These are the posts which, by my rough-and-ready calculation (allowing for the fact that some are older than others), have generated the most interest over the last year. It’s not a very meaningful exercise—there must be more exciting ways of ending the year—but, with the exception of number 8 on trinitarian arguments for the subordination of women, they give a good impression of the core purpose of this blog. And what is that core purpose? It is to explore the relationship between the biblical narrative and history and to ask how such a historically grounded narrative may inform the life and mission of the church today.
Tomorrow I plan to publish a list of the most popular posts on P.OST over the last year. But it was suggested to me by someone before Christmas that Hebrews 3:3-4 makes sense only if ‘the author is flatly calling Jesus “God”’. I want to get this out of the way first. So with the usual caveat that this is not an argument against Trinitarianism, which I regard as a later reframing of a narrative problem, but an argument for the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament, here is how I think this very interesting passage should be read.
At a time when the celebration of Jesus’ birth is being buried ever deeper beneath the landfill-waste of a decadent, hedonistic, secular western paganism, we are naturally anxious as the church to recover the true meaning of Christmas.
What we expect to find, when all the modern stuff has been stripped away, is a universal religious idea, pure and simple, divested of both narrative and historical context—that out of love for humanity God became flesh in a helpless babe. That’s fine. It has some point to it. But it is a theologically inspired reduction of the New Testament material to something more congenial to the mindset of the post-Jewish church. The story that is actually told in Matthew and Luke is rather different.
Following the recent posts on “divine identity” christology, I have been urged to have a look at what N.T. Wright does with the argument in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
Wright starts by tracing developments in Pauline christology in the modern era (644-53). The two competing “orthodoxies” of post-Enlightenment discourse have been: i) the reductionist view that Jesus was a great teacher who was mistakenly divinized by his followers at a later stage in a thoroughly Hellenistic context; and ii) the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as simply God. In neither case is the proclamation of the coming kingdom of God taken into account. In the middle of the last century the dominant history-of-religions approach gave way to a new perspective that prioritized the Jewish origins and character of the New Testament. Within this new tradition opinion has divided between scholars who argue for an Early High Christology (Hurtado, Bauckham) and those who hold to a more “developmental” approach (Dunn, Casey, Vermes).
I couldn’t make up my mind what to write about this week. I was going to do something on the rather depressing Westminster Faith debate on the future of the Anglican Church that I attended last week in Oxford. I’ve also had it in mind to write a review of Emily Ackerman’s The Amazing Technicolour Pyjama Therapy, which is published by my friends in Edinburgh. But Richard Bauckham’s “divine identity” argument is still going round in my head, so it’s back to christology, I’m afraid. I want to examine this assertion in his book Jesus and the God of Israel:
From the earliest post-Easter Christology that we can trace, Jesus’ exaltation was understood as his sharing the divine throne in heaven and thus participating in the divine rule over the cosmos. (172)
￼I said a couple of weeks back that I would post the document that Christian Associates, my favourite church-planting people, recently published on gender equality in leadership. It’s probably fair to say that we have held an egalitarian position in practice for years, without exciting much internal controversy. The document was not designed to settle an internal dispute so much as to clarify our position for the benefit of organizations, churches, and individuals who might be interested in working with Christian Associates. But we also wanted to take the opportunity to state our commitment to gender balanced leadership as a matter of missional priority defined in biblical rather than socio-cultural terms.
The document was a team effort, though it has to be said that I had a disproportionate influence on its development and final shape, for better or for worse. I have added a couple of footnotes referencing my book Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul for the detailed exegetical arguments and have provided links to posts on this site where appropriate. Inevitably, the document is only a summary of the group’s discussions and a pointer to the wider debate.
In the last two posts I suggested that the claims put forward by Richard Hays for “divine identity” in the Synoptic Gospels are problematic less for what they affirm—I am not arguing against Trinitarianism—than for what they obscure. Matt Colvin had this comment to make, and I think it merits a response:
I would gladly read more from you about what is missing or wrong about “divine identity” christology. If it is steamrolling an important narrative, flesh that out for us. Or remind me if you’ve done it elsewhere. (I have Re:Mission, The Future of the People of God, and The Coming of the Son of Man, and have benefited greatly from them all, but I don’t recall anything specifically targeted at this issue.)
Another questionable line of interpretation, if I may make so bold….
Jesus says to his disciples, “I will give you a mouth and a wisdom that none of those who oppose you will be able to stand against or contradict” (Lk. 21:14-15). Since his imminent death is in view, he must mean that he will have authority “to confer speech and wisdom in a supernatural manner” beyond death, in Richard Hays’ words. We may compare God’s promise to Moses: “Now go, I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (Exod. 4:11-12).
In Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness Hays asks how it is that Jesus has such authority (71). How is it that he can confer powers and blessing “that no one but God could confer”? How can he appoint disciples and give them authority over demons and diseases? How can he promise to send power from on high upon his followers and then “in the dramatic opening scenes of Acts, fulfil that promise by pouring out the Holy Spirit”? Surely the power to send the Spirit “is a prerogative that belongs exclusively to God”?
People who read this blog regularly will know that I am generally rather sceptical about claims that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—intended to present Jesus as God. See, for example, “Jesus as Lord in Mark” or “Simon Gathercole’s argument about pre-existence and divine identity in the Synoptics”. I’m not saying that the idea does not occur, in some form or other, elsewhere in the New Testament, or that the later church was wrong to construct its theology in formal trinitarian terms. I am well disposed towards the view that the divine emperor paradigm was a significant factor in the development of the “kingdom” argument, providing a bridge between the early apocalypticism and the later metaphysics. But I am concerned that in our zeal to establish an early high christology we risk misrepresenting what is actually happening in the Synoptic Gospels, which is kingdom, not incarnation.
I have been involved with Christian Associates in one capacity or another—as a pastor, inept church-planter, teacher—for the last twenty years or so. I love the people, I love the organization, I love its vision for starting imaginative new communities of faith in a difficult secular environment, and I love its willingness to give serious attention to its theological underpinnings. One of these days I will post the statement on gender balance in leadership that we recently produced, as an example of our determination to develop a solid, missionally focused, biblical theology for our work.