The deity of Jesus, the war against Rome, and theology (of the cross) as a hermeneutical tool

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It sometimes happens that a response to a comment takes on a life of its own, which is the case with this attempt to address the excellent points made by Ted Hopkins about certain areas of disagreement and the tension between history and theology. I’ve omitted the reference to a “strong creator-creature distinction” because I’m not sure what he was getting at. Arianism? Perhaps he will come back and explain. In the meantime, these are the main issues that he raised:

In terms of disagreement, I had in mind the deity of Jesus…, the degree to which AD 70 is in mind in the eschatology of the New Testament, and the role of theology as a hermeneutical tool in relation to history.

The “theology of the cross” came up only in passing at the end, but I have used it as an example of how the narrative-historical approach may change our perspective on things.

The deity of Jesus

The phrase the “deity of Jesus” strikes me immediately as a theological imposition. In the New Testament it is not the deity of Jesus that is explicitly and urgently affirmed but overwhelmingly the authorisation, empowerment, and enthronement of Jesus as the Son appointed to rule at the right hand of God over the nations. We do not understand the message and mission of the early church if we allow later theological conclusions to obscure this apocalyptic storyline. The confession is that Jesus is Lord, not that Jesus is God.

Secondarily, there is the idea that the creative word or wisdom of God found a place to be dynamically and effectively active in the person of Jesus.

The conceptual reduction and conflation of these two largely distinct but very Jewish strands of thought by the later church were inevitable and right and part of the continuing story of the people of God under very different intellectual conditions. The outcome remains a key component of our heritage. A narrative-historical hermeneutic helps us to preserve the distinctions without denying their contingent and progressive validity.

The war against Rome

My argument is that AD 70 constitutes the eschatological horizon of Jesus and the early church in Jerusalem. This is when the leaders of Israel would see the vindication of Jesus as the persecuted Son of Man, seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the cloud of heaven (Mk. 14:62).

Once we get out into the wider world, it is the no less realistic, though less sharply conceived, judgment on Greek-Roman civilisation, eventually with a focus on Roman imperialism (Rev. 13-19), that determines the looming horizon of prophetic vision. A consistent historical hermeneutic is likely to conclude that the conversion of the empire under Constantine and his successors effectively fulfilled this expectation.

The theology of the cross belonged to a unique moment in the history of God’s people—that time when Jesus and his followers suffered for the sake of the coming kingdom of God.

What we have, therefore, is a New Testament eschatology that bears upon its own foreseeable future. We no longer have to allow for a massive hiatus between the Easter-Pentecost events and either our own time or a congested and barely meaningful end-of-the-world scenario. There is a final judgment and renewal of all things in the New Testament (Rom. 8:21; Rev. 20:11-21:8), but it’s not what believers in Jesus were mainly concerned about. Other more immediate matters, having to do with the reputation of Israel’s God and the status of his people in the ancient world, were far more pressing. Kingdom and new creation—this really should be obvious—are not the same thing.

It’s also worth stressing here that eschatology and christology are inseparable. Jesus died and was raised and exalted because the axe was already laid to the root of the trees of Israel, because the hour of God’s judgment was not far off. But as far as the New Testament goes, these outcomes needed Jesus to be messiah, judge, deliverer, Lord, King of kings and Lord of lords, not the second person of the Trinity.

The theological interpretation of scripture

I have set my face firmly against the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, partly for the sake of maintaining exegetical integrity, as best one can, partly out of curiosity to see whether a consistent historical reading of the New Testament can serve a modern evangelical (with a very small “e”) self-understanding and mission. I think it can. See my book on same-sex relationships and the narratives of evangelical mission, for example.

But I recognise that this latter task entails a “hermeneutic”, and I like the notion of theology—in Ted’s words—“as the hermeneutical interplay, requiring constant repair between the scriptural world on the inside and the real world on the outside”—except that I would change it from inside/outside to then/now, from a synchronic to a diachronic ordering. That makes it much harder for us, but it gives due weight to history.

