What Counts as a Historical Precedent for New Testament Christology?

Jesus monotheismFor the last 30 or so years (or maybe more), there’s been a running debate surrounding the nature, shape, and origins of New Testament Christology. How high or low was it really? Was Paul really working with a concept of Christ as fully divine and fully human a la Chalcedon, or did that come later as the Church reflected on the implications of what Paul and the other apostles wrote? And did Jesus think himself divine? Was that even an option for a 1st Century Jew? Where did that Christology eventually come from? Was it the influence of Greek, pagan cult, or rooted in classic, Hebrew monotheism? And are these even the right questions? (See Wesley Hill on this)

While much New Testament scholarship in the 20th century took it for granted that “high” Christology was a later development, scholars like Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Chris Tilling, N.T. Wright, and others, have recently forwarded a thesis of early “Christological Monotheism” that argues the earliest Christology we have is a divine Christology. From the beginning, Paul, John, and the other apostles believed there to be one God (YHWH) and yet, somehow, the man Jesus was central to that one God’s identity (1 Cor. 8, Phil. 2, Col. 1, John 1, etc).

This “emerging consensus” has grown in force and strength over the years, despite variations among the different proponents. Some emphasize the new pattern of reading Scripture that forced the early Christians to recognize Christ as the one who has come and done what only YHWH himself would come and do (Wright), or the fact that he is ascribed the divine Name (Bauckham), or that he receives worship in a way only suited to the Creator in Jewish monotheism (Hurtado). All the same, one thesis that most seem agreed on is that this “Christological monotheism” has no real precedent in the 2nd Temple Jewish texts of the period before Christ.

Crispin Fletcher-Louis disagrees. He does so in a recently published first work of an ambitious, projected four-volume series on the issue, Jesus Monotheism Volume 1: Christological Origins: The Emerging Consensus and Beyond. I’m only about half-way through it, but it’s already proving instructive and provocative. For those interested, in the series, Fletcher -Louis aims both to support and forward the “emerging consensus” while simultaneously critiquing and strengthening it from what he takes to be real weaknesses, due largely from a failure to consider biblical anthropology and theology.

While mostly appreciative of Bauckham and Hurtado’s work (often sharply defending them against critics such as James Dunn or James McGrath), here he says they’ve missed the mark. They say that the various designated emissaries of God such as kings, prophets, priests, nor angelic figures were ever included in the identity of the one God, nor did they receive the kind of worship that Jesus does in the New Testament. Fletcher-Louis thinks that while they are right to point out the real, sharp discontinuity with anything that’s come before in pre-Christian Judaism, their method doesn’t give proper due to the range of thinking about Messianic or medatorial figures present in the 2nd Temple texts discovered by recent scholarship (128-129).

At this point in the study, he notes two problems with their method. First, he thinks they handle key texts idiosyncratically, taking minority positions without showing their work enough. Fletcher-Louis aims to tackle that issue at length later, with case-studies in key texts (130).

Second, and this was the interesting point for me, Fletcher-Louis claims they don’t handle the notion of precedents properly with respect to NT Christology. Obviously, there is no exact precedent. There is a radical discontinuity and difference. There is no direct parallel, nor does the Old Testament explicitly demand the New Testament’s Christology (though it is not inconsistent with it). All the same, Fletcher-Louis says that Hurtado in particular “demands too much of the Jewish material for it ever to hope to gain a proper hearing as a factor in explaining the phenomenon attested in the NT” (131). In other words, Hurtado has too high a criterion for what counts as a “precedent” and so it’s obvious that he won’t find one. There won’t be a precedent for each and every part in a single figure, but given the fact that the “Christological monotheism” of the New Testament has many parts, it can be shown that many of the various parts can be found in other sources, even if the whole is not.

