Bauckham: New Testament Christology [3]

Click here for the first and second posts outlining Richard Bauckham’s understanding of the development of New Testament Christology. [Series Link

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Critique 

Richard Bauckham’s contribution to understanding the development of NT Christology is potentially immense. In my view, his thesis is compelling, cogent, and destined eventually to pioneer a major new scholarly paradigm. Nevertheless, in spite of my overall very positive appreciation for his contribution, I have a number of specific disagreements and general concerns with his reconstruction. As his thesis is still very much work in progress, there are a number of significant omissions and a certain dearth of the requisite, detailed arguments that are necessary for a convincing presentation. The articles and essays published after God Crucified have begun to fill in the blanks, but much remains to be explored. Consequently, my critique must also be considered provisional, while we await his projected two-volume magnum opus [which I really wish he’d get on with!]. 

The use of the category of ‘identity’ is potentially the most positive contribution to understanding the development of NT Christology which Bauckham’s thesis makes. Quite conceivably, bearing in mind the manner in which Second Temple Jews characterised their God as absolutely unique vis-à-vis the rest of reality, a thorough-going application of the divine-identity category to the NT texts could revolutionise our understanding of how Jesus was viewed among the early Christian communities. If, as Bauckham argues, a unique function of God, such as his absolute sovereignty, is one which may not be delegated to another, then the early christological claim that Jesus was exalted to rule over “all things” does not just tell us about something Jesus does, but about who he actually is. As Bauckham states, “Though not primarily a matter of divine nature or being, [the divine sovereignty] emphatically is a matter of divine identity.”[1] Indeed, in recognizing that Jewish conceptual categories are fundamentally relational, Bauckham’s ‘identity’ category is able to cut through the old impasse created by the misleading contrast between function and being. This is a very significant advance and long-term scholarly contribution to understanding the development of NT Christology. 

Nonetheless, Bauckham’s ‘identity’ category must bear a considerable weight. In fact, if one considers his approach deficient in some manner, many of his exegetical conclusions become untenable. At the current stage of his project it is certainly acceptable to employ it as a working hypothesis, but if it is not adequately elucidated in his opus, the very foundation of his thesis may collapse under the strain. For instance, he acknowledges that the analogy of human personal identity is ultimately transcended when applied to the God of Israel, but this is especially so when he seeks to include the intra-personal relationship between Father and Son within the divine identity. Moreover, in my view, a better incorporation of divine nature or essence needs to be found if ‘identity’ is to function as such a keystone. For example, a necessary correction in Bauckham’s more recent work is his greater appreciation for the way that YHWH’s eternal nature was pressed into service as an essential defining characteristic of Israel’s God. In God Crucified, he stated that the two characteristics that particularly designated YHWH’s uniqueness, were that he was the creator of all and the ruler of all, which relegated the divine eternality to the status of a mere attribute of the divine identity. Arguing for the primacy of ‘identity’ over ‘divine nature’, Bauckham did not do full justice to the importance of the divine eternity. Ultimately, it is not always easy to separate out who God is from what God is. His current position is more carefully nuanced so as not “to exclude all concepts of divine nature… [even if he does] regard the identity of God as the more comprehensive and important category.”[2] While in one essay he has slightly furthered his view of ‘identity’, much remains to be developed.[3] I hope and look forward to seeing this more fully addressed. 

Bauckham’s construal of Jewish monotheism is certainly contestable. Even so, in my estimation he has rightly assessed the historical development from pre-exilic Israel’s henotheism, with its “‘monotheizing’ dynamic”, to a robust Second Temple monotheism, which had not yet hardened into the monism of the rabbinic period. God’s oneness was still understood as the “one God, one Lord” over against the “many gods and many lords”, not as an analysis of his inner-being. Further, while recognising that monolatry is vitally important to any consideration of Jewish monotheism, he well appreciates the growing conceptual understanding of YHWH that had come to the fore by the NT period; one which focused on expressing YHWH’s uniquely defining characteristics and utter incomparability to the rest of reality, and not so much on the Greek philosophical categories of divine nature or essence. In my view, Bauckham’s analysis compares very favourably with other scholarly depictions of Second Temple Jewish monotheism. 

Bauckham recognises, though, that there are a range of scholarly views on the nature of Jewish monotheism and that each “correlate with a similar range of views as to the process by which Jesus came to be regarded as divine”.[4] Thus, if one disagrees with Bauckham’s evaluation of Jewish monotheism, one may likely also reject his view of NT Christology. For example, Bauckham’s rejection of intermediary figures as precedents for Christology is controversial. Instead, he observes that the NT writers 

include Jesus in the unique divine sovereignty over all things, they include him in the unique divine creation of all things, they identify him by the divine name which names the unique divine identity, and they portray him as accorded the worship which, for Jewish monotheists, is recognition of the unique divine identity.[5] 

Nonetheless, it cannot have been either straightforward or effortless for the early Christians directly to identify Jesus with the one God, as the charges of blasphemy in the Gospels seem to indicate. Further, the Fourth Gospel, for example, clearly represents Jesus as an agent of God. By labelling Jesus as an agent, we would expect him to be treated as a subordinate to the God who sent him and that he would have a secondary and deputy-like status (unless GJohn explicitly modified that theme). However, in an essay on monotheism and Christology in John’s Gospel, Bauckham perhaps too quickly denies that agency language is sufficient to characterise Jesus, ignores the question of subordination, and concentrates on those elements of John’s Christology which suggest that Jesus was viewed as intrinsic to the divine identity. These are important questions and challenges which at least raise some doubt as to the effectiveness of Bauckham’s thesis to deal with seemingly contradictory evidence. Again, to be fair, we must note that his thesis is work in progress and that this paper was not a detailed, scholarly presentation but a more popular-level one. 

