Neil asks in connection with my post Talking Jesus: problems with the modern evangelistic paradigm: “how do you view the Trinity given your statement about the uniqueness of Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ and everyone else’s encounter with either the pre-risen Christ or the Holy Spirit post-resurrection?” I had complained that in the “Talking Jesus” report on evangelism in England the understanding of Jesus that dominates the New Testament is entirely disregarded. I will try and explain roughly how I think the Trinity fits into this argument.
1. Whatever inkling the disciples may have had of Jesus’ future exalted status (eg. Mk. 10:37), they don’t appear to have been under the impression that they were dealing with someone who claimed to be God incarnate. The authors of the Synoptic Gospels, at least, were careful to keep such speculations out of their accounts.
2. Paul clearly did not “see” the Second Person of the Trinity on the way to Damascus. He saw the recently crucified Jesus who had been raised and seated at the right hand of God—made both Lord and Christ, as Peter puts it (Acts 2:36). Others had similar visions—Stephen, for example (Acts 7:56)—though Paul seems to have thought of his own encounter as in some way unique (1 Cor. 15:8; Gal. 1:16). I take it that this revelation was received quite widely in the churches, though perhaps in a less dramatic visionary fashion, through the Spirit.
The point of these visions was that they established and confirmed the belief of the early church that Jesus had been vindicated and given authority to judge and rule over both his own people and the nations in the age to come. It was a belief or faith firmly oriented towards a future crisis and transformation:
For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess. 1:9–10)
My view is that this constitutes the dominant and most important story that is told about Jesus in the New Testament following his death and resurrection. It does not identify or equate Jesus with God. Jesus is rather the obedient servant who is exalted and given the authority to judge and rule as Lord and King—an authority which YHWH otherwise reserved for himself.
This is most, if not all, of the argument of the Christ “hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus does not take the path of the pagan divine ruler who seeks to make himself equal to God. He takes instead the path of the servant, in obedience to YHWH, and is subjected to a humiliating death on a Roman cross. But he is vindicated for his faithfulness and given the name which is above every name, etc. The outcome will be the one envisaged in Isaiah 45:20-25: the pagan nations will abandon their idols and glorify the God of Israel.
3. The experiential basis for this apocalyptic christology was the resurrection of Jesus and the charismatic experience of the early—and I suppose we might add the concrete historical expectation that the nations of the empire would confess Jesus as Lord.
It is less clear to me why the early Christians told a second, less developed, more speculative story that associated or identified Jesus with the divine Wisdom or logos by which all things were made. My working assumption is that the Wisdom motif basically provided a way to talk about the new world that was coming into existence as a result of the apocalyptic narrative. This seems to me to be especially clear in Hebrews 1:1-2:9.
Once the connection with Wisdom was made, it led in two directions. First, it gave expression to the belief that Jesus was, like Wisdom (cf. Prov. 8:22-31), the agent of creation, the one through whom all things were originally made (Jn. 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2).
Secondly, Hellenistic Judaism already had the idea that divine Wisdom came into the world and dwelt in Israel in the form of Torah:
Then the creator of all commanded me, and he who created me put down my tent (skēnēn) and said, ‘Encamp (kataskēnōson) in Jacob, and in Israel let your inheritance be.’ Before the age, from the beginning, he created me, and until the age I will never fail. In a holy tent I ministered before him, and thus in Sion I was firmly set. In a beloved city as well he put me down, and in Jerusalem was my authority. And I took root among a glorified people, in the portion of the Lord is my inheritance. (Sir. 24:8–12)
This seems a fairly obvious antecedent to John 1:14: the Word through which all things were made “became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen) among us”.
4. As the church consolidated its position in the Greek-Roman world, it had less need for the apocalyptic narrative with its orientation towards vindication and a future kingdom. But the Wisdom-logos motif would prove increasingly useful as a way to reconcile the unique status attributed to Jesus with a more rationally constructed notion of divinity. The Logos christology of Justin Martyr, for example, was a significant staging-post on the way to Trinitarian orthodoxy.
The point I would stress here is that the whole process was thoroughly contextual. It remained a matter of how people encountered and talked about Jesus in their cultural-historical context. Patristic orthodoxy was just as much a response to circumstances as Jewish apocalypticism. Paul encountered the risen Messiah. The Fathers encountered—in a less violent sense—the Second Person of the Trinity.
The early Jewish church drew on Old Testament and Jewish-apocalyptic categories, imagery, narratives, in order to express the conviction that Jesus had been put in control of the foreseeable future. To a significant degree this was underpinned by charismatic experience.
The Greek-Roman church responded to the intellectual and apologetic challenges presented by its very different cultural environment to reformulate the relationship between Jesus and the Father in broadly (neo-) Platonic terms. This was underpinned not by charismatic experience but by the furious ratiocinations of the Fathers.
The process and the outcome were neither better nor worse than in the case of the apocalyptic argument (except insofar as they led to a massive depreciation of the Jewish biblical narrative, which we are only just getting over). It simply had to be done. And it’s now part of the story.