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Chronology and Ontology

September 26, 2016


A recent commenter queried my statement that “ontological” categories weren’t explicit or operative in 1st-century Christian texts (see my response to Philip Alexander in the comments on my posting here).  Granting that ontological categories and statements aren’t explicit in NT writings, the commenter asked how we can judge that ontological categories weren’t operative or on the table in early Christological beliefs/statements.  As this is an important question, I’ve chosen to address it in a posting, rather than in a comment/response.

These “ontological” categories figure in the Christological discussions and debates of the early centuries of Christianity, and are reflected in the classic creedal formulations, such as the “Nicene” creed, in which Jesus is confessed to be of the same “essence” as the Father.

First, the lack of explicitly ontological language in Christological statements in the NT writings is significant.  For, surely, if the writers of these texts were working with ontological conceptual categories, we should expect this to be reflected in their language.  But there is no use of terms such as ousia (“being/substance”), or the other terms that emerged in the subsequent centuries.  Note, please, the writers don’t reject such terms or conceptions; they just don’t use them. So, it’s anachronistic to impose later theological issues woodenly upon these earlier texts.

Perhaps the closest that we get in NT writings to what may look like early expressions of the later conceptions is in some statements in the Gospel of John.  For example, John 1:1-4 says that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  But each part of the statement modifies the other.  So, for example, if “the Word” was with God, then some sort of distinction is expressed.  And yet the latter part of the statement seems to block off a view of “the Word” as merely a creature, as does the following statement that “all things” were created through this Word.  The emphasis seems to be on the Word sharing uniquely in the God-role of universal creation.

The rest of the Gospel of John continues to align Jesus (the “Word” incarnate) with God uniquely, while also distinguishing them.  The alignment is expressed in categories such as a shared “glory” (17:1-5), and in Jesus being shown uniquely God’s purposes and being given the role as judge and the one who is now to be honoured, just as God is honoured (5:19-24).  In 1:18, we have the vivid portrayal of the “only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father,” the Son pictured thus as right next to God like a uniquely close dinner companion.

We might also take account of statements such as Philippians 2:6, where Jesus is said to have been “in the form of God” (en morphe theou).  But this expression seems to express a “godlike” similarity, not quite the explicit claim of “one substance” of later confession.  Note also that the ensuing verses in Philippians 2:6-11 picture Jesus as installed by God as the “Lord” who is to be acclaimed by all creation, “to the glory of God the Father.”  It appears that the “pre-existent” one who made himself a servant acquires a status and role that he did not exercise earlier.  But, again, the focus seems to be on status, role, etc., and not on “ontology.”

So, how can we say that “ontological” categories don’t appear to be operative in earliest Christological texts?  Negatively, there is the absence of the sort of philosophical terms that make their appearance in subsequent Christian texts.  Positively, the Christological statements that we do have in NT texts seem to me to express claims more of a relational and transactional nature.  In various ways, Jesus is uniquely linked with God, and is conferred (by God) with a unique status and role in relation to God.

As a third reason to judge that “ontological” categories weren’t operative in earliest texts, I point to the lengthy and complex efforts of Christian teachers of the 2nd-5th centuries, especially the thorny debates in the so-called “Arian controversy.”  All sides in these controversies drew upon biblical texts (OT texts often as important as NT texts), because these biblical texts weren’t framed by, and didn’t precisely address, the philosophical categories and questions of the later centuries.  (To grasp the complexity and fervent efforts of those debates, see, e.g., Rowan Williams, Arius:  Heresy and Tradition, 2nd ed., SCM, 2001.)

Of course, once “ontological” categories were put on the table, Christian theologians had to engage them.  But the absence of these categories in earliest Christological statements wasn’t a deficiency.  The so-called “ontological” categories are simply the products of one particular historical discourse and philosophical development, whereas the NT writings are largely shaped by the categories and concepts that derive from the biblical and ancient Jewish tradition.  So, for example, NT writers tend to refer to God’s name, glory, throne, and role as creator and sovereign over all, instead of God’s “being” or “essence.”  If it seems to us inevitable that Christian thought had to develop into “ontological” expressions, I submit that this only reflects how much our outlook has been shaped by our intellectual history, so heavily influenced by Greek philosophical traditions.

In my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010), I’ve shown how the “God discourse” of NT writings is remarkably “triadic” in shape.  That is, there are copious references to God “the Father,” to Jesus (often “the Son”), and to the Spirit.  Indeed, I contend that the place of Jesus in particular in this God-discourse, and in the worship practices reflected in NT writings as well, is such that he is constitutive for both.  That is, to judge by the NT writings, adequate discourse about “God” and adequate worship of “God” must now include reference to Jesus.

How subsequent theologians made the transition to God-discourse conducted in ontological categories is a complex and fascinating story that taxes my personal competence chronologically.  In any case, judging whether the NT Christological statements fit this or that subsequent creedal option is more a theological than a historical task.  My own plea is that we respect the historical particularities of those earlier statements and texts, and try to avoid anachronism in our historical task of engaging them.

The Christological claims in NT writings are remarkable enough in their own terms and setting, and even more so the programmatic place of Jesus in earliest devotional practice.

