Regardless of whether you believe the nature of Jesus has been a worthy subject for discussion, if you claim to be a Bible-believing Christian this question impacts your life and your faith.
Doctrinal study and burden of proof
My pastor recently reported to us that a woman who had been following the claims, counterclaims and counter-counterclaims in The Journal about the nature of Jesus told him she had finally just given up.
"All it's done is confuse me," she said.
There's a reason for this. It is because we as a people do not yet have a firm grasp of what really constitutes proof.
We willingly accept inference for proof. We sometimes accept scholarly opinion for proof. We accept the putative authority of a certain esteemed Bible teacher or ecclesiastical tradition as proof. We accept unclear scriptures, read a certain way, as proof. We accept a string of words, surgically removed from their textual and historical contexts, as proof.
None of these things can, of themselves, really prove anything. But they are often found in our doctrinal work, in our churches, in our Bible studies and right here in The Journal.
Therefore it seems we would be well served to reconsider some easily forgotten fundaments of doctrinal study.
The ignored rules of Bible interpretation
In 1964 the Worldwide Church of God began publishing a booklet titled How to Study the Bible. It featured six rules of Bible interpretation that have often been republished through the years, both within and without the WCG, and are generally accepted as sound principles of doctrinal study:
(1) Check the context. (2) Get all the scriptures. (3) Let the Bible interpret the Bible. (4) Don't put vague scriptures first. (5) Use several translations. (6) Don't establish doctrine with Bible helps.
Journal readers have witnessed violations of at least five of these six rules in the response to the nature-of-Jesus series, and I submit that this fact has caused much, if not all, of the confusion on this subject and countless others.
For our examples, let's examine the texts allegedly calling Jesus "God" that have been cited recently. At the end we'll see how this approach measures up to these basic rules of interpretation.
Romans 9:5: ". . . Of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen" (NKJV throughout except where noted).
Is this a decisive text for Jesus' deity? To be decisive, would there not at first (and at least) need to be general agreement as to what the text is actually saying? If so, this is not a decisive text.
Ian Boyne hinted at the uncertainty here when he wrote in The Journal in the Jan. 31, 1999, issue: "This text is said to be the most debated text in Christology."
If it's heavily debated, that means it's uncertain, no?
Indeed, Leon Morris writes, "The meaning of (v. 5b) is one of the most hotly disputed questions of the New Testament" (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 349).
What, exactly, is the debate about? The question is not, as in most scriptural debates, what the writer meant by what he said, but what the writer meant to say. The very construction of the verse and how it should read are in question here.
Joseph Fitzmeyer, writing in the Anchor Bible (p. 548), notes that because there is no punctuation present in the Greek text, the words Paul penned here can be fairly constructed no fewer than four different ways, all of which have gained the support of a significant body of scholars of ancient Greek:
- ". . . Comes the Messiah, who is God over all blest forever!"
- ". . . Comes the Messiah, God who is over all (be) blest forever!"
- ". . . Comes the Messiah, who is over all. God (be) blest forever!"
- ". . . (And) to whom (belongs) the one over all, God, blest forever!"
The two possibilities with the most adherents are the first and second, and major modern translations are roughly split between them: the NKJV and NIV for the first, and the RSV and NEB for the second.
Fitzmeyer lists no fewer than 35 scholars who argue for the NKJV-NIV type of rendering and 28 scholars who argue for the RSV-NEB kind of rendering. If this were football, of course, the team with 35 points would win. But is that how we come to certain understanding about a point of doctrine?
The fact is, respected, eminent scholars argue for each of the four renderings of this part of this verse, which critically affects its meaning. A good grammatical case can be made for the "God" in this passage referring to Jesus or to the Father.
It's simply a distortion to quote a few opinions of a few scholars on the orthodoxy-supporting side of this debate and proclaim a closed case on this verse. One could easily do the same on the other side, with marquee names like Dunn and Kasemann and Dodd, no less.
For our purposes here it's not necessary to argue the relative merits of the various scholarly arguments set forth on this verse. Suffice it to say, smart people who know far more than most of us do about the technicalities of ancient Greek grammar disagree strenuously about how this sentence ought to be constructed.
Therefore, as I wrote in my original paper, until it is clear what, exactly, this verse is saying, it can never serve as the decisive text that defenders of orthodox Christology seek.
Titus 2:13: ". . . Looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ . . ."
This passage is similar to the previous one in almost every respect. First, it also makes reference to Christ's appearing in the second coming, and it too can be translated, as above, to apply the appellation God to Jesus. Its syntax is also uncertain and, therefore, controversial.
