Thursday, 25 February 2016

Explicit statements continued: Hebrews 1:8, assumptions

Hey, this is the fifth post in a thread about explicit New Testament statements pertaining to Christ's divinity. The thread has been spread across other posts, so if you need to see the progression of thought, then please recap first here (introduction) and then here (Thomas' declaration to Jesus), then here ("He says: Your throne O God", part 1), then here ("Your throne O God", part 2, "Elohim options"). This constitutes a new "sub-chapter" I am adding to my paper, Trinitarian Interpretations, which I initially published last August. So let's buckle up and conclude.

Back to Hebrews: necessary assumptions in both camps

Returning to Hebrews 1 now, we really want to establish what the necessary and speculative interpretations are, in light of the explicitly set goal within the passage (to demonstrate Christ’s superiority over the angels) and of the Old Testament options available with regard to Elohim. Having covered some important Old Testament ground on this second point, we can understand that in applying Psalm 45:6-7 to Christ, the Hebrews author would not be overstepping Old Testament Israelite-Jewish boundaries in speaking of divine rule in relation to humans. So what are the assumptions necessary to both blue (Triune-God suggestive) and green (Triune-God dissuasive) camps?
Blue assumptions: That author is selecting the ultimate Elohim available to illustrate Christ's greatness with respect to angels, and not one of the others (i.e. not other divine council members, sometimes referred to as sons of God, not great human bearers of Elohim responsibilities, etc.), that Hebrews 1:8 provides an essential “upgrade” from the initial Elohim understanding of Psalm 45:6, that this upgrade supersedes the “son of God” status of the other divine council “sons” (likely, given that the other sons had not received “the name which is above all other names”), that it would be legitimate and normal for members within a triune Godhead to refer to one another as “their God”, and in a sense that is quite different to how first-century Jews spoke of X or Y being “their God”, and that this idea of a top-level Trinity, or at least one-being-multiple-persons deity was already existent albeit in embryonic form at the end of the first century.
Green assumptions: That the author and his recipients are aware of the other Elohim possibilities available to them (likely, given Hebrews 1:9), that the author does not upgrade the Elohim identity of Psalm 45:6 to that of Yahweh (or the Elohim of Psalm 45:7) and that there is no major shift in nuance between the Hebrew form “elohim” and the Greek translation “theos”.

From my perspective, it actually seems like the assumptions stack up greater on the blue side, although I am open to correction here. It is startling that Jesus is referred to as God, but it is clear to me that a decent part of that impact was due to my ignorance of the function of Elohim and a disregard for other dissuasive parts of the pericope.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Explicit statements continued: Hebrews 1:8, Elohim possibilities

This is the fourth post in a thread about explicit New Testament statements pertaining to Christ's divinity. The thread has been spread across other posts, so if you need to see the progression of thought, then please recap first here (introduction) and then here (Thomas' declaration to Jesus), then here ("He says: Your throne O God", part 1). This constitutes a new "sub-chapter" I am adding to my paper, Trinitarian Interpretations, which I initially published August 2015. So let's buckle up and look at the Hebrews 1 passage over the remaining two posts...

Elohim possibilities

We are assuming that “God” in Hebrews 1:8 (Psalm 45:5), is not the same one referred to as “God” in Hebrews 1:9 (Psalm 45:7), but how does that work if Christians and Jews are all monotheists? There surely can’t possibly be more than one Elohim, Theos, God, or whatever language you want to use! This modern way of looking at ancient perceptions of the supernatural realm is disintegrating in theological circles (see also chapter 2, monotheism), in favour of a more hierarchical perspective. There is only one supreme God – for the Israelites, this is Yahweh: He created everything and no-one can be compared to him. He is an Elohim. And there are other Elohim. Michael Heiser sets out Elohim into 6 types:

1.      Yahweh, the God of Israel (thousands of times—e.g., Genesis 2:4–5; Deuteronomy  4:35)
2.      The members of Yahweh’s council (Psalms 82:1,6)
3.      Gods and goddesses of other nations (Judges 8:33[1], 11:24; 1 Kings 11:33)
4.      Demons (Hebrew: shedim—Deuteronomy 32:17)
5.      The deceased Samuel (1 Samuel 28:13)
6.      Angels or the Angel of Yahweh (Genesis 35:7)

This list is initially quite striking, but hard-core monotheists confronted with such strong textual evidence might still want to emphasise that there is a difference between Elohim referring to gods (plural) and Elohim referring to the singular God, synonymous with Yahweh (e.g. Psalms 82:1,6). I too was struck by that possibility, but that was still the influence of my modern evangelical world-view (and English translation[2]) skewing my interpretation.

