How Paul can proclaim one Lord Jesus Christ and not compromise Jewish monotheism

A lot of scholars think that Paul includes Jesus in the “divine identity” when he says that “for us there is one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ…” (1 Cor. 8:6). Richard Bauckham, for example, notes that it is now “commonly recognized” that Paul has generated here a Christianized version of the Shema. It has become a central plank of the Early High Christology thesis. Can it take the weight?

At the scriptural core of Jewish monotheistic belief is Moses’ exhortation: “Hear (shemaʿ), O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4). Bauckham argues that Paul has taken this statement and has “rearranged the words in such a way as to produce an affirmation of both one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.”1 So the one Lord, the God of Israel, now has a bifurcated identity: he is God, the Father, and the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Bauckham asserts the importance of “identity” over against the old contrast between “functional” and “ontological” categories. He says that this is a misleading approach because the categories “do not reflect an adequate understanding of the way Jewish monotheism understood God.” Specifically, in his view, in Jewish understanding the unique sovereignty of God was not simply a “function” that could be delegated harmlessly to someone else. Sovereignty or lordship was a definitive characteristic by which the one God was distinguished from “all other reality” and therefore could not be reassigned.

The unique divine sovereignty is a matter of who God is. Jesus’ participation in the unique divine sovereignty is therefore also not just a matter of what Jesus does, but of who Jesus is in relation to God.2

The point, as I understand it, is that if God had transferred his essential sovereignty to Jesus, he would have transferred a fundamental aspect of his being. This would create a second god—“outright ditheism,” as Bauckham calls it.

I have to say, I struggle to see the force of this.

First, I’m not sure that the basic logic holds up. If God delegates even a core function to another, I don’t see why that necessarily compromises his divine identity or results in the existence of another god. It means only that, rather than exercising his sovereignty directly in relation to the world, God exercises it indirectly, through an agent who has been appointed for that purpose. Even if we allow that sovereignty or lordship is definitive of the identity of God, it is only the function, not the identity, that is granted to another.

To the degree that the confession of Jesus as the Lord at YHWH’s right hand “compromises” Jewish monotheism (if it does so at all), it is only on a provisional or temporary basis—while enemies exist.

This, after all, was the essence of biblical kingship. At a basic level Israel’s king was a substitute for the direct rule of YHWH over his people (1 Sam. 8:7). Bauckham recognises the importance of Psalm 110 for the development of New Testament christology, but what the psalm describes is precisely a transferred or delegated rule: the king has a mighty sceptre, he rules in the midst of his enemies, but it is YHWH who subdues his enemies, who sends forth the king’s sceptre, who will shatter kings on the day of his wrath, who will execute judgment among the nations. The arrangement constitutes no threat to Jewish monotheism, no infringement of divine identity, no compromise of divine sovereignty.

Secondly, it seems to me that in Paul’s thought it is not divine sovereignty in any absolute sense that Jesus acquires by virtue of his faithfulness unto death but a limited authority determined by the eschatological perspective that controls the New Testament generally.

The functional distinction between God as “God” and God as “Lord” is not unknown in first century Judaism. Philo differentiates sharply and explicitly between the God who creates and the Lord who governs. The two cherubim mounted on the ark of the covenant, he argues, represent

the two most ancient and supreme powers of the divine God, namely, his creative and his kingly power; and his creative power is called God; according to which he arranged, and created, and adorned this universe, and his kingly power is called Lord, by which he rules over the beings whom he has created, and governs them with justice and firmness. (Moses 2:99; cf. Planter 86-87; Abr. 121)

This treats God’s “kingly power,” however, in rather general terms as a rule over all created beings. It does not take into account the unique circumstances and perspective that control Paul’s claim about the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Paul’s narrative, as is evident not least in 1 Corinthians, the rulers of this age, who crucified Jesus, are doomed to pass away (1 Cor. 2:6-8). He is thinking not of universal power structures but specifically of the leadership in Jerusalem, in league with Roman provincial power—the kings and rulers who conspired “against YHWH and against his anointed” (Ps. 2:2, my translation). Indeed, the present form of the world, as the Corinthians know it, is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31). A day of the Lord Jesus Christ will come, when he will be revealed to all people—and when, we may add, he will be confessed by the nations and will rule over them (cf. Phil. 2:11; Rom. 15:12).

