I (Ben) noted last week about Justin Martyr’s very clear affirmation that Jesus eternally existed and became incarnate in time in his Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 48. In the conclusion I noted the issue of distinguishing between economy (what God does) and ontology (how God is). The economy is clear in that statement, but what about ontology. Trypho has the same question!

Chapter 50: “You seem,” said Trypho, “to have debated with many persons on every possible topic, and consequently are ready to answer any of my questions. Tell me then, first of all, how can you prove that there is another God besides the Creator of the world, and then show that He condescended to be born of a virgin.”

Justin continues a previous argument (about the two advents of Christ) before coming back to this question in chapter 55ff. In chapter 56, Justin provides a lengthy set of quotations and descriptions of the Abraham’s interchange with three men and Lot’s later interchange. His argument is basically that God is present in two places at the same time. Summing up at key points, he writes:

Chapter 56:[11] “Then,” I said, “let us return to the Scriptures and I will try to convince you that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, and is called God, is distinct from God, the Creator; distinct, that is, in number, but not in mind. For I state that He never did or said anything else than what the Creator — above whom there is no other God — desired that He do or say.”  …

[22] At this point I asked, “Do you not see, my friends, that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in Heaven, is Lord of the two angels? When they went on to Sodom, He stayed behind and talked with Abraham, as Moses testified. Then He went His way after His conversation, and Abraham returned to his place. [23] And when He came to Sodom, it was no longer the two angels, but He Himself, who talked with Lot, as is evident from the Scriptures. He, indeed, is the Lord who was commissioned by the Lord in Heaven, that is, the Creator of all things, to inflict those dreadful punishments upon Sodom and Gomorrah, which are described in the Scriptures in this fashion: ‘The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven’ [Gen 19.24].”

He goes on to include discussion of the burning bush and gives this description:

Chapter 61 “So, my friends,” I said, “I will now show from the Scriptures that God has begotten of Himself a certain rational Power as a Beginning before all other creatures. The Holy Spirit indicates this Power by various titles, sometimes the Glory of the Lord, at other times Son, or Wisdom, or Angel, or God, or Lord, or Word. He even called Himself Commander-in-chief when He appeared in human guise to Jesus, the son of Nave. Indeed, He can justly lay claim to all these titles from the fact both that He performs the Father’s will and that He was begotten by an act of the Father’s will. [2] But, does not something similar happen also with us humans? When we utter a word, it can be said that we beget the word, but not by cutting it off, in the sense that our power of uttering words would thereby be diminished. We can observe a similar example in nature when one fire kindles another, without losing anything, but remaining the same; yet the enkindled fire seems to exist of itself and to shine without lessening the brilliancy of the first fire. [3]My statements will now be confirmed by none other than the Word of Wisdom, who is this God begotten from the Universal Father, and who is the Word and Wisdom and Power and Glory of Him who begot Him.

This doesn’t sort all the questions about ontology by any means, but it shows that Justin was indeed aware of the issues. Though later argumentation is framed differently, the ideas of God meeting Abraham in Genesis 19 which is so central for Justin is at the heart of Rublev’s Trinity:


As Brevard Childs and Kavin Rowe argued so well: the OT is not an impediment to the Trinity, it is the necessary foundation on which the Trinity is grounded.

(Public Domain)

Continuing a series of posts about NT Christology, Larry Hurtado recently posted about “Chronology and Ontology“. There, he makes this claim:

So, how can we say that “ontological” categories don’t appear to be operative in earliest Christological texts? Negatively, there is the absence of the sort of philosophical terms that make their appearance in subsequent Christian texts. Positively, the Christological statements that we do have in NT texts seem to me to express claims more of a relational and transactional nature. In various ways, Jesus is uniquely linked with God, and is conferred (by God) with a unique status and role in relation to God.

My thoughts immediately ran to Colossians 2.9, which he doesn’t mention in his post. However, after being questioned in the comments about Col 2.9 and Heb 1.4, he follows up with a comment:

Sure, there are verbal links, but the sentences (and so the connotation of the terms) are different. And remember that sentences are the primary semantic unit, not “words”. So, e.g., in Col 2:9, Jesus is the one in whom “the fullness of deity dwells bodily,” which makes Jesus the vehicle of deity, which is a bit different from the later questions about whether the “Son” and God the Father share the same “essence.” And in Hebrews 1:3, the Son bears “the stamp” of God’s “being,” the term hypostasis used here in its more typical sense, whereas in the later Christological debates the term takes on a new/peculiar sense designating the particularity of the divinity of each of the three “persons” of the Trinity. Again, let’s respect the historical particularities of any text.

I  (Ben) wrote an article on Colossians 2.9–“You Are Filled in Him: Theosis and Colossians 2–3“–and among the topics I treat there is the ontology of this passage. As I point out there, even Dunn concedes how the terminology is relevant:

Dunn, for instance, while defending the latter option [that the dwelling is functional not ontological], concedes that θεότης “was sufficiently familiar in literary Greek to denote the nature or essence of deity, that which constitutes deity.” [Dunn, Colossians, 151]

In response to Dunn and McGrath, I make use of Hurtado’s conceptualities to argue for an ontological reading:

In one of his more recent works, Hurtado notes the informal distinction
in NT texts between discourse and practice, that is, there is a triadic shape of the God-discourse (elevated language about Father, Son, and Spirit) alongside a dyadic devotional practice (focused on the Father and Son). 24 In this taxonomy, the hymn in 1:15–20 reflects devotional practice, whereas 2:9 reflects God-discourse, since it is focused more on concepts than practice. That is, repeating but also expanding the language of 1:19, Paul is clarifying in 2:9 what he means by the fullness dwelling in Christ: it is the fullness of deity. That this fullness is not just God’s presence with Christ is shown through 1:15–20, where the cultic devotion reserved for God alone is now also given to Christ. Thus, 1:15–20 with its devotional practice and 2:9–10 with its God-discourse mutually inform one another.

As part of my conclusions, I write:

Paul’s use of θεότης invites us to consider the ontology of the assertion because the term itself relates to the divine essence. Francis Watson and others have rightly argued that in Paul’s letters that Christ’s function coheres with a divine ontology. Though addressing a later debate, the language and conceptualities of Nicaea can be of help. Importantly, one of the major topics in the Nicene debates was the issue of the coherence of act and being. That is, the orthodox confession was that Christ’s being (ontology) and act (function) cohere so that he is divine as the Father is divine. Thus, although extrabiblical concepts were employed to support the argument in the fourth century, the affirmations reflect the same judgments regarding the “unique divine identity” that Bauckham argues is in play in first-century assertions like we see in 2:9.

Of course, there is much more content and substance to my argument in the essay, but I would argue that ontology is too easily dismissed by Hurtado in this case because he wants to separate concepts and judgments. We should be sensitive to the problem of anachronism, but being too sensitive to it means that we miss the similarities.