Even in its plural form applied to a singular being, Elohim can be applied descriptively to another singular being. Judges 8:33-34 is a clear example of this: the people replace their God (Elohim), Yahweh, making Baal-Berith their God (Elohim). The Israelites also re-assign the works and status of Elohim Yahweh to the Elohim of the golden calf (see Exodus 32). These biblical cases inform us that within a hierarchical system, the one at the top qualifies for plural status.

Thus far we have established that options for understanding Elohim can be plural OR singular, and can refer to Yahweh or NOT to Yahweh. That is significant. But what of human kings – can a human king be referred to as Elohim? But regarding human bearers of the title, we need to refer back at this point to scholars on the Hebrew of Psalm 45 at this point.

Donald Hagner, commenting Hebrews 1, states: “The king originally in view was an Israelite monarch, but so glorious are the words spoken to him that their ultimate fulfilment can only be in the messianic king, the son of David … [there is] a difficulty of understanding the original historical context wherein a king of Israel is addressed as God. The latter difficulty can be explained as hyperbole for the king who functions as God’s representative in his office.[3]

Constable, for whom Christ just is God in Hebrews 1:8, agrees with this exegetical option for the Psalm used by the Hebrews writer: “the writer addressed his human king as “God” (Elohim). He did not mean that the king was God but that he stood in the place of God and represented Him”.[4]

Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch also agree: “The king was not regarded as the incarnation of deity. Rather, he was “Yahweh’s anointed and served as the Lord’s deputy on Earth”.[5]

I don’t know how you read Hagner, but he does not appear totally coherent to me. On the one hand we have glorious hyperbole denoting God’s representative, while on the other it could not be making sense without a future fulfilment necessary. Views about Old Testament prophecy vary. Mine is very basic: it made sense[6]. However it was reinterpreted later (by the Hebrews writer for instance), it already made sense then. Furthermore, whatever that sense was must not be presumed absent from the later, first century, author’s mind either. But is this the only instance of Elohim applied to humans? Heiser also reminds us that the revived spirit of Samuel was Elohim too, but he takes it no further, despite the fact that one of his foundational understandings of the Biblical picture of humanity is that of being “imagers” of God. So human imagers of God in this Elohim puzzle has to be developed – we can’t stop at a strange, murky corner of the canon on Samuel’s spirit.

1.      Exodus 4:16: He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God (Elohim) to him. The speaker is Yahweh, the “he” is Aaron, Moses’ brother, and the “you” is Moses, needing a lot of reassurance about confronting the Egyptian authorities. Notice this “as if you were God”. Exodus 4:16 gives us concrete scope that when addressing a later leader of Israel, the Psalmist of Psalm 45 could certainly have the same idea. 
2.      Exodus 21:6; 22:8-9: We will not lose time quoting these passages, but you can check the context – here the Elohim are almost certainly human judges, not God or gods, but exercising a task with delegated authority from the divine realm, and ultimately from Yahweh Himself.
3.      Deuteronomy 3:24: Sovereign LORD, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? Throughout the Bible, we have these two great realms represented – the spiritual unseen realm and the Earth realm, both of which are populated and organised. That is why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to the Father, saying: May your will be done here on Earth as it is in Heaven. The other Elohim in Heaven and the Elohim on Earth are not comparable in greatness or love to Yahweh; but it pre-supposes their existence: they are impressive, authoritative and noticeable authorities in both spheres.
4.  Psalm 45:2,6-7: You are the most excellent of men […] Your throne [O] God will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom […] God your God has set you above your companions[7]. Assuming that this Psalm is not saying “Your throne is God”, this key passage for Hebrews 1 interpretation is also a key component to understanding the biblical picture of how humans can be bearers of the Elohim image.
Please click here to see my take on the Hebrews 1:8 assumptions. Thank you.