This is a political narrative, and it gives us a political understanding of Jesus’ function as Lord.

The disciples draw out out the significance of Psalm 2 after the interrogation of Peter and John by the Jewish council (Acts 4:5-22). They pray to God, the “master” (despotēs), who “made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,” and then quote the lines about the hostility of the kings and rulers of the earth towards YHWH and his Anointed (Acts 4:24-26). This is what had recently happened in Jerusalem: Herod and Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, had conspired to put an end to Jesus’ mission. But they were only doing “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). So the kings and rulers of this age plotted to thwart YHWH’s plans, but YHWH’s response—in effect—is to declare to his king:

You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Ps. 2:7–9)

This is the other key narrative of kingship used by the early church to shape the proclamation about Jesus. Both are political narratives.

Jesus is Lord because he has been “begotten” as the “Son of God in power” by his resurrection from the dead (cf. Rom. 1:4) and will judge and rule over the nations. He has been seated at the right hand of God to rule in the midst of his enemies, having been made by God “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:31-32; Ps. 110:1).

This is not a comprehensive or absolute sovereignty—in the sense, say, that Philo speaks of a divine sovereignty over all created things. It is for a particular set of circumstances, for a particular purpose.

God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, Paul says in Ephesians, “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” (Eph. 1:21). He has been elevated, as Israel’s king, above all other political powers, whether earthly or spiritual, because those powers are opposed to the work of God in bringing in the age to come.

Jesus has been granted this status above all hostile powers, with his enemies placed under his feet, for the sake of the church, which will soon have to wrestle against “the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

The rulers of this age, who oppose not only YHWH and his Anointed but also those who believe in his Anointed, are passing away, but they are not going to give up without a fight.

Now back to 1 Corinthians. Paul rehearses this lordship narrative in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. Christ must reign as the king at YHWH’s right hand until the last enemy of his people, death, is destroyed. But then the Son will deliver the kingdom to God the Father and become subject to him, so that “God may be all in all.”

To the degree that the confession of Jesus as the Lord at YHWH’s right hand “compromises” Jewish monotheism (if it does so at all), it is only on a provisional or temporary basis—while enemies exist. In the end, there will be no further need for Jesus to judge and rule in the midst of his enemies with all the authority of the living God.

This, I suggest, is how the earliest believing community safeguarded the singular identity of the God of Israel—not by assimilating Jesus into the confession of the one God but by telling a remarkable apocalyptic story about royal accession and abdication.

I stress, finally, that this is not an anti-trinitarian argument. It is a pro-apocalyptic or pro-kingdom argument. There was a time and a place for all things.

  • 1. Richard J. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (1999), Kindle loc. 397.
  • 2. Bauckham, God Crucified, Kindle loc. 437-38.
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Andrew,

hmmm, I thought the solution had already been presented.  See the book:

Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Library of Early Christology)

Summary:

In his now classic Two Powers in Heaven, Alan Segal examines rabbinic evidence about early manifestations of the “two powers” heresy within Judaism. Segal sheds light upon the development of and relationships among early Christianity, Gnosticism, and Merkabah mysticism and demonstrates that belief in the “two powers in heaven” was widespread by the first century, and may have been a catalyst for the Jewish rejection of early Christianity. An important addition to New Testament and Gnostic scholarship by this much revered scholar, Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven is made available once again for a new generation.

