Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: A Review

By Bob Cornwall 

Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence.  By James D. G. Dunn.  Louisville: WJK Press, 2010. 

If popular hymnody was to be the guide to answering the question posed in the title of this book by British New Testament scholar James Dunn, the answer would appear to be yes.  The assumptions that underlie the doctrine of the Trinity would also lead us toward a similar answer.  After all, according to the creeds Jesus is divine, and if Jesus is divine then shouldn’t we worship him?   Complicating this conversation is the assumption that the Christian faith is monotheistic, and if Judaism offers guidance as to what that involves, then doesn’t worship of Jesus distract us from the worship of God – whom many Christians name Father?   The question that Dunn seeks to answer in this relatively brief book concerns the New Testament evidence.  If one attends to this evidence, what are we to conclude? 

Dunn notes that this discussion not only has implications for Christians, but it also has implications for interfaith dialogue, especially with Jews and Muslims who have a much more straightforward monotheism.  To regard Jesus as divine, as worthy of worship as God, seems to them an obvious rejection of the oneness of God, more a form of polytheism than a form of monotheism (p. 1).

The doctrine of the Trinity, which is the traditional answer to this dilemma is not only baffling to our monotheist friends, but it is a bit baffling to many Christians as well.  Words like essence, substance, and even person make little sense outside their Greek philosophical foundations.  Whatever theological answers have emerged over time, as Christians have wrestled with and reflected upon the biblical witness, a satisfactory answer to the question of whether worship should be given to Jesus requires us to attend to the New Testament evidence. 

Our ability to offer an answer to the question of whether the first Christians worshiped Jesus requires us to first define what worship is.  A basic definition assumes that reverence or praise is being given to a god or God.   Even here, however, there are complications because the word worship is often used in ways that diverge from that basic definition.  In England judges, for instance, are referred to as “Your Worship.”  Surely judges aren’t gods.  And the Book of Common Prayer uses the word worship in the context of the marriage ceremony in reference to the relationship of the husband to wife.  Being that he is a biblical scholar Dunn takes the reader on a tour through the words used for worship in the New Testament, including proskynein and its relatives.  Used to refer to deference to higher authority, submission, and worship – it is used in relationship to beings other than God.  Although used in relationship to Jesus, the number of cases are few, and the clearest use comes in Revelation.  There are a number of other terms that can mean to give praise, to worship, that have references both to God or to Jesus, but none of these usages are conclusive. 

Dunn concludes that while there are intriguing pieces of evidence of usage that suggest worship of Jesus, these usages are limited.  When used these words most often show wonderment at the “realization that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and in some of the worship offered to the Lamb in the visions of the seer of Revelation” (p. 27).  There is no evidence at all of cultic/liturgical worship of Jesus, and the most commonly used words for praise and thanksgiving are never applied to Jesus.  Instead, thanks is given to God for what Jesus has done.

If there is little language usage that suggests direct worship of Jesus, the accounts of religious practice of the early Christians are not suggestive of direct worship either.  As for prayer, it is almost always directed toward God, and of course, Jesus himself is depicted as praying to God.  The early Christians invoked Jesus’ name and prayed in his name, though sitting at the right hand of the Father he could be appealed to, but does this connote worship?  Dunn isn’t convinced.  As for hymns, many of the New Testament hymns focus on Christ, but they’re not directed to Christ.  Instead, they give praise to God for Christ.  Clearly Jesus is central to the early church’s self-understanding – the church is described as the body of Christ, for instance, but does that connote direct worship?  As for sacrifice, Jesus is the one who offers sacrifice and is the sacrifice, but the sacrifices are offered to God, not to him.  The conclusion?  Jesus was central to early Christian worship, was the reason why prayers were offered to God with confidence, and was the subject of Christian hymns.  They invoked his name and appealed to him for help in times of crisis.    He was the context for worship and its means, but worship was accomplished through him, but wasn’t normally directed to him.

