Saturday, 19 March 2016

Critiqued: The Son of God: Three Views of the Identity of Jesus (1)

If like me you are interested in Christology and the ways in which the interpretation of Scripture is affected by the lenses theologians adopt through their respective traditions, and if like me you would like to be more informed of the various arguments out there in a context of respect, then this book is a GOLD MINE. I don't know about you, but I often feel a bit swept away by an author I am reading. 

Here, however, we have three authors superbly sparring and bringing their alternative readings, and it forces you (unless you are partisan) to take a small step back and think for yourself. It is also a golden opportunity for me to critique all three views for apparent inconsistencies and unwarranted assumptions as per my own personal quest. The book is excellently prefaced by James McGrath, who also points out the friendship between the authors, which highlights the potential for fruitful dialogue rather than a shouting match.

Charles Lee Irons kicks off with his main presentation, which I will be covering here. It is well written and focusses on some good points, although I think there are some flaws in his approach which I will be pointing out.

Irons kicks off on page 3 by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th Century New England Unitarian minister: "noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus". He then states: "Dixon and smith... Presumably would agree with him there." They never do.

On the following page he points out that the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are interconnected and inseparable. I think that is a point that most would broadly agree with, although, as we shall, his doctrine of the Trinity could be quite Augustinian. When Irons states for the first time that "God... gave him [Jesus] divine honor fitting for one who is eternally divine.... God exalted him -I scribbled a question in the margin that for me is a point I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer from hard-core Trinitarians -> [exalted] for the first time?

On page 6, Irons continues in his tactic to use loaded vocabulary: The "Son of God" title cannot be reduced to "Son of David" or "Messiah". It is true that the titles in Christ overlap without being identical, but Irons needs to be careful here, because are the other two titles he uses necessarily synonymous? By continuously throwing in words like "noxious exaggeration", "reduced", "mere", and so on, Irons is preparing both himself and his readers to not listen clearly to quite how the alternative views they are going to hear differ. Even within his own thinking it does not make much sense to talk about "reduced to" here, since Christ Himself fulfils all these roles. He is clearly desperate not to apply reductionist ideas to Christ, and I think fails to realise that this goal overlaps fully with both of his interlocutors.

On page 7, Irons lays out an argument that I find distinctly weak, because he reads a passage from the synoptic tradition where Jesus' identity is shown to be more than (or different to) a simplistic understanding of "Son of David". So if he's right in stating that this tradition states something correctly, why do I call the argumentation weak? The passage is based on Jesus' question to the Pharisees, which has a rhetorical climax that Irons misses, as he does not seem to fully understand the functional organisation of the rhetoric in Jesus' questioning of the Pharisees. There are three questions:

1. What do you think about the Christ?
2. Whose son is he? --> this is still part of the build-up, but here Irons interjects that the rhetorical climax is already revealed, thus diminishing the climax: "Yes, he is the son of David, but that cannot be all he is, for...". No. There are a few pages analysing how Jesus was shown to use rhetoric in my paper Trinitarian Interpretations, where I try to establish how, in line with general function of rhetoric, there is an unspoken form of required negative response, so obvious that it does not need stating. Whose son is he is not rhetorical, if it were, then the correct and obvious rhetoric response would be "no-one's son"! But this is a normal question requiring the normal answer.
3. How is it then that David calls him Lord?
When Irons now paraphrases: What ancestor calls his descendant "Lord", he seems to misplace the climax of the rhetorical questioning, which only arrives at #3, not #2, as Irons supposes.
The unfortunate conclusion in this paragraph of Irons is that "son of" = less than the person you are son of. Caution! Irons could be on very thin ice if he wants to demonstrate that in actual fact the Son is coequal with the Father.

On page 8, Irons seems weak again as he attempts to demonstrate a fundamental difference between Christ's sonship and the sonship of his disciples, stating that Jesus always makes the distinction of my Father and your Father, but never of "our Father", only, as Dustin Smith also later points out, Jesus does indeed state "our Father" in the Lord's prayer!