https://www.amazon.com/Two-Powers-Heaven-Christianity-Christology/dp/16…

Rich, this needs more careful consideration than I can give it here, but personally I don’t think the “two powers” thesis explains 1 Corinthians 8:6. Segal is more concerned with how the rabbis understood supposedly heterodox developments (Christianity, Philo) than with explaining how Christian doctrine emerged. But more importantly, I don’t think that Paul identifies Jesus with a pre-existent second power in heaven, whether the Logos or a principal angel. Paul’s christology is determined at its core by the resurrection of the man Jesus from the dead and the authority and status that he acquired as a result (cf. Rom. 1:4; Phil. 2:9-11). That fully accounts for the presence in heaven of a second locus of power throughout the period defined by 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. Resurrection is what happens to human life in a new creation, it is not a mechanism for getting someone back into heaven.

I can understand why the eschatological paradigm could not be sustained in a post-Jewish, Neo-Platonic intellectual environment. It is not surprising that the church fathers allowed this very awkward New Testament belief to collapse into something more “rational”, at which point the Wisdom-Logos theme became invaluable But that’s not what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 8:6.

A good critical assessment of Segal’s argument by James McGrath and Jerry Truex can be found here.

Andrew,

I agree with some of what you say, but not all — such as Paul not identifying Jesus with a pre-existent second power in heaven. And I also don’t mean to imply I agree with everything Segal presented.  The main point was merely that in early Judaism there was a concept and belief that there were “two powers” in heaven (seen in the OT theophanies), yet they held to “one” God (the shema).  Pretty much Christianity’s trinity concept (except it adds the Spirit as a third).  So, if Paul also held this position (which I think he did) and it rested in the background of him mind, then it would impact 1 Cor. 8:6 (and other passages).

The main point was merely that in early Judaism there was a concept and belief that there were “two powers” in heaven (seen in the OT theophanies), yet they held to “one” God (the shema).

What are you basing this on? And on what grounds do you think that Paul believed in a second power in heaven that preceded the earthly life of Jesus?

Does Bauckham offer any substantiation of the contention that there is a divine sovereignty that is essential to God’s identity and not also communicable?

The argument is made in rather general terms. To being with, Bauckham introduces the idea of divine identity in order to differentiate Jewish monotheism from Greek ideas of God as a “philosophical abstraction” (R.J. Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (2008), 6-11). The Greeks were interested in the metaphysical nature of God. Jews were concerned about who God is. He then sets out two categories of identifying features: God in relation to Israel as YHWH, and God in relation to all reality, as creator and sovereign ruler of all things. A further distinction is then made with respect to the second category: God alone created the universe, but he governs it by means of subordinate beings, notably the angels:

So the participation of other beings in God’s unique supremacy over all things is ruled out, in the case of creation, by excluding them from any role at all, and, in sovereignty over the cosmos, by placing them in strict subordination as servants, excluding any possibility of interpreting their role as that of co-rulers. (10-11)

That immediately introduces the possibility, it seems to me, that the creator might assign a governing function to an agent without compromising his identity. The other thing to note here is that the analysis does not really reckon with the kingdom theme in scripture—partly because Bauckham does not properly integrate the YHWH-Israel relationship into the argument. So the question of the relation of Israel’s king to God in history is not given adequate weight.

Ok, so is the issue for Bauckham just one of scope?  Like, if you rule a certain number of things because of God’s delegation, you’re not participating in something that is essentially God’s identity, but if you rule over all things, you are?  So, if, say, Jesus ruled over everything except the fusion rate of Alpha Centauri, he wouldn’t be part of the divine identity.

I’m not trying to be glib (ok, I am trying to be glib a little), but is that the issue — that since Jesus rules “all things” that is something that can only be essentially God’s identity?

Yes, I think it is a question of scope. It’s very rare for these high christology discussions to do justice to the political argument. My contention is that Jesus is presented as one who does what Israel’s king is supposed to do: judge his people, defend them against their enemies, and eventually subjugate and rule over the nations that conspired against YHWH and his anointed.

