Sunday, November 13, 2011

Orthodoxy in Christology

While I entirely agree that Jewish monotheism was the context of thought within which early christology originated and developed, I think that the relationship of early christology and Jewish monotheism has been profoundly misunderstood.  It is vital to work with categories that are appropriate to the texts we are considering, and it seems to me that the category most helpful for characterizing both Jewish monotheism and New Testament christology is that of divine identity.  Jewish theology was much more concerned with 'who God is' (divine identity) than with 'what divinity is' (divine nature).  Jewish monotheism defined the unique identity of  God - what it is that constitutes God the only God - in a number of ways, of which the most prominent are that the God of Israel is the only creator of all things and the only sovereign ruler of all things.  These were ways of distinguishing the one God absolutely from all other reality.  The exclusive worship of only this one God was the appropriate way of recognizing his unique identity.  When we read the New Testament with these ways of characterizing the unique identity of the God of Israel in view, it becomes very clear that the New Testament writings use precisely these uniquely divine characteristics to include Jesus within the unique identity of the God of Israel.  When Jesus is pictured as seated at God's right hand on the cosmic throne in heaven from which God exercises his sovereign rule over all things, Jesus is being included in the unique divine identity.  It is not that Jesus is exercising a divine function which God may delegate to someone other than God.  Sovereignty over all things is a uniquely divine relationship to the world and belongs to who God is. 
Similarly, and even more unambiguously, when the New Testament portrays the preexistent Christ participating in God's work of Creation, there could be no clearer way, in Jewish theological terms, of claiming that Jesus belongs - eternally - to the unique identity of the one God, the God of Israel, the Creator and Ruler of all things.  This is why early Christians worshipped Jesus without supposing that they were abandoning Jewish monotheism.  In terms of the definition of Jewish monotheism, the worship of Jesus as included in the unique divine identity made sense, whereas the worship of Jesus as someone other than God, to whom God merely delegated divine functions, would have been idolatry and effectively polytheism.  Early Christianity remained monotheistic precise because it attributed divinity in the fullest (and only true) sense to Jesus, not because it made Jesus some kind of lesser divinity distinguished from God.
From this perspective all christology in the New Testament is equally 'high' since at least Jesus' status as exalted to the divine throne of the universe - the symbol of God's uniqueness - is everywhere presupposed and in this basic sense the New Testament writings share a common christology.  Against the background of twentieth-century study of New Testament christology, I find rather astonishing to be able to say that, from Pentecost onwards, there was never a stage at which Christians did not consider Jesus to share in the unique divine identity, but I think this is true.  In the New Testament there is christological development in the sense of drawing out the implications of this, but there is no development from 'low' to 'high' christology.  New Testament christology is already the highest possible christology - but developed and expounded in Jewish theological terms.  What made the difference for the Fathers was, first, a context in Hellenistic philosophy which highlighted divine nature rather than divine identity, and, secondly, the temptation to understand monotheism in a non-Jewish way, such that the uniqueness of the one God (the Father) could be maintained by attributing subordinate divinity to Christ. 

1 comment:

  1. I see the Deity of Christ being demanded by Scripture based upon the attribution of titles, attributes and glory which are unique to the being called God.

    Unlike today's cultists who explain to us that Jesus really was not claiming an ontological oneness with the Father, the Pharisees understood this and thus charged the Lord with blaspheming, and they would have been right if Jesus was not who/what He was claiming, even by His personal use of the term "my Father:"
    "Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God." (John 5:18)

    “His own” (idion) in a sense not true of others. (RWP) cf. Rom_8:32 for ho idios huios, “his own Son.”

    I think one of the most subtle but purposeful revelations on this begins in Jn. 12:34b, in response to the query, "who is this Son of man?." In which Is. 6:10 is referred to in its fulfilled sense, and the Lord that Isaiah saw high and lifted up when he gave that prophecy is said to be Christ,(vs. 39-41), for "he that seeth Me seeth Him that sent Me." (John 12:45)

    And at that time the Lord asked Isaiah, "who shall go for US." (Is. 6:8)

    But just before this Jesus hid Himself from those who did not obey the light they had, for
    "Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour." (Isaiah 45:15) To the glory of God, who reveals His covenant to them that fear Him. May i do so more as i should.