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My problem with divine identity christologies: Hays, Bauckham, Wright

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.)

I want to approach it by way of Richard Bauckham’s essay “Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity”, which is published in Jesus and the God of Israel, but can be accessed online. In it he discusses Romans 10:9-13, a passage in which he believes Paul “interprets Jewish monotheism christologically”:

…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom 10:9–13 ESV)

The argument is that Paul has taken a text from the Old Testament that applies to YHWH and has applied it to Jesus. On a day of judgment against Jerusalem, when there will be wonders in the heavens, the sun will be darkened, the moon will turn to blood, it will be that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). In Romans 10:13 this last part is quoted in the course of an argument about Christ as “the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). But the Kyrios in this context is not YHWH but Jesus: everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved.

So there would appear to be a simple syllogism (loosely understood) at work: YHWH is Kyrios and Jesus is Kyrios, therefore Jesus is YHWH.

Bauckham concludes:

In Romans 10:9-13 Paul propounds a christological version of Jewish eschatological monotheism, such that confessing Jesus as Lord or calling on the name of the Lord Jesus is tantamount to acknowledging YHWH as the one and only God.

Wright takes the same view: “The context makes it clear both that this refers to Jesus himself, the one who is confessed as kyrios, and that Paul intends the full meaning of kyrios/YHWH to resonate across from Joel’s statement to his own.”1

There are syllogisms and there are syllogisms

It seems to me, however, that this line of argument only works by suppressing the apocalyptic narrative, which gets us back to Matt Colvin’s comment.

Consider another syllogism (loosely understood): Gordon has the ball. David has the ball. Does that mean that Gordon and David are the same person? Perhaps, but it is much more likely that Gordon has given the ball to David.

Or again: Gordon is Prime Minister. David is Prime Minister. Do we assume that the Prime Minister has changed his name from Gordon to David? No, the more likely narrative is that following a general election the office of Prime Minister was passed from Gordon to David.

My argument is that given the New Testament narrative it is more likely that the statement “Jesus is Lord” presupposes the transfer of authority from YHWH to Jesus, or the bestowal of authority by YHWH on Jesus, than the identification of YHWH and Jesus. Wright recognizes that there is a “messianic narrative” at work here (“with the Christos as the goal of Israel’s long story”), but he thinks that the narrative “opens up to indicate that this Christos is to be identified with the kyrios of the Septuagint”. The narrative does no such thing. 

Paul does not quote Joel 2:32 for the purpose of identifying Jesus and God. Jesus is the cornerstone laid as a foundation for Zion. The rulers of Jerusalem mistakenly imagine that they have cut a deal with death so that they won’t be harmed. But those who believe in the cornerstone that has been laid “will not be put to shame” (Is. 28:16 LXX; cf. Rom. 10:11). The stone is not something that God is. It is something that God has done. How? By raising Jesus from the dead and making him Lord, both for Jews and for Gentiles. Those who confess that God has done this will be saved.

The application of the Kyrios text to Jesus presupposes the same narrative that we get from Peter in Acts 2, which also makes extensive use of Joel 2:28-32, including the line “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). But Peter makes it clear that Jesus has been made both Lord and Christ, having been instructed by YHWH to sit at his right hand (Acts 2:34-36). Bauckham claims that God’s rule over all things defines who God is, so it cannot be “delegated as a mere function to a creature”. But this disregards the whole point about kingdom: YHWH gives authority to his king to rule over the nations, to rule in the midst of his enemies (Ps. 2; 110).

Here’s the point…

Now here’s my answer to Matt’s question. The “messianic narrative” in the New Testament does not end with the ascension of Jesus. It runs on to the parousia, which in my view is not the end of the world or some “second coming” for which we are still vaguely waiting. It was the historical moment when the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē would en masse abandon their idols to worship the true and living God because of what Jesus did and what happened to him. This is the culmination of the kingdom argument: historically speaking, the final consequence of the resurrection was that Jesus would be judge and ruler of the nations (cf. Acts 17:30-31).

