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.