Under the broad umbrella of the Christian religion, there exists a great divide between two fundamentally different ways of thinking about key aspects of the Christian faith. Eugene Webb explores the sources of that divide, looking at how the Eastern and Western Christian worlds drifted apart due both to the different ways they interpreted their symbols and to the different roles political power played in their histories. Previous studies have focused on historical events or on the history of theological ideas. In Search of the Triune God delves deeper by exploring how the Christian East and the Christian West have conceived the relation between symbol and experience.
Divine Sonship in Israel
Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call
it bottomless? --Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers
Symbols live in time. The images they are rooted in and the meanings that constitute them evolve together in relation both to the times that surround them and to the pull of transcendence that sometimes leads them toward what is beyond time. The word God is itself a symbol whose meaning has evolved over time; this is why one can find books with titles like A History of God and God: A Biography.1 The transcendent reality that Christians, Jews, and Muslims use the symbol “God” to point toward may be beyond time and therefore beyond change, but the meaning of the symbol itself has changed from the years when it was used to refer to what was still a tribal deity more like the gods of Israel’s neighbors—“a great God, and a great king above all gods” (Ps. 95:3)—than like the later, radically transcendent and universal God that begins to emerge in the writings of the prophetic tradition.2 To call God a “god,” one might say, is to say that the absolutely transcendent is analogous to one of those only relatively transcendent figuresthat are called “gods.”
Christian theologians of both East and West have been well aware of the metaphorical character of all symbols used to refer to God. In his treatise on the names of God, Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, discussed the relative adequacy and inadequacy of a variety of such metaphoric designations for the radically transcendent source of all that is—phrases such as ipsum esse (Being Itself), Qui est (He Who Is), and also the word Deus (God) itself. He concluded that although each of these can communicate something true about God, none can be fully adequate. He finally suggested that perhaps the least inadequate would be “the Tetragrammaton, imposed to signify the substance of God itself, incommunicable and, if one may so speak, singular.”3 The reason is that unlike the other symbols, the tetragrammaton, which consists of the four Hebrew consonants Yod He Vau He (or in the Latin alphabet, YHVH) that in the Hebrew Bible stand for the name of God that is never pronounced, is not an analogy but an indicator that one has reached the ultimate limit of metaphors; it points beyond metaphor as such into absolute mystery.4
Even so, those who have professed the doctrines that eventually developed to explicate the meaning of the Christian symbols have sometimes talked as though the symbols themselves were missives from on high bearing a timeless meaning. But before Christians ever came to use them, each of these symbols had a history, and those histories sometimes led to forks in the road that have left continuing ambiguities. The purpose of this chapter will be to explore the many layers of meaning such symbols as “son of God,” “Father” as applied to God, “Spirit of God,” “the anointed,” “servant of God,” and “king” brought with them out of their past before the early Christians began to draw on them in order to interpret the significance of the presence they encountered in Jesus of Nazareth and in their own new lives in the aftermath and continuation of that encounter.
“King” and “servant” might at first seem out of place in that list. “Son,” “Spirit,” and “Father” are obviously central to the doctrine of the Trinity, and “anointed” is English for the word messiah (or mashiach, moshiach) in Hebrew that was translated in Greek as christos, or Christ, which came to be closely associated with the “son of God” image by early Christians. The close connection between the images of “son of God” and “servant of God” will become clear in a moment. “King,” however, besides being a key element in the meaning of the word messiah, is a nodal point in the ambiguous history of the symbol “son of God.” One of the principal dynamics of the Hebrew Bible is the tension between two competing meanings for “son of God,” one of which refers to Israel as a whole and the other only to the royal line descending from David. The tension between these two possible meanings of the symbol carried forward into the New Testament writings and the history of Christian political institutions and played an important role in the later history of the Trinitarian symbolism in the time of Charlemagne (whose courtiers called him David), as we will see in Chapter 5.
Of course more than only these two meanings for the image “son of God” can be found in the Bible, since the first to appear—at least to one who reads the books in the sequence we are accustomed to, beginning with Genesis—referred not to any man but evidently to some kind of superhuman beings of the sort that would later be called angels: Genesis 6:2 says, “The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose,” who then gave birth to giants, “the mighty men that were of old.”5 This, however, is an anomalous use of the image that seems to have slipped into an early layer of the ancestral tales from pre-Israelite mythology and had no continuing role to play in the Israelite imagination. There are also references specifically to angels, including Satan, as “sons of God” in Job at 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7. In each of these cases, the phrase is simply an identifier for a special type of mythological entity. The symbolism of the “son of God” does not appear in the specifically Israelite sense involving a filial relation constituted by mutual love and loyalty until Exodus 4:22–23, when God tells Moses to go to the pharaoh and announce, “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my first-born son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’” Here there is a clear reciprocal relation between the symbolisms of “son” and “servant,” with the implication that to be God’s son, Israel must heed God’s word and serve God’s intention.