George Knight outlines the terms of the debate: "Essentially three views have been proposed: (1) that one person is in view and that the statement should read 'our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,' (2) that two persons are in view and that the statement should read 'the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ,' (KJV) and (3) that two persons are in view and that the glory of the one (God and Savior) appears in the other (Jesus Christ) so that the statement should read 'the appearing of the Glory of our God and Savior (which is) Jesus Christ' " (The Pastoral Epistles, p. 322).
Knight notes that, as was the case with Romans 9:5, respected scholars support each of these constructions. Widely known 20th-century expositors like Guthrie, Lenski and R.E. Brown favor the first construction. Others, like Alford, Jeremias, Kelly and Schlatter, lean toward the second. The third suggestion is the most recent but has been gaining widely known adherents such as Hort, Parry and Gordon Fee.
It has been said that the "our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" construction is most likely because only Jesus will appear to men at the end of this age; the Father is never said to be with Him. Thus, the argument goes, this passage must be referring to Jesus alone.
However, in Luke 9:26 Jesus says, "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father's, and of the holy angels."
The glory which appears in Christ at His coming will be both His own and his Father's. Gordon Clark explains:
"The text (Titus 2:13) does not clearly say that the great God . . . appears. It says that the glory of the great God appears; and surely one may say that the appearance or return of Christ exhibits the glory of God the Father."
All this would seem to support construction No. 3, above.
Be that as it may, deep division among experts in ancient Greek as to the proper construction of this verse makes it far from certain whether this passage supports the view that Paul taught that Jesus was eternal God.
1 John 5:20: "And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life."
In his letters John exhibits something of a compositional quirk in his writing that has been often commented upon. Notice these two passages:
"Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son" (1 John 2:22).
"For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist" (2 John 7).
What is considered quirky here is that, contrary to the conventions of Greek composition, John is prone to end sentences with phrases that do not pertain to its immediate antecedent (what came just before it) but with the previous subject of the passage.
We can be sure John did not mean to say that Jesus Christ is the Antichrist, or the deceiver and Antichrist, in these two passages. He was obviously referring back through the passage to the previous subject, the enemies of Jesus.
So the question is, Who does "This is the true God and eternal life" in 1 John 5:20 refer to: its immediate antecedent, Jesus Christ, or the previous subject, the Father?
The answer is that John's writing style makes it impossible to know for sure. Plausible cases have been made for both possibilities, depending largely upon whether John was employing his penchant for referring to the previous subject or following the more conventional method of referring to the immediate antecedent.
Since no one can say for sure, this verse cannot offer us the solid scriptural ground we're looking for upon which to base a belief in the eternal Godhood of Jesus.
2 Peter 1:1: "Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ."
Ian Boyne has suggested that this verse "unmistakably [applies] the title God to Christ."
But Raymond Brown, whom he often quoted and called "one of the most impartial and even-handed scholars [he] had read on the issue of Christology," isn't so sure.
In his landmark work of Christology, Jesus God and Man, Brown places this verse under the heading "Texts Where the Use of 'God' for Jesus Is Dubious."
Brown's reason for placing this verse in this category is that "the grammatical problem is the same as we saw in 2 Th 1:12, where we favored the interpretation 'the grace of our God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,' a reading that distinguished between God (the Father) and Jesus Christ. If one were to follow the analogy, one would translate here 'the righteousness of our God and of the Savior Jesus Christ' " (p. 22).
Later he says he's not sure, though, and maybe "God and Savior" could be referring to Jesus alone. Clearly this is not the kind of firm ground we all hope to have under our feet when supporting a major doctrine. Not only do the scholars disagree with each other, they sometimes disagree with themselves!
But for the sake of argument let's grant that Peter did intend to apply the words "God and Savior" to Jesus. Should we then trumpet this as conclusive proof of His deity?
New Testament translator and commentator William Barclay is one of those who thinks Peter indeed meant to say "our God and Savior Jesus Christ," but after considering its context and overall sense of intent he wisely cautions those who would make doctrinal hay of it:
"[2 Peter 1:1's] great interest is that it does what the New Testament very, very seldom does. It calls Jesus God. The only real parallel to this is the adoring cry of Thomas: 'My Lord and my God.'
"This is not a matter to argue about; it is not even a matter of theology; for Peter and Thomas to call Jesus God was not a matter of theology but an outrush of adoration. It was simply that they felt human terms could not contain this person they knew as Lord."
Surely when we apply rule No. 1 to these two scriptures--check the context--we see that Barclay's word of caution is well placed.
In John 20 John reveals Thomas, the confused and doubting disciple, confronted with the unexpected reality of the risen Jesus and, with nary a thought, bursting forth with a heartfelt expression of devotion. Incidentally, this is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is indisputably and directly called "God."
