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Richard Bauckham on Biblical and Patristic Theology

Dr. Bauckham kindly sent me a reply to my previous brief post about his Hellenization thesis (as I termed it, not him):

I read your piece after comments were closed. Just for information, my concept of personal identity is not Hegelian. It follows Paul Ricoeur in his book Oneself as Another.

The difference I am getting at between person and nature is between the answers to the two questions: Who am I? (Richard Bauckham, with a personal history and qualities) and What am I (human, with the attributes of human nature I share with other humans). Jewish theology was much more concerned with the answers to Who is God? as to What is divine nature? This is only comparative (of course they had some ideas about divine nature, as I said) and my “hellenization” thesis, if you want to call it that, is not critical of the Fathers for giving more attention to divine nature. In their context they needed to. But the relative emphasis matters if one is looking for the ways that NT writers talk about the deity of Christ. Most of these are missed by people who look for references to his divine nature.

I appreciate his clarifications on these matters, especially his confirmation that the Fathers had good reason to give more attention to the divine nature in their own context. It is also helpful to know the Ricoeurian background to the “personal identity” language, and that Dr. Bauckham affirms that the difference between the NT way of speaking and the Patristic way is a matter of relative emphasis, and not (if I may expand on his reply) a theological or conceptual contradiction.

That being said, I do still wonder if even this much distance can be placed between the two “methods” (NT and Patristic). My reasons are as follows:

(1) Dr. Bauckham’s example for the difference between the “who” and the “what” question correlates with the difference between an individual and the species of which it (he) is a part. However, in the eyes of the Patristics (and the NT for that matter), God is not in a genus, and certainly he is not in a genus with other individuals. There is only one in the “category” of “divine” as they use the term. So when the Patristics talk about “the divine nature”, even in their own minds, they are really just talking about the one God. The terms “God” and “the divine nature” are different, but the referent is the same.

(2) Further, the Patristics, like all Christians, regard God as personal, not as impersonal. So whenever they spoke of this one divine “what”, they were in their own understanding actually speaking about a “who”. (This may seem to contradict some understandings of Trinitarian doctrine, but it must be remembered that for classical orthodoxy, the Trinity is not a triad of three separate divine consciousnesses; it is one divine consciousness that subsists triply, wherein the divine persons are distinguished not by separate minds or contents of belief, but by their relations to each other.)

(3) As far as I understand the terms, to speak of “qualities” (as in Dr. Bauckham’s “who” question) and “attributes” (as in his “what” question) are to speak of the same thing.

(4) Dr. Bauckham puts “personal history” into the category of answer to the “who” question. This might suggest that what separates the more Jewish procedure from the Patristic one is a discussion of how a being has acted in unrepeatable, historical ways, as opposed to how they act regularly, expressing their nature. However, I think this wouldn’t distinguish the NT writers from the Patristics: both discussed how God acted regularly in creating and in sustaining the cosmos, along with what that activity implies about what God is like, and both discussed what God had done in specific, unrepeatable historical events, along with what that activity implies about what God is like.

Perhaps I have misunderstood Dr. Bauckham’s intention in the distinction, though. Regardless, I do think there is a kind of relative difference between the methods of the NT and the Patristics, as I mentioned in my previous post:

[W]hat 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.

Now, while I think the categories of Aristotle’s (and partially Plato’s) metaphysics are simply careful descriptions of reality, I do acknowledge that many of the terms they devised for these categories are distinctly theirs, and further that many of these terms do not appear in the NT (though some do, like “nature”). There is a relative difference between the NT and the Patristics in use of the technical terms of philosophical art. The latter group use them more, measured quantitatively.  That being said, I think the concepts do appear in the NT, at minimum implicitly, precisely because they simply reflect reality as all human beings experience it.

