Son of God, Son of Man: Reviewing J.R. Daniel Kirk

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 5.04.21 PMBy John Frye

Son of God and Son of Man

J. R. Daniel Kirk (A Man Attested by God) dives into the Synoptic Gospels to support his view that Jesus is not presented as one who is ontologically God, but is, instead, an idealized human figure. Kirk is methodical and draws upon many texts (both biblical and non-canonical) to support his hypothesis. Chapter 2 considers the title “son of God.” Kirk concludes that “son of God” applied to Jesus simply means that Jesus is the chosen human agent of God, empowered by the Spirit to reign as the messianic Davidic King becoming God’s ideal human representative to rule the earth. Son of God does not (need to) suggest preexistence or divinity. Chapter 3 considers the title “son of man”which Kirk concludes simply means “a human one” or a “human being.” Again, the supporting dataset is massive. Contrary to many New Testament scholars, Kirk argues that there is no necessary ontological divinity associated with “son of God” and “son of man.” Jesus in the Synoptics fits the idealized human figure template.

When one embraces that “idealized human figures” as an established human category (in Judaism), then anyone who fits the characteristics of that category, i.e., Jesus in the Synoptics, is going to confirm Kirk’s hypothesis. Those scholars who see anything beyond an idealized human figure are making an exegetical and theological leap that is unwarranted. Kirk acknowledges that John’s Gospel and other New Testament letters point to and support a high divine Christology. That is why Kirk insists that his focus is only the Synoptic Gospels. To ascribe real deity to the human person of Jesus of Nazareth in any Synoptic text is a form of eisegesis. A real paradigm shift is needed to appreciate what the Synoptics offer about the human person Jesus and to provoke a clearer, very high human Christology.

I am familiar with the exegetical work of scholars who argue for a high divine Christology in the Synoptic Gospels. Kirk disagrees with their exegetical work because they cannot thoroughly divine, as he has, the overwhelming pattern of idealized human figures in the Synoptics. There is no need to see Jesus on the creator side of the creature/creator divide. I cannot ascertain if Kirk firmly concludes that the non-preexistent Christ Jesus “becomes” a divinized person in his exaltation and glorious enthronement. I don’t think he holds to an ontological change in the person of Christ Jesus.

Here are a few of my concerns. When one has several interpretive options in key Synoptic texts based on the available evidence, to select the idealized human figure option does not mean that the other options are invalid. For example, I am not convinced that the veneration and profound awe in Judaism for idealized human figures is equal to and the same as the worship of YHWH. This aspect of idealized human figures—receiving worship reserved for God alone—is critical to Kirk’s hypothesis. When the disciples worshiped the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 28:9), they were offering “acceptable homage” paid to the messianic king (375) and, therefore, did not infringe on their Jewish monotheism (376). Another example, the startling birth narratives in Luke’s Gospel seem to be deflated as Kirk writes, “Jesus’s conception as ‘son of God’ indicates an act of divine creation rather than incarnation” (392). Is Luke’s Jesus merely “the human Lord through whom the divine Lord rules and saves” (411)? How did the early church communities who read these Gospels accept the idealized human Jesus while the Apostles Paul and John were advancing a reconfiguration of Jewish monotheism pointing to a high divine Christology? Kirk’s answer is, “That is to say, the mere fact that one strand of early Christianity evinces a preexistence Christology does not immediately demand that all subsequent instantiations must similarly reflect the notion that Jesus is divine” (572). I would say that just because Kirk sees Jesus as an idealized human figure does not immediately demand that all other scholars use that category to interpret Jesus.

Behind Kirk’s thinking is the conceptual model of Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kirk endeavors to create a paradigm shift in Jesus studies that promotes human Christologies. Using Kirk’s characteristics of Jewish idealized human figures, one finds it difficult, if not impossible to ascertain that Jesus in the Synoptics was God in the flesh. Kirk hopes his hypothesis of idealized human figures “will to some extent stem the rushing tide of conversation about divine Christology and reclaim…the most important thing the Synoptic Gospels tell us about Jesus: he is some kind of human Christ” (581).

Since the Synoptic Gospels were written within a growing dataset of New Testament divine Christology (as attested in many of Paul’s letters), why do we need to believe that the traditions behind Matthew, Mark, and Luke fall in line with Kirk’s Jewish idealized human figures hypothesis? Within the emerging theology of the early church, why not see the Synoptics falling in line with the dawning awareness that Jesus is, indeed, the Second Adam, the ideal human being, and, yes, God incarnate? I find Kirk’s work to be a powerful verification of the true humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, which I applaud, without giving me any reason to doubt the indicators of revealed deity in the Synoptics.

I enjoy the creative unfolding of theology as a human endeavor that is reformed and always reforming. I’m not afraid of Kirk’s hypothesis. Yet, I don’t sense a thrilled advancement in Christology, but a disappointing step backward. No scholar who sees a high divine Christology in the Synoptics would disagree with Kirk’s strong affirmation of Jesus’ real, thorough-going humanity. I don’t see Kirk convincing many of those scholars to his view. I don’t see a tossing aside of centuries of traditional high divine Christologies. James D. G. Dunn’s foray into John’s Gospel brought about a dramatic change in his Christology that is advanced in his Christology in the Making (second edition). About the one most significant human being ever to be born, live, die and rise again, why do we need three of the four New Testament Gospels to simply reiterate common 1st century Jewish thinking?

Out of pastoral curiosity I ask J. R. Daniel Kirk: Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was ontologically God in the flesh even in light of your “idealized human figures” view of Jesus in the Synoptics? Do you believe the theology of John’s Gospel and, among other (assumed) Pauline texts, affirm Paul’s acceptance and repetition of the early Christian hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 that celebrates Jesus’ preexistence and incarnation as man?

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.