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.
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 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.