One of the biggest intellectual challenges facing modern evangelicalism—a movement that professes to adhere to both scripture and tradition—is how to reconcile a commitment to a rationally constructed trinitarianism with the dominant apocalyptic narrative about Jesus which we find in the New Testament. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s difficult.
Here’s an example. John Piper notices that according to Matthew 28:18 Jesus says after the resurrection that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. But surely Jesus is God, so he must have had this authority “even in eternity past”. We know this from the opening words of John’s Gospel: Jesus was the Word who was God in the beginning, through whom all things were made. So why did Jesus need to be given an authority that he already had?
Piper’s answer illustrates the contortions to which theologians sometimes resort in their endeavour to harmonise theology and historical interpretation. A distinction has to be made, he says.
Before the incarnation, God the Son existed, but Jesus the God-man did not yet exist. Before the incarnation God the Son existed with all authority. But the God-man, Jesus Christ, had not yet died for sinners, and the sentence of condemnation hanging over his people had not yet been stripped from Satan’s hand by the shedding of his Jesus’s blood. But it is precisely the God-man, Jesus Christ, and the crucified and risen Savior, triumphant over sin and Satan, and exalted to the right hand of God and installed as the Lord of the universe.
The problems are manifold. The New Testament does not speak about the eternal pre-existence of the “Son”; the “son” is always Israel or Israel’s king or the righteous Jew, not a pre-existent heavenly being. John only says that the creative Word or Wisdom of God, which was involved in creation, became flesh in the life and activity of Jesus. The New Testament barely insinuates a “God-man”. The latent atonement theory is lurid and overstated.
But the main point to make is that Piper’s distinction is not one that is inherent in the texts. Rather, two independent narratives have been forcibly slotted into each other: an orthodox christological narrative about the eternal existence of the second person of the trinity and a rather crudely expounded narrative about the Son who suffered because of the sins of Israel and was exalted to the right hand of God.
With this clunky contrivance in place, Piper goes on to ask, ‘How much authority is included in “all authority in heaven and earth”?’ As we would expect, he insists that Jesus’ authority to rule as the Son of God is co-extensive in all respects with the rule of God himself: “the Son of God always had total authority in heaven and on earth.”
Apart from the careless identification of Jesus the Son who has authority with the Word through which God created all things, the biblical material that Piper cites to support his argument is broadly relevant. During the course of his ministry Jesus demonstrates authority over sickness, demons, the natural order; the risen Lord has authority over the kings of the earth, his enemies, death, and the mission of the church.
But I disagree that this evidence supports the contention that Jesus eternally, as second person of the trinity, had the full authority and power of the living creator God—for two reasons. First, the authority that he has is always given to him: he has been given authority as the Son of Man to heal the sick, cast out demons, forgive sins, rule the nations with a rod of iron, etc. Secondly, the authority that Jesus has and exercises is not absolute; it is carefully circumscribed by the apocalyptic narrative.
I think that this I can be demonstrated by consideration of certain key texts, taken from across the New Testament—Matthew, Paul, Hebrews and Revelation.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me
When the resurrected Jesus appears to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee, they prostrate themselves before him, though some are in two minds. He says to them, “All authority (exousia) in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, and sends them to teach the nations in the period leading up to the end of the age of second temple Judaism (Matt. 28:16-20).
In the background is Daniel’s vision of the vindication of the “one like a son of man”:
And royal authority (exousia) was given to him, and all the nations of the earth according to posterity, and all honour was serving him. And his authority is an everlasting authority, which shall never be removed—and his kingship (basileia), which will never perish. (Dan. 7:14 LXX)
In Daniel’s understanding this is not a cosmic but a political authority; it operates in the sphere of history, where nations rise and fall, kingdoms come and go. The “Lord of heaven has authority over everything which is in heaven and which is on the earth and does with them whatever he wishes” (Dan. 4:14 LXX). But this is consistently distinguished from the royal authority that is given to a king, and which a king may then devolve to sub-rulers (Dan. 3:97; 5:7, 16, 29; 6:2-3 LXX). He established Nebuchadnezzar on his throne and gave him authority and a kingdom, to rule over the nations of his empire (Dan. 4:37 LXX). None of the gods of the nations has the power to do this.
When the God of heaven acts to judge the hostile empires of the ancient world, the fourth beast of Greece is destroyed, and authority over the nations is removed from the other beasts (Dan. 7:12, 26). The right to rule over the nations is then given to the son of man figure, who represents, in my view, righteous Jews who remained faithful to the covenant when persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan. 7:14). The angel concludes:
And he shall give the authority and the kingdom and the magnitude of all the kingdoms, which are under heaven, to the holy people of the Most High, to reign over an everlasting kingdom, and all authorities will be subjected to him and obey him until the conclusion of the word. (Dan. 7:27 LXX)
Here we have the political narrative that explains Jesus’ statement. As the Son of Man who has suffered many things, he is the forerunner and representative of those righteous Jews who will follow him in proclaiming the coming judgment and renewal of Israel, both in Judea and among the nations (cf. Matt. 16:24-28; Mk. 8:34-9:1; Lk. 9:23-27). The authority that he has received is the delegated authority to rule as YHWH’s king over “all authorities… until the conclusion of the word”—or as Jesus says, “until the end of the age”.
