What did it mean to call Jesus “God”? NT Wright

NT Wright, in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, examines Paul’s theology as a mutation or reframing of classic Jewish monotheism themes (alongside election and eschatology), including who God is. This has led for centuries to the question If Jesus is God or if he is not God. The framing of that question, though, is often backward or sideward and often enough not — in fact, Wright would say rarely — from the ground level of 1st Century Jewish Christians.

If Paul must have been aware that he was reaffirming the classic Jewish monotheism of his day, he must equally have been aware of the fact that he had redrawn this monotheism quite dramatically around Jesus himself. This bold claim will be made good in what follows (644).

NTWright develops his christology in discussion with many proposals, including Moule, Dunn, Hurtado, but especially Richard Bauckham:

Bauckham’s proposal is simple and striking: that

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 New Testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them.

Nor did this require any backing away from ancient Jewish monotheism:

. . . this high Christology was entirely possible within the understanding of Jewish monotheism we have outlined. Novel as it was, it did not require any repudiation of the monotheistic faith which the first Christians axiomatically shared with all Jews. That Jewish monotheism and high Christology were in some way in tension is one of the prevalent illusions in this field that we must allow the texts to dispel.

Jewish Monotheism, he here clarifies, has three aspects: creational, eschatological and cultic. God is the sole creator; he will at the last establish his universal kingdom; and he and he alone is to be worshipped. This launches Bauckham into a detailed, and necessarily technical, account of Paul’s language about Jesus, from which he concludes that Paul, like the rest of early Christianity, unhesitatingly ascribed to Jesus precisely this triple divine identity. He is the agent of creation; he is the one through whom all things are reconciled; he is to be worshipped.

With all of this I am in agreement. But there is one thing missing, and it is the burden of my song in this chapter to propose it and explain it. And it seems to me that when we do so all kinds of other evidence comes back into the picture to make an even larger, more comprehensive and satisfying whole (652-653).

Wright continues on the same page, after observing that the method is backwards — namely wondering if Judaism had other figures about whom they said divine-type things, thereby making it Jewish to do what Christians did:

But to raise the question in this way is, I believe, to start at the wrong end. If the phenomenon to be explained is the fact that from extremely early on the followers of Jesus used language for him (and engaged in practices, such as worship, in which he was invoked) which might previously have been thought appropriate only for Israel’s God, why should we not begin, not with ‘exalted figures’ who might as it were be assimilated into the One God, but with the One God himself? Did Judaism have any beliefs, stories, ideas about God himself upon which they might have drawn to say what they now wanted to say about Jesus?

Which story? Here is Wright’s proposal:

Central to second-temple monotheism was the belief we sketched in chapter 2: that Israel’s God, having abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, would one day return. He would return in person. He would return in glory. He would return to judge and save. He would return to bring about the new Exodus, overthrowing the enemies that had enslaved his people. He would return to establish his glorious, tabernacling presence in their midst. He would return to rule over the whole world. He would come back to be king (653).

Here we go because the way to ask the deity question is to ask if the story about God was the story about Jesus — and I would agree with NTW on this and would also say it is the way forward in so many discussions of christology. What is the story about God? What is the story about Jesus?