For its part, 2 Peter 1:1 is part of no theological teaching per se but a passing comment in the salutation of a letter. And, at that, even some exponents of orthodox Christology express doubts about its grammatical construction.
Perhaps some might be thinking that I am dismissing the above scriptures. I do not dismiss them; in fact, they are profound, and it is unfortunate that we do not have space here to expound on their spiritual significance to all of us.
All I have had space to examine here is whether these passages are appropriate for the specific polemical purpose of proving Jesus is eternal God.
Which rule has been broken here?
Remember, we're going through this discussion to illustrate how the recognized rules of sound Bible interpretation can so easily be ignored, in this case by defenders of orthodoxy in the nature-of-Jesus debate.
Which rule has been broken here? Rule No. 4: Don't put vague scriptures first. We needed to do all this to demonstrate that the four passages above are, as mentioned in my original paper, notoriously unclear with respect to the issue of Jesus' Godhood.
Yet they form the foundation stones of the orthodox doctrine of Jesus. Sooner or later defenders of orthodoxy have to cite these passages because, in truth, they don't have much else to go on scripturally.
You always know a doctrinal program is in trouble when proponents must emphasize vague scriptures at the expense of clear, unmistakable ones.
Mistaking inference for proof
One could say that, if a doctrinal study is like a murder trial, then an explicit, intentional statement of doctrinal fact is the smoking gun, and inference from passing scriptures is the circumstantial evidence.
For good reason juries are usually instructed not to convict someone of a capital crime on circumstantial evidence alone. Yet that doesn't stop believers the world over from accepting inference as proof of their favorite doctrines.
If inference is proof, the Holy Spirit is a person (Acts 5:3). If inference is proof, we can be baptized on behalf of our dead relatives (1 Corinthians 15:29). If inference is proof, the traditional notions of hell are correct (Luke 16:20-25). If inference is proof, men have immortal souls (Revelation 6:9-11).
If inference is proof, God is a Trinity (Matthew 28:19). If inference is proof, one of the signs of God's people at the end of the age will be successful snake-handling (Mark 16:18). If inference is proof, gaining wealth is as important as being saved (3 John 2).
Now, none of the writers of these passages actually meant us to believe these things. But they're used by various groups as "proofs" of these beliefs and practices. And we know there are countless others.
In fact, the more doctrinal study I do, the more I realize that accepting inference as proof is probably the leading cause of the disparate beliefs and divisions within Christendom. (A close second would seem to be governmental splits.)
There truly is no limit to how many doctrines one can devise and defend if our only task is to infer points of doctrine from texts that do not explicitly state the teaching that is being promoted.
This kind of alleged evidence for Jesus' eternal Godhood does indeed exist. In fact, it's just about all the evidence there is, and it continues to circulate and recirculate among those who just can't let this doctrine go. They include:
- Stephen's last request, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
Yes, Stephen saw the glorified Jesus in a heavenly vision. Did he think He was God?
"But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, 'Look! I see heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God' "(Acts 7:55-56).
In Stephen's vision Jesus is surely a glorified heavenly being who acts on God's behalf and in whom now "dwells the fullness of the divine nature" (Colossians 2:9, Barclay). But just as surely neither Luke nor Stephen confuse God with Jesus or Jesus with God. Note that God alone is God, and Jesus stands at His right hand: ancient symbolism for a vice-regent, or assistant.
- Joel writes, "Whoever shall call upon the name of YHVH will be saved" (Joel 2:32). In Romans 10:13 Paul quotes this verse in reference to faith in Jesus. Thus, so the reasoning goes, Jesus must be YHVH.
- Revelation 1:8 (and 1:11; 21:6; 22:13) have Jesus claiming the title "Alpha and Omega," or first and last. This title is used by YHVH in Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12. Therefore, again, Jesus must be YHVH.
- In 1 Timothy 6:15 God is referred to as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and in Revelation 19:16 that same title is written on the conquering Jesus' robe and His thigh. Therefore, it is said, Jesus is God.
All of the last three passages have in common that they apply godly titles to Jesus. In my original paper I demonstrated that Jesus is God's unique and only Son, and "it pleased the Father that in [Jesus] all the fullness should dwell" (Colossians 1:19).
The question is whether Jesus' divine nature was received from His Father, as says Colossians 1:19, or whether He possessed it eternally as an uncreated person or being, as orthodoxy teaches.
This is the fundamental point of disagreement between me and binitarians and bitheists.
I agree entirely that the Son of God is a glorified, supreme being of unspeakable divine power and glory. I believe, with the writer of Hebrews, that the Son is "the radiance of the glory of God, flawless expression of the nature of God" (Hebrews 1:3, Phillips).
The difference is that I also listen to the writer when he clearly states that what Jesus is and possesses has been inherited from God the Father and, thus, not possessed eternally (Hebrews 1:2, 4).