He uses an illustration I found particularly instructive:

The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) is generally, reckoned, to have anticipated Luther’s German Reformation with an uprising against the power of the clergy in Renaissance Florence. But the full flowering of the theologcal and ecclesial revolution was only seen several decades later the other side of the Alps in Germany (and Switzerland). Savonarola was an historical precedent for Luther, but by no means did his attempted reformation have all the elements of the theological, ecclesial, and political revolution that would spread from Germany.  For the waves of Pentecostal and Charismatic renewal and revival that have overtaken parts of the church in the twentieth century there is precedent in pietistic and popular movements, some of which were focused on visionary and “Spirit” experiences, in the medieval church. But in many ways modern Pentecostalism is theologically (and sociologically) quite peculiar to the twentieth century. Such is the stuff of historical precedent. And sometimes precedent entails a degree of historical causality…but sometimes it only offers an intriguing comparison from another, separate historical context… (131)

In the same way, it’s not that we must find a total package Christological monotheism before Christ for it to count as a precedent, but similar elements. Nor, argues Fletcher-Louis, should we be too worried that some anticipations to the Christology of the New Testament might sideline the uniqueness of Christian claims. On the contrary, the similarities are precisely what can aid us in understanding the distinctive character of Christian worship of Christ in distinction from surrounding movements and theologies in the 2nd Temple literature we find (132).

I find his point well-taken, though, it remains to be seen (at least for me) whether he actually does demonstrate the precedents, or whether he does properly safeguards against some of the parallelomania that’s prevalent in certain quarters of the NT guild. Given the case he’s made so far, though, and this write-up of his work by Andrew Wilson, I’m quite excited to see him make the attempt.

Soli Deo Gloria

He Knew What Was In Man–And Yet He Came Anyways

Calvary_movieposterOne of the striking things about Jesus’ earthly ministry, was his stark realism about the people he was working with. When the crowds initially huddled around him to make him king, impressed by his outward signs, Jesus did not entrust himself to them, “because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). John Chrysostom notes that this is sign of Christ’s divinity, since only God can know the hearts of men: “He therefore needed not witnesses to learn the thoughts of His own creatures, and so He felt no confidence in them because of their mere, temporary belief.” Jesus was no sucker.

Recently watching John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary called this aspect of Jesus’ character to mind. Calvary tells the story of a parish priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), in a small community off the coast of Ireland. He’s confronted in the confessional by a local man, a victim of the horrifying sexual abuse at the hands of a clergyman, who tells him that within a week’s time, on Sunday, Father James is to meet him on the beach where the man is going to kill him. The man (who remains initially off-screen and nameless) says that he’s going to kill Father James, not because he’s a bad priest, but precisely because he is a good priest. That’s not the kind of thing people could ignore, anymore.

The rest of the film takes place in the remaining seven days as Father James struggles with his choice to either turn the man in (since the confessional seal does not apply to a future, unrepentant crime), run, or remain to minister to him, all set in the context of ministering the broken, wretched, sinful, and unrepentant people of the town. And unrepentant, they are. In a week’s time, Father James encounters adulterers, the violent, a serial murderer and cannibalist, pederasts, a self-absorbed, financial fatcat, cynical atheists, pornographers, and just about anything else you can imagine. And it is this aspect, among many others, that gripped me.

Father James is not a perfect priest. Some of the counsel he gives is quite inept, he curses, he drinks, and seems to look the other way on all sorts of sins, I’d probably think to say something about. All the same, Father James has a serious sense of vocation to give comfort and solace to the people of his parish in the various situations in which they find themselves. In doubt. In fear. Trapped in self-hate and depravity. Bitter apathy. Self-violation. It is to these that Father James came to give comfort and whom he could not abandon. Even as they mock him. Even as they attempt to bribe, cheat, and deceive him. Even as one–one who called him friend–threatens to kill him.

While grieved, Father James is not basically shocked. He is grieved, but looks at these people–his people–for what they are and he ultimately chooses to dwell among them all the same.

We have countless reasons to marvel at the Incarnation, the metaphysical mystery of the humiliation of the Son come in the flesh of a baby boy, of course. All the same, it is perhaps this dimension that has compelled me over the years. Jesus knew what was in man. He was not shocked or surprised at our sins, at our pettiness, our narcissism, and self-absorption. He wept over Jerusalem, but he knew why he came; he came for the dregs. To live, to breathe, to sweat, to laugh, to cry, and eventually, to die among them, so that they might one day live again with him.

The Incarnation is the good news of the God who knew what was in man, but came anyways.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Christmas v. Advent?