A narrative-historical theology of the cross

Ted mentions that Luther’s theology of the cross is key to his thinking, and this may be worth considering as an example of how the shift in hermeneutics works.

A theology of the cross (like any theology of the whatever) is concentric in its structure: the cross is deliberately made the organising centre of all theological thought, the “inside” that helps us to think about the “outside”. At the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation Luther stated: “He deserves to be called a theologian… who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

The hermeneutic determines how we understand God: he is revealed in weakness rather than in power. It determines ethics and discipleship: faith is an expression not of glory or superiority but of selflessness and compassion. And so on. Such a refocusing of priorities often comes to prominence for contemporary polemical or political reasons—as, for example, a ground for resisting ecclesiastical power.

The narrative-historical approach, however, orders things not concentrically but linearly.

The cross was an event in history—in fact, in Jewish history. It led directly to the resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation to the right hand of God. That was taken to mean: 1) that he was Israel’s “Lord and Christ”, who alone could save this “crooked generation” of Jews from the coming destruction (Acts 2:37-40; 3:24-26; 4:11-12); and 2) that he would sooner or later be confessed as Lord by the nations—that he was the “root of Jesse” who would arise to rule over the nations, in whom the nations were slowly beginning to hope (Phil. 2:11; Rom. 15:12). The cross was a means to these ends. Its purpose was not to pre-empt or forestall them. Future outcomes mattered enormously.

So I have no problem with affirming a “theology of the cross” as part of a narrative that never loses sight of the fundamental objective, which is that YHWH’s anointed king would rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

The theological and ethical implications

1. Theologies of the cross are heavily dependent on an incarnational paradigm. God is identified with the suffering of Jesus to the extent that we may even speak about the crucified God. I think that it is very difficult to account for this in New Testament terms.

The miraculous conception of Jesus is a sign that God is with his people both to judge and to deliver. God sends his Son, as he earlier sent the prophets, to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant. He gives him authority, as the Son of Man, to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. God abandons him on the cross. He raises him from the dead. He puts Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel.

This narrative seems to differentiate quite clearly between the sovereignty of Israel’s God and the faithfulness of Jesus.

There is also, as I said, a secondary “incarnational” christology in the New Testament, which is the idea that the creative word or wisdom of God became flesh and lived among his own people.

These two narrative trajectories serve different purposes, and I don’t think that the New Testament makes much of an attempt to join them up: the word or wisdom of God becomes flesh, the anointed Son becomes Lord. It was the later church which decided to merge them into a single redemptive storyline, in which the eternal Son became flesh as God incarnate to redeem mankind.

In sum, the cross belongs to the primary storyline about Jesus who becomes judge and king, but this storyline lacks the sort of incarnational emphasis that would permit the inference that the weakness of Jesus on the cross is the weakness of God. The New Testament itself certainly does not say this.

2. Jesus told his followers that anyone who wished to be his disciple would have to take up his or her own cross and follow him (Mk. 8:34). He meant this in quite a narrow and unrepeatable sense: they would have to walk the same painful road of rejection and persecution, but they would be repaid when the Son of Man was revealed in glory at the judgment of this “this adulterous and sinful generation”.

Again, as the communities of eschatological witness moved into the Greek-Roman world, the horizon of kingdom and vindication expanded. But this theology of participation in the cross of Jesus remained operative. The apostles, notably, carried in their physical bodies the dying of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:10); Paul earnestly desired to share in Christ’s sufferings in the hope that he would also share in the resurrection of Christ (Phil. 3:10-11); and so on. Baptism into the death of Christ (e.g., Rom. 6:3-5) was in principle the symbolic expression of the believer’s willingness to be martyred for Jesus’ sake, in the expectation of being raised with him at the parousia.

This is why Paul makes so much of the cross even though his “gospel” was the announcement that the appointment of Jesus as Son of God in power would have far-reaching ramifications for both Jews and Greeks. The churches would function as reliable and credible witnesses to this new future only if they were Christlike in their attitude towards suffering.