But don't scriptures like Romans 10:13 and Revelation 1:8 teach more than this? Don't they directly associate Jesus and YHVH, the God of the Old Testament?
Yes, they do. But they prove too much if we understand them with the crude literalism that is suggested.
In the Scriptures, YHVH repeatedly insists that He is the only God being who exists (Isaiah 43:10, 11; 44:6, 8, 24; 45:5, et al). Therefore if Jesus is YHVH and YHVH is Jesus, Jesus is the only God and there is no Father!
Moreover, if Jesus is YHVH, the God of Israel, then He was mistaken when He told the Jews: "If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God" (John 8:54).
Jesus understood His Father to be the God of the Hebrews, who is called YHVH in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Jesus were in fact YHVH, then He would indeed honor Himself, which He emphatically insists He does not!
Likewise, Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:16 that God--whom he calls there the King of Kings and Lord of Lords--"alone has (or possesses in Himself) immortality."
Please note that this is an exclusive claim. If we are to understand that Jesus is He whom Paul speaks of here, then God the Father does not possess immortality in Himself but has received it from His Son!
Our only alternative is to recognize that Jesus has inherited titles of honor such as King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Alpha and Omega from His Father, just as He has inherited many of the duties and prerogatives of YHVH God.
Those duties and prerogatives were God's to give, and the New Testament clearly teaches that they now belong to God's only begotten Son and vice-regent, Jesus.
With respect to orthodox Christologists' error in promoting inference for proof of Jesus' deity, it is worthwhile repeating Don Cupitt's astute rejoinder to orthodox apologist Michael Green:
"In order to proclaim Jesus' deity Green must . . . support this view by leaps in the argument. God was in Christ, therefore Christ was God; the fullness of Deity indwelt Christ, therefore the fullness of Deity may be predicated of Christ; St. Paul associates Jesus with God, therefore he identifies Jesus with God; St. Paul sees all God's action as being mediated through Christ, therefore he regards Christ as connatural with God; Jesus is God's image, therefore Jesus is God; and so on (emphasis his)" (Incarnation and Myth, p. 38).
Checking the historical context
I think we're beginning to see that a critical question in doctrinal debate is this: Who has the burden of proof, and what constitutes proof? We've demonstrated the shortcomings of inference alone to do the job, especially when it stands in contradiction to plain biblical statements.
Such an approach violates both rules No. 2 and No. 4: Get all the scriptures, and don't put vague scriptures first. But there's more to consider.
Five years ago, when my church leaders informed me God was a Trinity, I asked, Where is the proof? They offered, as always, Matthew 28:19. They said: "Look, it says, 'In the name,'--not 'names'--of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
One, yet three! Get it?
True enough, I said, but if this new doctrine is what the apostles thought Jesus had commanded them to teach, how is it that not one ever went out and taught it? Indeed, how is it that it never really reemerged in Christian literature until the third century? (see endnote No. 1).
I never got an answer for all this, and I don't believe I ever will. But the question is, How did I come to even ask that question? Why not just accept this string of words as proof as so many of our brethren have done?
Because I demanded that the proponents explain how the alleged new truth could have possibly developed within the doctrinal and cultural context of the period.
After one has studied the Bible for a while, something becomes very clear. The words in this book didn't just fall from the sky. They were written by flesh-and-blood human beings who were all participants in communities of faith.
And in any faith community the refutation of long-held beliefs does not go unremarked upon! The "much disputing" that characterized the Acts 15 event should make that abundantly clear.
So, when they said the most important observance of the Jewish religion--the Sabbath--was effectively done away in Jesus, I asked the same question. How could such a radical change have occurred without any teaching or discussion?
Again, no answer.
Revolutionary doctrines simply do not appear without, if not outright controversy, at least some discussion or explanation. That's just not the way human beings work, Spirit-led or not.
It's certainly not the way it's worked in our day. How many thousands of hours and barrels of ink have been spent agonizing over the doctrinal changes in Worldwide? Our own experience should tell us this basic insight into the human condition is correct.
If so, then who has the burden of proof in doctrinal study? It cannot be anyone other than the one who is suggesting a significant move away from the established beliefs of the Hebrew people who wrote the New Testament.
I am not suggesting for a minute, by the way, that this never happened. It surely did, and in important areas. But when it did we certainly heard about it!
When marriage and divorce customs and law needed to be reformed, Jesus offered a lengthy explanation (Matthew 19:1-12). When the Levitical priesthood needed to be discontinued, several chapters were written explaining the reasons (Hebrews 5-10).
When contemporary Judaism's wrongheaded attempt to attain justification through the law needed to be refuted, the better parts of two letters were written to argue the point (Galatians 1-5; Romans 1-7).