[1] Judges 8:33-34 is my addition to the sample references provided by Heiser, I think even more striking than Judges 11:24. Here I believe NIV make a mistake in applying the lower-case “g”. It should read: They set up Baal-Berith as their God, that is to say that, within a henotheistic framework, Baal-Berith is set up as occupying the place of God (of gods) that is actually Yahweh’s by right.
[2] The fact that a translation of the plural form of Elohim as singular God, god, spirit when not referring to Yahweh is not criticised – I simply note it to as a contributing factor to my uninformed view.
[3] Hagner, p. 34
[4] Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Psalms, 2016 Edition, p. 233, available in PDF form and updated at These notes are those adjoining the NET Bible study notes.
[5] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, p. 270-271, Intervarsity Press, Illinois, 2009.
[6] Assuming no textual corruptions.
[7] The use of capitals here is to simulate the Hebrew and remove interpretative bias through capitalisation (or non-capitalisation) of certain Gs.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Explicit statements continued: Hebrews 1:8

This is the third post in a thread about explicit New Testament statements pertaining to Christ's divinity. The thread has been spread across other posts, so if you need to see the progression of thought, then please recap first here (introduction) and then here (Thomas' declaration to Jesus). This is a new "sub-chapter" I am adding to my paper, Trinitarian Interpretations, which I initially published last August. So let's buckle up and look at the Hebrews 1 passage over the next three posts...

Hebrews 1:8-9 – About the Son: “Your throne, O God…”

The only text that remains to be treated in this sub-chapter is perhaps the strongest of all: Hebrews 1:8-9. The great late Catholic theologian Raymond Brown classified it as one of the three texts explicitly asserting the divinity of Christ (the other two being the previous passage of Thomas’ declaration of faith and John’s prologue). We shall see that translation is a key component in understanding and interpreting these two verses. In the popular NIV translation, we read:

But about the Son he says, ‘your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.

There can be virtually no doubt about it. Not only does this text seem to describe Jesus as “God”, which is of course highly compatible with a triune-God view, but it seems to have the Father addressing his Son as “God”. Let us not content ourselves with a purely superficial reading, however; let us strive for a fuller understanding about what the author of Hebrews – and the author of the quoted Psalm – meant here. This would be a good practice regardless, but it is even more worthwhile as the passage is located in a context that has some components pretty dissuasive of a triune-God view (see development below[1]).

So let us attempt the following: firstly, to identify the key speakers and addressees in Psalm 45, then to ensure we have a biblical understanding of Elohim, the Hebrew word used here for “God”, and then to use this and our knowledge of the Hebrews passage to understand the assumptions underpinning two alternative interpretations.

Hebrews 1:8-9 Who’s doing the talking and who is/are the God(s)?

In order to achieve the first objective and reduce confusion about speakers and addressees, we must turn a spotlight onto the translators’ “helping hands”. To continue with the colour theme of this paper, words in blue are suggestive. This time, however, they are added or interpretative words, not necessarily original in the Greek manuscripts. Please read carefully, as it is such a small thing, and could be deemed not significant. Yet we all know that a tiny word can radically change the whole meaning of a sentence, right? Well, there is precisely one of those tiny words hiding in there in verse 6. Here is the passage in its context with emphasis placed on the key speaker words:

5 For to which of the angels did [God] ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 
6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.”
7 In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels spirits, and his servants flames of fire.” 
8 But about the Son [he says], “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” 
10 [He also says], “In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands….
13 To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

The way translations like the NIV set up the speaker here is downright confusing! It really does not need to be, but the way God is made to be the active speaker throughout indicates to me possible theological bias. We want to allow verse 8 to imply “God the Father addressing God the Son”. That would be so neat, placing the writer hundreds of years ahead of the pack, theologically. The word for “he said”, legei is quite frequently used in the New Testament to introduce an Old Testament quotation, and does not require a personal “he”. We should not ignore this possibility here. In verse 6, I am therefore suggesting, that we should allow interpretative space for one of the following more meaningful renderings:

  • And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, it says [legei], “Let all God's angels worship him
  • And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, God says through the Scriptures [legei], “Let all God's angels worship him.

