The Only True God

This weekend I was able to finish reading James McGrath‘s The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context.

The book explores the extent to which, if any, early Christian monotheism is a “Christological monotheism”. Did the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus cause a redefinition of “the only true God” in the time period represented by the New Testament documents?

McGrath answers no.

The exegetical forays focus on indications that Jesus was treated as God in Paul, John, and Revelation. In short, McGrath avers that early Judaism had a category of agency that explains the God-language applied to Jesus without requiring a redefinition of God himself. “The one sent is as the sender.”

In developing its argument, the book helpfully discloses many assertions about Jesus’ divinity as question-begging. “Is Jesus being depicted as God?” “Yes, because early Christians depict him doing x, y, and z and Christians treatign him as m, n, and o.” “Indeed, but the question is, does being depicted doing x, y, and z, or treating Jesus as m, n, and o truly entail a redefinition of the identity of God such that this second person is included within it?”

Too often, the idea that God does the action, or is the recipient of such devotion, is insufficiently weighed against depictions of other creatures, agents of God, being put in the same positions in other early Jewish works without compromising or transforming early Jewish monotheism.

At very least, McGrath has shown that many recent studies have failed to answer the question. And often, he has provided a more compelling reading that does better justice to the texts at hand.

One important piece of evidence that needs to be seriously weighed is the apparent absence of conflict over Christian depictions of God. That is to say, monotheism itself does not seem to be a point of dispute between Jews and Christians in the first century, which would seem to indicate that Christians are not depicting God in a way that Jews find inherently offensive.

The Gospel of John is the most likely place to go to find counter-indications to this general rule. But McGrath argues that the point of Jesus’ conflicts in John is that he is making himself to be this representative of God, not that such a representative might exist at all. McGrath is able to point to Jesus”s own clear subordination of himself to the Father.

But what of the logos who is God? Here, McGrath uses the helpful analogy of a river. For early Jews, and he argues for Christians in the first century as well, the logos formed a boundary between God and humanity in the way that a river does: touching both sides, but perhaps with the hard line between Creator and creatures falling between God and the logos, when that eventually had to be drawn, rather than between humanity and the logos. The early creeds drew the boundary on the other side of the river, such that the intermediary logos belongs within the creator himself.

In all, the book makes compelling arguments. I thought that the chapter on Revelation was the least amenable to the thesis being advanced. In general, the notion that sacrificial worship is the dividing line between God and God’s emissaries serves McGrath well, but Revelation seems to come quite close to breaking through it. On the other hand, much of what is true of the Lamb is true of the saints as well–including that people come and bow down before both. So there is more to be said here.

In all, this is a timely and important book. It provides an alternative construal of the data than one finds in Hurtato, Bauckham, Wright, etc. and can in no way be ignored in the ongoing discussions of New Testament Christology. Go get it. Or, if you’re poor, tell your library to order it for you.

8 thoughts on “The Only True God”

  1. Richard Bauckham’s primary criticism of the “intermediary figure” approach (e.g., Hurtado) is that it simply can’t get one to the conclusions that this figure is actually divine, God, or even equal to God. And the charge in John is not that Jesus makes himself the representative of God, but that he usurps for himself God’s own prerogatives…. Gee, someone ought to write a book arguing that.

    1. If I recall correctly, McGrath’s response to the latter point is, “Yes, the argument is that Jesus usurps for himself. He suggests that the contrast is between that and these being given to him by God.

      I think that McGrath would agree with the first two of the points you say Bauckham makes: no, you don’t get to the point that the figure is actually divine or God! But equal to God is tricky…

      Of course, I should step out and let JM speak for himself. :)

    2. Hi Marianne! It feels like it has been a very long time since the last time we had a conversation about John and Christology.

      As Daniel said, I do indeed think that the issue in John is less whether in theory an agent of God (whether a commissioned human, an angel, or some other “intermediary figure”) can ever legitimately do what God does, bear the divine name, etc. The issue seems to have been whether Jesus is in fact such a figure, or an upstart who claims for himself (or whose followers claim for him) a status not granted by God.

