God: God in the New Testament

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The New Testament enunciates no new God and no new doctrine of God. It proclaims that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of earlier covenants. What the New Testament announces is that this God has acted anew in inaugurating God's final reign and covenant through the career and fate of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Pre-Easter Jesus

Jesus inherited the Old Testament Jewish faith in Yahveh, which held that God was the creator of the world (Mk. 10:6 and parallel) and the one God who elected Israel as his people and gave them his law (Mk. 12:29 and parallels). Moreover, God promised the Israelites final salvation (Is. 35, 61). At the same time, the sense in the New Testament that God is now realizing ancient promises and is acting anew (cf. Mt. 11:45, an indubitably authentic saying of Jesus) gives Jesus' image of God a sense of immediacy. God was not merely creator some thousands (or billions) of years ago; he is creator now, feeding the birds and clothing the flowers (Mt. 6:2630, Lk. 12:24 and Q, the purported common source of Matthew and Luke ). Not only did God give the law through Moses, but God now demands radical obedience in each concrete situation (cf. the antitheses of the sermon on the mount in Mt. 5:2748). Above all, God is now offering in the proclamation and activity of Jesus a foretaste of final salvation. Jesus' announcement of the inbreaking of God's reign (Mk. 1:15, Mt. 10:7, Lk. 9:2, Q) is not an abstract concept detached from Jesus' own word and work. Jesus' word and work are the occasions through which God acts definitively and savingly. The same is true of Jesus' exorcisms: "If I by the Spirit [finger, Lk. 11:20] of God cast out demons, then the kingdom [i. e., reign] of God has come upon you" (Mt. 12:28, Lk. 11:20 Q).

Jesus issues a call, "Follow me" (Mk. 1:17, 2:14; cf. Mt. 8:22, Lk. 9:59, Q?), not because he advances any claim for himself as such, but only because in that call, as in his word and work in the world, God is issuing the call to end-time salvation. To confess Jesus (Mt. 10:32, Lk. 12:8, Q, Mk. 8:38) or to deny him before others is to determine one's ultimate fate on the last daywhether it be judgment or salvation. The verdict of the "Son of man" on that day will be determined by whether men and women confess Jesus now. Thus, in Jesus' call God is proleptically active as judge and savior. The Fourth Gospel puts it more thematically: God's salvation and judgment are already meted out here and now in the word of Jesus and people's response to it (Jn. 3:18, 5:2227).

Jesus' conduct

Jesus eats with outcasts, and he defends his conduct by telling the parables of the lost (Lk. 15). These parables interpret Jesus' action as God's action in seeking and saving the lost and celebrating with them here and now the joy of the reign of God. Ernst Fuchs points out in Studies of the Historical Jesus (Naperville, Ill., 1964) that "Jesus dares to affirm the will of God as though he himself stood in God's place" (p. 21).

God as Abba

Jesus' word and work are God's word and work because Jesus has responded to God's call in complete faith and obedience. This is brought out in the baptism, temptation, transfiguration, and Gethsemane narratives of the synoptists (Mk. 1:911 and parallels, Mt. 4:111, Lk. 4:113, Q, Mk. 9:28 and parallels, Mk. 14:3242 and parallels), and once again it is thematically treated in the discourses of the Fourth Gospel (e.g., Jn. 8:2829). This relation of call and obedience is summarized in Jesus' intimate address to God as Abba ("father"). This is no new doctrine, for the Old Testament and Judaism knew God as Father (e.g., Is. 63:16), nor does it imply a claim to metaphysical identity with the being of God or with an aspect of that being, as in later New Testament traditions. Again, Jesus does not pass the Abba appellation on to others as a way of defining God. Rather, he invites those who have responded in faith to his message of God's salvation to call God "Abba" with him. "Abba" is a familial mode of address that presupposes a new relationship with God. Because Jesus first made the response and enables others to make the same response, they too may call God "Abba" (cf. the Lukan version of the Lord's Prayer, Lk. 11:2).

Jesus' death

The saving activity in word and deed that fills the whole career of Jesus culminates in his journey to Jerusalem in order to make the last offer of salvation or judgment to his people at the very center of their national life. As a prophet, Jesus is convinced that he will be rejected and put to death and that this death will be the culmination of Israel's constant rejection of God's word as known through the prophets: "It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem" (Lk. 13:33; cf. the parable of the vineyard, Mk. 12:19 and parallels). Since it is the culmination of his obedience, his death, like all his other activity, is seen by Jesus as the saving act of God. The most primitive form of the suffering-Son-of-man sayings, namely, "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men" (cf. Mk. 9:31), if authentic, expresses this by using the divine passive: God will deliver the Son of man to death. It is God's prerogative to inaugurate covenants. Therefore, at the last supper, Jesus speaks of his impending death as a supreme act of service (Lk. 22:27; cf. the foot washing in Jn. 13:215), which inaugurates the final covenant and reign of God (Lk. 22:29; cf. Mk. 14:24, 25 and parallels). In the references to service, covenant, and kingdom (reign) at the last supper lies the historical basis for the post-Easter message of atonement.


