My response to a Biblical Unitarian’s paper.
Dear Biblical Unitarian,
My friend and ministry partner, Rev. Charlie Koo, forwarded your material to me requesting some help to respond from a (shall we say) more orthodox Christian perspective. Rev. Koo also gave me a little background on your short term mission to Iraq. I have no doubt you must have had some invigorating and heated—unfortunately, they often turn out that way—discussions with the Muslim community there, which probably re-shaped some of your theological thinking.
I just returned from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland after doing some postgraduate studies in scripture & theology. One of the topics of interest we studied, relevant to our discussion here, is Early Christianity, and, more specifically, the worship of Jesus and its development from monotheistic Judaism. By the early 2nd century, there can be no historical doubt that the Christian community did in fact worship Jesus. But how did this develop? And can we trace that development in the 1st century, and within the pages of the New Testament?
I mention this to say I too had many theological discussions with Muslims while at St. Andrews. There is a rather large Islamic student body there. Unlike you, however, I came away even more convinced than ever that Jesus is God, and that the biblical witness is quite clear that the earliest Christian communities worshiped Jesus as God.
From your self-titled description as a “Biblical” Unitarian, I take it you believe the Bible to be God’s inspired revelation, both Old and New Testaments, and that it has been faithfully transmitted through the ages in such a manner that we do have a trustworthy conveyance of the text. I am thankful for this as it gives us common ground from which to work out our differences. Muslims, after all, contend that the text has been so severely corrupted that it is hardly feasible to derive correct doctrine from it. Generally speaking then, my dialogue with Muslims is more theological and philosophical than biblical, although the latter may come in much, much later in the conversations, and over an extended period of time. But with you, we can start with the biblical text!
But before we jump right in, I’d like to say a few general things. (Note: you can skip this part and go directly to the response, but please return and read this part as it is important).
First, it will not be possible to cover the breadth of Christian theology—specifically Trinitarianism and Christology—without doing justice to it in a few short correspondences. So I am inviting you to an extended discussion in which you can try to convince me that your position is the biblical position, and I mine. For if you are right, then the Church has been wrong for almost two thousand years! And it would be rather urgent for us to correct this deficiency in our theology asap, don’t you think? As many a fine theologian has often remarked, whenever someone tries to present a radically different position other than the received tradition (the regula fidei) of the Christian faith—here I am including the three main branches of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, which all affirm the early Christian Creeds: Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Apostles’ Creed—the onus is on them to prove their point. It would also mean that God hasn’t really been concerned with the church’s theology on the most crucial matter throughout history: his very identity! Is the church God’s church? Is God in sovereign control of history? Does God shape His church’s theology? Or is the church apostate from its very inception till now?
Now, of course, it is possible to discover something new, or rediscover something old, theologically speaking. I am all for that. We do need the occasional reformation. And there have been some brilliant and faithful theologians who have added new insights, or reminded us of old ones. Every time, however, it was not without some controversy, rigorous debate, biblical and religious scrutiny to see how it would fit into the entire regula fidei—both public and corporate. (Christianity, after all, is not a ‘secret’ mystery cult; it has always been open about its beliefs and practices. Christianity is not an individualistic, private faith; it has always been a community, the body of Christ.)
Further, since the establishment of the creeds (which were really responses to the heresies that did not pass muster in the public and corporate debates), there has not been a single new or old development displacing any of their central core tenets. There will always be some lone maverick, of course, but they stand outside the fold. Developments in Christian Theology are peripheral to the core (e.g. Luther’s soteriology, modes of Baptism, sacramentalism, theology of hope, liberation theology, open Theism, etc.), and not without much controversy, debate, biblical and religious scrutiny… By the way, “peripheral” in this sense does not mean unimportant. We can argue whether or not the bread and wine actually transform into the body of Christ, but whichever position we choose—as important as it is to us—does not undermine nor determine our eternal standing with God.
But your contention?—the very core of Christianity (God!) is wrong! This is not some peripheral matter. It is the crux of our faith! You are in effect accusing us all of idolatry. Our eternal securities are at stake.