This “it” would be comparable to “Scripture says”, such as we see as the more likely (and favoured translation in most modern translations) in Acts 13:34-35[2], Galatians 3:16[3], Ephesians 4:8[4] and 5:14[5]. The second option for legei is more of a compromise between the simple “it” or “he” dichotomy, and can be favoured based on Hebrews 4:7[6]. Donald Hagner, NIBC commentary contributor, does not consider these options, even leaping onto another possible reference to the deity of the Son as early as early as verse 6, containing our first legei: “What is remarkable in this passage […] is that the one who is worshipped is the Lord, or Yahweh […] and thus the Son is identified with Yahweh of the OT.”[7] However, this commentator’s enthusiasm does not develop the grammatical gymnastics required by making God the unique active speaker throughout, or at least some thought given to the imprecise ways in which the author would need to be using legei.

So if we can agree that it is at least possible and meaningful that legei here might be reserved for the God-inspired Scriptures (“it says”) as the active speaker, then verse 8 “pros de ton huion” (concerning the Son), could most naturally be understood: “About the Son, it says: “Your throne O God…”. This appears viable. Note, of course, that the addressee is still “God”, and that when the Hebrews author specifies that he is talking about the Son here, he is using Old Testament Scripture to show that Jesus can be called “God” in some way. All we have simply attempted to clarify is that it would be clearer as a quote from the God-inspired Scriptures rather than as a quotation of God calling his own Son, “God”. This distinct possibility gains momentum when we read Psalm 45, where the Psalmist is addressing the current King of Israel throughout[8].

Theologians have also pondered a lot over the following verse (Hebrews 1:9), where you get a curious repetition: “ho theos ho theos sou”, translated “God, your God”. Here, this time with a wider consensus, we can postulate that the Psalmist’s repetition in verse 9 (Psalm 45:7) serves to clarify that we are not talking about the same theos (or Elohim) as in the previous verse. Without the repetition and clarification, the two “ho theos” of Psalm 45:6 and 45:7 would have been otherwise confusing.

Please click here to see the Elohim options. Thank you.

[1] 7.4 Jesus implied to have had a beginning, or a time when he was adopted OR non-Christological NT precedent for “pre-existence” as conceptual / in God’s mind, p. 81.
[2] Acts 13:34-35: God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.” So it is also stated elsewhere “You will not let your holy one see decay” (NIV). The “it” translations of the speaker in Acts 13:35 include NIV, NLT, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GWT.
[3] Galatians 3:16: The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. (NIV). There is no “Scripture” in the Greek here, just just “ou legei” – he/it does not say. “It” or “Scripture” translations of the speaker in Galatians 3:16 include
[4] Ephesians 4:8: This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people’ (NIV). “It” or “Scripture” translations of the speaker in Ephesians 4:8 include NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NET, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GWT, Weymouth New Testament.
[5] Ephesians 5:14: This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (NIV). “It” or “Scripture” translations of the speaker in Ephesians 5:15 include NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, ISV, NET, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GWT, Weymouth New Testament.
[6] Hebrews 4:7: God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
[7] D. Hagner, New International Biblical Commentary: Hebrews, p. 33, Paternoster, Carlisle, 1995. Hereafter, Hagner.
[8] The Psalmist sets it up without ambiguity in the opening verse: My heart is stirred by a beautiful song. I say, “I have composed this special song for the king; my tongue is as skilled as the stylus of an experienced scribe.” (NET)

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Praying in the Name

I have done quite a lot of thinking about the idea of Jesus' name - but today I put it into practice with what appeared spectacular results during a flight I took today. Theology in practice - it doesn't prove anything, but as a believer, I am very encouraged with this perspective.

