Divine Identity Christology

This is another one of those posts on Christology, in particular, it’s about the biblical and/or Jewish matrix within which the New Testament’s statements about Jesus make sense.

As often as not these posts will at some point generate the question, “What’s your agenda? What is the theological payoff for highlighting the humanness of Jesus as something we should be homed in on rather than the divinity?” So let me start with that.

I do not have a theological agenda that I am trying to shore up through exegetical arguments; I have an exegetical agenda that I am confident will ultimately be profitable for the church’s theology because it offers a better reading of the church’s sacred texts. I believe that the Bible we actually have is the Bible God

Little Lord Jesus Much Crying He Makes...
wanted us to have–even when it surprises us, drawing us in unexpected theological and ethical directions.

Let me also say (again) that arguing for a viable “human” framework for making sense of Jesus is not to say either (a) that Jesus is not, in fact, fully God as well as fully human (which I do believe) or that (b) indications that the theological reflections of the church were heading in the direction of high Christology are not present already in the NT (I believe they are, for example, in the Christological developments between the Synoptics and John).

So there is a high Christology voice to be heard and honored, and there is this other that I think needs a bit more attention in order to continue filling out what we mean by saying Jesus was not only “fully human,” but “true to his humanness” (“truly human”) in a way that no other person has ever been.

Today’s thoughts, then, come from two directions.

My children are currently addicted to Handel’s Messiah. When we get in the car, little dude says, “I want ‘Why do the nations?’” He also likes the “other bad guys song,” what he calls the chorus that goes, “He trusted in God that He would deliver him, let Him deliver him, if He delight in him.”

As I’ve backed them up from those Good Friday/Easter movements to the annunciation and birth portions, we’ve found ourselves listening to “For unto us a child is born.” Christmas classics, here we come!

Christians rightly sing this song with a full theology of Jesus as divine in mind: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

But that prophetic celebration meant something before God’s people had any idea about an incarnate Son. The song is a glorious song of praise to a coming, quite human, Davidic king, who is so aligned with God in his representing God’s rule to the world, that the very titles of God are applied to him. God’s covenant faithfulness works itself out in fulfilling the promise to David.

All of this sits in my mind as I’ve been reading Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, beginning with his essay, “God Crucified.”

Bauckham argues that there is an absolute distinction (his phrase, used repeatedly) between God as creator and sovereign over the universe and other creatures who are neither seen as creator nor as exercising God’s own sovereignty.

Bauckham makes an interesting case for God’s exclusive sovereignty. But at the end he cites the Son of Man from the Parables of Enoch as someone other than God who exercises God’s sovereign rule over the earth. Bauckham calls this “the exception that proves the rule,” but it made me wonder when we get to call something that falls outside our preferred paradigm an exception that “proves” the rule rather than “shows us that the rule has important exceptions that might undermine the force of the argument.”

Bauckham is surely correct that, in general, heavenly beings are not depicted as sharing God’s rule in early Judaism. But what if the reason that heavenly beings don’t share in God’s identity by sharing in God’s rule is because this is not what God created heavenly beings to do–but the vocation with which God created humanity?

Why might the Son of Man in Enoch be allowed to sit on God’s throne and rule the world on his behalf? Maybe because he’s The Man. Why might the Davidic king in Isaiah be called “Mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace?” Because the Davidic king is the son of God, begotten at his enthronement, who represents God, specifically God’s rule to the world.

When God created humanity he said, “Let’s create humanity in our own image and let them rule the world on our behalf.”

To share in the sovereignty of YHWH is the unique provenance of humanity. It’s a calling circumscribed to Israel and within Israel to Israel’s king.

Yes, there is a divine identity Christology–because the Davidic king shares in the name, power, and reign of God. “Where is he who was born king of the Jews? For we have come to honor him!”

The kingdom of God has come near. The Man has been born.

23 thoughts on “Divine Identity Christology”

  1. That would seem to echo Barth’s understanding of election as I understand it – that Christ is the electing God but also (and perhaps more importantly as per your argument) the eternally elected human being and thus God has chosen humanity from eternity to share in his lordship by choosing that the Son would become human in solidarity and fellowship with humanity.

  2. This very much echoes the conversation Mark Given and I had at in the Q&A after my paper at SBL this year. My case was that there is a fine distinction between “being divine” having “divine identity” and “being God” (cf. the beginning of Plato’s Sophist).