Ian Boyne in his January article in The Journal asks a critical question: "If Jesus were really God incarnate and God the Father wanted to communicate that to us, what would it take to convince you?"
Convince me? Very little, since I was taught this all my life through the Eastern Orthodox tradition and the WCG. This is why I believed Jesus was God with nary a doubt for so many years. I imbibed the belief in the God-man practically with my mother's milk, like most of you.
But to convince a Jew who had been taught from birth that the single most important thing that distinguished him from the heathen was his belief in one eternal God being? Is that the question?
If so, we should expect--at the very least--an apostolic teaching of, and explanation for, the radical change from one God person or being to two. Is it too much to ask for just one explicit, intentional teaching of what would have been the most revolutionary new doctrine of all?
"Checking the context," I suggest, should involve more than just the textual context. It also requires examining the historical context.
Correctly or not (and I believe correctly), first-century Judaism taught all Hebrew boys--including Jesus and His future disciples--that there was only one God person, or being. Therefore the burden of proof must lie with those who believe they overturned this doctrine.
Some might say, "Well, this is just an argument from silence." No, it is an argument from presence. It is a well-documented historical fact, witnessed in the Gospels and all contemporary historical writings, that the Jewish people in the first century were strict unitary monotheists.
Therefore, those advocating any other God concept than the prevailing Jewish one must present positive proof of such a change occurring, because the New Testament was written almost entirely by Jews.
So, to answer Ian's question, it is not our frame of reference that matters--coming as it does after 1,700 years of Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrinal development--but the frame of reference of the people who wrote the New Testament.
In their world, unitary monotheism was the accepted God concept, and they would not have needed that to be spelled out for them (though it was anyway, as has been demonstrated).
However, what they would have needed spelled out for them is what we now, thanks to the Council of Nicea and later Roman Catholic councils, take for granted!
So, if we do not set the bar of proof higher than defenders of orthodoxy have set it for the first-century theological revolution they posit, we are simply proof-texting and not proving.
The difference between the two is whether you are satisfied with a string of words or curious allusion that, if read a certain way, appears to be friendly to your beliefs--rarely difficult to find--or whether you have demonstrated that such a revolutionary new teaching was clearly and intentionally explained by Jesus or the apostles.
John 20:28 and 2 Peter 1:1 do not even come close to fulfilling this requirement for proving Jesus' deity, any more than Matthew 28:19 and Acts 5:3 do for proving the Trinity.
Next step: resolve the difficulties
Even when one can produce passages that seem to teach a certain doctrine, one needs to explain the scriptures that seem to contradict it and resolve whatever logical contradictions that seem to emerge from it.
Again, staying with this particular subject of the nature of Jesus as our example, no one defending the traditional doctrine has yet resolved for us the basic and significant difficulties in the claim that Jesus was the incarnation of an eternal God person or being. They include:
- No one has explained what, exactly, Moses and the prophets were thinking when they kept telling everyone there was one God being.
It has been suggested, however, that Isaiah 44-46 is a polemic against embracing the heathen gods and not intended to be an explanation of the nature of God. If the question is Isaiah's motive and nothing more, then this is surely correct. But is this really the question we need answered?
What is relevant in these passages to this particular subject is the theological claims Isaiah is making throughout the section. He is proclaiming that there is only one God person or being in the universe, and that being is YHVH. That fact is what gives substance to the polemic, and there is no polemic necessary if not for that fact!
Please note that Isaiah's argument is never "our God Family is better than their god family." It is: There is only one God, and He is (not "They are") YHVH.
There is no avoiding it; if you wish to call yourself a biblical Christian, your theology must be fully compatible with Scripture's unapologetic, unqualified claims of unitary monotheism (Exodus 20:1-3; Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 32:39; Isaiah 37:20; 43:10; 44:6, 8, 24; 45:5, 12, 14, 18, 21-22; 46:9; Hosea 13:4; Joel 2:27; Malachi 2:10). We have yet to witness any Trinitarian, binitarian or bitheist accomplish this feat.
- Even if it can be demonstrated, as some claim, that more than one God person (or a dual God being) can seem to be detected at times in the Hebrew Scriptures (as in Genesis 1:26 et al), no one has explained for us exactly what Jesus was thinking when He (a) never once contradicted His contemporaries' allegedly mistaken unitary monotheism and (b) confirmed it explicitly in Mark 12:29-34.
- Binitarians (see endnote No. 2) specifically have yet to explain to us exactly how scriptures like Matthew 11:27; Mark 13:32; 15:34; John 3:16; 6:62; 8:17, 18; 13:3; 16:28; 17:3-5; Acts 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; and Revelation 20:6; 21:2-3 can be true if the one who became Jesus existed with the Father at the same time while dwelling on earth and how they can be true if He will in fact continue essentially one with the Father in heaven upon His return to earth.
