Wednesday, 7 January 2015

John 8:58, Dale Tuggy takes on my questions on John 8 (iii)

Dale Tuggy has examined on his Trinities podcast the question of pre-existence, before looking at various scholars' responses to John 8:58, especially that of Thomas Belsham in episode 63. This prompted me to ask a question about when the current interpretation came about, and this "got me started on a quest", says Tuggy. He thus commits his 66th episode to probing the implied connections we often hear surrounding readings of John 8:58 from the pulpit and in popular Christian literature. This also follows on from two other posts on my blog, part 1 and part 2. Here is part 3, sorry it is a bit long and notey. There will also be a small extra post on the John 8:59, which was mentioned at the end of the podcast, and I feel less related to my original question, but still worth a separate mention.

What I found really insightful was the picture Tuggy sketched of the "Logos theologians" (2nd-3rd centuries, pre-Nicea) and the way he interacts with the next question of listener, "Sarah", when she quotes an interesting passage in Justin Martyr's writings (First Apology), recounting the Son of God speaking on God's behalf, as both "an angel and an apostle": an angel of God spake to Moses. the son of God, who is called both angel and apostle. After this, Irenaeus focuses in on the question of Jesus' pre-existence, and does use John 8:58 to emphasise this point.

Reminder: Dr Dustin Smith showed how it was ancient Jewish custom to talk about future events in the past tense that are determined in the mind and heart of God. We are also reminded that we all know this and apply this rule almost unconsciously to the Old Testament prophecies, e.g. He WAS PIERCED for our transgressions.

The logos theory came first. It was quite controversial. "Of course, this is not what the gospel of John is saying at all, there is no direct interaction between Jesus and Abraham recorded there", says Tuggy.
God now (in the 2nd and 3rd centuries) is seen to interact with creation through a go-between, none other than the Logos in John 1, a "pre-human" Jesus. Philo of Alexandria had a very transcendent view of God, and had clear platonic views. In the Scriptures that describe "god" being seen, these sightings had to be Jesus, as no-one can see God and live. So the Logos theologians were responsible for developing a theology first of indirect interaction of the transcendent God through his pre-existent son. (me: Remember how important Proverbs 8 was as a proof-text for the pro-Nicene movement, but which includes in v21: The LORD possessed/fathered/created me [wisdom] at the beginning of his work(s) - some of the Logos theologians seem to take this to mean Jesus was created first, but still a very long time ago).

So Irenaeus, Origen, and others begin to refer to this verse as support for the pre-existence of Christ. But the interesting point is what they are attempting to draw from this verse. Is it the twofold argument of both Jesus pre-existing and Jesus simply is Yahweh, doing "I AM" wordplay? (remember, we are not assuming that John himself intended any of this, although I suspect Bart Ehrman might disagree - since he claims very different christologies between the gospel writers)

1. I am God myself.
2. I have a timeless existence, a divine attribute, implying that I am god myself
3. I am implying that I have existed a long time, since before Abraham.

Novation is another early theologian, from the mid 200s, and he examined the idea of immortality for men, deification of man from Christ (not even "via"). When he refers to John 8:58 he is definitely affirming that Christ pre-existed, but he implies more than that, providing early arguments for Christ's two natures.
In fact, quite a lot of what he says sounds a bit like he is Trinitarian, but when you get to the end of Novatian's work, you realise that still, the one true God is the Father. For him, however, Jesus was
i) foreknown and
ii) divine and
iii) has two natures.

I gather from Dale that Novation was writing in Latin, and Latin apparently does not have or did not have the word "the", hence the ambiguity around "deus" (God/divine).

(Here I think Dale makes a bit of a mistake, though, or at least I am not at all sure he can so casually state comprehensible use of the definite article in Koine Greek. I hope one day to blog on this serious textual problem!)

Surprising omissions for such a "clear" text: The Arian controversy makes no reference to John 8:58, nor does Augustin On the Trinity, or the City of God, nor does Hansen's Search for the Christian doctrine of God, the best history resource of the Nicene controversy.

Finally finds a text from a 7th century forgery claiming to be written by Matthew, but that is a bit of a half-funny aside that Dale includes.

John Calvin's commentary, based on Chrisostoms Homily 55 (AD 355 - 4??). Like Novation, it attempts to prove that Jesus is divine and has eternal existence, two natures.

Augustin, bishop of Hippo: Before Abraham, I am - not "was". "Was" and "will be" he knows not. "From eternity begotten". "This his name he told to Moses, You shall say to them he that IS has sent me to you." Augustin is a clear Trinitarian, on the heels of Nicea.

Dale's conclusion: So clearly by the early 400s, when Augustin is making his comments about John and 1st John, from that time on it's part of catholic tradition to see Jesus not merely alluding to the statement of God to Moses, but really asserting that he has eternal existence and thereby asserting that he is fully divine. Is this a discovery?

For Dale this is a classic case of Eisegesis, reading into it what you want to find there rather than drawing out what is actually there, expounding what the author actually meant.

The last part of this podcast I felt strayed back to more contemporary analysis that would with retrospect be better placed, perhaps, in the Belcham episode 63, but it is relevant to our interpretations of John 8:59. Let's look at that quickly in the next post.

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