Dunn’s conclusion after reviewing the relevant evidence is that the question posed in the book’s title is far too narrow and thus misleading.  The better question concerns whether Christian worship was and is possible without Christ.  Therefore, we need to pursue a somewhat different question: “was earliest Christian worship so closely bound up with Jesus that inevitably he participated in the receipt of worship just as he participated in the offering of the worship?  Was earliest Christian worship in part directed to him as well as made possible and enabled by him?” (p. 58).  If we are to move toward this broader question of whether Jesus is included in the worship of God, then we must also move toward wrestling with questions about the nature of monotheism and Jewish understandings of heavenly mediators and divine agents.  When we move toward this question many new possibilities open up.  The Old Testament, for instance, doesn’t offer as strict a monotheism as modern Judaism and Islam claim for themselves, and there are references, for instance, to angels who reveal God’s presence as examples of divine immanence.  Dunn notes that ancient Jewish theologians affirmed a double aspect of God, one that is both transcendent and invisible and one that is immanent, reaching out to humanity and the created order in a variety of ways.  There is, Dunn believes the possibility of a binatarian understanding of God’s existence even prior to the emergence of Christianity, one that would prove beneficial to the early Christian theologians – references, for instance to the Wisdom of God and the Logos of God.  Thus, while there was no thought of any being other than God being worshiped, Second Testament Judaism offered a context or atmosphere in which “the question of Jesus being worshiped could arise, and arise as a natural corollary to the status attributed to him, it had provided no precedent to which the first Christians could appeal” (p. 90).     

In a lengthy fourth chapter entitled “The Lord Jesus Christ,” Dunn wrestles with the question of Jesus’ own understanding of monotheism, which he answers in the affirmative, but with the caveat that Jesus had a sense of intimacy with God that, in Dunn’s words, “the disciples could only begin to experience as they stood with him and came to God as Father in dependence on him, as though youngsters who found it possible to stand before their father only when accompanied by their older brother” (p. 101).  From there he moves to the confession of “Jesus as Lord,” setting the confession in the context of Jewish understandings of God and the important Pauline texts.  He then moves to the use of Word (logos), Wisdom (sophia), and Spirit (pneuma), seeking to understand how these terms came to be used in expressing a developing Christology. 

 In this fourth chapter Dunn takes up what he admits is the most difficult issue in the conversation – the occasional use of the word god/God in reference to Jesus.  If this word is used in relation to Jesus, and yet we are to keep from moving in a polytheistic direction with Jesus being a second God, how should these references be interpreted?  In answer to this question, reflecting on texts in the Johnannine corpus and elsewhere, he concludes that “Jesus was God, in that he made God known, in that God made himself known in and through him, in that he was God’s effective outreach to his creation and to his people.  But he was not God in himself” (p. 135). 

So should Jesus be worshiped?  Dunn concludes, after a lengthy conversation with such contemporary figures as Larry Hurtado, Richard Baukham, and James McGrath, that we must start from the premise of monotheism, and that if Jesus is worshiped, it is in the sense that God is worshiped in and through him, but Jesus is not worshiped directly in distinction from God.  That is, we must beware of practicing what Dunn calls “Jesus-olatry.”  Like idolatry, in which the idol absorbs the worship due God, in “Jesus-olatry,” Jesus becomes a substitute for God, and therefore absorbs the worship due God alone.  Thus, it would be better to see Jesus as an icon, a window through which the divine can be seen and experienced.  The problem with worship directed at Jesus is that worship ends there and doesn’t move onto God.  Therefore, as Christians, worship is directed not at Jesus, but we are called to worship God in and through Jesus.  If we stick with the original question posed by the title, then the answer is no – the early Christians didn’t worship Jesus.  However, if we broaden the question and ask whether Christian worship of God is defined by Jesus, then the answer is yes.  Christianity, Dunn concludes, remains monotheistic, but its worship is enabled by Jesus and God is revealed in and through Jesus. 

James Dunn has provided the church with an important resource that will help it come to grips with the place of Jesus in worship.  It also helps us better develop a Christology that reflects the biblical witness.  Dunn’s monotheism is Trinitarian in nature, but it seeks to keep things in proper alignment.  This is not a lengthy book, but it is demanding reading – not in the sense that it is dense prose, but because it demands much of us who are Christians to examine our understandings of God and the way in which we approach God in worship.  Thus, this is a must read book for anyone wanting to understand the place of Jesus in theology and worship.

To read more of Bob Cornwall’s articles visit Ponderings on a Faith Journey

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