Does the narrative-historical method distort New Testament christology?

My response to deon’s two lengthy and thoughtful comments (see the last piece on Jesus as Alpha and Omega) on how the narrative-historical approach potentially distorts crucial elements of New Testament christology has grown rather long, so I have posted it separately. But it remains a response to comments on another post and may not make too much sense in isolation. It was also done in a bit of a hurry, so it may not make much sense at all. I’ve slightly edited deon’s text.

…the application of this method appears to derive a narrative that, unless I am mistaken, demands exclusivity. Not only that but, it tends to largely ignore/redefine significant positions within the narrative simply because of disagreement with the theology it imposesgenerated.

I take it that there is a dominant prophetic-apocalyptic narrative in the New Testament, which runs through the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, Peter, James and Jude, to Revelation. It is the story of how YHWH would reform his people and win the allegiance of the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

The Gospel of John is different, it shows very little interest in this narrative, for whatever reason. To my way of reading it, John has retold the story of Jesus around the central thought of Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father—though the other idea is not entirely obliterated: ‘Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”’ (John 1:49).

So I take the point about ignoring/redefining significant positions within the narrative, but as far as the dominant tradition is concerned, it seems to me to be remarkably coherent. Everyone else in the New Testament is singing from the same hymn sheet.

The same can be said of John 1 or 1 John 1 that clearly point to not only eternal existence of who incarnated as the Christ but also is clearly regarded as God.

That may be the case. I think John stands apart as a very different account of Jesus’ significance, notwithstanding his attention to historical details. But I would also want to ask 1) whether “in the beginning” is a reference to creation or to new creation; and 2) how “the Word became flesh” differs from “God became flesh” or “Jesus became flesh” or “the Son became flesh”. But this is a whole other debate.

So, with the apostles being 1st century Jews it’s astounding that they would have such comfort and conviction in their very strange appropriation of terms and phrases for Jesus that leaves Him so close to God that a debate on His deity could even exist. It had never been done before. For John to open his letter with such a profound, confounding, yet very direct statement says volumes. More than you appear to give it credit for.

Yes, but that’s John, and is he representative of the outlook of the first century Jewish apostles? I don’t think so. There are passages in Paul and Hebrews that may point in the same direction, but on closer examination it seems to me that they are actually saying something else. That’s all debatable. In any case, such perceptions are fully subordinate to the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative about Jesus as Israel’s king.

The church came to build its core theology largely on John’s Gospel, so it is natural that it has been the primary lens for most readers. But my argument is that it is a very distorting lens. I think that our popular theologising generally gives far too much weight to John, and that much of the cognitive dissonance that people experience comes from trying to read the rest of the New Testament, in all its sweeping narrative complexity, as a gloss on the idea that God so loved the world that he became flesh and/or sent his Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.

For that same John to describe Jesus ascribing to Himself such divine prerogatives as “Alpha and Omega” without inserting an explanation that this was not an equating with the Father is astounding.

This gets at what is perhaps the central christological issue. Why do we suppose that this amounts to an equation of identity? It’s the same with the kyrios argument. Is Jesus Lord because he is identified with YHWH or because he has been given the authority by YHWH to act as Kyrios?

When the Psalmist says, ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit on my right until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Ps. 109:1 LXX), he is thinking of two distinct persons: YHWH and his king, whose right to rule in the midst of his enemies has been established by YHWH. There is no confusion of identities, and this is perhaps the most important Old Testament text for understanding the relation between God and the risen Christ.

To say that Jesus is “Alpha and Omega” only means that he has certain attributes in common with God, namely that he is the beginning and end of something. We could say that both God and Jesus are “good”, but that would not mean that they are identified, only that they share a characteristic. I would suggest that in the kingdom-narrative context Jesus has been made “Alpha and Omega” by God—an extraordinary privilege indeed!—in the same way that he was made “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36) or appointed judge over the pagan world (Acts 17:31) or designated Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4) or given the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9-11). These are the explicit statements that we find throughout the New Testament, and they should be given priority.

Why is this aspect of the narrative less significant?

It’s less significant because the New Testament makes it less significant. In John’s Gospel in particular we have a clear stepping stone to the developed trinitarian theology of the Fathers, but the later development has obscured the overriding and extremely important historical thrust of the dominant prophetic-apocalyptic tradition, which is that the God of Israel was about the take over running of the empire. The “politics” of the story gets swamped, albeit for good historical reasons, by the Platonising developments of the patristic period.

I would say, many would agree, that the Jews of Jesus day employed a similar approach to the narrative historical method to understanding scripture. This is the very reason why they could not truly accept who He was. Who He was did not align with who they exegetically believed the messiah would be.

