From Messiah to Preexistent Son
By Aquila H. I. Lee
Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/192.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005.
Review by Dr Andreas J. Köstenberger *

This week’s ‘Good Book’ is written by one of our own lecturers. It has recently been given an award at the First Annual Biblical Foundations Book Awards 2006 for presenting "a well-argued, plausible scenario for the early church’s belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God." We congratulate Dr Aquila Lee for the award and the recognition of his excellent scholarship. Here is the review written by Dr Köstenberger for the journal Faith and Mission. [Editor’s note]

* * * *

The author’s thesis is that the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God is the result of early Christian exegesis of Ps 110:1 and Ps 2:7 in the light of Jesus’ self-understanding of himself as the Son of God, rather than Second Temple conceptions of angelic intermediaries and personified divine attributes. He shows that Jewish wisdom traditions never issued in personified divine attributes taking on divine hypostases separate from God. Rather, these enabled Second Temple Jews to speak of God’s activity in the world without sacrificing the notion of his transcendence.

The author also shows that neither Jewish angelology nor the pre-existent Messiah ever exerted sufficient influence on early Christology to serve as ready-made categories for viewing Jesus as a divine and pre-existent being alongside God.

With regard to Jesus’ consciousness, Lee concludes that Jesus indeed viewed himself as sustaining a unique personal relationship to God as his Father. Jesus was the Messiah because he was the Son of God, and his consciousness of divine sonship played a very significant role in the development of early Christology. In fact, Jesus’ self-understanding is foundational for the early Christian conception of Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God. The parable of the wicked tenants makes clear that Jesus was God’s Son sent into this world from above.

Jesus’ consciousness of divine sonship, in turn, laid the foundation for the early church’s messianic exegesis of Ps 110:1 and 2:7 with reference to Jesus (rooted, again, in Jesus’ own usage). Through its messianic exegesis of these two Psalms passages, so Lee, the early church came to confirm what it was already beginning to believe on the basis of Jesus’ own selfconsciousness and his resurrection. In Ps 110:1, the early church found biblical grounding for Jesus’ resurrection as his exaltation to God’s right hand. Importantly, the early Christians did not view Jesus’ resurrection as conferring on him a new status but as essentially confirming the status he already possessed.

The early Christian understanding of Jesus as Lord finds an important point of departure in Jesus’ treatment of Ps 110:1 with reference to himself as David’s Lord who stands and exists before David. This implies Jesus’ claim of pre-existence, which is also confirmed by his statement before the Sanhedrin in Mark 14:62. Psalm 2:7, likewise, was understood by the early church as a prophecy concerning Jesus’ divine sonship which was decisively fulfilled at his resurrection and exaltation. Jesus did not become God’s Son at the resurrection; he already was God’s Son prior to the crucifixion, and his resurrection and exaltation merely confirmed his status as Son of God which he already possessed.

Hence the roots of pre-existent Son Christology are found in Jesus’ self-consciousness of divine sonship and mission and the subsequent early messianic Christian exegesis of Ps 110:1 and 2:7 with reference to Jesus’ status as the exalted Son of God. The impact of the resurrection and the concept of Jesus being literally enthroned at God’s right hand led the early church to see Jesus as the pre-existent Lord and Son of God.

Lee’s study is rounded out by his study of Paul’s references to Jesus as wisdom. Against much recent scholarship on the subject, Lee concludes that wisdom Christology is not clearly present in Paul’s writings. Rather, the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God, aided by its messianic exegesis of certain psalms, led it to express this conviction by using Jewish wisdom traditions. Hence the church expressed the implications of its conviction that Jesus was the Son of God, namely that Jesus was active in creation and co-eternal with God the Father, in terms provided by Jewish traditions surrounding wisdom. Thus Jewish wisdom tradition was not the source for the church’s understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God but rather one way of expressing the implications of this conviction at which the church had arrived on different grounds (i.e., Jesus’ divine self-consciousness and its messianic exegesis of Ps 110:1 and 2:7).

The author concludes by claiming that he has provided a more cogent explanation of the origin and development of the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God than much of recent scholarship on the subject which emphasizes the influences of Jewish angelology on early Christology.

Has the author proven his point? If so, this would be of momentous, almost revolutionary, significance in scholarship on the subject. I believe Lee has in fact delivered what he promised and find myself in hearty agreement with his thesis, without major reservations. I applaud this courageous, original, and groundbreaking study and hope that it will be widely influential in correcting what I have long considered to be a wrongheaded, anachronistic way of dealing with the evidence.