Irons soon gets to work on the charges of blasphemy to which Jesus was held answerable. I am not generally impressed by the blasphemy arguments, in part because the word "blasphemy" does not mean "to claim that you are Almighty God". Literally, the Greek word means "slander" and is impossibly translated elsewhere as a claim to ultimate divinity. With that in view, along with all the other clear distinctions made between Christ and God in the gospel of John, I argued in my paper that the John 10:33 passage could legitimately be translated "Make yourself god", rather than trying to replace God Almighty's functions or actually simply claim to be him (an argument bolstered by the fact that the word theos is anarthrous).

On page 9, Irons makes something of another messianic claimant (AD 131 - 135, a hundred years later, which leaves big fat wodge of assumptions that are presumably deemed unsignificant - same political climate, same number of followers, same threat over local unrest...), Simon bar Kosiba. My question concerning bar Kosiba: How did he treat the established religious authorities?

On page 10, Jesus is developed as the Revealer or Image of the Father. Since I am still going through Michael Heiser's Unseen Realm, I couldn't help thinking that this would have been really good to draw in Heiser's work on Genesis here, showing God's intention for man to be Yahweh's imagers on Earth, subdue it and govern it on his behalf as he would. No-one until Christ managed that. Irons also disses James Dunn's understanding that "there is more to God that what could be seen in and through Jesus" using Col 1:19 "in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" --> Here I really wanted to know what Irons thought of the kenosis of Philippians 2: if he sides with the giving up of certain divine prerogatives, then Irons can't include here that which the Kenosis of Phil 2 precludes, right? Of course maybe he does not treat Philippians 2 that way. We will no doubt see later, but the point is you can't argue a full-throttle Col 1:19 on the one hand, and then scale back when it suits you, so I am kind of hoping that Irons does not attempt that manoeuvre.

Irons concludes this section with "To see the Son is to see the Father". He seems to take this in a rather literal, wooden way, not recognising the poetic nature of John's writings designed to cause readers to reflect deeply.

Page 11 discusses pre-existence and the incarnation, and I was encouraged to see Irons' care to state that sonship of God, as a sacred relationship that was so scandalous it provoked the Jewish leadership to charge Jesus with blasphemy. --> THIS STILL IS THE CASE IN ISLAM! (Some Muslims confusingly argue that Christians are misguided in thinking that Christ is fully divine according to our own Scriptures, and yet also, on a separate battlefield, will claim that those same texts are in fact corrupted anyway).

Our first author now focusses on preexistence specifically in the Johannine literature, and seems to make another strange and unorthodox move with his use of "being": "the Word (the Logos) existed as a divine being distinct from God the Father". This is an interesting statement, as while most Trinitarian theologians are keen to highlight that God is a single being, (within that one being there are not three other beings, but three persons, or hypostases), I notice some other brilliant scholars saying similar things, including one of my favourites, Stephen Holmes, as in his Fuller lecture that I mention in the end of my Trinitarian Interpretations paper.

When Irons quotes John 1: "He was in the beginning with God", I noted as a point of interest in my margin that this "he" in some French bibles is actually a "she" (elle), since what is actually be referred to is THE WORD, which is the feminine word la parole. There is nothing inherently masculine in the Greek word, unless you want it there of course.

On the subject of "wanting" the text to say things it doesn't - and I don't think either Dixon or Smith, the other contributors to this great book, pick up on this - Irons is without doubt guilty of this at points on the question of pre-existence and exaltation. On page 11 he writes:

there are several passages where Jesus speaks of three phases of his existence: the time before he came into the world, his earthly ministry, and the time when he goes back to the Father. For example, he says, "I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going [back????] to the Father" (John 16:28). 

The first "back" is from Irons' interpretive position, supposedly preparing the reader for precisely that same clear reality in the text, where it is precisely missing.

OK - this was longer than I thought so I guess I should pause here for tonight!

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