Jesus and God
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!