Friday, April 02, 2010

Richard Bauckham on ontological, functional, and Trinitarian Christology

"The distinction commonly made between "functional" and "ontic" Christology has been, broadly, between early Christology in a Jewish context and patristic Christology which applied Greek philosophical categories of divine nature to Christ. Even when ontic Christology is seen to begin well within the confines of the New Testament, it is seen as the beginnings of the patristic attribution of divine nature to Christ. The assumption usually is that, whereas first-century Jewish monotheists could attribute divine "functions" to Jesus without difficulty since this would not infringe Jewish monotheism, they could not easily attribute divine "nature" to him without raising difficult issues for monotheism with which only later Trinitarian developments could cope (successfully or not). However, this is to misconstrue Jewish monotheism in Hellenistic terms as though it were primarily concerned with what divinity is-divine nature-rather than who YHWH, the unique God, is-divine identity. The whole category of divine identity and Jesus' inclusion in it has been fundamentally obscured by the alternative of "functional" and "ontic," understood to mean that either Christology speaks simply of what Jesus does or else it speaks of his divine nature. Once the category of divine identity replaces those of function and nature as the primary and comprehensive category for understanding both Jewish monotheism and early Christology, we can see that the New Testament's lack of concern with the divine nature of Christ is by no means an indication of a merely functional Christology. We can see that, throughout the New Testament texts, there is a clear and deliberate use of these characteristics of the unique divine identity to include Jesus in that identity. Once we have rid ourselves of the prejudice that high Christology must speak of Christ's divine nature, we can see the obvious fact that the Christology of divine identity common to the whole New Testament is the highest Christology of all. It identifies Jesus as intrinsic to who God is.

-Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 31


JB said...

So very true. Bauckham is a brilliant scholar; Jesus and the God of Israel is definitely one of my favorite books.

Anonymous said...


The problem with Bauckham is he goes through hoops to make his case when there is plainly contrary evidence. This is abundantly apparent in his treatment of angelic agents in early Jewish literature were he comes up with what I find to be absurd arguments (even James McGrath has said similar, though not quite as forcefully perhaps). For example with 11Q13, he suggests Psalm 8:7-8 be divided into two references, with one to Jehovah himself and one to Melchizedek. He does this because to have the text apply entirely to Melchizedek (as anyone reading it plainly sees it does)would entirely defeat his "divine identity" Christology (for a divine name text is applied to Melchizedek), but a simply reading of the text finds such a division utterly missing. His treatment of /The Apocalypse of Abraham/ is little better, suggesting that Yaheol should be read to mean little more (if any) than a name such as Jehu when applied to the angel, yet only glossing and failing to consider the full weight of Yahoel as the very name of God according to the same author (apparently doing so out the opinion that it was too sacred to write entirely).

While I readily admit in many respects Bauckham is a good scholar, I can not help but feel he puts his notions above all else and will look to defend them even in the face of the plainest evidence.


Mike Felker said...

Hey Dave, its difficult to for me to comment on those things because I haven't made it there in the book. But I definitely think you are on to something when Bauckham makes arguments when there is strong contrary evidence. Just to name one, he asserts that Hebrews 1:4's "name" is in reference to the divine name. This could be the case, but just about every commentator disagrees or neglects to affirm it. However, Bauckham simply states that it is "undeniable" without elaborating.

Second, I am a bit hesitant at this point on how we should view the non-biblical Jewish texts. I agree that they can give us great insight on Jewish thought at the time. But how far do we take this? I would just hesitate to put too much stock in these texts, since it is completely possible that non-biblical texts like these could go beyond the Scriptural grid of correct theology. In other words, if an ancient Jewish writer wrote non-inspired accounts in promoting rank polytheism, we obviously wouldn't incorporate such accounts in what we consider to be true monotheistic second temple Jewish thought.

But I have much more to read in this area, and not just Bauckham. I feel that it would be too premature for me to argue strongly for any of this at this point. If anything, Bauckham is giving me some great insights into focusing more on the identification of YHWH rather than the supposed ontological distinctions between Him and others.

Anonymous said...


On your second point, while the promotion of blatant polytheism is certainly one thing, the use of language by various writers over a period of time who in at least some cases certainly did not know each other (e.g. Philo and the Qumran community.) is something quite different. This is especially true when we find the very same things said of exalted agents in texts that are said of Christ in the NT... in such cases to interpret the latter as identifying the subject with God when the former does not (e.g. quoting OT texts with the divine name or "God" in them with the Almighty the subject and applying them to another) is simple bias in my opinion.

As the NT authors were Jews we should look to other Jewish texts to see how they expressed concepts and used language. To treat them in isolation is to shred them of all historical context and in doing so they lose much value.

I would strongly recommend reading Hurtado and McGrath as well, though your best bet is to pick up the Dead Sea Scrolls and read them cover to cover, as well as any other Jewish text you can get your hands on (fortunately you can get many online nowadays). You might try Google books as well, I know they have "limited previews" of the DSS... if you can go in and find 11Q13 that would be, in my opinion, your best place to start.


bossmanham said...

Hey Mike,

I was wondering if this is a good entry level book into Christology, or if you could recommend a good introductory text on the subject?

Mike Felker said...

It depends on who is reading it. The book is fairly technical and delves into a lot concerning Jewish monotheism. But this is something that I feel is extremely necessary but missing from a lot of books on Christology. With that said, this is so far the best book on Christology I have read. Second to this i'd probably recommend James White's "The Forgotten Trinity" (Most of the book is Christological) or Bowman's "Putting Jesus in His Place." The latter two are much less technical but I feel are missing some very important elements.

Who knows, maybe i'll write an entry level book on Christology! Right now that seems to be much of my focus in my studies.