Think you can stump a scholar? No question is too tough or too radical (this IS the Bible after all — a tough, radical book) for our new Stump a Scholar series at Patheos Progressive Christian. Every week, we’ll answer your questions about the Bible, Christian history, the Church, theology; and we’re bringing in the experts to tackle your questions.
This month, we’re focusing on the Bible and have invited Jerry L. Sumney, professor of biblical studies at Lexington Theological Seminary, to be our resident scholar. Sumney is the author of Colossians: A Commentary (2008) and Identifying Paul’s Opponents (1990). He is also the editor of Reading Romans (2012) and the coeditor of Theology and Ethics in Paul and His Interpreters (1996) and Paul and Pathos (2006). He’s also the author of the brand new Bible: An Introduction, Second Edition from Fortress Press, a dynamic interactive digital textbook for learning about the Bible on your own.
Professor Sumney will be answering your questions about the Bible for the next several weeks here at the Faith Forward blog (subscribe to the blog on the right so as not to miss any of the series!). The first question comes from our Facebook inquiry last week (to which many of you responded) and is from Juan L. Keep the questions coming in the Comments section below or on Facebook! Your comments on Sumney’s answers are also welcome below.
Juan asks: If Jesus was God, then why did he pray to the father? Was he talking to himself? When the voice of God spoke at his Baptism and Holy Spirit descended as a dove, why are they referred to as separate entities (and why the need for David Copperfield)?
Professor Sumney responds:
It is hard for us to think about the identity of Jesus as it is seen in the New Testament because we have 2,000 years of development of thought between us and those writings. The way this question is formulated seems to presuppose an understanding of God as Trinity, even if that seems unacceptable. Not New Testament writer held the doctrine of the Trinity. That doctrine did not develop into what we know as the Trinity until the 4th century. There are a lot of texts that people have drawn on to support this doctrine, but no New Testament authors actually have that understanding. Perhaps the next thing to say is that all New Testament authors consistently and clearly distinguish between God and Jesus Christ. Even those who call Jesus Lord maintain a difference between the risen Christ as Lord and the God who raised him from the dead and exalted him. Texts that have Jesus say things such as “The Father and I are one,” are best understood as assertions that the will of Jesus and that of God are one. Even when the opening of John says that the “Word was God,” the meaning is not that there is not distinction between God and Jesus. Most scholars of John compare this passage to statements about Wisdom as a personified characteristic of God. Wisdom is said to be God’s agent in creation, as Paul says about Christ. This personification Wisdom can be called “god” by good Jewish writers (especially Philo of Alexandria). So it is certainly an exalted identity when John writes those opening verses, but he never equates the God of Israel with Jesus. Jesus is a manifestation of God’s presence and word, but not the same being.
It might be helpful to look at passages like Philippians 2:6-11. Most scholars think that this is an early Christian hymn. It sees Jesus as God’s agent in creation and in sustaining the cosmos. Still, Christ is obedient to God and raised by God. Then it says that all the cosmos will recognize the Rule (the Lordship) of God. Now verse 11, the conclusion of the hymn is important: all of this recognition of Christ leads to the central goal, all of it is done to bring glory to God. All the recognition that Christ receives points beyond itself so that its goal is honoring God. A similar relationship is found in 1 Corinthians 15 and in the sayings of Jesus in John in which Jesus identifies himself so closely with God. Jesus still does what he does to honor and obey the God who is other than his own person.
As the church tried to reconcile the various titles given Jesus in the New Testament and their experiences of the Spirit in their worship with their belief in one God, doctrines like the Trinity developed. It was not the only option the church explored, but it is the one that eventually becomes dominant.
Got a question? We’ve got an answer! Join the new Stump A Scholar series here at Patheos Progressive Christian with your question below…
And to learn more about the Bible on your own, check out The Bible: An Introduction, Second Edition interactive digital textbook by Jerry L. Sumney here!