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.

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