Most Christians believe that Jesus is God and worship him as part of the Trinity. But what did the New Testament writers say about worshipping Jesus? Did they view him as God, as someone we should worship? Are Christians today guilty of what Dunn calls ‘Jesus-olatry‘?
In this new book by James D.G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity, Durham University and author of numerous ground-breaking works) he examines the key New Testament texts and the arguments of the most influential recent interpreters.
In somewhat dense academic prose Dunn articulates his ‘reservations’ concerning recent work by two senior scholars in Britain, Larry Hurtado (Edinburgh) and Richard Bauckham (St Andrews) who argue that Jesus was worshipped from the beginning of Palestinian Jewish Christianity as one who shared or was included in the identity of the one God of Israel (‘christological monotheism’, see Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, 2003, and Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 2008)
Dunn writes, ‘Bauckam argues that it does most justice to the New Testament texts and to the christology espoused by the first Christians to see them as identifying Jesus directly with the one God of Israel. In the light of our findings, it is appropriate to ask whether this new coinage of ‘divine identity’, and Bauckham’s thesis that the first Christians saw Jesus as sharing or included in the divine identity, is a helpful resolution to the tensions between the diverse ways in which Paul and the first Christians conceptualized the relationship of Jesus to God and to themselves. Bauckham offers this formula as a more satisfactory alternative to the standard distinction between a ‘functional’ and an ‘ontic’ christology, as providing a more satisfactory way of assessing the earliest christological reflection, within the matrix and traditions of Second Temple Judaism, than the explorations of its concepts of divine agents and heavenly intermediaries. But I have some reservations.’
Dunn’s first concern is with the language of ‘identity’. In traditional christology the concept of ‘person’ (God is three persons in one God) is highly problematic since our usual understanding of that term today is very different from the technical understanding of the Latin word persona, a term devised to provide a way of distinguishing between Father, Son and Spirit with in the Trinity. The Latin persona means basically a mask, as used by actors in a play which represented the character being played; and so by extension it came to denote the ‘character’ itself. Dunn thinks that ‘identity’ language runs the same risk.
Dunn asks, ‘what constitutes human/personal identity? Ethnic origin, country of birth and basic education, profession, family, friends hobbies…? If not ‘essence’ or ‘being’, then relationships. So how does that diversity in identity-composition work in relationship to Yahweh – the Creator, the Life-giver, the God of Israel, the Father and God of the Lord Jesus Christ, the final judge…?’
He concludes, ‘The New Testament writers are really quite careful at this point. Jesus is not the God of Israel. He is not the father. He is not Yahweh. An identification of Jesus with and as Yahweh was an early attempt to resolve the tensions indicated above; it was labelled ‘Modalism’, a form of ‘Monarchianism’ (the one God operating first as Father then as Son), and accounted a heresy.’ pp 141-142.
Dunn concludes his book with ‘The Answer‘,
‘If what has emerged in this inquiry is taken seriously, it soon becomes evident that Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry.That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I use the term ‘Jesus-olatry’ as in an important sense parallel or even close to ‘idolatry’. As Israel’s prophets pointed out on several occasions, the calamity of idolatry is that the idol is in effect taken to be the God to be worshipped. So the idol substitutes for God, takes the place of God. The worship due to God is absorbed by the idol. The danger of Jesus-olatry is similar: that Jesus has been substituted for God, has taken the place of the one creator God; Jesus is absorbing the worship due to God alone.’ p 147.
So Dunn effectively takes issue with the great christological statements of the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon and joins the ranks of the unitarians in affirming a simple monotheistic theology. But his conclusions have far reaching implications for orthodox Christianity which stands condemned as promoting the serious sin of idolatry in its worship of Jesus as God.
The other great monotheist faiths, Judaism and Islam, have always claimed that the worship of Jesus constitutes a denial of Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion, but Dunn in his conclusion seems reluctant to take on board the effectiveness of these critiques. I believe the only alternative religion that claims universality in its scope is Islam, which offers an appropriate evaluation of Jesus as Messiah, prophet, messenger and Word from God without falling into the errors of ‘Jesus-olatry’ (Christianity) or a denial of the divine mission of Jesus of Nazareth (Judaism).
All Christians should read this book, and Muslims too will find much to benefit their dawah.