Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Throwing Thomas some trinitarian credit... [updated]

Today I am providing the next part of my new sub-chapter into explicit references of Jesus being called "God".

John 20:28 – My Lord and my God!

John 20:28 brings us to what is probably the most explicit attribution to Jesus of the title “God” in the whole New Testament. Furthermore, and unlike in John 1:1, the definite article preceding "God" is also significantly present (ho Theos). The context of this famous declaration is that Jesus has now been raised and most of his disciples had seen him and been “breathed on” by him – but not Thomas. Like some other disciples, Thomas has doubts. Jesus subsequently confronts him and commands him to stop doubting and believe. Thomas’ response is “My Lord and my God” (and to worship – it is not clear if he actually takes up Jesus on his invitation to touch his wounds, but presumably not according to this account).

In this immediate context of doubt about God’s resurrection of Jesus and the disciples’ own empowerment through Jesus’ breathing in v22-23, why might Thomas say “My Lord and my God” to Jesus? Of course it is possible that despite the multiple distinctions within John’s gospel between Jesus and his Father God, that Thomas supernaturally glimpsed something of a totally different level to John, which concerned Jesus’ very nature (or natures). Maybe – because of the explicit wording we have to be open to it, or it might also be argued to work nicely in tandem with the prologue (the God-Word became flesh). However, since good Trinitarian theology is about big-picture reality of the life of God, there are some other contextual considerations that should be integrated into the exegetical analysis before developing theology from such a rare and apparently explicit statement.

The first consideration is to properly account for the author’s perspective. Although Thomas is “speaking” here, John is also speaking throughout. It is not likely therefore that Thomas will have a different insight to Jesus’ identity to that which John now holds 60 years later around A.D. 90. Within this very same chapter, Thomas’ statement is framed by two significant facts. Firstly, when the raised Jesus addresses Mary Magdalene, he freely and inclusively talks to her of his (and your) Father being his (and your) God (20:17) – so here John has another explicit and quite different statement about Jesus, that he and Mary share the same Father and God (see 7.3 God is the God of Jesus/Jesus has a God/Jesus is the servant of God). Secondly, the purpose of the book itself is plainly stated (20:31) so that, concerning Jesus’ identity, John earnestly wants to convince his readers of Jesus’ identity claim. This claim, which is demonstrably not in Cappadocian terms, states simply: the Messiah and the Son of God. For John, the Father is always in view and never confused with the Son. So why on earth might both “Lord” and “God” seemingly be attributed to the one Jesus here in John 20:28?

A minor second consideration is a hidden distinction in the Greek, which emphasises the third point I will develop below. It would have been possible for Thomas to simply state: “the Lord and God of me!” Yet, he does not do that. What he actually says in the Greek is: “the Lord of me and the God of me!”

With this in mind, let us move on to the final and most important consideration of John’s purpose here: spurring disciples to know God the Father in Christ. When we zoom in on just this passage for doctrinal purposes, Thomas’ character (and belief) development within John’s gospel are often sadly lost. For in addition to the primary goal of revealing Jesus’ identity as God’s Messiah and Son, John is also desperate for people to respond to the revelation he is chronicling, and truly believe this dual (and to a less emphasised extent, triple) reality. It seems impossible that this dual reality could be an incredible revelation of Christ’s two natures! The dual reality is seeing both Christ and God-the-Father-in-Christ. Believing (and its antithesis, doubting) are key themes for him, so in encouraging late first century disciples in their belief, tracking Thomas’ spiritual journey would have made a lot of sense. Just look at how Jesus immediately responds to Thomas in the following verse: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”. So to understand Thomas’ “belief development”, we need to go back six chapters to chapter 14, where both Thomas and Philip question Jesus about belief. Belief is to be in God and in his Son (14:1), you cannot short-circuit Jesus to the Father (14:6), and the Father is present in the Son. If you see the Son then your desire to see the Father is satisfied, not because the Father is the Son, but because the Father is in the Son. You cannot have one without the other. This is the journey that John is so keen to show his disciples and readers later on. Zoom forward three chapters to John 17:3, and Jesus prays this: Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. Jesus and the Father are to be known, both of them. For Thomas as-yet without the Holy Spirit, that means knowing (and believing in) the still-present Jesus and, through that Jesus, knowing their common Father.

In light of these three considerations, it therefore seems quite possible to me that in 20:28, Thomas finally understands that the Father, who in first century parlance is the one who is properly called “God” in the genitive sense, that this Father is indeed in the Son (John 14:10). Thomas might well then state “the Lord of me (a title in the possessive form that is never attributed to God in the Bible but always to human authorities[6]) and the God of me” (specifically stating belief of the Father’s presence, truly and astoundingly in Jesus).