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  1. Let me try to put my basic argument in God Crucified very concisely. Jews in the late Second temple period did not talk much about divine nature. So, supposing that early Christians wished to include Jesus in their understanding of who God is, it would not be at all surprising that they did not do so by using categories like divine essence or nature. But Jews in the late Second temple period did have extremely well known ways of defining the one God by contrasting him with “all things”: YHWH is the sole Creator of all things and YHWH is the sole Sovereign Lord over all things. So, again supposing that early Christians wished to include Jesus in their understanding of who God is, the obvious way of doing so would be to say that he shared in God’s creation of “all things” and that he reigns with God over “all things.” (That terminology, “all things,” is constantly used in this way in the NT.) For Jewish theology of the time, these were unambiguous ways of saying that Jesus belongs on the divine side of the distinction between God and “all things.” Such statements are actually less ambiguous than using the word God of Jesus (which is rare, though important in John), given that they did not want to say that Jesus simply is God the Father or that he is “a god” in a polytheistic sense or that he was a “divine man” in some hellenistic sense. Instead they were expressing a newly complex notion of who God is, within the well recognized Jewish theological categories.

    Heb 1:2-3 says it all: “whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the worlds … he upholds all things by his powerful word…” So does 1 Cor 8:6 and many other texts of this kind.

    If you like, these are “functional” and “relational” categories, but because they are functional and relational categories that were typically used to define the one God as unique, they say something about Jesus that one has to call “ontic” divinity. And if here and there they broach a way of speaking that gets a bit closer to “ontology” that is not very surprising.

    • Thanks, Richard. That does clarify your position helpfully. A couple of quibbles: (1) Philo claims that God used “assistants” in the creation of humans (e.g., On the Creation 75). So, perhaps participation in creation doesn’t so readily comprise “ontic” divinity. (2) Likewise, if (as many hold) the messianic figure of 1 Enoch sits on a throne that is either God’s or is the earthly equivalent (a view that you dispute, I take it), then this too might suggest that it doesn’t = “ontic” identity with God.
      But, as I’ve frequently noted, the programmatic way that Jesus functions as God’s “chief agent” in creation, sovereignty, and redemption is novel, to be sure.
      I’m just wondering what is at stake in needing to press the “ontic”/”ontology” issue? Why is it insufficient simply to note that the NT texts make Jesus constitutive for discourse about God and worship of God?

  2. Larry: So we really are considerably further apart than I imagined before this discussion. Do you accept my distinction between “ontic” language (ordinary language that says X is something, e.g. I am a human being) and “ontological” language, which reflects philosophical ideas about the concept of being?
    Are any of the texts including Jesus in their understanding of God or are they merely attaching Jesus rather closely to God? This is not a question about whether later trinitarian developments from the NT texts were justified. It is a question about what the NT texts mean. What does John 1:1-3 mean? Can you possibly avoid saying that the Evangelist here very deliberately includes the Word (later incarnate as Jesus) in his understanding of God? He is clearly using the simple distinction between God the Creator and “all things” to incorporate the Word in his understanding of God the Creator.

    “So, it seems to me not to do justice to this complexity by saying (in this unqualified form) that “Jesus is, really and truly, God.” When I said that I wasn’t trying to do justice to the complexity. I was simply illustrating my point about “ontic” language – that you don’t need philosophical terminology in order to make such an assertion. Of course, I don’t imagine anyone has ever thought that one could say without qualification that Jesus is God. It has to be said within a complex pattern of thought about God and Jesus. But that’s exactly what John does. Of course Jesus is distinguished from the Father and acts as his Father’s agent. But that does not do justice to the complexity! The complexity also involves “God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father”, “my Lord and my God”, “the Father and I are one”, and “I am he” (Catrin Williams has demonstrated, I think to the satisfaction of everyone who’s read her book, that all the “absolute I am” sayings allude to Deutero-Isaiah, where God’s “I am he” is the quintessential assertion of God’s utter uniqueness).

    You make a big point of the fact that it took a long time for the Fathers to develop Nicene trinitarianism. The main reason for this was that after the NT period Christian intellectuals lost touch with Jewish monotheism and thought in Platonist terms of strata of divine being. Monotheism means that the Father is God in the absolute sense and the Son is divine in a lesser sense. The fourth century debates were provoked by a recovery of the Jewish monotheistic distinction between the Creator and all other things. Was the Son on the Creator’s side in this distinction or on creation’s side. The Nicene theologians saw that both the church’s worship of Jesus and the way the NT speaks of God, Jesus and all things requires the former. Basically it was as simple as that. Then they refined the terminology with the distinction between ousia and hypostasis and so on.

    • Richard: As always, your posting is stimulating and thoughtful. A brief response: Where we may be “apart” is that my emphasis is (1) on the evident centrality of the risen Jesus in earliest Christian beliefs and discourse about “God”, and in their worship of God, Jesus constitutive for both; and (2) that the move to portraying Jesus in terms of God’s “essence/substance” seems to me a later development prompted by legitimate early Christian concerns to articulate their faith in terms of the then-dominant philosophical categories. I would say that all sides in the 3rd-4th century Christological debates were working in conceptual categories distinguishable from what we have in earlier texts such as the NT. Yes, in a number of NT texts, Jesus (and/or the Word/Son) is uniquely placed with God, such that Jesus is constitutive for adequate discourse about God and adequate worship of God. In that sense, Jesus is placed on God’s side of a line distinguishing creator and creature. But also, of course, Jesus is emphatically and crucially placed on the other side of that line, his genuine historical and mortal existence (and his continuing humanity) just as essential as his divine status.

