Posts Tagged ‘christology’

God is Jesus

Posted: September 4, 2013 by J in Bible, Mission, Theology
Tags: , ,

When we talk about Jesus and divinity, I think we often make a serious category error. We frame our talk with the question, “Who is Jesus?”. That’s the wrong question. Here’s why.

As we read the Gospels, we find again and again that Jesus is doing the things Yahweh was supposed to do. The prophets foresaw a time when Israel’s god would return and gather his people. He himself would be their shepherd, binding up their wounds and leading them into good pastures. He would renew and re-establish Israel by pouring out his Spirit on them. His word would go out and be fruitful, bringing justice and peace to the peoples.

Time and again we see Jesus doing these things, playing this role: Yahweh’s role. When Jesus is born, we are told, ‘Yahweh has come and visited his people at last’ (Luke 1). When the demoniac is sent to tell people how much God has done for him, he tells them how much Jesus has done for him. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is dripping with the symbolism of Yahweh’s return and the day of the Lord (Matt. 21). It was Yahweh who was to clear the temple: Jesus does it. God was ultimately to be enthroned as king over the world. And when that enthroning takes place, when we look at the one on the throne, there sits…Jesus.

Have you ever noticed that the Gospel writers (especially the synoptics) don’t talk much about Jesus’ divine identity? Not directly, they don’t. What they do talk about is divine action. And that talk is all centred on Jesus. The things Jesus does, God does. What does it look like for Yahweh to visit? It looks like Jesus.

All-in-all, Jesus comes across as the prophetic vision with flesh on. What was only seen dimly and distantly, what the prophets could only point forward to, Jesus reveals fully. He is the splendid, full-colour, 3-D reality, the embodiment of Yahweh. This is how Paul understands Jesus: “in him the whole fulness of Yahweh dwells bodily”. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 2, 1).

And what a surprise it is for Israel when Yahweh turns up and he isn’t what they thought. He doesn’t care about fine details of rule-keeping. He doesn’t care about clean. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath traditions. He washes people’s dirty feet. He rebukes the Jerusalem priesthood and tears shreds off the spiritual heroes in the Pharisees party. He hangs with the lowlife and the prostitutes. He hangs on a cross. He’s like a nightmare for the establishment. This is not the Yahweh they’ve been teaching all these years.

When the Jerusalem leaders fight against Jesus and kill him, they’re making a theological statement. Yahweh is not like this. But Jesus comes back. He wins. His view of things is vindicated completely, while Israel’s leaders are disgraced. Yahweh is fully embodied in Jesus after all.

If we can try to sum all this up, we would have to say that the Gospels are constantly hitting on one massive theme. It’s not ‘Jesus is God’. It’s God is Jesus.

What sort of god is Israel’s god? What is the true God really like? Who is he? Different people, different sects and parties, different nations have their own version. And now we find out.

God is Jesus.

Jesus is the definitive and complete expression of the deity.

This is a much bigger and more far-reaching statement than the one we normally like to make: ‘Jesus is God.’

Think about it. God is Jesus. It’s the answer to a question: who or where is God? What is he like? The answer: here is God. He is Jesus.

This is a claim about God, it limits what we can say about him. Who is God? Not Caesar, not Zeus or Jupiter, not Moses or John the B:  Jesus. If God is Jesus, he is not someone else. It’s a claim to uniqueness.

It’s a claim about God, and so is good for all times and all places. If God is Jesus in Roman Palestine, if God’s identity is stable, then he is Jesus always, including today. We cannot say, God is Mohammed or Buddha, or god is an Indian guru, or the Dalai Lama, or god is the statues in my neighbours’ homes, or you are God, or I am. No. God was Jesus. God is Jesus.

The message reaches out to us across the centuries, challenging us to respond. Do we want to know God? God is Jesus. So Jesus is the one to go to.

