Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Did Christ Come to Please Himself?

In the Advent season above all seasons, we need to know the character of our God and of his Christ well, so we can understand why God sent forth his only begotten Son-- namely because he loved the world and wanted to save it (John 3.16). Thus we must return once more to the discussion of God's motivations for what God does on this earth.

In our recent discussion of whether God is a self-centered being whose prime motivation for doing anything is self-glorification, too little time was given to the discussion of the Pauline view of Christ. Let us be clear that Paul most certainly views Christ as God. He says this very plainly in Rom. 9.5, where in a doxology only appropriate to God, he speaks of 'Messiah..., who is God over all, blessed forever, amen." This same view of Christ can be found in various other places including in the Christological hymns in Phil. 2.5-11 or in Col. 1, for example. This is not really a point of debate for Paul, but notice how especially the term Christ crops up in all such discussions about his being divine.

This brings us to an important, but often overlooked, verse in Rom. 15. Paul is discussing the other-directed character that Christians should manifest, and he says in verse two: "each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. " Paul then points to Christ as the example to follow in this other directedness and says "for even Christ did not please himself, but as it is written 'the insults of those which insult you, have fallen on me." Now this is an important text in itself to show the other-regarding and other-directed character and nature of Christ and his ministry, and it could be reinforced by numerous other texts.

For example, Phil. 2.5-11 is clear enough that the Son of God stripped himself of his divine prerogatives, or perhaps better said, did not take advantage of them (a more literal rendering) when he took on the form of a human being, indeed a servant amongst human beings. This is of course the direct opposite of self-glorification on any normal reading of this text. We could as well point to 2 Cor.8.9-- "for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who being rich, for you impoverished himself, so that, being poor, you might become rich." What is this text really about? The context does not suggest it is about actual money, as if this verse could be used to support a perverse prosperity Gospel. What riches did Christ set aside? Presumably this is referring to the same thing we find in Phil. 2.5-11. Christ set aside his glory, humbled himself, took on the inglorious state of being a servant of human beings, and so redeemed us.

Let me be clear here. I do indeed think that what Christ did redounded to his glory, and we should praise him for it. These texts have nothing to do with an anthropologically centered religion of human self-worship.

My concern is what these texts tell us about the divine Son of God's motivations and character in becoming human, becoming a servant of humans, dying for the sake of redeeming humans and the like. If Christ is the very exegesis of the Father and the Father's character, what these sorts of stories make clear is that not only does God not want us to be self-centered beings, God is also relational, other directed and loving and not a self-centered being.

Were this not the case, we might well expect odes in the Bible explaining how the Father loves himself, and the Son loves himself, and the Spirit loves himself, and so on. In fact, we find nothing really like this in the Bible. Not only is the Trinity in itself other-directed (so we hear about the Father's love for the Son and so on), so the Trinity as a whole is other-directed in its love for humankind. Furthermore, the motivation for loving the world of human beings is not, in the first instance so God may praise himself in a bolder way. Rather it is our job to praise and glorify God for what he does for us.

When we hear in the Bible that God is love we should pay close attention (1 John 4). Notice the use of the noun-- when we say God is righteous, God is holy, God is just, God is glorious, these are adjectives and attributes, but something more fundamental is being claimed when a noun like agape is used. Notice the text of 1 John 4 does not merely say God is loving, (though that is true as well), but by saying God is love the author is saying that God is by very nature other directed. Notice the way the exhortation works there-- "he who says he loves God and hates his brother/sister is a liar" Why? Because the lack of other directed love means the very love which God has and expresses is not in such a person, for God is [this very sort of other-directed] love. This is why the author of 1 John 4 is able to say that when you are loving in this other directed way you are 'born of God' which is to say reflecting the very image and character of God.

What then are texts like Isaiah 48.9-11 all about? On a superficial reading of a English translation of this marvelous Hebrew poetry, and in a modern individualistic setting, it is easy to misunderstand this material. My suggestion would be that you should never read a text like this without reading it in its own immediate context. And what the context of Isaiah 40-48 tells us is that God is all about redeeming his people, rescuing them from exile, and so on, because he loves his people, and has made promises to them.

