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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  • Rick

    For me, this portion alone may be worth getting the book.

    On a related note, Wright was very recently interviewed about this book, and other topics, on the UK show “Unbelievable”:

    http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable

    Scroll down to the “Listen on Demand” section and you will see the “N.T. Wright on Paul,….” link. Also, on the side bar at the site, you can see a link to another “Unbelievable” podcast where Wright and James White discussed their differences on the topic of justification.

  • Norman

    I indeed think we need to return to a pre-Creed version that has been handed down to us as “classical orthodoxy”. Wright delves into the purpose of the “spirit” and rightfully so as it was also the OT goal of messiah so I don’t believe Paul was introducing a new concept. However Jesus Resurrection ignited it and brought the long dormant “Spirit” to life for those of the first century. I believe the understanding of the work of the Spirit needs better clarification for the church today as it has historically been assigned every whim we can apply to it, and often not from an original Jewish perspective but from various Greek mindsets. Wright also doesn’t seem to interact with the first paragraph of this post as coherently as one might like.

    As a follow on to 1 Cor 15; I believe it illustrates the New Exodus mindset of Paul even more limiting than what Wright seems to appreciate. That section clearly sets the stage for the first Christians as engaged fully as partners with Christ in the wilderness journey to reach the Promised Land. Once obtained by Christ putting His enemies under his feet then the Kingdom work will be handed back to God. Many Christians think we are still wandering in the wilderness with Christ and at a conflagration of the physical earth perhaps then everything will be set right. That’s not what is being stated IMHO. Paul’s ideas are for those at this time whom are awaiting the ending of the old cosmological covenant of Moses. Then the New Kingdom has become fully enacted juridically and Christ and God sit together with the host of Heaven surrounding them via the picture of the Sabbath rest illustrated in Gen 2:1-3. The story is how Christ redeemed us through His works and enacted life via the Spirit today; not in the netherworld of sometime in the future.

    Gen 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

    1 Cor 15: 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death (the Law brought death, see Rom 5 – 7). 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.”[c] Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

  • Bev Mitchell

    This is beautifully put: “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.”

    If we go back to Ezekiel 10 (I think this is from something else NTW has written) we see the account of the Spirit leaving the temple. Looking beyond the strange imagery, it is really a very poignant account. The Spirit clearly did not want to leave, it was something that had to be done. The Spirit’s reappearance in Christ, in individuals, in the Church was unexpected in the form it took, but fully expected in every other sense.

    One has to read the whole chapter to get the full effect, but this provides a taste.

    “Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.” Ezekiel 10:18-19.

  • Phil Miller

    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).

    This reminds me a lot of what Gordon Fee says in magnum opus, God’s Empowering Presence. The Holy Spirit is what set the early church apart, and for Paul expecting the Spirit to be active in the Church was the rule, not the exception.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    1 Cor 15: 24-28 has got to be one of the most intriguing NT passages concerning the relationship between the Father and the Son. The subordination issue appears to be conceived by Paul in a manner that is not incorporated in later creedalism; the eschatological Jewish dynamism doesn’t seem to be referred to there.
    With all due respect for NTW and his overwhelmingly worthwhile theological endeavors (and the many other church thinkers and authors who so understandably want to stand like he does within the Grand Tradition), the intellectual back-pedaling that it takes to find within the NT confirmation of later conciliar church formulations of doctrine just never seems to me quite worthy of their abilities.

