Monday, March 08, 2010

McDonough - Christ the Creator

Sean McDonough
Christ as Creator: Origins of a New Testament Doctrine
Oxford: OUP, 2010.
Available at

In this book Sean McDonough examines the origins of the NT statements that the world was made "through" Jesus Christ (1 Cor 8.6; Col 1.15-20; John 1.1-3; Heb 1.2). For McDonough the answer lies not in the application of categories drawn from Hellenistic Judaism (who did not alone have the problem of finding mediators between heaven and earth), but was from the memory of Jesus and his redefinition of Messiahship. McDonough asks why Christ was attributed a role in creation. To which he answers: "The mighty works of Jesus, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, and the climatic events of the crucifixion and resurrection, clearly marked him as the definitive agent of God's redemptive purposes. But these mighty works could scarcely be divorced from God's creative acts. The memories of Jesus preserved in the gospels depict a man who brings order to the threatening chaotic waters, creates life out of death, and restores people to their proper place in God's world ... Reflections of these memories of Jesus, coupled with the experience of forgiveness and renewal on the part of the early Church, led to a startling but elegant (theo-)logical conclusion: If the one true God had sent Jesus the Messiah as the definitive agent of redemption, and if this redemption was at one level simply the outworking of the project of creation (a view with ample precedent in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East in general), it must be that the Messiah was the agent of creation as well" (pp. 2-3).

1. Sean, how did you come to this topic of Christ as Creator and the search for its origin?

SM: If your readers might indulge a bit of personal reminiscence, I had always been a nature lover in my youth. But when I became a Christian at the age of 18, I somehow got the idea that an appreciation for the material world must be inherently "unspiritual". It has been a long journey back to a healthy appreciation of all that God has made through Christ. So my interest in this topic is an outgrowth of a general concern with the theology of creation. Colin Gunton's book The Triune Creator sparked my thinking as much as anything. I also owe debts to my mentors Greg Beale and Richard Bauckham for shaping my thinking on creation, new creation, and Christology.

2. Often it has been thought that attribution of a Wisdom theology to Christ accounts for postulations of his role in creation. However, this view has recently fallen on hard times with numerous critiques (e.g., S. Gathercole, G. Macaskill, A. Lee). What are your own thoughts on the matter?

SM: I was never quite happy with the idea that commentators could toss out a few references to Proverbs 8 or the Wisdom of Solomon and imagine that they had thereby accounted for the problem of how creation was attributed to Christ. Ancient Jewish thinkers in fact wrote in all sorts of different ways about the way God went about creating the world: he is said to do it through his word, or by his Spirit, or by his name, as well as by his Wisdom; and there are also texts that associate his glory with the act of creation. If anything, word and Spirit are the dominant conceptions. Jewish writers typically speak of Wisdom when they want to affirm that the world is an amazing place that displays God's intelligence at every turn. I don't deny that some Wisdom texts might have contributed some vocabulary for the NT writers, but I find it extremely unlikely that there was some universally accepted idea that God created through Wisdom, full stop, and that Jesus was just slotted in there in place of Wisdom as "market positioning" for the new faith. I might add that I view "hypostatic Wisdom" as a slippery and unhelpful phrase. The majority of writers simply use personification when they speak about Wisdom, and the Wisdom of Solomon uses it as a kind of periphrasis for the power of God, akin to the Stoic logos. I don't think many Jews imagined there was really a lady up in the sky who helped God out in creating the world.

3. In chapter four you refer to creation as the beginning of the dominion of the Messiah. Could unpack on how you reach that conclusion and what role it has in your thesis?

SM: There are three main considerations here. The first is the general significance of Messiah/Christ in early Christian thought. I find it unbelievable, for instance, that the Pharisee, or ex-Pharisee, Paul could discover that Jesus is the Messiah, and then act as if this were no big deal. Imagine Paul telling Gentiles to give their lives over to "the Smeared One" (Hengel's rendering of Christos, with an appropriate sense of strangeness), and responding to queries about what that could possibly mean by saying, "Oh, don't worry about it, it's just Jesus' second name." It strikes me as exponentially more likely that Paul and the other Christians would have developed their "Christology" as a very self-conscious reflection on what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Of course this involved all sorts of modifications of traditional conceptions in light of Jesus' radical redefinition of what it meant to be the Messiah -- but it is still messianic thinking. The second consideration is that the key creation texts in Colossians and Hebrews focus on Jesus' role as ruler: the Hebrews passage is saturated with messianic texts from the OT, and Colossians is at pains to stress Jesus' dominion over all things -- not the beauty of creation which we typically find in Wisdom creation texts. While the world may "lie in the power of the evil one", at a deeper level Jesus' doesn't come into a foreign world and take it over for God. He rules the world he made. It is absolutely fitting that he have dominion over it because he created it in the first place. Finally, the idea that Jesus is God's agent in creation -- all things were made "through him" -- is clearly modeled on the language of God saving "through him". In both cases, we have the idea of deputized agency, which is of course the Messiah's calling card: "Sit at my right hand..." etc.

4. You point out that Stoic philosophers and Hellenistic Jews were not the first ones concerned with the mediation of the heavenly and earthly realms. How does a wider ancient near east background help you understand the distinctive creation concept of Christ'd Schopfungsmittlerschaft?

SM: As with Wisdom, I don't want to rule out the possibility that some of the Greek philosophical koine might have shaped the NT writers' choice of words. But people often write as if Greek thinkers were the first ones to notice that the divine realm seemed to rather distant from the mundane one. In the book I note one Assyrian text where the conquering king is described as the image and glory of the god Enlil; he is the god's representative, his agent on earth. This strikes me as at least as relevant for the NT as texts about divine Wisdom. Not that Paul or John was reading such ANE texts directly, of course; but they were meditating on OT texts which were themselves taking shape in an environment where the human working out of divine plans was a part of the landscape. Naturally there are significant differences in the NT and ANE conceptions of divine kingship, but the ANE still provides a more helpful template for working through the problem than abstract philosophical conceptions.

5. In chapter eleven you refer to your own perspective on Christ and primal creation as rather close to Karl Barth's. What was Barth's view and distinguishes your view from his?

SM: I was delighted to find after years of reflection that Barth had managed in a four page excursus in his Church Dogmatics (III.1.51ff) to state clearly what I had been straining to say for so long. Barth's key insight was that all the putative background material is essentially irrelevant to understanding why the early Christians said that Christ was creator. Jesus through his words and deeds created the fundamental problem; he showed himself to be who God is, and then the early church puzzled over how to articulate what they in one sense already knew. They didn't start with a philosphical problem of a world estranged from God and then pump up Jesus until he closed the gap. I don't have any huge distinction from Barth on these essentials (apart from laying much greater weight on the messianic dimension of the NT presentation); I was simply able to address the question at greater length with more of a historical focus.


Matthew D. Montonini said...

Great interview, Mike!

Brian Maiers said...

I'm excited to read this book one day although its a bit pricey right now. Dr. McDonough was one of my professors at Gordon-Conwell. Its great to see him interviewed here!

Deane said...

Throughout the book Schopfungsmittleschaft is used as an object as either a belonging or as an attribute of Christ. How would you put it in english.

Christ' 'role as Creator'?