In his widely praised book on NT Christology, Richard Bauckham writes:
The term identity is mine, not that of the ancient literature, but I use it as a label for what I do find in the literature, which is not, of course, necessarily a notion precisely the same as modern ideas of personal identity, but is nevertheless clearly a concern with who God is. 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 a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on. My point is not that the biblical and Jewish tradition had no use at all for statements about divine nature. Some Jewish writers in the later Second Temple period consciously adopted some of the Greek metaphysical language. But even in these writers the dominant conceptual framework of their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature — what divinity is — but a notion of divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. That God is eternal, for example — a claim essential to all Jewish thinking about God — is not so much a statement about what divine nature is, more an element in the unique divine identity, along with claims that God alone created all things and rules all things, that God is gracious and merciful and just, that God brought Israel out of Egypt and made Israel his own people and gave Israel his law at Sinai and so on. If we wish to know in what Second Temple Judaism considered the uniqueness of the one God to consist, what distinguished God as unique from all other reality, including beings worshipped as gods by Gentiles, we must look not for a definition of divine nature but for ways of characterizing the unique divine identity. [Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 7]
(1) Bauckham seems to state here that “biblical…tradition had… use… for statements about divine nature.” He is surely correct here, because the NT explicitly refers to the divine nature on a few occasions (e.g. Rom 1:20, Heb 1:3). At most, then, we’re talking about a matter of emphasis.
(2) A “person” is a kind of substance, so by talking about personal identity we are not departing from the realm of metaphysics.
(3) Later in the book, Bauckham teases out his point here by saying the Jews spoke of God by means of his activity in the history of Israel and in relation to all of reality. When I read this, it struck me as basically Thomistic: we don’t know what God’s essence is, we know that God is, and we can attribute things by analogy to him because we know his effects. We know what the person “God” is like because we know what God does. And it’s not as if the classical tradition thought it was discussing an abstract genus when it discussed “divine nature” or “divinity”. It was, as we know, quite emphatic that only one fit into that category. To talk about “divinity” is just to talk about God Himself.
(4) This makes me wonder where the contrast lies between what Bauckham says is the Jewish procedure and the Greek procedure, if there is a real one at all. Is it in the negativity of the properties Bauckham gives as examples? I can’t see how. The NT also uses a “negative” way of speaking: God is called immortal, invisible, etc.
(5) Is it that the Bible is more concerned with God’s acts in history than with his transhistorical characteristics? That strikes me as rather forced: isn’t a constant concern of scripture that we perceive the greatness and goodness of God through his actions? That we turn from what he has done to worship him for the kind of God his acts reveal him to be?
(6) Bauckham refers to “metaphysical attributes”. In one sense, all attributes are metaphysical, or at least have a metaphysical aspect. Some attributes could also be more than that, i.e., they could be physical. But I think most people will argue God has no such attributes. So, in fact, does scripture attribute anything except “metaphysical attributes” to God? We must remember our Aristotle, too: actions, relations, and affections are all properties (in the modern technical sense of that term; Aristotle did have a more narrow understanding of properties, but conceptually he could affirm what I’m saying under different terminology).
(7) Given that Bauckham admits up front that his term “personal identity” is not in the literature but rather his own, I wondered where he got it from. And I think this might reveal more where the idea of a contrast is coming from. Bauckham follows Moltmann, who followed Hegel and the worst parts of Lutheran Christology. Hegel especially, I think, provides the inspiration for this idea of God’s identity being bound up with what God does in history, in contrast to the classical view of God’s identity being fundamentally transcendent of history (he is immutable in his essence, etc.), though expressed by means of effects in it. Perhaps others can fill me in more on how Bauckham might relate to Hegel here. But it seems that Bauckham has perhaps traded “Greek metaphysics” for modern German Hegelian metaphysics. When the contrast is put in those terms, it’s not evident he has the better end of the trade, to say the least. Especially if one agrees that Aristotle’s metaphysics has a good claim to just being common sense, and so plausibly held implicitly by even the writers of scripture.
(8) It seems to me it might be worth challenging the meme that Patristic orthodoxy was “translating” the Hebrew thought-forms of the Bible into Greek categories. This already grants that the Greek (Aristotelian) categories are somehow created by the Greeks (and therefore arbitrary), rather than what Aristotle said they were, careful descriptions of the categories of reality. If he was right about that, what really happened in the Patristic era is that Christians began to take the more pedestrian language of the Bible and think more precisely about it. This does not mean that they “improved” the Bible, for that would assume that it is always better to be more precise, which it isn’t. Often, in fact, such precision will not be useful. But it does mean that this isn’t fundamentally about “cross-cultural” translation; it’s about explaining in more detail the realities already discussed in the original text.