Notice, though, even at this stage, what follows. Whereas in the modern period people have come to the New Testament with the question of Jesus’ ‘divinity’ as one of the uppermost worries in their mind, and have struggled to think of how a human being could come to be thought of as ‘divine’, for Jesus’ first followers the question will have posed itself the other way round. It was not a matter of them pondering this or that human, angelic, perhaps quasi-divine figure, and then transferring such categories to Jesus in such a way as to move him up (so to speak) to the level of the One God. It was a matter of them pondering the promises of the One God whose identity, as Bauckham has rightly stressed, was made clear in the scriptures, and wondering what it would look like when he returned to Zion, when he came back to judge the world and rescue his people, when he did again what he had done at the Exodus. Not for nothing had Jesus chosen Passover as the moment for his decisive action, and his decisive Passion. It was then a matter of Jesus’ followers coming to believe that in him, and supremely in his death and resurrection – the resurrection, of course, revealing that the death was itself to be radically re-evaluated – Israel’s God had done what he had long promised. He had returned to be king. He had ‘visited’ his people and ‘redeemed’ them. He had returned to dwell in the midst of his people. Jesus had done what God had said he and he alone would do. Early christology did not begin, I suggest, as a strange new belief based on memories of earlier Jewish language for mediator-figures, or even on the strong sense of Jesus’ personal presence during worship and prayer, important though that was as well. The former was not, I think, relevant, and the latter was, I suggest, important but essentially secondary. The most important thing was that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus had accomplished the new Exodus, had done in person what Israel’s God had said he would do in person. He had inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. Scholars have spent too long looking for pre-Christian Jewish ideas about human figures, angels or other intermediaries. What matters is the pre-Christian Jewish ideas about Israel’s God. Jesus’ first followers found themselves not only (as it were) permitted to use God-language for Jesus, but compelled to use Jesus-language for the One God (654-655).

So now to this:

All these themes, then, lead into one another, spill over into one another, presuppose one another, interact with one another: Exodus, redemption, tabernacle, presence, return, wisdom, kingship (655).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    Excellent. I’m only just reading Wright’s “Simply Jesus”, in which essentially this same theme is expounded at a less scholarly level.

  • G Dub

    is Wright a preterist?

  • mark

    Yikes! I’m not sure what being a “preterist” is exactly, but it sounds nasty!

  • Norman

    Scot has said he is a Preterist a few years back. Keep in mind that there are essentially two distinct groups of Preterist (partial and full). Also I don’t think I’ve ever encountered either one in which any agreed completely with another in their respective groupings. :)

  • mark

    Tx, Norman. Let me take this opportunity to also state that I think Wright is very correct to raise the issue of God–what do we mean when we say that. That’s part of what’s behind my constant yakking about “the identity of God.”

  • http://www.redtheology.com/ Mark Edward

    Wright places huge importance on first-century events for the eschatology of Israel. This includes the recognition of the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem as featuring prominently in Jesus’ prophecies (and even his parables).

    However, preterism is self-restricted in connecting most or all New Testament prophecy (and a significant chunk of Old Testament prophecy) to 70 AD. Wright doesn’t do this. He says some things that fits right in with preterism, but then he says some things that fit right in with historicism and futurism and idealism, too.

  • Gordie LaChance

    I like this. NT Wright is very close to becoming a preterist I think (or covenant eschatologist, as we prefer to be known). Jesus’ death and resurrection started his 40 year exodus, paralleling the Exodus of Israel, and 40 years later (70AD) came back to judge Israel, remove the Old Covenant and fully install the new covenant.
    Everyone seems to want to get back to Eden, as if it was perfect. But God was dwelling alongside Adam and Eve, not within them. That’s what the promise made to Israel is. It’s what the Bible builds too. Yes, having God walk in your garden from time to time is cool, but it’s 1000x cooler to have Him take up residence in your heart. 24/7/365.
    The idea of Christ’s return wasn’t to give us a return to Eden, but to fix what was broken (relationship) and fix it in a much superior way from what it was originally. Hallelujah.

  • http://www.redtheology.com/ Mark Edward

    Wright recognizes the eschatological importance of 70 AD in the prophecies of Jesus, but he is nowhere near being a preterist. (Whether ‘partial’ or ‘full’.) If you’ve read Wright’s books Surprised by Hope or Revelation For Everyone, you should know how far off-base saying this is.

  • Gordie LaChance

    I don’t understand how my hope and future projection could be off-base. If I made a statement of the present, then sure. But not a future thing.
    But my intention is to say that many things Wright now claims about eschatology are like the T and the U of Calvinism’s TULIP. Calvinists will say that once you have the T, the rest plays itself out logically.
    This is how I see Wright. He acknowledges a lot of the same things preterists do, and I hope it’s only a matter of time before he completes the logic. And realizes that verses like Jesus saying he’s returning in “this (1st Century) generation” and Paul saying Christ’s return will provide relief to the Thessalonians very real, physical oppression can be taken as stated.

