, but not the Spirit, is conceptually placed “up there” with God and adored) as opposed to, say, prayers of invocation (in which the Spirit is implored to come “down here” among the assembly to inspire and empower their prayer)?

    If so, at what point does the practice shift to the pattern affirmed in the Nicene-Constantinople creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit… who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified”?

    • We don’t have any prayers invoking the Spirit to “come down” or constitute the gathering in our earliest texts (e.g., the NT). We have the famous “maranatha” invocation in 1 Cor 16:22, which is commonly seen as addressed to the exalted Jesus. We have texts such as Rom 10:9-13, in which the OT expression for worship “to call upon the Lord” is applied to “calling upon” Jesus as a mark of Christian faith, and in 1 Cor 1:2 Paul simply refers to believers as those who do this. In Rev 5:1-13, “in the Spirit” John sees heavenly (ideal) worship as directed “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (which looks pretty dyadic to me!).

  4. Wow! Dr. Hurtado.

    You give a good and clear explanation of your position. And your position seems to be based on an objective analysis of the New Testament where: (1) Jesus is given a place of honor, alongside his Father. (2) The Holy Spirit is given the status of deity, though he operates in the role of revealing and representing the Father and Son.

    • Bobby, Essentially, yes. But, as I note in my “God in NT Theology” book, the other remarkable thing about the Spirit in NT discourse is that the Spirit is identified both as God’s Spirit and as the Spirit of Jesus. Uniquely in the traditions in and that stem from the biblical texts (OT), in these early Christian texts the Spirit takes on a curious “dual identity”.

  5. Mark A. Garcia permalink

    Thank you, Prof. Hurtado, for this clear and helpful post. If I may venture to speak theologically, in my reading of your work thus far (which seems confirmed in what you have said here), it would appear your distinction between binitarian ‘recipients’ of devotion alongside the Spirit’s role in the ‘real triadic shape of God-discourse’ in the NT is quite in line with what the NT texts themselves lead us to expect. After all, Jesus famously spoke of the Spirit’s ministry as a self-effacing one (e.g., Jn 14-16), i.e., as preoccupied with bringing the words of the Father in the Son to remembrance rather than his own. One would not expect, then, for the Spirit to be an object or recipient of devotion, at the least certainly not in the same sense as the Father and the Son are ‘recipients’ of devotion. Even further, in the same strain of NT teaching the Spirit’s expected function within a triadic shape of God-discourse evidently would serve, precisely in a devotional context, to effectively and persistently point to the Father and the Son. One could say, then, that in terms of NT theology, the Spirit of the Father and the Son is, in terms of the teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel at least, deeply pleased rather than slighted by such a phenomenon as you have pointed to!
    Best wishes,
    Mark A. Garcia

    • Mark, yes, that the Spirit does not function typically as a recipient of cultic devotion in the NT, but is referred to as, e.g., empowering and enabling cultic devotion does fit with what is the most extended discourse about the Spirit in the NT, the “paraclete” discourse in GJohn 14–16. In this discourse, the Spirit is presented as “self-effacing” or modest, in a certain manner. I take the “parclete” role here to = the Spirit functions as “advocate” for/of Jesus to believers.

  6. Matthew R. Malcolm permalink

    Thanks for this Professor Hurtado – this makes a lot of sense, and is well said.

    For what it’s worth, I briefly discussed your terminology with Professor Thiselton a few months ago as he prepared this paper, and we commented on your emphasis on dyadic devotional patterns. I pointed him to your blog post in which you mentioned your change of terminology.

    I wasn’t at the BNTC, so I didn’t hear the paper itself, but I imagine that he may have had in mind hasty applications of your work by others, rather than your work itself.


  7. Moses Agyam (Research Student at London School of Theology) permalink

    Thanks Larry for this post. The vocabulary of ‘triadic’ sounds interesting! Just wondering, however, whether in the context of your work you are now prepared to say that earliest Christian devotion, worship and practices were directed not solely to God and Jesus, but also to the Spirit?

    • Dear Moses. No, I haven’t seen any new evidence that the Spirit is a named recipient of cultic devotion in the NT. As I noted in the BNTC session in which Prof. Thiselton presented his lecture, the question of whether it is appropriate to treat the Spirit as recipient of worship came up in the 4th century (Nicaea), and the answer given was affirmative. This is reflected in the “Nicaean” creed. But there was never any need for such a question about cultic devotion to Jesus, for he was recipient with God from earliest evidence.

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