Jimmy Dunn: one God, one Lord, and the shema

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During a lively dialogue with Larry Hurtado at the British New Testament Society conference this morning Jimmy Dunn put forward his well known view that there is a significant functional differentiation—even subordination—between Jesus and God in the New Testament that should not be obscured in our efforts to safeguard a high christology. He was responding to Hurtado’s basic argument that the worship of the earliest churches exhibited a dyadic pattern—that is, in their prayer, acclamation, confession, hymns, and such practices as the Lord’s meal and baptism, they effectively “worshipped” Jesus in the same terms as they worshipped God.

I think Dunn has the edge over Hurtado in this particular debate. The practical context of devotion certainly needs to be taken into account—calling on the name of the Lord was not a mere doctrinal formality (Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:2); it was a matter of urgent practice. But it seems to me that it is the apocalyptic narrative which principally defines the relationship between Jesus and God and the nature of the veneration of Jesus in the New Testament—in fact, I would say that the practice was essentially itself eschatological in character (note, in this case, the relevance of Joel 2:32).

Dunn was right, therefore, to emphasize such motifs as the vision of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, from which place he exercises authority and intercedes on behalf of the saints; and he is rightly concerned that much christological argument disregards the incarnational implications of the exaltation theme. There is much more to be said here, but I think Dunn was pushing matters in the right direction.

One particular comment stuck out. Dunn remarked that he used to favour the view that in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul incorporates Jesus as Lord into the shema, effectively identifying Jesus with God or making him equal to God.

…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor. 8:6)

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut. 6:4)

He has since changed his mind. He thinks now that while the first part of Paul’s statement is a reference to the shema and, therefore, a classic affirmation of Jewish monotheism, the second part—“for us there is… one Lord, Jesus Christ”—brings into focus Psalm 110:1:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This seems to me very plausible. The consistent story elsewhere in Paul is that Jesus is given lordship—given the name kyrios—as a result of his faithful obedience in suffering, and that this status will have future consequences with regard to the nations and to the final enemy death (cf. Rom. 1:3-4; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Phil. 2:6-11).

So in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul is not saying that Jesus must be assimilated into an essential Jewish monotheism. Rather he is setting out the fundamental “Christian” response to the challenge of the dominant pagan culture: for us as heirs of Jewish monotheism there is one God, but this one God has given authority over the enemies of his people to the one who suffered, died and was raised from the dead. It is through him—not from him, as Dunn stressed—that these communities of new creation now exist. So I would say that the two part confession reflects the fact that this new creation has come into existence under conditions of eschatological conflict.

Not everyone in the room was convinced—Tom Wright certainly wasn’t—and it needs examining more closely. But it seems to me that Dunn’s argument, which I have not come across before, does justice to the narrative and apocalyptic structure of Paul’s eschatology.