This is an interesting point, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I would argue that the controlling prophetic-apocalyptic narrative remains pretty much the same between Judaism and “Christianity”. It is the story about kingdom. How will God judge and restore his sinful and oppressed people? How will he establish his own rule over the nations? John, as I say, is not much interested in that narrative, but it is everywhere else in the New Testament.

The problem that the Jews had was with the claim that a man rejected by the leaders of Israel and subjected to a degrading death at the hands of unclean Gentiles had been raised from the dead and given the authority to execute the kingdom programme. “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11).

In this dominant storyline, we don’t hear the Jews protesting that Jesus’ followers identified him with God. What troubles them is the assertion that he has been granted the right to act as kyrios at the right hand of God. They refuse to accept Jesus as king.

What I do see in the New Testament is primary sources referring to Jesus in a litany of ways, including but not limited to His divinity. And when these are mentioned it’s taken as matter of fact rather than a point of contention or ambiguity. Just as in our churches today we will call Jesus the Lamb of God and the King of Kings and then the Alpha and Omega and then discuss his humanity all side by side without flinching or feeling the need to explain how one doesn’t invalidate the other.

I think this “litany” model is misleading because it is controlled by the traditional christological dichotomy between a divine and human Jesus. It assumes that some of the titles and names refer to his divinity, some to his humanity. But “Lamb of God”, “King of kins”, and I would argue “Alpha and Omega” are all references to the human Jesus. “Son of God” and “Son of Man” are not titles for Jesus’ divine and human nature. They speak of the authority given to him to rule over his own people and over the nations—“Son of man” only adds the idea that Jesus gains this authority because he was persecuted both by his own people and by the Gentiles.

What defines Jesus, and what gives meaning to the “titles”, is the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative. He is the one sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, who was rejected by his own people, who was killed, who was raised and exalted to the right hand of God, and who will sooner or later judge and rule over both Israel and the nations.

When Jesus was killed for blaspheming by calling God His own Father not one disciple I have read added the footnote…

Surely even in John it is clear that Jesus was crucified not for making himself God but for making himself the “Son of God”, that is “king of the Jews”:

The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” … From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” … So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” (John 19:7, 12, 21)

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Submitted by Samuel Conner on  Fri, 11/16/2018 - 01:21

I was quite surprised to notice a few years ago that embedded in what I had previously thought of as the high Christology of John’s Gospel are two stories which seem to jarringly contrast with that and to reflect what I think is a more conventional Hebrew understanding of the humanity of the Messiah.

I’m thinking of the interpretation of two of Jesus’ healings. The “man born blind” plainly thought that Jesus had healed him through prayer, and the fact that God had granted Jesus’ prayer for his healing was evidence that Jesus was pleasing to God and was “from God.” (9:30-33)

This might be discounted as simply a conventional 1st century Hebrew intepretation of Jesus’ mighty works (and as such perhaps a priceless historical datum and evidence that John’s Gospel does contain historical memory of the events it reports), that they were works of God in response to the prayers of a righteous servant. But someone who seems to have known Jesus well, Martha sister of Lazarus, seems to have thought the same (11:21).

But most surprisingly for me was that it appears that Jesus took the same view. Thus, Jesus thanked the Father for always hearing him, and did this in the hearing of others so that when Lazarus came forth (evidently raised by the power of the Father in response to Jesus’ prayer, as Martha had requested of Jesus), the people would know that God always hears Jesus and would understand from this that Jesus is “from God.” (11:41-42)

That’s not itself an argument against traditional Christology, but it does suggest to me the possibility that the New Testament understanding of the Incarnation is a bit more complex than I had previously thought it to be.

Submitted by deon on  Fri, 11/16/2018 - 01:41

Why would you leave out that twice in John’s Gospel the Jews proclaim that by Jesus calling God His own Father equated Him with God at He very least in their eyes?

What makes John’s narrative opposing, less reliable, or less important to constructing the narrative of the rest of the NT scripture? 

This is was my point in stating that the narrative historical approach as it is used here appears to do the same thing that Jews did with OT scripture against the testimonies of Christ’s followers. It didn’t fit the narrative they understood therefore anything outside of that context doesn’t fit and isn’t accurate. 

Furthermore, in relation to The Word becoming flesh, it’s a very weird stretch to make this an ambiguous text. I say that with no disrespect at all.  In verse 14 of John 1 we see that the Word came and dwelt among us, and we see that in verse 1 that very same Word is called God and is with God and created every created thing with God. So, it’s no stretch at all to say that God became flesh.


