Chronology and Ontology
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.