High on Christology Smack(down)?

Mike Bird has a post reflecting on some of the interactions about Christology in the latest issue of Expository Times, which included reviews of books on this subject both by my Doktorvater James Dunn as well as by me.

I look forward to Bird’s own contribution to the discussion, which will be named “Can You Get High on John’s Christology?” We may not see eye to eye on Christology, but I love Mike’s sense of humor.

The only point I would make in response to Mike’s post is the following: I don’t think that the statement “McGrath does not deal with the full range of relevant phenomena of Jesus-devotion, focusing almost entirely on christological beliefs and so not doing justice to devotional practices” accurately reflects the content and emphasis of my book, The Only True God. I actually look into the question of devotional practices, and note that while some Jews may have objected to direct prayerful address to an intermediary figure such as an angel, not all Jews shared such scruples. Based on textual and epigraphic evidence, I conclude that the one make-or-break devotional practice that all Jews (with one possible exception) seem to have agreed on as defining their allegiance to one God alone was that animal sacrifice was to be offered only to him. And since there was no sacrificial worship aimed at Jesus carried out by Christians, this prevents us from concluding on the basis of their devotional practices that they thought of Jesus as somehow intrinsic to the God of Israel. Those devotional practices which Christians engage in are not ones that it is impossible to imagine devout monotheistic Jews offering to the exalted Messiah, without feeling that they were either departing from or redefining the nature of God or appropriate worship as understood by at least a significant number of Jews in their time.

Be that as it may, I look forward to the ongoing conversation, and hope that we can all “get high on John’s Christology” together. Whether the cause of the high is some sort of sacrifice producing a “soothing aroma” we’ll just have to wait and see.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

    I’m having a hard time knowing what to believe on this issue (and it is of no secondary importance). You, Hurtado, Bauckham, and Dunn sure present some great cases for your positions. I seem to be leaning towards the Hurtado-camp but I find the “lack of controversy”-argument to be a weighty argument for your position. Even though it seems that most of the controversy surrounding Jesus was the fact that he was a crucified Messiah, I still think there are indications that some understood the Christian devotion given to Jesus as being controversial (e.g. 2 Cor 3). However, going so far as to claim that Jesus was God incarnate (although Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 comes close to saying that) seems to be problematic. If the notion that God had manifested himself in the flesh and walked the streets of Jerusalem was truly believed in the early Church, I think much more would have
    been made of it. I mean, Peter would have encountered YHWH himself, and James brother was indeed God. Acts would surely have reported the Jews have problems with YHWH being born as man.

    But nevermind…

    McGrath, when do you believe the idea of Jesus “merely” being
    God’s agent evolved into the notion of Jesus being God (a god?)? Should we understand the Christological language of the early Church Fathers in terms of agency as well, or is it in fact they who “misunderstand” the Jewish way of thought? If so, how early on? So when for example Ignatius calls Jesus God, do you believe that this should be understood in a quasi-trinitarian sense or that Jesus was a lesser divine being or terms of agency?

  • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

    I’m having a hard time knowing what to believe (and this is no mere
    secondary issue). Hurtado, Bauckham, you and Dunn sure present some
    make great cases. The “lack of controversy”-argument seems to be in
    favour of understanding Jesus as a agent. Although some controversy in
    response to the Jesus devotion is to be found in the New Testament
    (Acts 9:14, 2 Cor 3) most of the controversy seems to surround the issue
    of a crucified Messiah. If the
    notion that God had manifested himself in the flesh and walked the
    earth was truly believed in the early Church, I think much more would have
    been made of it. I mean, Peter would have encountered YHWH himself, and James brother was indeed God. Acts would surely have reported the Jews have
    problems with YHWH being born as man.

    But nevermind…

    McGrath, when do you believe the idea of Jesus “merely” being
    God’s agent evolved into the notion of Jesus being God (a god?)? Should
    we understand the Christological language of the early Church Fathers in terms of
    agency as well, or is it in fact they who “misunderstand” the Jewish way of
    thought? If so, how early on? So when for example Ignatius calls Jesus
    God, do you believe that this should be understood in a
    quasi-trinitarian sense or that Jesus was a lesser divine being or
    terms of agency?

  • http://twitter.com/JeremiahBailey Jeremiah Bailey

    I’m not totally up on the issue, so if I’m missing something I apologize. However, I don’t understand how sacrificial practices can be a useful measure of devotion in the case of Jesus. There is clear evidence in the New Testament that the cross is regarded as a perfect and complete sacrifice (most explicitly in Hebrews but I’d argue its presence in the Gospels), so we would not expect Jewish followers of Jesus to make sacrifices. 

  • http://twitter.com/JeremiahBailey JeremiahBailey

    I’m not totally up on the issue, so if I’m missing something I apologize. However, I don’t understand how sacrificial practices can be a useful measure of devotion in the case of Jesus. There is clear evidence in the New Testament that the cross is regarded as a perfect and complete sacrifice (most explicitly in Hebrews but I’d argue its presence in the Gospels), so we would not expect Jewish followers of Jesus to make sacrifices. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

    I would agree with you there, Jeremiah. But even so, sacrificial language is used of Christ in Romans 16:5: “Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first-fruit of Asia to Christ [απαρχη της ασιας εις χριστον]“; and let us not forget that the Eucharist in 1 Cor 10 parallells the pagans’ sacrifices to idols.