Word=Came and dwelt among us

God=Came dwelt among us

This is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this debate. Let’s remove every single other text that refers to Jesus’ deity (not that you agree that they do). Let’s only leave John 1. Why isn’t that enough? Why must something be repeated several times to be true?  Why must one thing be stated more times than another thing to make it true? That’s a confusing approach to me that appears to appeal to a preconceived idea rather than truth. 

I’ve been attending churches my entire life. I believe the error made by many that reject Christ’s deity is thinking that those who believe in it focus solely on it or over emphasize it.  In all my years I have heard very few sermons on the deity of Christ, not bible studies. It is only when it is challenged that the defense comes out. It’s no different than the virgin birth. If it were attacked more their would be more of a defense. But it’s not.  What is attacked/questioned/debated is His deity, strangely enough. 

Samuel to be clear my reply was a response to the statement at the ending of the post. Not to your reply. My apologies for any confusion. 

No confusion; our remarks are kind of non-interacting. I retain privately what I think is a high Christology but I’m open to the possibility that the historic orthodox position might not be “inerrant”. I do rather like the idea that Jesus healed through prayer; it makes his example a bit more accessible. It also suggests a possible explanation for the vanishing of mighty works after the era of the apostles — the churches simply weren’t as pleasing to God, so God didn’t “hear” as much. 

What I am wondering lately is whether we ought to think of the living man Jesus as being the human nature that was united to what orthodox theology calls ‘the 2nd person.’ At least at popular level in US evangelicalism, the position seems to me that Jesus is the hypostatic union, which I suspect is a confusion of the natures in terms of historic orthodoxy. IOW, the prevailing view is that Jesus “has a human nature” as well as a divine nature; my intuition is that perhaps we should say that Jesus is the human nature within the hypostatic union. That probably breaks something in the historic system; but it seems to me to make pretty good sense of the Gospel narratives.

The beauty of God, to me, is that He is inaccessible in a sense. No one has seen His face, He is an unapproachable light.  However, He still loves me and deals with me in a very intimate way.  So, while I understand the human desire to make accessible what is perceived inaccessible, I don’t see the necessity in do so. His thoughts are not our thoughts nor His ways our ways.  Only the Spirit of God knows the mind of God. When faced with what isn’t always an easy answer or easy to understand in scripture I don’t think it’s anything wrong with just accepting that I don’t know. My wife has helped teach me this.  She is a beautiful and complex creature, yet simple at the same time .  It’s not my goal nor within my ability I believe to connect all of her dots.  I look at scripture and God the same way.

Does Word=God mean Word=Yahweh to you? If so, are the gods mentioned by Jesus in John 10 (from Psalm 82) all Yahweh as well?


The Word=God (John 1:1)

The Word=The one who came and tabernacled among us (John 1:14)

The one came and tabernacled among us=Jesus (John 1:14)

Jesus=The guy who said before Abraham was born, I AM. (John 8:58)

I AM=The God who told Moses His personal name is I AM (Exodus 3:14)

That’s not according to me.  That’s according to the Bible. I just so happened to agree.  

Now, is Jesus and God the Father the same being? Absolutely not.  Never has been. Never will be.

What makes John’s narrative opposing, less reliable, or less important to constructing the narrative of the rest of the NT scripture?

There’s a lot that one could say here, but my basic argument would be that John tells the story of Jesus with very little regard for the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative that, I think, controls the main biblical storyline from the exile through the fall of Babylon the great at the end of Revelation.

There is no apocalyptic discourse in John, no prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, no coming of the Son of man with the clouds of heaven, none of the reliance on Isaianic themes that we find in the Synoptic Gospels. John is not interested in Jesus as an actor in the long story of Israel and the nations. Jesus is rather the true revelation of God, the Word or Son who has come into the world to bring eternal life.

Both orthodoxy and Gnosticism were natural developments of this paradigm, and in the process the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative that is so central to the biblical witness became marginalised and obscured. It is the eclipse of history to which I object.

Ah, I see.  That takes me back to my original point.  The emphasis of reliance on how you employ the narrative historical approach does the same thing you are trying to avoid and accuse “orthodox” Christians of doing. Emphasizing one aspect over another.  

For us who affirm the deity of Christ we fully embrace a prophetic apocalyptic narrative.  My soul hinges on it.  My heart anxiously awaits its culmination. However, because John tells his story differently I see no authority bestowed upon myself or any human to play the scales pitting him against the rest of scripture as if there is an internal conflict or competition amongst them. 

All of the Apostles letters differ. We harmonize them to seek balance.  It’s pretty simple to me. It’s how we handle any historical investigation.  We hear the accounts and balance the facts allowing each account to fill in gaps of the others. The only time we discount one over the other is if we have a clear and evidenced credibility issue. We have no express reason to characterize John’s letter as a departure from the narrative. Furthermore, I believe, we have no right. 

