Monday, May 11, 2009

Jesus- A Functional or Ontological Christology?

The Messiah/A Functional or Onological Christology?

The Actions of Jesus: Ontology is a branch of philosophy that examines the study of being or existence. For example, when Jesus says, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9), ontology asks questions such as,” Is Jesus saying He has the same substance or essence of the Father?” Ontology is especially relevant in relation to the Godhead since Orthodox Christians attempt to articulate how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all the same substance or essence.

Within the Tanakh, there are Messianic texts such as Isaiah 52:13-53; 61:1-3, that focus upon the Messiah’s "works" rather than his essence or being. Perhaps this is a good indication that one of the starting points in Jewish-Christian dialogue is to understand the issue of Jesus' identity is not only about who He is, but also what He does.

In his classic book,The Christology of the New Testament, the late Oscar Cullman suggested that while the Greeks were more interested in nature or an ontological Christology, the Jewish people were more interested in a functional Christology. In contrast to ontological Christology, functional Christology places a greater emphasis on the "deeds" or "actions" of the Messiah. Some of the visible actions of Jesus included the healing of the sick (Mark 1: 32-34; Acts 3:6; 10:38), teaching authoritatively (Mark 1:21-22; 13:31), forgiving sins (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31; Col. 3:13), imparting eternal life (Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:12-14), raising the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 5:21; 6:40), and showing the ability to exercise judgment (Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:19-29; Acts 10:42; 1 Cor. 4:4-5). These "deeds" or "actions" demonstrate that Jesus is able to perform the same functions as the God of Israel.

As of today, one of the main objections is that Jesus is not the Messiah since he did not fulfill the job description. For the Jewish community, the messianic idea is somewhat pragmatic. In other words,“What difference does the Messiah make in the world?" There are prophetic passages that discuss God manifesting his kingdom in the world by presenting himself as the King (Isa. 24:23; Zech. 9:9; 14:9). The Messiah is also supposed to enable the Jewish people to dwell securely in the land of Israel (Isa.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Micah 5:4-6) The Bible also speaks of a worldwide peace (Isa. 2:1-22; Micah 4:1-4). Hence, since the enemies of God and Israel have not been defeated, death is not destroyed and the world is in a state of chaos, the Jewish community continues to object to the assertion that Jesus is the Messiah that is foretold in the Tanakh.
The term “Messiah,” meaning “anointed one,” is taken from the Hebrew word “masiah ,”which appears thirty-nine times in the Old Testament. In the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the term Messiah is translated as "christos” which was the official title for Jesus within the New Testament. As already discussed, the term "Messiah" is used of those who were of Davidic kings: past or present (Psalm 18:50;89:20; 132:10-17) but it is also used of Cyrus in Isa 45;1 and in Hab 3:13- it is used of a reigning king. The term “Masiah” cannot be limited to one of the aspects of one of the major factors, for instance a ruling king.

There are other examples in the Tanakh where God would annoint a priest or prophet for a specific task. Moses, in his leadership role to Israel, was anointed by God in his role as a prophet and priest. He spoke as a prophet (Deut 18:20), but he also fulfilled the role of a priest or mediator for Israel in passages such as Numbers 11:11-21. The prophet was to listen to God and then speak God’s words to the people. The priests in the Tabernacle were annonted in their service as mediators between God and the Jewish people. The priests had to make atonement (Lev 4:26;31,35;5:6,10; 14:31; etc).The act of atoning involved slaughtering the animal brought for sacrifice by the worshipers, the sprinkling of the blood (Lev. 17:6) and the actual offering on the alter (3:16). To make atonement involved intercession on behalf of the worshiper and the proclamation that was forgiven.

As already stated, in His role as a prophet, Jesus did not use the trademark formula, “Thus saith the Lord.” Instead, He spoke in His own aurhority. Also, Jesus goes beyond the function of the priests function in the tabernacle. Even though the high priest was consecrated, he was by no means sinless and could not offer up himself for the whole congregation. In Leviticus 4:3, if the priest sinned himself, the guilt was not only on the priest, but on the whole congregation. The priest was responsible for offering up a calf without blemish to make atonement. The shortcomings of the priest were a foreshadowing for the need for a better priest as stated in Hebrews 9:11-14.

In Isaiah 53, the Servant of the Lord is seen as a trespass offering, and one who takes the sin of not just a few, but the entire world. This was understood by John the Baptist who proclaimed in John 1:29 “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Furthermore, it is crucial to realize that the Tanakh does not explicitly teach that the Messiah comes once. In Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:3 it is evident that the Messiah is supposed to be a light to the Gentiles. Since Israel’s call was to be a light to the nations and the Messiah is the ideal representative of his people, it is no surprise that the He has the same role. Statistically, more Gentiles have come to faith in Jesus and continue to do so every day.These prophecies are still being fulfilled on a daily basis. It is imperative to read all the messianic passages about the Messiah.

In his book God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Richard Bauckham has asserted that an ontic/functional Christology distinction is not the correct approach to New Testament Christology. While some Jewish writers in the late Second Temple period consciously adopted some of the Greek metaphysical language, their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature- what divinity is- but a notion of the divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. Bauckham suggests that in studying the relationship between Jewish monotheism and early Christology, it is imperative to understand the religious sects during Second Temple Judaism. The one God of Second Temple Jewish belief was identifiable by His covenant relationship with Israel. Various New Testament scriptures demonstrate that while the early Christians used titles to describe Jesus as God, they also clearly believed Jesus was God as evidenced by assigning attributes to Him which were clearly reserved for God. Moreover, they did so in a distinctly Jewish way that at the same time adhered to the monotheistic tradition of first- century Judaism.

While Greeks focused on philosophical matters of the nature of the divine, Jewish monotheism was more concerned with God's divine identity.The God of Second Temple Judaism was identifiable by three unique attributes: (1) The God of Israel is the sole Creator of all things (Isa. 40:26, 28; 37:16; 42:5; 45:12; Neh. 9:6; Ps 86:10; Hos. 13:4; (2)The God of Israel is the sovereign Ruler of all things (Dan. 4:34-35); (3) The God of Israel is also the only the only being worthy of being worshiped (Deut. 6:13; Psalm 97:7; Isa. 45:23; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).


1. Groningen, G.V. Vol 1 of Messianic Revelation In The Old Testament. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 1997, 23-38.
2. Ben Witherington III. The Many Faces of the Christ: The Christologies of the New Testament and Beyond. New York. Crossraod Publishing Company. 1998.


Manuel A. Cedeño Márquez said...
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Bill Carsley said...

I find the approach of Cullman and Bauckham to be very interesting, insightful and potentially very helpful and fruitful. And particularly so since this approach is drawn upon heavily in the evangelical response to Bart Ehrman's most recent book challenging the divinity of Jesus Christ.

I also find it very interesting that this appraoch is basically the same as that found in Baha'i theology. Baha'is have a high view of Christ's divinity, but they define it in terms of an incarnation of God's "names and attributes" (they see Jesus Christ as the perfect image or reflection of the invisible God). In other words, Baha'is seem to endorse functional identity while denying ontologicial identity.