Friday, September 6, 2013

Richard Bauckham, "Jesus and the God of Israel"

Book Review - Richard Bauckham, "Jesus and the God of Israel"
by Eko Ong

In the conclusion of “The Person of Christ”, MacLeod pondered how we may translate homoousios and perichoresis in today’s language. Such desire for fresh perspective –especially in light of the “growing abandonment of the axiom of divine apatheia”– surfaced due to the perceived influence of Greek metaphysics in the Chalcedonian Christology. While Christology in today’s language may prove beneficial, a Christology rooted in the 2nd-temple Jewish monotheism may be more faithful at least to the authorial intent of the New Testament writers in conjunction to the 3rd quest of historical Jewish Jesus. Some perceive the deity of Christ to be a violation of Jewish monotheism. Others, such as Dunn, postulate that the early church worshipped Jesus as an exalted intermediate figure but not God himself. They argue that the incorporation of Jesus into the Godhead was a later development. Unlike those 2 approaches, Bauckham proposes an alternative hypothesis: “early Christians included Jesus, precisely and unambiguously, within the unique identity of the one God of Israel” which includes the totality of Jesus as the pre-existent, incarnate, suffering, crucified, and exalted Son of God [Intro]. Expounding his entire thesis in chapter I while providing additional details in the remaining 7 chapters, Bauckham believes that the category of divine identity (who God is) represents the teaching of Scripture compared to the “inappropriate” ontological and functional categories (what God is, what his attributes are) from the Patristic tradition. He argues that the created intermediary figures are servants and do not share the divine identity. Yet Jesus personifies aspects that share the divine identity such as the Spirit, Wisdom, and Word [I.1.6-I.1.7, VI]. Hence, including –as opposed to adding– Jesus into the divine identity does not violate Jewish monotheism. This is evident, for instance, in the inclusion of Jesus into the Jewish Shema (Deut 6:4) in 1 Cor 8:6, predicating κύριος and ὕψιστος to Jesus (used for YHWH in LXX), and the parallel between Carmen Christi (Phil 2:6-11) and the Servant Song (Isa 40-55) [I.2.3-I.2.8, I.3, VI]. Throughout the NT, the pre-existent Son of God takes the identity of YHWH: the Creator and Sovereign Lord who is the God of Israel, the author of exodus (from Egypt and the one to come), and demands exclusive worship [I.1.3-I.1.5, II-V]. Yet the climax of the revelation of divine identity in Christ occurred in the crucifixion when God in Christ identified himself with God-forsakenness which is, according to Bauckham, the heart of all suffering [I.3.7, VIII].

Overall, such Christology-from-above is unique since it demonstrates not only the deity of Christ but also their consistency with Jewish monotheism. This is done from the standard NT christological passages in relation with the corresponding OT passages. The sharing of divine identity also provides us a category to overcome subordination issues within the Trinitarian formulation. However, as Bauckham focuses on demonstrating the deity of Christ in relation to the OT, he tends to advocate a single reading from passages which carry other christological nuances. For instance, upon comparing Phil 2:9-11 and Isa 45:23, he claimed that the passage “cannot be understood as an expression of an Adam Christology” which entails the restoration of human dominion over the cosmos (contra Dunn and McCartney’s Ecce Homo) [VI.6]. Although we agree with Bauckham’s emphasis on eschatological monotheism in the passages, we do not see the need for excluding other sound christological readings as well.

Fundamental in Bauckham’s thesis is his critique of the Greek’s metaphysics of substance (ontology) and attributes (functional). Within the rubric of the classic Trinitarian, Christ is homoousios with the Father and hence divine (e.g. WCF II.3). He is revealed to us in terms of his personality and works within Scripture. Bauckham argues that Christology of the divine identity is consistent with the Jewishness of our Scripture. Here, Christ is understood in terms of ‘who he is’, not ‘what he is’. While such category may be parsimonious and minimizes the tendency of separating God’s being from God’s attributes, we wonder if such Greek categories are as “improper” as what is claimed. First, although ontological and functional categories are not inherent in Scripture, the same may be said regarding the category of divine identity as Scripture is not given in particular categories. Yet categories are inherent in the finiteness of human communications even in narratives. Second, perichoresis is used to counteract the static description of divine substance. That is, the three persons of the Godhead are homoousios by remaining. Third, Bauckham himself defines the identity of God in terms of his personality and works (Creator, Ruler, the author of exodus who is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness) yet correctly maintains that the two are inseparable. The same can be done with the ontological and functional categories so long as we affirm that God is exhaustively absolute, personal, and revealed to us in Christ. Even Bauckham himself recognizes that the Jewish divine identity coincides with the “Hellenistic God-talk” which allows the author of Hebrews to use Hellenistic philosophical language of divine eternity [VII.1]. This is hardly surprising since LXX was the predominant OT Scripture of the NT writers and the early church. Hence, the same may be said with the Neo-Platonic terms such as σκιά and εἰκών. In addition, when Bauckham describes Christ as fully human and fully divine –in line with the Chalcedonian Christology– [VII] he employs the Greek category of nature. Since “the finite cannot contain the infinite”, we acknowledge that no theological category is perfect. Divine identity is simpler yet the Greek metaphysical categories –if used properly– may shed further light onto what divine identity means. What should be avoided is the improper use of Greek categories rather than abolishing their use altogether along with the associated church creeds throughout the ages.

For Bauckham, ‘God crucified’ is the climactic revelation of God’s identity. In what sense was God crucified? While it is the God-man who died on the cross, may we assign the suffering and death of Christ to his human nature alone? An affirmative answer seems to safeguard the impassability and immutability of God (e.g. WCF II.1) yet is difficult to reconcile with the inseparability of the dual nature of Christ. Alternatively, we may affirm with Bauckham that the God-man died, in what sense is God immutable (which Bauckham also affirms [VII.5, VII.10])? How should we redefine (or abandon) the immutability or impassability of God? Bauckham leaves these issues open-ended and concludes with theological reflections. While we are far from answering these questions, the following may be said. First, so far Reformed theology sees no problem in distinguishing Christ’s human and divine natures thereby attributing the suffering and death of Christ to his human nature alone while still affirming that it is the God-man who was crucified. Second, as God-man was crucified, God the Father was not (contra Patripassianism). While homoousios/perichoresis seems to be limited in this respect, how does the category of divine identity demonstrate the eternal unity between the Son and the Father in the cross? Third, while divine apatheia is a Stoic import and sub-biblical, it should be maintained that, in his pathos, God is not a victim of any external entity. Rather, such pathos is internal to the divine identity and revealed in the cross. Hence, God indeed suffers when the God-man was on the cross. But such suffering does not compromise divine immutability as process theology claims. Fourth, divine identification with suffering should not be the telos as Jürgen Moltmann and liberation theologians tend to portray. Bauckham correctly points out that the heart of suffering is the absence of God. Yet it should be stressed that such dereliction is ultimately the wages of sin whose power is conquered in the cross and resurrection [VIII.2]. Hence, sin is the root issue, not suffering. Fifth, just as the incarnation is a mystery, so is the event of God crucified. How incomprehensible his love and untraceable his ways are! There is no single category that can explain such mystery. Multiple categories may indeed be complementary to one another.

Despite its open-endedness, this book challenges our classical formulation of the hypostatic union of Christ. We hope that Bauckham will write a sequel on the ramifications of ‘God crucified’ to the classical Christology. Such dialogue will prove useful. We recommend this book to students of the Bible with ample knowledge on theology proper and Christology. It affirms the fact that Christology has not yet arrived until we “see him face-to-face”.  

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