But here is where the matter becomes complex. Precisely because God has made promises to redeem his people, God's reputation, or as Isaiah calls it, God's very name or name sake, is at stake in the way God relates to Israel. Is. 48.9-11 comes precisely at a juncture when God says that he must act in the way he does to vindicate his own name, which is to say to vindicate the promises he has made. Notice especially the rhetorical question in 48.11-- "for why should my name be profaned?" And of course God is especially concerned with his name not being profaned by his own people! Thus we hear about how stubborn and stiff necked Israel has been (vs. 4), and so he says he restrains his anger, so that his people will not curse, but rather praise him "for the sake of my praise'). By rights, God's people should praise him, but in fact when God chastens them this often leads to curses rather than praising.

Why then does Is. 48.9 say 'for my own sake, for my own sake, I do it'? This sounds quite self-referential doesn't it? But in fact this is another way of God saying-- 'for my name's sake' which is to say 'for my reputation's sake'. Why is that reputation on the line in how God treats Israel? Because of course God has made promises to Israel, even when it behaves badly, so if God chastens them like a silversmith burning up tainted silver, there will be no one to praise God left if his people are all incinerated by God's wrath. And God will have appeared to renege on his promises.

Finally God says "for my glory I will not give to another." Now this has nothing whatsoever to do with some metaphysical issue (i.e. God is glory personified, we are not). It has to do with God not giving his praise to someone else, or better said, God not extracting praise from some other people.

This is the very reason why Jacob/Israel is addressed in the tones it is in Is. 48.10ff. They need to get back to praising God and glorifying God as they did when they were behaving appropriately. Otherwise God's reputation is profaned 'amongst the heathen' where they are in exile.

This entire discourse will be totally misconstrued if it is taken out of the honor and shame context in which it operates. By this I mean God must defend his honor, or else his name is shamed. Part of that is that God's people should and indeed must praise their God and so uphold the honor of their Maker. The language in Is. 48 is almost entirely honor shame language. Why does God not simply eliminate his stiff-necked people? Because not only is that against the loving character of God, he promised to do otherwise. The primary issue here is the integrity of God's character and reputation, it is not a discussion about God's propensity to glorify himself, praise himself, or love himself, much less about how God does everything he does for his own benefit and pleasure and adulation.

I don't ask those out there in the blogosphere to take my word on this. Go and read some good commentaries on Isaiah by legitimate scholars who know the honor and shame cultures of the Ancient Near East, and know how this sort of language functions in such cultures. It is not sufficient to rely on old texts or textbooks on systematic theology whether by the Spurgeons or Owens or the like of this world, or by John Wesley for that matter. These men were not experts in ancient near-eastern culture, and they did not know how the language of honor and glory functioned in such cultures.

A good place to start would be to read two recent more conservative but well informed commentaries on Isaiah--- say Brevard Childs' on the one hand and John Oswalt's on the other. When you do that, you will discover that 'a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean', and always there is the every present danger of reading one's own theology into the text, especially if the only commentaries one reads on the matter are those of ancient systematic theologians, or even worse, you read no sources other than an ancient English translation of the Bible.

Enough Said.


Nick Norelli said...

Thanks for this post! I think your point about some of the 'timeless' commentators not being experts on ANE culture is key. The sociological aspect of exegesis is often overlooked (imo) by those of ilk who say that the Bible is nothing more than a story about God seeking his own glory.

I really appreciated your thoughts on God's other directedness. This seems the most consistent protrait of God in Scripture. Good stuff... keep it coming...


Alvin Grissom II said...

I've personally found the process of studying of what "Christ as God" means to be a bit of a labyrinthine endeavor. Are you familiar with -- and, more to the point, do you have any thoughts regarding -- NT Wright's expositions on the issue?
(Link: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_JIG.htm)

I don't want to disingenuously rip a paragraph out of a very refined paper, but the following paragraph, in particular, is interesting:

Let me be clear, also, what I am not saying. I do not think Jesus “knew he was God” in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself “Well I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!” Rather, “as part of his human vocation grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.”[39] I commend to you this category of “vocation” as the appropriate way forward for talking about what Jesus knew and believed about himself. This Jesus is both thoroughly credible as a first century Jew and thoroughly comprehensible as the one to whom early, high, Jewish christology looked back.

In some of his other works, furthermore, I have read him say, similarly, that it was not a sort of "mathematical knowledge," making the same point.

Ben Witherington said...

