Christology and Context

Richard Hays’ paper at SBL on the Christology of Luke (earlier reflections here) has me thinking afresh about the Christology of the New Testament, and how we know high (or low) Christology when we see it.

Hays began his paper by citing Luke 24 as the invitation to scour the pages of the Gospel to discover how Old Testament echoes and allusion will tell us who this Jesus is that the disciples seem to have missed: “O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” Hays stops here and then returns to see what sort of indications of Jesus’ identity lie buried in the OT echoes.

But the passage continues beyond where Hays stops. And as it does we read, “Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Here Luke tells us what we are to find in or from the OT: not indications that the Messiah is somehow, mysteriously, YHWH incarnate; instead, that the Messiah has to suffer and then be glorified. The same is indicated at the end of the chapter, vv. 44-48, and the same is illustrated in the speaches in Acts.

The point is that one of the reasons why folks often find Christology that is higher than I think the text itself indicates is that we are being insufficiently attentive to the exegetical guidance that the passages in question are giving us.

Example 2: Does the citation of Isaiah 40 at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel indicate that Jesus is, in some mysterious fashion, the incarnation of the Lord/YHWH about whom Isaiah 40 speaks? “Prepare the way of the LORD!”

This might be an indication that we are to understand that Jesus is, somehow, YHWH himself.

But the verse is introduced like this: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold! I am sending my messenger ahead of you…’”

The divine voice, “I”, addresses the sent one in the second person, “You,” distinguishing the agent of the Lord’s advent from the Lord Himself. John the Baptist comes to prepare the way for this person whom the Divine Voice addresses as other.

Yes, the coming one is preparing for and inaugurating the great divine visitation, and is the agent of it–but as God’s agent in Mark, not as God incarnate. That development has to wait for a later Gospel.

Finally. we might look at the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. One way that this passage is seen as offering a high Christology is in its use of an Isaiah tradition. Where Isaiah says that God is God alone, and that therefore every knee will bow and tongue confess only YHWH, Israel’s God, Paul applies the verse to Jesus.

Jesus is given the name above every name so that at his name every knee will bow and every tongue confess.

But even while we stand in awe of the exalted status to which Jesus attains, we must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is so glorified because, in the hymn, God gives Jesus what was not his before. Because he humbled himself, God exalted him and then bestowed on him the great name. Whatever “being in the very form of God” might mean, bearing the name by which all bow is a function of the divine response to the human Jesus’ self-abasement–not an affirmation of what was Jesus’ all along.

The point in each of these three cases is that we only see a preexistence Christology in the OT allusions if we read against the context and flow into which the biblical writers have woven their scriptural predecessors.

26 thoughts on “Christology and Context”

  1. It seems like you are saying that “high” Christology does not apply to the earthly Jesus, but to the resurrected Jesus. Yes? No?

    1. I would like confirmation of this as well. This is one of those paradoxical things that I read in the Christological treatment of the man Jesus. The Christ is both human and God… is there a demarcation line? Could he be both here on earth and both in the resurrection?

      1. High Christology tends to mean, “Jesus as sharing in God’s being.” That is not a statement that applies to Luke’s (the Gospels’) Christology.

        I’d say they all put on display a “high human Christology”: Jesus as human rules the world on God’s behalf–literally from God’s right hand in heaven after the resurrection.

  2. I’ve been following your posts about reading a low Christology where the text does not claim any more, but I’m having trouble seeing the implications of such a reading. I know this is a vague question, but what does it all mean? I don’t understand how it significantly changes our understanding of the incarnation or the Messiah.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    1. Marc, I think that one of the more significant things we find in the Jesus of the Gospels is what it means to be truly human. Too often, in my experience, when folks start finding divinity in the Gospels that becomes an explanation for why Jesus can do what he does (heal, exorcise, etc.)–and why we, in turn, can’t. But if all of it is a big picture of what it means to be truly human, as God’s children, then the family of God on earth has just such a high calling and stunning responsibility.

      So in part it’s to reclaim what it means for Jesus to be a human. In part that’s so that we know what it means for us to be human and faithfully participate in the mission of God.

      Another important angle is how the life of Jesus culminates the story of Israel. In my experience, the standard answer is, “The people who could never get it right have to have God come down to do it for them,” whereas the Synoptic Gospels don’t give this answer. They instead show that the trajectories of Israel, of Davidic Kings, and the promised visitation of God are all coming to bear through this one, at long last faithful, man.

      1. Daniel, this reminds me of your recent post on ‘theosis’ and the truly human, which I liked very much.

        What I most like about your position is that it is such an excellent view of what it meant for Jesus to be human (a thing I am interested in even with my own view of his pre-existence).

        Because I don’t think he came down from heaven in order to be God, but to be man, and to point us in God’s direction, and to one another’s love. So I’m benefitting from your thinking here.