The Easter experiences created in the disciples the faith that, despite the apparent debacle of the crucifixion, God had vindicated Jesus and taken him into his own eternal presence. The early community expressed this conviction chiefly through testimony about Jesus' resurrection: "God raised Jesus from the dead" (Rom. 4:24, 10:9; 1 Thes. 1:10) or "Christ was raised" (Rom. 4:25, 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:4a divine passive). After Easter, for the believing community, God is preeminently the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Insofar as there is any specific New Testament definition of God, this is it (e.g., again, Rom. 10:9). This results in the ascription of titles of majesty to Jesus. At the resurrection, God made him Lord and Christ (Messiah) (Acts 2:36) and even Son of God, originally a royal title (Rom. 1:4). Jesus is exalted to a position as close as possible to God, to God's "right hand." That means God continues to act savingly, even after Easter, toward the community and toward the world through the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. In saving activity, God and Christ become interchangeable subjects: what God does, Christ does at the same time. However, Christ does not replace God. All the titles of majesty declare that Christ is God's agent, not God's surrogate.

The Message of the Post-Easter Church

Like Jesus in his pre-Easter life, the early church did not approach Israel with a new doctrine of God. Its message was that God had decisively inaugurated the fulfillment of his promises in the career and fate of Jesus of Nazareth, and above all in his resurrection. This is the burden of the sermons in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles: "Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and signs which God did through him this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God God raised him" (Acts 2:2224).

The Hellenistic-Jewish mission

Members of the Greek-speaking Jewish community, initially led by Stephen (Acts 6, 7), first found themselves preaching the Christian message to Greek-speaking non-Jews (Acts 11:20). In approaching them, it was found necessary to change tactics. Instead of launching straight in with the Christ event as God's act of salvation, they had to start further back, with belief in God. Because these non-Jewish Greeks came from a pagan and often polytheistic environment, it was necessary first to establish belief in the one God before speaking about what this God had done in Christ and was now doing salvifically. In other words, the Hellenistic-Jewish Christians needed an apologetic for monotheism, arguments for the existence of the one God, in their mission to non-Jews. They were able to draw upon the apologetic that had earlier been worked out by Greek-speaking Jews in their approach to the pagan world. One of the earliest references to such an apologetic for monotheism is attested to by Paul when he reminds the Thessalonians of his original preaching to them before their conversion to Christianity: "You turned from idols to serve a living and true God" (1 Thes. 1:9). Note how this precedes the second part of the message: "and to wait for this Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead" (1 Thes. 1:10). A further example of Pauline apologetic for monotheism, and a claim that creation contains a natural revelation of God and his moral demands, occurs in Romans 1:1832 and 2:1415. Humanity has, however, frequently rejected this revelation and disobeyed God's moral demands, and Paul seeks to recall pagans to such knowledge and obedience. He sees a close connection between idolatry and immorality: "They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lust of their hearts to impurity" (Rom. 1:2324). Later examples of an apologetic for monotheism are to be found in Acts 14:1517, addressed to an unsophisticated audience, and in Acts 17:2429, addressed to a cultured one.

Pauline theology

Paul's theology is entirely occasional, that is, it was worked out in response to concrete problems in the Christian communities he knew. The focus of his theology is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its saving consequences. He inherited from the liturgical tradition an understanding of Christ's death as a sacrifice. It was the blood that inaugurated the new covenant (1 Cor. 11:25). Christ was the paschal lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). But Paul did not develop these sacrificial images in his reflection on Christ's death, perhaps because such language tended to drive a wedge between Jesus and the Father, as though the sacrifice was offered in order to propitiate or appease an angry deity. The language of the (probably pre-Pauline) hymn in Romans 3:2526, especially the word translated in the King James Version as "propitiation" (Gr., hilastērion ), might be taken in that way. But God is the initiator in the atoning death of Christ ("whom God set forth"), and the word is better translated "expiation," as in the Revised Standard Version. This means that the crucifixion was an act of God dealing with and removing sin, the barrier between God and humanity, rather than an act of Christ directed toward God. It is an act of God's reconciling love, directed toward sinful humanity (Rom. 5:8). Through it God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Reconciliation, like expiation, is a word denoting God's activity toward us, rather than Christ's activity toward God. Christ does not reconcile the Father to humanity, as traditional theology has often asserted (see, e.g., article 2 of the 1563 Thirty-nine Articles), rather, "God in Christ was [or, was in Christ] reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). Justification and reconciliation (two slightly different images for the same reality) are expressions of the righteousness of God, a central concept in Paul's thinking about God. Righteousness is both an attribute and an activity of God; it is God's action of judging and saving.

