Friday, September 10, 2010

Should Christians "Worship" Jesus?

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?


  1. I find it interesting how important the notion of "monotheism" is to Jews and Christians, yet how hard it is to apply that term to our respective religions. We seem to be splitting semantic hairs, since Christianity acknowledges an entire pantheon of deities, yet insists there is one god, presumably making the distinction on how many of these deities ought to be worshipped (just 1) and how many ought not to be.

    Off the top of my head, we have:

    1. God the Creator (Yahweh, Ancient of Days, El-Shaddai)
    [Worship this one.]

    2. Jesus / the Son of Man (possibly the same deity as the Son of Man/Second Power in Heaven of Judaism, similar to Baal in the Ugaritic religion)
    [To worship or not to worship?]

    3. The Divine Council

    4. Archangels and other heavenly messengers

    5. Cherubim and Seraphim

    6. The devil (supreme malevolent deity) of Christianity (leaving aside references to the Adversary in the OT)

    7. Melchisadec and other semi-divine individuals.

    All these seem to fit the definition of a god or deity as "a supernatural, typically immortal being with superior powers". (definition from Wiktionary) Yet we insist we believe in just one god. It might be more accurate to clarify that we only worship one god.

  2. Paul,

    On one level I would agree with you, but I would not call all of these other figures "deities". Judaism and Christianity walked a very tight line as far as who or what received divine status. Being immortal and having superior powers is not the basis for divinity in Judaism and Christianity.

    On the other hand, I would agree that monotheism (belief in one god) is not always the best way to describe the ancients. Rather, these were people who believed in the existence of many gods, but only worshiped One God. This would be more accurately described as monolatry. Even Paul acknowledges in 1 Cor 8:7 that there are some Christians who still think that the gods of the idols are real and, therefore, the reason why other Christians should avoid eating meat in temples. Apparently Christianity was flexible to enough to incorporate those who still believed in the existence and activity of other gods, but only worshiped the One Jewish God.

  3. To me, these conclusions seems unfounded (we actually know very little about the worship practices of the first century church on a large scale), and unnecessary. If we believe in a Triune God, than why make this distinction. I understand why a conclusion like this would support a "new perspective" ideal about the early church, but I'm not convinced. I'll side with the church Fathers on this one.

  4. Thanks for the reply, John.

    I guess what I'm getting at is that if being worship-able is the distinguishing trait to define whether an "immortal being with superior powers" is or is not a God in Christianity, then Christ's divinity rests on his being an object of our worship.

    I suppose this complicates your question rather than answering it. Christ referred to himself as our saviour, but I don't recall any specific passage where hey said people should worship him as God.

    However, I may be approaching this from the viewpoint of a heretic, since the concept of the Trinity doesn't really make much sense to me. One of the biggest messages I take away from the Gospels is that Jesus was a very different and separate individual from God the father.

  5. Phil,

    Wow, some strong words here, "unfounded"? Have you read the book? I think if you did you might see that Dunn is looking at the evidence. You are right, we know little about first century worship, which makes it just as hard to claim that the First Christians DID worship Jesus as to say the did NOT. What Dunn has attempted is what any other good/historian exegete would do. He has looked at the evidence in the NT and come to a conclusion. I am not sure that this is even a radical conclusion. He is not arguing against trinitarian theology, he is simply adding a nuance to the the situation as it existed in the first century. You appeal to the church fathers, but too often we read the NT through the church fathers, which is not always helpful. Moreover, if you examine the liturgy as it exists throughout church history, Dunn's conclusions fit the picture. Christians do not worship Jesus in and fro himself but as a way to be with God.

    I encourage you to read the book. I think that even if you finish it and disagree with Dunn you would find it a valuable read.

  6. Paul,

    I am not sure that Jesus ever refers to himself as our "Saviour", although a lot of NT authors do call him that. And no, Jesus never asks to be worshiped. I think that is the fine line that Dunn is trying to bring out. Jesus is not worshiped as "God" but the way that we access to God. I agree the concept of trinity is very hard to comprehended. It does not appear in the NT. I find it more helpful to serve as the parameters in which the conversation can occur rather than a definition of the relationship between Jesus and God.

  7. Your right, I should read the book. I will get it from the library ASAP (since I am a poor seminary student). Though I do think that Dunn's teaching remains orthodox, I do not find drawing a distinction between worshiping God and worshipping Jesus theologically or ecclesiastically helpful. I agree that we cannot read the Bible through the filter of the church fathers, but I do think they knew more about early church theology and practice than we can gather through our (useful, but very limited) critical methods. If you can't tell, I'm very sceptical of modern recreations. There never (to me)seems to be enough evidence to draw the kinds of conclusions that often get drawn.

  8. Hi, Phil asked me to check this out, so I am, and I'll chime in, albeit briefly. Not having read Dunn, I'll base this solely on John B's comments. It would appear that neither Dunn (nor Byron) are saying anything near that Jesus is not God. Neither does it seem that Dunn is advocating the position that Jesus should not be worshipped as such. I would have objections to raise against either claim. However, the claim that the NT consistently portrays Christ as the means by and through which worship can be offered in Spirit and truth to God seems strikingly in line with Jesus'own claim that He came to "glorify the Father." Paul wrote that though being in the form of God, Jesus did not consider that fact something to be grasped, but let it go. I don't see too much difficulty with the view of Jesus, as God the Son, sought to glorify God the Father in His life and work. Additionally, it seems an accurate reflection of the state of the modern (or postmodern?) church that we can at times worship Jesus and forget that He is only one person of the Trinity. In effect, we can focus so much on Jesus that we truncate two-thirds of God from our worship. This is only heuristically speaking of course, since to worship one does, in fact, must, in fact, include the others. But in the matter of practice it can become problematic.

