how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

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Jesus is God or Jesus is Lord?

The long conversation I have been having with John Tancock (starting here) illustrates rather well, to my mind, the difference between the theological approach and the narrative-historical (a.k.a. apocalyptic-eschatological, biblical critical, you name it) approach to reading the New Testament. John was responding to an old post entitled Did Jesus claim to be God?, but a couple of recent pieces have explored the conflict on a broader hermeneutical basis: The battle between theology and history for the soul of the church: 24 antitheses and Theology, narrative and history: how they work in practice.

From John’s perspective, as a long-standing defender of classic Trinitarianism against the barbarian tribes of Modalists, Arians, Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, interpretation of the christological texts is ultimately answerable to the Council of Nicaea. So if I do not agree with him that one text or another does not teach that Jesus is God, then it would appear that I am an Arian and so a serious threat to the integrity of the faith.

From my perspective, however, it is very difficult to see why interpretation should be held accountable to a debate that took place centuries later in a very different intellectual environment. If interpretation of the New Testament is answerable to anything, it should be to the court of the Jewish scriptures and, to a lesser degree, of the literature of second temple Judaism.

My concern here is not merely with the methodological conflict. I suggested to John that:

…the historical understanding of the New Testament that has emerged over the last few decades may be taking us in a rather different direction altogether. We may end up in the old tug-of-war between Arius and Athanasius. But we may not.

Thinking about it further, it seems to me that this different direction will be determined not by the question of whether Jesus is God but by the question of whether Jesus is Lord. This is the question that is at the heart of the New Testament. But it is also the fundamental practical question facing the western church today when it is having such a hard time differentiating itself from its surrounding culture other than in formal creedal or propositional terms. “Jesus is Lord” is prophetic, it challenges behaviour. “Jesus is God” is not, it doesn’t.

The “Jesus is Lord” narrative

The historical Jesus begins as a prophet of the coming kingdom of God, the embodiment of a new people of God, the leader of a movement of renewal, empowered by the Spirit of God to heal and restore, ordained since at least his birth to be Israel’s king. Understanding himself in some way to be the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13-14, he predicts that he will suffer, die, be raised from the dead, be vindicated, that Israel will suffer catastrophic divine judgment, and that at some point in the not too distant future his followers will be vindicated with and in him. This narrative is picked up by the early church, which came to believe that the resurrection of Jesus signified not merely the renewal of the people of God but also the impending overthrow of the ancient world, the confession of Christ as Lord by the pagan nations.

Where this apocalyptic argument takes us is not Arianism but the confession that God has raised his obedient Son from the dead and made him Lord, judge and ruler of the nations. This situation will endure throughout the coming ages. Once the last enemy has been destroyed, the reign of Christ will come to an end: as Paul understands it, Jesus will hand back the right to rule to the Father, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). Beyond this are the new heaven and new earth, where no king is needed because there is no further need for judgment, no further need for defence against enemies. Every enemy of God’s creation will have been defeated.

The storyline makes reference to major historical events—the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the defeat of pagan imperialism. It is the story of how Israel’s God took charge of history. But inevitably, as the story unfolded, perspectives changed.

The “Jesus is God” narrative

As Christianity left behind the Jewish world, with its orientation towards history, and entrenched itself ever more deeply in the Greek world, with its orientation towards reason, the intense apocalyptic argument about who would rule the nations gave way to an equally intense metaphysical argument about the nature of the Christian God.

There are certainly texts in the New Testament which lend themselves to the later line of thought. Many of them are in John, which as I noted before does not have the euangelion word group in it (a more significant fact than you might think), but which is the primary source document for those who wish to defend the orthodox Trinitarian position. I made some remarks on the use of John for this purpose in the original post.

There are also a number of texts in which Jesus appears to have been given the part of divine wisdom. He is not himself the Creator, but he plays an instrumental role in an act of creation:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:16–17; cf. Jn. 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2-3)

So we have a dominant historical narrative about how Jesus came to be judge and ruler of the pagan nations to the glory of the God of Israel, and we have a secondary “mythological” narrative about Jesus as an agent of divine creation patterned on Jewish wisdom motifs. Roughly speaking. By “mythological”, of course, I do not mean “untrue”. I mean that this narrative does not engage with history in the same way as the apocalyptic narrative—unless Jesus is actually being depicted as the agent through which new creation has come about, a new world.

The missional challenge

As Christendom fizzles out, we still operate under the theological assumption that the most important thing we can say about Jesus is that he is God. This was the debate that fundamentally determined the shape of European theology, and instinctively we defend our place in the world—our raison d’être—by defending Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy. This is why we tend to think that the Gospel of John contains the highest and most authoritative account of who Jesus was and why.

But we could argue that the Johannine development is not so much the acme of New Testament christology as a digression to deal with the emerging challenges of the Christian ingress into the Greek world. It should not get in the way of the primary eschatological affirmation found in Philippians 2:6-11 that God raised his obedient Son from the dead and authorized him to be the one confessed as “Lord”, not “God”, by the nations, to the glory of Israel’s God. Theologians effectively read the passage backwards as though the most important affirmation is the starting point of the argument—that Jesus was in the “form” of God, questionably understood as a statement of ontological identity.

Theology makes us work with a model that doesn’t need the title “Lord” except in a very attenuated personal sense, that makes no reference to the apocalyptic narrative, that turns “Son of God” into “God the Son”, that is not interested in the narrated historical existence of God’s people. It engages with at best the margins of the New Testament witness. It does not give us the theological resources to address the current missional challenge. Reaffirming the divinity of Christ will not deliver the church from irrelevance. Reaffirming the lordship of Christ will.