I am no longer a huge fan of flying. Well, that's not quite accurate I suppose. I am a big fan of getting somewhere quicker. What I do not enjoy is turbulence, after a really horrid experience about a year ago, where I thought I might actually die (by the way, thinking about death can be a good practice - the generations of Jewish and Christian belief did not hide this reality of human life, see here also for an interesting cultural slant from Bhutan, some of the happiest people on Earth apparently).

Studying the Bible with more intensity over the last two years has lead me to detect some differences between modern and ancient terminology in Christianity. One of those words is "name".

The ancient world thought more holistically than we do. They were still keen to make some important distinctions to avoid misinterpretation (written almost 2000 years ago, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:27 For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection’, it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. I believe this is such a key verse because it shows how important distinctions always have been. So what of being holistic? Being holistic means keeping the rest of the context in perspective. You don't look at the atoms of a caterpillar's leg and forget that it's a caterpillar's leg. You don't look at the belief apparatus of a specific aboriginal tribesman concerning the afterlife and disregard the wider beliefs held by his people group at this time.

In philosophy we want to be black and white. But particularly in relation to ancient ways of thinking and in many non-western cultures today, that does not work so well. So we have to speak of "senses" when we do detailed word analysis in order to avoid contradiction by sane authors. The example I took in my paper Trinitarian Interpretations was from John 7-8. At one point, John has Jesus saying to his listeners that they do know him and where he is from and then a few verses later he is saying that they **don't** know Jesus (compare 7:28 and 8:19).

What am I trying to say? Philosophy wants to separate what is essential to something and what is not. It is frustrating to have to confess that, while distinctions remain important and necessary as we have seen, the essential and non-essential properties debate does not seem to work out neatly in theology with relation to "Jesus" and "name".

Have you ever noticed how there is not really a word in the Bible for "title"? There is a reason for that. A title can be something utterly exterior or peripheral to one's self-understanding in the West. It can be a 9-to-5 job, one even that you don't enjoy very much, like "Ground-Floor Office-cleaner". It does not matter at all if this role is fulfilled by Tom, Dick or Harry.

The "who" performing the function of ancient and non-Western royal households, however, is hugely significant. King David had a function to govern and lead the people of Judah, then Israel. He did not start this at 9am and finish at 5pm. He became king at a certain age, like all the kings after him, and reigned to his death. His function and his identity completely converge for most of his life.

Hang on - when is he going to talk about Jesus' name and turbulence in flights? Very nearly there! So when we talk about Jesus' name, I am now almost certain, we need to keep not one, but *two* senses in view simultaneously. The first sense is the J-E-S-U-S sense, that is the Tom, Dick or Harry sense. That is not to say that Tom, Dick or Harry don't have meaning, but the names primarily serve to identify them as distinct persons throughout their lives. Jesus was to receive the name J-E-S-U-S. But at some point - and that point can be debated as to precisely when - he was given the name that is the Father's name, which I think might be closest to T-H-E  L-O-R-D (or even anarthrously, "L-O-R-D"). Both of these were his "names", received at various times and could thus be combined for a holistic first-century person into "The Lord Jesus". It is a bit like saying "King David". So when we hear of the cosmic extent of Jesus' authority now that he is seated at the right hand of God, then we can see that he has in first-century eyes assumed a most-unique and Divine position of rule.

So sat in my plane 10 minutes after a smooth take-off, I felt some turbulence kick in. Focussing on this idea, contained perfectly in Philippians 2:9, John 11:7 and Hebrews 1:5 (and elsewhere):

  • Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.
  • Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me.
  • So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

I prayed that this turbulence would stop in the name of Jesus. This was not a prayer in the name of just J-E-S-U-S, but in the name of THE LORD JESUS.  And the turbulence stopped, almost immediately. As I prayed to God, I was acutely aware thanks to His Word, that the "name" of Jesus was not some magical formula, but the attribution and inheritance of supreme power from the Father entrusted to the Son, available to us, once again revealing the Father through the Son.

I felt very grateful for this, and the flight calmly continued almost all the way. On a second occasion shortly before landing, the effects of the prayer were less immediate. I chose to interpret this as a need to simply trust in God and love him, which also helped dissipate the fear.