- No one has explained how Paul, the noted theologian of the first-century church, missed the alleged theological revolution going on all around him. He consistently claimed that he worshiped no God other than the one God of his fathers, whom he learned of through his training as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 24:14; 2 Timothy 1:3).
Note that Paul's training at the feet of Gamaliel had such a profound impact he could in truth proudly proclaim himself to be a Pharisee after decades in the Christian ministry! And in Paul's day, "Pharisee" could mean only one thing: strict unitary monotheist.
In case any yet doubt Paul's commitment to Hebrew unitary monotheism, we should take a closer look at 1 Corinthians 8. It's important because the New Testament does not offer us a great deal of pure theology, and this is one of the only passages in which Paul intends to explain his understanding of the nature of God.
Notice the context. A question arose in Corinth as to whether Christians can or should partake of food that had been offered to pagan gods as part of the ritual system of that time and place (verse 1).
But, as always, Paul addresses their concern not by dealing merely with the surface practical matter but by probing the fundamental theological issue upon which it rested.
For Paul that issue was: Do these gods exist anyway that we should concern ourselves with them? No. "We know," he writes, "that an idol is nothing in the world . . ." (verse 4)
If an idol isn't anything, then what is? What is the exact nature of the unseen world of deity? The answer: "There is no other God but one," a nearly direct quotation of the Hebrew shema of Deuteronomy 6:4. But what does that mean? That the two (or three) God persons are very unified?
No. Paul refuses to be misunderstood. He proceeds to address exactly how many God beings truly exist. The heathen imagine many gods and many lords, he says, but for us Christians there is only one God, the Father (verses 5-6). Again this is an almost direct lift from the Hebrew Scriptures, this time Malachi 2:10.
What a perfect opportunity to proclaim the new truth that "there is one God, Father and Son"! Yet it never occurs to Paul to do so. Jesus is God's only appointed Lord, yes, but only one being exists as true God, and that God is the Father of Jesus--not the Father and Jesus, as we've been taught.
Paul is as clear here as he ever is, utterly unapologetic for his unitary monotheism, and, most important, in this passage it is his stated intent to tell us exactly what he believes about the nature of deity in the universe.
Thus, unlike the orthodox proof-texts, this is no passing comment, appearing in another context and pressed into service to prove their point. This is Paul's attempt to consciously and purposefully state his theological creed, which the Holy Spirit led him to proclaim unmistakably. This passage has the greatest instructional value with respect to this subject because it was Paul's subject.
- No one has yet offered even a plausible understanding for how (or why) it might be that one uncreated, sovereign person exists eternally subordinate to another uncreated, sovereign person. On the other hand, if the subordination of Jesus to the Father were not from eternity--that is, if it were a later arrangement between equals for the good of all--no one has explained why we should not be troubled that what the New Testament purports to be a relationship between fundamentally unequal beings is in reality little more than a cleverly staged play between coeternal beings.
- No one has explained to us in what sense Jesus was truly exalted (Acts 2:32-33, 36; 5:31; Ephesians 1:20-21; Philippians 2:9-11; Hebrews 7:26; 1 Peter 3:22) when His entire birth-death-resurrection experience resulted in a demotion from coeternal God being to assistant. Even if Jesus has been eternally subordinate to God, as some claim, there still was no promotion, as the apostles taught, only a return to His former position.
- With respect to the New Testament's insistence that Jesus underwent real temptation to sin and a real, complete death, no one has yet even attempted to meet John Hick's challenge: "How was God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth if God did not undergo what Jesus underwent?"
In sum, the confusion surrounding this doctrinal dispute, as with most, stems from the fact that defenders of the traditional doctrine have attempted to place ambiguous verses at the forefront of the discussion and have ignored the clear, unmistakable passages that teach what they do not wish to believe.
I ask: Do they accept such flimsy excuse for proof and so many scriptural and logical contradictions for a doctrine Herbert Armstrong hadn't taught them? I cannot think of a single such instance.
When we follow the accepted rules of Bible study, we no longer emphasize vague scriptures at the expense of clear, unmistakable ones. We no longer infer things from Scripture that were not the evident intent of the writer to say.
We no longer consider only the technical judgments of translators and scholars who support our beliefs. We no longer ignore the historical context in which the New Testament books were written in the hopes of excising a string of words that will supposedly prove our case.
And, when we all finally choose to discipline ourselves before God's Word this way, something wonderful will happen. The confusion on the nature of Jesus--and a lot of other doctrinal issues--will evaporate and we'll enjoy much more agreement among God's people than we see currently.