I think that while Tom is right that Jesus' vocation helped him understand who he was, this under estimates the implications of Dan. 7.13ff. which Jesus clearly drew on repeatedly to exegete his own ministry, and interpret himself. The word God, in any case, in Jesus' context meant Yahweh. Of course Jesus didn't think he was Abba/Yahweh. The issue is whether he saw himself as the divine yet human Son of Man, and the answer to that question is-- yes he did. Apparently, he used this phrase (Son of Man) throughout his ministry when discussing himself-- his ministry, his mission, his relationships etc. This involves Christological reflection on self, not just a deduction on the basis of one's vocation.


Ben W.

Leslie said...

I was raised in a Christian group that usually goes pretty light on the Christmas season thinking of Christ. In fact, I've found some to almost echo what secular society is saying - take "Christ" out of Christmas. I find it odd now, but anyway, I'm growing to appreciate this time of year more and more if the way it turns our thoughts back to the coming of the Messiah.

You bring up an interesting point here with the OT understanding of God and praise, as compared to the NT understanding. This is something I have struggled with as of late - reconciling the seeming difference between the God we see in these various periods. On the whole, I can't always blame the skeptic for looking at the God we see in the OT and wondering how that is praise worthy. Yet when I look at God's self revelation in the NT, I cannot help but be inspired and encouraged that God is indeed love.

But that brings up my question - how does a God of love do some of the things that he did in the OT? For instance, in 1 Sam. 15:1-3, where Saul is commanded to go and wipe out everyone, including women and children. Perhaps it is a flaw on my part, but I am not immediately struck by the love of God. I recognize God is not only love - he is also just, etc. Still, this seems a bit harsh. I certainly don't believe this is irreconcilable, but I have not yet gathered a solid understanding that left me confident.

Thanks for your encouraging thoughts Dr. Witherington.

Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for continuing this discussion. I know you have received alot of flak in the blogosphere in the last couple of weeks due to this, and to follow it up in a civil, humble manner is very admirable.

Thank you for recommending other methods we can do regarding this matter. Growing up in reformed circles, the only methods of study I knew were to get a KJV concordance, look up a word, study those select verses, read puritan commentaries, read systematic theology textbooks, do Zodhiates word studies, etc. As I'm sure you are too, I am really tired of the proof-text method ("See, God does everything for his name", "See, God elected certain individuals for salvation"), and your recommendations are a step in the right direction of repairing this poorly exegetical and hermeneutical method. Are there any other things you can recommend regarding this?

I spoke with an OT scholar the other day about these passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc., and he said something very profound, which was "You can't always take a contextualized truth and make it universal". Of course we are going to find verses like this in Isaiah b/c the people are in complete rebellion and slandering YHWH's name. However, we can't take this contextualized truth and make it universal for all time.

I hope through all of this, we (both Calvinistic minded people and Arminianistic minded people) have seen God's love for people more deeply. It's great to emphasize God, but don't make claims about God that aren't scriptural. Evidently we were worth Jesus dying for, and that should make us feel worthy and it should make us love our God more. To say he only does it for himself puts a hex on the whole dang thing! Thank you

Alvin Grissom II said...

Thanks very much for your reply. I think that this sort of illustrates part of the issue, when we say that "Jesus is God." It begs the question whether we should even use the word at all, or whether we should stick to more nuanced meanings. I don't think that most people understand/think very deeply about the implications of various usages of the word "god." It's certainly not obvious to a number of theologians and laypeople that Jesus did not believe himself to literally be Yahweh. This leads to some strange theologies, and blistering polemic from Christians and non-Christians ali, who make claims like, "God came to Earth to appease himself. That's absurd!" Well, yes, it is. We then get the hyper-Calvinists claiming that God can do that, if and since it brings him more glory, all but reducing both God's creation and Jesus's work to a bit of a disturbing divine game, in which God is constantly trying to beat his high "glory" score. It also begs another question, depending on the theological assumptions of the person: How can a supposedly "infinitely glorious" being increase his glory? CS Lewis made that point, as I recall. It's not necessarily that it's logically impossible -- it isn't; it's merely that there are a lot of assumptions floating around, which go beyond God's simple motivation of love and infuse it with one of self-aggrandizement, perhaps even at the expense of others, paradoxically...