It is somewhat ironical that the traditional interpretations, which have pushed for simple divinity interpretations, have frequently failed to identify and develop the deeper trinitarian and Johannine themes here of the Father in the Son. 18th century commentaries such as Matthew Henry (We must believe his deity—that he is God; not a man made God, but God made man, as this evangelist had laid down his thesis at first, ch. 1:1[7]) have provided a normative precedent away from vertical contextualisation in this case. Much later that century, British bishop Brooke F. Westcott, unsurprisingly[8], was more careful with the text, despite his failure to specifically join the dots to the Father’s indwelling presence through his Holy Spirit (my emphasis):

The discipline of self-questioning, followed by the revelation of tender compassion and divine knowledge, enabled St. Thomas to rise to the loftiest view of the Lord given in the Gospels ….

The record of this confession therefore forms the appropriate close to his narrative; and the words which follow show that the Lord accepted the declaration of His divinity as the true expression of faith. He never speaks of Himself directly as God (comp. v. 18), but the aim of His revelation was to lead men to see God in him.[9]

Perhaps Westcott was inspired by Augustine who also is close but strangely un-trinitarian here:
[Thomas] saw and touched the man, and [then] acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched.[10]

Adolf Schlatter, however, was able to make a full connection (my emphasis):
“The Word is God,” 1:1. The knowing of Jesus is then attained when it is seen that “he is in the Father and the Father is in him,” 14:10. Through his single word “my” [Thomas’s] knowledge remains not just knowledge but becomes faith.[11]

In final conclusion on Thomas, while it must obviously be concluded that he does address Jesus as “God”, it is frankly disappointingly and decidedly untrinitarian to isolate this passage from its overarching witness of the Father in his Son, the Christ. Jesus himself states emphatically throughout this same gospel:

But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”
Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”
“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” [12]
“The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone”.[13]

And finally, when Philip and Thomas ply Jesus with questions on precisely this topic:
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority.[14]

[1] For now I can say this: despite general historical shifts in understanding what is going on with “Word” (logos), “God” (ho theos and theos) and “Become” (egeneto), that Christians having access to this passage or its precursor, have always believed that God’s eternal divine word was incarnated in (or into) Jesus (as a Christian I also have made the choice to believe that). This leaves incarnation Christology still very open as my chapter above on the church fathers demonstrates. It is precisely the interpretative options that I must still articulate and align with John’s overarching themes and goals.
[2] You will recall that there is a penalty system in place for texts where the strength of their suggestiveness or dissuasiveness is weakened according to a number of defined causes (see p. 51). This category is concerned more than any other by the penalty system as we shall now briefly see before we zoom into two of the most crucial of all blue texts in the entire New Testament canon, and which are certainly not to be penalised: John 20:28 and Hebrews 1:8-9.
[3] Of course, we are assuredly not positing a traditional evangelical view of first century Jewish monotheism that excludes other real gods within Yahweh’s divine council (please refer to the Monotheism entry in chapter 2 if needed; also see ).
[4] Titus is harder for me to assume this because I cannot apply the same criterion of consistency to a book that might be the only text we have by its author. If that were true and it were written in a later and more christologically developed situation, then the assumption of distinction is a considerably weaker option. Earliest manuscript is Papyrus 32, dated late 2nd century.
[5] Fortunately, this variation is footnoted by the NIV, which alerts readers to the shakiness of this evidence
[6] James 3:9 does not really present an exception to the rule given its textual variations, which are not always footnoted in modern translations. Given the biblical evidence, the variant “our God and Father” should be preferred.
[7] M. Henry, Exposition of the Old and New Testament, Vol. 3,  p. 707, London: Joseph Ogle Robinson, 1708.
[8] Unsurprising given his biblical and ground-breaking credentials in New Testament textual criticism.
[9] B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, p. 297, London: John Murray, 1894.
[10] Augustine, John, 121:5, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1 7:438, Philip Schaff, T. & T. Clark, 1896-1900. One could legitimately pose the question of compatibility between Augustine’s statement here and the ecumenical and unshakable doctrinal stance of both Catholic and Orthodox theology, that Mary is the Mother of God (431 Council of Ephesus): if Jesus could only be touched and seen according to his human nature, which is presumably true, then how could Mary be considered to have mothered him according to his divine nature? A staunch defender of Augustinian theology might posit that Augustine was simply stating that Thomas had not previously “seen” the Father in Jesus until this revelatory moment, but then why this tense and not “whom he had neither seen nor touched”? Of course the issue of physical contact with the risen Lord is not entirely resolved, with some early ambiguity around the physical contact may have been heightened through a tradition expressed by Ignatius in the early 2nd century which does categorically affirm this although the source of that tradition is now lost to us. See R. Brown, The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p. 88 fn.150, Paulist Press, 1973. Brown does not, however, indicate why Matthew 28:9 was not relevant to him.
[11] Adolf Schlatter, Johannes, p. 362, Evangel. Verlag-Anst., 1954, cited by Frederick D. Bruner The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p. 1183, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012 (Bruner cites page 362, which appears to be from a translation, not the original).
[12] John 8:16-19
[13] John 8:29
[14] John 14:9-10, obviously my own emphasis.

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