      • Richard Bauckham permalink

        Larry: Then just a very brief response. From your last sentence (which of course is indisputable) it seems to me you would be prepared to say that the NT writers thought Jesus was really human. They could say that without using later terminology such as essence or nature. So why is it so difficult for you to say that the NT writers, without using that later terminology, also thought Jesus was really divine?

        The concern of the Fathers in the 3rd-4th century was precisely to say that Jesus (the divine Son incarnate as human) belongs on both sides of the what you call the ‘line distinguishing creator and creature.” He was not some kind of ambiguous semi-divine being straddling the difference between God and creation, which the platonizing interpretation of the NT data had made him, neither truly God nor truly human. They used the ousia language to place him unequivocally on both sides of the line. The Chalcedonian statement about the 2 natures could be paraphrased: “Jesus is everything that it means to be God and everything that it means to be human.”

      • Richard: As I judge the early texts, Jesus is portrayed as included within discourse about God, and is included within the worship offered to God, and as sharing/given divine glory and throne. To judge what that means in “ontological” terms is a fair question. But it seems to me that the question involves an inferential step beyond simply noting what the NT texts say.

  3. Hi Larry,

    “I think that it may be as unwise (and overly simple) to confine the “imprint” to Jesus exhibiting certain moral qualities as it may be to impute into Heb 1:3 Nicene categories.”

    Point taken, and I should clarify that I’m not personally committed to any particular understanding of Hebrews 1. However, I do think that the assumption that what is being imaged or revealed/reflected in context has to do with what is reflected to mankind by Jesus has merit, and I find ontology to be a problematic candidate for the reason(s) stated.

    This is a very instructive and enjoyable dialogue, though, and I appreciate the insights and cautions that you and Richard have offered.

    ~Sean Garrigan

    • Sean,

      As to your understanding that Hebrews 1:3 refers to the Son as image/imprint as reflected to humanity, consider both the immediate context and the larger context. In its immediate context the Son is described as upholding/sustaining (present active participle of pherō; cf. Col 1:17 for the perfect of sunestēmi) “all things by his powerful word”, an activity which could hardly be imputed to humanity. In the larger, the Son is described as comparatively more exalted than angels (1:4, 1:5-6, 1:7-8, 1:13-14).

      Yet as Bauckham noted, 2:14 refers to the Son’s humanity, and 2:9 states that Jesus “was made a little lower than the angels”. Thus, it seems the author of Hebrews intentionally juxtaposed the Son as lower than the angels with the Son as exalted over the angels, implying the two natures, which then gives credence to the position that 1:3 is speaking ontologically (via hypostasis) as the Son in relation to God.

      • Craig,

        “Thus, it seems the author of Hebrews intentionally juxtaposed the Son as lower than the angels with the Son as exalted over the angels, implying the two natures, which then gives credence to the position that 1:3 is speaking ontologically (via hypostasis) as the Son in relation to God.”

        To go from being lower that the angels to being *made* higher than the angels involves a change is status, not an unchanging state of two natures. This change in status was a reward for the Son’s obedience. The account clearly tells us why Jesus was exalted, i.e. because he loved righteousness and hated lawlessness.

        Jesus sustains all things by God’s powerful word, not by his own . As George Wesley Buchanan put it:

        “‘Bearing everything by the word of his power’ does not picture the Son playing the part of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulder, nor in the sense that God is the ‘sustainer of the world’ or ‘age’… Rather, as ambassador or apostle, the Son has authority over everything since he is given legal authority and is supported in everything he does ‘by the word of [God’s] power.'” (To the Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, from the Anchor Bible Series)j, p. 7 & 8


      • Yes, the 2nd pronoun in Heb 1:3 provides a bit of ambiguity in translation, but either way if the Son upholds creation ‘by his own word’ or “by the word of God’s power”, the implications are the same. That is, the Son must have been providing this sustaining power – whether as agent or ‘by his own word’ – since the advent of creation (as Col 1:17 states clearly), which implies that the Son provided this function during the Incarnation, not only after his earthly existence.

        In addition, I think we should note that made in Heb 2:9 (cf. 2:14) is a change to a lower status (which is what elattoō specifically means); i.e. Jesus had a pre-incarnational status superior to his incarnational one. In this incarnational state he was made like every other human for the express purpose of providing atonement for all humanity (2:17). After this was accomplished, the Son achieved the 2nd change in status in which he was exalted to the right hand of the “Majesty on high” (1:3c-4).

        All this to say there must be a consistent underlying ontology pre-incarnation, meta-incarnation, and post-glorification. I think that’s what the author of Hebrews is telling us in 1:1a, thus, in consideration of Hebrews 1-2, the two natures doctrine is implied.

  4. Hi Larry,

    You said: “So, a very real distinction is made (it seems to me) between “the Father” (who sends, instructs, etc.) and Jesus “the Son (of Man)” who is sent. And this sender-sent relationship seems to me to represent Jesus as God’s unique agent.”