The problem that arises when we impose a “divine identity” christology on the apocalyptic narrative is that we terminate it prematurely—we don’t allow history to take its course. It’s significant, to my mind, that when the church did go about systematically and explicitly constructing a divine christology, it did so on the basis of John’s Gospel, more or less leaving the apocalyptic narrative about kingdom alone—in fact, more or less forgetting the apocalyptic narrative about kingdom.

So the argument about divine identity in Roman 10:13 put forward by Bauckham and Wright is a good example of how narrative is suspended prematurely in deference to the theological interests of the later church. An important narrative is being steam-rollered. Flattened. The dynamic engagement with history, by which YHWH’s servant or son, representing faithful Israel, gains victory over his enemies and is given authority to rule, for the sake of the reputation of YHWH in the ancient world, is forced to yield to a much more static and abstract conceptuality. The story of the Son of God loses out to the theory of God the Son. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but I think Paul remained engrossed in the kingdom narrative—my argument in The Future of the People of God.

  • 1. NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 703.

Comments

This post is so carefully argued and illustrated that I almost don’t want to respond to it before the full force of what it is saying has been allowed to have its impact. Also the flurry of posts on the same topic is coming so thick and fast that I have not had time to read or respond to earlier responses to my own comment from you and others. My apologies then to you and Jaco and Phil for this.

I can fully see the point you are making, Andrew. I bask in the sophistication (no sarcasm intended) of the argument. Resisting the temptation to counter this with the sledge hammer of a crude systematic theological polemic, I offer the following.

Richard Bauckham produces yet another example of Jesus being described in terms of YHWH through an OT text directly applied to him. It would be more compelling for your argument if there was slightly less of this, and more explanatory qualification that YHWH was, in fact, delegating this identification on His express authority, or even in terms of the much implied but seldom quoted Danielic vision of the Son of Man coming into the presence of the Ancient of Days. Which is frequently enlisted as a metaphor for the corporate triumph of the people of God, but which Jesus seems, inconveniently, to be enlisting for himself.

Does the supposed identification of Jesus with YHWH suppress the apocalyptic narrative of the kingdom overcoming the empire? It depends what you think the apocalyptic narrative is doing. I personally think that the Daniel vision of the Son of Man can be applied to the overthrow of Roman paganism, but with considerable qualification. The “parousia” (the verb in the LXX Daniel 7 is “erchomenai”) as an event surely must contain the ascension as the moment when Jesus entered the presence of God in glory, and to receive authority. The complication to the story is that Jerusalem was destroyed before Rome, of which there is no hint in the Daniel vision. Jesus himself anticipated the fall of Jerusalem, but has nothing to say about the overthrow of pagan Rome. I think the apocalyptic narrative is doing much more than reprising OT judgments with the judgment on Rome, and part of this requires that Jesus be the divine Son. Roman paganism was overcome not by an OT style judgment, but by the growth of the church under persecution. The Daniel narrative still works, but in a much wider and more qualified way than you are suggesting.

An exception to this direct application of a YHWHism (can I say that?) to Jesus is Acts 2:34-36. Yet this does not prove the “delegation” argument, at least, in terms of a human appointee being delegated the identity and functions of YHWH. God “made” Jesus both Lord and Christ in the sense that God raised Jesus from the dead and glorified him. Jesus didn’t do this himself, for the reasons given in a previous post. But who was God? According to a trinitarian understanding, there was God the Father, but also God the Son. (According to Romans 8:11 the Spirit was also active in the resurrection). The death of Jesus on the cross was something that was happening within God Himself. So the limited apocalyptic narrative, which must include the immediate 1st century history of Israel as well as the 3rd (?) century history of Rome is contained within a much larger narrative. Both narratives are true. It’s not one or the other. There is in the end only one narrative, not several loosely connected with each other.

Psalm 110 operates in a significant way in Acts 2:34-35 as well as elsewhere in the NT. The interpretation of Acts 2:36 just given provides a template for its interpretation in Acts 2:34-35. I’m assuming that its use in Matthew 22:44 is directed against the Pharisaic enemies of Jesus primarily, but it leaves us wondering, if the Christ was not simply a son of David but one whom in the Greek text particularly was the Lord of David alongside the identically worded Lord as YHWH, then what was his identity and status? (The same sort of issue arises with the use of Psalm 110 in Hebrews 1, where there is little trace of rhe “apocalyptic narrative”).

