Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bishop Wright and John 1:1-18

Bishop Wright makes several argument about his position from Scripture. Remember is argument is best framed by this quote:

no first-century Jew could think of a human being, far less than himself, as the incarnation of God. Jewish monotheism prohibits it; and even if it didn’t (If we take Alan Segal’s point about pluriformity within early Jewish God-talk), there is no actual model for it within Judaism. (Jesus’s Self Understanding)


Bishop Wright begins by stating that all title such as Christ, Son of Man, and Son of God only point to the Messiahship of Jesus, his vocation, rather than being the Second Person of the Trinity. This fact is generally granted for the title of Jesus except Son of God and perhaps Lord. More in-depth argumentation against the idea that the Son of God title means Second Person of the Trinity can be found in a 9 part series of posts by Rev. Jeff Meyers. I believe Rev. Meyers is arguing along a similar path as Bishop Wright with regards to the title ‘Son of God’. Now, I do think that the title Son of God refers to the divinity of Jesus, but I am simply going to grant his point here. I do not think that the self-knowledge of Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity hinges on the title Son of God. So I will just pass this point, but noting my disagreement for now. Perhaps in a future post series we can take that subject up.

The first point that any discussion of Jesus as a self-aware Second person of the Trinity should start is with John 1:1-18. This familiar passage gives us a clear picture of the Incarnation and is the traditional defense of Jesus as God. Bishop Wright of course deals with this passage.

The Word became flesh, and tabernacled in our midst’: eskenosen is of course a Temple-image, and if we understand John 1:1-18 in terms of its Jewish roots, and its parallels in, for example, Sirach 24, this should not surprise us. Word, Wisdom, Spirit and ultimately Temple and Torah—these are the themes which, in Judaism, speak of the one, true and living God active within the world in general and Israel in particular, promising future decisive personal action to save Israel and the world. These are the themes of the Prologue, and of the whole Gospel; and I suggest that they are also major themes in the Synoptics.


Bishop Wright seeks to make John 1 about a picture of the Temple. The Word tabernacles with us. I have no objection to the Word tabernacling with us, I have disagreement with the spin placed on it and the use of the other words. Bishop Wright takes ‘Word’ as a reference to 2TJ’s manner of speaking about the work of God. Wright’s reference to Sirach 24 is puzzeling as it speaks of Wisdom tabernacling and relates Wisdom to the Torah, but nothing about the Word. But here is where Wright’s methodology dominates his Christology. There are ways to use the Logos (the Greek of Word) that do not involve Wright’s 2TJ. For example the term ‘Word’ had a long Greek history. The Stoics, a major philosophical force in the first century used the term freely to mean the principle through which all things came to be and to which all returned. Hellenistic Jews used the term often to refer to Divine Reason. So the term obviously found its way into widespread Jewish usage too. John could be communicating here with the Greek philosophy of the age by calling out their Logos that created all things is actually God and with God and now has taken on flesh. It would fit more with the audience of John since it appear he is not directing his gospel to the First Century Jew.

Of course the other problem that Wright does not address in his on-line articles is that John (no matter whose reading one takes) is beginning with the Word who is God and with God. This Word is what takes on flesh. John begins with the eternal divine nature of Jesus and then tells us Jesus took flesh, the human nature. When we begin with the Second Person of the Trinity and move to that Person of the Trinity taking to himself a human nature, then it becomes hard to imagine a Jesus who is not self-conscious of his divine nature. In fact, the method of Wright to ask what a first century Jew could possible have thought is the exact opposite of the method of John in his gospel.

As for John 1:14 where the Word tabernacles among us somehow being a reference to the Temple which overthrows the centrality of persons and natures in Christology, I think there is a better explanation. John 1:14 seems to me to be alluding to the much repeated formula of God being our God, we being his people, and he dwelling among us. Leviticus 26:11-12 comes to mind. There we find out that the tabernacle should be among the people because He is our God and we His people, and He will walk among us. Jesus is fulfilling the picture the tabernacle gave us. I do think John 1:14 is referring to the picture of the tabernacle and the temple, but instead of reading John 1:14 as a First Century Jew and think of Jesus serving like the Temple as a way God works among his people, we ought to view the temple as a picture of Jesus. In short, it seems to me Wright wants to take his First Century Judaism and let that dominate his view of Jesus, and I think we should take out view of Jesus and let that dominate the view of Judaism.

In summary then I do not buy Bishop Wright’s explanation of John 1:1-18 because he seems to brush aside too much by claiming the Temple view, and because John is clearly beginning with the self away Second Person of the Trinity and taking to himself a human nature. This more than implies a divine-human who is more than self-aware. The only way to get to Wright’s self aware human who is unaware of his divine nature is to fall into Nestorianism by making two persons. The text does not allow it.

3 Comments:

Jay said...

