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Richard Bauckham: the throne of God and the worship of Jesus

I couldn’t make up my mind what to write about this week. I was going to do something on the rather depressing Westminster Faith debate on the future of the Anglican Church that I attended last week in Oxford. I’ve also had it in mind to write a review of Emily Ackerman’s The Amazing Technicolour Pyjama Therapy, which is published by my friends in Edinburgh. But Richard Bauckham’s “divine identity” argument is still going round in my head, so it’s back to christology, I’m afraid. I want to examine this assertion in his book Jesus and the God of Israel

From the earliest post-Easter Christology that we can trace, Jesus’ exaltation was understood as his sharing the divine throne in heaven and thus participating in the divine rule over the cosmos. (172)

Bauckham notes the importance of Psalm 110:1 for this argument in two respects: it is the most important scriptural basis for an early high christology in the New Testament and early Christian literature; and it is not used in the writings of second temple Judaism to account for the exalted status of intermediary or quasi-divine figures such as Wisdom or the Son of Man of the Parables of Enoch.

The Psalm provides the template for the New Testament belief that Jesus had been elevated, following his resurrection, to a position of authority alongside YHWH:

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

But Bauckham immediately interprets this as a “participation in precisely God’s cosmic rule over all things” (173). Psalm 110:1 “said about Jesus what no other Jews had wished to say about the Messiah or any other future: that he had been exalted by God to participate now in the cosmic sovereignty unique to the divine identity” (175).

In my view this assumption exemplifies a common failure to differentiate between the kingdom and cosmic or creational layers of the New Testament narrative. The scope of Psalm 110 is not cosmic but political. YHWH, who is sovereign over the entire cosmos, gives to his king authority to rule in the midst of the nations under particular historical conditions. I think that this narrative distinction serves to keep apart the God who created all things and the Son who has been given authority to judge and rule in the political sphere. I add the usual caveat: this is not an argument against Trinitarianism; it is an argument for a political interpretation of Christ’s lordship.

Does Jesus sit on the throne of God?

Bauckham argues, first, that Jesus is imagined to be sitting on “God’s own heavenly throne itself, the throne of glory”. He cites Hebrews 8:1 (cf. 12:2): “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne (en dexiai tou thronou) of the Majesty in heaven”. Zechariah 6:13 LXX speaks of the high priest sitting at the right hand of the king (ek dexiōn autou), and presumably no one imagined that they were sitting on the same throne. The obvious image is of a person on a second seat beside the throne of God. Similarly 1 Esdr. 4:29: “I have watched him and Apame the daughter of the illustrious Bartacos, the king’s concubine, sitting at the king’s right hand (en dexiai tou basileōs).”

Revelation 3:21 is mentioned: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” This is unequivocal, but if Jesus participates in the divine identity by sitting on the throne of God, what are we to make of the promise to the persecuted church? Sitting on another’s throne here speaks not of identity but of reward.

There is the further image in Revelation of the Lamb who approaches the throne to receive the scroll of judgment from the right hand of God, and who is later said to be “in between (ana meson) the throne”, which probably means that the Lamb is still standing in front of the throne (Rev. 5:6; 7:17). The phrase “the throne of God and of the Lamb” is important (Rev. 22:3), but it belongs to a different eschatological context. Aune thinks “and of the Lamb” is a later gloss.1

Bauckham acknowledges that Polycarp understood there to be two thrones: God “raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and gave him glory and a throne at his right hand” (Pol. Phil. 2:1).

The arguments are probably inconclusive either way, and the difference in meaning may not be great. I don’t think it affects my main point, which has to do with the nature and scope of the sovereignty exercised.

Cosmic sovereignty?

Bauckham only lists in footnotes the texts that in his view indicate that Jesus was included “in the full cosmic scope of God’s sovereignty” (176). He suggests that cosmic rule is expressed by the formulae “all things” or “heaven and earth”, or suchlike. I’ll run through them quickly.