  3. Regrettably I missed Richard’s paper, and so don’t know quite know how he presented Luke 24, other than how you represent it. But I am struck by the irony of Luke 24 being seen as an “invitation to scour the pages of the Gospel”, rather than the Old Testament (even if the gospels are being sifted for Old Testament echoes and allusions). Even allowing for the fact that all the gospels were not yet written, surely that point could have been made by saying, “O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that Jesus spoke/did” (even allowing for the strange use of third person for himself). But the disciples are being directed in a eucharistic context to the Old Testament that will plainly speak of the suffering and glory of God’s messiah. (I think you are spot on here in your comments about reading on). When that is done eyes will be opened and hearts warmed.

    1. Nathan, I think that the idea is that Jesus has told them, and shown them through his ministry, that he is some sort of Messiah that they should have been able to see. Luke 24:44 might be relevant here, “This is what I told you while I was still with you.”

      So yes, the OT is important, but a first step RBH is proposing is to see how that OT has been employed to give indicators already in the story.

      I think that eucharistic context is significant, not least, for reminding them that the Christ had to suffer.

      The point throughout seems to be that the messiah has to do a certain thing, go through a certain set of events–as the Psalms testimonies in the passion narrative, Acts sermons, etc., all indicate. That is quite a different thing from searching for indications of some sort of divine ontology (not sure RBH would use that phrase, “divine ontology”).

  4. But what form would the accounts take that gave a more obvious revelation of God Incarnate, if that is what we are to expect? Gnostic docetism? But that would be counter to what High Christology says anyway, and which the the Church contended against as it went on. Isn’t it rather that the Gospel accounts, which are themselves later theological accounts, give the very substance of an truly incarnational God, a God who, even by Dunn’s rendition of Hebrew thought in Did the Early Christians, etc, is a hidden God who reveals himself. How are we expecting to reveal himself? How else would the God whom no one can see and live, reveal himself? Wherelse is faith to be called upon, to see that revelation? Why else would the hypostatisations of God’s revelatory agents of Word, Wisdom and Spirit become assigned to a real man, rather than float like gnostic critters in the ether, after the resurrection?

    1. Solly,

      The narratives tell us that they are concerned with Jesus’ identity. I am suggesting that we have recognized that question without giving due attention to the ways that the Gospel writers themselves have poised their narratives to answer them. God is certainly revealed in the person of Jesus–but God was also supposed to be revealed in the person of Adam, in the person of Moses, in the nation of Israel, in the person of David, etc. Our preconceptions about divine ontology cause us to mute these other examples and over-read what we say about Jesus. The point of asking us to acknowledge what the Gospels actually say is, at very least, to become more aware where our theology is bringing an added layer of meaning that an ideal audience might not have apprehended.

  5. Ok, A high christology is SOMEWHERE in the NT, no?

    And if it is, why can’t it be brought in a bit to make sense of all the other texts as additional implications.

    I get the criticism of Wright for being insufficiently canonical in his approach. I think yours might have the same problem.

    Ok, Luke’s Jesus tells us about the 10 minas as he approaches Jerusalem, and the hearer (BUT NOT THE READER) is to situate himself at the end of the parable and say, crap, my lord has returned, and i seem to have put my mina in a napkin. but the READER is invited, nay, must , situate himself at the start of the parable to apply it and make sense of it as a instruction from Jesus and Luke for what it means to follow Christ and participate as the kingdom gathered around the now dead and ressurected Jesus.

    Likewise, the 5 virgins fell asleep, and Jesus saying that to 12 guys who will fall asleep in the next 36 hours or so is a relevant warning to those hearers, but the READERS are situated to be reminded to be ready for their own crisis.

    I think what we do with eschatology, say “yes, to them it meant, but to us…” is necessary here too.

    1. That’s fine, pduggie. The main thrust of what I’m going for is to help create awareness that when we do make those “yes… AND…” or “yes… BUT…” moves that we are adding something, bringing something with us.

      I read the OT with a self-consciously Christological bent. But I do so recognizing that the OT itself is often not talking about Jesus where I and the NT writers before me write him in. If folks want to bring divine-ontology revisionism into their Gospels readings, I think that’s cool. The problem is when we don’t recognize we’re doing it, which causes us to miss the human-Christology point that the text was originally hoping to impress.

      1. At some point there has to be shorthand for the common folk, doesn’t there?

        I was reading Body, Soul and Life Everlasting, for instance, which ends up affirming that the bible ends up teaching substance dualism and an intermediate state of some kind at the end; but he gets there by calling foul on dozens of passages that are naively read as affirming the standard orthodox view, and slowing the reader down from affirming it.

        but if he ends up affirming it in the end… it makes the brakes he applies seem disorienting.

        I wonder how you teach a newbie xian, “you have a soul in the intermediate state that is conscious” and cite a few passages. or do you take them through dozens of passages and show how they don’t teach that. but there are a few that kinda do.

        I guess since youre teaching sem students, they ought to learn to be disabused of the naive reading, but it seems helpful pedagogically to teach it sometimes. Maybe apologetically even (“spong says jesus isn’t God, but look at Philipians 2! (or matt 5:12)”

        can this work as a pedagogy for, say, kids, who seem perfectly happy to read about Jesus as God incarnate without interrogating every possible text for the layers?

