Posted by: mattcolvin | December 14, 2013

Bauckham, Colossians 2:9, and the Christology of the Philosophers

bauckham cover

Richard Bauckham, like N.T. Wright, sets his Biblical theology against the philosophical theology that has dominated the Christian tradition not only in the patristic era, but also in later medieval and Reformation thinking. He especially targets the assumptions of Greek philosophy that have prevented the Church from receiving the Bible’s teaching, especially its teaching about the identity and suffering of YHWH:

“[Israel’s] practical monotheism, requiring a whole pattern of daily life and cultic worship formed by exclusive allegiance to the one God, presupposes a god who is in some way significantly identifiable. The God who requires what the God of Israel requires cannot be merely the philosophical abstraction to which the intellectual currents of contemporary Greek thought aspired. Jews, in some sense, knew who their God was.”

Bauckham has in mind Plato’s monad, Aristotle’s unmoved mover, and the Stoics’ world-spirit. In order to describe these false theologies, the Greek philosophers originated accompanying false ontologies and epistemologies (Plato’s forms, Aristotle’s hylomorphism, the Stoics’ cataleptic impressions and pneuma-physics). Concepts like “being”, “essence”, “substance”, “nature”, and total mixture derive from these Greek philosophers.

It is just a fact that the Bible does not use these concepts to express the fact that Jesus is God. It uses, instead, its own imagery and formulas. Philosophers usually prefer their own precise language to the allegedly imprecise and messy language of the Bible. Philosophical theologians pooh-pooh criticisms of “Greek thinking”, asserting that since the Christian tradition has long used such intellectual furniture to talk about God and Christ, it is dangerous and foolish for men like Bauckham and N.T. Wright to reject it.

One example comes from a Reformed pastor who complains (about Peter Leithart and similar authors):

…[T]raditional statements of philosophy, theology, and anthropology are routinely dismissed as products of Greek philosophy or Hellenic thought, and for whatever reason, traditional Reformed dogmatics typically lead the list of such supposedly polluted statements.

Notice the use of the words “dismissed” and “polluted” – clearly, the author wants to depict himself as the voice of reasoned discernment, and the targets of his post as unreasonably locating “pollution” in concepts and ideas, with which they do not interact in an understanding way, but merely banish. In the rest of the post, he alleges that criticism of the use of Greek philosophy in Christian theology – the charge that Greek concepts distort the Bible’s teaching – is a liberal methodology. On another occasion, when I put it to him that ο­ὐσία is an inherently problematic way of discussing Jesus’ relation to God, he replied that objecting to οὐσία was an argument of the Anomoeans, whom Eusebius calls “Arian madmen”. The pattern is clear: this pastor claims that he stands for traditional orthodoxy with the Church Fathers and the Reformers, while those who criticize his position are radicals, innovators, probably heretics, and are living in unreasonable fear of “pollution”.

Now, on the face of things, those who object to Greek philosophy have an onus on them to do two things:

1. Show that in objecting to the Greek language in the tradition (including the creeds), they do not themselves commit the heresies and errors that the creeds were formulated to suppress.

2. Demonstrate that the language of Greek philosophy – the concepts of οὐσία, φύσις, total mixture, and the like – really is harmful, and specify that harm.

Really, the stakes of the debate are heightened because this particular issue has consequences for our approach to the entire history of doctrine. That is, the Nicene Creed is the most authoritative and settled of all statements produced by philosophical theology in all ages. It touches the most central and important issues in Christian theology: the deity of Christ and the identity of God. If Greek philosophical terminology cannot be deployed without causing problems here, then it must be assumed to be problematic in all ancillary topics of theology as well, since all else is dependent on “theology proper”.

