Is Jesus Being Treated Like God?

As NT scholars rev up their Christological engines, one common line of discussion is whether, and to what extent, Jesus is treated like God in various passages.

In one famous essay, David Yeago argues that Paul’s use of Isa 45 in Phil 2 is a clear indication that Paul was making the same “judgment” about Jesus that the later councils would, namely, that Jesus is God. Isa 45 speaks of the God who will not share his glory with another, of Israel’s God YHWH before whom every knee will bow. Thus, to apply such a henotheistic verse to Jesus is to write Jesus into the identity of Israel’s God–by which one should mean, “Is himself truly God.”

This type of argument is fairly common, so I take this as an illustration.

It seems to me that such an argument only succeeds because it neglects one crucial piece of Old Testament data: that the Davidic kings and Israel are both similarly attached to the identity of Israel’s God without any indication that they are ontologically divine.

Is the God of Isa 45 truly unwilling to have a knee bow before anyone other than Himself? The writer of Isa 45 didn’t seem to think so:

The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia,*
and the Sabeans, tall of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours,
they shall follow you;
they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will make supplication to you, saying,
‘God is with you alone, and there is no other;
there is no god besides him.’

Of course, this “bowing” before Israel is not the same as the “bowing” in worship of God. But, the point still holds: God is represented on earth by a people. That people is to the nations as God is to Israel. God’s story is so bound together with the narrative of Israel that for Israel’s name to be glorified is for YHWH’s name to be glorified. For Israel’s name to be derided is for YHWH’s name to be derided.

No, YHWH will not share His glory; but, in the words of Isaiah 46, Israel is YHWH’s glory.

So what does the “identity” between Jesus and God tell us?

The first thing it tells us is that Jesus is the singular embodiment of Adam, Israel, and Davidic King. He is the human through whom the name and glory of God is known. Because this is so, our response to Jesus is our response to God, even as the ancients’ response to Israel and the Davidic kings was their response to YHWH.

A second pass at such passages as Isa 45′ use in Phil 2, one that takes into account the high christology of the later NT and early church, can then see divine identity in a way that impinges on onotology–even if that was not the theology of the NT writer himself. (Phil 2 is just an example here, the case for a high Christology there is stronger than, say, the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, though J. Dunn makes a fantastic argument in favor of Adam Christology in Phil 2.)

The point? To say, “Identified with God” is not yet to say, “Divine in his very being.” It is, first and foremost, to say, “God’s human representative on earth.”

24 thoughts on “Is Jesus Being Treated Like God?”

  1. Hi Daniel: I always like your Adam/human Christology stuff, but what about Phil. 2:6? Isn’t the Philippians 2 verse about “Every knee bowing” to Jesus controlled by its immediate context, such as verses 6-8 which precede it? In those verses, Paul says that Christ Jesus was “in the very form of God” (or similar things depending on your translation)…and that he humbled himself to be made human. Why go to the “bowing” verse to show an identification w/ YHWH, when verse six comes right out and says, “he started out as something more than just human…’in the very form of God,’ and THEN humbled himself to be human”? Isn’t Paul pretty clear that something more than the usual “humans in the image of God” stuff is going on, with this one man Jesus?
    But i haven’t read the Yeago essay so I could be missing the point.

    1. Yeah, Justin, I think there’s a strong case here. I was using that as an example, but perhaps it wasn’t the best.

      I will say, though, that in my opinion James Dunn makes an outstanding argument that this is all about Jesus as second Adam. The first Adam, too, was created in the likeness of God, but grasped after equality with God, refusing to humble himself, and straying from the form of humanness that God had set out for him. He became disobedient to the point of death.

      I’m just sayin’…

  2. Bauckham, O’Brien, Fee and others present very strong counterarguments to Dunn’s position (Wright is another beast altogether, as he wants both to be true of Phil. 2!). At the end of the day, I think Dunn’s reading is untenable. Just saying…

    1. Yeah, I know. I thought that Hurtado had a nice set of counter-arguments, and that other folks had… well… less powerful ones. Many of the counter-arguments depend on ignoring the pervasive presence in the OT of humans representing God to the world.