4 replies on “Richard Bauckham on Biblical and Patristic Theology”

Andrew, I can’t respond in detail. But the main difference between us is that your interest is philosophical, whereas mine in the book was historical. I was interested in how Jewish and NT writers actually wrote and thought about God. I wanted to show people, for example, that when early Christians said that Jesus was seated beside the Father on the divine throne they were in effect attributing full divinity to him, if one puts that claim in the context of the ways in which Jews standardly expressed what was unique about God. From the perspective of the Nicene and Chalcedonian way of thinking and speaking, that would not be at all obvious, and, so far as I know, those texts were therefore not used to make the case for the full deity of Christ in the fourth and fifth century discussions. My concern was with what the terms early Christians used to speak of Jesus would have meant to ordinary Jews (not philosophers like Philo) in their context. The notion of personal identity (a person identified a their name, their history, their relationships, their personal qualities) I think captures very well the way in which Jews commonly thought about God. No, they did not think that God was one individual of a species divinity, though the process of reaching a strictly monotheistic view had entailed cutting loose from that sort of thinking and so remnants of it survive in the OT. If you asked them what made their God unique, they could have said and did sometimes say that his nature is unique (the only eternal and all-powerful one), but in fact what they most often said was that he is the only Creator and the only sovereign Ruler of all things, defining him by his unique relationship to everything else. To understand the NT, therefore, it helps a great deal to realise that that was the focus of the definition of the unique God. So we do not find many texts that attribute metaphysical attributes of God to Jesus Christ, but that does not mean that most early Christians did not think he was fully divine, because we do find many texts that include him in the creative work of God and many more that portray him as sharing in the unique divine sovereignty over the world. I hope you can see how my aims are historical exegetical and hermeneutical (with, of course, the theological implications). Your concern is quite different – it is with whether, if one thinks it through, one doesn’t come out with something like the Fathers said in the fourth and fifth centuries did.
That’s fair enough, but it took the Fathers a few centuries to reach their way of stating the matter. That was because in the second and third centuries, in a much less Jewish context, what the early Christians meant was by no means so obvious, and so, with the Greek focus on divine nature, a strong tendency was to go for a stratified concept of divinity with three levels. Outside the Jewish context, for example, it was not so difficult to think that the one God (the Father) created the world by means of the agency of a lesser divine being (even, as Arius thought, a created but unique intermediary). So in some ways the Nicene Fathers were having to start from scratch again and do in their context what the first Christians had done in a different way in their context. It was a great struggle to reach the definition of one ousia (meaning one, unique instance of deity) and three hypostaseis. With hindsight and with an analytical philosophical approach, you may find it easy to take the step from what the NT says to what the mature patristic statement said, but historically it was a long and difficult road, and we have to retrace that road if we are to read the NT without anachronism. And reading without anachronism is vital, if we are to counter the very strong and very understandable scholarly tradition of claiming that to read a fully divine christology into the NT is anachronistic because (a) it would have been inconsistent with Jewish monotheism and (b) they did not have the refined conceptuality that the Fathers later developed for expressing divine triunity.

On your (2) I did not mean that only attributes are metaphysical. I was simply using the term “metaphysical attributes” in a traditional way to distinguish them from “moral attributes.” It may not be the best way to make that distinction but I don’t know another.

(3) Of course, the Fathers told God’s story, as the Creeds of their era do. But they didn’t always find it easy to hold together the story and their understanding of divine nature.

(4) I’m not so sure this is right about the Fathers. The “metaphysical attributes” are really based on defining divine nature as unlimited by contrast with creaturely limitation. That God is immutable, impassible, omnipotent, non-composite (simple) etc. – these are not based on inference from God’s activity in the world and history.

Dr. Bauckham,

Thanks for these comments. The first one especially helps me better understand the distinctions you were making.

On (4), I think, e.g., Augustine’s City of God VIII.6 would suggest a different conclusion. Augustine sketches the neo-Platonic arguments which infer an uncaused, and therefore simple and immutable cause of the world (or “nature”), and then identifies that intellectual procedure with what Paul says in Romans 1:19-20, wherein he says people know God’s invisible attributes by means of the things that have been made. Knowing that God was simple and immutable followed from knowing that he was the one ultimately causing the world to be. And actually, I think Augustine and the Fathers (and later thinkers like Aquinas, etc.) were right to make that inference from God’s creative activity in relation to the world. As one contemporary philosopher puts it regarding simplicity (

The idea here is that if a thing is composed of parts, then the parts are more fundamental than it is. Moreover, those parts would need to be combined in order for the thing to exist. (This is true even if the thing has always existed – for there would in that case still have to be something that accounts for why the parts have always been conjoined.) A purported “first principle” with parts just wouldn’t be a bottom level explanation or first principle at all, then – it would in that case need explanation itself.

I don’t think Augustine would have drawn that conclusion were he not reading the text in combination with philosophical ideas about divine simplicity.

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