The Neglected God
By Timothy George
Some years ago Nils A. Dahl wrote that God may be the “neglected factor in New Testament theology.” Destructive biblical criticism, exemplified for years in the work of the so-called Jesus Seminar, eviscerates the gospel narratives of all theological power and leaves us, at best, with a Jesus made in our own image—political agitator, cynic sage, new age guru, etc. The words of weeping Mary in John 20:13 are appropriate: “They have taken my Lord away, . . . and I don’t know where they have put him.” But the Jesus of the Gospels cannot be confined to the straitjacket of such pseudo-scholarly speculation. He bursts through those Scriptures today just as he rose bodily from the grave that first Easter morning.
What do the Gospels tell us about God? It is customary to distinguish sharply the portrait of Jesus in the three Synoptic Gospels from that in John, usually to the detriment of the historical trustworthiness of the latter. While each Gospel writer has a distinct vantage point and develops his own unique theology addressed to a specific community, all four Gospels have one divine-human subject: Jesus the Messiah who is called the Son of God in each (Matt 16:16; Mark 1:1; Luke 3:22; John 1:34; 20:31).
All four Gospels present Jesus as truly human and fully divine, though the way in which they do this varies. For example, in the synoptic tradition, the oneness of Jesus with the Father is seen most clearly in what he does. Jesus does and says things that can only be attributable to the God of Israel: he forgives sins unilaterally (Mark 2:1–12), so that those around ask, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). He teaches with imperious authority, surpassing the teaching of Moses and the prophets—“But I say unto you . . .” (Matt 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44 KJV). He performs exorcisms “by the finger of God” as a sign that God’s reign is present (Luke 11:14–20). He eats freely with sinners (Luke 15:1–2), anticipating the messianic banquet when “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11).
On the other hand, in the Gospel of John, Jesus’s oneness with the Father is explicitly stated (John 10:30). In John, too, Jesus exercises divine prerogatives, including the power to give life (John 5:25–26; 10:28–29), to authorize work on the Sabbath (John 5:16–18), to send the Holy Spirit (John 14:15–18), and to make known to the disciples the Father’s love for them (John 17:25–26). In John, when Jesus’s enemies pick up stones to hurl against him, they do so, they say, not because of his miracles but “because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). Yet, as the distinguished New Testament scholar Marianne Meye Thompson rightly says:
Jesus is not the Son because he exercises these divine functions; rather, he exercises them because he is the Son. Out of and by virtue of his relationship to the Father, the Son gives life to the world, makes the Father known, carries out the Father’s will in the world, and so on. The activity and character of the Father are embodied in and through the Son.
The God whom we encounter in the Jesus of the Gospels is none other than the God of Israel, the great I AM, the one—and only one—who could say, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). He is, as Matthew quoting Isaiah proclaimed, Immanuel—“God with us” (Matt 1:23).
Unlike Marcion in the second century, the New Testament does not present Jesus as the emissary of an “alien God” but as the Son and Word of the God of Israel; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the prophets. Jesus himself quotes the Shema (Mark 12:29) and refers to his own work as the work of “the one who alone is God,” “the only true God” (John 5:44 NRSV; 17:3). Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, and his Gospel is replete with expressions like this: “Then what was said through the Prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled” (Matt 2:17); “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the Prophet Isaiah” (Matt 8:17); “So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet” (Matt 13:35); and “This has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt 26:56). This point can hardly be emphasized too much, given the docetic and neo-gnostic construals of Jesus that still abound.
However, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction. This happens when Jesus is so ultra-contextualized that his radical newness and uniqueness are obscured. In the early Church, it was asked, “Has Christ brought anything new by his coming?” To which St. Irenaeus replied: “Yes, Jesus has brought everything new by bringing himself” (Against Heresies, IV, 34, 1). Jesus is the new wine that bursts through the old wineskins, giving us an understanding of God that both encompasses the earlier revelation and at the same time relativizes it in light of the words and deeds of Jesus himself.
The doctrine of the Trinity emerged in the consciousness of the early Christians as the necessary theological framework for understanding the story of Jesus as the story of God. The classic expression of this belief is the Nicene Creed which is still recited in Christian churches all over the world.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father.
This faith invites us to join our praise with that of the angels and the saints above. The Roman Christian poet Prudentius, who died about one hundred years after the Council of Nicea, expressed this faith in words best known to us through the classic hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
Christ, to Thee with God the Father
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unwearied praises be.
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore! Amen.
Published at First Things, 6.1.15
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity
School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation
Commentary on Scripture.