    I also think that the Gospel of John has been grossly misunderstood—the main point of John is not that Jesus is divine but that the divine has truly, completely, become human, sharing human flesh. That’s the point, not the reverse. This is where I see the notion of an “increasing” Christology from the Synoptics to John actually misses the point entirely, because if anything I see John vigorously arguing for the fundamental humanness of Jesus, not so much his divinity (which it seems to assume).

    1. Jason,

      First of all, huge congrats on passing your exams with honors and entering into official “candidacy” at Chapel Hill. Good work!

      Let’s work your first paragraph first: can you briefly parse those distinctions? Bauckham says that “divine identity” is, essentially, a Jewish monotheist’s way of saying the same thing that the Nicene Council meant by “divine ontology,” using the categories that were available to them.

      (1) Are you agreeing with the “divine identity” label? Do you prefer another?
      (2) Do you think Bauckham’s description of divine identity is on target?

      Re. your last comment on John: do you think the other Gospels assume that as well? In answering that, I guess I’ll need a definition of what you mean by saying yes or no…

      Thanks for the conversation here.

      1. Thanks for the congrats. Nice to be on this side of things.

        First of all, I’m a bit slower than most to talk about a “Jewish monotheist’s way of saying” anything. I’m not sure it’s always accurate to talk about early Judaism as entirely monotheistic. Henotheist, for sure, but when the DSS tend to use אלים instead of מאלאך, it suggests the water is muddier on that issue than typically assumed. Revelation’s imagery of multiple “gods” being sent out with different roles also seems to suggest this. The Metatron traditions, etc. in mystical Judaism also problematize the typical assumption of strict monotheism.

        I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the “divine identity” label itself, but I’m not sure I agree with Bauckham’s definition. I don’t think there’s any question that the canonical gospels present Jesus as carrying “the Name,” but I’m not really comfortable at this point saying that’s just proto-Nicene theology. That Luke refers to both Jesus and Adam as “the son of God” is one example of why I have a bit less comfort on this point.

        As for whether the other gospels assume Jesus’ divinity, I think Matthew and Luke do. Mark doesn’t seem to assume it so much as assert it. (In this sense, I think the normal explanation of Christological development actually gets things backwards.) So I think all four gospels do believe Jesus is divine in some sense.

        But again, this doesn’t exactly mean equating Jesus with God, as it could also denote identifying him as God’s representative—the bearer of God’s name. Paul, though he blurs the lines sometimes, also tends to refer to “God and our Lord Jesus Christ” as though the latter isn’t exactly the same as the former.

        It’s all a bit tricky, and I’m not entirely comfortable with my own preliminary conclusions, but there does seem to be some sort of distinction made in the early NT texts that doesn’t look exactly like Nicene theology.

  3. I’m also reading Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel. I read God Crucified when it published the first time. I am not quite sure at which point you are disagreeing with Bauckham. Having just finished the second section of the book I am left with the vague feeling that there is perhaps more rhetoric here than argumentation. In other words, Bauckham is preaching; using a lot of repetition, rephrasing of the same idea but not really unpacking all the steps in his reasoning so we can see if it is a valid argument. I don’t expect everyone to write like Nicholas Wolterstorff but a little more analytical exposition would not hurt Bauckham’s treatment of Divine Identity.

    1. I’m disagreeing with his premise that there is an “absolute distinction” between God and creatures in the exercise of divine sovereignty (which humans participate in). I also disagree with the absolute distinction with respect to creation, but that argument is a bit more complicated.

      For both, Bauckham cites evidence that disagrees with his position but does not deal with how that contrary evidence allows one to maintain that God is “absolutely” unique in those functions.

  4. RE: ““absolute distinction” between God and creatures in the exercise of divine sovereignty”

    For example, his discussion of the celestial council where the monarch, YHWY does not actually engage his court attendants in the decision making process?

    In regard to the absolute distinction between the Creator and creatures, are you questioning that this was a nonnegotiable feature in the the Judaism which formed the framework for the apostle Paul’s or John’s worldview?

  5. Yesterday the chorus “He trusted in God” kept going through my head. Much better than the Christmas music on the system at Starbucks. I usually work the drive-through, which gives me a treasured distance from the sound track.

    Isn’t it funny that Pilate is the one who gets to pronounce Jesus to be “the Man”? If he only knew.

