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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

God as Subject

In a memorable sentence, Nils Dahl described ‘God’ as ‘The Neglected Factor in New Testament Theology’ (1991: 153–63). He was referring to the fact that ‘God’ is the great unstated axiom and assumption of the NT writers. They did not need to expound or argue for a belief in God. All their readers knew (or thought they knew) who or what the word referred to. ‘God’ was uncontroversial, a semiotic sign of immeasurable significance, but so familiar that the significance rarely needed to be unpacked. In fact, the term ‘God’ is one of the most frequently recurring words in the NT, well ahead of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’, for example. But reference is to God as a constant presence and primary factor in human existence, which is so pervasive as not to require any further or fuller articulation.

Consequently, a NT theology of God, theology in the narrow sense, has to work in the interstices and between the lines, to spell out what was so obvious to the NT writers that it need not be stated, to write out the earliest Christians' A, B, C with what would have seemed to many of them pedantic tautology. A NT theology of God has perforce to work with the allusions and inferences of the text, whether at an inter-textual level or as an attempt to illuminate the theology of the writers themselves. This also means that a NT theology of God needs to fill out the allusions and assumptions by reference to the earliest Christians' own definitive Scriptures—subsequently known as the Old Testament. On this subject NT theology is dependent on and begins as OT theology. That God is creator of all, has revealed himself in different ways, including through inspiration and creation, and will exercise final judgement over his creation is simply taken over as a basic conviction taught by the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, and too obvious for most NT writers to require any elaboration. The assumptions, controversial for other religious traditions and for modernist Christianity, and their taken-for-granted nature are clear enough from such texts as Matt. 6: 30; Heb. 1: 1, and Rom. 3: 6.

The most striking feature of the first Christians' theological heritage was the further axiomatic feature of Jewish belief that God is one—expressed in the classic and fundamental Jewish creed, the Shema‘: ‘The Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deut. 6: 4). In a typically polytheistic ancient Near East, this was the most distinctive feature of OT theology. Whether or not ‘monotheism’ is the most accurate description of early Jewish belief, the belief that God is ‘one’, or that there is (only) one God, was evidently taken equally as bedrock by the NT writers (e.g. Mark 12: 29; Rom. 3: 29–30; 1 Tim. 2: 5; Jas. 2: 19). It is at this point, however, that we stumble upon the first problematic of NT theology: that several NT writers seem to want to redefine their monotheism to make room for Jesus.

As already observed, it is the common focus on and devotion to Jesus Christ which gave the NT its unifying identity. This included, of course, the memory of Jesus' mission, preserved in the traditions of what Jesus did and said in the Gospels. Included also is the fundamental assertion that Jesus was/is the Christ, the one who fulfilled Jewish hopes of an anointed figure who would ‘restore the kingdom to Israel’ (Acts 1: 5). The earliest necessity to make this apologetic case, that one who had been crucified was none the less God's anointed, is still echoed in Matthew's ‘fulfilment quotations’ (e.g. 1: 22–3; 2: 15; 8: 17; 12: 17–21; 21: 4–5) and Luke's portrayal in Luke 24: 25–7, 44–6, and Acts (e.g. 8: 32–5; 17: 11). But already in the Pauline letters the argument is assumed to be as good as won, and ‘Christ’ is already more or less a proper name—Jesus Christ. So despite the awkwardness of asserting the messiahship of one executed by crucifixion (1 Cor. 1: 23), there is nothing here to disturb the heritage of OT theology.

More challenging was the conviction, again a fundamental unifying feature of NT theology, that God had raised Jesus from the dead. But that disrupted the time-frame more than the God-frame of earliest Christian perception (see further below). The implications for theology only begin to become clear when the further conviction is taken into account—that God had exalted the risen Jesus to his right hand. Here the theological dynamic seems to have been twofold: first, the influence of the key OT passage, Ps. 110: 1 in particular—‘The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool” ’ (Mark 14: 62; Acts 2: 34–5; 1 Cor. 15: 25; Heb. 1: 3; 1 Pet. 3: 22)—and second, the impact of earliest Christian experience, presumably particularly in worship, understood in terms of the Spirit of God active in their hearts (e.g. Phil. 3: 3; John 4: 23–4), but also as the risen and exalted Christ active in their midst (in Acts 3–4 through his name). The most obvious expressions of this are Paul's characteristic talk of being ‘in Christ’, plus passages like Rom. 8: 9–10 and Gal. 2: 20, and John's equally characteristic imagery of mutual indwelling (classically John 15: 1–10).

Here again, these claims to be experiencing in the present what OT prophets had longed for might not have been so disturbing to Israel's belief in God as one. After all, the OT included accounts of Enoch and Elijah being taken to heaven (Gen. 5: 24; 2 Kgs. 2: 11–12), and later reflection gave them exalted roles in heaven. And neither Jesus nor Paul had any difficulty in envisaging the disciples/saints sharing in the final judgement—as judges (Matt. 19: 28; 1 Cor. 6: 2). But in addition, across a broad front, we see the NT writers pressing to express their faith in Jesus Christ in terms which seem to go beyond anything which had previously been expressed in regard to someone who had recently died.