    I agree entirely, as do any number of other scholars today. Interestingly, Jan-A Buhner, who was highly instrumental in helping folks recognize how many Christological statements are shaped by the agency paradigm, had this to say about the EGO EIMI sayings:

    “Accordingly there are good grounds both in cultural history and in the Fourth Gospel for asserting that what we have in the ‘I am’ sayings is not a revealer or divine being disclosing himself directly in a kind of epiphany, but rather the one sent by God, the only one, the mediator, who stands obediently at God’s service and thus receives high legitimation–as the ‘Son’. (See John Ashton’s ‘The Interpretation of John’, Edinburgh: T & T Clark), p. 218

    Others have recognized that trying to connect Jesus’ EGO EIMI sayings with God’s is problematic because the contextual identities in view are different. If you review the context of the EGO EIMI sayings, the Evangelist’s Jesus is identifying himself, not as God, but as Messiah, or Son of Man, etc. EGO EIMI are pretty common Greek words, and it isn’t surprising to find someone using them in contexts where self identification is occurring (e.g. a healed man at John 9:9). But the “who” and “what” are different between Isaiah and GJohn, and I think that we need to keep that in mind.

    ~Sean Garrigan

    • Sean: I would myself add that what we seem to have in the early Christian texts is a novel “mutation” (to use a term I’ve deployed for a few decades now) in Jewish “agent” traditions. For one thing, Jesus is accorded a grander set of roles than any previous agent-figure. E.g., he is both agent of creation and agent of redemption and eschatological judgement. Even the august figure of the Similitudes of 1 Enoch doesn’t match this. Further (and in my view even more significantly), Jesus is accorded a programmatic place in devotional practices that has no analogy in 2nd temple Jewish tradition, such that he is invoked, acclaimed, etc., in ways that are otherwise confined to God. So, it’s inadequate simply to say that Jesus is God’s agent. The presentation of him in terms of belief and practices comprises a remarkably innovation “mutation” in agency tradition, such that it was a “natural” development that Christian theologians had to consider how to define “God” in light of this.

      • Hi Larry,

        You said: ” I would myself add that what we seem to have in the early Christian texts is a novel ‘mutation’ (to use a term I’ve deployed for a few decades now) in Jewish ‘agent’ traditions.”

        With the exception of your view that “God” had to be redefined, I agree with your general thesis, and didn’t intend to focus on agency in a manner that negates or contradicts your view. Rather, I was merely conveying my agreement that the agency paradigm helps shape the EGO EIMI statements, which I would take as complementing your general thesis.

        ~Sean Garrigan

      • Michael permalink

        “he(Jesus) is both agent of creation”….

        How on earth would a monotheistic Jew accept the belief that an actual divine person or a Son Of God existed alongside God was an agent of creation as implied by high christology!”… for 1000’s of years throughout biblical tradition nothing is mentioned about a Son of God who was a agent of creation ever existed….but now post easter period via “revelatory experiences” this hidden notion of a divine agent of creation is now suddenly revealed and redefines what Jewish monotheism is…!!!.. unbelievable!

      • Well, thanks for your own personal response, interesting, but irrelevant for making historical judgements. In any case, ancient Jewish texts mention this or that agent of creation: e.g., “lady Wisdom” in Proverbs 8, and Philo’s “Logos” too. So, an agent of creation wasn’t a new idea. What was novel was ascribing such a role to a human, recently known figure. Clear now??

      • argonaut4 permalink

        I’m not so sure this development is quite so novel. From the perspective of the LXX we have seen it before. In Dan. 7:13 the text reads, the Son of Man came as (hos rather than heos) the Ancient of Days. As has been remarked before, this clearly suggests that the Son of Man is an earthly aspect of the heavenly Ancient of Days. This analogy with Jesus would not have been lost on contemporary Greek speaking Jews whose bible was the LXX.

      • “Argonaut” (I remind all commenters that we use actual names on this site, please): The implication of the textual variant is not so “clearly” that of Greek ontological categories as you presume. Further, it’s not actually so clear how early the variant is or how widely copied. It frankly looks to me to have originated as an accidental mis-writing of εως. In any case, in the context, it’s clear that we have “the Ancient of Days” and this mysterious other figure, to whom authority is given . . . by the Ancient of Days. So, the two are clearly distinguished.

  5. Recently I was apprised of an important new monograph on Brill of particular pertinence to the discussion here: Ronald D. Peters’ The Greek Article: A Functional Grammar of ό-items in the Greek New Testament with Special Emphasis on the Greek Article. Without going into detail, Peters systematically explains the use and non-use of the Greek article by understanding it as more equivalent to the English which or who (relative pronoun) instead of the default the (a demonstrative). With respect to nouns, its lack or presence functions as a discourse feature which either foregrounds (arthrous nouns) or backgrounds (anarthrous nouns), while also functioning as a means by which to characterize its associated term/s as either “concrete” (arthrous) or “abstract” (anarthrous). More importantly, the non-use/use of the article does not make a particular term in/definite, rather it is other factors in the individual contexts which determine this. Utilizing this methodology removes some of the subjectivity found in translations and commentaries.