  6. Does Bauckham talk about the prophetic voice and its strong relation to God?

    The prophetic canon is key, where it increasingly blurs the distinction between the praxis of human history/culture and God/heavenly court; a distinction which is porous even at the very onset of creation. For instance, Isaiah is depicted as being in the heavenly court during his call to prophecy (Isaiah 6). And so, it seems to me anyway that God isn’t working via Christ ex nihilo, rather Christ sums up a newfangled event which (necessarily) extended out of the very good yet unfinished redemption efforts of creation and humankind as a whole. Note that John’s Gospel mentions John the Baptist before he mentions Christ, which underscores a natural process of things via the Word.

    All of this said, there is a much needed caveat: there is still a horrible potential for violence which occurs when humans wish to push the boundaries of these fine demarcations between God and humankind — see for instance the terror implicit in Psalm 89 or 74! Bonhoeffer knew all about this dynamic-gone-wrong. The mutual interdependency of God and humankind is what OT scholar Walter Brueggemann would call a “dangerous” theology (as opposed to the co-opted and “safe” theology), but it is a theology which nevertheless bolsters us humans to work toward and in the kingdom of the God here and now.

    @ Jason A. Staples: in this way, I think you are spot on about John’s gist, where he is starting from the very much known and accepted notion that Jesus is divine and is working toward arguing for the humanness of Christ. Christ “tabernacles in the flesh” according to John, and this unforgettable evocation is reemphasized by John’s first words which, unmistakably, are alluding to the onset of creation in Genesis, yet rhetorically substituting the egalitarian, mediative Word for God’s being. Good stuff.

  7. I love the pic of the little Lord!

    Part of the flavor of Christmas for me is the messy humanity of all birth events. Babyhood, childhood, young manhood – all these days and weeks and hours lie so squarely ‘this side of Jordan’ for me (the incarnation in its pre-baptism, pre-mission, pre-rejection, pre-Calvary mode).

    I think not even a pre-existent savior would choose a form of so much helplessness and unrealized potential if he hadn’t come in the first place to be man. In Bethlehem and Nazareth ‘God and man’ seems a latent thing – more real is the plain fact that in so many ways the child is still father only to the man.

    Daniel, I like your Christology because it gives me more scope to consider his divinity as a hidden coin long buried under his many risings and fallings before his baptism. It makes me more inclined to contemplate the divinity as lying in the same kind of deep psychological ground as the humanity.

    The early little-known life of Jesus might have been much more important for Godhead and sovereignty than we know. Not by ‘secret trips to India’ but rather by this very human, day-in and day-out. It’s where the man got his human character or Archon. It is in this character that I would say he was ‘made man’ (long hours and days and weeks and months and years after he was ‘made flesh’). And this humanity must obviously remain a constant for his later high career – but not the secret of his Godhood.

    If we have an honest report from Jordan of ‘a voice’ (I believe in voices) then I see better now that this voice might have praised manhood, clean and simple, when it said ‘Son.’ But this is not to say Jesus was only then divinized (the divinity pre-existed and by that point is firmly laid in the heart of his humanity). In my view there is no need to imply that some kind of man-made Godhood was proclaimed at Jordan. (I don’t think you are implying that, it’s just that I wanted to guard my ramblings from suggesting it).

  8. Hey, sorry to barge in here, I am not well versed in theological matters, but by boss at work suggested I read this as I have some questions about Christ’s humanity. Namely, that he was *human*. I’ve quite enjoyed your post, although I feel somewhat out of my depth, it’s interesting to think about. I’ve also enjoyed the comments, in particular the reference to the assumptions we often make about the gospel of John.

    I guess a big question for me, is why did Jesus care so much about us imperfect, sinful and messy humans? The references to him weeping are what really get me. If I was divine, I’m not convinced I could care so much about us ‘lowly’ humans. I mean, we are like ants, there’s so many of us individuals don’t really even register and our abilities compared to God’s are tiny. So, why does He care?

    As to Jesus being God or being like God, I probably tend to go with the second, although I’m sure lots of people would think I was a heretic for saying that.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    1. Sye, I’m sure there are about a dozen ways to answer your question.

      I think that part of the answer in the biblical story begins with the premise that this is not a world where people happened to spring up and then some god decided to take an interest in them. In the biblical narrative, God created this world with people on it to do certain tasks for God, to be God’s representative to the world.

      The sub-title of my blog is “telling the story of the story-bound God.” The God who created the world bound himself to it, choosing people to care for it in his stead, and Israel in particular to mediate God’s blessing to the nations, and Israel’s king to represent Israel before God and hence God before Israel and the world. Those are the means that God has chosen to call the world back to himself, to rain down the fullness of his blessings upon the earth.

      Why would he do it like that to begin with? Ooh… there’s where we run to the end of things, I’m guessing.


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