  • mark

    Yeah, this points directly to where I disagree with NTW:

    Central to second-temple monotheism was the belief … that Israel’s God, having abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, would one day return … to be king (653).

    It was then a matter of Jesus’ followers coming to believe that in him … Israel’s God had done what he had long promised. He had returned to be king.

    There are a number of problems here. One is that, on a purely historical level, we have in recent decades come to understand that “Second Temple Judaism” was a complex phenomenon–Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, etc.–and it is still imperfectly understood. In that context, what could it possibly mean to speak of “the belief” of Second Temple Judaism? Wright’s understanding of “second-temple … belief” with regard to the Temple is by no means universally accepted.

    More importantly, NTW is clearly implying–if not outright asserting–that “second temple belief” is no more than an organic development of Israelite religion; he draws no distinctions between what the Israelite authors whose works were incorporated as “scripture” believed and “second temple belief”– “second temple belief” is normative for Jesus. Following on that, NTW maintains that the significance of Jesus is that, in Jesus, God has acted to fulfill the expectations of Second Temple Judaism.

    I maintain that NTW’s conclusions are clearly unsupported by the evidence. Re the relation of Second Temple Judaism to prior Israelite religion there are, of course, many excellent works available. I would strongly recommend a work that readers here may well be familiar with: James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible, particularly the last two chapters, “Daniel the Interpreter” and “After such knowledge …” To attempt to understand “second temple belief” as a simple organic development of Israelite religion goes beyond historical naivete to something approaching anti-history.

    Of course I’m not suggesting that Jesus can be understood without also understanding his Second Temple context. I am, however, maintaining that Jesus’ stand toward “second temple belief” is by no means simply that of, Here I am, come to fulfill your beliefs! And once you come to that understanding, that Jesus’ relationship not merely to “second temple belief” but to the entire Israelite past is complex beyond the parameters of a simple “fulfillment narrative/ideology,” then important possibilities are opened up for understanding God’s self revelation in Jesus.

    BTW, I’ve recommended this before (I think), but an excellent account of how the early Church into the Patristic period wrestled with the question of God is Cochrane’s great classic: Christianity and Classical Culture.

  • http://thesometimespreacher.com/ Andrew Holt

    While I agree that Second Temple Judaism is a complex phenomenon, I think you would be hard pressed to find a subgroup that actually believed YHWH had already returned to his people, that knowledge of him was spreading across the earth as the waters cover the sea, or that the nations were flocking to Zion to learn about the one true God. Whether you’re talking about the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, or whomever, it appears that nobody actually believed that YHWH had become king and that the ancient prophecies had come true. While they disagreed on many things, and perhaps most especially on exactly how YHWH would become King, no one believed that his had already happened. If there was one thing that all the various groups could agree on, it was that Israel, though they had come back to the Promised Land, was still in some sort of exile. Their God had not come back to them. The clearest evidence for this, of course, is the long line of pagan nations that had ruled over Israel, finally culminating in the rule of the Romans. As long as Caesar was King, YHWH was not.

  • mark

    Andrew, I don’t disagree with most of what you’re saying, strictly speaking, but the question remains: What is the significance of what you (and Wright) are saying? What conclusions are we to draw from it? That Wright’s GRUNT (Grand Unified Narratival Theology) has captured the significance of Jesus? That because we “would be hard pressed to find a subgroup that actually believed YHWH had already returned to his people” that that would in fact happen–that that “second temple belief” must be accepted as normative for God’s plans for his self revelation in Jesus? I don’t think that follows.

    I suggest, earnestly, that you won’t understand my point without taking into account the relationship of “second temple belief” to the history of thought in Israel. Again, I recommend Kugel’s book as an easy way to get into those issues. It’s not at all some dense account of the Second Temple period. Instead it focuses in a very accessible way on the relation of “second temple belief” to what came before.

    Thanks for the comment (and challenge).

