One God, the Father and One Lord, Jesus Christ

It is a commonplace in St. Paul’s theology for the apostle to refer to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as a unified phrase (cf. Rom 1:4, 7; 5:1, 11; 6:23; 7:25; 8:39; 15:6, 30; 16:20; 1 Cor 1:2-3, 9-10; 8:6; 15:57; 2 Cor 1:2-3; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2-3, 17; 5:20; 6:23; Phi 1:2; 2:11; Col 1:3; 1 Thess 1:1, 3; 5:9; 2 Thess 1:1-2, 12; 2:16; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Phil 1:3).  Within the context of 1 Corinthians 8:6, St. Paul makes this formulation based on integrating Christ into the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4.  This formulation ultimately became the basis for the phraseology of the Nicene Creed.  The relationship between these two persons, the Father and Christ, and what this relationship reflects about the divinity of Christ himself has been the subject of much modern speculation.  An older consensus of both believing and unbelieving scholarship attempted to frame this usage within an evolutionary chain of development in the development of Christology and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  This model, however, presumes that the Second Temple Judaism practiced by the apostles was characterized by unitarian monotheism.

As described in last week’s post, unitarian monotheism is not an adequate description of the ancient religion of Israel nor of Second Temple Judaism.  Ancient religions of the Mediterranean basin and the Levant, including Israelite religion, were united on a variety of basic facts in their vision of the spiritual world.  These facts included the existence of numerous divine beings that existed under the rulership of a most high God, that some of these powers were malign, that at some point in the past divine wrath had expressed itself in the form of a flood, that surrounding that event there had been a part human, part divine race of giant tyrants against whom a war was raged, and many more besides.  While much of this was rejected by later Rabbinic Judaism in favor of a simpler unitarian monotheism with a greater moral than spiritual emphasis, none of these conceptions was directly denied in the ancient Israelite or Second Temple periods.  Rather, these were accepted as reality by Israelites and later Judeans, but were re-conceptualized within a spiritual and physical created order under the reign of Yahweh, the God of Israel.  The other spiritual powers were seen as creations of Yahweh to serve as his divine council, some of whom at various points rebelled.  The great heroes and men of renown, part human and part divine, were reconceived as demonic tyrants and their creation seen to be a demonic act of angelic apostasy.  The flood was not a result of divine peevishness or rage, but of Yahweh’s desire to purify his creation from the corruption brought about by both fallen spiritual powers and humanity.

One of these elements taken as spiritual fact but reconceived relates to the relationship of Yahweh to his divine council.  All ancient religion of the Mediterranean and the Levant acknowledged the existence of such a council of divine beings.  In fact, the number of members of Yahweh’s council, 70 or 72, established in Deuteronomy 32:8 and Genesis 10, parallels the number of members of the divine council in Canaanite conceptions of that council.  Another common element is the conception that beneath the authority of the most high God, the council is presided over by another person who is conceived of as a son of the most high God.  In Canaanite religion, these figures were El and his son Baal.  In Greek religion, these figures were Chronos and Zeus.  Parallels exist within all of the ancient religious beliefs of the region.  The stories of the ascent of Baal, Zeus, and their parallels to this exalted position presiding over the divine council are formative stories for the religion of their respective cultures.

One common element that unites all of these mythological stories outside of Israel is that the being who ascends to preside in the council was not originally in that position.  Not only that they were glorified to it, but that they ascended by means of violence or rebellion.  Zeus attacked his father and imprisoned him, along with the other titans, in Tartarus.  Baal slays Yam and Mot and is enthroned at the head of the council after leading a successful rebellion to overthrow its previous leadership.  Within the pages of scripture, these rebellions in the divine council are acknowledged, though once again reconceived.  First and foremost, the rebellious members of the council did not succeed in overthrowing the rule of Yahweh and were instead thrown down.  Ezekiel directly parallels the story of Baal’s divine rebellion with the defeat and throwing down of the devil in Eden (Ezek 28:12-19).  By the time of the New Testament writings the identification of these divine usurpers with the Devil was firmly set within Second Temple Jewish understandings.  It is reflected frequently in the New Testament text where, for example, a slightly corrupted form of one of Baal’s titles is used as a title for the prince of demons (Matt 10:25; 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15, 18-19).  Zeus is directly identified with Satan (Rev 2:13).  St. Peter identifies the place of imprisonment of the rebel angels from the time of Noah as Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4).

