Posts Tagged ‘Bauckham’

What can we say about God Crucified?

1. This book is a thing of beauty. Writing with crystal clarity, drawing on a wide acquaintance with primary and scholarly literature, Bauckham makes his points with force and yet at the same time, with elegance. It’s a pleasure to read. Compared to, say, O’Donovan or Gunton or Dunn, Bauckham is in a different literary league.

2. As a piece of scholarship, this is a tour de force. Bauckham takes an exegetical approach to the theological questions he treats, and in doing so, gives us all a model of how exegesis should and can be done. He employs biblical theology and intertextual studies, historical theology (or the history of dogma) and second temple/early Christian studies, in the service of that exegesis. This guy operates confidently in all these spheres, it’s very impressive. He also just knows his Bible well. Really, really well – and makes effective use of it. The result is little short of breathtaking. I can only wish our evangelical scholars could operate at this level: generally their offerings are far more two-dimensional. Bauckham is very, very persuasive, due in part to his methodological power.

God Crucified catapulted straight into my top ten list of theological works, from the first time I read it.

3. Bauckham’s decisive methodological move is to adopt the category ‘identity’ over against the common ones of ‘function’ and ‘nature’. This strikes me as a welcome return to biblical categories. And in practice, it improves  the clarity of his Christological discussion. Not surprising really, that Scripture teachings make more sense when discussed in Scriptural categories!

4. What’s at stake in this study? Two main things. First our Christology. Bauckham cuts through a lot of traditional assumptions about the development of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Far from being a Nicene achievement,  this high Christology was foundational to NT Christianity. Nice.

Second, our doctrine of God. Bauckham has been deeply influenced by c.20th theologies of the cross such as that of Moltmann, whose ideas he is channelling. In this view, God himself suffers at the cross, and shows this suffering to be core to his identity. This meets head-on the traditional Christian view of God as impassible, not susceptible to suffering of any kind. The two views of God are radically different.

While Bauckham does not spell out the dogmatic implications of his study, he does hammer away determinedly at the basic insight: Jesus is included in the identity of God in both his humiliation and his exaltation. I.e., Jesus’ suffering definitively reveals the very identity of God. No point emerges more clearly from the study than this one.

However, Bauckham’s study leaves us to do the wrestling with the implications for our systematic theology. What it boils down to is the question: is God impassible, or is he the crucified God? I suspect it matters quite a bit which answer you give. There is no doubt which side of the argument Bauckham takes, and his book adds quite a bit of muscle to the ‘theology of the cross’ team.

5. What does Bauckham have to say about the dominant traditional view, then, in which God is impassible? He only hints at an answer to this: in the Nicene tradition the categories of thought had changed from the NT’s concept of  ‘identity’ to the Greeks’ concept of ‘essence’. While this allowed the Nicenes to preserve the doctrine of Christ’s divinity (homoousia), it did not help them ask the question, ‘What does Jesus reveal about God?’ And it is by asking this question that God’s revelation in Christ can be allowed to say new or surprising things to us. The implication is that Greek thought-categories have long hindered the church from appreciating what has been revealed about God, in Christ.

This is really a devastating critique of 1500 years of dogmatic history. If it is true, it is a matter of serious concern, and a stunning call to repentance in our theological tradition.

6. I would love to read a rebuttal of Bauckham’s thesis. From where this reviewer stands, his argument seems very compelling, largely because of the methodological strength of his study. I can’t see any weak links in the exegesis. In fact, Bauckham seems to demonstrate his thesis over and over again in various NT texts. This exegetical approach to theology makes his work accessible and persuasive for evangelicals like me.

In conclusion, I would strongly encourage evangelicals to read this book, even if only for its stunning exegetical work. Bauckham has a lot to teach us, and not least about how to read Scripture.

PART 3 How Jesus reveals the divine identity

Bauckham begins Part 3 by acknowledging that he has majored so far on the pre-existent and the exalted Christ, and neglected Jesus’ earthly ministry. This now comes into view. And as it does, the issue of identity is turned around: the question becomes, ‘what does Jesus’ inclusion in the divine identity say about God?’ Jesus is not just revealed to be divine, he reveals God. Definitively. What then is revealed about Israel’s God?

Bauckham identifies a key method the NT writers use for doing their thinking about these questions: OT exegesis. “They brought the OT text into relationship with the history of Jesus in a process of mutual interpretation” (p.33). A focal passage for this process is Isaiah 40-55. The NT writers demonstrate an integrated early Christian reading of these chapters as a connected whole, telling the story of a new exodus which brings worldwide salvation. This prophecy has a strong monotheistic emphasis. It is also eschatological: in the coming salvation, Yahweh’s uniqueness will be finally revealed.