    Peters’ methodology is especially important in John 1:1. Ho logos is foregrounded in each of the three individual clauses, as is ton theov in the second. This indicates that these figures are characterized ‘as belonging to experience of actual persons’ (p 238). Conversely, in 1:1c theos is backgrounded and ‘not belonging to experience of an actual person’ (p 238). In 1c the writer of GJohn

    makes a declaration regarding the nature of ὁ λόγος. Without the article, θεός must be interpreted in the abstract sense: god, deity, pertaining to divine . . . The interpretation of abstract characterization and backgrounding reinforce one another and so reveal the function of the distinct yet complementary articular and arthrous constructions. In this way, the author does not ask the reader to choose between God and divine (pp 238-39).

    Essentially, according to Peters, theos here should be understand qualitatively, but not as equivalent to theios, as strictly adjectival. Assuming Peters is correct – and I think he makes a cogent case – this would be making an ontological statement regarding the nature of the logos (1c) and his relationship with God [the Father] (1b). Given that most agree that the prologue is the lens by which to read the entire Gospel, one could make a stronger case that other sections within GJohn refer to ontological relationships as well (e.g. 10:30, 38).

    • Having not myself read Peters’ book, I must exercise some caution. But on the specific matter of the use/non-use of the Greek definite article with theos, there is MUCH more to say. E.g., Jewish writers often used the definite article with theos as a short-hand way of referring to the “one God” of their profession. In any case, I think you’re making quite a sweeping claim based on what seems to me a somewhat simplistic view of the grammatical questions.

      • Yes, Jewish writers used the arthrous theos to refer to the “one God”, but I’m not so sure that this necessarily negates an understanding that the “one God” is actually Trinitarian. These Jewish writers may not have understood it that way, but the NT may be expanding on just what constitutes the “one God”, could it not?

      • Craig: One obstacle to imputing much of a “Trinitarian” theology to early texts such as the NT is that it is then more difficult to understand why thereafter for a few hundred years Christian theologians seem to have had to struggle so hard to formulate a Christian doctrine of God, and why a “Trinitarian” formulation took so long. It seems to me more cogent to agree with Wainwright (The Trinity in the New Testament) that “the problem of the Trinity” is reflected in the NT, but “the doctrine of the Trinity” (which was an attempt to address that problem) came later.

    • Hi Craig,

      The “qualitative” view has been around for a while, but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, and it’s never been properly vetted the way one assumes that most scientific theories are vetted. If you’re interested, see my multi-part series, here:

      You’ll notice in part 2 that I list most of the pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nouns in GJohn, and not one of them is necessarily inferred to be “qualitative” or “abstract”, and certainly not in a way that negates definiteness or indefiniteness. The reason all those nouns make such good sense in context as definite and indefinite nouns, is because they are definite and indefinite nouns. John had an abstract noun for “deity” that he could have used if he wanted to say something like Peters argues for, but he chose a singular bounded noun. The absence of the article or position of a bounded noun in relation to the verb doesn’t make shift from bounded no unbounded.

      Greek is very flexible, and placing a noun before the verb goes no further in making it “qualitative” or “abstract” then rearranging a sentence in English from the active to the passive voice goes in changing the meaning of the individual words in English. These conventions can help create subtle but useful shifts in emphasis, but they don’t change the meaning of the individual terms used.

      ~Sean Garrigan

      • Sean,

        I had skimmed through some of your material before; but, please note that Peters’ work has nothing to do with Colwell. In fact, applying Colwell’s rule ends in circularity. As to Peters’ terms of “concrete” or “abstract”, space does not permit a fuller explication on what those terms entail. For sure, however, it’s a paradigm shift to reorient oneself to Peters’ methodology; but, I think it worth the effort.

        (Yes, I know I’d recently written something about this very thing with respect to John 1:1c and anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives, using some of my own subjectivity, but it was an astute reader who made me aware of Peters’ work.)

      • OK. Can I ask that Craig and Sean continue their personal conversation about the Greek definite article somewhere else now? I think each has presented his view adequately, and it takes us waaay off course to proceed further here.

      • Sean,

        I should add: It seems your are viewing the Greek article as if it necessarily connotes definiteness and, therefore, its non-use is necessarily indefinite, equating it to the English definite article. Such is not the case. E.g. theos is anarthrous in John 1:6, 12, and 13, yet clearly it isn’t to be understood as indefinite.

        You wrote, “John had an abstract noun for “deity” that he could have used if he wanted to say something like Peters argues for, but he chose a singular bounded noun.” I’m not sure what you mean exactly here; but, if you mean theios, this is an adjective, not a noun.

  6. Bobby Garringer permalink

    Perhaps it is anachronistic to make a careful distinction between the role and status and function of a “being” — Jesus as he is described in the NT — over against clarified ontological categories of being that were discussed in a later period. Perhaps your discussion amounts to what C. S. Lewis called dividing our predecessors on this or that side of question they never asked.

    On a common sense level, role, status and function — in the expressions we find concerning Jesus and his relationship to God in the NT — seem to incorporate a rather specific ontology.

    I think it would have seemed odd to the NT authors if someone had suggested that they were talking about Jesus and his shared status with God without implying anything specific about their shared nature. Just because these authors did not — abstract — ontological nature from other considerations, we need not conclude that they were not making claims about Jesus’ divine nature.