The most relevant scholarly effort to assess the historical context and content of the early Church’s belief in and experience of Christ as God seems to be that of Larry Hurtado (though JDG Dunn is not to be ignored!). His analysis concludes that despite the monotheistic exclusivism of Jewish religious beliefs, Jesus came to be worshiped shortly after his resurrection and exaltation. Earlier in the development of his research he tended to speak of the existence of a binitarian devotional practice in which Jesus as risen Lord and Son of God came to be worshiped along with Yahweh God the Father. Without an in-depth appreciation of the pre-Christian ways in which monotheistic Jews were able to understand various principal agents of Yahweh to be so closely related to Him that they could be spoken of a god as well, the innovative inclusion of Christ as an object of worship would be hard to justify. Lately Hurtado has preferred to use the phrase “dyadic devotional practice” to clarify what he saw in NT. He does accept later ecclesial creedal formulations, apparently not as a NT historian/theologian, but rather as a churchman. Notably, he doesn’t seem to adduce any similar evidence to suggest that the NT church worshiped the Holy Spirit as a distinct entity alongside the Father and Son.
    The elephant in the theological room seems to me to be both the lack of OT or 2nd Temple expressions of worship of the Spirit of God as distinct from God the Father, and the lack of NT evidence to show that the earliest believers in Christ Jesus worshiped the Holy Spirit alongside the Son and the Father. Every notable scholar realizes that the Jews understood the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, to be the active presence of their very personal God in their history, future, and/or present, but no one has yet conclusively shown any evidence to conclude that NT believers prayed to or worshiped the Spirit as a distinct “person” alongside the Father and the Son. Until that is established there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think that creedal trinitarian tradition corresponds very closely with biblical revelation.
    It doesn’t look as though NTW has contributed much to pneumatology. There is no stretch needed to identify the Spirit of God with God because the Holy Spirit had never been seen as an entity distinct from God himself. A “pneumatology” of “divine identity” is quite simply an oxymoron. Until we have fully worked out a “two wills” resolution for Christology let’s not imagine there might be a “three wills” quandary we can conjure up.

  • Norman

    Richard,

    I think you have presented a coherent analysis regarding the “Spirit”. As I said in my previous comment the Spirit has been there all along in the OT because it is considered the essence of God. Putting on Christ and the Spirit is simply embracing the Mind of God. See Paul in Romans chp 8. The battle was between what was keeping Israel from properly seeing God’s face and standing in His presence and according to Paul the way of the flesh via the Law had usurped that process. Therefore one needed to set their mind on the higher things and not on the fleshly (law) approach.

    2 Cor 3:17 Now THE LORD IS THE SPIRIT, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

    Rom 8: 5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

    Here is where “death” has been defeated.

    Rom 8: 12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, YOU WILL DIE; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, YOU WILL LIVE.

    Eph 2: 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, MADE US ALIVE with Christ even when WE WERE DEAD in transgressions—

    I believe the story of Adam and Eve is the story of Israel after the flesh thus “falling away” from God’s Spirit of Wisdom and therefore the ongoing saga of the need for Israel to be redeemed via a Messiah from the mind of the “flesh/Law”. Christ is the New Adam after the Spirit which imbues the Image of God (Spirit) upon man.

    1 Cor 15: 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Well, just thought I’d throw in another 1/2 cent worth of thought on this. _God’s Empowering Presence_ is an apt description of how Old Covenant up through 2nd Temple Jews biblically and extra biblically understood God’s Spirit: as God’s active and powerfully enabling presence. For believers in Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed by God the Father with the empowering presence of God, the promised gift had been given and his faithful followers were now to live fully by the power of that Spirit dwelling in them through Christ. This does not, however, answer the question of whether the Nicean-Constantinoplan Creeds simply reflected those beliefs or expanded on them, whether they adequately reflected the Jewish understanding of the Holy Spirit as God’s own presence among his people or whether they extrapolated beyond the biblical revelation to a new configuration of what the Holy Spirit is. The Creeds say that the Holy Spirit is coequal with and to be worshiped alongside the Father and the Son (a third distinct “personification” of God?). The New Testament (and the Old Testament as well) never provide a single example of believers offering worship or prayers to the Spirit of God as an existence distinct from God the Father (YahWeh). Shouldn’t that be considered a change, an alteration, an addition to what scriptural revelation says? This rather indirectly gets to the question of what the creed[S] do “to the early christian beliefs about Jesus.” I do think it is possible to get back very close to the simple Apostolic beliefs about Jesus and his Spirit partner in the Gospel, but it is highly unlikely that we’ll get very close considering the millennia that have passed and the extremely entrenched nature of socially constructed belief systems; I still think is wise to try (harder!).

  • Tim Hallman

    2 Cor 13:13 – as a summary, vs 14 makes more sense…?
    I’ve tended to read that verse as a poetic benediction, but it is much more compelling as a theological summary.