That is a more restricted role than governing the cosmos, which I think in principle is retained by the creator of the cosmos. The cosmic part of Jesus’ kingdom is that there are no powers in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, that can prevent him doing what he is supposed to do as king.

So the fundamental distinction should be between what the creator does (he creates and he governs the universe, sometimes through intermediary beings) and what YHWH’s king does, which is rule over his chosen people in the midst of the nations.

Yes, I agree.

I think one weakness is that it seems kind of arbitrary to me to declare that God’s sovereignty is so essentially part of His being that, if anyone else is sovereign to a similar degree, they must actually be God.  Not just God-like or another god or sharing characteristics, but at some point, you can cross a sovereignty threshold and BAM, you’re now God.  This seems more like a purely theological contention.  It may “sound right” to say that God’s sovereignty is an essential and exclusive component of His being, but on what basis?

Also, as you point out, from a narrative standpoint, there does seem to be some equivocation with the idea of “sovereignty” as we look at the kingship of Jesus.  Becoming king does not grant mastery of atoms, nor does ruling over the powers of heaven.  There is a very different nature of the sovereignty of a king over their domain and being the definer of physics.

It seems like this may actually serve to be a problem for Trinitarianism, because Jesus is -made- king.  He is -given- all authority.  If absolute sovereignty is what makes Jesus identical to God, then there’s a period of time where he isn’t identical to God.  Even if one were to think Jesus at all times in the gospels is in full possession of all the definitions of sovereignty coterminous with the Creator of the universe, he says that all authority and power has been given to him.  When did this happen?  What was Jesus’ condition before that, and what ramifications does that have for his identity?

Well put. I think that the only way to reconcile the New Testament account with classic trinitarianism is to allow that the later Greek church was bound to collapse the Jewish kingdom narrative into metaphysics on the basis of moves already afoot to align Hebrew wisdom and Greek logos. However or whenever Jesus acquired whatever degree of authority, the church had to find a way to rationalise his exalted status in close proximity to God—within the Godhead, we might say. In the crucible of Platonic thought the differentiated Jewish argument was rendered down into something much simpler. I don’t have a problem with that. What I object to is the attempt to press that simplified account on to the New Testament.

Marc Taylor | Wed, 09/23/2020 - 15:48 | Permalink

When Paul affirmed that Jesus is “Lord” in 1 Corinthians 8:6 it demonstrates that He is YHWH and is therefore to be worshiped. No worship is ever to be given to an idol. Worship is due unto YHWH alone.

 The expression things sacrificed to idols (or something very similar) is from one Greek word (eidolothytos) and it is found quite a few times throughout the context of 1 Corinthians 8. This fact demands a closer scrutiny as to its application elsewhere.

1 Corinthians 8:1 

1 Corinthians 8:4 

1 Corinthians 8:7 

1 Corinthians 8:10

 In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul expands on what he previously discussed in chapter 8 and employs this particular word two more times in the context of the worship due unto the Lord as opposed to the worship rendered unto idols.

 1 Corinthians 10:19

 1 Corinthians 10:28

 Paul’s usage of the “Lord” in 1 Corinthians 10:22 is drawn from Old Testament passages in reference to the worship of the Lord (YHWH) in contradistinction to the worship rendered unto idols (“provoke the Lord to jealousy”).

 Exodus 34:14-15 — YHWH’s name is ‘Jealous’/the eating of idolatrous sacrifice is involved.

 Deuteronomy 4:24-25 - jealous/provoke 

 Deuteronomy 6:15 — this theme of jealousy is in relation to the one Lord (YHWH) of Deuteronomy 6:4

 1 Kings 14:22-23 - provoked/jealousy 

 Psalm 78:58 - provoked/jealousy 

 Since Paul already established that the Lord Jesus is the “Lord” based on 1 Corinthians 8:6 means that the Lord Jesus is the “Lord” in 1 Corinthians 10:22. This demonstrates that He is to be worshiped because He is YHWH.