In 2012, the same Reformed pastor responded to this post by Leithart, which is a wide-ranging critique of the Greek philosophical concept of “nature” and its use in Christian theology. He zoomed in on a single passing remark out of Leithart’s long and varied post: See, he says, your objection to the “finitum non capax infiniti” as a piece of Greek thinking is mistaken: it is not from the Greeks, but is a topos in classical theology: Aquinas, the Reformers, the Church Fathers all use it. He misses Leithart’s point, which is concerned not with whether the non capax, considered as a formula, occurs in the Greek philosophers, but rather, with the fact that it is the fruit of a theological method that takes its starting point in abstract principles about God rather than in the Biblical text.

Given the Bible’s statements about God being “in Christ”, ought we to add an abstract principle about “finite” and “infinite” and then draw conclusions about the mode of this presence of the infinite God in the finite man Jesus? Should we say what many Reformed confessions and catechisms have asserted – that Christ’s “divinity has no limits and is present everywhere. So it must follow that His divinity is indeed beyond the human nature which He has taken on and nevertheless is within this human nature and remains personally united with it”? (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 48) (This is the so-called “extra Calvinisticum” applied to the incarnation; it was also applied to the presence of Christ in the eucharist.)

We should note especially Colossians 2:9, which says that “In Him” – that is, Jesus – “all the fullness of the Deity dwelt bodily.” This is a verse that has bedeviled theologians in all ages, for it does not say that any of the θεότης remained extra, outside Christ. It looks very much as if the non capax and the extra Calvinisticum are simply denials of Colossians 2:9. The motive for the denial is the assumption that the “being” of God is something with a magnitude, and that the human Jesus is another thing with a magnitude, and that the one is infinite, and the other finite. No doubt Zeno of Elea could formulate some pretty paradoxes about these two things. But this is simply not how the Bible reasons about Jesus and God. As Richard Bauckham puts it, Greek philosophy was concerned with specifying what God is. The Bible is concerned rather to say Who God is. And the New Testament authors said, with one voice, that the One God – not a mere part or percentage of Him – is Jesus of Nazareth. If our conceptions of finite and infinite conflict with that clear teaching of the apostles, then too bad for our conceptions.

I recently finished Bauckham’s 2008 book, Jesus and the God of Israel, subtitled ““God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity”. The book contains 8 essays, the longest of which are the seminal “God Crucified” (1998) and “Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism”. Bauckham’s project may be summarized thus:

1. Bauckham attempts to give a thorough exegetical account of the ways in which the Old Testament asserts monotheism. It does so by asserting YHWH’s sole agency in the creation of the universe; His sole supreme rule over it; His session on His throne; and His exaltation, which is described using the imagery of height. Concomitant with monotheism is monolatry: YHWH is the only proper recipient of worship. Finally, this monotheism and monolatry is eschatological: that is, the prophets (especially “Deutero-Isaiah”) envision a future in which events will vindicate YHWH as the only God, and Israel as His covenant people; when this occurs, the other nations on earth will acknowledge His claims as the only true god and will render to Him the exclusive worship which is His due.

2. Once Bauckham has established this picture, he turns to the passages in which Jesus is called “Lord” or given divine names, receives divine worship, or exercises the divine sovereignty. These passages frequently turn out to be quite deliberate in the way they “include Jesus in the unique divine identity”. Thus, Bauckham exegetes Philippians 2:10 to 11, which is an allusion to Isaiah 45, – a passage which asserts Jewish monotheism – revealing that Philippians 2 inserts Jesus into the identity of this monotheistic God: ““The Philippians passage is, therefore, no unconsidered echo of an Old Testament text, but a claim that it is in the exaltation of Jesus, his identification as YHWH in YHWH’s universal sovereignty, that the unique deity of the God of Israel comes to be acknowledged as such by all creation. Precisely Deutero-Isaianic monotheism is fulfilled in the revelation of Jesus’ participation in the divine identity. Eschatological monotheism proves to be christological monotheism.”

