How High is Kyrios Christology?

Nijay Gupta has offered a reply on his blog to my post which was critical of his claim that, since Jesus is referred to as “lord” in the New Testament, and “lord” could be used to refer to God, therefore Jesus was being identified with God.

My complaint was, in the first instance, about the way the equation was presented, which seemed to me far too simplistic.

But as Nijay points out, there are passages in the New Testament where Biblical texts which refer to “the Lord” – or in the Hebrew to Yahweh – are applied to Jesus.

How should such passages be understood? I think that we have a clear answer given within the New Testament (although there is relevant background to be found outside it).

In Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus is “hyper-exalted” to a status beyond any that he is said to have had before. In the process, he is given the “name that is above every name” – i.e. the divine name. That name is explicitly said to be given to him by the one who exalted him, namely God. It is not said to be something that he possesses as part of his nature – on the contrary.

And so the New Testament kyrios Christology is indeed rightly called a “high” Christology. It has a human being exalted to a status second only to God himself, and having bestowed upon him the very name of God, enabling him to exercise rule over all things on God’s behalf.

Calling such a Christology “low” would be inaccurate. But so too would be claiming that these texts depict Jesus as sharing in the divine “nature.”

When Nijay writes that “It is hard to read 1 Cor 8:6 and not think that Paul’s own use of Kyrios for Jesus is a “Most High” divine title,” I have to disagree. The text sets Jesus alongside the one God. It doesn’t divide God into one God and one Lord.

And so, in short, I think I was right to emphasize that the mere use of “lord” is not in and of itself indicative of divinity, and Nijay was right to push back that some instances of the title in the New Testament apply Yahweh texts to Jesus. But carrying the discussion further, I think that the New Testament texts themselves indicate that the Hebrew Bible texts applied to Jesus are understood to apply to him because God has bestowed the divine name Yahweh upon him, and not because he is a figure who shares eternally in the divine nature. The latter seems to clearly represent a historical development out of the relevant textual data, and not something that those texts presuppose or assert.

See also Ken Schenck’s post (giving in to the siren call from Nijay, myself, and other bloggers) raising the question of what the consensus on Christology is at the moment. It seems to me that there is still the same longstanding tension between scholars who seek to find ways to defend traditional credal Christology as being an accurate representation of what the New Testament says, and scholars who regard later Christology as a significant development beyond what the New Testament texts (and particularly the earliest of those texts) say.

UPDATE: See now also Nijay’s post on Gathercole’s chapter in the response book, as well as Dustin Smith’s post interacting with Nijay and myself.

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  • Sean Garrigan

    Good points, James. As I’ve shared here in the past, I think that verses like Eph. 1:3, 2 Cor 1:3, 1 Pet 1:3, etc, essentially nullify the argument that Kyrios, when used of Jesus, was a substitute or rendering of the Divine Name. Such verses would have been tantamount to saying “the God and Father of Yahweh”, which, I suspect, would have been abhorrent to Jews, and would have required elucidation.

    Philippians 2 is different, as you note, as it deals with the exaltation of God’s chief agent, and employs rich symbolism in doing so.

    • James Dowden

      I think we have to differentiate between two different uses here:
      1) anarthrous kyrios unmodified; and:
      2) anarthrous kyrios with a proper name.

      The former is Biblish for the LORD, the latter is incredibly common and just the way one refers to any master from Herod to Claudius. Normal Greek doesn’t stop existing because there is a layer of Biblish going on.

  • smijer

    First a somewhat off-topic question, then an on-topic quibble:
    1) – Would you say that Hebrews 3 reflects the author’s view of Jesus’ eternal nature, his exalted status, or something else such as his status during his career but before death and resurrection? Would you say the parallels drawn fairly explicitly between Jesus and Yahweh in Hebrews 3 (especially 3:3-4 and 3:6,14-15) support a “higher” christology than merely possession of the divine name and authority (as it seems to read to me)?
    2) – “It has a human being exalted to a status second only to God himself” – I quibble… I see where “second only to God himself” is not contradicted by the text is placing Jesus “second” to God required by the texts you are discussing? Wouldn’t it be more neutral to characterize the Kyrios christology as portraying Jesus as second to no-one with the possible exception of God himself?

    • James F. McGrath

      Hebrews 3 puzzles me, I confess. Jesus is said to be appointed. The builder of the house gets more glory than the house. Moses is as a servant in God’s house, and Jesus like a son. The author’s point could be clearer.

      In 1 Corinthians 15, however, it is clear that all things are subjected to Christ by God, that God is not thus subjected, and that Christ hands all things over to God in the end so that God can be all in all. That seems clearer than your language of “with the possible exception of God.”

      • smijer

        It seems to me that Jesus is parallel to the “builder” while Moses is parallel to the “house” in 3. I just don’t see where Jesus’ implicit designation as son differentiates him from the position of builder and its implicit designation as God… ?

