Richard Hays’ book Reading Backwards is a remarkably insightful piece of work, which prompts some thoughts about how the four evangelists (and for that matter the other NT authors, though that is not Hays’ concern here) depicted Jesus’ divinity. It is sometimes assumed that the apparent reticence of the evangelists to ascribe deity to Jesus (at least in straightforward, blunt, propositional, “Jesus is God” terms) reflects either the fact that they would have disagreed outright with the idea; or perhaps the fact that they were feeling their way towards something that they did not fully grasp, and which only later came to be understood more fully. The former possibility is problematic for obvious reasons; the latter seems to me somewhat patronising.
What is less commonly considered is the possibility that the New Testament authors may have grasped with a great deal of sophistication and nuance exactly who Jesus is (though perhaps not in the terms that became prominent in later theological and philosophical discussions of the incarnation), and that they simply chose to express this understanding in narrative form, within a complex of allusions and echoes, narrative retellings and reidentifications, metaphors, types and figures – the sort of thing Richard Hays calls “Figural Christology”. The substance is all there; our failure to see it reflects less the NT authors’ crudeness or lack of theological development, and more our somewhat shrunken idea of what counts as “theological truth”.
In any case, perhaps even to ask “What did the evangelists believe about Jesus?” is a slightly misdirected question, because it all to easily draws our attention away from the NT text to guesswork about what was believed by people long dead. This is a mistake, and one which inevitably leads to dead-end speculation, because apart from the evidence of the NT writings we have very little idea what the NT authors believed. It’s also pretty tragic, because we have no direct access to the minds of long-dead men, but the NT writings are directly in front of us. And it is these writings, not some speculative reconstruction of the thoughts of the men that wrote them, which comprise the Holy Scriptures and teach us the faith.
These writings – inspired as they are by the Spirit of God, so that the human authors may well have spoken better than they knew – certainly do speak of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, in whom Israel’s God came to be present in the world; a man whose words and works are the words and works of God; a man in whom the invisible became visible, the eternal became temporal, the immortal became mortal; a man through whose sacrificial saving grace God was and is at work to save the world. These and similar narrative formulations may lack something of the philosophical precision of later Christological formulations, but I’m not sure they lack so much of their substance. On the contrary, at its best, the road to Chalcedon and beyond is simply an attempt to draw out and express again (perhaps in response to critics, perhaps as a natural process of spiritual-intellectual development, perhaps in pursuit of further clarity, perhaps for other reasons) what the Scriptures actually say about Jesus.
I suspect that Richard Hays has a great deal to teach us about how the Scriptures speak of our Saviour.