    Philosophically and practically, heirs of ancient Hebrew culture would be asserting some very specific things about the nature of things — persons as well as objects — when they spoke in the concrete terms of function and status.

    • Bobby, I appreciate your right to an opinion, but your comments simply amount to a body of preferred assertions and don’t take account of the reasons I’ve given for what I state. I mean no unfavourable comparison with later “ontological” statements when I say that they don’t appear in earlier texts such as the NT writings. I simply mean to emphasize that the later “ontological” statements and issues reflect one of a number of “language games” and conceptual traditions.

  7. Hi Richard,

    I’m glad to see you add your voice to the mix.

    “Heb 1:3 does not use hypostasis in the sense it eventually acquired in the fourth century discussions, but is it not nonetheless making an ontological statement?”

    Is it not possible that the author of Hebrews was using ‘image’ language but in a more emphatic way? Heb. 1:3 seems to be speaking of the man, Jesus, and I have to wonder whether it would have made any sense to anyone at that time to say that a man was the XARAKTHR of YHWH’s being in the sense of mirroring God’s ontology. I understand that XARAKTHR was used of statues in the Egyptian papyri that reflect the image of those they represent, so while ontology may be a possible implication in some contexts, it obviously isn’t a necessary connotation.

    I honestly don’t know what it would even mean to say that a man represents God’s ontology. It seems that such a statement would be ambiguous even when placed in the context of later Trinitarian thought, and so I believe it would have been ambiguous to the original audience of Hebrews as well. However, I can certainly understand how one might call Jesus the stamp of God’s being because he is the great prism through whom the many facets of God’s character and purpose shine forth in multi-hued magnificence! Is it possible that the author of Hebrews may have meant something like that?

    ~Sean Garrigan

    • Sean: Surely it could not be plainer that Heb 1:3 is speaking of the pre-existent divine Son – the one through whom God created the worlds and the one who upholds the universe by the word of his power. To say that this one is “the exact representation of God’s being” seems entirely appropriate in such a context. The word “charakter” has a range of meanings, but basically something like “representation” – such as the impress of a seal. The word hypostasis undoubtedly means being, essence, fundamental reality. It does not mean character or purpose. If you want to say that the man Jesus was “the exact representation of God’s being”, that’s an ontological statement, a statement about being.
      Incidentally, I don’t think this statement in Heb 1:3 is ambiguous in the context of later Trinitarian thought. It uses hypostasis in the usual way, which the Fathers well understood. They could use it that way too, meaning the divine ousia. But they chose to make their trinitarian terminology more exact by using ousia of the divine essence, which all three trinitarian persons share, and hypostasis of the distinct reality of each Person.

      • Hi Richard,

        “Surely it could not be plainer that Heb 1:3 is speaking of the pre-existent divine Son – the one through whom God created the worlds and the one who upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

        Well, to me it seems clear that the account is speaking of the man Jesus, because it specifically references that “in these days God has spoken to us by a Son whom he has appointed heir of the Universe.” It seems to be that Son, i.e. the one who spoke to us while on earth, who was then killed, resurrected and exalted, who is then said to be the reflection of God’s glory, and stamp of His being.

        The question isn’t about what the individual words mean, but what the statement means when applied to a man in context, because the account seems to be using image language, i.e. what is reflected to us by the Son. We can’t see divine ontology, but we can certainly see God’s character and purposes revealed in Jesus. As Jimmy Dunn put it years ago:

        “Moreover we recall how Hebrews presents a classic statement of Adam christology in Heb. 2.6-18… Christ as the one in whom God’s original plan for man finally (or eschatologically) came to fulfillment — that is in Christ the exalted-after-suffering one (the last Adam). Here we are back in the image/stamp (εἰκὼν/χαρακτὴρ) ambivalence (1:3) — Christ as the one who is the perfect image of God, in the sense that he was the perfect man, the one who fulfilled God’s master plan (2:6-9), the one through whom God spoke fully and finally (1.1f)…That is to say, …we are confronted not with a particular pre-existent divine person (the Son, Christ), but a way of speaking about God’s interaction with men and things which could use the impersonal imagery of light and stamp/impression as well as the personification ‘Wisdom’ — a way of speaking which stressed the direct continuity between God and that which may be seen of God (‘the radiance of his glory’), which stressed that the revelation of God bears the impress of God’s own nature (‘the stamp of his very being’), which stressed the more personal character of God’s relation with man (‘Son’), as well as the continuity between God’s creative, revelatory and redemptive action (1.1-3).” (Christology in the Making), pp. 208 & 209

        ~Sean Garrigan

      • Sean: If I may interject myself into this discussion you’re having with Bauckham, one point to consider is this: You’re assuming that Heb 1:3 must be read in terms of the “earthly/historical” Jesus, the man, and how a man could bear the “imprint” of God’s “being”. But, arguably, the grammar of Heb 1:1-4 permits also the view that it is the resurrected/exalted Jesus who is in view, who has taken his seat at God’s “right hand” (v.3) and has received the superlative name (v. 4). In any case, I think that it may be as unwise (and overly simple) to confine the “imprint” to Jesus exhibiting certain moral qualities as it may be to impute into Heb 1:3 Nicene categories.