The second major difference in the conception of ancient Israel and Judea is that in addition to Yahweh being the most high God, it is Yahweh himself who presides over the divine council.  This is not a denial of the idea that there are two different divine roles.  Rather, it is a belief in a second hypostasis, a second person, who is also Yahweh but presides over the council as the divine Son.  This second hypostasis is the Yahweh who is seen throughout the Hebrew scriptures, with his divine Father remaining unseen and unseeable by human persons.  He is referred to as the Angel of the Lord and the Word of God.  The latter identification became very common in the Second Temple period such that the Aramaic Targums, whenever Yahweh was encountered visibly, inserted the Aramaic term ‘Memra’ or word into the text as explanatory.  He appears in several significant passages of the Hebrew scriptures in this role as presiding over the council.  It is this figure whom the New Testament writers teach has become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.

One of these texts is Psalm 82 (81 in the Greek).  This Psalm prophetically describes a scene in which Yahweh who presides over the divine council is enthroned and issues judgment against the sons of God to whom the nations had been assigned in Deuteronomy 32:8.  They have not served Yahweh nor have they governed justly.  Rather, they have brought about wickedness on the earth and sought to be worshipped themselves as gods by the nations that Yahweh, the God of Israel, had assigned them to govern.  There it is said that they will die like men, they will be defeated and destroyed.  All of this will happen when God arises (anasta) to judge the earth.  At which point, his inheritance will be not only Israel, but all of the nations (82:8).

Christ himself quotes this text in John 10:35-36.  Christ has been accused of blasphemy and the Judeans are prepared to stone him for calling himself the Son of God.  This last term can have several meanings, including that Jesus is the Messiah.  Here, however, what occasions the charge of blasphemy is Christ’s statement that he and the Father are one.  It is clear here that they understand Jesus to be claiming to be the Son of God who presides in the divine council, and he reaffirms that this is true by quoting Psalm 82.  He points out that in the Psalm, those beings are called gods to whom the Word of God came.  This is St. John’s favored term for the preincarnate Christ, drawn from the ‘memra’ theology of the Targums.  Christ’s response is therefore clear, if the members of the divine council are called gods and sons of the Most High, then why would it be blasphemy for the Word himself to call himself the Son of God?  His opponents clearly understand exactly who Christ is claiming to be, as they again seek to arrest and kill him.

Another of these texts is Daniel 7:9-14.  Daniel’s vision in this passage is a reworking of a scene from the Baal cycle.  At the end of the Baal cycle, after he has rebelled against the former leadership of the divine council, Baal is brought before his father El for a coronation.  He is enthroned and proceeds to rule over the whole world.  The understanding of the Judean people, however, is of course that the Devil’s attempted revolt was a failure and he was cast down to the underworld with the dead.  In this picture, Yahweh is described enthroned using tropes common for describing the most high God in all religions.  Then a second figure is introduced, who looks to Daniel like a human person.  This human person is riding on clouds, a traditional depiction of Baal, which in other places is directly ascribed to Yahweh himself, over against Baal (cf. Ps 104/103).  This vision, therefore, depicts a second hypostasis of Yahweh, one who is manifest as a human person.  This vision, as it is interpreted to Daniel, concerns the latter days as this figure is enthroned and given a kingdom which will have no end.

