In the last post on “The begotten Son and the subordinate woman” I argued that the Father-Son language in the New Testament belongs, pretty much exclusively, to the “central apocalyptic narrative of Jesus’ vocation, obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, exaltation and rule as YHWH’s appointed king over the nations”.
This means, in the first place, that the Father-Son-Spirit of Trinitarian orthodoxy is not the same as the Father-Son-Spirit of the New Testament. But I also suggested that we should be careful not to muddle up the Father-Son story “with a Wisdom theology that makes Jesus the one through whom all things were made”. Picking up on this point, Billy North asked about the interpretation of Colossians 1:16-17 (I think) in the context of this statement: “For by him all things were created… all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This is not a complete answer to that question, but it goes some way towards it.
I had earlier suggested that we have in the New Testament a “story” about Jesus that goes something like this:
- Jesus is the Word or Wisdom of God through whom all things were made.
- The Father sends the Son into the world.
- Jesus is the Son (or servant) who is obedient to the Father to the point of suffering and death.
- Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and given authority as “Lord” to judge and rule over the nations throughout the coming ages.
- When the last enemy is destroyed and all things have been subjected to God, this authority to judge and rule will be given back to God and the Son will himself be subjected to God.
But in terms both of the New Testament argument and of biblical-Jewish traditions this is not one story but two, only very loosely connected by line 2—a story about creation and a story about kingdom. I’ll begin with the story about kingdom.
The prophetic-political narrative
Lines 3 to 5 tell the story of Jesus, who is born to save his people from their sins, who learns obedience to God, his Father, who suffers, is killed by the enemies of Israel’s God, is raised from the dead, is exalted to the right hand of God as the “begotten Son”, who is given the authority of God to judge and rule over the nations until the last enemy of creation—death—has been destroyed, at which point the authority to rule will be given back to God and the Son will be again subjected to him, so that “God may be all in all”. In my view, it is the story, originating in the Psalms and Deutero-Isaiah, of how the God of Israel annexes the Roman empire for his own glory. It is a story about kingdom, about the rule of YHWH, and it is, by a long way, the dominant account of Jesus’ relationship to the Father in the New Testament.
The Wisdom-creational narrative
Line 1, however, tells a very different story, drawing on very different traditions and a different conceptuality. In this story Jesus is the agent or instrument of creation who also reveals the invisible creator. Whereas all things are from God as creator (cf. Rom. 11:36), Jesus is the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6), by whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col. 1:16), “through whom also God made the ages” (Heb. 1:2, my translation); he “upholds all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).
But he is also the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) and the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).
John says that all things were made through the Word of God, and this Word “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:1-3, 14).
These statements quite clearly draw on a Jewish Wisdom theology. Wisdom was with God at creation, in the beginning, created or begotten before all things, actively and enthusiastically participating in the process:
The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, for the sake of his works. Before the present age he founded me, in the beginning (en archē). Before he made the earth and before he made the depths, before he brought forth the springs of the waters, before the mountains were established and before all the hills, he begets me. …I was beside him, fitting together; it is I who was the one in whom he took delight. And each day I was glad in his presence at every moment, when he rejoiced after he had completed the world and rejoiced among the sons of men. (Prov. 8:22–25, 30-31 LXX)
God of the fathers and Lord of mercy, who made all things by your word and by your wisdom formed human beings…. With you is wisdom, which knows your works and was present when you made the world and understands what is pleasing in your eyes and what is right according to your commandments. (Wis. 9:1-2, 9)
All wisdom is from the Lord, and with him it exists forever. … Before all things wisdom has been created, and understanding of prudence is from eternity. … The Lord, he created her, and he saw and enumerated her and poured her out upon all his works, among all flesh according to his giving, and he furnished her abundantly to those who love him. [Loving the Lord is esteemed wisdom,] [but to whomever he appears, he apportions her as a vision of himself.] (Sir. 1:1, 4, 9–10)
Just as Jesus is the “image” and “radiance” of God, so Wisdom is a “reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26).
The creator of all set down Wisdom’s tent and commanded her, “Encamp (kataskēnōson) in Jacob, and in Israel let your inheritance be” (Sir. 24:8), and “furnished her abundantly to those who love him” (1:10). But the Word of God, who “pitched his tent (eskēnōsen) among us”, was rejected by his own people (Jn. 1:11, 14).
So we have a second, marginal narrative in which Jesus is the Wisdom of God, present at creation, an agent of creation, the image of the invisible creator God, who comes to pitch his tent as Word/Wisdom (in this context there is no great difference) in the midst of Israel.
But how do they intersect?
I’ve argued before that the two narratives should not be confused: kingdom and new creation are not the same thing. But they sit very close together. It is the “one Lord” (prophetic-political narrative) through whom “are all things” (Wisdom-creational narrative) in 1 Corinthians 8:6. In the “hymn” of Colossians 1:15-20 Jesus the “beloved Son” (prophetic-political) is both “firstborn of all creation” (Wisdom-creational) and “firstborn from the dead” (prophetic-political). In Hebrews 1:2-3 the Son whom God “appointed the heir of all things” (prophetic-political) is the one through whom God made the ages (Wisdom-creational)—and then “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (prophetic-political). John’s Gospel in its entirety is a strange fusion of the two narratives.
William Blake’s The Ancient of Days (above) combines the creation motif—God as cosmic architect—with the powerful kingdom narrative of Daniel 7, though Blake himself would not have understood it in such terms.
But it is not clear—at least not clear to me—how or why this development came about. The prophetic-political narrative takes Jesus forward into an indefinite future—at least to the end of the world as we know it. But what pushed the story backwards to before the creation of the world? How did Jesus the Son of God—God’s servant, Israel’s king—become Jesus the Wisdom and Word of God? As best I can frame it, this seems to be the central puzzle of New Testament christology.
I’m not going to attempt to solve the puzzle here. It may even be unsolvable. Perhaps it’s enough to suppose that the sending of God’s Wisdom into Israel, in the world, inevitably triggers the kingdom narrative. There may also be a clue in this passage, where the Wisdom by which God created all things is said to sit on the throne of God:
God of the fathers and Lord of mercy, who made all things by your word and by your wisdom formed human beings to rule over the creatures that were made by you and to manage the world in holiness and righteousness and to pronounce judgment in uprightness of soul, give me wisdom that sits by you on your throne, and do not reject me from amongst your children. (Wis. 9:1–4)
Some tentative conclusions about Trinitarian language
There is another, more radical solution that I might get round to discussing at some point, but for now I will propose the following tentative conclusions.
1. Father-Son-Spirit is the kingdom or prophetic-political narrative, running from the election or sending of Jesus as God’s Son or servant through to the final subordination of Jesus to God, when all enemies have been defeated, so that God—and simply God—may be all in all.
2. God-Wisdom-Spirit is the creational narrative—and probably also the new creational narrative.
The two narratives interact in complex ways, though in its simplest form John writes: “the Word became flesh… and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14). But the “Trinitarian” distinction in biblical terms is between creation and kingdom, between cosmology and politics, not between an immanent and an economic divine existence. The immanent-economic distinction is not biblical.