  8. argonaut4 permalink

    I generally agree that contemporaries did not understand Jesus in ontological terms. This is clear in the Synoptics but important philosophical reflection obviously had taken place by the time of the Fourth Gospel. The repeated ego eimi statements in John echo the LXX where God’s nature is being proclaimed (especially Exodus and Deutero-Isaiah). This is particularly obvious in John 8:58 when <> and the listeners took up stones to kill him because they understood it as blasphemy. These statements seem very close to expressing an ontological perspective on who Jesus was.

    • Jesus is accused of blasphemy in the Synoptics too: Let’s beware of simplistic distinctions between them and GJohn. The latter does reflect a more overt clash between the Jesus-movement and the larger Jewish context, but I doubt that a whole lot of “philosophical” development is reflected in the text. The claims align Jesus very much with biblical (OT) categories (e.g., Jesus and the divine name, glory, etc.). It doesn’t require “ontological” categories to commit blasphemy!

      • argonaut4 permalink

        The early fathers almost universally saw John 8:58 as a statement about Jesus’ unity with the Father. In the fourth century, for instance, Chrysostom understood the passage thus:“The Father used the expression, “I Am,” in the same way as Christ; for it signifies continuous Being, irrespective of time. This is why the expression seemed to them to be blasphemous.” In other words they objected to the fact that it was clearly an ontological statement tantamount to a claim to divinity. I think this was a logical way for someone schooled in Hellenistic philosophy to approach the very clear references in this Gospel to the LXX reading of the Pentateuch.

      • The question isn’t whether making “ontological” inferences from biblical texts was legitimate: That’s a theological question. My point was that the texts don’t address matters in ontological terms, and so one must make some sort of inferential leap to bring the texts to bear on matters in ontological terms.

      • argonaut4 permalink

        The point Chrysostom was making was that the Jewish listeners to Jesus wanted to stone him precisely because they understood his utterances to be an ontological statement. Yahweh said he was being itself and so does Jesus. This was the essence of the blasphemy they saw. We always have to try and get behind what John meant in a passage like this. I still think Chrysostom has hit upon the most probable interpretation of the extreme reaction to Jesus’ ego eimi statements.

      • Larry, I hope you agree that when the Jesus of John’s Gospel says “I am he” (echoing, not the divine name, but the divine self-presentation “I am he” in Deutero-Isaiah) he is making an “ontic” statement about who he is, equating himself with the one God of Deutero-Isaiah. He is not merely claiming to be a subordinate agent of God – which would not be blasphemous. I make this point because I fear the focus on “ontology” is crowding out recognition of statements that are surely “ontic” – whether or not one can call them ontological. I’m not too sure at what point one moves from “ontic” to “ontological” but I’m quite sure the NT attributes to Jesus ontic divinity, not merely functional “divinity” (which can’t really be called divinity at all). You don’t need philosophical language to say that Jesus is, really and truly, God.

      • I agree, Richard, that in at least some of the uses of ego eimi by Jesus in GJohn there is likely an allusion to this divine self-designation formula in Isaiah. But, to cite one example, in 8:21-29, where Jesus demands belief that “ego eimi” (vv. 24, 28), the context also refers to him as “sent” (by God, vv. 26, 29), and refers to “the Father”, v. 27), and as exalted and “taught” by “the Father” (v. 28). So, a very real distinction is made (it seems to me) between “the Father” (who sends, instructs, etc.) and Jesus “the Son (of Man)” who is sent. And this sender-sent relationship seems to me to represent Jesus as God’s unique agent. To be sure, this agent seems to partake of God’s powers and role (e.g., 5:24-29), by God’s granting of this. So, it seems to me not to do justice to this complexity by saying (in this unqualified form) that “Jesus is, really and truly, God.” Again, the issue I put on the table is not whether it was right subsequently to define “God” as inclusive of “the Son” in a Trinitarian formulation, but whether earlier texts such as we have in the NT reflect the same issues and categories as those in 3rd-4th century debates.

  9. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Professors Hurtado and Bauckham,

    Where would Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:8 “However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods”(NASB) fit in your analysis of this discussion? Is there a reference to ontology in this text, even by implication?

    Thank You!

    • Timothy, to speak for myself, Paul’s statement in Gal 4:8 has to be set alongside his statements about “idols” in 1 Cor 8–10, where he both dismisses the many gods/lords (8:1-6) and also portrays them as “demons” (10:19-22). I take Paul as primarily concerned that, whatever the nature of the beings in question, they weren’t to be given the reverence due to God alone.

    • Timothy, yes I think this is another text to set beside the ones I quoted from Hebrews. It implies that there is a difference of nature between God the Creator and everything else, which is created. Paul is following Jewish precedent. I don’t think ontology and worship are alternatives here. Jews might well refuse to worship pagan gods primarily because the Torah forbids it. But they would also say that there is a rationale for this: the objects of pagan worship were not worthy of worship because they were nothing other than created beings. Actually, in the fourth-century discussions the main concern of the Fathers was likewise with worship.