Again, Christ cites this text in relation to himself.  As described in Mark 14:61-63, as Christ stands trial before the high priest, he makes no response to the many and strange accusations being made against him by false witnesses.  When the high priest directly asks him, however, whether he is the Messiah, Christ replies that he is.  He then goes farther, however, by telling the high priest that he will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.”  Here Christ is identifying himself as this second Yahweh figure having come into the world as man.  Once again, the high priest’s immediate response is to accuse Christ of blasphemy and to tear his clothes.  Merely claiming to be the Messiah wasn’t blasphemy in the first century AD.  It was an unfortunately common occurrence.  Claiming, however, to be the God of Israel obviously was.  It is not a coincidence that Christ ascends into heaven accompanied by clouds and that this event is interpreted as his enthronement (cf. Acts 1:9; 2:34-36).

The religious narratives of the nations can thereby be seen to be false gospels.  They are stories of victories which never took place and which were, rather, defeats.  They ascribe a great victory over the ruling spiritual powers to rebellious spiritual powers who were judged and thrown down rather than victorious.  The true gospel, the story of Christ’s victory, begins with Yahweh, God the Son, descending from the glory which he shared with the Father eternally (John 17:5) to be made man.  The incarnate Son of God then waged warfare against the hostile spiritual powers oppressing humanity, against the power of sin, and against death itself.  Arising victorious, he ascended back to his former estate, bearing with him our shared humanity, and is enthroned in the heavens over a kingdom without end.  “‘He ascended’ what does it mean if not that he had also descended into the lower regions, that is the earth?  The one who had descended is also the one who has ascended above all of the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10).

9 comments:

  1. Thank you Father Stephen, as always.

    “unitarian monotheism is not an adequate description of the ancient religion of Israel nor of Second Temple Judaism”
    “While much of this [multiple divine beings] was rejected by later Rabbinic Judaism in favor of a simpler unitarian monotheism with a greater moral than spiritual emphasis, none of these conceptions was directly denied in the ancient Israelite or Second Temple periods”

    I understand what you are saying here, but I still need some clarification to reassemble what I was previously taught. We were told that the Jewish people (with no distinction between Judeans and Israel, nor mention of Second Temple Judaism) expected the Messiah to be an earthly man, akin to David (and I recall something about Hezekiah, though I don’t remember exactly what was said). Did the people of Second Temple Judaism (the ones who sought to kill Jesus) believe that the Messiah would be this second hypostasis of Yahweh, the divine Son? Yet they called Jesus a blasphemer and sought to kill Him when He brought to their attention that He was the Messiah, in accord with the OT verses they were well acquainted with. I am not sure who they expected the Messiah to be.

    1. To be honest, it varied. There were some who believed the Messiah would be simply a man descended from David, in the mold of Judas Maccabeus or John Hyrcanus. There were also some who believed that the second hypostasis of Yahweh figure would be the Messiah. For example, the latter portions of 1 Enoch identify the Son of Man with the Messiah. Likewise, some of the Second Temple Jewish literature that speaks about the second Yahweh figure refers to him as ‘David’, which may or may not mean that he is the historical David exalted, but definitely indicates that he is the Messiah. There was a lot of speculation about who the second Yahweh figure of the Hebrew scriptures was in the Second Temple period. The simplest definition of initial Christianity is the belief that this divine person had become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The earliest confession is not that Jesus is Messiah but that Jesus is Lord.

      The variety of understanding of the second Yahweh figure play themselves out, then, in the early heresies. There were those who thought that this second figure was an exalted angelic being (i.e. the Metatron) and you get Arianism. There were those who thought it was an exalted human being, and you get adoptionist Christologies. Etc. etc.

  2. Father Stephen,

    I have been reading your recent blog posts with much interest. I am inquiring about Orthodoxy and have been for some time.

    Your deep understanding of the Old Testament has made me wonder a specific question: how much is Christianity generally, and Orthodoxy specifically, dependent on the revelation of the Old Testament being “right”?

    I’ll give an example. In many of these posts you have discussed how the Old Testament ideas parallel those in the cultures around them, often with a Yaweh-ish twist. How do the Orthodox understanding these things? In what way, given the parallels, can the Old Testament revelation be said to be an “accurate” reflection of God, given that they seem clearly influenced by neighboring cultures?