For instance, in his discussion of John’s prologue, in fact, the entire Gospel of John, Ben Witherington strongly emphasizes what he calls "John’s Wisdom" (the title of his commentary on the Gospel of John). If Lee is correct, however, and I believe there is strong evidence that he is, John did not derive his Christology from Jewish wisdom traditions, but rather chose to contextualize his understanding of Jesus’ pre-existence and divine sonship by couching some of the implications in Jewish wisdom categories, which is an entirely different procedure altogether.

Lee’s work also necessitates taking another closer look at the work of Larry Hurtado, who has written extensively on the subject, including Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003).

Overall, Lee’s contribution may be compared to that of Seyoon Kim’s The Origin of Paul’s Gospel on Pauline studies. If Lee’s work fails to exert the influence it deserves, I believe it is not because his thesis lacks compelling force, but because paradigm shifts in scholarship such as the one necessitated by Lee’s work (if accurate) are not always a function of superior evidence but can be expected to be resisted by those who have invested a significant amount of scholarly capital in the currently-reigning paradigm. In any case, this is highly recommended reading on an extremely important subject. What could be more important than the grounds for the church’s belief in Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God?

* Dr Köstenberger is Professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He has kindly given us permission to reproduce his review in our BTW. We have omitted some sections of his review for the sake of the space. Those interested in a complete manuscript can go to http://biblicalfoundations.org/pdf/pdfreviews/messiah_preexistent_lee.pdf.

 

CHAPEL NOTES

Chapel today (July 5) was taken by Peter Lim, another BGST alumnus. Peter, with his wife Siew Hong, had sensed God’s call to missionary work in Indonesia. All packed to leave, in a matter of weeks, the trip has now to be postponed. Drawing from different texts of Scripture, Peter shared with us what his process of preparation had meant for him.

Peter began reading from Psalm 139:1-18. The idea was to affirm God’s sovereignty in the face of life’s circumstances. One important lesson for Peter was that of "giving thanks". Echoing Paul in I Timothy 6:6, Peter reminded us of the place of contentment. Our tendency was to complain, even if we did not do it externally. Peter shared the amusing episode of a colleague who was hearing-impaired and hence depended on lip-reading – and who could therefore read disgruntled expressions formed upon the lips even if they were unexpressed!

He also pointed out how truly abundantly God had blessed us, blessings of which we are seldom aware. Peter recalled, in the process of packing for departure, how many were the "things" he had that he could not bring along, and which would have been of little use on the mission field. In fact, many of the "extras" in life that we have come to be dependent upon, e.g., mobile phones, may well be less of the "blessing" that we often presume them to be.

To Peter, the secret of contentment lies in humility – being grateful alone for what Christ had done for us upon the cross. Citing Ecclesiastes 5:11 & 12, he drew attention to the burdens of the wealthy but anxious, in contrast to the restfulness of the tired poor! If we knew how to be content and humble, we would also know, like Paul, how to abase and how to abound. For Peter, to complain about God’s unfairness was an insult to God’s wisdom and justice.

(Summarised by Ng Seng Chuan).

Chapel speaker on July 19 will be Dr Quek Swee Hwa.

NEWS BITS

  1. The Christian Faith (TS101, 3 credits) by Dr Quek Swee Hwa. The orientation class will be held this Sunday, July 16, at 4 Bishan St 13, Level 3, Room 308. Time: 8pm-9.30pm.
     
  2. Counsellor Development: Personal Framework for Biblical Counselling (CO210, 3 credits) by Mr Yam Keng Mun. The first class has been postponed to July 19 due to Mr Yam’s unforeseen business trip.
    BGST GENERAL FUND UPDATE
    Operating expenses for July 2006 $64,635
    Balance in General Fund as at 1st July 2006 $ 378
    Funds received to-date (7th July) $24,304
    Balance to raise for July 2006 $39,953
    Total Budgetted Operating Expenses for August to December 2006 $300,000
    Balance to raise for the rest of 2006 $339,953

A Blessed Birthday to ... 

Dr Casey Chua 17/7

A/P Toh See Kiat 20/7

Ms Doreen Teo 20/7

Ms Hazel Hok 21/7

Mr Collin See 21/7

Mr Wilfred Chan 22/7

Mr Pierre Fong 22/7

Ms Jasmine Foo 22/7

Mdm Dawn Yap 23/7

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