The central claim of the New Testament regarding the risen Jesus is this: because he was faithful unto death in fulfilment of his mission to Israel, the God of Israel raised him from the dead and gave him the authority, which formerly belonged to God alone, to judge and rule over the nations—meaning, at least in the historical purview of the New Testament, the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
In other words, the early church thought of Jesus principally as an exalted human being, enthroned in heaven alongside YHWH, exercising the supreme but delegated authority of YHWH over all beings which had the capacity to confess him as Lord, whether in heaven or on earth or under the earth. That, I think, is more or less how Philippians 2:9-11 should be read.
A christology of divine identity?
However, because the language of verses 10-11 has been taken from a statement about YHWH himself in Isaiah 45:23, it is often argued that Paul directly identifies Jesus with God. In Isaiah YHWH is the kyrios to whom every knee will bow, etc.; in Philippians 2:10-11 Jesus is the kyrios to whom every knee will bow, etc. Therefore, by a simple syllogism, Jesus is YHWH.
Turn to me and be saved, those from the end of the earth; I am God and there is no other. According to myself I swear: Surely, righteousness will go out from my mouth, my words will not be turned back, that to me every knee will bow, and every tongue profess allegiance to God, saying, righteousness and glory will come to him, and all those separating themselves will be ashamed. (Is. 45:22-25 LXX, my translation)
Therefore indeed God highly exalted him and favoured him with the name which is above every name, in order that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
In an essay that is available online, Richard Bauckham argues that a high Christology was possible under the conditions of Jewish monotheism “by identifying Jesus directly with the one God of Israel, including Jesus in the unique identity of this one God”. Specifically, he thinks that Philippians 2:9-11 points to a Christian reading of Deutero-Isaiah that “understood the universal acknowledgement of YHWH’s unique deity to result from the revelation of YHWH’s identity in the person and fate of his Servant”.
I haven’t come across the argument quite so much in the last couple of years, so perhaps it is going out of fashion. Anyway, here are my reasons for rejecting—at least as far as Philippians 2:9-11 is concerned—the divine identity paradigm (1) in favour of a delegated authority paradigm (2).
“Jesus is Lord” does not mean “Jesus is YHWH”
1. The translators of the Septuagint used kyrios both for the Hebrew word adonay, which means “Lord”, and for the name of God yhwh. But kyrios is not itself a name for God; it is not a translation of the written word yhwh. It is a translation of adonay as it would have been substituted for yhwh when the scriptures were read. Like adonay, kyrios means “lord”; it refers to a man who has authority to rule over others, to whom others are subordinated as subjects or servants. The title kyrios, therefore, seemed to pious Jews a good alternative—not an equivalent—to the unutterable name yhwh. Paul would have been well aware of the semantic difference between the two terms. YHWH was the name of God; kyrios denoted one aspect of his relation to the world.
Here’s a simple analogy. The name of the team captain is Luka. If, for whatever reason, Luka passes the captain’s armband to Ivan halfway through the game, then Ivan has been given the authority to act as captain. In a sense, the team now has two captains: Ivan is exercising the authority of captain on behalf of Luka—probably only until the end of the game when the armband will be returned to Luka. But Ivan does not become Luka; he does not share Luka’s identity.
2. The end point of the argument in both passages is not that someone is Lord but that God is glorified. The question is: how is God glorified? According to Isaiah 45, YHWH saves his people, the nations turn to him in awed response, abandoning their false gods, they bow the knee to him and profess allegiance to him, as subjects would do to a king, and as a result YHWH is glorified in the ancient world (“righteousness and glory will come to him”). According to Philippians 2:9-11, Jesus is faithful to the point of death on a Roman cross, God exalts him and gives him the name above every name, the nations bow the knee to him and profess allegiance to him as Lord, and as a result YHWH is glorified in the ancient world (“to the glory of God the Father”).
It is clear from this that Jesus does not do what YHWH was expected to do in Isaiah 45. It is not simply that Jesus is not identified with YHWH; their stories are different. YHWH delivers his people from captivity in Babylon, and the pagan nations turn to him for salvation. Jesus refuses to take the way of pagan kingship, suffers at the hands of the oppressor, but then is vindicated and instated as king. It is not what Jesus does that gets him confessed as Lord but what is done to him. It is perhaps fundamentally this narrative divergence that rules out a straightforward identification of Jesus with YHWH.
3. This is where Bauckham’s assertion about the “revelation of YHWH’s identity in the person and fate of his Servant” comes unstuck. In the Philippians passage the revelation which leads to the glorification of God among the nations is found not in the “person and fate” of Jesus but in the action of God in raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand.
4. Bauckham’s argument relies in part on the assumption that the “name which is above every name” is “YHWH”. This seems intrinsically unlikely: it is barely intelligible that a person would create a binary identity by giving his own name to another person (see the analogy above). Most commentators, I think, would say that the name above every name is “Lord”; some argue for “Jesus”. There is no suggestion of identification in Ephesians 1:20-21, where it is said that God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come”. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God, “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:4). In context, this would appear to be a reference to his status as the Son “begotten” on the day of his resurrection (Heb. 1:5).
