According to the creeds, Jesus is divine. And if Jesus is divine, then shouldn’t we worship him? Complicating this question 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 worshipping God?
The question that British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn seeks to answer in his relatively brief book, “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?” concerns the New Testament evidence. If one attends to this evidence, what are we to conclude?
Dunn notes that this discussion has implications not only for Christians, but also 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 and more a form of polytheism than of monotheism.
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, a satisfactory answer to the question of whether worship should be given to Jesus requires us to attend to the New Testament evidence.
Dunn first defines worship and takes the reader on a tour through the words used for worship in the New Testament, including “proskynein” and its relatives. He concludes that while there are intriguing pieces of evidence that suggest worship of Jesus, the evidence is limited.
When words for worship are used, they 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.” 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, accounts of early Christian religious practice don’t suggest 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, 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.
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 and 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, according to Dunn: “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?”
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. 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.
Dunn believes in 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.
In a lengthy fourth chapter titled “The Lord Jesus Christ,” Dunn wrestles with the question of Jesus’ own understanding of monotheism, and from there he moves to the confession “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.
So should Jesus be worshiped? 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.
Dunn’s book is not lengthy, but it is demanding reading – not in the sense that it is dense prose, but because it demands we Christians examine our understandings of God and the way in which we approach God in worship. Thus, it is a must-read book for anyone wanting to understand the place of Jesus in theology and worship.
Bob Cornwall is Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan.