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Jesus and God

July 19, 2016

Years ago, in one review of my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, the reviewer referred to it as “Arian”.  Others have alleged an implicit Nicene orthodoxy being promoted. In a forthcoming book sent to me for advance review, the author characterizes my work as “proto-Chalcedonian.”  These conflicting (mis)characterizations suggest I must be doing something right!

More seriously, these various assertions all reflect a persistent tendency in scholarly discussions of earliest beliefs about Jesus vis-a-vis God:  They all approach the matter via the conceptual categories of the 3rd-5th centuries.  Some, of a more “traditional” leaning, try as hard as possible to find the later categories there in the NT, whereas others, not finding them, make a great show of that.  And in addition, scholars all too often assess the work of other scholars (as I well know) by querying it via the lens of those later issues and categories.  But for historical purposes this is all wrong-headed.

Of course, there’s a historical connection between the earliest and later stages of developments in Christian beliefs about God and Jesus.  But I urge that we approach the earlier evidence in its own terms, seeking to build up more inductively a sense of the conceptual categories used and the import of what is written.  Sort of like being tried by a jury of one’s peers!

My own attempts at this have led me to judge that the statements in various NT writings about the relationship of Jesus and God can be characterized largely as what I would call “transactional” and “relational.”  “Transactional” statements include those that refer to God sending forth Jesus, acclaiming him, empowering him, bearing witness to him, offering him up to suffering/death, raising him from death, exalting him, bestowing on him the divine name, enthroning him as regent over all, requiring him to be reverenced, etc.  “Relational” statements include those that refer to Jesus as God’s “Son,” “Image,” “Word,” “Christ,” as seated “at the right hand” of God, etc.

In my 2010 book, God in New Testament Theology, I’ve judged that Jesus is integral to NT discourse about God, and so integral to the worship of God in the NT as well.  Indeed, he is so integral in NT texts that, for the early Christians whose faith and devotion are reflected in them, to put the matter negatively, to speak about God without reference to Jesus is inadequate discourse about God, and to worship without reference to Jesus is inadequate worship.  Put positively, both in “God-discourse” and in worship, Jesus is integral, even constitutive of adequate talk about God and adequate worship of God.

Now, granted, this doesn’t involve use of later categories of divine “being/essence/substance,” for example.  The NT statements don’t seem to me (at least for the most part) to reflect use, or even awareness, of what are often now referred to as “ontological” concepts/categories.  But, note carefully, the absence of them doesn’t comprise a rejection of them; they just don’t feature.  So, it’s a bit meaningless, either to try to impute those later categories into NT statements, or to posit a conflict with them.  To indulge in such moves isn’t history-of-religion work; it’s theologizing, and, in my view, it’s often rather clumsily done theology.

One of the more sensitive explorations of the relationship between the earlier and somewhat later developments was by the theologian, A. W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (SPCK, 1962).  Although I have some disagreements with this work, he helpfully posited that in the NT we have “the problem” of the relationship of God and Jesus, and in the subsequent early centuries we have Christians developing a “doctrine” to solve that problem.  Likely, his work can be improved upon, but it’s illustrative of one attempt (in addition to my own book mentioned earlier!) to respect the differences between NT statements about God and Jesus and the later developments that led to the doctrine of “the Trinity.”  Again, “differences” is simply a historical observation, not a theological stance!

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  1. I had been aware of Wainwright’s book for a number of years, but have never read it. Following your recommendation, I decided to rectify that. So I bought it and I have just finished it and thank you for the reminder of its worth. I also don’t agree with everything he says (and in his chapters on the Holy Spirit he misses Acts 5:3-4, which are highly relevant to the point he is trying to make). However, it is an easy read and an excellent introduction to the topic.

  2. Prof Hurtado, from a historical-cultural perspective, what would you say was the implicit understanding of the Jewish God according to the Shema? Would you say the ancient monolatrous Jews understood the Shema as a unitary confession about God, or did they regard their God to be a plurality?

    • Well, I don’t know that “unitary” and “plurality” figure in ancient Jewish texts. It’s clear, however, that Jews weren’t supposed to multiply deities or worship any other than YHWH.

  3. “But, note carefully, the absence of them doesn’t comprise a rejection of them; they just don’t feature. So, it’s a bit meaningless, either to try to impute those later categories into NT statements, or to posit a conflict with them. To indulge in such moves isn’t history-of-religion work; it’s theologizing, and, in my view, it’s often rather clumsily done theology.” So when would the absence of them be significant? Who decides on that? And why would such categories be acceptable in one instance but rejected in another? Lastly, if such theologizing belongs to a separate category than history, why endorse the obviously Nicean/Chalcedonian volume, “How Jesus Became God”? I’m smelling some more inconsistencies here…

    • “The obviously Nicene/Chalcedonian volume”?? Which one are you referring to? Among my books, there is How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, which isn’t what you quote. And if you bother to read the book you’ll see that neither Nicaea nor Chalcedon come into the picture! Do read with sensitivity before you try to engage in polemics, please. Otherwise, you only make a fool of yourself.