  10. Thank you for this stimulating post, Larry, as it is represents a refreshing, balanced perspective and a much needed corrective, IMO. I have discussed this issue with many people over the years, and the Prologue of the Gospel that is attributed to John is the most common “proof-text” for those who assert that Jesus is “of the same substance as the Father”, which idea probably never even occurred to the Evangelist. My response has always been pretty much a mirror of yours, though I’ve expressed it Socratically: The Prologue is speaking in functional and relational categories, so on what basis does one import the oft heard “ontological” reading?

    Whether ontological implications are a valid or necessary evolutionary reading is a different question from whether the Evangelist meant to hint at such implications in the Prologue. I think that all we can say with certainty is that such implications did eventually evolve, but only after the NT writings were interpreted according to thought categories that were mostly foreign to the original writers, as you’ve pointed out.

    ~Sean Garrigan

    • Sean: I would only demur from the term “foreign,” which could have a certain negative or critical connotation. I would prefer “different” or “distinguishable” from the conceptual categories that the NT writers worked with.

  11. Michael permalink

    “The rest of the Gospel of John continues to align Jesus (the “Word” incarnate) with God uniquely, while also distinguishing them. The alignment is expressed in categories such as a shared “glory” (17:1-5), and in Jesus being shown uniquely God’s purposes and being given the role as judge and the one who is now to be honoured, just as God is honoured (5:19-24). In 1:18, we have the vivid portrayal of the “only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father,” the Son pictured thus as right next to God like a uniquely close dinner companion.”

    Philo used similar language to articulate or express the logos of God as a *personification* of God’s attribute, which kept Philo within the boundaries of monotheism…However, John taking it further, used the expressions of Philo in conjunction with memra/debar/wisdom conceptualizations to express God’s attribute as more than a personification…the logos was rather as a *person* with God who created that preexisted and later incarnated in the man Jesus….surely this idea breeches the boundaries of Jewish monotheism!?…

    • Your distinction between Philo’s notions of the Logos and the Johannine one correspond to my understanding of the matter. The Johannine version (and the wider devotion to Jesus reflected in still earlier Christian texts) certainly seems to me to represent a novel innovation. That’s a historical judgement. Whether it constitutes a “breach” in “the boundaries of Jewish monotheism” sounds like a theological question to me. But, to engage it historically, obviously those Jewish believers who embraced Jesus-devotion (e.g., Paul) didn’t think that they had breached their ancestral commitment to the one God. And that Jews such as Paul could embrace this stance means that it was, actually, possible for Jews loyal to their God to do so. That makes it within the spectrum of “ancient Jewish monotheism” of the time.

  12. Dr. Hurtado,

    I’m not disagreeing with you per se, however, I’d like to note two instances of NT verbiage found in the later Chalcedonian Definition. First is Colossians 2:9: en autō̧ katoikei pan to plērōma tēs theotētos sōmatikōs (in him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Deity/Godhead bodily) as compared to Chalcedon’s teleiov ton autov en theotēti (the same perfect in Deity/Godhead) and kata tēn theotēta (according to Deity/Godhead).

    The second is Hebrews 1:3: charaktēr tēs hypostaseōs autou (likeness/representation/image of his essence).

    • Sure, there are verbal links, but the sentences (and so the connotation of the terms) are different. And remember that sentences are the primary semantic unit, not “words”. So, e.g., in Col 2:9, Jesus is the one in whom “the fullness of deity dwells bodily,” which makes Jesus the vehicle of deity, which is a bit different from the later questions about whether the “Son” and God the Father share the same “essence.” And in Hebrews 1:3, the Son bears “the stamp” of God’s “being,” the term hypostasis used here in its more typical sense, whereas in the later Christological debates the term takes on a new/peculiar sense designating the particularity of the divinity of each of the three “persons” of the Trinity. Again, let’s respect the historical particularities of any text.

      • Heb 1:3 does not use hypostasis in the sense it eventually acquired in the fourth century discussions, but is it not nonetheless making an ontological statement? It is saying something about how the Son is related to the “being” of God.  I am inclined to think Hebrews at least gets very close to the two natures doctrine. See also 2:14, where the language is non-technical but surely means something like “he shared human nature with the rest of us”. Intriguingly Hebrews also quotes “today I have begotten you” from Ps 2 (Heb 1:5; 5:5), which allusions to this verse of Ps 2 elsewhere in the NT almost always avoid. I do agree with your general approach, Larry, but I wonder if we should be quite so confident about excluding “ontology” anywhere at all in the NT. It doesn’t seem to me it would be surprising if the author of Hebrews thought this aspect of Christology a bit further than other NT writers. In my work on Jewish monotheism I have stressed that Jews thought of God more in terms of divine identity (“who God is”) than of divine nature (“what God is”). But I didn’t deny that Jewish writers do sometimes talk about the divine nature.

        We must also, of course, distinguish “ontological” from “ontic.” “I am a human being” is an ontic statement, as is “the Word was God.” Simply to say what something is is an ordinary feature of all human discourse. “Ontology” simply focuses in a more analytical way on what that “is” means.

      • Chris permalink

        (A response to R. Bauckham)

        In what sense does Hebrews 1:3 speak to the”being” of God?

        The God of Hebrews 1:3 speaks through, annoints and creates through his son. God seems to be exclusively the Father, not God in a generic “being” sense.

        I don’t understand how the son can be a representation of the being of God. It would make more sense that he is a representation of the Father.

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