Who Really is God?

The question of God's very nature has been in the hearts and minds of many individuals throughout time. In the Jewish monotheistic culture the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was God. He was a God of patience, compassion, love, and sometimes anger. During the time of Saint Paul , another vision of God became prevalent, that of Jesus Christ. Saint Paul viewed Jesus in the same way that he viewed the God of the Old Testament, in a sense that Jesus was there to liberate them from slavery. Jesus became the center of Paul's world. It was his mission in life to preach to the Gentiles about the saving love of the God of their Fathers. Paul's views on monotheism were greatly affected by his relationship with Christ. N.T. Wright claims that Paul redefines Jewish monotheism around his that very unique relationship with Christ and the Spirit. Parallels to the Gospel of John can also be drawn through the theme of monotheism as well as the Incarnation.

It has been said many times that Saint Paul 's main target was Judaism, but N.T. Wright argues that Paganism was his real polemic. He argues that Paul remained a typical Jew understanding idolatry and immorality as the corruption of God's good creation. At every turn Wright claims that Paul's vision of God is changed by Christ and the Spirit, “At each point – God, God's people, God's future for the world – he offered a vision reshaped around Jesus and the Spirit, rooted in the Jewish scriptures, and claiming to be the reality of which paganism possessed a parody.” 1 Paganism didn't offer what Judaism did – the one true God, but Paul expands even further on the Jewish scriptures to add Christ and the Spirit into the picture.

Monotheism doesn't exist in a vacuum, meaning that there is more than one kind. During the time of Paul he would have contended with Stoicism (modern day Pantheism) and Epicureanism (modern day Deism). In Pantheism divinity lies in everything, with Epicureanism there is only one God, but this God is greatly different and less compassionate than the God of Israel. Wright calls the type of monotheism that Paul was dealing with in Judaism as creational and covenantal. He contends that, “The one God of Israel made the world and remained in dynamic relationship with it; and this one God, in order to further his purposes within and for that world, has entered into covenant with Israel in particular.” 2 This leads for Wright into the problem of evil.

Wright claims that Stoicism and Epicureanism always have difficulty accounting for the problem of evil. Within Stoicism, for instance, if the entire world is divine then there shouldn't be a problem with evil. Within Epicureanism there is such a large gap between the human and divine that there isn't a problem accounting for evil; it is just a part of who we are as human beings. Within Judaism neither of those options were viable. Those options lead to a failure to reflect on the image of who God really is. Paul thus saw paganism as the inability of humans to live as they were made to. Paul reworks the concept of monotheism through this very problem of evil. He places Christ and the Spirit right into the middle of the equation. To understand what classical Jewish monotheism really involved it is important to lay out some of the minor foundations.

The Jews believed in a very different God than those that were already mentioned. They believed that there was one true God that remained in close dynamic relationship with it. Wright notes, “they also believed that God had called Israel to be his special people. This twin belief tested to the limit and beyond through Israel 's checkered career, was characteristically expressed through a particular narrative; the chosen people were also the rescued people, liberated from slavery in Egypt , marked out by the gift of Torah, established in their land, exiled because of disobedience, but promised a glorious return and final settlement.” 3 That kind of Jewish monotheism meant living in that Exodus story and trusting in the one true God.

First it can be noted that Paul demonstrates a clear adherence to Jewish monotheism, especially in Romans 10:5-8. Paul is drawing in this passage from Deuteronomy 30. Wright claims that this passage has everything to do with Christ, “Paul reads this passage, a prediction of the ultimate return from exile, as a passage about what God has now done, not through Torah, but through the Messiah. The new Exodus, the great covenant renewal, has happened in and through him.” 4 Paul sees this passage as God liberating the people once again from slavery through Christ.

Within these verses of Romans 10:5-13, we see the word Lord used, or in the Greek kyrios . He uses the word kyrios to refer to Jesus, but takes it from the Old Testament usages. Wright notes, “Then he quotes the new covenant passage from Joel – ‘all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved,' It is frequently noticed, but must be highlighted again here, that Paul takes the kyrios of the Septuagint, in passages where he is very well aware that in context it referred to YHWH himself, and understands it as a reference to Jesus.” 5 Paul uses this particular reference on purpose to reference the fact that Jesus is equal to God.

The word kyrios can be translated in many ways. John T. Green offers a few translations to help better understand what Paul was doing within his letters. He says that, “Lord refers to Jesus the man and his opinions concerning various social and (torah) legal matters, and ‘Lord' which refers clearly to the Son of God, the exalted one, and ‘Lord' meaning the deity.” 6 Paul used the word kyrios in many ways. Any way that you look at the word kyrios, there can be confusion. It seems almost clear that Paul was using this word to equate Jesus with the God of Israel.