I'm pretty sure your quote at the beginning of this post is exactly the argument that NT Wright is trying to refute in the article you're citing. Wright says that "systematicians have been implicitly warned off looking for actual material about Jesus . . . by the power of what is said again and again, not only in newspaper articles but in the academy: no first century Jew could think of a human being," etc. His point is that newspapers and the academy say these things, not that he says them or agrees with them. Indeed, the whole point of what follows (your quote is from the beginning of the paper) is to explain how Wright's view contrasts with what the newspapers and the academy say.

As the article comes to a close, Wright explains his view of how Jesus understood himself and his mission: "My case has been, and remains, that Jesus believed himself called to do and be things which, in the traditions to which he fell heir, only Israel's God, YHWH, was to do and be." In other words, Wright thinks that Jesus did consider himself to be God in the sense stated above, and thus disagrees with the statement from the beginning of the piece. At the same time, Wright also disagrees with the idea that Jesus was fully certain of his status as God incarnate, that he knew "he could be making a terrible, lunatic mistake." I think that's the position you have to argue against, assuming you disagree.

In light of this, I think Wright would fully agree with you that "Jesus is fullfilling the picture the tabernacle gave us." As Wright puts it, Jesus "was acting as a one-man Temple-substitute." This is one of the grounds on which Wright bases his view that Jesus was called to be things that only YHWH could be. As YHWH dwelt among his people through the Temple, so Jesus, in acting as a "Temple-substitute" was saying that "YHWH will dwell among his people through me." Only someone who believed himself to be God incarnate would say such a thing. Anyway, I don't think you're really disagreeing with Wright's interpretation of the Temple.

Where I do think Wright would disagree is your statement that "When we begin with the Second Person of the Trinity and move to that Person of the Trinity taking to himself a human nature, then it becomes hard to imagine a Jesus who is not self-conscious of his divine nature." I think Wright would say (1) John's Prologue doesn't say anything about "Second Person of the Trinity"; saying "the Word was God" and "the Word became flesh" doesn't indicate anything about self-consciousness; and (2) if we can imagine a divine being becoming incarnate as a human being, why is it so hard to imagine that incarnation involved a human, rather than a divine, self-concsiousness? It begs the question to say, because Jesus was God incarnate, he must have known he was God incarnate. The whole issue is whether Jesus, who Wright agrees is God incarnate, was fully aware of his divinity.

Those are my thoughts for now. Thanks for continuing this dialogue, which I at least find very interesting. I hope your other readers agree.

Lee said...

Wright's quote that Jesus believed himself to be called to do the things that God himself said he would do is in no way saying that Jesus considered himself to be God. I think that is the point of him stressing the temple and Word as ways God acted in ancient Israel. The Temple was not God, and neither was the Word in Wright's understanding. Thus, Jesus could do things God said he would do, but not be God at all. In fact, the explicit denial of Jesus knowing he was God makes it clear that Jesus did not believe himself to be the incarnation of God, but rather incarnation as in the senes of working the works of God. And as I have stated Wright's denial of self-knowledge requires one to fall into a two person view of Jesus rather than a one person-two natures view. I believe what I have to argue against is that Jesus had no self-knowledge of his divinity. I think John 1:1-18 shows a self-knowledge. I do agree with the tabernacling bit, but Wright uses it to sweep away everything else. His Jewish view of Word denies any reference to the Trinity in that passage, which I question.
The point about John beginning with the Word who is God and with God and then takes flesh implies self-knowledge is important. The beginning of John's gospel begins with the divine person taking flesh, not another person. If the person Jesus has no knowledge of his divine person then John is leading everyone astray at the beginning of this passage. It is the Second Person of the Trinity who becomes flesh. It is the opposite approach of Wright.

Thanks for your thoughts, I look forward to continuing this conversation.

Jay said...

Wright doesn't just say Jesus believed he was called to do things that only God could do, he says Jesus believed he was called to BE things which only God could BE. But maybe that's beside the point. It appears that you disagree with anything short of "Jesus knew he was the second person of the trinity." If I'm right about that, you definitely disagree with Wright's view of Jesus' self knowledge, which focuses heavily on Jesus vocation, even if (as I think) Wright includes in Jesus' calling "being" things that God is.

So, as you say, the real debate here is whether Wright's view requres a two-person view of Jesus, and, if so, whether that view is contrary to Scripture. What I need more clarification on is how John 1 "implies self-knowledge is important." Are you saying that because God's Word existed in the beginning, and was (by implication) a second person of the Trinity with full knowledge of who he was, he would have to retain that self-knowledge when he "became flesh" in Jesus? If so, I think that raises other questions--did Jesus know from the instant he was born that he was God? Did he retain all other attributes of the eternal Word? Anyway, my point is just that I need more explanation on why John 1 implies the importance of Jesus knowing with absolute certainty that he was God (because, of course, only God can know things with absolute certainty--but that's another issue).