Serving God by savaging others
But what about the second criticism of Christianity cited at the outset of this article? Are we unwittingly contributing to the frequent observation that Christians behave decidedly unchristian to each other the minute a dispute arises over doctrine?
"Speak the truth in love," Paul teaches us (Ephesians 4:15).
Has a more profound spiritual teaching ever been uttered? Paul here links two things that so seldom find a home in the same heart: a love for the truth and a love for people.
Is it really necessary to demand the excommunication of every person who possesses a different understanding of some doctrinal point or, worse, decide and proclaim his eternal damnation?
Must everyone who publicly addresses a weakness in a doctrine we've been taught be considered an agent of Satan and a "ravenous wolf"?
All these things have been levied at this writer in these pages recently. They didn't offend me, but they did sadden me. It saddens me that we can't come honestly to our brothers and express our concerns about certain doctrines without people jumping to their feet to condemn the offenders as demon-influenced.
Make no mistake: When Christians were imprisoned and burned at the stake by other Christians, these impulses and attitudes were powerfully at work. God save us from association with such things!
Fortunately, breathing out threats of excommunication and damnation for perceived doctrinal missteps is not the most common response. However, the far more common tactic, while avoiding the obvious appearance of animus, is no less a betrayal of Christianity's most fundamental ethical principles.
Mastering the cheap shot
When trying to prove a point in ideological debates, one of the greatest temptations we face is to level cheap shots at our "opponents." This is especially so in print, where the opposite member is not present to call the person on it.
Again, I'll refer only to some examples that have come out of the nature-of-Jesus discussion, but, sadly, you see them in almost every doctrinal discussion.
The man of straw
Probably the most common cheap shot is to misrepresent the other man's position. Jim Alexander (in a letter to the editor in The Journal) succeeded in this when he wrote, "Gary's central theme . . . was that Jesus never preexisted as a member of the God Family."
People who read my paper with any care know that I never wrote anything of the sort. But those who read only Jim's characterization of it would not know this, and this misrepresentation afforded him an opening to discredit my work.
In the world of rational discourse, this is called "building a straw man." The picture here is of reconstituting someone's beliefs in a sufficiently flimsy form so it will be easier to pound it to pieces and proclaim victory.
It is a fundamentally dishonest tactic, yet you see it all the time among Christians who tell the world we should always be honest.
Ian Boyne offers us another excellent example of straw-man building when he takes me up for suggesting John 8:58 ("Before Abraham was, I am," in some translations) is only a statement of Jesus' messiahship.
Ian then does a fine job of demonstrating that John 8:58 is not a statement of Jesus' messiahship per se. There's just one problem with this. My paper nowhere suggested it was. But, by relocating the contest to a field steeply slanted in his direction, Ian could appear to score points on his "opponent."
Ignoring the proof
It's remarkable how often people purporting to critique another's work will proceed in their cause as if clear proofs against their position were never presented.
For instance, Jim Alexander also wrote that Matthew 9:6, Mark 2:10-11 and Luke 5:24 disprove my contention that "in no case did Jesus say 'I forgive your sins.' " What he's getting at, of course, is that if Jesus "forgave sins" He must have been God incarnate.
First, these verses nowhere quote Jesus saying, "I forgive your sins," just as I had pointed out. Jesus says He had been given power, or authority (from whom? we should ask), to "forgive sins."
Second--and here is the tactic at work--Jim studiously avoids the conclusive evidence offered in my paper that "forgiving sins" is not proof of a person being deity in the flesh.
In John 20:23 Jesus instructs His newly minted apostles, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
Again, this passage argues against Jim's beliefs, so he simply ignores it, and the casual reader of The Journal's letters section would not be the wiser. This is dishonest and unfair, but people do it all the time.
In a later issue Ian Boyne seeks to defend the idea that Jesus' subordination to God as expressed in 1 Corinthians 11:3 ("But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God") has nothing to do with essential nature but with chosen roles, just as in marriage.
He writes: "Mr. Fakhoury seems to hold the chauvinistic view that man is actually superior to woman and cites the priority of Adam's creation to prove this . . . Shockingly, Gary Fakhoury makes the incredibly sexist and biblically unwarranted statement that God created man first 'who alone is the image of God.' "
Whether what appeared in my paper was chauvinistic or incredibly sexist is for Ian to decide, I suppose, but it is not I who wrote these things. It was the apostle Paul:
"For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man" (1 Corinthians 11:7-8).
"I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Timothy 2:12-13).
The paper Ian is allegedly critiquing not only cites these passages, but quotes them in their entirety. He could not have missed them. The only plausible explanation is that he hoped people would be swayed by an emotional appeal to modern notions of political correctness and neglect to note the biblical evidence, which directly contradicts his theological claims.