I agree entirely with your paragraph beginning “Paul does not quote Joel 2:32 for the purpose of identifying Jesus and God”, except to say that Paul may not be setting out an argument with the purpose of identifying Jesus and God, as if he was setting out to prove they were one and the same person. But he is nevertheless making that identification in the course of explaining what God has done. It does not diminish or obscure the apocalyptic 1st/3rd century narrative which is taking place, but it does position it in a somewhat larger narrative, which Paul is also describing, and which does have immediate effect.

So coming to your “Here’s the point”. Your version of an apocalyptic narrative I suggest runs something like this. Pagan Rome saw what happened to Israel under judgment in AD 70, and that judgment was coming to her also. It saw that Jesus was raised from the dead and made judge of the whole earth. A large proportion of Romans received this message and took the option of becoming faithful believers in Jesus to receive forgiveness of sins and so not come under his judgment. Then Rome was judged and became Christian.

I’m not quite sure where the “parousia” (as judgment) comes into this, because the phenomenon described is more a description of a process rather than what we would understand as a judgment.

I’m still less sure that the judgment idea described what actually happened as the “conversion” of the Roman Empire, though it may have been part of it. Rather, Rome turned to Christianity because of the transforming power of the gospel in the lives of its adherents and in their message. This message was that Jesus was indeed Israel’s messiah, and had been raised from the dead, and would indeed be the judge of the whole earth, Rome included. In the meantime, those who put their faith in Jesus would receive the same gift of the Holy Spirit which was on the apostles and the church, and were invited to enjoy forgiveness of sins on the same basis as believing Israel, as if Israel’s story was their own. This I take as shorthand for saying that once covenant renewal had taken place in Israel, its wider purpose of renewal for the whole earth could begin, on the basis of the benefits and privileges of the selfsame covenant.

The apocalyptic narrative is not terminated prematurely by this interpretation. In one sense, we are still in it, in that still today, the kingdom and its operations position us on the cusp of a wave which is breaking between the death of the old creation and the in-breaking of the new. Now as then. This has nothing to do with a premature suspension of the narrative “in deference to the theological interests of the later church”. It has nothing to do with an “abstract conceptuality” derailing a “dynamic engagement with history”. It has everything to do with a dynamic engagement with history on the basis of the Son of God and God the Son’s actions.

I think your arguments are masterful, but mistaken, and in fact more damaging to the narrative in its continuing and dynamic form than the alternative here presented. The alternative includes, and necessitates, a full identification of Jesus with YHWH, as the divine Son of God, Messiah of Israel, its saviour and judge, and instigator of covenant renewal, through which Israel’s long and winding Exodus story could finally reach its fulfilment and intended outcome - the renewal of the whole creation.

Hi peter

“Richard Bauckham produces yet another example of Jesus being described in terms of YHWH through an OT text directly applied to him. It would be more compelling for your argument if there was slightly less of this, and more explanatory qualification that YHWH was, in fact, delegating this identification on His express authority, or even in terms of the much implied but seldom quoted Danielic vision of the Son of Man coming into the presence of the Ancient of Days.”

If there were no place for midrash in Jewish and Christian religious culture, then a more wooden application like what Bauckham and Hurtado push for would have been appropriate. But the NT writers use the OT with great freedom in many areas without assuming numerical identity when, for instance, Hosea 11:1 is applied to Jesus in Matt. 2:15; or Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 is applied to Jesus in Matt. 1:23; or what the installed King does in Ps. 2:9 is applied to victorious Christians in Rev. 2:27. This list of creative reapplication of OT texts in the NT can be expanded to include John the Baptist, Gentiles flocking to God’s people in Acts 15, etc. Not only common sense, but explicit statements elsewhere in the NT, as well as figure of speech (such as midrash) prohibit us from rashly and dogmatically defaulting to numerical identification between the OT and NT figures referred to in those texts. The same three (and more) factors would prohibit us from rashly and dogmatically defaulting to identifying Jesus with Yahweh from similar text patterns too. Inventing creative, yet dubious, schemes such as “Christology of divine identity” is a dead give-away of the mentioned scholars’ hopeless commitment to cherished doctrine so as to smooth out the leap from NT to Trinitarian theologies. Explicit statements, normative understanding of relationships (God = Father; Father ≠ Jesus; ∴ Jesus ≠ God) as well as figure of speech (such as midrash, typology, metaphor, etc.) and careful use of logic (indiscernibility of identicals) would prevent us from even going the Bauckham route in the first place. Add to these the mystical influence of encountering God in the face of redeemed humanity (see All the Glory of Adam by Crispin Fletcher-Louis), then no numerical identity between Jesus as second and victorious Adam and Yahweh is even hinted at. Only pro-Trinitarian scholars seem to feel warm and fuzzy about Bauckham’s messy proposal.