    Did the ancient Israelites just take their current myths and appropriate them to a true understanding of God and the spiritual cosmos? Do the Orthodox believe that the neighboring cultures share a common true revelation, but that the neighboring cultures’ myths were corrupted over time and Israel’s stayed pure?

    I guess reading your blogs helps me see that a plausible narrative of the Old Testament is that it is heavily influenced by its cultural time and place. How then do we read a true revelatory spirit into the text? I’m trying to understand and seek God, but the composition of the Old Testament and its changing ideas (about God, the dualism of God/Devil, etc.) are a stumbling block for me, and I’d love your thoughts on this.

    1. There are a couple of important points brought to light by your question, and they’re related. First, when interacting with both the Old and New Testaments, to understand them, we can’t operate from our modern, materialist mindset. All of us have been brought up with this mindset and so we assume things that the Biblical authors, and the communities in which they lived and worshipped, didn’t assume, or even conceive of. For example, we’ve been brought up to think that the ‘mythology’ of ancient culture is pure fiction. Weird stories told by primitive people who didn’t understand science to explain the physical, material world around them, which they couldn’t understand. We think then that the purpose of the Bible was for God to explain all of these things to these poor, benighted Bronze Age people. So we ignore their silly myths and then we give the Old Testament in particular a very modernist reading and expect it to explain the physical, material world from an infallible perspective, i.e. a divine science textbook, for example. This is because we’ve been raised to think that the material world is really all there is. Sure, religious folks will make allowance for there being a God somewhere and that people who have died are off somewhere with him so we’ll see them again, but even those beliefs seem burdensome and require some kind of physical evidence if we aren’t going to be constantly plagued by doubt.

      This arrives at the second important point, which is what revelation is. The truth is, ancient people understood reality better than we do in our modern era, rather than the opposite. This is true because they regularly interacted with the invisible spiritual world that surrounds us at all times. These ancient religions, some of which, for example many forms of Hinduism, have even survived until our times, reflect the actual, real, spiritual experience of these peoples. And the scriptures teach this as well. The scriptures don’t teach that Zeus or Baal are fictional characters like Superman or Batman, or maybe more aptly Lex Luthor and the Joker. The scriptures teach that Baal and Zeus are names that the Devil goes by in deceiving the nations into worshipping him. The stories that they’ve learned are false stories which twist the truth. But they come from real encounters with real, demonic, spiritual beings. This is why there is so much overlap in the beliefs of peoples spanning such a huge swathe of the ancient world, because it is based in their spiritual experience, not the fabrication of stories.

      This means we have to reconsider what revelation is in the case of scripture. God doesn’t reveal facts or truths. God reveals himself. Israel received the revelation of Yahweh, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All through the Old Testament in diverse ways. More times than we remember, they actually saw him. Abraham, Moses, Aaron, his sons, the elders of Israel, all ate with him. They heard his voice. They were filled with his Presence. They encountered him in the tabernacle and temple in a cloud. On the Day of Atonement every year he appeared there visibly. Finally, God the Son became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and was seen, touched, eaten with, spoken with, by thousands of people at various times, and by a few intimately and over years. After his resurrection, the knowledge of who he is was revealed to the entire world not just by preaching and the acceptance of ideas about God, but through the Holy Spirit, a person, coming to indwell those who believed. And by Christ himself being present with them when they gathered for worship. St. Paul’s message to the Gentiles was not, “All of your religious experience up until now was a pack of lies” but rather, “the Most High God who created you and those things you worship has come to set you free from their tyranny.”

      So, for us, who don’t really believe in a spiritual world, let along experience it, we look at the beliefs of ancient peoples as human generated ideas, and so it appears that Israel was influenced by her neighbors, or her beliefs evolved from those of her neighbors. But the truth is that Israel and her neighbors shared the same religious experience of the spiritual world, which they, unlike us, encountered constantly in their daily lives. Israel, however, had another experience of the one, true God which the other nations had not yet received until the coming of Christ. This experience gave them superior understanding of their experience of the spiritual world. Which is a world that we, as modern people, have become unfortunately blind to.