Another place where Paul refers to Jesus as kyrios is in Philippians 2:6-11. Wright asserts that when Paul was writing this passage he had to have been thinking o a Septuagint passage. Wright notes, “It is now, I think, largely recognized that this passage does indeed express a very high Christology, in which Paul understands the human being Jesus to be identical with one who from all eternity was equal with the creator God, and gave fresh expression to what that equality meant by incarnation, humiliating suffering, and death.” 7 In verse 10 of the hymn Paul quotes a verse from Isaiah 45:23, “By myself I swear, uttering my just decree and my unalterable word: To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear.” 8 By quoting this passage, Paul is making a fiercely monotheistic statement. He has made a great statement about Jewish monotheism but as Wright puts it, “he has written a poem in praise of the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus, both for its own sake and as a model of the mutual submission required in the church, and he has expressed that praise in terms characteristic of ancient Israel's praise of the one true God.” 9

Another example of this is in a very well known passage in 1 Corinthians 8.6. In this situation Paul is facing the question of how to be a Christian in a very pagan society, in this case whether you should be able to eat meat that was offered to idols. Paul was well aware because of the situations in which he lived and preached the Gospels that there were many ‘gods,' but he also knew the Jewish beliefs on the one true God. Wright notes, “He {God} was the God who revealed himself to Israel's ancestors not least at the time of the Exodus, and he was worshipped and acknowledged supremely in the daily prayer, the Shema: Hear, O Israel, YWHW our God, YWHW is one.” 10

Paul makes a very monotheistic statement, except with Jesus in the middle. Wright notes, “For us, he says, there is one God, one Lord. More specifically, ‘for us there is one God, the father, from whom are all things and we to him, and one Lord, Jesus the Messiah, through whom are all things and we through him. Paul quoted the Septuagint formula, “glossing theos, that is, elohim , within a phrase about the Father as the supreme creator and goal of all, and glossing kyrios , that is YHWH, with a phrase about Jesus the Messiah as God's agent in both creation and redemption.” 11 Within that passage Jesus is established as the same God as the God of Israel.

Another title for Jesus that Paul uses is ‘son of God.' Wright claims, “The phrase ‘son of God' was known in Judaism as a reference to angels, but it is the two other uses which indicate where Paul sees its roots: Israel itself as ‘son of God' (not least in Exodus 4.22), and the Messiah as ‘son of God' in 2 Samuel 7.14 and Psalms 2.7 and 89.27.” 12 He claims that Paul has yet again taken a very Jewish concept and placed within it new content.

A final note on Christology could be noted in Wright's views of the cross. This is the point where the problem of evil comes into play again. Wright notes that, “It is, for Paul, the ultimate point where the ancient problem of evil, as seen in characteristically Jewish ways, is addressed head on by the one God. The crucifixion and death of Jesus is not merely added on to Paul's Christology but the point where it is all going, or, from another point where it all began.” 13 This is where we can see Paul's redefinition of monotheism. Wright again notes, “his Christology, seen in the revision of Jewish-style monotheism, is the context within which we can best understand it. This leads the eye naturally to one of Paul's remarkable periphrastic statements about God: we believe, he says, ‘in the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” 14 Paul here is drawing on the language of the Exodus, or rather a “new Exodus” in which Christ has redeemed them.

A second aspect of Paul's redefinition according to Wright is that of the Spirit. One particular passage that is often referenced in this respect is Romans 8 which draws heavily on the language of the Exodus. Paul in Romans retells the story of the Exodus but the Spirit is the one that leads the people to the Promised Land. Wright notes, “The redemption of human beings, here as in some other parts of the New Testament, is not merely for their own sake, but so that, through them and their new life, the one God can bring his wise order and redemption to the rest of the world.” 15 This is typical of Jewish style monotheism because it brings together the idea of the one God, but also unique in that Saint Paul brings in the idea of the Spirit.

Paul also speaks of the Sprit in regards to Christian unity. In 1 Corinthians 12.4-6 Paul declares that when the Spirit of the living God is at work that there must be a genuine sense of unity. Wright notes, “Where he is wanting to stress this unity against the wrong sort of diversity, he says it in three separate ways: there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; varieties of service, but the same Lord; varieties of working, but it is the same God who accomplishes all in all.” 16 Paul there is making a very monotheistic statement in that he is saying that it is the one God who accomplishes it all, but at the same time he is saying that it is the Spirit of God as well.

Paul also believed that the Spirit of God was at work when the Gospel was being read and this was the way that the one true God was bringing Jew and Gentile together through the Messiah. Wright notes, “In 1 Thessalonians he makes the point more explicit: ‘When you received the which you heard from us,' he says, ‘you did not receive it as merely the word of human beings but, as it truly is, the word of God which is at work in you who believe.' In referring thus to the ‘word' doing its own work, he is speaking as a typical Jewish monotheist, and, when he desires to explain this regular point more fully he draws as we have seen to the language of the Spirit.” 17 This is yet another instance where Paul has used the language that is common when speaking of the one God of Israel to speak of Jesus and the Spirit.

