Review – God in New Testament Theology by Larry Hurtado

Larry Hurtado’s book God In New Testament Theology is a discussion of how the New Testament handles “God” (Hurtado uses quotes in the book).  In this book Hurtado is most interested not in the veracity or implications of who God is, but rather in what the text portrays as the belief and experience of the church at the time of the New Testament. Hurtado argues that while the different writers of the New Testament come at the idea of God from a variety of different directions, with a variety of perspectives drawn across a few decades of developing thought, there is nevertheless a coherent picture of God that emerges.  Hurtado likens it to a jazz improvisation, which has various musicians all playing their own variations on the theme. Together they create one picture that emerges from the shared melody into one unified piece even in its diversity.

Hurtado asks and seeks to answer several questions in the book.  In particular, he spends time discussing the relationship between the understanding of God expressed in the Old Testament and the God described in the New Testament.  Are they the same “God”? Hurtado concludes that indeed they are, the New Testament is talking about the same “God” as the Old Testament, but there are some key developments in the New Testament that sets the New Testament “God” apart from the Old Testament “God.”  Specifically, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit as they are portrayed in the New Testament create a very different idea of the one God than is displayed in the Old Testament. While the doctrine of the Trinity as it was later developed, with its philosophy of being and essence are not found in the discourse about God in the New Testament, Hurtado finds the description of “God” when seen with the discussion of the Son and the Holy Spirit as portraying a “triadic” shape in the New Testament “God.”  Hurtado is particularly interested (carried through to other work) in how this triadic shape and the idea of Jesus as the Son of God who should receive the devotion of God followers took form. In this book, he notes that the ideas underlying this triadic shape of God were already so developed when Paul and the other New Testament writers wrote, that they are already assumed to be shared belief among Christians.

This is the idea that most interested me from this book.  Somehow in the birth of Christianity the believers went from a Jewish understanding of monotheism to a Christian understanding of monotheism, with as Hurtado puts it a triadic shaped God. Hurtado is working from an academic view point, and holding the truth of the claims about God in the New Testament at arms length in order to understand the text and belief of the authors and audience at the time the books of the New Testament were written.  My perspective is slightly different. The God of the New Testament is my God, and the writers of the New Testament and their contemporary audience are my brothers and sisters in Christ. But I am very interested in how the understanding of who God is as portrayed in the writings of the New Testament, drafted as they were across several decades, came about.  At what point did the first Christians come to understand who Jesus was and what that meant?

Hurtado’s argument is that the idea of the God the Father, Jesus as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit as one triadic shaped God were already established when the earliest books of the New Testament were written, just a couple of decades after Christ’s death.  Hurtado comments that the ideas were already so foundational when Paul wrote that there is no disagreement or argument necessary, Paul assumes his readers share this basic understanding of “God.”

Hurtado engages favorably with the arguments presented by Gordon Fee in his book God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul.  The idea here is that the references to God, Jesus, and the Spirit are not ontological, but soteriological.  The argument Hurtado is discussing there is that the triadic shape of God as conveyed in the New Testament is the core idea that eventually became the doctrine of the Trinity.  Hurtado lays out the thread of thought, through the implications created by the “triadic” shape of God, that gave rise to Trinitarianism, while taking pains to point out that in spite of the relationship the ideas in the New Testament were not an embryonic Trinitarianism; they were the expression of the belief of Christians at the time.

This is very interesting, because Hurtado argues that the ideas expressed about God emerge from a shared experience of “God” by the early Christians.  He makes this case most strongly in reference to the Holy Spirit, but it is a central point that the shared belief of God that Paul assumes is the outworking of the earliest teaching and shared experience of God for the first generation of Christians.

Here is where I would go beyond what Hurtado argues in his book, not being constrained by an academic approach as he is (I don’t claim to know what he would argue if he were not so constrained, just that my context for considering these issues is not his).  Several of the writers of the New Testament were eyewitnesses to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. They were recipients of the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit. All of the writers of the New Testament were eyewitnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit in the early church.  They had experienced and seen the effect of Christ’s atoning work, and the Spirit’s presence and action in the believing heart. This experience of the triadic shaped God preceded the development of a philosophy of the Christian religion that turned into debates about the essence of the deity within the Persons of the Trinity, debates that took place across the next couple of centuries.  The philosophical debate about the nature of reality had not been fully worked out (and possibly isn’t even now), but the experience of the Persons of God in relationship to his adopted children was the place where these first Christians lived. Their understanding of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit came from reading Scripture, discussing what had happened with each other, and from the teaching from the apostles, but all of this was rooted in the experience that they had as they came to accept Christ as their living Savior and were filled with the Holy Spirit.

I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the earliest understanding of the shape of God was intrinsically rooted in the shared experience of God as lived out by the first generation Christians as they were taught by the apostles.  To them, these ideas were not abstractions about a theoretical God. They were an outcome of the shared experience of conversion and new life as lived out in their first century world, as they were taught by apostles who had in turn received the teaching of Christ directly.  And so Paul and the other writers of the New Testament were writing to believers who had a shared experience and understanding of who God is. It was an experience that included the loving Father who sent his unique and beloved Son. Many had walked and talked and touched Jesus, and seen him after his resurrection, but many others believed what they were told about him by the apostles and the evangelists of their time, and received Jesus as God as we are called to do today.  Then, having been redeemed and being adopted by the Father in Christ, they received and experienced the Holy Spirit in their lives, as we do today. As did they, we have come to know it is true because we have come to know Him, and have then received teaching that helped us to understand how and what that truly means. This is, of course, well beyond where Larry Hurtado takes his argument, but it is where his argument took my thoughts. That was, for me, a productive outcome regardless of his intent in his writing.

There is a lot more that I could say about this book.  I was interested in it as it relates to thoughts on hermeneutics and exegesis. Again, some of that is indirect, as it is not his topic in this book, but Hurtado’s discussion touches on these issues.  Hurtado’s discussion of how the New Testament ideas of God relate to the Old Testament was thought provoking. His discussion of how the different writer’s ideas of God fit together was interesting as well.  In short, there is quite a lot to recommend in this fairly short book. I had some arguments with what he said, in large part because of my different starting point on assumptions about the veracity of the Bible’s supernatural claims.  But overall, it is a thoughtful and well written work, and I recommend it.

 

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