    Question to James (Given the post above, sorry for the double-question): Admittedly, my Greek is not the best, but is it not a possibility that the personal pronouns in Colossians 1:20-22 find their antecedent in the Son (v. 13)?

    1:19  For in him [εν αυτω] all the fullness of God [παν το πληρωμα] was pleased to dwell,
    1:20  and through him [δι αυτου] to reconcile to him [εις αυτον] all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross[ δι του αιματος του σταυρου αυτου] .
    1:21  And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,
    1:22  he has now reconciled in his body of flesh [αποκατηλλαξεν εν τω σωματι της σαρκος αυτου] by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him [αυτου],

    Granted, this would be the only time where Paul states that Christ was the one to whom the sacrifice was made to, but given Paul’s fluent distinction in roles between God and Christ in regards to other topics (1 Cor 8:6/Romans 11:36; 2 Cor 5:10/Romans 14:12; perhaps also Phil 2:10-11/Rom 14:11; etc.), it should nevertheless be a possibility.

    On another note: nice tags :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

    I would agree with you there, Jeremiah. But even so, sacrificial language is used of Christ in Romans 16:5: “Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first-fruit [απαρχη] of Asia to Christ [εις χριστον]“; and let us not forget that the Eucharist in 1 Cor 10 parallells the pagans’ sacrifices to idols.

    Question to James: My greek is not the best, but is it not possible that the pronoun in Colossians 1:20-22 refers to Jesus?

    1:19  For in him [εν αυτω] all the fullness of God [παν το πληρωμα] was pleased to dwell,
    1:20  and through him [δι αυτου] to reconcile to him [εις αυτον] all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross[ δι του αιματος του σταυρου αυτου] .
    1:21  And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,
    1:22  he has now reconciled in his body of flesh [αποκατηλλαξεν εν τω σωματι της σαρκος αυτου] by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him [αυτου],

  • Alethinon61

    Jeremiah,

    IMO, the important question that emerges from James’s point is  this: If sacrifice was indeed the dividing line that most or all Jews would have recognized, and if the crucifixion of Christ did in fact mark the end of such practices for Christians, then the early Church found itself in the position of having to redefine the boundary.  One would expect those who sought to offer such redefining exposition to be both precise clear, leaving no ambiguity lest Christians risk either offending God by worshiping his agent as his absolute ontological equal or offending God and Christ by showing restraint in their treatment of the Son.

    ~Kaz 

  • Alethinon61

    Jeremiah,

    IMO, the important question that emerges from James’s point is  this: If sacrifice was indeed the dividing line that most or all Jews would have recognized, and if the crucifixion of Christ did in fact mark the end of such practices for Christians, then the early Church found itself in the position of having to redefine the boundary.  One would expect those who sought to offer such redefining exposition to be both precise clear, leaving no ambiguity lest Christians risk either offending God by worshiping his agent as his absolute ontological equal or offending God and Christ by showing restraint in their treatment of the Son.

    ~Kaz 

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Jeremiah, let me put my point another way. If Christians had wanted to make unambiguously clear that Jesus was included within the God of Israel through their worship, then sacrificial worship addressed towards Jesus would have been the way to accomplish that. While some early Christians understood Jesus’ death to render animal sacrifice redundant, not all did – Acts depicts Christians participating in the temple’s sacrificial system, and Matthew’s Gospel includes Jesus’ teaching about what to do when bringing a gift to the altar.

    If the early Christian authors whose works are in the New Testament did not use sacrifice to make a Christological point, then they could still have done so using their words. But if they didn’t do that either, in a manner that is unambiguous, then I think we have good reason to draw the conclusion that they did neither because they were not in fact adding Jesus to their definition of the one God of Israel. Had they been doing the latter, surely it would be appropriate to expect that that they would have done it explicitly.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Jeremiah, let me put my point another way. If Christians had wanted to make unambiguously clear that Jesus was included within the God of Israel through their worship, then sacrificial worship addressed towards Jesus would have been the way to accomplish that. While some early Christians understood Jesus’ death to render animal sacrifice redundant, not all did – Acts depicts Christians participating in the temple’s sacrificial system, and Matthew’s Gospel includes Jesus’ teaching about what to do when bringing a gift to the altar.

    If the early Christian authors whose works are in the New Testament did not use sacrifice to make a Christological point, then they could still have done so using their words. But if they didn’t do that either, in a manner that is unambiguous, then I think we have good reason to draw the conclusion that they did neither because they were not in fact adding Jesus to their definition of the one God of Israel. Had they been doing the latter, surely it would be appropriate to expect that that they would have done it explicitly.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Pär, I think that there is probably no way of making a sharp line, but my book John’s Apologetic Christology explores some of the ways that Christology developed in the New Testament period. For instance, the dividing line between a complete inspiration and an “incarnation” is hard to define, and Jesus is already viewed as empowered by God’s Spirit in the earliest Gospel. When we keep in mind that “Word” and “Spirit” were not clearly distinguished until later, John’s Christology doesn’t seem as far away from that of the Synoptics as it might otherwise.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Pär, I think that there is probably no way of making a sharp line, but my book John’s Apologetic Christology explores some of the ways that Christology developed in the New Testament period. For instance, the dividing line between a complete inspiration and an “incarnation” is hard to define, and Jesus is already viewed as empowered by God’s Spirit in the earliest Gospel. When we keep in mind that “Word” and “Spirit” were not clearly distinguished until later, John’s Christology doesn’t seem as far away from that of the Synoptics as it might otherwise.


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