Israel as Son of God
Once the image of divine sonship appears in that form with reference to Israel, the people of God, as a whole, it takes on a life that then continues right through Deuteronomy and the Prophets into Jewish apocryphal writings around the time of Jesus.6 As the association with service to the “Father” indicates, “son of God” is not simply descriptive of Israel’s actual condition, but refers to its potentiality under God’s guidance. God’s identification of Israel as “my first-born son” in Exodus represents a calling to sonship that Israel is subsequently reproached over and over for failing to live up to. In Deuteronomy, Moses describes God’s loving care as a father for his son, Israel, at the time of the Exodus:
“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
For the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the LORD alone did lead him,
and there was no foreign god with him.”
But this is stated in the context of a reproach:
“They have dealt corruptly with him,
they are no longer his children because of their blemish;
they are a perverse and crooked generation.
Do you thus requite the LORD,
you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
who made you and established you?”
Similarly, God’s voice, speaking through the prophet Hosea, reminds Israel of its calling to sonship and its failure to live as a true son:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Ba’als,
and burning incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught E’phraim to walk.
There is another passage in Hosea that refers pointedly back to the description of Israel in Exodus 4 as God’s “first-born son,” but this time with the reproach that those called to be the people of God are resisting being born into that sonship: “The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son; for now he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb” (Hos. 13:13).
Later, especially in Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah chapters 40–66), the symbolisms of sonship and servanthood begin to merge into the special blend that Christians would later use to interpret the role of Jesus. Jeremiah has passages similar to those earlier references to Israel as a wayward but still loved son, as in Jeremiah 3:19–22, “I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. . . . Return, O faithless sons,” and 31:9, “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and E’phraim is my first-born.” Even more important for the Christian future of the symbol is the picture the book presents of Jeremiah himself as the one truly filial Israelite left among a faithless generation, God’s only true son, who is rejected and persecuted for his fidelity. In the opening of the book Jeremiah speaks of how God called him from beyond time into his service: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Jeremiah describes his role as God’s persecuted servant in words that Christians would later apply to Jesus: “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer. 11:19).7
It seems likely that this image of Jeremiah as a loyal son who suffers in the service of God contributed to the imagery of the suffering servant in Deutero-Isaiah, where the image again refers to Israel as a people. Although the first Isaiah opens with the image of Israel as failed sons and the book as a whole still uses that image continuously,8 Deutero-Isaiah begins to shift from the imagery of imperfect divine sonship to the image of Israel as God’s suffering servant, who by his faithfulness under conditions of adversity will be a model of filial loyalty for all mankind. This imagery of suffering clearly reflects Israel’s experience under the conditions of the Babylonian captivity, but it seems modeled at least in part on the memory of Jeremiah’s earlier sufferings in the service of God when the Babylonian conquest was still on the horizon.
It also brings with it a new dimension of universality, since now the suffering of Israel is not simply or even primarily a chastisement for failure to live up to the calling of sonship; rather it is itself the fulfillment of that calling, since by the example of the faithful servant’s sacrificial fidelity “the nations” will be led from darkness to light and brought together with Israel into a new, expanded covenant with universal humanity:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations. . . .
Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread forth the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
(Isa. 42:1, 5–7)
Both Jeremiah’s sufferings and those of the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah became central symbolic elements in the Christian interpretation of Jesus. To the early, still Jewish followers of Jesus who found themselves having to make sense of the paradox of a crucified messiah, the parallels to Jesus in those stories from six centuries earlier, especially in Isaiah 53 (“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows. . . . he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. . . . he was wounded for our transgressions . . . bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole”), must have seemed the essential key to a solution to that paradox. But as people who could still read the Hebrew scriptures with Jewish eyes, they would also have known that in its original context, the Servant was not an individual but Israel itself, so that the application of the image to Jesus involved interpreting Jesus, like Jeremiah, as the true embodiment of Israel.