Posts Tagged ‘Justin Martyr’

“The God Who Wasn’t There” and Jesus

April 26, 2009

Recently I’ve seen adverts and trailers all over the internet for a forthcoming film called “The God Who Wasn’t There“, which claims to do for religion what “Supersize Me” did for fast food. I checked it out, but I don’t think I’ll be parting with the Student Loan Company’s money to go and see it any time soon.

It really surprised me that the filmmakers claim that the early church were “unaware of the idea of a human Jesus” and (I surmise) that the gospel traditions that have Jesus being a real human being are therefore secondary. Logically, I guess, they must then proceed down the “Jesus never existed” avenue, which I really wasn’t expecting from something trying to portray itself as based on legitimate scholarship.

I’d be interested to know how the filmmakers substantiate their claim that the early church did not think of Jesus as being a human being, though. Usually the objection is the other way around – that Jesus’ earliest followers did not think he was a God!

Justin Martyr mentions in his second-century Dialogue with Trypho that he believes Christ to be both man and divine. Interestingly, he mentions that some “of his race” (either Christians, or Greeks more generally) struggle with the idea, but from the angle of ‘How could Jesus be divine?’ rather than ‘Was Jesus human?’.

Now assuredly, Trypho, [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father’s will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. For there are some, my friends, of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have [now] the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.
(Dialogue, 48:2 – emphasis mine)

Clement of Rome writes at the end of the first century AD that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham:

From him [Abraham] also was descended our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh…
1Clement 32

Of course, this is nothing that the New Testament authors have not already taught- Clement is alluding to Romans 9:5 which also calls Jesus “God”. Moments after describing Christ’s divine status and preeminence over all creation in Colossians 1, Paul can talk about his “body of flesh”, his afflictions and his death. The same divine-and-human Jesus is seen in Philippians 2. Disagree with the early church if you will, but don’t claim that they were unaware of the idea of a human Jesus, or, for that matter, of a divine Jesus.

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Scripture and Christology

April 20, 2009

I’ve been working on an essay for my Christology and Atonement module, and had one of the best, but broadest essay prompts ever: choose one particular doctrine of Christological controversy and show how it compels a particular reading of a text of scripture which could be read otherwise. Geeky, I know. I’ve also had a bit of trauma with it today, having found out the word limit is 500 words less than I had assumed, and therefore having to cut out John of Damascus and Leo the Great entirely from my essay, and paring Origen down to a soundbite. (Sorry, guys. We can chat more about your stuff in heaven!)

Anyway, I chose to look at the Arian controversy and Colossians 1:15, where Jesus is called the “firstborn of all creation”. In the fourth century, Arius taught that only God the Father was uncreated and eternal, and that therefore Jesus (the Word) was a created being who acts as a kind of demi-God – the agent through whom God creates and saves. His teachings were summed up – either by himself, his supporters, or his detractors – in the phrase “there was a time when he [Christ] was not”.  Arius claimed that his view was taught by scripture, and one of the texts he appealed to a lot (which is why I chose it) was Colossians 1:15:

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation

Arius understood the genitive “of all creation” firstly as a partitive genitive rather than a genitive of subordination. A partitive genitive suggests Christ belongs to the set of things “creation”, as the firstborn. So an analogous genitive might be a student who is “top of the class” – the student is a member of the class, as the top of it. However, this is not the only way to understand “of all creation” – for example, the NIV translates the phrase as a genitive of subordination with “firstborn over all creation“. An analogous genitive would be to say someone is the “teacher of the class” – the teacher is not a member of the class!

Secondly, Arius understood the word “firstborn” to refer to Christ’s temporal status – that he preceded everything else, but had a beginning in time at some point. He also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father, as well as the Son’s relationship to creation.

One of the things that surprised me in looking at some of the early Church writers on Colossians 1:15 was that many of them also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father. Justin Martyr for instance:

…we know Him to be the first-begotten (πρωτότοκος – lit. firstborn) of God…
(Dialogue with Trypho 100.1)

Theodoret of Cyrus:

Thus is he the firstborn of creation: not because he has a created sibling but because he was begotten before every creature

Notably, Athanasius denies this:

Accordingly it is nowhere written in the Scriptures, ‘the first-born of God,’ nor ‘the creature of God;’ but ‘Only-begotten’ and ‘Son’ and ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom,’ refer to Him as proper to the Father.
(Athanasius, Against the Arians 2.62)

And rightly so. To be fair to those who argued against Arius, a lot of them did do what seems to be the obvious thing and read on to the next few verses, which clearly distinguish Christ from the creation. However, I haven’t found a single ancient commentator who makes an appeal to the use of “firstborn” in Psalm 89:27 – “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” – which, according to Gordon Fee (Pauline Christology, pp.250-1) and Donald Macleod (The Person of Christ, p.57), had become a recognised Messianic title by the time Colossians was written. For Paul (or whoever – it is possible that Colossians 1:15-20 is a quote from an early hymn) to call Jesus the firstborn over all creation was to claim that Jesus was the Messiah and was the rightful heir and ruler of creation. It’s not a statement about coming into being or being “eternally begotten” at all.

So why is it that I can find this idea only in modern commentaries? Eduard Schweizer (The Letter to the Colossians, pp.251ff.) raises an interesting idea – it is because Paul’s world of ideas has been largely lost to Greek commentators by the 3rd/4th centuries; and so they were essentially unaware of the Jewish background of Messianic titles in this text (One might object that Paul may have been writing to a Gentile church – I’m with those who think it likely that Paul is quoting a bit of a hymn here that may well have been written by a Jewish-background Christian). This made it possible to interpret things like “firstborn of all creation” in a way that Paul didn’t mean. Of course, Arius had some other texts, and some philosophical presuppositions about what it means to be a monotheist as well, but it seems like a loss of touch with the world of ideas of the New Testament may also be partly to blame in allowing him to develop a heretical interpretation of this verse. A first-century Jew would never have thought of “firstborn of all creation” as referring to time, but to a position of honour and status promised to the Messiah in the Psalms.

Which brings me to a question I was chatting about on Saturday with another Christian theology student: How important is it to do the contextual and “critical” study of Biblical texts in terms of Christian reading of Scripture? We’d both noticed rather a lot of academic work that only seemed concerned with “What did this mean to the original writer/audience?” and agreed that this wasn’t a good approach for e.g. a sermon, or bible study; or even for doing systematic theology. We both agreed, too, that it was necessary to work out the implications for us, and that, believing the Scriptures to be God’s word as well, those implications are authoritative. But I think the close initial study of the text in terms of its historical context, and the world of ideas in which it makes sense, is important before we move on to applied or systematic theology. It doesn’t give us all of the answer, but maybe it can help prevent us from getting the wrong answer.