In the same vein, Bauckham has also so far omitted to address whether messianic categories might have some explanatory force for understanding the cult of Christ, or indeed, how Jesus’ own self-consciousness fits into this portrait. Problematically, Bauckham only references the “Angel of the Lord” traditions once in a footnote,[6] noting that this figure generally was understood in post-biblical literature to be simply an angelic representative of God. Nevertheless, given that Philo and Justin Martyr could identify the Logos as an angel,[7] this might well cast doubt on Bauckham’s entire argument about the distinction between the divine attributes and angelic servants. Perhaps intermediary figures generally, and the evidence for the veneration of angels specifically, cannot be so easily dismissed. Again, we await Bauckham’s fuller treatment of these issues. 

This brings to the fore Bauckham’s insistence that worship is the recognition of and response to the unique divine identity. He is undoubtedly correct in stating that in polemical contexts Second Temple texts insist that God alone is to be worshipped because he is the creator and ruler of all (e.g. Bel 4-5). Nonetheless, Israel’s religion is a historical phenomenon in which monolatry was theoretically axiomatic long before her faith might correctly be designated ‘monotheistic’. In other words, historically-speaking, monolatry came first and the theoretical underpinning, which Bauckham emphasises, came second. However, by the Second Temple period would it really have been possible to assert which was primary, the theory or the practice? We seem to have something of a ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario. Perhaps, given the importance of the Shema for Jewish theology in this period, it would be wiser simply to hold both belief and praxis together simultaneously, and recognise their mutual influence on one another – i.e., some mediating position between Bauckham and Hurtado might be best. 

Bauckham’s position on worship also contributes to another problem in his thesis – his view of throne imagery. Bauckham believes that the one example of an intermediary figure that is offered worship is the Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch. As he understands the Son of Man to be seated on God’s own throne, the obeisance offered to him by the nations must constitute worship in the proper sense, but this seems driven by his prior commitment to what throne imagery entails. He notes that the Son of Man only receives obeisance from the nations and not from the whole of creation. Although I’m still open to persuasion, this does seem to indicate that the more likely interpretation of this episode is as a messianic one. Bauckham tacitly admits this weakness in his analysis when he writes that the Son of Man’s inclusion in the divine identity is only “partial, since he plays no part in the work of creation or indeed in the divine sovereignty until the future day of judgement, and therefore his inclusion in the divine identity remains equivocal.”[8] Thus, his use of throne imagery appears to need tighter argument. Bauckham’s application of throne imagery to Christology is on much more solid ground with a text such as Phil 2:9-11, where Jesus is exalted to the divine throne but also receives both the divine name and the worship of the entire created order. 

Finally, Hurtado criticises Bauckham’s view as essentially arguing for the worship of Jesus merely based on theological inference. I.e., Jesus is exalted to the divine throne to rule, therefore he must be intrinsic to the divine identity, and thus he must be worshipped. While this is not as potent a criticism as Hurtado maintains, nonetheless, it does contain some force. Indeed, a slightly disappointing aspect to Bauckham’s thesis is that he does not examine the role of the religious experiences of the first Christians in the shaping of their beliefs, especially the spirit-driven ecstatic revelations in communal gatherings and the impact of both the pre- and post-Easter Christ on his followers. Would the Jesus-centric focus of their lives, through baptism, the sacred meal, and prophetic oracles in the name of the risen one, not have contributed to the whole of their spiritual formation and reflection? What effect might this have had specifically on their Christology? In my view, Bauckham has given us an excellent and extremely persuasive way to understand how the early Christians expressed their beliefs theologically within a Jewish monotheistic setting. However, until he takes much more fully into account influences on the early Christians that contributed to their understanding of the events they were caught up in, Bauckham will not have provided us with a comprehensive historical explanation for the development of NT Christology. 

Though outlining some reservations, I’d like to make it clear that I’m sure these will be addressed in Bauckham’s promised fuller treatment [two entire volumes], and that these criticisms are probably unnecessarily harsh in the interim. His thesis opens up new vistas and opportunities for examining old texts in a new light and may well prove totally convincing when his opus is eventually published. In fact, on balance, I find myself persuaded by Bauckham that Second Temple Jews clearly distinguished their God from all other reality and that, 

When New Testament Christology is read with this Jewish theological context in mind, it becomes clear that, from the earliest post-Easter beginnings of Christology onwards, early Christians included Jesus, precisely and unambiguously, within the unique identity of the one God of Israel.[9] 

 

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PDF File of whole series 


[1] Bauckham, God Crucified, 41. 

[2] Bauckham, R., “Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity” 1-26; 2. 

http://www.forananswer.org/Top_JW/Richard_Bauckham.pdf (20/6/2006) 

[3] Bauckham, “Jesus the Revelation of God”, 188-97. 

[4] Bauckham, God Crucified, 2. 

[5] Bauckham, God Crucified, 26. 

[6] Bauckham, R., The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 127 ft 31. 

[7] E.g., Philo, Conf. 41, 60-3; Justin Martyr, Dial. lxi 1. 

[8] Bauckham, God Crucified, 20. See the update in Jesus and the God of Israel, 169-172. 

[9] Bauckham, God Crucified, vii.
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2 Responses to “Bauckham: New Testament Christology [3]”

  1. Bauckham: New Testament Christology [2] « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] Bauckham: New Testament Christology [3] « Introspective Cogitations Says: August 13, 2010 at 8:52 AM | Reply […]

  2. Week in Review: 08.13.10 | Near Emmaus Says:

    […] – Jonathan Brown has begun a series on Richard Bauckham’s Christology (see here, here, and here). […]

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