I accept the prophetic apocalyptic narrative. I embrace the narrative historical approach. I do not see John’s account as being outside the realms of either. In fact, I see it as equally vital. Each gospel provides us with pieces of the narrative. No piece outweighs each other or the whole. 

There is no apocalyptic discourse in John, no prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, no coming of the Son of man with the clouds of heaven, none of the reliance on Isaianic themes that we find in the Synoptic Gospels.

What do you make of this in light of the more conventional imminent eschatology of the Johannine Epistles. In these writers it is considered the final hour [of the age?]. 

Interestingly, no less a scholar than Raymond Brown who wrote the Anchor commentary on John as well as some smaller, more popular works on John thinks that the author of John, the epistles, and Revelation are all different people.

The Gospel and the Epistles likely come from different hands. But they seem to be a part of the same school. You wouldn’t expect such divergent eschatologies. 

That’s a good point.

There are certain passages in John that may presuppose a similar eschatology even if they don’t state it, maybe?  John 5:25ff might be an example.

Hey deon,

Andrew will give you his own take on the matter, but I can tell you why I think the John 1 passage is ambiguous — because it refers to the Logos becoming flesh, and that was Jesus.  This is ambiguous because it -could- mean that the Logos is a preexisting Jesus, or it could mean that the man Jesus is the Logos made flesh.

Logos is the Greek representation of the underlying “laws” or “ways of working” of something.  It’s why we derive “logic” from it as well as why all our areas of study end in -logy.  When we study biology, we’re learning the inner laws and mechanisms of life, and so on.

What we may be seeing in John 1 is a somewhat Hellenized version of the Jewish wisdom tradition.  Take, for example, Proverbs 8:22ff — wisdom is portrayed as a speaking being who was with God in the beginning who assisted in creation, but we also know “God’s wisdom” is not a separate being from God.

Those are elements that make John 1 ambiguous.  Ambiguous just means multiple, different meanings are possible.

How this fits into a narrative historical reading has very little to do with whether Jesus was divine or not, but rather who Jesus was in the perspective of the biblical narrative and what he was trying to accomplish.  Keep in mind that, even in John, Jesus argues that being the “Son of God” is a term of differentiation (John 10:33ff).  Jesus is pointing out that the charge of blasphemy is erroneous, not because he actually is God, but because being the Son of God does not mean what his accusers say it means.

What does it mean for Jesus?  That same passage tells us — the one whom the Father has especially set apart and sent into the world.  This, of course, designates Jesus as not only a legitimate prophet, validating his critiques of the religious and political establishment, but also coupled with the Son of Man titles constitutes a claim that he is the apocalyptic figure anticipated in the Old Testament to whom the Ancient of Days will bestow the kingdom after he destroys his enemies.

Basically, by making these claims, Jesus is saying that God is going to destroy these religious opponents and give their kingdoms to him, and these are the charges they also carry to Rome.

This is the role Jesus occupies in the narrative.  Whether he’s God or not is virtually irrelevant.  Andrew points out that John does not really focus much on this narrative (although obviously we still see it from time to time, like I mentioned) and, as a result, gets a little more into Jesus’ relationship to the Father in a way the other gospels don’t.

It doesn’t make John -wrong-; it’s just to point out that virtually no other NT writing cares about this at all and John is more or less the only source we could go to for this idea.  That being the case, for a narrative historical reading to minimize it is not to distort its importance.  It has very little importance.  You seemed to tacitly agree with this in your own comment when you mentioned that you never hear sermons or Bible studies on it.

Submitted by deon on  Sat, 11/17/2018 - 04:00

In reply to by Phil L.

“This is ambiguous because it -could- mean that the Logos is a preexisting Jesus, or it could mean that the man Jesus is the Logos made flesh.”

This is a distinction without a difference. Verse 14 answers this. The Word, which existed in the beginning, which was God and was with God, who created every created thing, cake and tabernacled among us. There are questions as to exactly what word/logos means in context. But, this is irrelevant because whatever it means doesn’t remove clarity from the train of thought. If we remove word/logos and replace it with another term the dialogue doesn’t change at all. 

Im the beginning was the taco, and the taco was with God and the taco was God. Not one thing that has been created was created without the Taco’s involvement. That Taco came and dwelt among us. 