  9. I think I agree with you J Swope, I think my hang-up is with the term "Jesusolatry". I don't think that this language communicates the right idea. Can Jesus be an idol? The term itself implies that the worship of Christ can be idolatry. I have a big problem with this idea. I will avoid making this distinction, I think it has the potential to lead people in the wrong direction. It reminds me of a church sign I saw a couple of weeks ago in Cleveland, "Follow Jesus, don't idolize him."I don't get it.

  10. Phil,

    I think you are confusing the function of an idol with the actual artifact. What Dunn says is "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." He is not saying that Jesus is and idol but that by worshiping Jesus the way some Christians do is similar to idol worship. It really almost becomes an act of modalism in that we worship Jesus as if he is the only entity of the trinity rather than one part who directs all attention to God.

  11. I understand the difference. I don't believe that Jesus could ever "absorb worship due to God alone." Jesus is "one" with God the Father. I think it is right to challenge Christians to be more Trinitarian in thier worship, but I wouldn't accuse anyone of "Jesusolatry." I think there is a difference. Thanks for engaging my thoughts.

  12. Phil,

    No one is suggesting Jesus is doing this. Rather, it is the way the worshipers approach Jesus that that causes this to happen on a conceptual level.

  13. You are very good at responding - bravo. I worked over my questions for a day and eventually published them as a post here. My questions remain. They are around the meaning of worship and the use of Christ as a substitute for Jesus and the universality of the Spirit and the anointing / election of Israel.

  14. I think that all worship that goes to Jesus goes to God. For me, there is no difference. If by conceptual you mean that there are no real theological implications, than we are not really discussing anything.

  15. I think Paul D is on to something. Christians are not montheists, they just say they are. You can say the trinity is one god, but it isn't. Three individuals cannot be one. No unexplainable mystery.

    A human being cannot be fully man and fully god. Nothing can be all of two things, no matter how many church councils have claimed it to be so. I could say I have a pet that is 100% cat and 100% dog, but that wouldn't make it so.

    Jesus was a Jew who was most probably seen by himself and others as a prophet in the line of other Jewish prophets. After his death, claims about who he was morphed over time into divinity. That sounds like an incredible claim to people today, like, "wow, such a claim has to be taken seriously." But in the context of the time, when emporers could proclaim themselves as gods without getting sent to mental institutions and people believed demon possession and miracles were common, it wasn't.


  16. Interesting bondboy. I'm not suprised that you disagree with me (and that's OK), but I am suprised that you are asserting that God CANNOT be a trinity. Since no one can prove whether or not God is a Trinity, than I guess you will have to assert that one on faith alone.

  17. Guys why dont you pray to the only one GOD . if GOD had son ,that means he might have a family , grandsons ,wifes etc. What is the difference between worshipping to thousands of Gods as 1 billion Indian do and worshipping to 2 Gods (In your case Jesus and his father )
    There is only one God, it is your GOD and all human`s GOD. The creation of Jesus is not different hen the creation of Adam .You are believing that God created Adam from dust , why can not you except that the fact Jesus had been created by the God in a similar way. Theonly differance he was placed in Mary`s womb. The evil is misleading you . Do you really believe that the lies said by church about humanity sinned and Jesus died after thousands of years later to save the humanity. God tells you to use your common sense .Do not be fooled by church which is really an orginisation to use people`s believe.

  18. I am on verge of leaving Christianity. I am being very genuine in my discussions. Jesus seems to be a messenger (only)taken into account the Bible as a whole as well as the early descriptions of Jesus. In the language of the Bible how do we separate the sons? When Jesus was not the only one called son? What is the difference between Adam and Jesus? Adam did not have a mother or father? Is the Bible meant for use at all periods of time? If so why do we gamble, use interest, eat those things forbidden, the women don't cover their heads, celebrate Christmas, birthdays, Easter etc. When none of these things were ever practice by Jesus nor was suggested by him to practice these things? How do we interpret the council of Naisea? There were many of people and apparently books that suggest Jesus was only a prophet and the those books were destroyed after the council. How should we handle the those few blatant contradictions in the bible? Jesus says that he only came to the lost sheep of Israel and that he came to confirm the commandments; wouldn't that mean there is no difference in the message between Moses and Jesus which would make sense that all the prophets came with the same message? Please help my life is on the line here?

    1. Hello bondboy,

      I see that you are confused about the Trinity, as many Christians are. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not the same beings, but they are the same deity. They all have the same characteristics such as power, love, wisdom, and knowledge. Think of it as water, ice, and vapor. They are all One, but in different forms.

      Why was Jesus crucified? Because of blasphemy - He claimed to be the Son of God. So either He was the Son of God, or He was a nutcase caliming to be. There is nothing in between. There is no way that He was only a prophet or good person. We know that He IS the Son of God for many reasons: He resurrected, drove out demons, healed the sick, and performed many other miracles.

      Jesus is simply a Savior and Messenger so that we can be with and worship the Father. "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

      The Holy Spirit is God in the form of a spirit, just as vapor is a different form of water. The Holy Spirit lives inside Christians so we can live a righteous life. We are not worshipping 3 gods, but 1.

      I hope this helps.