God is Jesus tells us more than just who Jesus is. It tells us about God. It’s bigger than Christology: it’s theology. Like first century Israel, we didn’t really know God, we didn’t have right content to fill that name with meaning. When we said ‘God’ we had little idea what we were saying. None of us could agree either. But now we know what ‘God’ means. It means everything we find in Jesus. Now we know who He is: he is the God and Father of that man. We know what God is like. He is like Jesus.

This makes the Gospels the heart, the most vital and interesting part of our Scriptures. For there God is finally revealed in flesh. If we want to know God, we can look and listen and learn from Jesus. In fact, if Jesus is God functions as a final word, God is Jesus is a conversation opener, an invitation to come close and explore. Everything Jesus does, everything he doesn’t do, everything he says and doesn’t say, all the surprises – every detail becomes intensely important and meaningful for us, worth pondering and discussing. For this life is revelatory. Here in the Gospels, at last, we come face to face with Yahweh himself; we can find out the truth about God.

And what we find out is pretty hard to take. How can God be like that? How can he be a crucified Galilean? Jesus kind of makes us tear up our model of God and start again. We may not like it, but it’s in our faces and we can’t escape the truth.

Who is God? God is…Jesus.

Jesus is God?

Posted: September 2, 2013 by J in Mission, Theology
Tags: , ,

Jesus is God: one of the biggest emphases in the evangelical teaching I’ve heard over the years. Especially teaching on the Gospels. It’s their main message, right? It’s the point of all those miracles, etc: as the kids’ song says, “Only God could do that!” The focus is firmly on Jesus’ identity.

Jesus is God is a powerful statement. It tells us something historical: that in first century Palestine God came down and entered into our world in a special way. It tells us that Jesus is worth paying attention to, he has a special status. We should listen to what he has to say.

But it’s a limited statement. For one thing, it’s not exclusive. Dogs have four legs, but that doesn’t mean that only dogs have four legs. Jesus is God – but that doesn’t exclude other people from being God. God could manifest himself differently at different times and places. Maybe Jesus was the manifestation for the first century? Jesus is God doesn’t assert uniqueness and challenge the relativism of our pluralist age.

Jesus is God also doesn’t in itself involve us. We are not necessarily implicated. It might be a deeply interesting fact, but it’s removed from us by 2000 years. In fact, someone might believe this message and still ask, “So what?” Nice to know God visited some people back then, now can I get on with my life – or with my buddhism?

Jesus is God tells me about Jesus. It’s the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is God. What it doesn’t do is tell us which god. Where I live there are many gods. If I tell people Jesus is God they may well ask, “Which god is he?” The message assumes a shared view of God’s identity and character – we already know who God is, but now he’s become Jesus. But that shared view doesn’t exist in my part of the world. And does it exist anywhere?

Of course we can surround Jesus is God with extra details, which boost its impact. “Jesus makes exclusive claims” “Jesus is alive” etc. But the basic structure of the thought, the core message which we so often revert to – a message about the divine identity of Jesus – remains unchanged, and remains fairly weak.

If the message of the Gospels is Jesus is God, that doesn’t give me a very good reason to read them carefully or repeatedly. Once I’ve got the message – job done. I’ve mastered the Gospels, discovered the secret, and I can move on, right? Maybe leave the ministry years, and just focus on the passion and resurrection. Or more likely, leave the Gospels and focus on the doctrine in Paul’s epistles? Or maybe Jesus’ teaching is still worth studying – but his ministry more generally? If its point is to identify Jesus as God, then it probably doesn’t need ongoing attention. Nothing more boring than preaching to the converted. No wonder our people don’t keep reading the Gospels!

As I have read the Gospels over the years, I have gradually noticed that they actually have very little interest in saying “Jesus is God”. It just doesn’t seem to be in the top five of things they’re trying to communicate. Especially the synoptics, Matthew Mark and Luke. So it seems strange to me that we keep finding this as the core message there.

