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“God in New Testament Theology”

March 24, 2018

In the many comments that have been generated by my posting on Jesus’ resurrection as the act of God, it seemed to me that there is a need for some sober and patient analysis of the data in the NT writings.  So, I offer this shamless plug for one of my attempts to do this, my modest-sized book: God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010).  The publisher’s online catalog entry here

The great NT scholar, Nils Dahl, famously wrote an article on “the neglected factor in NT theology,” which was God!  He acutely observed that there were oodles of books on almost every other topic in the NT, but a scant number on “God”.  He was (and still is) correct.  (It made my bibliographical effort easier!)  Indeed, I think that there are a few PhD theses waiting to be written on “God” in some NT writings.

Within the word-limit assigned to me, I tried to take account of the full breadth of textual data in NT writings, to map the contours of what I call “God discourse” in them.  How do the NT texts refer to “God”?  Especially in the “world full of gods” of that time, who is the “God” of the NT texts?  How do the NT writings describe God and Jesus in relation to each other?  And then there is the striking prominence of references to the divine Spirit in NT texts, much more prominent than in other 2nd temple Jewish writings or in the OT.

I judge that the discourse about “God” in the NT is “triadic” shaped, with “God” (often further specified as “Father”), Jesus, and the Spirit all prominent.  More specifically, I contend that in the NT writings “God” is so closely linked with Jesus that any adequate discourse about “God” must include adequate reference to Jesus.

Also, remarkably, the divine Spirit “of God” (or “Holy Spirit”) in some texts is now also identified with reference to Jesus (e.g., Romans 8:9; 1 Peter 1:11; Philippians 1:19; Acts 16:7).  This must surely be a consequence of the NT claim that God has exalted Jesus to share in divine glory and rule.

The discourse about “God” in the NT is triadic in shape, but, interestingly, the worship-pattern is dyadic.  That is, “God” and Jesus are invoked, prayed to, reverenced in worship, etc., whereas the Spirit doesn’t figure in the same way.  (This isn’t my prescription for anything, just an exegete’s observations about the texts.)

So, at only 152 pp. it’s not a big read, but I immodestly suggest that many (perhaps especially “general”) readers will find it helpful in getting to grips with the NT texts on the matter.  In the concluding comments, I even offer some brief suggestions for theologians!

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  1. Hugh Scott permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    I have several of your excellent books on my shelf, but I seem to have missed out on “God in New Testament Theology”, which I shall order forthwith.

    But I have a linked title to contribute to your discussion. Unexpectedly, only three days ago, just before receiving your above blog, I picked up, to re-read, a book which I had read right through in 1995, and had forgotten that I owned. It is called “Jesus as God – The New Testament Use of ‘Theos’ in Reference to Jesus”, by Murray J.Harris (Abingdom Press, 1992, pp. 380) . . . .

    • Yes, Hugh, Harris’ book is useful in some respects, but flawed in some other ways. Crucially, he seems to assume that the question of whether the Greek word “theos” is applied to Jesus is the key question, “the zenith of New Testament Christology” (to use his words). Actually, no. This reflects a curiously anachronistic sense of the semantic range of “theos” in ancient Greek. It doesn’t carry some Christian “ontological” sense automatically. In ancient Greek, various beings can be referred to as “theos” (“god”): the Roman emperor, for example. Or in Jewish usage, angels can be termed “gods”. In 2 Cor 4:4, Paul seems to refer to Satan as “the god of this world”!

      On the flexibility of “theos”, see esp. S. R. F. Price, “Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 104 (1984): 79-95.
      As Bauckham and I have shown for several decades now, the key indicator of Jesus’ divine status (in the ancient setting) is his inclusion as co-recipient with God of cultic devotion.

  2. Thank you Sir, please recommend.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    In what way would you suggest the Holy Spirit figures? The evidence from Mark suggests the Holy Spirit figures as something capable of possessing a person. One will not be forgiven for blasphemy against it. Mark also conceives of the Holy Spirit as an “other” entity, as in Mark 13:2 which states, “it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit”. What is your opinion of this? Is this Jesus’ theology regarding the Holy Spirit, or is it Mark’s invention?

    • John: Get and read my book!

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        I would like to read that book and others of yours Larry. I have a question about Galatians 4:6-7. Do you think it might be fair to say that Paul regards those possessed by the Spirit as having been, by virtue of their possession, transformed into Sons? In Romans 8:14-19 Paul seems to take for granted that this community, (which he never visited) knew of this idea already. So, the Holy Spirit may be a way of thinking — that is, about being a Son of God. An idea that may go back to Jesus originally and did not originate with Paul as such.

      • John: The relationship of the “Holy Spirit” to individuals isn’t what we’d call “possession.” I.e., the Spirit doesn’t take over the individual, suppressing the personality, as the symptoms of “spirit possession” in various cultures. Hence, the many exhortations in NT writings to cooperate with the Spirit! The Spirit seems to provide resources for moral transformation and/or for powerful deeds, but the human individuals retain control of themselves.
        For Paul and other earliest believers, the Spirit wasn’t “a way of thinking” but a powerful force acting as agency of God and Christ.

  4. Hon Wai Lai permalink

    Some recommendations for similar sort of discussion regarding “God” in the OT would be much appreciated.

  5. Dr.Hurtado if the NT is as you say “God in the NT is triadic in shape, but, interestingly, the worship-pattern is dyadic”, then how do we account for passages like “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you” or passage like “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them”. Can you please explain or direct me to some other exegetical sources?

    • Sekarrose: I didn’t say “God in the NT is triadic”. I said that *discourse about God* in the NT is triadic, with references to “God”, Jesus, and the “Spirit of God/Holy Spirit” featuring prominently.
      The references to being indwelt by the Spirit or to the Spirit speaking via prophets don’t constitute worship actions: That is, we don’t have prayers to the Spirit, or hymns sung to or about the Spirit, etc. I’ve written about early Christian worship in numerous publications over several decades. Could I recommend that you acquaint yourself with one or two? It might help your questions.

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