He put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things
Paul’s prayer is that the saints in Ephesus will come to understand the “power” that was at work in the resurrection of Jesus, when God
raised Jesus from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and lordship and every name which is named, not only in this age but also in the coming one; and “he put all things under his feet” and gave him as head above all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of the one filling all in all.(Eph. 1:20-23, my translation)
In effect, this is a restatement of Jesus’ own words to the high priest at his trial: the leaders of Israel “will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). By virtue of his resurrection Jesus is both the son of man figure who comes with the clouds of heaven to receive an everlasting royal authority (Dan. 7:13-14) and the Davidic king who is seated at the right hand of YHWH to rule over God’s people “until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps. 110:1).
Two further observations need to be made. First, Paul does not say here that the exalted Jesus has authority over (epi) all things. He has been elevated to a royal position above (hyperanō, hyper) all political powers, and, as in the Psalm, it is God who subjects all things to him. The phrase “head of all rule and authority” in Colossians 2:10 means the same thing. Secondly, he is given this supremely exalted position for the sake of the church: he has been made king because those who believe in him have enemies. In the eschatological transition the authority given to Jesus as the firstborn from the dead primarily serves the purpose of safeguarding the witness of the churches.
The apocalyptic logic is made especially clear in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. Jesus must reign at the right hand of God, in keeping with the narrative of Psalm 110, until all his enemies have been overpowered and destroyed, including the last enemy death. Then he will give the authority or kingdom which he received as the faithful Son of Man back to the Father, so that “God may be all in all”—effectively bringing Trinitarianism to an end.
The empire to come has been subjected to him
The same basic affirmation is made in quite lavish terms by the writer to the Hebrews. God spoke to (the mismanaged vineyard of) Israel through his Son, whom he appointed heir to the whole business. After his redemptive death for Israel Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” to rule until all his enemies are subjugated beneath his feet (Heb. 1:2-3, 13; 2:5-8). This is the moment when the Son, as YHWH’s king, was “begotten” (cf. Ps. 2:7; Acts 13:33; Heb. 5:5).
He has also been raised to a position superior to angelic powers: to no angel has God said, “You are my Son”, or God “has anointed you… beyond your companions”, or “I will be to him a father”, or “Sit at my right hand” (Heb. 1:5, 9, 13). Indeed, when this new king is introduced into his “empire”, the angels are instructed to do obeisance before him (Heb. 1:6).
The Son of Man motif is not at play here—the writer is perhaps less interested than Paul in the political dimension. But the argument from the Psalms is the same. Jesus has been enthroned in heaven to rule as Israel’s king throughout the ages to come, and God will act to make his enemies a footstool for his feet. Jesus does not subjugate the coming “empire” (oikoumenē) himself or by his own authority; it is God who will subject it to him (Heb. 2:5).
The ruler of kings on earth
The book of Revelation certainly presents the authority of the exalted Jesus in political terms. He was the faithful witness to Israel, he was raised from the dead in advance of the resurrection of the righteous on the day of God’s wrath, and he has become “the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5). As such, he is explicitly the one like a son of man, who comes with the clouds of heaven, who has kingdom, glory and dominion for ever (Rev. 1:6-7, 13). As YHWH’s appointed king—and as the Lamb authorised to open the scroll of judgment—he will judge and rule over the nations “with a rod of iron” (Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15; cf. Ps. 2:9); he is therefore “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 17:14; 19:16).
So I would go as far as to say that the matter of Jesus’ authority as the Son of God is contained entirely within the apocalyptic narrative: the righteous and obedient Son of Man suffers, is killed, but is raised by God from the dead, seated at his right hand and given authority as a heavenly king to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations in the coming age.
The difficulty of construing this in trinitarian terms is immediately evident from the fact that other righteous “sons of God” will be seated and will reign with him (cf. Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30; Rev. 20:4). The identity of the exalted Christ is determined not only by his relationship to the Father but also by his relationship to those who will suffer in him, for the sake of his future rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
The New Testament also, I think, understands this epochal political action of the living God as the embodied or incarnated work of the creative Word or Wisdom of God, and that redescriptive shift steers us, not unreasonably, in the direction of the later trinitarian formulae. But this development cannot be explained biblically, only historically, which is fine, because history is what scripture is all about.