In his first chapter in Paul and the Trinity, Wesley Hill reviews the literature of scholars like Dunn, McGrath, Hurtado, and Bauckham and how their attempt to address the question of Paul’s Christology: what relationship did Jesus have with God? For Dunn and McGrath, they regard Paul’s faith as axiomatically grounded in Jewish monotheism that necessitates a low
While I am sympathetic with Hill’s task to connect the New Testament with the Trinity by analyzing the relations between the three persons, I would suggest another move to be made: flipping the Christological question on
The Christological question is asked with the presumption “What relationship does Jesus have to God?” When we ask this type of question, we engage in a certain type of conceptual relationship between “Jesus” and “God” known as the figure-ground alignment.
In the figure-ground relationship, our perception of the figure is changing whereas
A similar figure-ground relationship has occurred in New Testament studies, exhibited in the work of Dunn and others. By taking Jewish monotheism as axiomatic, it treats the beliefs about “God” as possessing some fixed stated by which other references are to be understood as the figure. This is not an accident, but it is a pattern that is common with power relations: we are predisposed to consider the thoughts, interests, and values of those in power as having a fixed status by which everyone else must be understood. For instance, whites who study theology do not typically refer to their professed theology as “white theology,” but they refer to other theologies by how they differ from their own such as “black theology” or “liberation theology.” The interest and values of those in power obtain a certain normative status that makes them be treated with a fixed status by which everything is evaluated in terms of. Likewise, monotheism has customarily assigns to God, construed as the all-powerful redeemer of Israel that has no equal, the ground to the relationship to anyone or anything else, including Jesus.
But, what if what happened in Jesus created a disequilibrium in this figure-ground relationship? Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, demonstrated a great power and authority, which eventually became vindicated by God raising Him from the dead. What has happened is that Jesus has become an authority figure to the disciples but of quite a dramatic fashion. Whereas the talk about God’s authority could seem quite abstract, Jesus’ authority was very real and in their face. What if through this, the question the disciples asked differed. Rather than asking “What is the relationship of Jesus to God?” what if they instead asked “What is the relationship of God to this Jesus we know?”
In this case, God is the figure to the ground of Jesus. Instead of learning about Jesus by comparing Him to God, they learned about God by comparing Him to Jesus. Instead of asking questions about a high or low Christology, they would be asking questions instead about a high or low theology. A high theology renders the relationship of God to Jesus as one of distance, that God is still transcendentally far from the person Jesus. This is the move of Arianism. By contrast, a low theology renders the relationship of God to Jesus as one where God is on the same level as the person of Jesus.
Put differently, in this type of question, God in the explanans and Jesus is an the explanandum. Jesus is the explanation for God, rather than God the explanation for Jesus. However, it is important to clarify why type of explanation is offered. Jesus is not a metaphysical or causal explanation for God. Rather, Jesus is the explanation for God’s character/nature.
Nevertheless, God is still also understood as a metaphysical explanation for Jesus. John 1.1-18 is framed by both the bi-directional explanations: God is the metaphysical explanation of the Logos (v. 1) and the Son provides the epistemic explanation of God (v. 18).
This allows me to make my suggestion about a problem within New Testament scholarship. By treated Jewish faith as axiomatic for understanding Jesus, they have privileged metaphysical explanations over epistemic explanations. Then in so doing, they tried to answer a question about who Jesus is; the epistemic question becomes subjected to the metaphysical question.
For a brief demonstration, notice that in Phil. 2.9-11, the “direction” of the text moves from Jesus to God. There are two moves that occur here. Ther
But if the epistemic question is given priority, something else happens: it provides the place for the Holy Spirit in
In other words, by providing priority to the epistemic question of the NT that identifies God through Jesus, one also easily accommodates the Spirit to the possibility of an early form of Trinitarianism. Since Jesus and the Spirit are co-operative in the Gospel narrative traditions, then to ask how God is related to Jesus is to also ask God’s relationship to the Spirit. In other words, the Trinitarian question that Hill explores through discussion of relations in the NT would emerge from this question of the early Church: What is God’s relationship to Jesus?