Is Jesus God?

Last night I finished reading James D. G. Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? Dunn, a professor at the University of Durham in England and noted scholar, looks specifically at the New Testament evidence to determine whether Jesus was worshipped by the early church. The question may seem like a no-brainer, but Dunn finds that the evidence warrants more than a simple yes or no answer.

Dunn considers several strands of evidence. First, he looks at the various Greek words (e.g., proskynein) that can be translated as “worship”–as well as related terms, hymns, benedictions, and doxologies–and whether they are used in reference to Jesus. He also looks as various “cultic” practices associated with religion (sacred space, sacred time, sacrifice, cultic priesthood) and whether these practices were directed toward Jesus. Next, he considers the ways in which Hebrew biblical thought has characterized various “intermediaries” between God and the world (angels, spirit, wisdom, word, and exalted human beings) and how these qualified the Bible’s monotheism without lapsing into polytheism. Finally, Dunn considers Jesus’ own religious beliefs (to the extent they can be identified) and the early church’s confession of him as “Lord.”

The picture that emerges is a nuanced one. Dunn contends that evidence for the direct worship of Jesus in the New Testament is rare (though not nonexistent, e.g., Revelation). Instead, the texts generally indicate that the early Christians experienced Jesus as the one in whom and through whom they were able to worship the one God of Israel. Dunn puts considerable weight on Jesus understood as the embodiment or incarnation of the word or wisdom of God, which, he maintains, is importantly different from simply saying “Jesus is God.” In biblical Judaism (possibly influenced by Hellenism), the word or wisdom of God was understood as the aspect or manifestation of the divine that “faced toward” creation–these terms refer to God’s immanent presence among God’s creatures and as the ordering principle of creation. But God in Godself–the ultimate source and goal of all that is–remains “beyond” and inaccessible.

What emerges consistently … is that the earliest Christians radically reinterpreted the language and imagery by which Israel’s sages and theologians spoke of God’s perceptible activity within human experience by filling it out by reference to Jesus. The creative energy of God, the moral character of the cosmos, the inspiration experienced by prophets, the saving purpose of God for his people all came to fuller/fullest expression in Christ. This did not mean that Jesus should be worshipped in himself, any more than the Word as such, divine Wisdom as such or the Spirit of God as such was or should have been worshipped. But it did mean that as the divine self-revelation, though Spirit, Wisdom and Word, more fully informed and enabled worship of the one God, the same was even more the case with Christ. As early as the first Christians, it was recognized that the one God should be worshipped as the God active in and through Jesus, indeed, in a real sense as Jesus–Jesus as the clearest self-revelation of the one God ever given to humankind. (p. 129)

In Dunn’s view, New Testament Christianity remains a strongly monotheistic faith, but one that recognizes–in line with this tradition of Jewish/Hellenistic reflection–multiple aspects within the godhead that are not best understood as composing an undifferentiated, monistic unity. It is a faith that sees Jesus as the clearest self-revelation of the divine character and the one in whom Christians worship God. Jesus is both “God-with-us” and our heavenly mediator who intercedes for us before the Father. And he is our elder brother, into whose pattern we are conformed by God’s grace. What is distinctive of Christianity is not that it is “less monotheistic” than, say, Judaism or Islam, but that Christian worship of God is enabled by and revealed in and through Jesus (see p. 151).

Christologies are often divided into “functional” (what Jesus does) and “ontic” (what Jesus is) varieties. Dunn sees the New Testament evidence pointing toward a Christology of “divine agency,” which seems to land more on the functional side. Jesus “embodied God’s immanence…he was the visible image of the invisible God..[and] as full an expression of God’s creative and redemptive concern and action as was possible in flesh” (p. 143). But, he concludes, the New Testament (generally) stops short of saying that “Jesus is God” in a straightforward sense.

Dunn seems to suggest that this New Testament view is inconsistent–or at least in tension–with later Christian developments. He mentions, for example, that Christians often risk falling into “Jesus-olatry”–treating Jesus as an idol rather than as an icon through which we “see” God (see pp. 147-8). I would have liked to see him flesh this out a bit more. As it stands, I’m unclear just where (or if) he thinks a sophisticated orthodox trinitarian theology would diverge from the New Testament witness as he has articulated it.

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