Strengthening the faith and confidence of believers in Christ Jesus remains a paramount concern in the pure preaching of the Gospel. However, a lingering chink in the armor of orthodoxy has been rather poor articulation and weak defense of God’s triune nature. It is a weakness that arch-apostate Bart Ehrman attempted to exploit in his book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.
Compounding the challenges to the sacred truth of God’s revelation in Scripture and redemptive history are assumptions about the Jewish doctrine of God. The first assumption conflates post-second Temple Judaism (after AD 70) with Second Temple Jewish doctrine of God (from 528 BC - 70 AD), as if they held unbroken beliefs about God. This is not the case. Something momentous careened Pharisaical teaching about God in a new direction. That something was the stunning emergence of Christianity. In fact, post-Second Temple Judaism stands as a fundamentally different religion than all known forms of Judaism contemporaneous with the biblical authors. Jewish beliefs about God during these two periods were discontinuous: Essentially different religions with fundamentally different beliefs about the being of God.
The second assumption depicts Jewish monotheism in categories which correspond to Islamic concepts of a stark monotheism. They held that God is an absolute monad and, so, Jews and Muslims hold an unbroken belief in the absolute oneness of God without any inner plurality. This is not correct either since it belies antecedent Second Temple Jewish beliefs and renders the Hebrew Scriptures incoherent. No, Christian and early Jewish theological beliefs possess correspondences, but neither have commonality with post-Second Temple Judaism or, especially, Islamic divine concepts.
These are the challenges. Our parishioners need to know them and the honest-to-Scripture responses to these issues so their faith may be established. Preaching is the first line of defense and catechetical offensive against these corrosive falsehoods. Stated plainly, the falsification of Ehrman’s assertions that strip Jesus of His divinity and God of triunity, as well as the aforementioned misconceptions circulating in popular thought which essentially absorb the Christian doctrine of God into the “three Abrahamic faiths” require explanation. Explanation calls for words, the right words, sometimes ample words. They require ample explanation amongst the baptized because Western Christianity is only now emerging from yet another Trinitarian Crisis — a crisis due to poor to non-extant catechesis in fundamental biblical theology. What is more, the pure doctrine of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit necessitate articulation amidst proclamation. Yes, proclaim the Holy Trinity, but also explain why current Jewish and Islamic concepts are incompatible with the truth of God revealed in and through the person of Jesus Christ. In short, preachers need to apply the apologetic edge of the deity of Christ and the triunity of God in their sermons to combat rank heresy and theological minimalism. Preachers need to deliver primary speech (the Trinity has won salvation for you!) and secondary speech (explanation of the primary speech).
Preaching is the first line of defense and catechetical offensive against these corrosive falsehoods.
Consequently, minimalist sermons will not do. Minimalist sermons have failed to deliver the goods. The results have been catastrophic with deadly implications, giving rise to the open rejection of the atonement, justification, regeneration, Hell, the sinfulness of sin, the deity of Christ, and the triunity of God. And it is no wonder: How can one proclaim the essential teaching of Scripture in ten minutes, much less with a PowerPoint slide or two? Minimalist teaching begets minimalist belief. Both are thin and vapid. Thin content generally leads to thin faith. Both sour and evaporate with the slightest heat.
Learned men preach content rich sermons. Let us move beyond the milk and onto solid food — the meat of biblical, creedal, confessional theology.
Preachers would do well to study the subject of “Two Powers” theology — the idea among parts of the Jewish tradition that within the Godhead Yahweh could and did send forth Yahweh, sometimes as the Angel of Lord and sometimes as the Word of the Lord as a hypostatic manifestation of the invisible God. In other words, Jewish belief asserted there are, as it were, two Yahweh’s present in Scripture: Yahweh sent from Yahweh, manifest and accessible in the created realm revealing the unapproachable Yahweh in Heaven.
Therefore, the origins of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity are contiguous with biblical revelation. In fact, given the Hebrew Scriptures clear and certain revelation of the Spirit of God, the “Two Powers” theology itself required correction and disabuse. Jesus did exactly that, not only through the momentous events of His life in which the Father and the Spirit were active (His conception, baptism, transfiguration, etc.) but throughout His dominical teaching, culminating in the supreme revelation of the being and nature of God in Matthew 28:19. A triune multiplicity within God was always there and always “possible” in Jewish theology. Jesus made explicit and complete to the Apostles what may have been implicit and incomplete in their forms of Judaism.