A 10 year old would read that and conclude that “for some odd reason there was this taco that was in the beginning and it was God which is weird and somehow this taco created stuff, all the stuff, and then it came to earth and lived among us. Wow this is weird”

I don’t have to know what is meant by taco to get the point. Any ambiguity or debate over what is meant by taco is irrelevant. In fact I’m debate over what the taco is will always be inconclusive because we are never explicitly told. I can’t abandon a belief nor build one off of someone’s best guess. 

Your belief in the divinity of Jesus is based off of someone’s best guess.  You might easily be Arian, today, if a different side had won at Nicea.  Such is the messiness of the history of doctrine over time.

Unfortunately, in this case, “logos” is more ambiguous than “taco” because “logos” in neither an object nor a person but an abstract concept.

For instance, I pointed out a reference to Jewish wisdom tradition in Proverbs where it describes wisdom as a woman who was present with God in the beginning and created things.  Do you consider God’s wisdom to be a distinct being?  Was God’s wisdom literally a pre-existing divine woman creating the world?

If there were a text in the Bible that said, “God is love, and Jesus was God’s love made flesh,” would you consider that a statement of divinity because the transitive property there would make Jesus = God?  Or would it be a statement of what God is like, what Jesus was like, and how closely Jesus imaged that characteristic of God?

I agree the John 1 chapter is not that ambiguous if you are a ten year old.  A ten year old would rely on the modern translation in their own language and have no background in Greek or Jewish philosophical or theological thought and be unaware of how those ideas progressed over time and were part of the climate of the authors of Scripture.  If you read the Bible knowing very little about the world that produced it, I agree you would arrive at an uncritical position on many issues.

But in this case, as in most cases, understanding the world that produced a biblical writing tells us a lot about what it might have meant to the original audience.  The idea that Jesus was not God the way Trinitarianism articulates it was common for centuries in church history — specifically, the centuries closest to when John 1 was written.  That does not make them right; it does mean that very knowledgeable people very close to the climate that produced John 1 had disagreements about its ramifications.

Phil — the logic of your final paragraph seems to be that in the early centuries, because the early church did not employ later Greek formulations of the Trinity, therefore they did not believe in the Trinity, (and by further inference, they believed Jesus was *man* only). 

I also believe in a narrative historical approach. It has changed my view of the meaning of the gospel as understood by the early church, the key ‘second coming’ chapters in the synoptic gospels, eshatology, and indeed the synoptic gospels themselves.

I differ in some key respects from the line promoted on this blog, and find that John’s gospel is not an anomaly, nor influenced by Greek thinking. John 1 is a Hebrew reworking of Logos, not the other way round. John’s gospel complements the synoptics, and highlights what the synoptics have been leading to all along, and which the letters confirm. Jesus is the endpoint of the narrative of Israel, in the sense that he introduces the new creation now, in the personal, social, economic, political and multi-ethnic reality of the church. The kingdom is simply the rule of Christ in which this reality comes about in the church through the empowering Spirit’s presence. Jesus is the divine person whose enthronement is another way of describing this new reality in the history of God.

This variation on the narrative historical perspective makes better sense of the impact of Jesus on the gentile world, as well as the Jewish world. But most importantly, it rehabilitates John’s gospel to where it belongs: not a narrative historical anomaly, but the crowning version of the life of Jesus and what it meant.

This view is not welcome on the blog, so I do not expect it to be given the time of day. Nevertheless, I owe it Andrew, who set me out on this journey, with help from Tom Wright, more than 13 years ago. I’m still journeying.

Hey Peter, good to see you.

I do not mean to imply that, prior to Nicea, the view that Jesus was God did not exist, nor do I even mean to imply that Nicean trinitarianism did not exist prior to Nicea, although I doubt too many people prior to hashing that issue out at Nicea were up in arms about what “substance” Jesus was.

What I do mean to imply is that the doctrine of Jesus being God as we know it as a tenet of modern evangelical theology was not a consensus view shared by everyone in the early church.  Just because the issue may not appear ambiguous to -us- after many centuries of this formulation does not mean the original audience of the biblical texts are in the same boat.

I have found your response to this point to be a very common one, and I can only conclude it must be me.  Nearly every time I point out the diversity of views on the divinity of Jesus in the early church, the response from the “orthodox” contingent 99% of the time is, “Oh, so you’re saying NOBODY believed Jesus was divine in the early church?”

Well, no, of course many did.  There’s a reason Nicea turned out the way it did.  My object isn’t to disprove the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity; my object is to point out that, historically speaking, this hasn’t been something blindingly obvious to everyone and held by everyone except an occasional crackpot.

Of course, ultimately, the issue for me isn’t whether or not Jesus is divine but what importance such a fact would have in the biblical narrative, and near as I can tell, it isn’t very important at all.