Understood in this sense, the theology of the cross belonged to a unique moment in the history of God’s people—that time when Jesus and his followers suffered for the sake of the coming kingdom of God.

That has some more or less direct relevance for persecuted believers today, though I don’t think we should be telling the same story about an imminent coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.

But what about the rest of us?

We can make the cross of Christ the controlling paradigm for the Christian life, but it is then only really a figure for the sort humility and selflessness that ought in any case to characterise a people chosen to serve the living creator God. In some contexts it will shift the balance too far in the direction self-denial, away from the abundance of life. God’s people are not aways in need of reform, and not always in the same direction.

More seriously, from my point of view, we obfuscate a narrative about faithful suffering, vindication and resurrection, going back to Daniel, which must contextualise, if not relativise, the cross of Jesus, who after all, as Paul says, was only the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).

In the end, the choice of theological centre remains arbitrary and is bound to distort as much as clarify. Only history can makes sense of history.

I will undoubtedly respond more later. What I had in mind by “a strong creator-creation distinction” was not Arianism directly, but what I take to be an important presupposition for affirming that Jesus is the eternal Son, one with the Father and the Spirit from all eternity. It seemed to me, Andrew, that your language about Jesus presumed some kind of continuum of deity where one could be more or less divine rather than the firm creator and creature distinction of the Cappadocian Fathers. If there are no levels of deity—as in one cannot be more or less divine—but something is either the creator or the creature, it is difficult to imagine Jesus’ words about himself or Paul’s language about Jesus fitting with him as a mere creature. Rather, Jesus must be recognized as the Creator, the eternal Son, who yet willingly and gladly became a creature for the salvation of his creation.

I will return to this later, but I thought I’d oblige you with clarification regarding the creator/creature.

Also, I’m still learning what language I can shorthand and what language I cannot in this space. I’m used to different theological contexts where “deity of Jesus” means nothing more than “Jesus is true God, one of the Trinity.”

@Ted Hopkins:

Ted, Philo affirms that something/someone can “stand in the midst of two extremities, neither being uncreated as God, nor created as [humans].” He says this specifically about God’s wisdom.

Who is the heir of divine things? XLII

@Ted Hopkins:

Hey there, Ted.

I think Alex pointed this out with a direct quote from Philo, but there is certainly an idea in the early church and prior that beings can be divine without being God.

To your point, it’s probably true that these divine beings fall into the category of Things God Made and are “creatures” in that sense as opposed to being the Creator (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31) but that doesn’t take away from the notion that they are divine creatures. The Arians had no problem with saying that Jesus was pre-existent or a divine figure.

I think we’re used to a very Western way of categorizing things with sharp boundaries. X is Y if X has these definitive characteristics, otherwise it isn’t Y. In the ancient world, categories were defined a lot more by similarity or analogy. The more like God you are, the more appropriate it is to think of you as divine.

Consider, for instance, the Imperial affirmation of the divinity of Caesar. The idea was generally not that Caesar was Zeus or that he created the world or even that he was preexistent, but he took on divinity via his great salvific works and assumption into the heavenly host.

The OT has a concept of the Elohim — God’s council/vassals/what have you. All divine beings, none of whom are YHWH.

Kent Haley | Fri, 05/08/2020 - 15:45 | Permalink


You say:

“A consistent historical hermeneutic is likely to conclude that the conversion of the empire under Constantine and his successors effectively fulfilled this expectation.”

If I understand your paradigm correctly, the above quote is referring to your understanding that the conversion of the empire is the fulfillment of Jesus being made Lord of the nations. This makes sense.

