Sunday, September 15, 2013

On the Problem of Expectation

Those who are familiar with the work of Larry Hurtado are probably aware that he is among the most influential religious scholars/historians in the world.  The high esteem in which he is held is well deserved, for he is a very thoughtful scholar, whose writings are a paradigm of clarity, elegance, and a tasteful touch of literary flair.  Even when I disagree with what he says I often can't help but enjoy the way he says it.

Many feel that his work establishes an early high Christology, as evidenced by the Christ devotion that was an integral part of the life of the new movement.  A certain irony has impressed itself on my own mind, though, in that while many orthodox believers I’ve conversed with seem to rush to embrace his conclusions because they believe that it puts the old argument that the Trinity emerged via syncretism to rest once and for all, they fail to notice the rather conspicuous lacunae that his historical model seems to create.

Consider two historical facts side-by-side:

1) The early Christian movement used the Hebrew Scriptures to contextualize, understand, and defend its view of Christ, who came to be seen as the fulfillment of OT prophesy.

2) The acceptance of Trinitarianism renders the view of God as understood by Jews in light of the Hebrew Scriptures to be heretical (or at the very least, erroneous).

Regarding #2, notice what Gregory of Nyssa had to say:
“For, in personality, the Spirit is one thing and the Word another, and yet again that from which the Word and Spirit is, another. But when you have gained the conception of what the distinction is in these, the oneness, again, of the nature admits not division, so that the supremacy of the one First Cause is not split and cut up into differing Godships, neither does the statement harmonize with the Jewish dogma, but the truth passes in the mean between these conceptions, destroying each heresy, and yet accepting what is useful in it from each. The Jewish dogma is destroyed by the acceptance of the Word, and by the belief in the Spirit; while the polytheistic error of the Greek school is made to vanish by the unity of the nature abrogating this imagination of plurality.” (see
So we have two historical features in tension:  (a) Christianity arose as a sect within Judaism;  and (b) the later trinitarian concept of God was incompatible with the very Judaism from which it emerged. Now, if the converts who formed the incipient church heard something similar to what Trinitarians hear when encountering the early teachings about Christ, and if they had similar assumptions to that of modern Trinitarians -- e.g. (a) the notion that there are two strict categories of gods, “true” (the One God) and “false” (condemned/idolatrous*), and (b) that the application of QEOS to Jesus necessarily meant that he was “true deity as to his nature”, etc. -- then they would have needed the leaders of the new movement to make sense of those teachings, which would have been paradoxical and potentially dangerous under those sorts of assumptions.

When orthodox Christians hear the expressions "Jesus is God", "Jesus is God's Son", “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus”, etc., they aren’t troubled, because they have a conceptual grid into which such seemingly paradoxical statements can be placed to avoid cognitive dissonance.  But the early church didn’t have such a conceptual grid, and so such statements would have caused comment, concern, and controversy. Yet there is no compelling evidence that this was a point of concern to the early Christians, or even a point of casual interest, for that matter. Notice what both James Dunn and Maurice Casey observe vis a vis Christ devotion:

James D.G. Dunn:  “The silence on this score cannot be because we have no means of knowing what Jewish reaction to earliest Christian theology was at this stage; on the contrary, we can see well enough from the literature of first generation Christianity that Paul’s understanding of the law was a sore bone of contention for those who valued their Jewish heritage highly. Had Paul’s christology been equally, or more contentious at this time for his fellow Jews, we would surely have heard of it from Paul’s own letters. The absence of such indicators points in the other direction: that Paul’s christology and the devotional language of the earliest Christian worship did not cause any offense to monotheistic Jews. So far as both Paul and his fellow Jews were concerned, early Christian devotion to Jesus still lay within the bounds of the Jewish understanding of God in his dealings with his world and people.” (The Partings of the Ways, 1st edition), pp. 205, 206

Maurice Casey:   “The disputes extant in Acts and the epistles are about halakhah rather than christology, and if there had been a general perception among Jewish members of the communities that other Christians were hailing Jesus as fully God, there would have been disputes severe enough for us to hear about them.” (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God), p. 115

So, in my opinion, this creates a severe problem vis a vis reasonable expectation:

1) If the early church believed that applying the term QEOS to Jesus and including him as a central figure in the context of cultic religious devotion meant that he is in some sense the one God of the Bible ontologically, then there unavoidably would have been concern, controversy, discussion, and disputes about this. Such disputes would not only have occurred between the early converts and their opponents, but it would have existed among the new converts themselves, who would have been desperately driven to resolve the cognitive dissonance they would have been experiencing while engaging in the constellation of cultic religious practices that were part of the emerging community’s religious life. (Did you catch the echoes of Hurtado in that last sentence? [grin]).

2) That discussion, once begun, would have raised issues that would have been a major stumbling block for many, and would have naturally evolved very quickly into the types of disputes that arose in later centuries. Full doctrinal delineation by the Apostles would have ultimately been required, and this very early in the life of the new movement.

The absence of interest in the seemingly paradoxical language used (paradoxical, that is, if interpreted in light of orthodox assumptions), along with the absence of discussion, dispute, concern, or controversy over Christ as “G-god” or as an object of veneration, viewed in conjunction with the absence of concomitant doctrinal delineation by the NT writers, constitutes perhaps the clearest evidence there is that: (a) the arbitrary assertion that there are only the one true God and false gods is unfounded from a biblical perspective (this is a common assertion from the Evangelical camp, many of whom ignore the instances where divine titles are appropriately applied to representatives of God*); (b) the arguments put forth by the majority of grammarians over the significance of verses like John 1:1c are gravely flawed; and, most importantly, (c) neither Trinitarianism nor its underlying assumptions are in harmony with early Christian thinking or teaching from the standpoint of history and historical probability.

*Note:  This should not be taken to suggest that I believe the early Christians were polytheists.  Rather, I'm merely observing the historical fact that divine titles could be applied to agents of God in pretty much all forms of Jewish literature that existed at the time the New Testament was written.  One often finds a strange disconnect in the writings of so many scholars and religious commentators in that while they often discuss the uncontroversial application of divine titles to agents of God in the Bible and in the literature of the period, they fail to recognize that it is precisely because Jesus is God's agent -- his living, breathing power-of-attorney -- that we find divine titles applied to him.  Once we recognize (a) the flexible use of such divine titles in the biblical period among monotheistic Jews, and (b) the contexts in which such applications were considered appropriate, then we come to realize something we might not have expected:  Not only is it not surprising to find divine titles applied to Jesus in the New Testament, but it in light of his unique status as God's agent par excellence, it would be downright shocking to find that such titles were not applied to him!