Second, please be aware that scrutiny is tough. When you sit in a postgraduate seminar to present a paper, nothing goes unnoticed and no mistake goes unpunished. It is a very rigorous process. Since the onus is on you (think of yourself as the dissertation candidate), don’t take it personally when I dissect the holes in your position, and there are so many! But more on this later.
My hope is that we can have a civil discussion then.
Third, your material shows a deficiency in your understanding of trinitarianism. You are really arguing against tri-theism, which was rejected by the church very early on. Christianity is monotheistic. We are not polytheists.
I feel it necessary to invoke Kierkegaard’s dictum here because it is especially relevant. In order for your criticism to be effective you have to critique the genuine thing. The reason why Kierkegaard’s criticism of bourgeois Christianity in his time and place was so devastatingly effective is because he took the best of what it had to offer—not a caricature or a straw man—and proceeded to pull it apart at the seams, so to speak. In the same manner, if you are going to argue against trinitarianism, I suggest you argue against trinitarianism. That may sound obvious, but alas, in practice, it is not always so.
Recently, the so-called four horsemen of the new atheism (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Harris) have written their books supposing them to be a devastating critique of the Christian faith. But Christian theologians and scholars have but only been amused by them, and don’t consider them seriously. Why? Any thoughtful Christian who reads their works will not be able to identify themselves with the sort of Christianity that is being attacked by them. Dawkins, in particular, likes to take the worst of Christianity and proceed to attack it as if it were the genuine thing—kind of the opposite of Kierkegaard. This so-called new atheism is already showing signs of being a passing fad. In the same manner, if I as a trinitarian cannot discern trinitarianism, the genuine article, in your material, then I can only but be amused by your writings.
Fourth, Sam Harris, in particular, is fond of narrating all the evils committed throughout history in the name of Jesus without any regard for the good things Christianity has done. In other words, he is selective. But the worst part is that he supposes his selective recounting of history to be the genuine article! I mention Harris’ selectivity because any good biblical scholar worth his or her salt knows that whatever ideas they find in a particular biblical passage must be measured against the whole of scripture.
Accordingly, in order to qualify as “biblical” the unitarian cannot simply select the passages that favor his or her view and disregard the ones that don’t. The entirety of the biblical witness must be considered. The best scholars, in my experience, are those who spend an enormous amount of time and energy considering and questioning their own view in light of scriptures that seem to negate it—and are humble enough in light of scripture to modify it. Not to mention how it fits into the regula fidei.
I mention this for two reasons. (a) Trinitarianism developed in precisely this manner, by considering the entirety of the biblical witness. There are passages, as you point out, that affirm the deity of God the Father. There are passages that affirm the deity of Jesus the Son. There are passages that affirm the deity of the Holy Spirit. When we trace the development of trinitarian doctrine in the early Church Fathers, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzen, Basil, et al.—through many of their polemics with opponents such as Valentinus, Arius, and Marcion—it is precisely those considering the entirety of scripture who developed the trinitarian doctrine, whereas their opponents remained adamantly selective, Marcion being a prime example of butchering up the biblical text. (b) I do not wish to engage in a game of scripture tag—quoting one scripture over against another. It seems to me you affirm the biblical text as God’s revelation. I do too. Is God divided? Certainly not! One of the main implications of the repeated biblical refrain that God is one is precisely this, He is not divided against himself. It follows then that His special witness to Himself, the Bible, cannot be schizophrenic, divided over against itself when it describes who God is, but has a cohesive unity throughout. Let us not then butcher up the scriptures to stand over against each other, but make our points in light of the unity of the entire biblical witness to God. And it is my contention that when we do that, trinitarianism is the only explanation that best fits the entirety of the biblical witness concerning God.
Fifth, the complexity of God. The biblical refrain God is one, additionally does not mean God is simple, another derivative meaning of the Greek words monos or heis, Hebrew echad—which, incidentally, do not connote mere numerical oneness; they can be used of a plurality of persons (e.g. husband and wife become ‘one’ flesh (Gen 2:24; c.f. Mk 10:8)). God is so much bigger than our highest thoughts of Him. He is in fact indescribable, inscrutable, ineffable, and infinitely more complex than our poor, measly little brains could ever hope to contain. For God to be God, He has to be the most highest and absolutely perfect being that could ever be. As a Muslim apologist of old once said, if you can think of something higher than God, that is God! I go further, God is infinitely higher than even our highest thoughts of Him.