If your paradigm is correct, then wouldn’t the actions in this newly formed Christendom matter? Under the Lordship of Jesus, the emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, and the church clarified its understanding that Jesus Christ is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

The identiy of Jesus seemed to be of critical importance to early Christendom. My understanding is that many, if not most Christians of the time were Arians. But by calling the Council of Nicea, Constantine paved the way for the unification of the church around Trinitarian Orthodoxy. It seems that your paradigm gives legitimacy to the rise of Constantine and his involvement in the affairs of the church. It almost seems like God use Constantine to help clarify the very doctrine that Jesus is indeed God. The doctrine of the Trinity was clarified at the very time when the nations became subject to Jesus as Lord.

I could be misreading you, but it seems that like you don’t think Nicene Orthodoxy is important for God’s people today. But if the Council of Nicea got it right about Jesus, then the doctrine still stands. Jesus is still God. How does Jesus go from being “God from True God” to merely lord of the Roman empire for a period of time in history?

Andrew Perriman | Fri, 05/08/2020 - 16:25 | Permalink

In reply to by Kent Haley

@Kent Haley:

Kent, I would say that Nicene orthodoxy is less relevant for the church in the modern era than it was for the church during the period of Christendom. The neo-platonic synthesis—the necessary translation of Jewish apocalyptic into Greek metaphysics, of history into theology—worked well enough until the modern era.

Historical criticism has at long last enabled us to recover the original Jewish orientation of the New Testament witness, so it has become—arguably—more meaningful to affirm that Jesus is Lord than that he is God.

But also, I suspect that the marginalisation of the church and the loss of intellectual credibility—and perhaps also an awareness of religious pluralism—have inclined us to distrust the comprehensive metaphysical definitions. We need a theology to underpin the socially precarious missional situation of the church, and so we have turned to Jesus as, first, the marginalised prophet, and secondly, the crucified anti-Caesar.

Just speculating.

It may turn out that the doctrine has indeed had its day. We may find that it’s enough to tell the New Testament story. More likely we will try to hold together the historical narrative and the theological synthesis in an uneasy marriage and hope for the best. We should at least encourage them to talk to each other.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for the response. I appreciate your perspective on the historical narrative. But it seems like this could and should be done with history and theology talking to each other as you say. The scriptures both relay historical actions of God and also describe his nature.

Marc Taylor | Tue, 05/12/2020 - 02:01 | Permalink

You asserted: The confession is that Jesus is Lord, not that Jesus is God.

To confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess that Jesus is God, because “Lord” means YHWH (God). This is seen in Romans 10:9 when coupled with Romans 10:13.

@Phil L.:

Ephesians 6:5 is not taken from an Old Testament text (LXX) in which YHWH is applied unto those (kuriois) spoken of in this passage.

Romans 10:13 is taken from an Old Testament text (Joel 3:5 LXX) in which the Lord (YHWH) is properly applied unto the Lord Jesus thereby demonstarting He is YHWH.

@Marc Taylor:

Ok, so you agree that “Lord” does not always mean “YHWH.” Good start.

By correlate, you also realize that the confession “Jesus is Lord” does not linguistically equate to “Jesus is YHWH.” When the Roman citizens confessed “Caesar is Lord,” obviously they were not confessing that Caesar is YHWH.

Your -actual- argument is that there are passages in the OT that refer to YHWH that are used in the NT to describe Jesus, and you feel that argues for identity, i.e. since something that describes YHWH can also describe Jesus, Jesus and YHWH must be the same being.

Many other people also have that argument, so you’re in good company with that angle. I just wanted to point out that your original statement is self-evidently wrong.

@Phil L.:

A. T. Robertson: {Jesus is Lord} (kurios iesous). The term kurios, as we have seen, is common in the LXX for God. The Romans used it freely for the emperor in the emperor worship. “Most important of all is the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kurios, ‘lord.’ The new texts have here furnished quite astonishing revelations” (Deissmann, _Light from the Ancient East_, p. 349). Inscriptions, ostraca, papyri apply the term to Roman emperors, particularly to Nero when Paul wrote this very letter (_ib._, p. 353f.): “One with ‘Nero kurios’ quite in the manner of a formula (without article, like the ‘kurios Jesus’ in #1Co 12:3.”The battle-cries of the spirits of error and of truth contending at Corinth” (Findlay). One is reminded of the demand made by Polycarp that he say kurios caesar and how each time he replied kurios iesous. He paid the penalty for his loyalty with his life. Lighthearted men today can say “Lord Jesus” in a flippant or even in an irreverent way, but no Jew or Gentile qen said it who did not mean it.