  3. Have you read Larry Hurtado’s refutation of Dunn’s case? It is quite brief, but he gives important points to think about. Its in his massive book “Lord Jesus Christ” on pp.118-23. He cites some of his other articles there as well. Hurtado finds that Phil. 2:6f. does speak of pre-existence. I don’t remember how Hurtado defines pre-existence, but I think it is fairly traditional, if one may speak of a traditional view of pre-existence.


    1. Nice. Looks like our comments overlapped in cyber space!

      I should say, for the record, that as far as I know I’m the only one who thinks that Dunn might possibly be on to something.

      Of course, Wright tries to eat his cake and have it by saying both preexistence and Adam Christology.

  4. I am torn between Dunn and Hurtado. I think Hurtado makes a good point, and I have not yet read any sort of response by Dunn to Hurtado–but, then, I haven’t looked for it either….

  5. I am now curious…I did not find much direct interaction with Hurtado in vol. 2 of Dunn’s “Christianity in the Making: Beginning from Jerusalem.”

      1. For some reason that never crosses my mind…I suspect that he has bigger fish to fry. Answering my simple question seems to be far down on the list. Perhaps I will.

  6. Daniel,

    I’m curious, what you’re saying here does not “rule out” divine ontology or pre-existence does it? If it does not for you, does it for Dunn? From what I gather, it’s not that you guys would deny divine ontology & pre-existence, you just don’t think that’s what Paul (et al.) is communicating. Is this correct? You’re not denying the second person of the Trinity, you’re only cautioning us to not trump every text with our Nicean Trinitarianism. Would this be accurate? From my superficial study & understanding, the argument Dunn makes is certainly present in the text of the NT authors, but it also seems like there’s something more. There’s both continuity & discontinuity with the OT & its understanding of Messiah.

    Another question: I know you just read Gorman’s book which I believe uses Phil 2:5-11 as his foundational text. What route would he take? Also, what’s the significance of taking either approach (the “so what?” factor)?

    1. Great question, Luke. No, I would say both for me and for Dunn (if I remember Chistology in the Making correctly) that this doesn’t rule out pre-existence so much as argue that it’s not what Paul’s talking about here. That’s why I came back to the idea of a second reading in light of later theology.

      Mike Gorman reads these identity texts as entailing a divine ontology, unless I’m mistaken.

  7. I know you’ll be shocked to hear that I disagree with you – that earlier passage from Isaiah 45 (Isa 45:14) is great and all, but it would be more compelling if that were the verse that Paul actually alludes to. The language of knees bowing and tongues confessing/swearing, however, comes from Isa 45:23, which certainly refers to God and not to Israel. At least we can agree on Wright, though, even if we come down on different sides – I have yet to be convinced by the Adamic reading of the Christ hymn. (Incidentally, Gorman also seems to want to have his cake and eat it, too, in this regard – both divine ontology and Adam.)

    1. You disagree?! I’m aghast… :)

      Yes, he does cite the God verses. Score one for the pre-existence team. I’m just not convinced that this represents such a strong “judgment” of Jesus’ God-identity as ontologically divine as some would have me to judge.

  8. Gorman both does and does not want to have his cake and eat it, too. (How’s that for appropriateness!) Phil 2 is SO rich that it can and does allude to/echo multiple narratives, which is why a careful reading leads both NTW and me to the same place, and why even Dunn in recent years has allowed for both Adam christology and (a form of) preexistence christology.

    Back to the Isa 45-46 material: one point that should not be missed is that the argument about God and Jesus is that a *specific text* that is about God (45:23) is redirected to Jesus; this is more than what goes on in Daniel’s original quote. I think this is rjm’s point, too.

  9. Has anyone considered McGrath’s view that (I hope this is a fair assessment) Jesus is God in that he is the authoritative representative of God in this world and has been given his name? It seems like his view, which I believe grew out of his excellent study of John, is not often considered and I wonder if anyone is even aware of it?

    I believe that his main contention is that Hurtado, Dunn, Wright etc. start with a faulty understanding of what monotheism meant in the Second temple period.

    Does anybody feel that this would make a difference in their Christology because for me it has been pretty eye opening.