It follows then that the biblical witness concerning God would have to be extremely complex, dense, inscrutable … and not simple. In many places, as we read the text, we are left without words, in paradox and mystery. We are left in awe, in fear and trembling before this God who is far above everything we could possibly ever imagine. Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that just because the doctrine of the trinity seems to defy the limits of human understanding, it must be erroneous. Quite on the contrary, I would argue that it’s very paradoxical nature is proof that we are closest to the identity of the one, true biblical God. Further, that simplistic understandings of God do not get to the heart of God’s identity because they are in essence attempts to fit God into the narrow confines of our brains. And it seems to me your paper is an attempt to do exactly this, fit Him into your brain, instead of allowing Him to be … well, God! A god that can fit into your brain is not worthy of being called god.
Lastly, let me be up front about my intentions. I sincerely wish for you to come to know who Jesus truly is. Like millions of Christians before me and with me and, by God’s grace, after me, I worship the Christ publicly and openly, declaring him to be divine as my fellow brothers and sisters in the Christian community have done from the earliest Christian communities onward. I have done so in places where this has been denied. And I am most thrilled to do so in communities where we gather to worship the lamb that was slain before the foundations of the world.
As I stated earlier, this is not a trivial matter. For if I am wrong, then I am committing the gravest idolatry by worshipping a mere human, no matter how super-human he may have appeared to be. Why? Because only God is worthy of worship. He is a jealous God. He does not share his glory with any other.
Your main contention is that Jesus is not God. And you wish to assert that this is the biblical position. Your main problem is not a single passage of scripture states Jesus is not God. Instead, we have a whole host of passages that attribute divine qualities to Jesus, narratives that show Jesus was worshipped, some passages that outright call him God. And so it is very revealing that your paper cannot quote a single scripture that positively affirms your main contention. We’re already off on the wrong foot!
Barring the lack of positive biblical support, you take the via negativa by listing passages you claim assert the Father alone is God, with the implication then that this would exclude Jesus from divinity by a process of elimination. The passages you list are John 17:3, Jn 5:44, Mk 12:29, 1 Cor 8:6, 1 Tim 1:17, Is 45:5. The problem is none of these passages explicitly state the Father alone is God.
John 17:3 is perhaps the hardest of those you list (when taken out of context), probably why you mention it twice at the start. This is part of a larger narrative referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, a farewell discourse as he prepares for the crucifixion. It’s actually a rather short prayer. If you take the time to read it aloud, it should take slightly over three minutes. I highly recommend you read the whole thing before we proceed. This can wait. Because rather than isolate one scripture out of context, when we read the whole prayer we get the full picture of what Jesus’ prayer is all about. I’ll list some of the salient points.
The Father gave the Son: authority to give eternal life (v. 2); people from out of this world (vv. 2, 6, 9, 24); work to accomplish (v. 4); words (v. 8); his name (v. 11, 12); and glory (vv. 22, 24). In turn the Son asks the Father to: glorify him (vv. 1, 5); keep believer’s in the Father’s name (v. 11); keep believers from the evil one (v. 15); sanctify believers in the truth (v. 17); and make believers one (v. 21).
One of the most fascinating parts of the prayer is the concept of unity between the Father and the Son (vv. 21, 23). You see, this is what the prayer is all about: Father and Son united together in this joint venture to save the world. Granted this does not prove Jesus is divine by itself, but taken as a whole—within this pericope, and within the entire structure of John’s gospel—it does definitely negate your contention of divine exclusivity, barring Jesus from the Father. And short of being able to supply positive proof, this hardly seems decisive at the least. I can understand why taking John 17:3 out of context would make it appear the Father alone is God because of the word monos. But you forget one other word in that phrase, kai. The conjunction “and” may seem inconsequential, but not to biblical scholars. It is enormous!—given the context of Jewish monotheism in the 1st century. Morever “and” is not exclusive but inclusive. A good Greek Lexicon such as BDAG should alert you to all the possible uses of kai in hellenistic literature. It is a marker of connection or a marker to indicate an additive relation, but in no hellenistic usage is it found to be a marker of exclusion.