This is why, apologetically, there is a sharp point to the fact that for the first 13 years of Christianity following the resurrection of Jesus, nearly every person converted to “the Way” were of Jewish origins. Jesus revealed the truth about God’s nature and being.
In this apologetic vein, Richard Bauckham has written in a neglected gem, God Crucified (1999), that it is key to work with the category of the identity of the God of Israel, which appropriately focuses on who God is rather than what divinity is. In other words, God has married His self-revelation to the story of Israel, which has the effect of narrowing speculation about His being and nature. Bauckham rightly asserts how this approach to an understanding of God evidences within Second Temple Judaism clear and consistent ways of characterizing the unique identity of the one God and thus distinguishing the one God absolutely from all other reality. He explains in one place:
When New Testament Christology is read with this Jewish theological context in mind, it becomes clear that, from the earliest post-Easter beginnings of Christology onwards, early Christians included Jesus, precisely and unambiguously, within the unique identity of the one God of Israel. They did so by including Jesus in the unique, defining characteristics by which Jewish monotheism identified God as unique. They did not have to break with Jewish monotheism in order to do this, since monotheism, as Second Temple Judaism understood it, was structurally open to the development of the Christological monotheism that we find in the New Testament texts.
The concepts of the Angel of the Lord and the Word of the Lord, sometimes also the Wisdom of God, advanced such an understanding and appreciation of an inner plurality to God. These should be exploited by preachers to proclaim the one and only true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and always doing so within the context of Israel’s story and climaxing in the person and work of Jesus the Son.
God has married His self-revelation to the story of Israel, which has the effect of narrowing speculation about His being and nature.
It is important for preachers to note and defend the idea that the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology. There was no protracted “development” or evolution of Christology through which by myth and folklore Jesus became God, as Bart Ehrman asserts. No, the first Christology was the highest possible Christology, beginning with Jesus’ self-disclosure and culminating in the resurrection of the Son of God. Richard Bauckham calls this high, early Christology, “a Christology of divine identity,” such that it was immediately codified in the writings of Saint Paul and within a few generations rendered the creedal content of orthodox Christian belief in the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed (reference the Old Roman Creed), which itself was confessed in trinitarian fashion. Here, then, is the heart of the preacher’s catechetical content. So, while the Creed does not speak of Israel per se, yet the entire articulation of the creative and redemptive work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are and can only be understood and defended within the context of the biblical story of Israel’s God.
Jesus Christ is intrinsic to the unique and eternal identity of God within the biblical story of Israel. Preach it. Proclaim it. Explain it. Defend it.
The inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity had implications not only for who Jesus is but also for who God is. Not only the pre-existent and the exalted Jesus manifest as the Angel of the Lord and Commander of Hosts, but also the earthly, suffering, humiliated, and crucified Jesus belong to the unique identity of God. In fact, even more so. Jesus crucified maximally reveals the divine identity — who God truly is. This, of course, profoundly impacts our understanding and worship of God, how God is and can be depicted in our midst. Indeed, it is my thesis that Platonic Evangelical worship really belongs to the post-Advent emergence of radical monotheistic Judaism and Islam rather than incarnational Christianity.
High Christology was possible within a Jewish monotheistic context only by identifying Jesus directly with the one God of Israel, the Creator-Redeemer-Covenanting God, and by including Jesus in the unique identity of this one God. As Bauckham asserts, we rightly come to a knowledge of God as Triune.
Preachers must be given to an exacting proclamation of the Gospel. Such a proclamation requires we identify God rightly as Triune through Israel’s story climaxing in Yahweh’s incarnation—Jesus of Nazareth—so as to dispel fatal heresies, but also extol Christian distinctiveness from Judaism, Islam, and false claimants to the moniker “Christian.” The way to the pure preaching of the Gospel entails the deity of Christ and the Triunity of God. Indeed, the Gospel is no Gospel unless the God of Israel becomes “Immanuel — God with us.”