Isaiah 52:13 in particular describes the exaltation of the Servant to the throne of God. In his humiliation and exaltation he belongs the the divine identity. Bauckham examines three NT texts which interact with this prophecy. In these texts, the monotheistic motif of Isaiah is interpreted Christologically, especially in relation to the suffering and death of Jesus.

In Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus’ self-abasement is his way of expressing his equality with God, and so qualifies him to enact divine sovereignty. The issue here is status: only the Servant who accepts the lowest place can reveal the most high God. Jesus’ humiliation then belongs to his divine identity as much as his exaltation does.

In Revelation 5, the explosion of praise to God follows the appearance of the slain lamb on the throne. Only the slaughtered lamb finally reveals the sovereignty of God. The cross reveals who God is.

In John’s Gospel the ‘lifted up’ sayings of Christ picture Jesus’ cross as his exaltation, as the event in which Jesus’ divine identity is revealed. The themes of Servant and Lord are fused in John: Jesus reigns at the Cross. So God’s identity is enacted in the salvation event.

In these NT texts God is seen to be revealed definitively as himself only in his self-giving at the cross.

Bauckham then asks, how consistent is this new theology with the OT’s view of the God of Israel?

The OT presents an unfolding revelation of God’s identity, in which there is the expectation of future development and in particular of the unexpected. Isaiah looks for a new exodus that will finally reveal God’s uniqueness. Thus, although it is radical and new to include the human degradation of Jesus in God’s identity, there is room for even this in the OT view of Israel’s God.

How did the early Christians find continuity within the extreme novelty of this revelation? They did it through rereading OT texts creatively in the light of Jesus. He enables new insights and readings not possible before. But these are new readings of Israel’s Scripture: continuity is overtly combined with novelty.

Bauckham gives examples of this: one is the OT theme of God’s identification with the lowly. This is transformed when God appears as the lowly in Jesus crucified. Another relates to the renaming of God in Exodus and again in Matt. 28.

Thus in Jesus God is revealed to the world as Israel’s God and is also revealed afresh.

The study ends with a fascinating comment on the Nicene tradition. In light of what Bauckham has shown us, he can say that Nicene Christology was not a new development, since the earliest church had a full-blown doctrine of Jesus’ divinity. It was rather a restatement of NT theology in Greek categories. But these categories did not allow Nicea to capture the way Jesus reveals God newly. What the cross has to say about God’s identity was not appreciated until Luther, Barth and later theologians.

PART 2 NT Christological Monotheism

Bauckham now uses this view of Judaism as a ‘hermeneutical key’ for interpreting NT statements about Jesus’ relationship to God.

He finds in all the NT texts the intention to ‘include Jesus in the unique divine identity as Jewish monotheism understood it’ (p.19). This is evident in their inclusion of Jesus in the divine creation and in the divine rule over all things.

What follows is a summary of Bauckham’s exegetical evidence for this massive claim.

Jesus and divine sovereignty

Jesus is said to have ascended to the throne of God in the highest heaven. Jesus is frequently said to have been placed ‘over all things’ – a standard phrase in Jewish monotheism. He is exalted high above all God’s angels: the image that in Judaism distinguishes God as sovereign. Jesus inherits the divine name, ‘the name above every name’ (Phil 2:9). As a result he is worshipped by all creation (Rev. 5; Phil 2:9-11).

Christ and the divine act of creation

The act of creation was God’s alone. When NT writers include Christ in this work, their purpose is to make clearer Christ’s inclusion in the divine identity. Paul includes Jesus in the Shema, and also treats him as the Word or Wisdom of God, present with God in his original work of creating.

In these ways Jesus is described using all the key Jewish terms for denoting God’s unique identity.

In summary, Bauckham finds ‘the highest possible Christology – the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity – was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the NT writings were written, since it occurs in all of them’ (p.19). Pin that sentence to your bedroom wall, friends, that’s a big, bold statement.

Bauckham ends Part 2 by sharpening up the concept which has allowed him to cut through so much scholarly encrustation: that of identity. This category has got Bauckham a whole lot of mileage. He contrasts it here with the typical scholarly dichotomy between divine function and divine ontology as categories for reading the NT texts: was Jesus said to be divine ‘ontically’ or only ‘functionally’? But, says Bauckham, these categories are foreign to 2nd temple Judaism, which is preoccupied with who God is. The NT’s failure to ascribe divine nature to Jesus is not significant, other than demonstrating that Jews didn’t think in terms of nature or essence at that time. The alternative to nature which is employed in the NT is not function, however, but identity.