Further, no self-respecting first century religious Jew would claim God AND (kai) something else. That is akin to blasphemy, the charge for which Jesus was crucified—making himself equal to God. In 2nd Temple Jewish literature there is no such thing as God “and” … whatever else it may be. But that little kai is all over the New Testament linking God the Father ‘and’ the Son. Your exclusive reading of kai doesn’t fit Greek grammar and usage and, moreover, it doesn’t fit the context, both of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer AND (pardon the pun) the religious context of 2nd Temple Judaism. This is how it reads from the hena clause forward: “in order that they may know you the only true God and (inclusive) Jesus the Messiah whom you sent” (my transliteration). Jesus the Messiah is included in the only (monos) true God. To further strengthen the point, let’s move ahead in the context to verse 5 which reads like this: “And now Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (ESV). A little later you state in your paper that you don’t believe in Jesus’ pre-existence, although you don’t supply any scriptural support for your view. The context of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer emphatically affirms His pre-existence, moreover, with the Father (para with the dative “with”) before the world existed (pro with the genitive “before”). And it is not the only place either.
As to the other verses you listed (Jn 5:44, Mk 12:29, 1 Cor 8:6, 1 Tim 1:17, Is 45:5), you’re employing an old debater’s trick of stringing together a bunch of scriptures after your one definitive proof text (Jn 17:3 addressed above) as if they were all saying the same thing. Let me just state unequivocally, none of those verses explicitly state that the Father alone is God. Therefore, none of those verses imply the exclusion of Jesus from the divine. Again, recall earlier that we are addressing trinitarianism, not tri-theism.
Furthermore, there is something so deliciously interesting I should be remiss if I fail to mention it. The one verse on that list that really caught my eye is 1 Cor 8:6, not so much because it also contains the kai, a marker of connection between God the Father and God the Son, but because, unbeknownst to you, it actually is one of the strongest cases for attributing divinity to Jesus! Let me explain.
I am so glad your paper is neatly summed up in the “One God & One Lord” statement, boldly highlighted in large letters at the end of your paper and taken straight from 1 Cor 8:6. Few lay people know this, but 1 Cor. 8:6 is actually one of the most radical rewordings of the Hebrew Shema (c.f. Dt. 6:4. Your other proof text Mk 12:29 is simply a quotation of the Shema). And biblical scholars are aware that it incorporates Jesus into the one God of Israel. So your paper actually rests surprisingly on the one passage that unequivocally proclaims that Jesus the Messiah is included in the one God of Israel. Rather than explain it in my own words, I’ll quote from N. T. Wright’s, “Paul,” a small book written with lay people in mind—he has written extensively on this elsewhere for a more scholarly audience. But before the quote, please allow me to invite you to read slowly and carefully 1 Corinthians 8, the entire chapter. Again, context is key. It’s short enough. I’ll wait. Okay. Here is N. T. Wright:
“The same is true in another well-known passage, 1 Corinthians 8.6. Here again the context is all-important. Paul is facing the question of how to live as a Christian within pagan society, more specifically, whether one may or may not eat meat that has been offered to idols. His opening comments on the matter, after an initial remark about knowledge and love, show where he is coming from: we Christians, he says, are Jewish-style monotheists, not pagan polytheists. We know that no idol has any real ontological existence, and that there is ‘no God but one’. You could scarcely get clearer than that. Paul is well aware—he could hardly not be, after the places where he had lived and worked—that there were many so-called gods, and many so-called lords, out there on the streets. But the regular beliefs of pagan polytheism were, for him, decisively challenged by the Jewish claim about the one true God. Who was this one God, and how did Israel most characteristically acknowledge him? He was the God who revealed himself to Israel’s ancestors not least at the time of the Exodus, and he was worshipped and acknowledged supremely in the daily prayer, the Shema: Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one—or, in the Septuagint, kyrios ho theos hēmōn, kyrios heis estin. Within this monotheistic argument, to make a monotheistic point, Paul quotes this, the best-known of all Jewish monotheistic formulae, and once again he puts Jesus into the middle of it. For us, he says, there is one God, one Lord. More specifically, ‘for us there is one God, the father, from whom are all things and we to him, and one Lord, Jesus the Messiah, through whom are all things and we through him’. He has quoted the Septuagint formula, glossing theos, that is, elohim, with a phrase about the Father as the supreme creator and goal of all, and glossing kyrios, that is, YHWH, with a phrase about Jesus the Messiah as God’s agent in both creation and redemption. Looking outside the immediate impact of this, we observe that he has thereby done with Jesus what was sometimes done with the figure (personified or personal?) of Wisdom, the one through whom the creator made the world, the true content of God’s self-revelation in Torah.” Wright, “Paul,” pg. 93-4.