I do think the Gospel writers, like us evangelicals, are interested in Jesus’ identity. “Who is Jesus?” is an important question to ask. But I think we’re giving the wrong answer. The Gospels’ answer is usually: Jesus is Messiah. That’s definitely in the top five.

And I do think the Gospels have something to say about Jesus and God and identity, but I think it’s something different. That’s for tomorrow.

st.athanasiosWell, I’ve been reflecting more on Big A’s On the Incarnation. Now that I’ve got over my initial horror, I can discern some good things there that are worth talking about. So rather than keep up the critique, I’m changing tack. Here’s some of them:

1. Athanasius understands by ‘incarnation’ the history of Jesus of Nazareth, from birth to resurrection and glory. He doesn’t exclude the element of time, as my dear friend Luke C recently pointed out here. This is not a mere analysis of issues of ‘nature’ or essence. Athanasius has a story to tell us, and it’s (something like) the gospel story. A dynamic, not a static discussion. Thank God!

2. He doesn’t limit his discussion to a part of the Jesus story, either, but deals with the whole thing. So incarnation becomes a large Christological category for him.

3. The story Big A really wants to tell, is of the restoration of humanity. Or of ‘human nature’ or ‘the human body’. (He seems to use the terms more or less interchangeably.) This is a really exciting thing about On the Incarnation. Athanasius has plenty of things to say about the achievement of Christ, including the idea of the payment of our debt at the cross. But the big idea, the overarching and truly integrating idea of his treatment, is this theme of humanity’s restoration in Jesus. Using this he manages to give coherence to his account of every part of Jesus’ life and work, from birth to resurrection. Which is something I haven’t come across often in the modern theologies I grew up with. In fact, the theme itself is hardly at the top of the list of things we evangelicals want to say about Christ’s achievements. So that’s pretty refreshing.

4. In telling the story this way, Athanasius achieves something not many theologians have managed since then: he holds creation and redemption together. Redemption is the renewal of the creation, not a restart, or an escape from it. He’s quite explicit about this:

But once man was in existence, and things that were, not things that were not, demanded to be healed, it followed as a matter of course that the Healer and Saviour should align Himself with those things that existed already, in order to heal the existing evil.

5. The way Jesus is said to rescue fallen and corrupt humanity is quite something. He redeems it by entering it. He takes it over from the inside, and then takes it down to the grave, and then up into life:

You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it.

If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against the Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less.

Naturally, therefore, the Savior assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore He put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And, indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death?

Good stuff, eh? Worth reading that over a few times. It really summarises his whole thesis about the incarnation.

6. Notice the pivotal significance of the phrase ‘risen from death’ in the quote above? Big A’s story climaxes at the resurrection. It reminds me of the shape of the NT story about Jesus – that’s pretty rare too, compared to our tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, humanity is renewed and filled with glory and incorruptibility. Like. Have a listen to this:

…through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.
 
You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

7. It’s important to notice, that foundational to Athanasius’s Christology is the idea that God the Son took to himself fallen human nature with all its weakness and corruption. This was the thing he redeemed. And he redeemed it by entering it fully. If he had taken a pre-sanitised humanity, he would have had nothing to do, for his mission was to take fallen humanity down to the grave, put and and to its corruption, then bring it up to life in resurrection. Big A insists that Christ could not achieve this from the outside, he had to get inside fallen humanity to do his saving work in it.

He clarifies that God the Son is not polluted or tainted in any way by thus filling fallen humanity. He as God does not take on the nature of the thing he fills. Rather he cleanses it so it takes on his glory.

So far as I can make out, this view seems to represent Nicean ‘orthodoxy’. Gregory of Nazienzus, for e.g., said the same thing. And he was the absolute bomb, so far as church- fatherly orthodoxy is concerned.

Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is a dangerously sub-Christian work, shockingly ignorant of the Trinitarian nature of the gospel story. However, by taking seriously Christ’s work as a narrative, and treating it as a whole, he gets a lot further than we normally do in giving a coherent account of the achieving of redemption. There’s plenty here to challenge and stretch our thinking.