5. Bauckham thinks that in Philippians 2:10-11 Paul has exploited a distinction between Lord and God in Isaiah 45:23 LXX: the Lord says that “every knee shall bow to me” but that “every tongue shall confess to God”. In Greek Isaiah it is “God” who speaks, and the switch from “me” to “God” may anticipate the third person reference to God in the next lines: every tongue shall profess allegiance to God, “saying, Righteousness and glory shall come to him, and all who separate themselves shall be ashamed” (Is. 45:24). Besides, the distinction as Bauckham constructs it does not match Paul’s use of the quotation: Paul’s “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11) is quite different from Greek Isaiah’s “every tongue shall profess allegiance to God”.
6. Jesus is the passive recipient of a status and authority that is graciously “bestowed” (echaristo) upon him. The verb charizomai implies an unequal relationship between two distinct persons, one who bestows and one who is the beneficiary. I struggle to see how we can say in the same breath that YHWH graciously bestowed on Jesus this status and authority and that Jesus is YHWH.
7. When David called on the assembly of the leaders of Israel to bless the Lord, they “blessed the Lord, God of their fathers, and bowed (kampsantes) their knees and did obeisance (prosekunēsan) to the Lord and the king” (1 Chron. 29:20 LXX). This suggests that it was quite appropriate to bow the knee to and “worship”—or better “serve”—both God and his anointed king. The is what we have in the intertextual relationship between Philippians 2:10-11 and Isaiah 45:23. Bauckham thinks that when worship is “performed by every creature in the universe… it unquestionably expresses the monolatry that was a defining feature of Jewish monotheism”. But the transfer of YHWH’s sovereignty to Jesus would account for this just as well. Verse 10 is not a reference to “every creature in the universe”. In context, the reference is to all intelligent beings (humans, angels, gods?) capable of bowing the knee and confessing that Jesus is Lord. As in Isaiah 45:18-25, the apocalpytic vision is essentially “political” rather than cosmic.
8. Three other Old Testament texts are especially used in the New Testament to account for the fact of Jesus’ lordship. He is the Son “begotten” as king on the day of his resurrection, to whom YHWH will give the nations as his heritage, to shepherd with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7-9 LXX). He is the king greater than David seated at the right hand of YHWH to rule in the midst of his enemies (Ps. 110:1-2). And he is the “one like a son of man”, representative of the persecuted righteous in Israel, who will receive from YHWH dominion over the nations of the former pagan empire (Dan. 7:13-14).
In none of these templates is the authority to rule and be served given on the basis of an equivalence of identity between YHWH and the king or lord. The point is rather that YHWH will establish, defend, and empower the one whom he has appointed to rule as Israel’s king under difficult “political” conditions throughout the coming ages. The idea is found everywhere in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 28:18; John 3:35; 13:3; Acts 2:36; 17:31; Rom. 1:3-4; 14:9; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:10, 20-22; Col. 2:10; Heb. 1:2; 2:8; 1 Pet. 3:22).
9. Paul also quotes Isaiah 45:23 in the context of his exhortation to Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome not to judge one another over relatively unimportant matters of religious observance. Jesus died and lived in order that “he might be Lord (kyrieusēi) both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:9). This lordship has reference to the present relationship between the believers as servants and the one who is Lord or master over them (Rom. 14:4). It is not confused with their responsibility towards God. They follow certain practices (eating or not eating particular foods, observing special days or not) as to the Lord (kyriōi), but they do so giving thanks to God. While Christ as Lord is the one who will enable them to remain faithful in the meantime (Rom. 14:4), at some point in the future they will have to stand before the judgment seat of God, and each will have to give an account of himself or herself to God (Rom. 14:10-12). It is this future judgment that is explained by reference to the Isaiah passage:
…for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” (Rom. 14:11)
The argument is that they have a master who sustains them in their witness through to day of Christ, when the nations of the empire will acknowledge both that there is only one God, not many gods, and that there is only one Lord, not many lords (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6).
This is not an unevangelical position to take
So I remain unconvinced that the acclamation of Jesus as Lord presupposes the identification of Jesus with YHWH. The logic is rather that YHWH has transferred the authority to judge and rule over the idolatrous nations to his Son: Jesus is now Kyrios on behalf of God and to the glory of God. YHWH will manage the relationship between his people and the nations, for the rest of history, through the Son seated at his right hand.
This is not, I stress, an unevangelical position to take. On the contrary, it gets to the heart of the historically-oriented evangel in the New Testament—the gospel as Paul frames it, for example, in Romans 1:1-4:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The paradigm certainly created a conceptual challenge for the Greek church as it lost touch with the apocalyptic origins of its faith—a challenge which was eventually resolved by means of the doctrine of the Trinity. The narrative of delegated authority was collapsed into the ontology of Jesus’ identity as God the Son. History lost out to metaphysics.. But I do not think that this solution was anticipated, as such, in the New Testament narrative of Christ’s exaltation and lordship.