  • http://juliemwalsh.blogspot.com/ Julie Walsh

    Mark, I think a grand narrative with Jesus as its conclusion is required unless you are a chronological modalist like Sabellius, right?

  • mark

    Julie, I haven’t a clue what “a chronological modalist like Sabellius” might be. :-( OTOH, I certainly believe that Jesus is the God’s ultimate self revelation, which is the culmination of an historical process. :-)

    Granting for the sake of argument that “a grand narrative with Jesus as its conclusion is required,” I would not want to concede that any narrative with Jesus as its conclusion is good enough, nor even that just any such narrative is a step in the right direction.

    I started out with Wright thinking that I was relatively in sympathy with him, but I’ve come to learn that he’s moving in a direction that I think is dangerous for Christian faith.

  • danaames

    Mark, I’m a pretty good reader, but I have trouble following your points, and figuring out exactly in what way/s you and Kugel, for example, differ with Wright, even on your blog with longer posts. Obviously, you have done much study on this, and the accusation that Wright is “moving in a direction that I think is dangerous for Christian faith” is quite serious. So write up your book and have it published so that it may make its way into the circles Cochrane, Kugel, McKnight, Hurtado and Wright inhabit. I think that would be much more helpful for everyone than to keep saying “Wright is wrong.”

    Or alternatively, correspond with Wright. I know he answers both email and snail mail, and that he is up for this kind of discussion. He may not change your mind, but I think both you and he would benefit from the exchange.

    Dana

  • mark

    Dana, thanks for the comment and suggestion–although I hope, I think, I do more than simply say “Wright is wrong” (great pun) at considerable length. In my defense, I would say that these are complicated matters and perhaps can’t be simplified much further. Consider, for example, Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God/ Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol.1. I’d be very surprised to learn that most of the readers here find Part II, “Tools for the Task,” easy reading. If they say they do, then I don’t think they’re doing Wright justice. Let me say that I think I’m quite a bit better prepared for that section than most people but, believe me, I worked through that section very carefully.

    Let me also add this. I think what you’re saying illustrates a problem with Wright’s, uh, writing. I think he’s as good a writer as he is a speaker–although his constant use of “not least” has begun to grate on me. However, perhaps because of his very readability (usually), I suspect that quite a few people take for granted that they really understand what’s he’s saying, and he does nothing to disabuse them. For example, in his work cited above, are you sure you understand what he’s talking about when he refers to “critical realism”? I doubt it–not to be in any way patronizing, but simply because I strongly doubt whether virtually any of his professional colleagues understand it themselves. And yet many readers probably breeze through that section without too much reflection–moving on to the “important” parts. Let me repeat something I’ve said before, in addition to “Wright is wrong”: because of his fairly strong background in philosophy, Wright’s thought can be more challenging that it appears.

  • danaames

    I do indeed agree that part 2 of NTPG was not an “easy read” – but it also was not unclear, and I could follow Wright’s line of reasoning. I’m not saying “make it simple” in the sense of “dumb it down” – I’m asking you to be more specific, with clearer definitions and a supported line of reasoning that can be followed by a non-technician.

    Write your book.

    Dana

  • mark

    Point taken, Dana, and I really will try to do better–and to write that book. Believe me, I’ve thought long and hard over this. Maybe I’d have it done by now if I didn’t keep getting sidetracked with other things–like commenting on blogs.

  • danaames

    I will also say, to be honest from my side, that I really didn’t have any “good news” about Christianity to tell people until I read Wright, and he made the entire New Testament cohere for me. I don’t believe that Wright means to say that a GRUNT is the point. His whole scheme, including the narrative view *as a part of* it gave me a real honest-to-God integrated, holistic theology that was head and shoulders above anything else I had read. I finished JVG with an overwhelming urge to fall on my face and worship Jesus. I have heard many people explain, IRL and on forums like these, how Wright’s work has saved their Christian faith. So yeah, it is kinda personal, and until I entered EOrthodoxy I had encountered nothing better.