Christians were to denounce their highest allegiance (worship) from Jesus and place it into Ceasar.

@Marc Taylor:

Yes, that’s a fine piece of evidence that “Lord” does not always mean “YHWH.” Interestingly, in your Polycarp example, the linguistic equivalence is between Nero and Jesus, not God and Jesus, and the linguistic equivalence is meant to form a contrast — Nero isn’t lord, Jesus is lord.

Thank you for the additional evidence.

@Phil L.:

I never claimed that “Lord” (kyrios) always referred to YHWH. They made Nero their god by worshiping him, but Christians worship Jesus because they know He is God.

@Marc Taylor:

To confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess that Jesus is God, because “Lord” means YHWH (God).

That was how you opened this thread.

Lord = YHWH, and that’s why saying Jesus is Lord is saying that Jesus is God.

“Kyrios” is a title that existed long before caesars were proclaimed as divine (most were not) and most often referred to the heads of households, which is still how the word is used today in modern Greek. Kyrios does not mean God or god. It refers to someone in a position of authority.

If you want to say that confessing that Jesus is Lord is a confession that Jesus is in authority, you are dead on correct.

@Phil L.:

You left out the part where I cited both Romans 10:9 and Romans 10:13. To confess that Jesus is Lord entails believing He is YHWH. For to call upon the name of the Lord not only shows Jesus is the proper recipient of prayer (and prayer is due unto God alone) but that the Lord Jesus is YHWH -> the Everlasting God (cf. Genesis 21:33).

@Marc Taylor:

You left out the part where I cited both Romans 10:9 and Romans 10:13.

Yes, because those verses don’t support your statement. They support a -different- argument, which I pointed out to you, and you absolutely should have made.

If you say, “Quoting OT references to YHWH as Lord and applying those OT references to Jesus means that Jesus is YHWH,” I would disagree, but that would at least be a good argument supported by the text.

And maybe that’s even what you meant in your head, but what you typed was that “Lord” (you even put it in quotes) means YHWH. But it doesn’t. It CLEARLY doesn’t.

Plenty of Christians in history have confessed that Jesus is Lord and they did not believe he was YHWH. Those statements are not equivalent; they are orthogonal. YOU may say, “When I confess Jesus is Lord, I also mean that he is YHWH,” or you might believe this is also what the biblical authors intend when they confess Jesus as Lord. That’s fine; it’s just that the statements don’t automatically imply each other.

@Phil L.:

Of course Romans 10:9, 13 support my statement that to confess that Jesus is Lord means to believe Jesus is God. The same with calling upon the name of the Lord (YHWH) in reference to Jesus.

Theological Lexicon of the New Testament: “Let every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,” that is, God. Such is the object of faith profession and worship: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Henceforth, Christians are “those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, who worship his divine majesty and implore his sovereign protection (2:350, Lord).

@Marc Taylor:

Yeah, those assertions are pretty ignorant from a historical perspective. Many Christians throughout history confessed that Jesus was Lord and did not confess that Jesus was God. When I confess Jesus is Lord, I am not confessing that he is God.

Again, it’s one thing to -conclude- that you believe someone means Jesus is God when they say Jesus is Lord, but it’s another thing altogether to assert that the terms are synonymous or that anyone ever understood the terms to be synonymous. That’s demonstrably false. You even demonstrated it with one of your own citations.

@Phil L.:

What I cited is biblically correct. If anyone (in the past as well as now) confesses Jesus is Lord while denying He is God then they do not have the biblical Jesus. My citations show that He is God and that He is worshiped — and worship is due unto Gof alone.