I don't know if it will materialise, but I am considering doing a book-by-book study of New Testament understanding of "the name" to better understand its usage.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Three-self Trinity theories have a serious problem and a serious perk

Theologically speaking, there has been a trend spanning more than a century toward a "social" concept of the Trinity within the church, be that Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical (although patchy), and even Orthodox. What this means is that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are understood as three literal persons, in a way we would understand personhood from our own everyday experience. Each has a first-person perspective, a will, a uniqueness, all covered in an unsearchable love and submission in the most perfect of social communities. Dr. Stephen Holmes is quite vocal about the problems with such an approach, which sometimes favours distinction over a united Godhead of precisely 1. Today I will try to describe a paradox I notice within the social-Trinitarian "move".

First, I have a silly illustration to try to show how the social Trinity vision is inappropriate to the Biblical presentation of God and Christ.

You want to talk to your Heavenly Father about something. Can you ask Christ or the Holy Spirit to leave the room? Impossible. We are connected to the Father uniquely through his Son: on this all Christians should be on a similar page. We can't have a private conversation with our heavenly Father and say, please, Jesus, I'm ever so sorry, but would you mind just stepping out for a few minutes while I share something on my heart with Father? He can fill you in later if necessary...

There is a very deep connection that social Trinitarian offerings need to explain more fully, if their "divine persons" can truly be understood like persons as you or I understand personhood. Can you think of any human parallel where a son has a deep connection with his Father while having to communicate via an older brother (I know that this 'via' could and should be discussed at much more length)? Nope, that kind of intermediary would usually add distance, not closeness. So inseparability of Father and Son should be an issue for diehard social Trinitarians, because you cannot ask Jesus to leave the room. Some antitrinitarian Unitarians would also likely be tested by this line of reasoning, but John's gospel in particular, I think, requires it.

Now I don't yet re-believe in some kind of divine "essence" or "substance", and I do not think it likely that I ever will on general grounds, because I don't think things have essences. My table does not have "tableness". My phone does not have "smartphoneness" or "Huaweiness". My table is a table because it has properties that speakers of English can agree fit the item. My phone is also clearly a Huawei smartphone. Even humans, I would argue, do not have a human essence per se. We are humans. By saying "we are human" rather than "we are humans", we hint at a distinction that has had implications for Christology in the past - distant past, but not 1st-century past. This kind of language is fine, but you need to realise what underpins it. Scientists examining a newly discovered bug in the rainforest would not exclaim: "it is spider!" They would say: it is a spider! Creatures only tend to lose their articles when truly we talk of their meat! 

Divine isolation is ruled out through relationship (which would be the only possible avenue for developing substance/essence theories as far as I can tell). If I'm right about Thomas' declaration (see my post on this interpretation here), then Thomas is not speaking of Jesus in isolation from his (their) Father. He sees the Father in Jesus. Those who presuppose the existence of some kind of divine substance might be less inclined to notice this, for they hunt for passages that speak of Jesus in apparent isolation from the Father, and say: look, Jesus is God! 

So here I see here a paradoxical perk in some strands of social Trinitarian thinking, because while this kind of deep mutual indwelling is underemphasised in ST's ideas of independent persons, the social-relationship model also downplays the need for any true or literal divine substance.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Dale's challenge

Dr. Dale Tuggy has gone for it, publishing a 9-part argument to show that "Jesus is not a god". He is pretty confident that is both valid and sound. Valid means that conclusions are definitely correct if the premises are sound. I am not certain either are the case. Here's his challenge, which I am glad to take up!