        1. Sorry to be a couple days late on this, pduggie.

          I wonder if a different way forward might be something like this: What if our young people learned that it really did take about 400 years for the church to settle on Jesus being God, so maybe there are other things that are much more central to the Christian faith and should be gotten hold of first? What if that great stumbling block of the Trinity was not what we kept throwing in the face of Muslims who want to debate theology with us, but the Lordship of Jesus as shown in his life and resurrection?

          I think that decentering divinity forces us to ask some important questions, rethink what we say THE message is, in some ways that could actually be helpful.

  6. I am not sure if I am the only one, but, the terms “high” and “low” for Christology are a bit unfair. It seems, “high” means Jesus = YHWH to most people and “low” = anything else. I have two problems with this. First, I think that these terms sour the pot a bit by making one seem impious or “low” if one doesn’t believe that Jesus = YHWH. Second, I am not sure that the so-called “high” Christology is even a logically possible view. What in the O.T or 2nd Temple lit. prepares us for a Jesus = YHWH view? So, I think, your Christology is actually “high,” that is, as high as possible.

    1. Yes, Daniel, I agree that the terminology is problematic. I tried to call it “high human Christology” once, to which I got the reply, “Oh, you mean low Christology.”

      But there is a difference between saying that God is uniquely at work in this particular human agent to bring about God’s Kingdom and to say that “Jesus is somehow mysteriously associated with the very person of YHWH (wink, wink) in a way that will only be more fully worked out later (wink, wink);” Or, as NT Wright put it at IBR this year in Atlanta, “The Gospels are written in the key of Jesus as divine, but that is not their melody.” I think that statement is incorrect.

  7. Daniel,

    I get your main point that we ought not import some ontological theory of Jesus unity of being with God (the synoptics don’t deal in metaphysical categories). But I don’t quite know what to make of the suggestion that the synoptics are trying to express what being truly human means.

    To answer that Christ reveal true humanity (which I would broadly agree with) then just makes Christ the measure of Christology (which becomes a bit circular…which for some apocalyptic type that is fine). But if we don’t want that then we have recourse to God’s previous work in Israel, etc, etc.

    But saying that Jesus reveals humanity seems to be the opposite mistake of ontological Christologies because all Jesus know is doing is ‘revealing/modifying’ something we kinda already know, or at least something like that. Perhaps ‘restore’ rather than reveal would suit me more.

    But it sure seems that the synoptics in their own particular narrative way are identifying Jesus not just with the continuing redemptive work of YHWH, but identifying him as YHWH.

    1. I’m happy with your amendment to “restore.” I think that Adam, Israel, David, and Son of Man are all pointing in that same direction–which provide the categories by which this human Christology in the Synoptics, including YHWH’s decision to identify himself with one particular human by deeds of power and spirit, make sense.

  8. really quickly, as an example, from the Mark 1 which you brought up. The “as it is written in Isaiah” actually begins from Malachi 3:1, but it change from “Behold I send my messanger ahead of you to prepare MY way” to say “to prepare YOUR way.” The YOUR here is not addressing John the B, but Jesus himself such that the way of YHWH among his people is not the way of Jesus (and the way of course is central to Mark’s gospel). Unlike the other gospels who them use Isaiah as an explanation of John’s ministry, this divine address seems aimed at Jesus himself (and overheard by the reader) which is coupled with the baptismal voice (which only the reader also hears).

    But I agree this doesn’t necessarily mean divine pre-existence, because for Mark, Jesus just “came from Nazareth” not from heaven or whatever.

    The two need to be held together, that Jesus is sent on the way of YHWH that YHWH had promised he would go (indicating something not this-worldly), but also the mild mannered fact that Jesus is just a guy who came from Galilee.

    1. I agree that the “you” refers to Jesus. That’s why it’s not YHWH. If Mark had kept “my,” then the coming one, Jesus, might be seen as the coming of YHWH himself in some sense. As it is, the pronoun is changed–JBap goes before “you,” Jesus, the same “you” to whom the divine voice speaks at the baptism. This is consistent with the narratives overall point of Jesus identified with YHWH as YHWH’s means of bringing about the promised kingdom, but without being YHWH himself (in this narrative).

      This is like YHWH coming to obliterate the Canaanites–it just so happens that Joshua’s sword is the means. That kind of representation/identification rather than personal ontology or something thereabouts.

  9. Thanks for publicly grappling with these vexing issues, Daniel. While I see more of the deity shining through Jesus’ consciousness than you do, I agree with you that the Messiah-Servant theme is on the front burner.

    Related issue: I am ambivalent about the revival of Trinitarian theology these days (did I just say that?). Actually, I’m as Trinitarian as they come, but I get antsy when I see Nicene Trinitarianism read back into the NT. This increasingly popular program of conforming the NT to Trinitarian constructs is nothing more than pious eisegesis.

    Again, thanks for your writings!

    1. Thanks for jumping in again, Andrew. I think that the two questions are related, but really for me it comes down to what makes best sense of the texts we have as originally written. Getting back behind our theology is a perennial challenge.


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