      1. Thank you so much for that reply. I really appreciate it.

        I suppose my next question is: how does one know this spiritual reality? Though I have always been religious, I am a child of this modern age. The idea that the ancients actually understood reality better than we do evokes a visceral negative reaction from me. (Though I humbly try to accept I could be wrong about this.)

        First, we definitely understand material reality better than the ancients did. Maybe that’s the conceit right there, that we automatically assume knowing material reality better means we know all of reality better.

        Second, it seems objectively true that many of the ancients did believe many false superstitious ideas that, now that we understand material reality so much better, have been (rightly) discarded. It seems too easy to just take it the whole way and say, “They were probably wrong about everything, including their ideas about the spiritual reality.”

        Third, the spiritual reality that was so real to them seems … absent now. We don’t have people seeing God and eating with him. We don’t have fire coming down from heaven to consume alter sacrifices. We don’t walk and talk with angels.

        I want so much to believe in this spiritual reality, to accept it, but it seems so foreign to my day-to-day experience of life. How does one perceive it? And how do we know, when we do experience it, that we aren’t deceiving ourselves?

        Thanks again for your replies. This is probably my biggest struggle to accept Christianity right now.

        1. Father Stephen,
          I deeply appreciate your answer to Isaac’s questions. It is a blessing to me as well, and very edifying. You’re style of writing, the way you describe things and delineate matters, helps very much to overcome our modern minds. I especially appreciate that you draw from the OT in a way that unites both the Old and the New. It is how is was taught from the early days, that is, the days of the Second Temple. Thank you. Your work is a great help.

          Isaac, forgive me for this imposition. I want to thank you for coming forward with your questions. And I’d like to offer some encouragement.
          You ask ‘how does one perceive spiritual reality?’ Each one of us has a beginning in this journey and it always starts with an inquiry, just like you are doing. You have begun in ‘seeking’. Something (SomeOne) is speaking to your spirit…and it just so happens that Orthodoxy has stirred something within you. These are just observations I am making. I can’t say much else, but I would, if you will, like to suggest two things that I think would help:
          one…ask God for help. You have already responded to a ‘nudge’. I encourage you to simply talk to God. You do not have to label yourself anything right now, Christian, Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, “religious”….but just turn to the One who hears you and be patient.
          Two…when and if you are ready, present yourself at an Orthodox Church service. Again, you have already been drawn to inquire about Orthodoxy. Act on it. Because what you will experience at Church can not be
          adequately put into words. Just go and see. There should be no coercive intention in this, but to go willingly.
          Also, our priests are more than willing to engage in conversation with those who are seeking. So you may want to talk to the parish priest, before or after attending a service.
          And may God bless you in your journey, Isaac.
          Oh…and do keep reading Father Stephen’s work!

          1. Thank you for your reply. I have indeed been to many Orthodox services. I have been attending off and on for several months. I often enjoy the services very much, though sometimes I do not. This largely has to do with my own mental state entering the service, though sometimes something is mentioned in the service that makes me question and doubt.

            I appreciate your advice and am doing my best to follow it: to take it slow, to continue to pray to God to guide me. I do believe He hears me and that He is good.

        2. I would reply to you in two ways, Isaac.

          First, if you visit Mount Athos, you’ll be more likely to experience the spiritual world directly. I’m not saying that I saw “fire coming down from heaven” myself when I visited Mount Athos, but I will say that I acquired a far more heightened sense of the spiritual during my visit.

          Second, our modern (post-modern?) mindset is a barrier to experiencing the spiritual. God will not supersede our free will to get us to pay attention. We need to approach the spiritual realm with humility and awe. Open your heart to the possibility, and God will reveal himself, possibly in ways you never imagined.

          I’m praying for you brother.

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