Tuesday, April 14, 2009

William Robertson Smith on Christ and the Angels

Smith, W. Robertson. “Christ and the Angels: Hebrews 1.” Expositor. Second Series, 1 (1881): 25-33.

Smith, W. Robertson. “Christ and the Angels: Hebrews ii. 1-9.” Expositor. Second Series, 1 (1881): 138-47.

Smith, W. Robertson. “Christ and the Angels: Hebrews ii. 11-17.” Expositor. Second Series, 3 (1882): 63-79.

Smith, W. Robertson. “Christ and the Angels: Hebrews ii. Ver. 17, 18.” Expositor. Second Series, 3 (1882): 128-39.

William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) was a Scottish orientalist, Old Testament scholar, professor of divinity, and minister of the Free Church of Scotland. He taught at Aberdeen Free Church College, 1870-1881, and Cambridge University, 1883-1894. In 1887 he became the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. A brief biography may be found here.

Smith’s series of essays deals with Hebrews’ argument that Christ is superior to the angels. According to Smith, chapter 1 deals with two aspects of Christ’s person: 1) metaphysical – that which “belongs to Christ already in his preexistence” and 2) historical – “what pertains to Him only as historically manifested and glorified” (26). Smith sets out to explore which statements pertain to his eternal preexistence and which pertain to his historical exaltation.

Two points are clear to Smith: 1) Christ attains superior status to the angels at his exaltation to the right hand of God. This is evident from the fact that the angels worship him at his second coming (1:6) and that Christ was temporarily subordinate to the angels (chap. 2). For Smith, then, the adjective κρειττων refers not to “natural” but “official” superiority (27). Christ’s exaltation endows him with dignity which is consonant with the name of Son, but it also has soteriological significance. 2) Christ’s Sonship does not begin at his exaltation, but is eternally inherent in his person.

Christ’s eternal preexistence is clearly indicated in the statement that he is the effulgence or radiance of God’s glory, and that he is the impress of God’s hypostatic being. These statements point in the direction of the doctrine of eternal generation—a generation that is “not before time but in the eternal NOW” (28). The statement that Christ upholds all things by his mighty word also points to his preexistent status.

Smith then raises the question, “When was the Son constituted heir of all things?” Was it at his exaltation or did it belong to him from eternity? Was it his “metaphysical prerogative” or is it “dispensational, having a relation to his work of redemption?” Smith believes that Christ’s heirship is related to Christ’s work of salvation, which is closely connected to his exaltation to the right hand of God (28; cf. Rom 8:17; Eph 1:20-22).

Smith’s final question is, “What is conferred on Christ at his exaltation which He had not before?” Smith’s answer is that Christ becomes superior to the angels, not in terms of his ontological status, but in terms of his relation towards the created order. Hebrews’ argument is based not on Christ’s “personal dignity” but on the “dignity of function in the administration of the economy of salvation” (29). This thesis then becomes the starting point for chapter 2. The intervening verses merely illustrate and reinforce the author’s main thesis.

Quotations from the OT are applied to Christ without any apparent need for justification; they would have been readily accepted as Messianic by his audience. For example, the author does not attempt to defend his assertion that creation was the work of the preexistent Christ (1:10-12), since precedents were already found in Jewish thought. What the author does set out to prove is that the Son is superior in name and office to the angels. Angels were held in high regard in many Jewish circles and were often seen as deeply involved in the creation of humanity. Angels were sometimes worshipped, and some even considered Christ an angel.

So, the author of Hebrews argues that angels could not be addressed in Psalm 2:7, and that the subordination of the angels to Christ at his second coming is predicted in Psalm 97:7. He then proceeds to characterize angels in OT language demonstrating the superior of Christ: angels are physical, mutable, and earthly; Christ is spiritual, eternal, and heavenly. Angels are identified with winds and flaming fire, suggesting an unstable and ephemeral existence. On the other hand, Christ is immutable. In conclusion, the author contrasts the exalted royal dignity of Christ with the servile roles of the angels (1:13-14).

In the second article, Smith notes that the author’s use of Psalm 8 is the key to understanding 2:5-9. The author plays off the paradox contained in the antithesis between two statements: “Thou hast made him for a little while lower than the angels” and “Thou hast put all things under his feet” (138). Here is the doctrine of the temporary subordination of humanity to the angels, followed by their permanent elevation over the angels. Smith notes that this is supported by the author’s interpreting βραχυ τι of the LXX in a temporal sense.

As noted in the first article, Hebrews declares that Christ is exalted above the angels. The author focuses upon the angels because of the belief that the Mosaic Law was mediated by angels (cf. also Gal 3:19; Acts 7:38, 53). The basis for this belief is found in such passages as the LXX version of Deut 33:2 (where angels are said to accompany God at Sinai), and Psalm 68:17 (the myriad chariots of God are the angelic host, cf. 2 Kings 6:17). Often theophanies in the OT are accompanied by heavenly hosts, either by chariots and horses (Hab 3:8; Isa 66:15) or without a metaphor (Zech 14:5; Joel 3:11).

In the OT, no theophany is a direct manifestation of God. God’s presence must be mediated to humanity, since no one can see God and live (Exod 33:20). God’s presence is often accompanied by fiery brightness, but as Smith notes, Psalm 104:4 indicates that fire of the theophany may also be a form of angelic manifestation. Smith declares that “to say that God appeared on Sinai in fire, and to say that He appeared surrounded by the angelic host, is just to say the same thing in two different ways” (140). Angels are the agents of God’s presence (see Exod 3:2, 4; Isa 63:9; Josh 5:14ff.; Gen 18; compare Exod 33:20 with 34:10). Thus in Heb 2:2 the angels are regarded as God’s “authoritative agents, every act of disobedience to their word being followed by a just recompense of reward” (141).