I will try to simplify this even more with a chart. Unfortunately in this day and age when hardly anybody knows how to read critically anymore, even simplified concepts intended for lay persons can fly over their heads without careful attention to what is actually written on the page.
You see, when the New Testament refers to Jesus as Lord (kyrios) it is really alluding to the Jewish Adonai whose use underlies the divine name YHWH. See also Thomas’ statement “My Lord (kyrios) and (kai) My God (theos)” (John 20:28). In other words, you really utterly undermined your case beyond repair by ending it with: One God & One Lord.
As to the verses in the section labeled “The Son” (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; Luke 1:35; Col 1:16, Heb 1:2; Mk 14:61-62; John 19:19; Rom 1:4; Phil 2:9-11; 1 Tim 2:5; 1 Cor 8:6 (again); Eph 3:20-21), again, I would simply point out that nothing in these verses denies in any way the divinity of Jesus. In fact, what you have to say about these verses attributes the most incredible things to him! If he were merely a man none of this would fit—unless you are talking about a greek demigod, ala Perseus or Hercules. But that’s just mythology, not Christianity. So it is baffling to the trained reader that you start out the section with, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah [incidentally the Greek christos is the equivalent of the Hebrew mashiach, so doesn’t need to be redundant], the Son of God, and yes not God,” with nothing in what follows to corroborate the third clause in that statement at all—especially since you claim to be a “biblical” unitarian, I would expect something scriptural to back up your claims in this section. But none of the scriptures that follow do so!
In fact, I could go further in Phil 2:5-11 (not 9-11, you conveniently left out some of the juiciest bits of a whole hymnic composition!) to point out not only his pre-existence, but his equality with the Father, his divine nature, his acceptance of worship, and his exaltation to a place far above every name. Reflect on this: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kyrios/Adonai/YHWH), to the glory of God (theos/elohim) the Father” (vv 10&11). Not to mention Col 1 or Heb 1, but I will leave that for later should it be necessary. This response is already long enough.
The last section on the Holy Spirit suffers from the same problems as mentioned above and does nothing, biblically speaking, to undermine the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The point you are trying to make that the Holy Spirit is not a person has neither positive nor negative support in any of the scriptures you mention in this section; especially in light that there are other scriptures that explicitly support His personhood (e.g. Matt 28:19; Jn. 14:26; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Jn. 5:6)—this list is not comprehensive by any means. We take the entirety of the scriptural witness and avoid pitting one scripture over against another.
Just to conclude, as this response is getting too long already, there is quite simply nothing scriptural in your paper to support the “biblical” Unitarian view—not of the sort that would stand up to critical scrutiny in a theology seminar setting. There are simply zero scriptural references to positively support your main contention or any of your corollary contentions. Your other route—the process of elimination—via negativa does not warrant scriptural support from any of the passages you quoted either. In fact, we have seen that the two main passages (Jn. 17:3 & 1 Cor 8:6) are actually some of the strongest cases for ascribing divinity to Jesus, when not pulled out of their immediate textual and socio-cultural contexts. And as always, context is key to sound biblical interpretation.
Please understand that I say all this out of genuine concern for you. I am first and foremost a pastor before a scholar or theologian. Hence my desire to continue a frank, open, and honest dialogue with you regarding these matters. Should you have any questions, or want to discuss further, I am always available.