1. God and Jesus differ.
2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical)
3. Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (1, 2)
4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e.are numerically identical).
5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (3,4)
6. There is only one god.
7. Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (5, 6)
8. God is a god.
9. Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (7,8)

My initial "pumping the brakes", to use a Dustin Smith expression, came on premise 6. Much recent Old Testament research (see especially Michael Heiser and Nathan Macdonald) is highlighting the compliance of Israelite theology with other ancient Middle-East perspectives on the Divine Council. There is a complex and hierarchical reality within the divine realm. Yahweh, presides over a council of gods, sometimes called "sons of God", in ancient Israelite thinking. But "god", often elohim, does not necessarily refer to Yahweh. Yahweh is Israel's Elohim, and Israel is Yahweh's chosen people. So 6 seemed initially misleading to me as a premise or at least appeared seated on modern and unbiblical concepts of monotheism. Tuggy has kindly responded to me on this concern of mine:

6 can be paraphrased like this: there is only one being who is divine in the ways that Yahweh is, e.g. being the ultimate source of all else, being uniquely provident over history. If this is what we mean by "being a god" throughout the argument, do you think it is sound?

My answer remains no, until he shows me how he can re-work his argument from the start.

So let's go through it point by point:

1. God and Jesus differ.

This sentence strikes me as incomplete. Imagine two hippos (hippos are going to be something of a theme in the antimodalist push of the blog in the future), Godfrey and Jessy.

They might be identical-twin hippos, but one of them is standing here and one of them is standing somewhere else. Everybody is happy that they are not the same hippo. Now what could we say of Godfrey and Jessy if during a terrible famine in their habitat and surrounding area, that Jessy died and Godfrey had no choice but to eat his dead brother hippo in order to survive. Jessy is dead but his body has been entirely consumed into the body of Godfrey. You might want to argue that at this point of time, they are no longer two but one, they have literally fused.

A much more simple reference would be you. If you are losing your hair, then the you of today and the you of 10 years ago definitely differ, because you had more hair back then. Oops, I meant me ;)
So, what this premise lacks is a time-reference. Perhaps it should have been God and Jesus have differed at a given point in time. Without the time reference, you cannot arrive successfully at 3.

2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical)

I differ from the me of 10 years ago, but I am one. Since my conception, my number (1) has transcended time. So here we also need the time reference: Things which differ at a given point in time are two. Thank goodness we don't have time machines....

3. Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (1, 2)

Godfrey and Jessy were two at a given point in time, although they later became one single hippo. So while Tuggy's argument thus far is more or less valid, it seems to lack a time factor: God and Jesus were two at a given point in time.

4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. are numerically identical).

Don't like it, not here. I don't think it passes my hippo test. Furthermore, it feels too much like a refusal to consider the claim of the Trinitarians, that it is possible to have x and y being the same god. It surely cannot be sufficient to simply say that is not possible. Think of anything that is on the very edge of what is possible today. Could it have been said as possible a 100 years ago? I do not see why 4 has been included here mid-stream. It discredits the logical progression. It feels like we are trying to travel to India, and have got lost in Delhi half way.

5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (3,4)

Godfrey and Jessy are now the same hippo, even though they have historically differed. By the way before they differed, in one of Mummy-hippo's fallopian tubes, there was also a time when "they" were not yet a "they" - there was a single fertilised creature, yet to split into two identical hippo foetuses.

6. There is only one god.

Even if we understand this in its much more specific way: there is only one being who is divine in the ways that Yahweh is, then I think we are in trouble. At least I am not yet sure that level of specificity does not ruin the argument, because the ambiguity over "God", which Tuggy concedes, is precisely and necessarily squashed at this crucial junction, as step 7 will immediately show:

7. Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (5, 6)

No. The most high creator God is a god. I am not yet convinced that Tuggy is taking into account the henotheistic option offered by the Old Testament writings (and even the New, Heiser is at pains to point out).

8. God is a god.


9. Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (7,8)

No, I don't think that's right, not for a henotheistic Jew who is basically excluded from this argument.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Theology in worship continued: 14. “It Is Well”, Bethel (featuring Kristene DiMarco)

Today's next song from's list ranks 14th. It's another top quality live audio performance, but how does the trinity fare? Are the other two - Father and Spirit - necessary? Is there another centre of focus outside of the Father, Son and Spirit? I think so. Let's listen, read, then comment.

