I recently finished James Dunn’s book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus: The New Testament Evidence (Westminster John Know Press, 2010). It is an interesting, informative read. I posted Larry Hurtado’s review on an earlier post, so I do not plan to give a full-blown review here. But I would like to provide a summary of Dunn’s conclusions and focus on a particular point he makes in his conclusion.
In chapter one Dunn looks what it means “to worship” and focuses on the terminology of worship found in the Bible. What he discovers is that worship language is rarely used in reference to Jesus and cultic worship is never offered to Christ. Rather worship in the New Testament is more focused on God. Jesus is never the object of praise and thanksgiving. Instead giving thanks to God for what was accomplished in Jesus is more common. Dunn acknowledges that even the rare occasions that Jesus is worshipped is striking. But the picture is more complicated than simply saying, “Yes, Jesus was worshipped too.” If we what we mean is that Jesus was worshipped “like” or “as” a god/God, than the picture is murky. Jesus seems to have been to some degree an object of worship, but in a role that made him the enabler or the medium of effective worship (pp. 27-28).
In chapter two Dunn looks at the practice of worship in the New Testament with a focus on prayers, hymns, and sacred meals. Dunn concludes that Jesus was central to Christian worship. He was the subject of their hymns, their sacred meal and it was in his name that their prayers were said. But few hymns and prayers are offered to him. The focus on Jesus in early Christian worship was not so much on Jesus, per say, as it was on the fact that he made worship possible. Jesus had brought God near to them, prayers were offered to God through him. He was the means by which they came to God (pp. 57-58).
Chapter three examines the concept of monotheism in early Judaism and the activity of heavenly mediators and divine agents. Dunn demonstrates that within Judaism there was a strong adherence to the worship of one God, while at the same time allowing for other figures/beings who acted like God. The Angel of the Lord, the Spirit of God, and the Wisdom of God were all used as ways to speak about God and the immanence of God. It was a way to speak about God’s actions in creation without infringing upon the transcendence of God. Even human figures like Enoch, Moses and Elijah were incorporated into the Jewish religious framework in a way that did not make them “gods”. In fact, in those cases when worship was attempted, it was stopped (e.g. Rev 22:8-9). What this demonstrates is that there was an atmosphere in the first century in which worship of Jesus could arise, but there was no precedent in that atmosphere to which Christians could appeal. These other intermediary figures were not worshipped. (pp. 89-90)
In the final chapter Dunn looks at Jesus’ monotheistic practices and his titles including “Lord,” “Word,” and “God”. Dunn notes that the first Christians called Jesus “Lord” and ascribed to him what the scriptures normally ascribed to YHWH as Lord. But at the same time, Jesus affirmed monotheism, prayed to God as his father and expressed his need of and reliance on God. The exalted Jesus was the mediator, through whom Christians approached God and gave thanks and glory to God. But God was still Jesus’ God. The Christian description of Jesus as “Lord” and “God” probably was made with the understood qualification that there was much more to God than could be seen in and through Jesus. So then, Dunn concludes that the first Christians did not think of Jesus as to be worshipped in and for himself. “If he was worshipped it was worship offered to God in and through him, worship of Jesus-in—God and God-in-Jesus . . . The Christian distinctive within the monotheistic faiths is its affirmation that God is most effectively worshipped in and through, and in some real but finally unquantifiable sense, as (revealed in) Jesus.” (p. 146).
Overall I find the volume to be a balanced and thoughtful review of the evidence. What struck me most about his conclusion was the practical outworking that he brought to his work here. He expresses his concern that (modern) Christian worship can deteriorate in to what he labels as Jesus-olatry. “That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (p. 147). Since idols were intended to absorb the worship due to God, Christians may be doing the same thing in the way that they worship Jesus. That is, Jesus absorbs the worship due to God alone. For Dunn, “the danger of a worship that has become too predominantly the worship of Jesus is that the worship due to God is stopping at Jesus, and that the revelation of God through Jesus and the worship of God through Jesus is being stifled and short-circuited.” (p. 147). Dunn seems to be suggesting that modern worship does (at times) wander away from the paradigm that is found in the New Testament and as a result we confuse God with Jesus. I have my thoughts on this, but what do you think? Is Dunn correct? If so, what are the implications for the modern church and what, if anything, should we do to change it?