Yes, “all things” have been “handed over” to Jesus by his Father (Matt. 11:27; Lk. 10:22). But they have been handed over. In context “all things” probably refers not to the cosmos but to what has been revealed. But Nolland points to the relevance of Daniel 2:37-38 and 7:14, which would make this a statement about kingship rather than cosmic sovereignty.2

The statement is made twice in John’s Gospel that the Father has given “all things” into Jesus’ hands (Jn. 3:35; 13:3). The precise sense is difficult to determine, but there is no reason to understand the phrase in cosmic terms: rather Jesus has been given all things within the frame of and for the purpose of his mission.

In Hebrews 1:2 Jesus is said to have been “appointed heir of all things”. An heir is a person who at some point in time receives something that he or she did not have before. It is explained by the quotation of Psalm 2 in verse 5: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” The Son inherits rule over the nations. It is a statement about kingdom, not cosmos.

A number of passages in Paul and Hebrews introduce Psalm 8:6 into the christological argument to make the point that God has subjected “all things” under Jesus’ feet:

For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (1 Cor. 15:27)

…he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church… (Eph. 1:22)

…we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil. 3:20–21)

It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Heb. 2:6–9)

But the theme of subjugation from Psalm 8 only serves to reinforce the kingdom theme. It develops the thought already given in Psalm 110:1 that God is making the king’s enemies his footstool. It also leaves God firmly in control of things: he makes the “son of man” lower than the angels, he crowns him with glory and honour, he puts everything in subjection under his feet.

So three points in conclusion…

1. It is consistently stated that Jesus is given authority over all things. Bauckham does not, in my view, adequately address this problematic detail. Psalm 110 envisages YHWH elevating David’s “Lord” to his right hand in order to transform the conditions of his rule: “until I make your enemies your footstool”. God gives, hands over, exalts, appoints: there is a change of status.

2. There is a process at work in these texts: Christ’s enemies are being subjected; he has inherited all things; the last enemy will eventually be defeated and the authority to rule will be handed back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:25-28). What’s at issue is not the identity of Jesus but how things will work out.

Bauckham makes the point that whereas the Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch will sit on the divine throne in the future, it was “Jesus’ participation in the unique divine sovereignty already in the present that obliged early Christians to take his inclusion in the divine identity much more seriously” (175; cf. 169-72). That’s only partly true. On the one hand, Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God happened in time, so that before the resurrection it was a future event. On the other, even after the resurrection there is still some sort of future consummation of the rule of the Son of Man over the nations at his parousia. No less than the Son of Man of 1 Enoch, Jesus exercises the sovereignty of God eschatologically.

The placing of Jesus at the right hand of God, in that respect, is an impermanent arrangement, which is why Paul thinks of Christ as being in the end subordinated again to the Father. That must fundamentally undermine the sort of claims that Bauckham makes about divine identity.

3. The “Lord” of Psalm 110:1 is exalted to the right hand of God not for his own sake but because he is Israel’s king—he has a responsibility for his people, who are threatened by enemies. In the same way Jesus is given a supreme authority for the sake of the church (Eph. 1:20-23). The assurance is given to the church that their Lord has more than enough power to preserve his people, even if they must lose their lives for his sake and for the gospel. It’s the point that Paul makes in Romans 8:38-39:

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is a cosmic dimension to this, but it is asserted not as a matter of divine identity but within the particular apocalyptic narrative of the followers of Jesus, who is the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).

When Jesus says that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18) or Paul writes that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10), the point in effect is that nothing in the cosmos—including heavenly or demonic powers—can jeopardize the mission of the churches in this difficult period of eschatological transition because Jesus has been given the authority that would otherwise have been the prerogative of YHWH alone.

Given sufficient historical and conceptual distance it was no doubt inevitable—and I think right—that this apocalyptic-political narrative would be collapsed into the ontological or “identity” categories of Trinitarianism. But that misses the fundamental claim that was being put forward by the writers of the New Testament, which was that God had raised his faithful and obedient Son as firstborn of many from the dead and given him supreme authority at his right hand for the sake of the future security of his people during a period of eschatological crisis—an authority over the political existence of his people that would continue until the last enemy, death, had been destroyed.

  • 1. D.E. Aune, Revelation 17–22 (WBC 52C, 1998), 1179.
  • 2. J. Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34 (WBC 35B, 1993), 573.