What do you think of his thesis, that Jesus’ mission is the restoration of humanity from within?

imagesMy other main beef about Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has to do with how he sees Jesus’ humanity. Most of the time the Big A talks about it as simply a human body. Occasionally he mentions that it’s human nature the Son has assumed. Apparently this is more-or-less the same thing as human body. What is notably absent is any reference to human mind or personality in Jesus. There is no hint of human involvement in his will or intentionality. All the willing, all the acting, is initiated by the Word in the body.

Is humanity then merely a glove, a kind of shell, an instrument within which the divine mind can operate? Like a fork-lift, with the Word in the drivers’ seat? Athanasius often described it in much this way. Jesus’ body was:

the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.

His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument.

though He used the body as His instrument, He shared nothing of its defect…

He was made man, and used the body as His human instrument. If this were not the fitting way, and He willed to use an instrument at all, how otherwise was the Word to come? And whence could He take His instrument, save from among those already in existence

It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument

The Word of God thus acted consistently in assuming a body and using a human instrument to vitalize the body.

If the body was his instrument, was it truly him? Was he truly human? Could he, for example, put off the instrument again once the job was done? Could he, having restored humanity, leave it again? Athanasius never says, the matter is left uncertain. Uncertain, too, is the status of the humanity the Son assumed – did it become integral to his identity? We are not told, but the repeated language of instrumentality points pretty strongly the other way.

An human instrument that doesn’t seem to have a mind of its own: this all sounds very much like a famous heresy, called Apollinarianism. Apollinaris taught that the Word was dropped into a human body, so Jesus was a divine mind inside a human ‘shell’. No human mind involved. Interestingly, this heresy was condemned at the council of Alexandria, 361. And guess who the chief prosecutor was? You guessed it: Athanasius.

But it’s hard to see much difference between Apollinarianism and his own writing here in On the Incarnation. 

Curious…

Tomorrow: what’s good about On the Incarnation

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaI’ve been reading Athanasius’s classic work On the Incarnation. It has much in it that is interesting and insightful. However, overall I was distressed by its failure to give a Christian account of Jesus’ story. I will try to articulate what I find so troubling about it. It’s a complex work, it won’t be easy. Here goes.

1. Big A’s argument about the incarnation is deeply non-Trinitarian. Though Jesus is sometimes called the Son, he doesn’t function like a son in Big A’s account of him. ‘Son of God’ functions as a title that effectively means ‘God’, but he rarely describes the Son doing anything sonlike. Normally he calls him the Word. A much less personal, relational title is prefered to a familial one.

More troubling by far is the complete absence of any mention of the Holy Spirit in the entire discourse. Stop for a sec, read that sentence again. It’s staggering. Scandalous. Perhaps it’s just the translation I was reading, but it just wasn’t there. The whole incarnation story was something the Word achieved himself. Apparently by his own power. At every point Big A attributes to the Word the efficacy to carry out the incarnation plan, as something which he possesses in himself. Conception, birth, life, miracles, death – even the resurrection! In this story, there’s no need for a Spirit at all. You might say, no room for a Spirit.

Now this is seriously sub-Christian. It’s just too, too bad. Jesus effectively represents the presence of a monadic God who acts alone.

Compare this to the NT way of talking about Jesus:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Mat. 1:18)

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Matt. 12:28)

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee… (Luke 4:14)

…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)

the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God (Heb 9:14)

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18)

and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:4)

I find it distressing because in it I recognise my own Christian upbringing, I hear the ways I was taught to talk about Jesus. Non-trinitarian ways. Telling a story about one person acting solo, rather than three persons acting in concert. And I realise, it goes back to the fourth flippin century. The rot had already set in by then, it’s been with us ever since. I find that a depressing thought. So wrong, for so long.

There’s more. But this is the mother of all failures. I’ll get stuck in farther into Athanasius in a later post.

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.