In my last post I pointed out that some conservative evangelical Christians (maybe others? These are the ones I know about) claim that Jesus, in the Bible, is actually to be understood as Yahweh. I think that’s completely wrong, and in this post I want to explain why.
Again, if someone knows better than I do, let me know. But I’ve never even heard the claim (let alone a discussion of it) until very recently. I wonder if there are any early Christian theologians who have this view? Or even later ones, prior to recent times?
It is not the view of traditional Christian theology, at least as I learned it once upon a time. It was certainly not the view of the earliest Christians; and is not a view set forth in the Bible. The Bible, of course, does not have the Trinity, but when Christianity formulated the doctrine of the trinity, the Father was Yahweh, and Christ was his son. At least that’s what Christians who read their Old Testament said.
Of course the name Yahweh is not found in the NT at all, since it is a Hebrew word and the NT is written in Greek. The NT does not give God a personal name.
When Christians wanted to find another divine being in the OT to identify as Christ, they went to passages like Psalm 110: “The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” Based on what I said in my previous post, you can reconstruct who is talking to whom here (notice the first LORD is in caps and the second not): “YHWH said to Adonai….”
In interpreting that passage, Christians asked: who is it that elevated Christ (“our Lord”) to his right hand? Obviously God the Father. And so God the Father is YHWH, and the one elevated to his right hand is “the Lord Jesus.” Christians appealed to this verse in reference to Christ a good deal — it is is one of the most common OT verses found in the NT, quoted six times (see Matt. 22:4) and referred to more indirectly possibly nine (e.g. Eph. 1:20). These Christians were not seeing Jesus as Yahweh but as his son whom he exalted to his right hand.
Christians such as the second century Justin Martyr also found references to the pre-incarnate Christ in Old Testament traditions of the “Angel of the LORD” who was God’s (Yahweh’s) chief representative on earth delivering God’s message with God’s full authority in the stories of the Patriarchs, e.g., in Genesis and Exodus. Who was this mysterious angel? For Christians he was Christ before he was born of the virgin Mary.
I wonder if the confusion among some evangelicals about the Christian understanding of Christ (when they say he is Yahweh) is because the “Angel” of the LORD is so fully representative of YHWH himself that he is sometimes called YHWH after he is clearly identified NOT as YHWH but his angel. Why would he be called YHWH if he was YHWH’s messenger? It would be kind of like if a messenger of the king comes to you and orders you to do something, you tell your neighbors that the “king” has told you to do something. Well, actually, his messenger did, but he was so fully representative of the king that his words were the king’s.
This happens when the Angel of the LORD speaks to Moses from the burning bush in the famous passage of Exodus 3, as you can see. But the early Christians, so far as I know, were clear on the matter: this was Christ, coming in his pre-incarnate state as God’s chief representative, the Angel of the LORD, who was given such authority that he could be considered as having the full status of the LORD even though he was merely his angel – the view that Christians took of Christ.
Some modern Christians may misinterpret the Christ poem in Philippians 2 this way; I talked about the poem at length a month or so ago on the blog (just do a word search for it). When Christ is exalted after his death, God gives him “the name that is above every name” so that all creation will worship and confess him. That is a reference to Isaiah 45 where Yahweh alone has the name above every name so that all worship and confess him alone.
Possibly these modern Christians are thinking that Christ therefore must have been given the name YHWH, and therefore he *is* YHWH. But the passage doesn’t seem to mean that. The ultimate LORD of all, YHWH, is the one who *gives* Jesus the name that is above all others. It’s worth noting that in this very passage, when God gives Jesus his “name,” it does not mean that he’s made a name switch for Jesus. On the contrary, the passage says that the name to which everyone will bow in worship and confess is *Jesus*! (Not YHWH): “That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.” Jesus’ own name is exalted.
Then how did YHWH give him a name above *all* others? Surely that would be YHWH’s own name, right? Well, yes and no. He did give him the name, but not in the literal sense of “now you are YHWH” but in the biblical sense I’ve been describing (“you now have the full authority of YHWH; what you say and do is equal to the authority of YHWH saying and doing it.”). Jesus now, at his exaltation (not before!) is given equal authority as the LORD himself. He now has the highest name/authority, equal with God. But that does not mean he *is* God/YHWH. Being equal is different from being identical.
Another analogy: When someone says to you, “Open up, in the name of the King” or “in the name of the Law” – the “name” means the “authority.” And that must be what it means in Philippians 2, since the literal name is still Jesus, but the authority the name has is now the authority of God Almighty, Yahweh himself.
And so I simply don’t think it’s right that Christian theology understands Jesus as Yahweh. Well, I guess some Christians do, since that appears to be what they think! I wonder when they started thinking it….