A writing on the fringe of the Pauline corpus, not by Paul himself, is the Letter to the Hebrews, which interprets the saving act of God in Christ in terms of Christ as the high priest. Once again, this author is careful not to drive a wedge between God and Christ. As high priest, Christ does not offer a sacrifice to God for the purpose of propitiation. Rather, the Son offers his life in perfect obedience to the Father (Heb. 10:510) in order to make purification for sin. As in Paul, the object of Christ's deed is not God, but sin.

The Incarnation and the Being of Christ

All levels of tradition in the New Testament examined thus far speak of Christ's relation to God in functional terms. He is commissioned, called, and sent as divine agent. God is present with and in him and active through him. These biblical traditions do not raise the question about Jesus' personal identity in relation to God. There is no discussion of Jesus' "divinity" or of his "divine nature" in the earliest sources; these are Greek rather than Hebrew concepts. But given the exalted status of Jesus, which the Christian community believed him to have received at Easter, it was inevitable that the question of Jesus' identity would eventually be raised, especially in the Greek-speaking world. Such reflection initially employed the concept of the divine wisdom to elucidate the revelatory work of Jesus. Historically, Jesus had appeared as a spokesman for the divine wisdom, using the speech forms of the wisdom tradition as these are seen, for example, in Proverbs. The content of Jesus' wisdom utterances contained an implicit claim that he was wisdom's last and definitive spokesman; this view is drawn out explicitly in the Q material (Mt. 11:2527, Lk 10:2122, Q). Matthew himself even identifies Jesus with wisdom, although in a functional rather than ontological sense (Mt. 11:2830; cf. Sir. 24:29, 51:2326).

In first-century Judaism, however, the concept of God's wisdom was advancing beyond the stage of poetical personification of an aspect of God's activity, toward a hypostatization (i.e., an attribution of distinct, concrete existence) of an aspect of the being of God. As such, the wisdom of God was an outflow of his being, through which he created the world, became self-revelatory to humanity, called Israel, gave the law, and came to dwell with Israel's notables, such as Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, but this wisdom was constantly rejected by most of the people. In certain hymns in the New Testament (Phil. 2:611, 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:1520, Heb. 1:13) the career and fate of Jesus are linked to this earlier activity of wisdom (though the term wisdom itself is not used); a single, continuous subject covers the preincarnate activity of wisdom and the earthly career of Jesus. The result is that Jesus becomes personally identified with the hypostatized wisdom of God. The agent of creation, revelation, and saving activity finally becomes incarnate in Jesus. But this development occurs only in hymnic materials and at this stage is hardly the subject of theological reflection.

Johannine incarnation Christology

The final step toward an incarnation Christology is taken in the Johannine literature, especially in the Fourth Gospel. This gospel is prefaced by the Logos hymn (Jn. 1:118). Logos ("word") was used as a synonym for the divine wisdom in the later wisdom literature. In this hymn logos is equated with, yet distinguishable from, the being of God: "In the beginning was the word [logos ] and the word was with God and the word was God" (Jn. 1:1), which may be paraphrased as "God is essentially a self-communicating God. This self-communication was a distinct aspect within God's being, related to him, and partaking in his divine being."

The hymn goes on to speak of the activity of the Logos as the agent of creation, revelation, and redemption and finally states that the Logos became flesh, that is, incarnate (Jn. 1:14). There could be no clearer statement of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth with an aspect of the very being of God. In the rest of this gospel, the evangelist sets forth the life of Jesus as the incarnation of the divine wisdom, or Logos. (After John 1:14 neither wisdom nor logos is used in the Fourth Gospel, but imagery from the wisdom/Logos tradition is appropriated, especially in the "I am" sayings.) Jesus speaks as one fully conscious of personal preincarnate existence within the being of God. It is significant, however, that this new "high" Christological language does not replace the "lower" Christology, which speaks in terms of call, commission, and the response of obedience. Apparently John understands his "higher" Christology to be an interpretation of the "lower," refraining from abandoning the terms in which the pre-Easter Jesus spoke and acted. Much of later traditional church Christology has ignored the presence of these two levels in John and has rewritten the earthly life of Jesus exclusively in terms of the "higher" Christology.