And it’s always also good to see you too, John. As far as I can see, diversity in views about Jesus before Nicea (or even afterwards) isn’t really an issue: certainly not with me. I was using the phrase “the early church” mainly as reflected in what is described in the NT, though not excluding what we may understand about at least perhaps the majority of the church in early history. (I may need to do some homework if called on to substantiate the last statement; to read some popular commentators you might think there was total anarchy in what the early church believed).

From my standpoint, as a narrative historical true believer, the divinity of Jesus is the hinge on which the credible impact of the church turns — though it has to be said, the truth of this hangs on what was actually happening in the life of the church rather than a credal statement which believers had to sign up to. The core message of the church, or the apostles, as far as Acts & Epistles set it out, is that Jesus came to fulfil Israel’s story through his death and resurrection, and the ‘forgiveness of sins’. His uniqueness, which sets him aside from any other biblical character, or historical for that matter, is what *the early church* (and subsequently) saw as his inseparable combination of humanity and divinity, in a way not shared by any other character, biblical or historical.

That said, believers had to work out for themselves ultimately what the status of Jesus was. For me, and I suppose *the early church* as well as its mainline successors, there were and are more problems in relegating him to the human division only than the human/divine. It’s all clear enough to me in gospels and letters, let alone Acts. But I agree it wasn’t a topic of debate in the NT. Nor did it need to be. In the NT and, let’s say, significant parts of the early church, which led to later formulations (the later church didn’t *invent* it), the assumption of divinity is written into description, devotion, and worship of Jesus in the full light of where this version of narrative history was taking things. 

When I greeted you as “John”, Phil, I meant “Phil” and not “John”. My salutation was derailed by the intense “John” thinking that is going on. Either that or it was predictive text. My phone frequently  sabotages what I intended to say. It’s doing that even now. My apologies.

I can appreciate that.  Predictably, I disagree that this doctrine was important to anything in the apostolic writings or the life, message, or hope of the church.  I think that the biblical data for establishing Jesus as God is not found everywhere but only in a very, very small number of ambiguous passages that all come from the Johannine tradition.  In my opinion (which is just that), the New Testament says more about various specific issues in church governance than the divinity of Jesus.  There’s possibly more biblical data to argue for a Presbyterian form of church government than there is to establish that Jesus is God.

The core message of the church, or the apostles, as far as Acts & Epistles set it out, is that Jesus came to fulfil Israel’s story through his death and resurrection, and the ‘forgiveness of sins’.

Once again, between the two of us, it goes without saying that I don’t think this is the core message of the church or the apostles, and I think we agree there’s no text that says Jesus came to fulfill Israel’s story.  But even so, there’s nothing in what you outlined that requires Jesus to be God.

His uniqueness, which sets him aside from any other biblical character, or historical for that matter, is what *the early church* (and subsequently) saw as his inseparable combination of humanity and divinity, in a way not shared by any other character, biblical or historical.

I feel like I’m on solid ground when I say that the center of gravity of Jesus’ uniqueness in the New Testament is that he is Israel’s Messiah and God has granted him all authority on heaven and earth.  Even in Hebrews where several contrasts are drawn between Jesus and key figures or positions in the OT, the distinctions revolve around Jesus’ status as a son and the efficacy of his accomplishments, not that he is by nature God.  I would be interested in seeing the biblical data where Jesus’ uniqueness is established on the grounds that, unlike other deliverers or prophets or priests or kings, he is actually God.

However, your point does raise what I think is an issue that’s very important to people when we talk about Jesus’ identification with God, and that’s the apologetic value of the uniqueness of Jesus being God.  Personally, I think that if that’s the best we’ve got to distinguish ourselves from other religions, we might as well retire, but I can appreciate the impulse.  I’ve often wondered if that might be what’s actually at stake here for modern Christianity — that there’s no particular reason that Christianity should “win” as a worldview if our founder isn’t actually God Himself — but if he is, then of course we’re right.

I seem to be conducting conversations on two fronts, as well as trying to make my phone behave itself.

Just briefly, by way of also being predictable, I see the divinity of Jesus all over the NT, where you see it only in some ambiguous texts with a Johannine provenance (I loved saying that). Not only so, I see it as a necessary and inevitable endpoint of the narrative of Israel, as the NT presents it. In this, I seem to be in agreement with majority church history opinion, even though that opinion would not fully as yet buy into a narrative historical approach of the kind being explored in various ways on this site (or by ourselves, in different ways).

Likewise, I think it is quite clear from Acts that Paul’s core message was Israel’s story: Abraham — Moses — David — exile — Jesus — his death and resurrection — forgiveness of sins, and of course, becoming judge of all the earth. Israel’s story was clearly being brought to an entirely unexpected fulfilment in Jesus himself. I think that’s incontestable.