Or again, Bauckham shows that 1 Corinthians 8:6 addresses the question of food sacrificed to idols – a question of monolatry and monotheism! – by working Jesus into the Shema, the Jews’ main statement of monotheism: “…there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we for him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him.” Or again, the similar treatment of the same topic in 1 Cor. 10:21-22, in which Paul alludes to Deuteronomy’s Song of Moses (Dt. 32:17) with its language of “provoking the Lord to jealousy” – another passage with a strong monotheistic message. Paul applies this language of monolatry to urge the Corinthians to partake of the Lord’s Table – and this means the bread and cup of Jesus.

Bauckham similarly handles many other passages. The result is a demonstration that the New Testament itself shows the “highest possible Christology” (so that high Christology is not an innovation or achievement of the patristic age, but is clearly taught in the pages of Scripture itself) without compromising monotheism. Rather, the worship of Christ is presented as obedience to the OT’s monotheistic commands, and fulfillment of its promises of eschatological monolatry.

3. Having established the parameters of Biblical monotheism and having shown how Jesus figures in it, Bauckham then turns, especially in the last section of “God Crucified” and the final essay, “God’s Self-Identification with the God-Forsaken in the Gospel of Mark”, to an examination of how the New Testament teaches that YHWH is revealed through the suffering of Jesus. Bauckham thus rejects the idea of divine impassibility or apatheia as an alien notion intruded upon the Biblical description of God from Greek philosophy. He writes:

“The value of the concept of divine identity appears partly if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is, nature concerns what God is or what divinity is. Greek philosophy, already in the period we are discussing and in a way that was to influence the Christian theological tradition significantly in the period after the New Testament, typically defined divine nature by means of a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on.”

Bauckham sees these Greek ideas about God’s nature as a positive hindrance to the Bible’s teaching:

“However, if the patristic development of dogma secured for a new conceptual context the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity, the Fathers were much less successful in appropriating the second key feature of New Testament Christology to which I have drawn attention: the revelation of the divine identity in the human life of Jesus and his cross. Here the shift to categories of divine nature and the Platonic definition of divine nature which the Fathers took for granted proved serious impediments to anything more than a formal inclusion of human humiliation, suffering and death in the identity of God. That God was crucified is indeed a patristic formulation, but its implications for the doctrine of God the Fathers largely resisted. Adequate theological appropriation of the deepest insights of New Testament Christology, such as we have observed in Philippians 2:6-11 and the Fourth Gospel, was not to occur until Martin Luther, Karl Barth and more recent theologies of the cross.”

The biggest gain from reading Bauckham is his exegesis of the Old Testament’s imagery and language expressing monotheism, and the New Testament’s inclusion of Christ in that language. That is, when the church fathers chose to assert the divinity of Christ in terms that would prove most effective against the Arians – “homoousios” – they were choosing the short way out, and neglecting the longer way, which would have proved more effective and lasting: that is, they did not choose to express the deity of Christ in the language of the Scriptures, but in philosophical terminology. That choice has too often short-circuited our ability to read the Bible’s passages which assert that Christ is YHWH, and to elucidate the logic of those passages in a way that would prove fruitful for systematic theology. We bring to our reading of Scripture not only the full Chalcedonian formulations, but also assumptions about impassibility, finitum non capax infiniti, and concepts like “nature”. We project Plato’s or Aristotle’s god onto the identity of YHWH, and then ask how Jesus can be that God. Why are we surprised when problems arise?

Bauckham also traces how the influence of Greek philosophy tended toward subordinationism and outright polytheism, including the worship of angels, and viewing of Christ as a subordinate being:

“The other trend is represented by the tradition of intellectual theology, which was relatively more independent of the worship and witness of ordinary Christianity. This tradition begins in the apologists of the second century and continues in the Alexandrians and the Origenist tradition. At first sight, it may seem surprising that the danger of a paganizing of Christianity arose here rather than in popular Christianity, but there is a clear reason why this was, in fact, the case. Christianity had no difficulty in distinguishing itself from popular paganism, towards which it was consistently intolerant, but the Christian intellectuals were engaged in a critical appropriation of pagan philosophy. The result was that they tended to use Platonic monotheism as the model for understanding the relation of Jesus to God. God, the Father, is the supreme God, while Christ, the Logos, is god in a subordinate and derivative sense. And, just as the Platonist did not confine worship to the supreme God but allowed the worship of lesser divinities to appropriate degrees, so the Christian practice of the worship of Jesus could be permissible as the relative worship of the principal divine intermediary, while absolute worship is reserved for the one who is God in the fullest sense. The danger in this Christian Platonism was the loss of monotheism in the Judeo-Christian sense.