      • C. Bauserman

        Hebrews 3 seems to pull a few weird transitions. First it calls Moses faithful “in the household,” JUST AS Christ was faithful in the house as a high priest (seemingly equal footing). Then it compares Jesus to the builder and Moses to the house itself, saying Jesus has greater glory. It flips back to saying Moses was faithful in all the house, but Christ was a son over the house. It then proceeds to designate what the house is: us. The problem is, it seems like the author is playing off multiple meanings and designations of “house” in that tiny structure…

  • Wayne Coppins

    Dear James, just a minor point and yet one that I think is important, since rhetoric matters. It may just be me over-reading your phrasing, but I find some discomfort in your way of setting up the tension between scholars. On one side you place “scholars who seek to find ways to defend” and on the other side “scholars who regard”.The reason that this frustrates me is that it reminds me of what I sometimes find in quite conservative scholarship, where it is sometimes suggested that scholars (like me) who do not reach their same conclusions are seeking to find ways to undermine the Bible or the like, often by subtly referring to them as “critics”. For my part, I think that with regard to the issue at hand there is a tension between scholars who regard traditional creedal Christology as standing in substantial continuity with earlier and later New Testament perspectives and scholars who regard such Christology as going beyond what is found in the New Testament in a way that introduces a substantial note of discontinuity. At the same time, I think that scholars on both sides are rightly (!) seeking to find ways to defend their perspective, just as I think most (or at least many) scholars on both sides are open to reconsidering their conclusions in light of further discussion and debate. For my part, I don’t see the tension as a contrast between “defenders of the Bible” and “critics of the Bible” as some conservative scholars unfortunately frame it or as a contrast between “historical, objective, honest scholars” and “non-historical scholars blinded by dogma” as less conservative scholars are sometimes inclined to frame it, but between scholars of good will (at least in very many cases) on both sides of this issue (and other issues) who are genuinely seeking to grapple with what views and understandings of the Bible do justice to the Bible and the contents and questions that come to expression within it. So my critique of your phrasing in this post involves a subtle point of rhetoric, and yet one that I think matters. At the same time, what I greatly respect about your post here and more generally is the way that you almost invariably make a concerted effort to advance your own perspective with careful arguments that try to provide a plausible account of the material at issue, a point that also applies to Nijay’s posts. For my part, I do feel the weight of many of your arguments, which (like Daniel Kirk’s arguments) have helped me to rethink some of my perspectives and shift some of the accents of my own understanding, even if I am still inclined, at least at present, to find a higher Christology earlier than you do and to find greater continuity between traditional creedal Christology and the earlier and later perspectives of the New Testament. All the best, Wayne

    • James F. McGrath

      Thanks for making these points, Wayne. I do think that there is definitely a false contrast between “defenders” and “critics.” There is a risk on one side of the spectrum of conforming the evidence to a creed, and on the other side of trying too hard to avoid having the evidence conform to a creed. There are serious scholars on both sides, and people whose role merges with or entirely becomes that of “apologist” when you get far along towards the extremes. I definitely don’t want to articulate, or inadvertently reinforce, that dichotomizing language that I once engaged in and took for granted myself!

      • Wayne Coppins

        Thanks James, I like the way you have formulated the issue that I was raising and appreciate your sensitivity to it!

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Thanks, James. Who was the first scholar who said that Paul “split the Shema?” Was it perhaps James Dunn? Because if it is so, then what “splitting the Shema” means to Dunn is completely different from what it means to Evangelical apologists today. Right?

    • James F. McGrath

      I thought it was N. T. Wright who coined that phrase.

      • Jaco van Zyl

        Aah, thanks for clarifying. I still think that the whole “splitting” attempt is more a permutation than a split.

  • houseman

    I would like to join this discussion. In the very beginning, at creation, who was Jehovah[YHWH] speaking to when the words was spoken, “Let US make man? It was not JESUS. Remeber this angelic creature had his own name in heaven at this time, one that Jehovah [YHWH] called him for eons of time before the creating of anything angelic or physical. JESUS was the name given to the HUMAN baby born through the woman Mary. At his baptism when he was 30 years old he was appointed by his Heavenly Father Jehovah [YHWH] as the CHRIST. When he died he left that name hear in the grave, as he did his fleshly body. He would have taken back the name he had before he left to do his Father’s will and live as a human on earth. Because now he is resurrected back as a spirit creature, faithful in what he was to do, Jehovah [YHWH] gave him the gift of immortality and the ‘name above every other name’. That name only those in heaven know. why is that? Because the same thing Jesus taught here on earth holds true even now. He came to do his Father’s will, not his own. We are discussing Jesus superiority, when in fact Jesus wanted nothing of it. He wanted his Father’s name known not his own; not even the praise this world is trying to give him. The name is for Jehovah to his Son, not for us. Paul spoke of the ‘name’ we need to call on for salvation at Romans 10:13 ” For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Paul was quoting the prophet Joel, the name( i.e. “the Lord) is not speaking about Jesus Christ, but Jehovah God Almighty, his Father in heaven. So the name that we as humans need to know is Jehovah [YHWH], because Jesus taught it to his disciples, made it known, prayed for it to be sanctified. This is the line of thought Jesus taught and which the Scriptures today teaches.