Mere FidelityMerry Christmas! Well, presuming that you haven’t had N.T. Wright steal away your Christmas fun. The usual crew shows up this week to discuss this article by Peter Leithart (a self-proclaimed Grinch of sorts). In a sense, what do we gain and what do we lose when we start to pit the Christmas of Faith against the Nativity of History? Is it Christmas v. Advent? Do our cultural expansions of the Christmas stories add or detract from our understanding of what happened all those years ago?

We hope this conversation deepens your Christmas reflections as it has ours.

Soli Deo Gloria

Of the Father’s Love Begotten: The Virgin Birth as Image of the Trinity

holy spiritThere’s no way around it–the miracle of Christmas is a trinitarian event through and through. Contemplating the baby born of the virgin Mary, sleeping in the manger in 1st Century Bethlehem, eventually will draw you into eternity to worship the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As I was reading Christopher Holmes’ excellent new work on the Holy Spirit this week, I ran across a fantastic passage where he is draws out some of the implications of Augustine’s theology of the Trinity by illustrating them by way of the virgin birth:

Jesus is conceived in the power of the Holy Spirit. His earthly birth points to his heavenly birth; his mission reiterates his procession. He is born in the Spirit in time, conceived in the Spirit, who is the Father’s love for him, and throughout his life is filled with the Spirit, who enables him to be who he is even in death, the Son of God. Thus the Son’s mission of obedience reflects the Son’s generation from the Father, who in generating him gives him his Spirit, the same Spirit whom the Son pours out on all flesh and who is “proper” to the Son as one eternally born of the Father. This is the Father who eternally generates the Son in the Spirit. Accordingly, the Spirit is the love of the begetter for the begotten; and the begotten for the begetter.

– Christopher Holmes, The Holy Spirit (New Studies in Dogmatics), 77-78.*

Now, there are a number of fascinating threads to tease out in this dense passage.

First, we must remember that all of God’s acts are Triune acts, even the ones we typically associate with one of the persons. As the old principle has it, all of the Trinity’s works outside the Trinity (Creation, Redemption, and Consummation), are indivisibly those of the whole Trinity. How could it be otherwise if the three persons truly are the One God?  But it’s also important to note that there is a trinitarian unity displayed in the indivisible works in history such that we begin to see the outlines of God’s inward, eternal life as Father, Son, and Spirit. In fact, it’s God’s work in history as we have it in the New Testament that originally forced the Church to recognize that God is eternally triune.

Second comes the issue of the “processions.” Augustine (and I’d argue, the New Testament) teaches us that the persons of the Trinity, while being one God, are distinguished from one another by “relations of eternal origin.” In other words, in all eternity, God has been self-related as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit such that there are patterns of relations between the persons. The eternal “processions” of the Son and the Spirit (God does not become a Trinity) are the key realities distinguishing God’s internal life. Classically, it’s been said that the Son proceeds from or is “begotten” or “generated” by the Father (fathers beget sons), the Spirit is “breathed out” or proceeds from the Father and/through the Son, and the Father is the eternal source who proceeds from no one. This is who the persons are–their relations are their identities and so forth.

Third, as already noted, there is a close relationship between who God is in eternity and who he shows us he is in history. When God works in history, while we don’t see all that God is in his eternity, we do see truly who and what God is. To put it another way, when the Son and the Spirit are revealed to us in their “missions” in history (becoming incarnate, being sent by the Father and Son to the church, etc), these missions map onto or are indicative of the eternal processions. There is fit between them. There is something about who the Son is in relation to the Father in eternity that makes it suitable that he specifically is the person who becomes incarnate for our salvation.  The one who is eternally begotten by the Father above is now begotten below without a human father. So while God is not reducible to what he does in history, what he does in history reflects the glory of God’s eternally resplendent being.

Fourth, in the Western tradition, especially after Augustine, the Church has recognized that the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from the Father is not apart from the Son. In fact, the Nicene Creed teaches that he proceeds “from the Father and from the Son.” This is because in Scripture he is shown to be sent by both Father and Son (cf. John 14:16, 15:26; 16:7), and is often referred to as both the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Acts 16:7; Phil. 1:19). So if the Son also sends the Spirit in history and the Spirit is that of the Son, that points to the Spirit’s procession coming from the Son as well as from the Father, though in a unique, differentiated way.