Is Jesus God?

Only very cautiously and gradually does the New Testament use the predicate God for Jesus. First, there are possible examples in some Pauline doxologies (e.g., Rom. 9:5), although there are problems of text, punctuation, and grammar that make it difficult to decide whether in such passages Paul actually does equate Jesus with God. Then the Letter to the Hebrews transfers Old Testament passages that speak of Yahveh-Kurios (Lord) to Christos-Kurios (e.g., Heb. 1:10). Only the Johannine writings directly and unquestionably predicate the deity of Christ. First, he is the incarnation of the Logos that was God. Then, according to the now generally accepted reading, he is the "only-begotten God" during his incarnate life (Jn. 1:18). Finally, Thomas greets the risen Christ as "my Lord and my God" (Jn. 20:28). Then 1 John sums it up by predicating God as the preexistent, incarnate, and exalted one in a summary formula: "in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life" (1 Jn. 5:20). Thus the New Testament can occasionally speak of Jesus as God, but always in a carefully nuanced way: he is not God-as-God-is-in-himself, but the incarnation of that aspect of the being of God which is God-going-out-of-himself-in-self-communication.

The Trinity

There is a triadic structure in the Christian experience of God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, believers know Jesus Christ as the revelation of God the Father. This experience becomes crystallized in triadic formulas (2 Cor. 13:13, Mt. 28:19) or in unreflected theological statements (1 Cor. 12:46). But there is no attempt to work out a doctrine of the Trinity, or to integrate the Old Testament Jewish faith in the oneness of God with the Christian threefold experience. Like the doctrine of the incarnation, this was left to the postNew Testament church.

See Also

Apologetics; Atonement, article on Christian Concepts; Incarnation; Jesus; Justification; Paul the Apostle; Theology; Trinity; Wisdom; Wisdom Literature.


Ashton, John. Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Oxford, 1991. Shows how agents of God's revelation and action could be called "god" in pre-Christian Judaism. These agents include Moses, the angels, Wisdom, and Logos. This provides background for Jesus to be called "God" in a carefully nuanced sense occasionally in the Johannine writings.

Bornkamm, Günther. Jesus of Nazareth. New York, 1960. Not a life of Jesus, but a presentation of those dimensions of his message and career that can be critically reconstructed. The chapter entitled "The Will of God" (pp. 96152) draws out Jesus' teaching on God.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. 2 vols. in 1. New York, 19511955. The classic work of the leading New Testament scholar of the twentieth century. Especially serviceable in reconstructing the monotheistic preaching of the Hellenistic Jewish-Christian community aside from Paul; see vol. 1, pp. 6392.

Das, A. Andrew, and Frank J. Matera, eds. The Forgotten God: Perspectives in Biblical Theology. Louisville, Ky., 2003). A collection of essays in honor of Paul Achtemeier, this work relates the biblical conceptions of God in their unity and diversity to the major themes of biblical theology such as Christology, pneumatology, and anthropology.

Dunn, James D. G. Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. Philadelphia, 1980. An investigation of all possible lines of development of preexistence-incarnation Christology in the New Testament. Dunn finds this type of Christology exclusively in the Johannine writings. In keeping with the more usual scholarly view I have located such Christology in those earlier Christological hymns that indentify Christ as the incarnation of preexistent wisdom.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert. God the Father: Theology and Patriarchy in the Teaching of Jesus. Philadelphia, 1979. Particularly concerned with the viability of the Father image in a postpatriarchal culture.

Lampe, G. W. H. God as Spirit: The Bampton Lectures of 1976. Oxford, 1977. The last work of this major British biblical scholar and theologian. Lampe finds the distinctively biblical view of God in the concept of God as Spirit. Jesus is for him the final human bearer of the Spirit but is not ontologically identical with an aspect of the divine being.

Martin, Ralph P., and Peter Toon, eds. Reconciliation: A Study of Paul's Theology. Atlanta, 1981. Investigates the leading themes of Paul's doctrine of salvation with special concentration on the passages dealing with reconciliation. Martin stresses that atonement is something done by God in Christ for humanity, not by Christ to God.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis, 1996. A major thesis of this work is that Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God (eschatology) was not an announcement of the end of history as such, but the inauguration of Israel's renewal, a return from exile, the end of history as Israel has known it. Some other scholars, such as E. P. Sanders and J. P. Meier, have advanced similar views.

Reginald H. Fuller (1987 and 2005)