In any case, I'm still a bit confused regarding this issue, and it's certainly not for lack of trying. Ontological questions aside, it would seem that Jesus wasn't terribly interested in abstract theological questions for their own sake, but rather focused on substantive symbolic actions and parables. (Or it could just be that the Gospel writers didn't think that that's what was most important to write). I don't think that it's presumptuous for me to say that any Christology will be ultimately inadequate, incomplete, and probably wrong on a number of unknowable levels.

I guess that what I'm getting at is that there is so much we don't know, and, as time passes, I see more and more that we, as Christians, if we are to be certain about anything, it should be God's love. We could get almost everything else wrong, but we should at least get that. If we did this, ludicrous theologies which depict God as narcissistic (or even hedonistic) wouldn't be possible. It seems to me that, often when Jesus took the time to argue theology in the Gospels, he was correcting which some sort of unloving attitude had arisen as a result of an errant theology. As such, I'm glad that you've expounded on this one.


Anonymous said...

Was there a point when He realized who He was, or did He know from the start? At 12 He seemed to have an understanding of His relationship to God that would have bordered on blasphemy for any other Jew, especially one of such a young age.

Unknown said...

What do you think scripture teaches about why God is concerned with upholding the honor of his name/reputation?

Ben Witherington said...

God is concerned about his name because of the claims God makes and promises he makes on the basis of his name. Its a case of truth in advertising.

As for why a God of love would instigate a harem, you need to have a sense of progressive revelation here. God was working with mostly hard-hearted and violent people. It says more about their character than it does about God's. See Peter Craigie's little book on war in the OT.


Unknown said...

Do these promises ultimately rest on and express the very nature of who God is and his expression of himself to fallen humans? Would you say that God is the most glorious being because he is the very definition of love itself? Thanks

Anonymous said...

"We then get the hyper-Calvinists claiming that God can do that, if and since it brings him more glory, all but reducing both God's creation and Jesus's work to a bit of a disturbing divine game, in which God is constantly trying to beat his high "glory" score.

How can a supposedly "infinitely glorious" being increase his glory? CS Lewis made that point, as I recall. It's not necessarily that it's logically impossible -- it isn't; it's merely that there are a lot of assumptions floating around, which go beyond God's simple motivation of love and infuse it with one of self-aggrandizement, perhaps even at the expense of others, paradoxically..."

From my reading, of the people you consider "Hyper-Calvinists", it appears that you have not actually read any reformed theology, and if you have you are not representing it correctly. Either way you are misrepresenting a position, which in my opinion is an unethical action on your part.

If you have read any of the criticism's of Dr. Witherington's critique of reformed theology you would have realized that Reformed theology does not teach any of the following propositions:

1) "God needs glory": This is not taught in Reformed circles that would violate his aseity. If you know any Reformed scholars that deny God's aseity, then you should let me know.

2) That the glory spoken of in this context as something God "needs", Piper speaks of God's "glory" in his books as the MANIFESTATION of God's holiness. This would of course tie into Dr. Witherington's comments in the combox about God upholding his name because he makes promises, and he cannot break those promises. What kind of God would God be if he broke promises?

I quote Dr. Witherington,

"God is concerned about his name because of the claims God makes and promises he makes on the basis of his name. Its a case of truth in advertising."

Piper says the exact same thing. I will post more on that later on my blog.

" it isn't; it's merely that there are a lot of assumptions floating around, which go beyond God's simple motivation of love and infuse it with one of self-aggrandizement, perhaps even at the expense of others, paradoxically..."

Again, "self-aggradizement" may not be the right word, although I guess we could accuse God of doing that by "holding up his name". Is God worried about what humans think? Why ever would he do that? unless he did not want to have his reputation taken through the mud?

C.P.O. said...

Thanks for a great follow-up. It reminds me a bit of Moltmann's theology which also emphasizes the other-directed, loving nature of God. Maybe a trinitarian emphasis is a good way to help people get out of the dead end thinking that states that God is primarily concerned about Himself.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Reformed Baptist:

You must not have been paying attention when in the previous glory post I mentioned that I had read almost all the major Reformed theologians of note, both ancient and modern. The problem lies less with Calvin himself, and more with some of the modern exponents of a certain sort of Calvinistic reading of the glory texts in the Bible.

And Shea, yes, I think that is a fair way to put it.


Ben W.

Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington,

Could you give an estimate as to what percentage of evangelical scholarship believes God is this way (his chief end being to glorify himself)?

