IN THIS ISSUE

 





A CHRISTOLOGICAL DEBATE





In February 2005, Kenneth Westby invited me to present an argument for the deity of Jesus at his fourth annual One God Seminar, to be held near Akron, Ohio, from June 24-26, 2005. With a certain amount of trepidation, I decided to accept the invitation.

 

There were a couple of reasons for my trepidation. First of all, I would be the only speaker at the seminar who believed in Jesus' literal preexistence and deity. All of the other speakers, and most of the rest of the audience, would favor a Socinian christology1-i.e., the view that the Messiah had no actual existence prior to his human conception. What's more, I knew that the main speaker for the Socinian side, Anthony Buzzard, is a skilled debater who has had years of experience advocating his position. I did not relish the prospect of arguing against a roomful of people all by myself.

 

Secondly, I did not feel qualified to take on the task. I am not a theologian, and christology (the study of the person and work of the Messiah) is a vast subject that involves all three of the major areas of theology:



(a)  biblical theology, which includes what the scriptures have to say about Jesus the Messiah;

(b)  systematic theology, which organizes and clarifies the content of the creeds of Christianity;

(c)  historical theology, which deals with how those creeds developed and how they have been understood through the centuries.


If I accepted the invitation, I would have just over four months to learn enough about christology to be able to prepare a reasonable article and lecture.

 

So why did I take Ken up on his offer? I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about theology. For several years I had been meaning to improve my understanding of this subject but had never found the time. The pressure of having to meet a June deadline would force me to quit stalling and start studying.

 

The Key Questions



Early in my preparations, I studied Anthony Buzzard's writings on the subject—including the booklet “Who Was Jesus?” and the book The Doctrine of the Trinity:  Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound--in order to identify the principal Socinian arguments. Buzzard's main claims can be summarized as follows:



(1)  The first Christians would never have attributed deity to Jesus because their monotheistic convictions precluded such an idea.



(2)  New Testament scriptures that make a strong identification between Jesus and the Father do not require Jesus to be anything more than a human agent of God, albeit a very special one.



(3)  New Testament scriptures about the preexistence of the Messiah refer just to a "notional" or "ideal" preexistence-i.e., to the fact that the Messiah has always been the focus of God's plan of salvation.



(4)  Christians began believing in the literal preexistence of the Messiah around the middle of the second century A.D., when philosophically trained Christian teachers-e.g. Justin Martyr-read the New Testament through the lenses of Greek philosophy and misunderstood certain passages about preexistence.


Claim (4) is historical, and I would need to delve into early church history and historical theology in order to evaluate it. Claim (1) involves both history and theology, while the second and third claims fall under the heading of biblical theology.

 

Claim (2) would force me to grapple with some tricky questions: What are the limitations, if any, of a "special human agent of God?" Is there anything that such an agent could not be or do? The Socinians never gave a precise definition of this concept, which they used as sort of a convenient catchall category. As far as I could tell, this category could include anything that they needed or wanted it to include.

 

Claim (3) also raised a nontrivial question: How could one tell the difference between a statement about the ideal preexistence of the Messiah and a statement about his actual preexistence?

 

Searching for Answers



I explored these claims and questions by delving into the writings of some of today's best believing Christian scholars. Insight into claim (4) came from Dr. Oskar Skarsaune, a patristic scholar who wrote his dissertation on Justin Martyr. In his book Incarnation: Myth or Fact?, Skarsaune points out that the idea of an incarnation---i.e., of a divine being taking on human flesh---was foreign and repugnant to Hellenistic philosophers. It would therefore have been highly unlikely for philosophically trained Christians like Justin to have read an incarnation into the scriptures. Second century Christians believed in the preexistence and deity of Jesus because they learned these doctrines from their predecessors in the faith.

 

In making claim (1), Buzzard has simply assumed that his definition of monotheism-that of a `'unitary" or "one-person" God-was shared by the first Christians. I found, however, that recent scholarship on the nature of Second Temple Jewish monotheism casts serious doubt on this assumption. In particular, there is no evidence that Jews before Jesus' time had done any real philosophical analysis of the "inner structure" of God. The main concern of ancient Hebrews was to worship and obey God rather than to define his nature. As Christian teacher Dwight A. Pryor has phrased it, the Judaism of Jesus' day was more a "theonomy" than a theology. The key question was, "What does God require of us?", not "What is God's inner nature or essence?" So while first-century Jews saw God as a unity, the question of whether God was unitary had not yet arisen. Judaism eventually espoused a unitary monotheism, but that came later, partially in response to Christianity.

 

I found help with the questions posed by claim (2) in the work of New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. In his book God Crucified, Bauckham has argued persuasively that for Jews in the Second Temple period, two main qualities distinguished the God of Israel from all other reality: God was the unique Creator of everything and the sole sovereign Ruler over everything. These two functions-creation and universal rulership-were ones "that made God God," so they couldn't very well be delegated to an agent who was human and nothing more. By this de facto ancient Jewish definition of deity, these were limitations upon what a "special human agent of God" could do.

 

Bauckham goes on to show that the New Testament pictures the exalted Christ as exercising universal rulership, implying that the first Christians considered Jesus to be more than just a human being. This has implications for claim (3) as well as for claim (2). In ancient Hebrew thought, God was King over everything because he was the sole Creator of everything. So if Jesus shared universal rulership with the Father, he must have been involved in the creation of the universe. His preexistence must have been literal, not just ideal.

 

Further evidence that early Christians believed in the actual preexistence of the Messiah can be found in John 8:58, where Jesus proclaims, "Before Abraham was, I am." According to v. 59, Jesus' audience considered this statement to be blasphemous. Buzzard asserts that Jesus only referred to an ideal preexistence in John 8:58, but his words were misunderstood. On the other hand, Buzzard also argues that ideal preexistence-the idea of the Messiah's central role in God's plan from the beginning-was a familiar concept for first-century Jews. So either Jesus was a very poor communicator in causing a huge misunderstanding with an innocuous statement, or his audience correctly understood that Jesus was making a claim to deity. Buzzard's model doesn't seem to hang together on this point.

 

In This Issue



As I had expected, defending the deity of Jesus in a roomful of unitarians turned out to be a stressful experience. (By the way, I am very grateful to those of you who prayed that God would guide me at the Seminar. I believe that your prayers were answered.) It was also a rewarding experience; the task of preparing and delivering a lecture on christology did greatly increase my knowledge of the subject. I present my main arguments in "The Christological Monotheism of the First Christians," the lead article in this issue of Grace & Knowledge. I hope to write some follow up articles on christology for future issues.

 

Also included in the current issue are two reports on life in the modern state of Israel. One describes the ways in which the sabbatical year is observed by Israeli farmers. The other discusses the recent Gaza disengagement and its aftermath. We hope that you will find both stimulation and edification in Issue 19 of Grace & Knowledge.

 

---Doug Ward

Issue 19

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Footnotes:

1named after Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), one of its best-known proponents.


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On 10 Oct 2005, 13:18.