Tomorrow: What Jesus reveals about God

PART 1  Jewish monotheism.

With the conceptual groundwork laid, Bauckham begins to make his case.

Doctrine

Jews of the time expressed their clear-cut monotheism over against the pluralism of their surroundings, by reciting the Shema and the decalogue daily. ‘YHWH is one.’ (Deut 6:4). The God they confessed was understood as a unique personal identity, not an abstract concept or collection of metaphysical attributes. The main question about God was not ‘What?’ but ‘Who?’. Divine identity, not divine nature or essence, was their preoccupation. God had a name.

God’s unique identity is that of sole Creator and most high Ruler of all things.

These two aspects ‘most readily distinguish God…from all other reality’ (p.9). In Hebrew scripture these emphases are especially found in Isaiah 40-55 (‘Deutero-Isaiah’), core texts for Jewish monotheism.

Practice

Jewish worship expressed God’s unique identity by worshipping him and no one else, over against the pluralist religious practises of the day.

Intermediaries

What about these intermediaries? Arch-angels etc – didn’t they blur the concept of divinity? Bauckham identifies two sorts:

  • the created sort, including angels and patriarchs. These do not share God’s throne or act of creation: they are servants far below, God the ruler.
  • the divine sort, including God’s wisdom, his Spirit and his Word. These share God’s work of creation and rule. They are clearly included in the identity of God, as personifications of God himself.

Intermediaries, then, were either clearly part of God’s identity, or clearly not. They reinforce and do not blur Judaism’s ‘absolute distinction between God and all other reality.’ (p.18).

Tomorrow: Christ as divine in the NT

Here’s the punchline of the review: this book sizzles. It’s an important and original book on a central Christian issue, that is also nice to read. God Crucified has heaps of challenge in it for evangelical readers – it makes us ask questions and rethink how we understand and express the gospel. And all in 59 pages. That’s bang for buck!

REVIEW

As usual we’ll start with a summary of the book, and follow it up with an assessment, for those who stick with us!

How did Jesus come to be considered divine? How in particular was this development possible given that Christianity arose within a Jewish monotheistic setting? Why do the NT writers omit to attribute divine nature to Jesus explicitly? When did this issue get clarified in dogmatic history? Big, fat questions. And there’s a lot of debate around this in modern scholarship.

This is where Bauckham weighs in.

In PART 1 he starts by setting the scene of the debate: differences in how Jewish monotheism is understood lead to different views of how the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity developed. There are two main views.

1.     Jewish monotheism was so strict that it could not have allowed Jesus to be divine. A less-than-divine Jesus in the NT documents – the full-blown dogma came later and represented a break from Judaism.

2.     Divinity was understood in Judaism as a graded hierarchy of intermediaries, allowing room for Jesus as a ‘lesser’ divinity.

Baukham charts his own third course. He rejects 2., maintaining that Jewish monotheism was strict and not a graded hierarchy of divinity. However Jewish monotheism had room for a very high Christology (against 1.). In other words, he proposes a distinctive view of 2nd temple Judaism, and this view informs a distinctive reading of the NT texts. On this basis Bauckham will assert the prevalence of a high Christology from the very beginning of the Christian movement. Constructing this chain occupies the first half of his study:

Jewish monotheism → NT texts → early Christology

Bauckham says studies in this area have been hindered by two weaknesses:

1.     a failure to clarify the concept of divinity in Judaism – what exactly is divinity?

2.     the focus on intermediary ‘demi-god’ figures has occurred despite lack of historical evidence

Bauckham clearly aims to rectify this situation. Let’s take a look at how he does that.

Tomorrow: Bauckham’s take on Jewish monotheism.

Having previously paddled at the edges of Richard Bauckham’s work, I’ve now dived in. I am currently reading his ‘God Crucified.’

Bauckham argues that a high Christology did not develop gradually in early Christianity – rather the highest possible Christology was there from the beginning, since it is found in all the NT writings.

I’ll try to write a review soon, but a few initial impressions.

1. It’s too short! The thing is only 59 pages. I sat down to read this evening and I’m already past half way. I’m going to be sorry when it runs out.

2. This book is a thing of beauty. Written with crystal clarity, drawing on a wide acquaintance with primary and scholarly literature, Bauckham makes his points with force and yet at the same time, with elegance. It’s a pleasure to read. Compared to, say, O’Donovan or Gunton or Dunn, Bauckham’s in a different literary league.

3. So far it is very, very persuasive.

I’m looking forward to the rest, and then hope to press on to the essays attached. The volume they’re in is called Jesus and the God of Israel, publ. Eerdmans.

I’m glad I’ve finally taken the plunge – the water is fine!