All interpretations of scripture depend on frameworks of understanding being applied. That’s the whole point of interpretation. Interpretation is much more than word counts, or how many times it says somewhere “Jesus is God”. (Clue: it doesn’t). But there is enough evidence throughout the NT to explain why NT Jesus followers displayed in word and deed the devotion to Jesus which had he not been God would have led to serious consequences.

However, I’m bound to agree with you that the USP of Christianity never was the argument that Jesus was God. It just so happened that Jesus did all the things normally identified with God (not least in the narrative historical take on scripture), and Jesus was accorded all the honour and attention normally given to God. So the divinity of Jesus didn’t ( and doesn’t) need to be its chief feature which made it “the best thing we’ve got to distinguish it from other religions”. Where did that idea come into this discussion?

Anyway, it’s 11.15pm here; time for bed on a very cold November night. Think of us as we go through our Brexit convulsions. Pray for us. (To Jesus?).

I am very sorry about Brexit, but we have Trump, so I have to parcel out my compassion carefully so as not to exhaust myself.

I was tempted to start disagreeing, but it occurs to me that I should probably take the time to understand your actual points, first.  That seems reasonable.  And I’m fairly sure I don’t.

I see the divinity of Jesus all over the NT, where you see it only in some ambiguous texts with a Johannine provenance (I loved saying that). Not only so, I see it as a necessary and inevitable endpoint of the narrative of Israel, as the NT presents it. In this, I seem to be in agreement with majority church history opinion

This is the first thing I’m fairly sure I don’t understand.  How is Jesus being God the “necessary and inevitable endpoint of the narrative of Israel” and who in church history has made this connection?  I realize the part about church history may only mean the first part of your statement (about finding the divinity of Jesus everywhere), but that’s part of why I need to ask.

Nevertheless, I’m confused about the position that the telos of Israel’s story is that Jesus is God.

Likewise, I think it is quite clear from Acts that Paul’s core message was Israel’s story: Abraham — Moses — David — exile — Jesus — his death and resurrection — forgiveness of sins, and of course, becoming judge of all the earth.

Here, I’m curious what you mean by this just to make sure we aren’t talking past each other.  I agree, of course, that Paul preached to Jews that what God had done in Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises made to their ancestors.  This is pretty much what happens in Acts 13, for instance.  Paul pretty much comes right out and says this is the good news for his synagogue audience:

“And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus”

And later:

“Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”

But I think you’re saying more than that, and that’s where I’m losing the thread of your point.  Paul isn’t going around saying that the good news is that Jesus fulfills Israel’s story, so I need to know what you mean by using that category.  What further increases my befuddlement is that you appear to be using language of termination — like Israel’s entire experience has finally brought us to this end point.  But Israel’s story keeps going, so…?

I guess what I’m trying to suss out, here, is if you’re saying Israel’s entire experience was a typological allegory to instruct us as to how great Jesus is.

But there is enough evidence throughout the NT to explain why NTJesus followers displayed in word and deed the devotion to Jesus which had he not been God would have led to serious consequences.

Serious consequences such as…?

So the divinity of Jesus didn’t ( and doesn’t) need to be its chief feature which made it “the best thing we’ve got to distinguish it from other religions”. Where did that idea come into this discussion?

It was primarily my musing about why the divinity of Jesus seems so important to modern Christians, although you may have alluded to it when you said, “the divinity of Jesus is the hinge on which the credible impact of the church turns.”

It’s not going to be possible, Phil, in a comment thread on another topic to fully address your questions, but thank you for asking them. I think I’ve sketched out the outlines of a case, bolstered by the view that not modern evangelical Christians but the church throughout history, though with s different interpretative agenda, has believed Jesus is God — and they didn’t get it from nowhere.

In a nutshell, the divinity of Jesus as the endpoint of Israel’s story is necessary and inevitable as only God could unlock what for Israel had become an insoluble problem — historically, pagan oppression — and in doing so address a deeper issue — the derailment of God’s plans for creation. This is why John’s gospel complements the synoptics. They are all clearly in the same world, sharing its history and worldview. But approach John’s gospel with this broader eschatological framework, and it makes sense. Only God could do for israel what Israel could not do for herself.

You’ve already answered your own question about how Paul presents Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s history — it’s there in the framework of his preaching in Acts. He rewrites OT expectations in the light of Jesus, around whom Jew and Gentile are now called to gather. This was revolutionary for the ancient world, and subversive as it did not lead to outright insurrection. We have to flesh out more from the combined content of gospels, Acts and letters to understand what the inner substance of this revolution entailed. Much more than historical continuity for the people of God on the basis of OT patterns of crisis and judgment, it would seem.