      • I corrected the title of the book I was referring to. By Bird et al. What lay behind my comment was the observation that some scholars would admit that Nicaea and Chalcedon came later, and yet would subscribe to them from a theological perspective (you did endorse the book by Bird et al. indicating that). My question follows therefore, would any theologizing that followed be valid, then, seeing that the absence of any such theology in the historical documents doesn’t comprise a rejection of them? And secondly, when would such theologizing deserve rejection? This is significant because Trinitarians do reject alternative theologies. But since the texts are silent on theology, on what basis are these alternatives rejected? These were my questions. I still feel uncomfortable with what seems to be apparent inconsistencies. That’s all.

      • Hmm. Scholars are often asked to comment on books, and often do so even when they don’t fully agree, or sometimes even when they aren’t persuaded at all, but because they think the book deserves a hearing. Here’s what I wrote: ““This set of studies comprises a readable and lively response to Ehrman’s book on how Jesus came to be regarded as in some sense divine. Collectively, they identify controversial issues and offer cogently put alternative views that deserve to be noted and that show that the scholarly discussion remains in play.”
        A careful reader will note that I endorse the book as a “lively” response, and don’t however express disagreement or agreement.
        Your questions about theologizing don’t really relate to this site, but I’ll offer some thoughts. Theology isn’t simply repeating phrases from the Bible, but thinking through faith in light of contemporary philosophy, culture, etc. So, theology must change from one time and place to another. Given the issues at play in the 3rd/4th centuries, which were formulated differently than those in the NT, Christian thinkers had to respond, and had no choice but to try to formulate a response in terms of their own time. Thinkers of the time differed, so the NT didn’t generate an inevitable answer. The classical doctrine of the Trinity was an attempt to address that agenda in terminology and concepts of the time. The continuing theological question is how best to speak responsibly to a given setting exhibiting a faithfulness to the scriptures, basically by careful reasoning prompted by a given reading of them. I hope that helps.

      • Prof Hurtado, thank you for your reply. Thanks for also clarifying your position relative to the Bird et al. book. Your name was used for promotional purposes, hence my puzzlement. I agree with you that, given the cultural constructivism at play at the time, including the philosophical assumptions, certain conclusions were drawn. Given that fact, and the permissive (should I say dialectical) approach to those developments, what prevents one then from also accepting other culturally hybridized forms of Christology as also valid? Wouldn’t it send one down the rabbit hole of relativism where all theologizing would be considered valid given the process of enculturation? If Nicean and Chalcedonian enculturation was permitted then one should be consistent and validate the test, not so?

      • First, your concerns about contemporary theologizing aren’t the focus of this site, so I will decline to engage the matter here. It would take us far afield. But, as one brief response, all theologizing, all creeds are historically and culturally conditioned. So there is no choice but to recognize this, learn from them, and attempt to theologize responsibly in today’s situations. There are ways of assessing theology. For example, there can be arguments about how faithfully or capably this or that theology engages the biblical resources, or how well the consequences of a given theological stance have been thought through.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      I guess the question is why, unlike other scholars who are open about their faith, or lack thereof, and its relation to their scholarly work, you resolutely refuse. Tom Wright for example talks about his faith and how it relates to his work, as do James Dunn and countless others. On the other hand you have Bart Ehrman, who describes how his scholarly work led to him losing faith. The resolute refusal to discuss any connection between faith and scholarly work on early Christianity is actually not a terribly common position to take.

      • No, Donald. Dont’ try to dodge my question: Why do you feel somehow compelled, called, deputized??? to try to pick and pick and virtually dog my every statement? What gives? It’s rather annoying.
        As to my faith and my scholarship, I haven’t hidden anything. Just look at my candid statements, e.g., in At the Origins of Christian Worship (preface) and in Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 8-9. But I don’t seek to do theology or Christian apologetics, and try to do work that can be critically weighed by people of any personal stance. What I object to, therefore, is the notion that one’s historical work can be assessed simply by whether they attend a church or not (as you seem to me to try to imply). Now: Answer my question about why you feel so compelled to try to serve as some sort of watch dog nipping at my heels at every point.

  4. Perhaps the earliest Christians didn’t need a doctrine about theology because they had instead the LOGOS of the THEOS –theology itself, incarnate in the actual physical existence of Christ.

  5. Chris permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    The relational statements should also include God (i.e “the Father”) being the God of the Son (Romans 15:16, 2 Corinthians 1:3, Ephesians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:3, Revelation 1:6, Hebrews 1:9).

    You mention that “to speak about God without reference to Jesus is inadequate discourse about God, and to worship without reference to Jesus is inadequate worship.”

    But for Jesus, he only seems intent on worshipping his Father as his God. When Jesus speaks of God, he only mentions his Father in NT discourse.

    Jesus’ own devotional life would seem to be the exception to your rule. Agree?