Guilt by association
When the nature-of-Jesus series first broke in The Journal, one of the local ministers in my fellowship felt compelled to defend our church's current doctrine on the subject, which is essentially orthodox Christology.
I looked forward to the lesson, but no sooner did the sermon begin that I knew it wasn't going to go so well. He began by recounting a history of the Arian movement of the fourth century.
The Arians, we were told, believed in a kind of works-righteousness scheme whereby one more or less earned one's salvation. We know that isn't right. And you know what? They were also the ones who believed Jesus wasn't God incarnate.
Implication: Believing Jesus isn't God puts you in the bad company of a historical movement that preached heresies like "works righteousness." You don't want to do that, do you?
This is known as the fallacy of "guilt by association."
Ian Boyne employed a more subtle variety of this tactic when he equated my position on the nature of Jesus with the Jehovah's Witness doctrine that Jesus was "a god."
Now, I never wrote, because I do not believe, that Jesus was or is "a god." I affirm throughout my work Paul's insistence that "there is only one God, the Father." There are no other true Gods or gods, as both testaments proclaim.
But subtly identifying what I believe about Jesus with Jehovah's Witness error gives Ian an opportunity to play the guilt-by-association card. Clear implication: You don't really want to climb in bed with those obnoxious door-knocking heretics, do you?
After the straw-man tactic, to claim that one's opponents are "spiritually lacking" seems to be the most popular manipulative device employed by religious folks in doctrinal debates.
Ian Boyne demonstrated for us an expert ability to inject subtle spiritual judgments into what purports to be a scriptural inquiry. The context here is, once again, Jesus' subordination to His Father. Ian makes two similar judgments of the spiritual fitness of those who disagree with him on the coeternality of the Father and Son.
First he says we "fail to grasp" the lesson of Philippians 2:5-8, which teaches us of Jesus' voluntary humility. Yet the paper he claims to be critiquing emphatically states that this is precisely the spiritual lesson of this passage.
The principal disagreement, where there is one, is whether this passage teaches that Jesus was coeternal with the Father. But that's not where Ian can win the argument, so he has to shift the discussion to the issue of spiritual unfitness: the spiritual unfitness of his detractors, you can be sure.
Thus, when it comes time to address the difficulties of 1 Corinthians 11:3 for binitarians and bitheists, he has to frame it in the context of spiritual incomprehension:
"Because humans are dominated by egotistic and self-centered thinking, we cannot possibly imagine that Jesus could be equal in nature to the Father and very God and allow the Father to get such preeminence over Him."
But in the following paragraphs Ian is quick to let on that he has no difficulty believing in and understanding Jesus' voluntary humility before the Father. Thus, if you question the eternal arrangement between the two God-person beings as Ian has described it, ipso facto you have an egotistic self-centeredness problem.
Winning arguments, losing souls
It may seem as if I am picking on these men, and Ian Boyne especially; I certainly do not mean to do so. I have the greatest respect for the work Ian, for one, is doing for the Kingdom.
Ian is a foot soldier in God's army, doing what most of the rest of us only talk about. He's marching the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, preaching the gospel and making disciples.
I realize he has a lot at stake in this discussion, having worked so hard for so many years to convert hundreds of his countrymen to Herbert Armstrong's theology.
But, if we are ever going to come to the Bible truth on matters of doctrine, we cannot afford to be diverted from the real scriptural issues. And cheap shots, by design and by definition, divert our attention from the real issues.
There are many more categories of cheap shots than we've had space to elucidate here, but they all share this: They all break the Golden Rule: "Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).
None of us wants to have cheap shots leveled at us and our doctrinal beliefs. Yet too many of us have adopted the world's win-at-all-costs mentality, which has so coarsened the political debates of our age.
When we're doing Bible work we're doing God's work. Let us resolve to treat each other the way He would want us to: honestly, earnestly and with good faith and charity.
Clearly, cheap shots, recrimination and condemnation for principled differences of scriptural understanding are simply not worthy of us, of God's people.
What good is it to win our arguments and lose our souls?
1. Very similar things can be said about the doctrine of the deity of Jesus, who was not declared eternal "very God of very God" until the council of Nicea in A.D. 325.
2. A binitarian, by definition, is one who believes that God is essentially and indivisibly two persons in one being; that is, that the two persons cannot be separated essentially and have eternally and will forever exist as two in one. In this connection the doctrine suffers the same scriptural challenges as Trinitarianism. Bitheism (also known as ditheism), on the other hand, posits the eternal existence of two harmonious but sovereign and autonomous beings who can live without and apart from each other. This is what the Worldwide Church of God taught prior to 1993.