In the Old Covenant, since humanity is unable to have direct access to God, angels functioned as intermediaries. This underscores the limitations of the Old Covenant for the author of Hebrews. The abolition of the Old Covenant allows for the emancipation of humanity from subordination to the angels. Psalm 8 provides proof that subordination is inconsistent with humanity’s ultimate destiny to have dominion over all creation. Humans are inferior to the angels, not by their nature, but by their office. But the author of Hebrews notes that we do not yet see all things put into subjection under humanity (2:8). This is where Jesus comes in: he shared human nature in order to win humanity’s destined glory; the blessings of the world to come are earned for humanity by Jesus.

Smith demonstrates that the expression “made less than the angels” finds equivalent expressions in the Pauline letters. In Galatians 3-4 Paul says that humans are “under the law.” This law came through the agency of angels (Gal 3:19). Christ was born “under the law” in order to redeem humanity which was enslaved to the law. Likewise, Paul talks about bondage to the “elemental things” (στοιχεια; cf Gal 4:3, 9). In the context of Colossians 2 (especially verse 8, 20), these “elemental things” appear to refer to cosmic forces which include angels. Worship of angels is forbidden (2:18). Moreover, it states that God has thrown off the angelic authorities and powers and “made an open display of triumph over them in Christ” (147). The Old Covenant in which angels mediated the law is now superseded by the new dispensation in which Christ breaks the bondage of the law.

In the remaining two articles Smith resorts to a more traditional verse-by-verse exposition. For verse 11 Smith expounds at length on the topic of sanctification. The NT borrows the idea of sanctification from the OT in which it primarily belongs to the realm of worship. Believers are holy by the fact that they are set aside as worshippers of God, not as moral agents. In the NT Christians are acknowledged as “holy” because they replace the OT people as the worshipping people of God.

In Hebrews sanctification is the purification of the worshipper for his religious service (9:13-14; cf. 10:2). Christ sanctifies the believer through his own blood (10: 10, 14, 29; 13:12) so that the believer may approach God (as a worshipper) with a clean conscience (10:19-22). The nature of worship that the sanctified believer performs is one of thankfulness (12:28; 13:15-16) and loving obedience (6:10). Christian service also has a moral aspect in which the believer draws near to God to share in His holiness (12:10, 14) and to pursue peace with all people.

The quotations of verses 12-13 demonstrate Christ’s identification with humanity. The quotation from Isaiah 8:17-18 is divided into two to emphasize two distinct points: Christ associates with the children given him by God and he associates with them in the act of faith.

In verse 14 the statement that Christ partook of “flesh and blood” indicates that he took on physical human nature in order that he might experience death. The days of his flesh (5:7) refers to his earthly struggles and suffering. But in his glorified state he no longer partakes of flesh and blood.

Smith explains that verses 14b-15 refers to Christ’s victory over the devil or the fear of death. The devil is the accuser whose business is to remind God of the sins of His people. The fear of death refers to the fear that God will reject the believer and visit upon him his sins. By experiencing mortality and death Jesus removes the fear that death is not the sign of separation from God’s grace. In the OT the fear of death was often associated with the approach of an impure worshipper before God (Num 17:13). It was the priest’s job to attend to the obligations of the tabernacle so that the wrath of God would not fall upon the people of Israel (Num 18:5). Thus, verses 16-17 give another reason for Jesus’ incarnation and passion: Jesus must become like his brethren in order to become an adequate high priest before God.

In the fourth and final article, Smith completes his exegesis of verses 17-18. He notes that it is the function of the high priest to make propitiation for the sins of the people. Doubtlessly, the author has the image of the Day of Atonement in mind.

In order to become an effective high priest Jesus had to become like his brethren (cf. 5:1). The author of Hebrews, however, emphasizes qualifications that transcended the OT priesthood. Jesus is merciful (ελεημων) and trustworthy and loyal (πιστος) in the discharge of his duty, qualities that the OT priests failed to exhibit.

Verse 18 has two possible renderings: the first is “For inasmuch as He hath suffered, having Himself been tempted, He is able to succor those that are tempted”; the second is “For having Himself been tempted in what He suffered He is able ….” Smith explains, “On the one interpretation, temptation is viewed as a painful experience; on the other, the pains of human life are presented as occasions of temptation” (132). Smith prefers the first option, “for certainly not every temptation arises out of the painful experiences of life; yet we know that Jesus was in all points tempted like as we are yet without sin” (4:15). Smith believes that Christ’s temptation must be viewed “in connection with his moral vocation as Author of our salvation” (133). Christ’s life is one of lifelong self-renunciation; his life was a constant struggle between “self-conservation and self-development” versus “the interests of God’s will and kingdom” (134).

Christ’s experience of temptation enables him to come to the aid of those who are under temptation. Christ helps believers, not by removing the decision to commit temptation, but by enabling believers, through moral sympathy, to conquer temptation for themselves. But Christ also aids believers by atoning for their sins. The New Covenant as promised in Jeremiah (cf. Heb 10:16-17) comes to fulfillment in the believer whenever he approaches God with the confidence of the forgiveness of sins along with the expectation of moral transformation of his heart according to the law.

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