Matthew does not hesitate to express the significance of Jesus in terms of divine presence: Jesus is to be called ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ (Matt. 1: 23); he promises to be in the midst of any gathering of two or three of his disciples (18: 20); he has been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’, and will be with his disciples always (28: 18–20).

John frames his Gospel with a twofold confession that Jesus is God: the creating Word who is God, who became flesh in Jesus, the only God (the best reading) in the bosom of the Father (John 1: 1, 14, 18); the confession of Thomas as the climax of the Gospel—‘my Lord and my God’ (20: 28). John makes no attempt to deny the charge levelled against the Johannine Jesus: that he made himself equal with God, that he made himself God (5: 18; 10: 33).

Hebrews likewise does not hesitate to cite a psalm as addressed to Jesus as ‘God’ (Heb. 1: 8), and the Revelation of John famously portrays the Lamb sharing the throne of God (Rev. 7: 17; 22: 1, 3).

But in many ways the most striking language is to be found in Paul's letters. He includes Christ with God in his prayers and benedictions. Grace and peace come from ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (e.g. Rom. 1: 7; 1 Cor. 1: 3; Gal. 1: 3). He refers texts which speak of YHWH as ‘Lord’ to Jesus, most notably the emphatically monotheistic affirmation of Isa. 45: 21–3 in Phil. 2: 10–11. The OT ‘day of the Lord’, referring to the expectation of divine judgement (e.g. Amos 5: 18–20; Joel 2: 1–2, 11, 31), is now, without any sense of inappropriateness, ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (e.g. 1 Cor. 1: 8; 1 Thess. 5: 2; Phil. 1: 10). The Spirit of God is now referred to, again without any sense of inappropriateness, as the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the Son (Rom. 8: 9; Gal. 4: 6; Phil. 1: 19); the risen Christ can be identified with ‘the life-giving Spirit’ (1 Cor. 15: 45).

Most striking of all however is the formula Paul crafts, or even quotes, in 1 Cor. 8: 5–6:

Even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth,as indeed there are gods many and lords many,yet for us there is one God, the Father,from whom all things and we for him,and one Lord Jesus Christ,through whom all things and we through him.

Here we see clearly taken up the Shema‘, Israel's confession of God as one, as one Lord, over against all convictions of polytheistic neighbours. But most astonishing is what can hardly be anything other than a conscious reshaping of that fundamental assertion of Israel's monotheism. In this version, the Shema is enlarged (what is the best word to use?) to include Christ within it—the oneness of God as Lord confessed now as embracing both the Father and Jesus Christ.

It is at such a point that the debate becomes relevant as to how NT theology, rightly so called, is to be defined. A definition in terms of a historical description of what the NT writers thought and/or intended to write will tend to focus on how such language could and did emerge, and on how it was understood within the limited horizons of the conceptualities of the day. In the case of Paul, in particular, it becomes appropriate to ask whether he intended to convey what subsequent generations heard him to say. Did he, for example, refrain from speaking of Jesus as ‘God’?—the punctuation of Rom. 9: 5 is a famous crux. How significant is it that he never addressed the normal prayer terms (deomai, deēsis) to Christ, but only to God? Similarly in Paul, where the normal worship terms appear, only God is worshipped; only God gives the Spirit; thanks are delivered to God through Christ. How significant is it that the Paul who can refer OT YHWH texts to Christ can also speak of ‘the God…of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (e.g. Rom. 15: 6; 2 Cor. 1: 3; 11: 31)? Perhaps most noteworthy of all is the absence of any hint that the language reviewed in the previous two paragraphs caused any surprise or offence among Shema-confessing Jewish members of the churches to which Paul wrote (in contrast to the later John 5: 18 and 10: 33).

It would appear, then, that the task of NT theology in its role of trying to explicate how the distinctives of Christian theology (in this case Christology) emerged has to proceed with great care. What seem to be obvious implications, with the benefit of hindsight, may need to be reckoned, initially at least, as the hyperbole of worship or the flourish of rhetoric, and seen as such when they were initially set down in writing.

NT theology as canonical theology, on the other hand, can pay less attention to any reserve Paul may have expressed, since worship of Jesus as God seems to be less inhibited elsewhere, in John's Gospel and the Revelation of John. And when NT theology is seen as the initial statement of and first contribution to Christian theology, the Wisdom/Logos Christology of passages like John 1: 1–18; Col. 1: 15–20; and Heb. 1: 1–4 becomes important as pointing the way forward for the developing Christology of the second and third centuries, just as the NT's Father–Son language and the subordinationist language of 1 Cor. 15: 24–8 become fundamental in the structure of the classic Christology of the creeds and subsequent confessions.

Whatever the refinements of the debate about the function of NT theology, it remains clear that earliest Christian belief regarding Christ is what gave definitive shape to Christianity and its New Testament. It was NT Christology which above all proved incapable of being held within the framework of Christianity's parent religion, the religion of Israel, Judaism, or, alternatively expressed, of OT theology seen in its own right and not simply as a tributary of NT or Christian theology. And it is this feature of Christian theology, in its refined form as Trinitarian theology, God as one but three, which remains the chief stumbling-block in inter-faith dialogue, with Judaism and Islam especially. However defined, then, Christology forms the distinctive heart of NT theology.

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