Grand earth has quaked before
Moved by the sound of His voice
Seas that are shaken and stirred
Can be calmed and broken for my regard

And through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
And through it all, through it all
It is well

And through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
And it is well with me

Verse 2
Far be it from me to not believe
Even when my eyes can't see

And this mountain that's in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea

Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well

Bridge x3
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name

It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul

It is well it is well with my soul x3
ahhhhhhh (softly)

Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You Lord
Through it all, through it all
It is well with me.

We still have quite a long way to go in the worshipleader top-hits, but I think we can already start to see a trend emerging here with the most successful and engaging worship songs: there is a highly prominent "me" and a highly prominent "you" (sometimes a "him", here the transition to third person is fairly clearly indicated through the transition to the bridge). It is about a salvation through the most perfect relationship imaginable between two persons: ME and ... presumably, Jesus. So nothing much to commend here or to criticise. On this blog we love it when Jesus is lifted high, we cannot worship sufficiently enough or with enough sincerity! But the concern is about a hidden Father or silent Spirit, about whom the Scriptures are highly vocal and excited. Musically lovely. Biblically, very little to say as it is not a focus for this song.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Unitarians on the Holy Spirit

I am still pondering how to take forward my antimodalist convictions. It is difficult because I do not yet have collaborators and there is not much written material on modalism influences in the modern church. It occurred to me as I walked and prayed and worshipped and reflected this morning that to take it forward I must ask for God's providential help in other's ideas and skills. Another important consideration is the Holy Spirit.

Stephen Holmes is probably the Trinitarian I appreciate and trust within the reflective Trinitarian theological community, as anyone who follows this blog probably realises (posts influenced by issues he raises can be seen here). In my paper Trinitarian Interpretations, I lean on his research and insights quite heavily. His core claim is that God is Trinitarian, but not tripersonal in the modern sense of the word "person". For Holmes, there is one divine personality, one mind, one will, one creator, yet three hypostases which are "God three times over", language he borrows I think from another "one-self" Trinitarian, Brian Leftow. These one-self Trinitarians are not modalists, but they are also not too developed on the distinctives between the hypostases of Father, Son and Spirit. The point is rather this: Holmes claims a radical re-working of Trinitarian doctrine in the last 100-150 years, culminating in "social Trinitarianism", combining three highly distinct persons into one God. There is a historical Trinitarianism from which modern social trinitarianism radically departs.

I wondered this morning if a similar kind of radical redefinition could be levelled at the Unitarians. Unitarians believe that God is one single being, comprising one person, the Father, to whom we have access uniquely through his perfect, glorious, and universe-entrusted Son, Jesus, and whose authority and presence is shared to his people through the sending by this Son, from the Father, of this Holy Spirit, as foretold long ago. OK maybe not all Unitarians express it like that, but I suspect and hope many of the Biblical Unitarian branch might have something like that in mind. So how might Unitarians have radically differed in more recent centuries to their predecessors?

Take the Arians or the homoisians (or homoians), for example. It is quite difficult to know exactly what they thought and taught as they were the "losers" of the great theological controversies of the fourth century. Indeed, we only have a version from the victors who, with Irenaeus perhaps setting the early precedent in 3rd century, were bent not only on showing how insane their position was, but also often to highlight their moral failings, corrupted minds, and so on, in order to discredit their opponents. However, in reading some of their polemical writings, we do learn of a fascinating difference, I think, with modern-day Unitarianism: the way in which they spoke of the Holy Spirit was interpreted by their anti-homoian opponents as that of a creature. The Holy Spirit is a creature? By this, clearly no-one understood a biological organism, but one that was created by God the Father, from whom all things derrive.

Today no-one believes that the Holy Spirit is a creature! Trinitarians understand this one as the third member of a Triune God, co-equal, co-glorified, consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father and the Son, intrinsically involved with all divine operations and action. Unitarians believe that this one is not really a person at all and point to the [ontologically] impersonal language most of the Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit and the subtle pushes of the translators toward a more personal depiction (e.g. all of the "who" you see in reference to the Bible could just as correctly, from a linguistic point of view, be translated "which" - did you know that?) They would (or should) rally around another theologically-developed idea of the Spirit being "God's empowering presence" (see Gordon Fee's classic work entitled precisely this way).