    Interestingly, there are many, many connections between how Wright describes the worldview of the earliest Christians, who were a part of and came from 1st century Judaism, and the theology that finds expression in EOrthodox worship (we don’t have “systematic theology” – we have about 30 volumes of liturgical worship, and that is where one finds the theology). I would not call the writings of the Apostolic and Greek Fathers, St Isaac of Syria or St Maximus the Confessor “modernist” (and neither were they “Platonic dualists”). Wright told me that others have told him they see a connection between his conclusions and Greek patristic thought as well. Many Orthodox of my acquaintance, including priests with a lot of education, are fans of Wright.

    So write your book. And send me an autographed copy, please 😉

    Dana

  • http://juliemwalsh.blogspot.com/ Julie Walsh

    Mark, hopefully I’ll get this right. But the doctrine of the Trinity is that all three persons of the Trinity are always present. So Christ is the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world (Rev). If Christ and Spirit are there from Creation and throughout the time before Jesus, I believe they would be effective and influencing history and the narrative of God’s self-revelation to get humanity to the place of the revelation in the Incarnation–hence the Grand Narrative.

    You might really enjoy the book used in my Sys Theo class, Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction. I use it all the time.

  • mark

    Perhaps I’ll take a look at McGrath’s book–I’ve been tempted in the past but something always comes up, it seems.

    BTW, when you say, “Christ and Spirit are there from Creation” I think you should be saying something like “the Logos/Word and the Spirit” exist eternally in communion with the Father. Jesus, who was called the Christ/Messiah/Anointed, doesn’t really = God/Logos/Word, in that Jesus is also True Man. I’m not going to claim to be the last authority on the Trinity, but I will say that I tend to favor the Orthodox use of “assume” in reference to Jesus and the Trinity, which the Catholic Church appears to moving toward as well.

    But I don’t mean to be hypercritical. I do agree–very much so, in fact–with what you’re saying:

    I believe they would be effective and influencing history and … God’s self-revelation to get humanity to the place of the revelation in the Incarnation …

    Wright would do well to think over what you’re saying. Notice, though, that I omitted “the narrative of.” That’s because I regard God’s self revelation to be more than narrative–I regard it as factual. And I regard God’s self revelation as active not only in books or scrolls but in the history of the people of Israel itself. In that regard, I highly recommend Mark S. Smith’s work, especially “The Memoirs of God.”

    One book on theology that I have used rather extensively is J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines.

  • mark

    Julie, I think the translation you’re using is confusing:

    So Christ is the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world

    The Greek in the Revelation isn’t always the clearest, but I believe that it should be translated so that “from the foundation of the world” refers to the the Lamb’s book of life:

    καὶ προσκυνήσουσιν αὐτὸν πάντες οἱ κατοικοῦντες ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, οὗ οὐ γέγραπται τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τῆς ζωῆς τοῦ ἀρνίου τοῦ ἐσφαγμένου ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου.

    All they who dwell on the earth will worship him, [they] whose names don’t stand written in the slaughtered Lamb’s book of life [which is] from the foundation of the world. (13:8)

    The idea is probably that those whose names are in the book of life are known “from [before] the foundation of the world,” by God from eternity. I’m not a big fan of the NSRV, but here’s how they put it–and I think they’re right:

    everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

    I like the way they convey the Greek use of the singular for “name” rather than translating it in the plural the way I and most others do.

  • http://juliemwalsh.blogspot.com/ Julie Walsh

    Mark, good theologians go both ways on the translation of this verse. But (last comment)–since Wright here interacts with Bauckham I’ll quote from Bauckham’s Theology of the Book of Revelation (though not written by Paul): “When the slaughtered Lamb is seen “in the midst of’ the divine throne in heaven (5:6; cf. 7:17), the meaning is that Christ’s sacrificial death belongs to the way God rules the world…But if God is not present in the world as ‘the One who sits on the throne’, he is present as the Lamb who conquers by suffering….God is related to the world not only as the transcendent holy One, but also as the slaughtered Lamb” (64-5).

  • mark

    Oh, btw, just thought I’d mention that I like Larry Hurtado’s work.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X