I only ask b/c it seems extremely prevalent and popular, and I have rarely heard the other side. Also, what do you think has driven so many people to believe in God this way (what are the causes)?

Around my circles, I get weird looks, proof-texts, and Piper quotes any time I bring the other side up! Thanks

Anonymous said...

Dr Witherington,

I do not think that I said you miss read anyone. As far as my post was concerned I was not disagreeing with you, I was pointing out the fallicousness of what Alvin said, not you. I actually quoted your post favorably.

By the way your second post was much better than your first, it actually bothered me that you would misconstrue another persons theology as badly as you did in your first post. I thought the quote about "Divine Narcissism was a rhetorical ploy more than an argument.

You are a very good scholar, so I am not saying anything to take away from that. I am just asking you give the same respect to other views as I think they (schreiner, piper) would give to yours.

You have even made me think more deeply about my positions, so please do not take what I said the wrong way.

In Christian Love,

P.S. you had an email correspondance a few years back with me over the NT that answered some very difficult questions that I had, so you have my respect.

James W Lung said...

I agree with Todd. Focus on the Trinity.

I have a friend who thinks that the essence of God is his holiness. "If you could put God in a pot and boil Him down to his essence, what you'd have left is Holiness."

My response was that if you could put God in a pot and boil Him, you'd get more, not less.

The point is that any discussion of God that does not start with the Holy Trinity is an exercise in futility.

Thank God for the East. "The substance of God, 'God,' has no ontological content, no true being, apart from communion." John D. Zizioulas, BEING AS COMMUNION, 17.

God cannot have a "chief end." The communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in love is all there is.


Alex said...

Good point about God being Yahweh. I was just going to point out it was interesting how in this quote Wright capitalized the word God while in NTPG he points out his reasoning for lowercasing it in the introduction. So if we equate the Wright's oft repeated "god of Israel" with the name Yahweh, and then equate Yahweh with the Father, then I agree that no, Jesus did not think he was god. But in the modern Christian sense of the word God (capital G), then yes I think he thought/knew he was God.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,

I just wanted to say thank you for all that you are doing and for your insight on the issues that we all wrestle with. I stumbled across your blog several months ago and have been reading ever since. I've really been blessed, and informed, by all that you have written.

I attended a very prominent Southern Baptist Seminary and received my Master of Divinity, and was blown away by what I encountered during my years there. I had never heard many of the issues that we are dealing with on these posts. I was continually floored as I observed something that I was wondering if possibly you could address; Why is it that the more educated people tend to be theologically, the more complicated things are made out to be. I was warned before I headed to seminary that I would lose the innocence I had. My eyes were opened to say the least, what a precious time of refining and learning. I grew more and saw more than I ever expected. I'm amazed at the fierceness of the debate that is growing among calvinists and arminians. I often wonder how those who have no idea who Jesus is perceive what is taking place? I've developed such a passion for knowing why I believe what I believe - not just knowing about what I believe. I think a hurting world longs for answers.

As I have been reading your posts, especially this one and the other post regarding God being a narcissist - I keep asking myself - have we lost a sense of awe and wonder at the simplicity of so many of the verses that get thrown around for no other reason except debate - I read John 3:16 again as a believer of many many years, my goodness. What a beautiful picture of a God who loves us so sacrificially. As I read and re-read the gospels, I don't know how anyone can come away with the notion that the only reason God acts is to please Himself.

Matthew 20:28 NASB
"just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many."

A suffering servant? Who would have ever thought to draw that description up for the King of the Universe? And to think Jesus commanded us to love each other, even our enemies? Goodness...

God Bless you!

Bryan C. Bailey

omakase said...

reformed baptist, often times when two sides of any theology engage in issues with each other, there is a presumed ability that both parties have in terms of their own ability for emic and etic analysis of the other. however, this ability is often absent no matter how irenic someone sounds. this is true with schreiner, piper, and even people like michael horton.

graham old said...


Do you think it is better, or sufficient to say (as I think Sam Storms take on Piper does), that 'God's greatest pleasure is our greatest pleasure in Him.'

Though, knowing Storms appreciation for Piper, it still sounds like an attempt to say that same thing in a more appealing way, I can cope with that. I think that when it is then grounded in a trinitarian theology, it can even be quite helpful.