B argues that the worship of Jesus is not a departure from, but an adherence to, monotheism. He contrasts the exclusive worship of YHWH of Jews to the interreligious tolerance of the Roman world. Even monotheistic-leaning philosophers never denied the legitimacy of existing forms of “popular religion.”
“The difference between Jewish and pagan monotheism did not turn on the existence of supernatural beings inferior to the supreme God, but on whether they might be worshipped” (140).
Jewish and Christian refusal of other cults made them oddities, especially when Christians worshipped a crucified criminal! Nonetheless, Christians balanced exclusive monotheism with Jesus worship from NT onwards. For evidence, B again turns to Paul’s Christianization of the Shema (1 Cor. 8:6) in context of rejecting food offered to idols, and the worship of the Lamb as divine worship in Rev. 5:8-12 with the doxology of God and the Lamb together (5:13). The whole of Revelation is concerned with true and false worship between God and the beast. John of Patmos also twice prostrates before the angel who interprets the revelation, but the angel directs him to worship only God (19:10; 22:8-9), protecting against angelolatry. Angels are instruments of revelation, but God and Jesus are the source. Jesus shares in glory due to God. There is a tendency to apply similar language to Jesus and God, and often present them together with the same verb (in the singular!) (11:15)—I would add that they sit on the same throne.
Next B looks to the apocryphal acts, which demonstrate how conversion was demonstrated to outsiders as being from idolatry to the worship of Jesus as God. He claims these texts are not completely guilty of “modalism” as they often are described, because they distinguish the Father and Son as readily as they identify them, but they exhibit an “unreflective combination” of monotheistic worship, worship of Jesus as God, and Trinitarian distinctions reflecting more popular thought characterized by the more sophisticated Trinitarian thinkers as modalistic.
The broader importance of these texts is that traditional monotheistic formulas against paganism are used with reference to Jesus, intending “there is no other” to apply to Jesus.
B hypothesizes on how this might be appealing in a missionary context—this section is highly speculative. But it did get me thinking that we should consider the function, the use, of missionary documents such as the apocryphal acts. Are missionary accounts of conversion also tools of conversion themselves—this seems to be where B is going, although not explicitly stated. Or are they meant to be encouragement for those already in the fold? B overemphasizes the intellectual side of missionary appeal a bit. How many were attracted to Christianity because it preached a monotheistic God who was transcendent but who through Jesus is approachable versus the philosophical speculation who still needed many gods to satisfy everyday needs? Was it really this that made Christianity appealing? I doubt the majority of converts were focusing on Middle/NeoPlatonic debates about God and seeing how they conformed to worship of lesser deities, except maybe an elite few who were drawn to philosophy like Augustine. But as a mass movement? These texts are probably meant to encourage the already faithful through the conversion narratives, as many conversion narratives told in churches (usually of an evangelical bent) today.
B discusses the persecution and martyrdom from refusal of engaging in the sacrifices that were part of the daily social life of a city, but which would constitute idolatry from Christians. Martyr accounts (whether they are historical or not) cite proper worship as the prevailing unbending issue in terms of worship of God, and in the same breath, Christ, setting the kingdom of Christ against Caesar’s presumed divinity. This gives monotheistic worship political implications: radical, subversive, aspect of worshipping a crucified criminal and it undermined divine sanction of rule by Rome.
After considering the monotheistic fidelity in worship of Christ in the NT (in Revelation), in missionary documents (apocryphal acts), and martyr accounts, B turns to the patristic Christological development in light of Christ worship. He sees a shift here from a general popular understanding of worshiping Jesus without abandoning monotheism to the doctrinal understanding of this that would preoccupy Christian thinkers throughout the entire patristic period.
He identifies two trends in ante-Nicene reflection on Jesus’ relationship with God: (1) kept close to worshiping life of church and monotheism, reflects evidence already adduced faithfully, but could slip into modalism, which was originally appealing and tolerated; (2) another trend “independent” of worship and witness of “ordinary Christianity,” particularly the Alexandrians and Origenists who fell into the “danger” of Hellenizing (or Paganizing) Christianity. We should note, however, that Alexandrian Christians were responsible for the formulation of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon (with a representative in Nicaea). (My quotations imply that I think while some of the observations are fine, the evaluation is tendentious—each form of Christianity should be considered on its own terms—so there is no “danger”).
In this second trend, Platonic monotheism is the model, which is also found in apologetic literature, in which Christians use the Platonic model to show its consistency (and to redeem their weirdness). Origen represents a growing gap between intellectual theology and popular faith (sort of—I bet a lot of people included Jesus in the divine identity in a subordinationist manner). Origen is self-conscious of their divergence (Or. 16.1) and claims that proper worship is to God alone—not even to Chirst—although it diverges from norm of Christian worship (Or. 14-15). The problem with this formulation is that the earliest evidence B adduced is directed primarily to God and mostly only “through” Jesus and not “to” Jesus, but, indeed, by the third century, perhaps popular worship was to Jesus. On the other hand, Platonizing language was a preexisting tendency in early Christianity. Recall that Philo was a Jewish figure who already combined Platonism and Judaism, and he was highly relied upon by Clement of Alexandria.
B presents Arianism as a reassertion of Judeo-Christian monotheism, but Arius made an absolute distinction between Creator and all other reality (something B claims is true of second temple Judaism too) and places Christ as the foremost of all creations (which the language of Jesus as firstborn of creation in the NT might already indicate!)—worship of a creature, though, threatened monotheistic worship due to Creator. Well…it threatened it from an emergent orthodox perspective.
Nicene orthodoxy did justice to the church’s practice of worshipping Jesus with worship due only to God without being modalistic (of course, modalist is only bad according to non-modalists). Large-scale acceptance of Nicene orthodoxy is due to it doing justice to popular practice as well as Chalcedon and Ephesus.
This perspective leaves out a great deal. Ephesus and Chalcedon actually did a great injustice to Egyptian and especially Syrian popular practice, which B dismisses as “extreme Antiochene Christology.” The Syrians may, in fact, think of those “extreme Greek and Roman Christology of Chalcedon.” It is a matter of perspective, and this account of patristic Christology smacks of orthodox apologetics rather than historical accounting of the evidence. Instead, we must allow that Christian practice could vary from place to place and Nicaea, which I agree puts an intellectual stamp on preexisting popular practice, represents the popular practice of a particular group against the practice of another group or groups. This theological apologetics is part of why the Christian texts from Nag Hammadi remain neglected, even though they form an important trend in Christianity in terms of theology and practice (on practice, see Three Steles of Seth, for example).
Finally, B ends with a theological reflection connecting to current Christian worship.
Overall, B adduces the strongest evidence of worship TO Jesus as God in the second and third centuries, although with some roots in the NT. I am not wholly convinced that Jesus is not the first-born of creation in some documents in the NT—all of which actually makes a lot of later theological developments that subordinate Christ (Arianism) or Origen’s thought that proper worship is only to God, also have theological roots in the NT. Nicene Christianity may, to a large degree, be faithful to popular worship and have some roots in the NT, but so did their opponents.