Now, Augustine adds another dimension to this. He says that the Spirit is not only the Spirit of Son and Father, coequal with both, eternally one with them, God proceeding from God, but on the basis of some key texts, that the Spirit’s unique processions ought to be thought of as the love of Father and Son. All of this transcends human speech, of course, but the Spirit is the Love of God for God–he is the Love that God is, precisely as the love of the Father and the Son. 

In which case, there are multiple dimensions of depth to that classic hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The Son is eternally begotten in the love of the Father “ere the worlds began to be.” The Son is begotten in time, born of a virgin (“that birth forever blessed”) by the Father’s love for his wayward creation. But this happened, “by the Holy Ghost conceiving”, God’s own Love is the agent of Christ’s mysterious, miraculous appearing. Of the Father’s Love begotten, indeed.

In the virgin birth, we don’t simply have a neat trick, then, a cool miracle proving that Jesus is God, but rather a sign, a mirror refulgent with glory of the Holy Trinity.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For those curious about Holmes’ work, I commend this post to you whereby he introduces his project.

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

TMere Fidelityhis last week, Alastair, Andrew, Matt, and I took up a discussion through John Barclay’s new book, Paul and the Gift. Three of us (Alastair, Andrew, and I) have already read and reviewed the book, but we wanted to delve deeper into what we found though-provoking, ground-breaking, unhelpful, and so forth. We touch on issues of Pauline theology, grace, Barclay’s thesis in particular, and theological method with a few sparks flying in the midst of it all. A very lively conversation, if I do say so myself. We hope you enjoy.

If you do, feel free to share:

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2015

We’ve hit that time of the year when bloggers run out of posts to write, so they come up with “top 10” lists of their favorite movies, albums, or what-have-you, of the year. Theology bloggers are no different. For the last few years, I’ve put up my Top 5 Reformedish Books of the year. This is a difficult category in some ways, not only because some years you happen to read a number of very good books, but also you often find that the best books you’ve read in a year, haven’t been published long before. In keeping with past years, though, I’ll simply keep to five books I have read from all years, with a bonus book. Oh, and, of course, these follow in no particular order.

The City of Godcity of god by St. Augustine. Yes, I know I’m a bit late on the game with this one, but I finally made it to Augustine’s classic defense of Christianity and polemic against the pagans earlier this year and was astonished. I think I wrote about four or five different pieces, but suffice it to say that it proved for me, once again, that time spent with Augustine at any point in your theological career is never wasted.

sondereggerSystematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1 by Katherine Sonderegger. I’ve already joined the choruses praising Sonderegger for her brilliant first volume on the doctrine of God in this promising project. I certainly don’t follow her in all of her conclusions, but the creativity, pastoral, literary, and theological mastery at work, make this a unique delight. More please!

MullerPost-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 Volumes by Richard A. Muller. I wrote about this before, but this year I made it through all four volumes of Muller’s treatment of the Post-Reformation dogmaticians on theological method, doctrine of God, Scripture, and Trinity. They were illuminating volumes, not only from a historical angle, but a theological one. I’ll be returning to these constantly in the future.

The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological ReasonDomain of the word by John Webster. This collection of essays by eminent theologian John Webster are a treasure trove of theological insight. While not necessarily a consistent, long-range argument, Webster’s treatments of everything from the nature of reason, Scriptural inspiration, principles of systematic theology, theology’s relation to the arts, and the intellectual virtues, are a must-have for students and practioners of the theological craft.

atonementAtonement: A Guide for the Perplexed by Adam Johnson. I’ve read a lot of atonement theology this year, but Johnson’s little volume stands out among them. It’s irenic, multi-faceted, and chocked full of theological insight and good sense. As I’ve said before, it’s not simply a book of atonement theology, but also an introduction to how to read and do atonement theology that both shows and tells. It’s a real gem that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Finally, a special category, I read a fantastic piece of nerdy, fantasy fiction this year: The Name of the Wind which is book one in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. Magic, mystery, humor, love, loss, and all that jazz. I can’t wait to jump into volume two once my studies abate over Christmas break.

So there you have it. My top five and a fiction bonus.

Soli Deo Gloria