      The main objections I have to Bauckham’s “divine identity” approach is that, on the one hand, he is not very clear as to what “identity” means, and on the other hand, he seems to bend over backwards to avoid concluding that any of the Jewish material genuinely parallels what we find in earliest Christianity – most notably the sharing of the divine name with an exalted agent like the angel Yahoel or Metatron, which seems highly significant, given that name is pretty closely intertwined with identity!

      I’m glad blogging in general, and Daniel’s blog in particular, if giving us the chance to have a conversation about this. I look forward to hearing your further thoughts on this!

  2. Interesting blog!

    – What if one was to argue that Early Judaism practiced not so much monotheism but monolatry?

    Exodus tell us Moses realized and accepted that there were other gods presently working or functioning in time and space — Aaron and the Egyptian magicians squaring-off, for example — but that Yahweh alone was worthy of worship; “there shall be no other gods put before me” (Ex. 20.3).

    In this way, it follows that Christ is certainly in the business of acknowledging and “usurping” various thrones ruling on earth by other lesser gods, like that of the Caesar cult..

    1. Yes, the idea of worshiping only one God is a key component to McGrath’s book. He pushes the question, “What sort of worship is only offered to God?” The Greek word for worship represents a continuum of actions from reverential kneeling to sacrificial worship. Offering sacrifice, McGrath argues, is the common threshold.

      I’d say that makes assessing the Christian setting tricky in that they don’t seem to have sacrificed as part of their worship. There’s more to be done on the metaphorical language of sacrifice in the NT, I think.

      Related to this, I think of the way YHWH and the king are joined in Psalm 2 as recipients of the people’s honor and adoration.

  3. I’m not quite clear on the implications of McGrath’s argument. Is he arguing (merely) that much recent Western theology overemphasizes Jesus’ divinity at the expense of his humanity, OR that the early church and all subsequent Christians–Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant–missed the boat and have radically misconstrued the NT, and that the Trinity is not a biblical doctrine?


    1. Hi Nick. My argument (at least in the part of the book which directly addresses your question) is that doctrines like the Trinity, as well as the more “monolithic” monotheism of mainstream Judaism today, are both heirs to the “dynamic monotheism” of first-century Judaism. Both have developed the tradition which they inherited in response to new questions and issues that subsequently arose. And so I would hesitate to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is (merely) “biblical” or “unbiblical” – but would certainly say that the doctrine in the form in which it is now found uses extrabiblical language and concepts, because it is not simply restating the Bible but is asking questions which had not been raised by the time of the various New Testament writers.

      Does that answer your question?

  4. Actually, Psalm 2 is arguably “chaoskampf” (or combat myth, or creation created out of chaos). From what I have read, combat myth does two things: it legitimates monarchy right alongside the onset of creation, blurring the lines between nature and history (see also Psalm 89 and 110). Furthermore, it does not democratize the image of God, but only bestows it securely on the king, flying in the face of both Gen. 1 creation account and Abraham’s later commission to be a blessing to all nations. Therefore, texts like these serve as anomalous vectors extending well outside the overall arc of Scripture.

    – See J. Richard Middleton,The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Gen. 1. Brazos Press. pp. 246-250.

    On the topic of metaphorical language, Middleton pulls from a creational theology, marking all of humankind as “royal-functional agents”, not just the king (27). One may ask, “in which way does it function?” — We are created by not just the word per say, but rather the dialogic word, as evidenced by the constant refrain of “Let us…” in the making of creation in Genesis 1. Further, this would be in line with Acts 2 and Pentecost, where multiplicity of language is embraced as Godlike; the complete reversal of, say, Babel talk, controlled by one uniform language.

    And so, just being able to dialogue ideas without being at each others throats is “worship” enough, it seems. I know this may sound really mundane, but an exegesis of Pentecost supports it. Tabling ideas is hard, especially with people of other orientations. Maybe this could be nuanced more in order to better understand creation redux via Christ…?

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