    1. Hello Daniel,

      Yes, becoming familiar with the agency paradigm that McGrath promotes (rightly, IMO) can cause the cataracts to clear from one’s eyes. Various tensions that cry out for resolution simply melt away when viewed in light of this paradigm. Anthony Buzzard mentioned “Jesus and the Constraints of History”, in which the author, A.E. Harvey, does a very nice job developing the concept in relation to Christ. In my view, the problem with Harvey is that he holds to the “strict” monotheism that has been called into question in recent years by folks like professors McGrath and Hurtado. If you’re interested in the agency paradigm, then you might consider reading a superb article, also by A.E. Harvey, untitled “Christ as Agent”, which can be found in “The Glory of Christ in the New Testament: Studies in Christology in Memory of George Bradford Caird” (pp. 239-250), edited by L. D. Hurst and N.T. Wright. This book is now available in paperback by Wipf & Stock. If you read German, then you’ll probably want to check out Jan-A Buhner’s book, “Der Gesandte und sien Weg 4. Evangelium”, which is referred to by virtually everyone who discusses the concept of ‘agency’. I hope that an English edition is made available some day. If Werner’s and Bousset’s works deserved an English edition, then Buhner’s *definitely* does!

      As for Dunn interacting with Hurtado, he does this in “The Partings of the Ways”, pages 268-270 in the second edition by SCM Press, and on pages 204-206 in the first edition. However, the only observation he offers specifically in relation to Philippians 2 is that this hymn is “about Christ” not “to Christ”. He reviewed Hurtado’s book “Lord Jesus Christ” in an article that appeared in The Expository Times, but I can’t find the reference.

      One of the problems I’ve seen in reference to the development of the agency paradigm by orthodox expositors is that they wish to use it to resolve some tensions but then they’ll also hold that Jesus is “God the Son, second person of the Trinity”. IMO, this clearly seems to involve the multiplication of hypotheses. The beauty of the agency paradigm is that it renders the obscure language of essences and substances obsolete. We don’t have to try and bend our brains around the notion of a tri-personal being with one mind yet three personalities, or a dual-natured person with two levels of consciousness that are so distinct that one can know what the other does not.


      1. In case you’re interested, I found the reference to Dunn’s review of Hurtado’s magnum opus:

        “Book of the Month: When was Jesus first worshipped? In dialogue with Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity”, Expository Times, Mar 2005; vol. 116: pp. 193 – 196.


  10. Daniel,

    I think the proper place for the debate is just what you’ve mentioned: What does monotheism mean in STJ. Dunn, Wright, Hurtado, McGrath, and Bauckham all have different positions.

    As for myself, I’ve been quite convinced of Bauckham’s arguments on 1Cor 8:6. Though his arguments in John and Phil 2 seems to quite rather traditional and unpersuasive.

  11. Interesting discussion. I am sure that McGrath gets it right, as does the delightful title “Is Jesus being treated as God?” Jesus is AS God but certainly not identified with God. The proposition Jesus IS Yahweh just launches us into polytheism, since Yahweh is one Person, one Lord, according to the Shema and thousands of singular personal pronouns. I am sure you are right, professor, to say that Jesus is being treated as God. The sponsor and the agent are treated as one and in dealing with one you are dealing with the other. It is an agentival unity.
    When this got confused (from second century) with ontological unity, all chaos broke out! The Son was no longer really human and thus not the Son of David, and thus not really the Messiah. 550 occs of Messiah (Christ) for Jesus ought to define him!
    Anthony Hervey’s Bampton Lecture on Jesus and The Constraints of History makes this good point beautifully. Jesus is constrained by Jewish monotheism (and the church fathers were not!). Jesus as Messiah and Son of David is the ultimate Son and representative of God, and does what Israel ought to have done. Jesus is the closest thing possible to God, but he never claimed to be a second Yahweh. The NT never says he IS Yahweh, since the term God never means the Trinity or even Father and Son together. Thus the NT never concluded what the later councils came to. In Scripture, God is the Father of Jesus and thus the fundamental Hebrew understanding of God is maintained. Ps. 110:1 shows Yahweh addressing by decree one who is not Yahweh! He is “my lord” the Messiah (adoni, not adonai) and the capital letter in many translations is highly misleading as though God is speaking to God!

  12. “To avoid confusion, therefore, it would be better to speak of the Johannine Christ as the incarnation of God, as God making himself known in human flesh, not as the incarnation of the Son of God (which seems to be saying something other).”

    James Dunn, Christology in the Making, Foreword to Second Edition, p. xxviii

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