An Interview with James McGrath on Christology (part 1)

I was fortunate enough to meet up with Dr. James McGrath at Butler University for an interview last week. I have been a fan of his blog, Exploring Our Matrix, for many years now. His contributions to the subject of christology are John’s Apologetic Christology in the SNTSMS (2001) and The Only True God (2009). Both of these are fantastic and academically stimulating works. James worked on his doctorate under James Dunn, arguably the foremost contributor to the subject of christology alive today.

jamesOur interview was quite extensive, so I will be releasing the transcript in sections. This post is the first of many. I hope you find our exchange exciting.

Dustin: Thanks for meeting with me Dr. McGrath. Most people see the Gospel of John as something quite different than the Synoptics, suggesting that John’s christology is far elevated above Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Sometimes even scholars have argued that John’s christology is something completely different and detached from the various expressions of first century Jewish monotheism. The impression I get, with how you see the evidence therein, is that you want to encourage interpreters to look more closely at first century Jewish monotheism because John indeed fits very well within that context. You also seem to indicate that when the interpreter honestly places the Fourth Gospel within this historical context, it doesn’t quite say what many of the later Christian creeds say. A lot of these topics are fresh on my mind because we are aware that Bart Ehrman is going to release his new book describing his reconstruction of how Jesus became God (later this month). Bart has gone on record in many other publications and said that the Synoptics reveal a human Jesus while John’s Gospel promotes a different, divine Jesus. Now “divine” is such a flexible, slippery term, and I am not exactly sure everyone agrees with its meaning when it is used. I wish that it would be fleshed out further in writings, no pun intended with the “John, flesh” motif.

JM: That was a good pun, perhaps intended. I like puns, so never apologize when you make them.

Dustin: (laughs) Anyway, so in light of that introduction, would you like to speak in reference to all of that, or to where you see the current scholarly discussions going?

JM:  Yeah, and it will be interesting to see where the Bart book goes. You are probably aware that the same publisher is releasing his book and a counter book around the same time, so it will be interesting. They are getting the best of both markets, presumably. There is background to some of the scholarly conclusions I came to which might be worth fleshing out. (I should also mention that there will be a panel at SBL on Bart’s book and that I was invited to be on it. It should be interesting, but it is worth mentioning here.) I have been influenced on my christology by James Dunn. In fact, that was the reason I wanted to study with him as my doctoral supervisor at the University of Durham for my work on John’s christology. I was also influenced by John A.T. Robinson, who is a very interesting person, who on one hand makes the argument that John could have had access to an eye witness and therefore could be early. Yet he understands the christology of that Gospel in The Priority of John.

Dustin: Yeah, I remember that book has an entire chapter dedicated to the subject of christology.

JM: In addition to Dunn’s Christology in the Making, which I wanted to fight against during my undergraduate work because of influences and my previous background which I had when reading that, I was finding that Dunn manages to persuade me on a lot of things, despite my instinct to reject and fight. But Dunn also wrote a smaller piece, which I think is less-widely read, called ‘Let John be John.’ This essay was all about not letting John be so easily blended into the Synoptics while at the same time not being blended into the later creeds. Rather, this is a work that is somewhere in between the two.

But really for me, a key shift happened in my thinking while I was a doctoral student. I had gone into my approach into the study of the Gospel of John thinking that the issue which was part of the controversy between the character of Jesus and “the Jews” was monotheism (and whether or not monotheism had been compromised). I went to a conference about chistology (I think it was called The Myriad of Christ) and Frances Young gave a presentation in which she argued that the early Christian apologists, such as Justin Martyr, were not arguing about monotheism with their Jewish contemporaries. They were arguing over whether Jesus was the Messiah, and whether certain things can be said about this man who was crucified, and things like that. But we don’t find monotheism as the topic. For me, the proverbial light came down from the sky and I suddenly said, “Maybe monotheism is not the issue in John. Maybe that is not what the fight is about.” That actually really did shape the core of my study from then on of the actual conclusions I drew in the book that I wrote on John’s Apologetic Christology. In that book I essentially argued that John is doing some creative things with christology. For instance, when Jesus says, “What if you see the Son of Man return to where he was before?” (John 6:62), or “Glorify me with the glory which I had with you…” (John 17:5), those kinds of things. Who is the “I” there? Who is speaking? Does the preexistent Word have an I? Is this the “I” of God or something separate? Is this the preexistent Son of Man? Does John think that the Son of Man is the same as the preexistent Logos? John is developing Son of Man traditions. He is developing Word/Wisdom/Spirit traditions. He is developing Jesus traditions. So when Jesus says things like that (John 6:62; 17:5) should we really understand him to be thinking “I personally preexisted”  at that point? Because certainly within later Judaism there was room for the preexisting Messiah without having the Messiah on earth remembering all kinds of things. It may be that what John is doing there is, “Well those Jews say that they have a better revealer of God in Moses, but we’ll show them because our revealer knows more than Moses.” There are multiple ways that these texts can be understood. Is this the preexistent Messiah preexisting that the Son of Man in heaven? But that raises the question of how that related to the Word, which is the personification of God’s own self, rather than a separate person.  

It is not surprising that in the time after John writes, we get every possible answer to those questions. You get everything from adoptionist readings of John to docetic readings of John. But this is a human person who is somehow united with this divine…reality. I stopped myself from saying several possible words there which would not be appropriate: ‘person,’ ‘hypostasis,’ or even ‘identity.’ I think this is the interesting thing that John A.T. Robinson points out when Jesus says that he is “a man who is telling you what he heard and saw from God.” This seems to put Jesus as a genuinely human agent who has received information and is talking about it. But then we have the Word became flesh. How do these strands fit together? I still haven’t figured that out. Does John have things in there that reflect his multifaceted Jewish heritage which he hasn’t synthesized into a coherent whole? If we want something that has no loose ends, we will have to cut some stuff out or add some stuff onto John in order to make that work.    

Stay tuned for further installments of this interview.       


6 thoughts on “An Interview with James McGrath on Christology (part 1)

  1. Most interesting.

    McGrath would be interested to know who helped form your Christology and also that I am a cousin of JAT and much indebted to Dunn of course.

    This helps to get our names out there.

    McGrath did well to mention Dunn and we are all grateful to them both.


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