This won’t satisfy you, but it indicates a framework within which John’s gospel finds its home, and serves also as a fulfilling commentary on the synoptic gospels, without abandoning their particular historical concerns.

I differ in some key respects from the line promoted on this blog, and find that John’s gospel is not an anomaly, nor influenced by Greek thinking. John 1 is a Hebrew reworking of Logos, not the other way round.

For the record, I don’t think that John 1 was influenced particularly by Greek thinking. The conceptuality is Hebrew, drawing on Jewish Wisdom traditions. Whether John thought that his logos christology was more meaningful in his own cultural environment than the prophetic-apocalyptic motifs that dominate the rest of the New Testament is hard to say, but the Greek church certainly built its more Platonist christology principally on John thesis that the logos became flesh.

Obviously, we can say that John’s Gospel “complements” the Synoptics, but that complementarity happens at a canonical level. It would be difficult to say, I think, that John wrote in order to complement the Synoptic tradition. John disregards so much of the Synoptic storyline and teaching that it seems very odd to me to speak of it as the “crowning version of the life of Jesus and what it meant”.

Thanks for the clarification. Of course, if the Greek church built a “Platonist Christology” on John’s thesis that the logos became flesh, then that would have been a misreading of John. Nevertheless, John’s thesis was indeed that the logos became flesh, and the logos was of course a word with multiple associations in the Greek world, which it would be hard to believe John (or the author) was unaware of, and was not including. However, the inclusion was within a Hebrew worldview, not Greek.

I’m not sure what you mean when you say John’s gospel complements the synoptics on a canonical level. From my perspective, it complements on a narrative historical level, which affirms more fully what is introduced in the synoptics. The eschatological significance of Jesus, from this perspective, is the introduction of the new creation in the church, through the inauguration of Jesus as king. (Hence a kingdom phenomenon). The new creation is also centre and present in Paul, through the letters. (Not by word count, but by what he says about it). Jesus was the new creation in his resurrection. Those believing in him were “new creation creatures”. John’s gospel introduces this ‘realised eschatology’ in a way that the synoptics don’t, but towards which they are leading. For this development to take place, God comes to the fore in the person of Jesus himself — in the fairly clearly articulated presentation by John.

This is the eschatological significance of the  church, in its ethnic, social, economic and political practices and impact, and still is today, despite many detours and cul de sacs.

John’s gospel is very different in many obvious ways from the synoptics, but from this perspective provides a narrative historical complementarity, not anomaly.

Submitted by Alex on  Fri, 11/16/2018 - 21:24

I would say, many would agree, that the Jews of Jesus’ day employed a similar approach to the narratie historical method to understanding scripture. This is the very reason why they could not truly acceot who He was. Who He was did not align with who they exegetically believed the messiah would be. 

It seems to me that Jews didn’t reject Jesus because he repudiated Israel’s political expectation (historical exaltation over the nations), but because he claimed (and embodied) the idea that achieving this glory would require terrible suffering at the hands of God’s enemies. Daniel 7 tells the same story—the people of the Most High must suffer but they will eventually supersede the pagan authorities. Jesus’ statement about the future reversal, vindication, and reign bear this out. 

I see why you would say that. I really do. But that’s just a really good guess. It’s not what scripture actually says. Scripture actually gives us several concrete, first hand accounts of why the Jews rejected Christ. None of them are what you described. Because he called himself God, because he threatened their hold on power, because of lack of faith due to being veiled from truth. If there is a scripture that says they rejected Him because of the idea of suffering please show me so that I can be correct in my beliefs. 

To correct myself He didn’t explicitly call Himself God. He made claims that at the very least they believed equated Him with God. And of course you have the “I AM” statement. Which I am sure you would debate.

The “I am” argument will get you nowhere since those two words were used by everyone all the time. Anytime someone asked another, “Are you the guy who…?” They would answer, “I am.” There is no indication in the text that Jesus used these words outside of normal usage.

Christ’s claims about himself, his behavior on the Sabbath, and his outburst in the Temple are certainly important components that contributed to his death. 

But the cross  was seen by the first Christians as the Biblically-predicted messianic vocation. And it was the cross that was the major stumbling block to Jews according to Paul. Paul implies that Jews believed Jesus died accursed by the Law, even (Galatians 3:13). And many Jews supported the revolts against Rome because they could not swallow Jesus’ path of faithful suffering. Jesus presents Israel’s catastrophic fate as a result of their rejection of his narrow cruciform path. They did not learn the ways that made for peace and in trying to save their life they lost it.