A final example of the Spirit in Paul's literature is that of Ephesians 1.3-14. This letter as a whole celebrates victory over the powers of paganism, and claims the power of the God of Israel over the entire world. In this letter Paul has taken themes of Jewish monotheism and involved Jesus and the Spirit in the middle of them. Wright notes, “Once again Paul speaks of the word of truth, the gospel of their salvation, and of being sealed with the Spirit as a guarantee. Here are the great themes of Jewish monotheism, celebrated in a prayer whose life-giving message focuses on the gift of the spirit.” 18 This takes us to the thought of Saint John . Saint John and Paul had some similar ideas it would seem. They are similar I think in the fact of the Incarnation and the idea of monotheism that Paul professed.

The Incarnation can be most notably be represented in the Gospel of John in the Prologue. John alludes to the first chapter of Genesis when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 19 David J. MacLeod notes, “by alluding to Genesis 1, John made it clear that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament are one. The implication, of course, is that what was originally created was good and not flawed or evil (Gen. 1:31).” 20 This seems to be similar to what Paul was doing.

In the Philippians hymn many argue that Paul is a believer in the Incarnation, thus saying that the one God of Israel was one with Jesus. James Wm. McClendon Jr. notes, “it tells the story of a heavenly being, the preincarnate Christ, the eternal Word, existing “in the form of God (v.6), who emptied himself (v.7); it is this heavenly being, who laid aside his trappings to take up a human existence. On this view, we have an ‘incarnation hymn,' parallel in meaning to the prologue of the Fourth Gospel.” 21 This means that Paul is placing the earthly/divine Jesus on the same plane as God the Father as John did in his Gospel.

Another example is in Paul's letter to the Colossians 1:15-20. This hymn according to Eduard Schweizer, “our hymn praises Christ in a first stanza as ‘the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation, in whom, through whom, to whom all things were created,' in a second stanza as ‘the beginning, the first-born from the dead, in whom, through whom, to whom all things were reconciled. A short middle stanza says: ‘And he is before all things, and in Him all things hold together, and he is the head of the body.” 22 Here Paul is referencing the beginning (creation), but at the same time affirming that everything was and is created through Christ and is one with God.

Another parallel that we can draw from the Gospel of John are from the “I AM” statements that Jesus makes throughout the Gospels. This was the same phrase that Moses heard on Mount Sinai , “God replied, "I am who am." Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” 23 When Jesus uttered these same words, it has an extremely powerful effect. It is saying that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament are one.

For Christians today the message seems clear. Through Paul's mission and his redefinition of monotheism, the churches he created were a definition of monotheism themselves. Wright notes, “Wayne Meeks, in a famous study of the sociology of Paul's communities, noted the way in which the little churches were an expression of monotheism itself. The point is that when people come to believe in one true God over against the divinities worshipped within their surrounding culture, they will naturally form different kinds of groupings.” 24 The point of Paul's redefinition of monotheism seems to be that of unity. Paul brings together very carefully the Jewish Scriptures and his relationship with Christ to form a completely new idea on how the one true God interacts with the world. The point, therefore, also seems to be that we as Christians aren't to simply toss aside the Old Covenant, but to embrace it.

Throughout reading the epistles of Saint Paul it becomes apparent that he was solely focused on his mission, which was to spread the Gospel message. He was focused entirely on Christ. He was also focused it seemed on making the message of Christ clear and understandable to the community of believers that he preached to. Paul used very Jewish monotheistic concepts to get his point across, and he was very successful. The Gospel of John stands out, in my mind, as one of the greatest pieces of Biblical literature. John uses philosophical language to get the point across that Jesus is one with the God of Israel - the point seems to be unity.

 

Endnotes

1 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 85.

2 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 86.

3 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Identity of God ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 5.

4 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 92.

5 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 92.

6 John T. Greene, “Christ in Paul's Thought: Roman's 1-8” Journal of Religious Thought (Summer 1992/Fall 1992) 5.

7 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 93.

8 Isaiah 45:23 New American Bible.

9 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 93.

10 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 94.

11 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 94.

12 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 95.

13 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 96.

14 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 96.

15 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 98.

16 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 99.

17 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 100.

18 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 101.

19 John 1:1 New American Bible.

20 David J. MacLeod, “The Creation of the Universe by the Word: John 1:3-5” Bibliotheca Sacra (April – June 2003) 6.

21 James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “Philippians 2:5-11” Review and Expositor (1991) 439.

22 Eduard Schweizer, “Colossians 1:15-20” Review and Expositor (1990) 97.

23 Exodus 3:14 New American Bible.

24 N.T. Wright, Paul In Fresh Perspective ( London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005) 106.

 

Work's Cited

Greene, John T. “Christ in Paul's Thought: Romans 1-8.” Journal of Religious Thought . 49 (Summer92/Fall92): 44-59.

MacLeod, David J. “The Creation of the Universe by the Word: John 1:3-5” Bibliotheca Sacra . 160 (April-June 2003): 187-201.

McClendon, Hames Wm. “Philippians 2:5-11” Review and Expositor . 88 (1991): 439-444.

Schweizer, Eduard. “Colossians 1:15-20” Review and Expositor . 87 (1990): 97-104.

Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Identity of God . London : First Fortress Press, Inc, 2005.

Wright, N.T. Paul In Fresh Perspective . London : First Fortress Press, Inc. 2005.

 

- Brandy Woodruff