“An exception to this direct application of a YHWHism (can I say that?) to Jesus is Acts 2:34-36. Yet this does not prove the “delegation” argument, at least, in terms of a human appointee being delegated the identity and functions of YHWH. God “made” Jesus both Lord and Christ in the sense that God raised Jesus from the dead and glorified him.”

And this settles it. This piece of explicit confessional theology can be applied and sophisticated in various ways without reaching the point of self-sabotage as seen in Trinitarian theology (and it is self-sabotage, since it affirms what Acts 2 denies, and denies what Acts 2 affirms). Insisting on Trinitarian theology has to accompany also an admission of the indigenized nature of it, since there is a phenomenological leap from Hebraic unitarian monotheism to the internal plurality of Gentile Trinitarianism.

“But who was God? According to a trinitarian understanding, there was God the Father, but also God the Son. (According to Romans 8:11 the Spirit was also active in the resurrection). The death of Jesus on the cross was something that was happening within God Himself.”

Who God was according to Trinitarian theology is irrelevant. It’s as irrelevant as interpreting these texts in African indigenized Christian traditions. That is where this kind of theologizing is fundamentally flawed and why it shouldn’t get nearly as much attention in academic inquiry. And, contrary to Douglas Campbell’s wishful remark in this discussion, the Trinity is NOT found “just there” in Rom. 8:11.

“Psalm 110 operates in a significant way in Acts 2:34-35 as well as elsewhere in the NT. The interpretation of Acts 2:36 just given provides a template for its interpretation in Acts 2:34-35. I’m assuming that its use in Matthew 22:44 is directed against the Pharisaic enemies of Jesus primarily, but it leaves us wondering, if the Christ was not simply a son of David but one whom in the Greek text particularly was the Lord of David alongside the identically worded Lord as YHWH, then what was his identity and status?”

The son of David would also be heir. The authority of this heir would have been divinely bestowed upon him. Opposing the heir would have been tantamount to opposing Yahweh’s decision. The rich possibilities in alternative explanations of the text in Matt. 22:44 make the Trinitarian explanation dwindle in reductionist simplicity.

“I agree entirely with your paragraph beginning “Paul does not quote Joel 2:32 for the purpose of identifying Jesus and God”, except to say that Paul may not be setting out an argument with the purpose of identifying Jesus and God, as if he was setting out to prove they were one and the same person. But he is nevertheless making that identification in the course of explaining what God has done.”

No. If the God of the OT was the Father and Paul identifies Jesus with that God, then even a case for Sabellianism could be made. And heaven forbid! Jesus would do Yahweh things. THAT is what Paul set out to prove. He had the text (possibly a substituted LXX text, see Donald Juel’s Messianic Exegesis), the literary mechanism (midrash) and the theology (God delegated salvific authority to his approved representative) to do that. Trinitarianism is an unwarranted and heuristic short-cut.

“The alternative includes, and necessitates, a full identification of Jesus with YHWH, as the divine Son of God, Messiah of Israel, its saviour and judge, and instigator of covenant renewal, through which Israel’s long and winding Exodus story could finally reach its fulfilment and intended outcome - the renewal of the whole creation.”

None of this sort. “Identification with Yahweh” and the list of roles you cite above are contradictory, precisely since identification precludes discernibility. Messy theology does that.