    • Chris, As I’ve emphasized repeatedly (it is helpful to read about a bit!), the NT presents God as raising Jesus to a new status as Kyrios and divine regent over all, to whom now all must give acclamation (e.g., Philip 2:9-11; Rev 5). The “pre-Easter” Jesus doesn’t promote worshipping himself, of course! In NT outlook, God hadn’t yet designated him to be so reverenced. Trying, thus, to make Jesus’ own “pre-exaltation” practice the foundation for Christian devotion is, in NT terms, a category mistake.

      • Chris permalink

        I have read a bit, including much of your published material — but I am a layman, not an academic!

        Even the glorified, post resurrction Jesus has a God (Revelation 1:6). As man, does he not worship his God post glorification and is his post glorification worship different (i.e. Father specific) than the early church (i.e. what you call binitarian, directed towards Father and Son)?

      • Chris, How would I know how the post-resurrection Christ worships?? The only attempt to address that which I know of is in the fascinating text known as the Ascension of Isaiah, where the seer is told to worship God and “the Beloved”, and then at one point “the Beloved” joins in worship of the Father. But I’ll leave it to you as to what to make of that!

  6. Dr. Hurtado, It the conversation in Mark 12:28ff accurately reflects what Jesus and the Jew agreed, would you affirm that Jesus obviously reinforced the unitary monotheism of Deut. 6:5 as every good Jew did and does? Thanks.

  7. Dear Larry, I find your post very helpful. It is entirely wrong to judge or categorize NT theological statements by the terminology of the Greek fathers. It is simply anachronistic. Harnack – as he reviews Christological statements of the fathers, pre- and post-Nicene alike, is very critical about their Biblical awareness. They more often used Aristotelian or Platonic ideas and concepts than NT passages. Regula fidei and the line of tradition was more also important than the Scriptures. Of course, this is not so much their fault, they lived in the formative years of Canon development…

  8. philochronos permalink

    I think, there is also another question to be asked here: to what extant and in what ways do the later church fathers use “ontological” concepts/categories? How complex is this issue can be illustrated by the example of Athanasius of Alexandria. As we now know, he did not use the Creedal term “consubstantial” during 25 years after the council of Nicea had endorsed it. In his polemics against Arians he rather prefers to make argument mostly by using the scriptural terms like “idios” and “eikon”.

    • I don’t have sufficient familiarity with the Patristic Fathers of the 4th century and later to engage your question. My comments about “ontological” categories simply allude to the Nicene creedal statement such as “of one being/substance with the Father”.

  9. Hi Dr. Hurtado,

    Your comment, following, is not uncommon (in least in my reading) and not problematic (I don’t think):

    “Now, granted, this doesn’t involve use of later categories of divine “being/essence/substance,” for example. The NT statements don’t seem to me (at least for the most part) to reflect use, or even awareness, of what are often now referred to as “ontological” concepts/categories.”

    NT Scholar Paul Rainbow would agree with you, however, he does say the following about 1 Cor. 8:4-6 and its identification of Jesus on the God-side of the Creation equation: “Implicit in the distinction is the insight that the creator is qualitatively superior to his work”.

    He goes on to tease this out and cite other verses that give glimpses of some level of ontological understanding of Jesus for Paul as it pertains to Jesus’ identity. An apple tree doesn’t make pears so “the tree” must be something different.

    I wonder if you are familiar with Rainbow’s work? And, isn’t it quite likely that the same ontological “backgrounding” is present in your “transactional” and “relational” approach?

    Corby Amos

    • From your description, Corby, Rainbow’s thinking seems similar to Bauckham’s proposal that Jesus is included in “the divine identity” by virtue of being involved in the creation of “all things”. I entirely agree that this is a significant claim. I would still qualify the statement as a “transactional” one, in which the “pre-existent” Christ serves as the agent of God in creation. Given that the NT authors weren’t trained in Greek philosophy or particularly familiar with it (to judge from their writings), I doubt the wisdom of ascribing “ontological” notions to them

      • Michael permalink

        Dr Hurtado.. According to the NT did Jesus’ disciples believe Jesus was a preexisting being that became a man? Did Jesus know he was a preexisting being according to the NT?

      • The earliest references to the belief in the “pre-existence” of Jesus are in texts that posit this view as arising in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and the experiences of his resurrection/exaltation. Paul’s writings (e.g., 1 Cor 8:4-6; Philip 2:6-11) reflect this belief, and Paul claims to be in agreement on these matters with the Jerusalem church, which was led by members of “the 12” and Jesus’ family.

  10. Colin Liske permalink

    What about the name YHWH itself? Does this not mean Being, albeit Being in a personal sense?
    What about the ‘ego eimi’ of the New Testament? Or the ‘ho on’ of Rev. 1:4? Are these not essence sorts of terms?

    • Colin: The various statements such as “I am that I am” and “I am” and “the one who is” affirm YHWH’s reality. But I don’t see that they demonstrate Greek notions of “ontology”.

  11. Professor Hurtado, What do you mean by “bestowing on him the divine name”? Thank you, Julie Pruitt

    bestowing on him the divine name

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