In relation to worship, we can see one possible effect in a surprising passage of Justin Martyr’s first Apology, in which he defends Christians against the charge of atheism by claiming that, in fact, they worship a number of divine beings: not only God, but also ‘the Son who came from him…, and the host of other good angels who follow him and are made like him, and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore (sebometha kai proskunoumen)’ (1 Apol. 6). The inclusion of the angels represents an attempt to assimilate the Christian view of the divine world as closely as possible to the Platonic hierarchy of divinity: first God, second God, and a multitude of lesser divine beings (cf. also Athenagoras, Leg. 10.5; Origen, Cels. 8.13). This is apologetic and should not be taken as a serious claim that Christians worship angels, but it illustrates how Platonic influence could undermine the Jewish principle of monotheistic worship.”

Bauckham goes on to examine the Platonic-style hierarchy of divine beings in the thought of Origen, who held that worship in the fullest sense was appropriate only for the Father.

I submit that the root problem here is that the gods of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans are idols, and the language used to describe them and explain the world in terms of them can be adapted for description of the God of the Bible only with great difficulty. (It can be so adapted, as Paul does in Acts 17. But there will need to be a great deal of reexplaining later. Indeed, John Zizioulas’ Being as Communion is as dense a piece of philosophical theology as any I have read. It is basically an account of how the church had to change the meaning of the word ousia in order to escape the errors to which that concept tended in Greek philosophy.)

Bauckham and N. T. Wright have confirmed me in my suspicions of Greek philosophical theology by highlighting the particular treasures of Biblical exegesis that have gone unappreciated by the Church in ages past. I am thankful for Nicaea, but it is the work of Bauckham and Wright, rather than the Nicene Creed, that will prove very useful the next time I sit down with Jehovah’s Witnesses to talk about the Bible.



  1. It’s worth noting that Jenson thinks we should translate “hypostasis” as “identity”. With that change, the patristic theology looks much more similar to this than with “hypostasis” translated as “person”.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that while Greek philosophy did define God ” by means of a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on” it was Eunomius who carried on this tradition, and the Cappadocian fathers strongly objected to it, arguing that what God Himself is is unknowable.

    You might object to the claim that what God is is ultimately unknowable, but it seems to me that it it is meant to do two things: 1) Give a loud “no” to the Greek attempts to know what God is. 2) preserve the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo–if all things are created by God, then God is not the created category which our mind uses to understand Him. (This too is a “no” to Greek philosophy, since none of the Greeks believed in creatio ex nihilo.) Rather, He is, beyond them. (Lewis uses this at least for beyond sexuality in “Perelandra”) and “beyond Personality”, in Mere Christianity.

    Finally, I think you’re right about the objection to “assumption that the “being” of God is something with a magnitude” (though I think most of the people in question would object to the being of God, since God is being itself, and so does not have being). When we say that God is infinite we mean that He is without bound, not that he is large without bound. If He is large without bound, then He is bound to be large without bound, and so is not truly in-finite. Likewise, if He cannot become Incarnate, He is bound not to be Incarnate, and so is not infinite. (Which comes back to the “no” to Greek philosophy in much of the via negativa.)

  2. But I want to emphasize that I liked your post, and am broadly in agreement with it–especially if we translate “hypostasis” as “identity”. We cannot reason from “God’s infinitude” since infinitude is a “no: you may not reason from God’s nature.” God is without bound, not unboundedly large.

  3. […] 21. Bauckham, Colossians 2:9, and the Christology of the Philosophers […]

  4. Working through Hurtado now, this book is next. Thanks for the thorough review.

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