What did the Creed do to the early Christian beliefs about Jesus?

What did the Creed do to the early Christian beliefs about Jesus? November 14, 2013

One of the most common observations about the development of Christian theology, particularly classical orthodoxy, is that it grew, sometimes dramatically, and that those special lines in the Nicene Creed owe their origins to Greek philosophy and not the Jewish faith of those earliest followers of Jesus. Put differently, the creed is not the faith of the early Christians, especially Paul. This leads many, and I’m thinking of folks like Harnack, to prefer the simple, monotheistic and Jewish faith and orthopraxy of the 1st Century over the complex, philosophical trinitarian orthodoxy of the creed.

Many today seem to me to want to return to the pre-Creed version of our faith. What do you think? Possible? Impossible? Wise?

It appears to me that NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, would do more than disagree with Harnack. Listen to these lines:

Indeed, with both christology and pneumatology it seems that the normal assumption of many writers is radically mistaken. It is not the case that the New Testament is unclear or fuzzy on these subjects, and that the early Fathers invented a high view of Jesus and the spirit which was then wrongly read back into the early period. Rather, it seems as though the earliest Christians, precisely from within their second-temple Jewish monotheism, leapt without difficulty straight to an identification of both Jesus and the spirit within the divine identity, which the early Fathers then struggled to recapture in the very different categories of hellenistic philosophy. As with christology, so with pneumatology. The idea of a ‘low’ Jewish beginning, from which a gradual ‘ascent’ was made on the dictates of Greek philosophy, is exactly wrong. The Jewish context provided the framework for a thoroughly ‘high’ christology and pneumatology, and it was the attempt to restate that within the language of hellenistic philosophy, and without the help of the key Jewish categories, that gave the impression of a difficult doctrine gradually attained (710). #boom

In particular, exactly as with christology, what strikes me as most important is what has normally been omitted from discussions. Paul uses, of the spirit, (a) language associated with the long- awaited return of YHWH to Zion, with Israel’s God coming back at last to dwell within his temple and (b) the closely related biblical language associated with YHWH being present with his people in the Exodus, leading them in their wilderness wanderings. These features indicate that, for Paul at least, the spirit was not simply a generalized or sub-personal divine force that later theology would turn into a third ‘person of the Trinity’. As far as Paul was concerned, the spirit, just like Jesus, was doing what YHWH himself had said he would do. The spirit was the further, and ongoing, manifestation of the personal presence of the one God (710-711). #boom

This is NT Wright’s big picture. How does he work this out? Wright sees the Spirit in the NT as the new Shekinah (presence of God in the temple) and the new Exodus. Hence…

My point can be simply stated. When Paul speaks of the individual Christian, or the whole church, as the ‘temple’ in which the spirit ‘dwells’, such language from a second-temple Jew can only mean (a) that YHWH has returned to his Temple as he had promised and (b) that the mode of this long-awaited, glorious, tabernacling presence is the spirit. If we can speak, as we have done, of a christology of divine identity, drawing on the eschatological side of second-temple monotheism, the evidence compels us to do exactly the same with pneumatology (711).

He looks at 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:18-20; 2 Cor 6:14–7:1, and Eph 2:19-22 with Romans 8:9-14 — these are new Shekinah passages.

New Exodus: Gal 4:3-11; Rom 8:1-17, 22-27, 28-30; 1 Cor 12:11-13; 2 Cor 3.

What God did in the original Exodus is what God has done for the church in the Spirit.

All of this, then, leads Wright to see “nascent trinitarian monotheism” (721). He sees those Jewish categories as “more helpful” than later Greek philosophical categories.

2 Cor 13:13 is the hard earned theology of Paul.

Kingdom language, with Jesus as the one who secured victory, is the same idea: what was God’s work in the OT is the work of Jesus in the NT. Hence he looks at 1 Cor 15:20-28:

That is why, as we shall see in the next chapter, Paul’s hailing of Jesus precisely as Messiah is so important –and why, we may suppose, that category has for so long been thoroughly out of fashion in New Testament scholarship. Without pre-empting our later discussion, we may just say this: where theologians concentrated their efforts on the task either of demonstrating Jesus’ ‘divinity’ or of questioning it (or, at least, of questioning whether it was present in the earliest Christian sources), the category of Messiahship seemed irrelevant. It was Jewish; it was political; what role could it play in Paul’s ‘Christian’ theology? How could it befitted in with the obviously central theme, that of the crucifixion? But such a way of thinking (which has now in any case run into the sand) comes nowhere near the rich integration of themes in Paul’s actual letters. This, in fact, is where the present chapter and the next two are tied tightly together. It is because the redefinition of monotheism we find in Paul focuses on Jesus in order to highlight the inauguration of God’s kingdom in and through him, particularly through his crucifixion that we are forced to put the category of Messiahship back where it belongs, right at the centre of Paul’s thought.348 The kingdom has been inaugurated through the work of Jesus, who, both as the embodiment of Israel’s God and as the single bearer of Israel’s destiny, has defeated the old enemy, has accomplished the new Exodus, and is now, by his spirit, leading his people to their inheritance — not, of course, ‘heaven’, but the reclaiming of all creation (734-735).

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