Sometimes it is popularly asserted that the Emperor and/or the bishops at Nicaea invented the idea that Jesus is God incarnate. Of course, that has been clearly refuted in scholarship, but conspiracy stories are so much fun and more interesting to pass along. I (Ben) am heading to give a lecture at Huntington University in a couple of weeks on Justin Martyr, Paul and the issue of circumcision, so I have been rereading the Dialogue with Trypho and was reminded of this gem on Christology:

Chapter 48 [1]“We have now heard your opinion on these matters,” interrupted Trypho. “Resume your discourse where you left off, and bring it to an end, for it seems to be entirely absurd and utterly impossible of proof. Your statement that this Christ existed as God before all ages, and then that He consented to be born and become man, yet that He is not of human origin, appears to be not only paradoxical, but preposterous.” [2] “I am aware,” I replied, “that my assertion must seem paradoxical, especially to you Jews, who were never in the least interested in knowing or doing the things of God, but only the things of your teachers, as God Himself testifies [cf. Isa 29.3]. However, Trypho, the fact that this Man is the Christ of God, is not to be denied, even if I were unable to prove that He, being God, pre-existed as the Son of the Creator of the universe and became Man through a virgin.

No nuanced reading or sophisticated hermeneutic to get the main idea here. Of course, the ontology of Nicaea is still wanting, but this is about as clear as an economic description of theology as you can get, and this is about 175 years before Nicaea. Irenaeus has equally clear statements about Jesus as God, dating to just a few years after Justin’s work.

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.