Ed Dingess, who appears to be a Reformed apologist, has taken the trouble to add some polite and thoughtful comments to my post “Kenton Sparks: historical criticism and the virgin birth”. He makes some good points and raises some good questions about the narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament, recognizing that it cuts across the grain of more traditional theological readings. He takes issue, however, with my suggestion that it is “difficult to maintain the view that the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels claimed to be God”:
The theme of the divinity of Christ is obvious, not only in the initial launch of Mark’s project which points us up to the coming of Israel’s God in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the fact that it is carried on throughout the entire project itself.
I will address some of the broader issues relating to method and traditional theological readings in another post—I don’t want my approach to be understood as anti-trinitarian; I don’t think it is, fundamentally, anti-trinitarian. Here I want to consider the claim that the Old Testament quotations in Mark 1:2-4 introduce the theme of the divinity of Jesus. The theoretical discussion should not be pursued apart from a careful and unprejudiced reading of the texts.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:2–4)
The quotations from Isaiah and Malachi make it clear that Jesus is expected to fulfil the role of the “Lord” who will both judge the corrupt temple system (Mal. 3:1-4) and restore Israel following punishment (Is. 40:1-5). In the Old Testament this role is performed by YHWH. John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins because Israel faces divine judgment.
But as I’ve pointed out on many occasions, the synoptic writers—and the writers of the New Testament generally—do not construe the lordship of Jesus as an expression of his identification with God, as a matter of ontological equivalence. Rather they maintain that Jesus has been chosen and authorized exceptionally by God to judge and restore.
So yes, Old Testament kyrios texts are applied to Jesus, but not because Jesus is thought to be YHWH: rather the role or function or agency that is indicated by kyrios has been transferred by YHWH to Jesus for the sake of the eschatological renewal of his people. So the Jews who will be saved from the destruction of the end of the age are those who call not on the name of YHWH but on the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32). Why? Because by the resurrection “God has made (epoiēsen) him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
This is clearly and repeatedly stated, and it needs to be respected. There is no point in defending a high view of Christ at the cost of a low view of scripture.
Mark’s Gospel slips comfortably into this narrative. The messenger who prepares the way for the Lord says that Jesus will be greater in that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mk. 1:8). At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit descends upon him, and a voice is heard identifying Jesus not with God but with the chosen servant of God, in whom God delights, upon whom God has set his Spirit so that he will “bring forth justice to the nations”, the king to whom God will give the nations as his heritage (Mk. 1:10-11):
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Is. 42:1)
I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” (Ps. 2:7–8)
That is, John prepares the way for the Lord who will come to judge and restore Israel, but the one who directly appears is the chosen, Spirit-filled, servant of God, authorized to carry out, on behalf of God, the tasks implied in Mark 1:2-3. He will be able to pour out the Spirit on his followers not because he is God but because he “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:33).
This is also what we are to understand by the proclamation with which Jesus then begins his ministry:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mk. 1:15)
The coming of the kingdom of God will climax in the vindication of Jesus as the Son of Man, who will receive kingdom and glory from God, and of those who are not ashamed of him at his coming (Mk. 8:38).
At the end, Jesus tells Caiaphas that he will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). The allusion to Daniel 7 and Psalm 110 makes it abundantly clear that Jesus sees himself as the one who will, as a consequence of his suffering, be authorized by God to judge and rule at least Israel and possibly also the nations.
So this is how the expectation generated by the quotation of Isaiah and Malachi right at the start of the Gospel is realized. First, the story of Jesus’s baptism identifies him as the chosen servant who will baptize Israel with the Holy Spirit, who will judge the corrupt temple system, who will rule at the right hand of YHWH. Secondly, Jesus himself tells a story about the coming kingdom of God that will climax in his exaltation to the right hand of the Father in the heaven, from where he will rule as God’s proxy until the last enemy has been destroyed (cf. Mk. 12:36).
Only God can forgive sins?
Ed also puts forward the familiar argument that only God could forgive sins, therefore Jesus was God:
Statements about His Lordship over the Sabbath, His ability to forgive sins…, etc., show that the authors believed Jesus to be divine and they show Jesus to be self-consciously aware of His own divinity.
The problem is that the texts simply do not bear that out. Jesus explains to the shocked scribes why he presumes to forgive the paralytic’s sins: it is not because he is God but because “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. Normally God would forgive sins from heaven, but exceptionally—and outrageously—he has given the authority to forgive Israel’s sins to Jesus on earth, because he is the Son of Man (Mk. 2:10). In Matthew 9:8 the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men”. There is no suggestion that they had jumped to the wrong conclusion. In fact, they appear to have understood Jesus perfectly.
The simple fact is this. At every point in the New Testament “lordship” is something that is given to Jesus by his Father, especially as a consequence of his obedient suffering. Philippians 2:9-11 could hardly be clearer: Jesus was obedient to death, therefore God bestowed on him the name which is above every name. The lordship of Jesus is the wrong place to look for a New Testament statement of divine identity.
Classical trinitarianism is powerless to tell this story. Classical trinitarianism can only render it down to a metaphysical drama about incarnation and redemption. What we lose is not only the sense that at the heart of this is Israel’s story, but also the crucial significance of Jesus’ role as an obedient son or servant who is the forerunner of the eschatological communities—the firstborn of many brothers—which will have to make the arduous historical journey from the mess of first century Israel to the victory of YHWH over the nations.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
The same argument applies in the case of another passage that Ed highlights:
Having read a few of your responses to those texts that most orthodox scholars accept as pointing to the divinity of Christ, I could not help but notice that when given the chance to admit that a particular passage (Matt. 28:19) is likely revealing Christ’s divinity, you preferred the interpretation with a lower christology, even when that interpretation has less to commend it.
All the way through Matthew the sonship of Jesus entails an identification with obedient Israel (“out of Egypt I have called my son”), with the servant of YHWH, and the thought that the obedient servant will be vindicated and given authority to rule at the right hand of the Father (Matt. 16:27; 26:64). The “Son of God” is the faithful Jew who has made the Lord his dwelling place, who will be safeguarded by God’s angels (Matt. 4:6; cf. Ps. 91:9-11). The “beloved Son” is YHWH’s servant, Israel’s king (cf. Matt. 17:5). This identification with obedient Israel is carried through to the extent that Jesus promises his disciples that they will reign with him (Matt. 19:28).
So when we come to the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19, we must surely suppose that baptism in the name of the Son means baptism in the name of the one who was obedient, suffered, died, was raised to the right hand of the Father, and who would sooner rather than later come to judge and rule over his people. The candidate for baptism identifies himself or herself with this story. It might provide the basis for a narrative or apocalyptic trinitarianism of some sort—that remains to be seen. But it is too much to claim that either Jesus or Matthew was referring in non-apocalyptic terms to the three persons of the triune God.
I’ll come back to the issue of a “lower christology” bias another day.