Friday, 24 October 2014

I and the Father are ONE and a bit more on the unitarian vs trinitarian debate

"I and the Father are One": John Chapters 10 and 17

This has been a difficult choice for me - to exclude or not to exclude the John 10 instance of I and the father are one, cited by trinitarians as excellent textual support for Christ's full divinity [blue category]. To exclude it, that is, from my New Testament study seeking to statistically review evidence cited in favour of Christ's Nicene status or that discounts the strength of the Nicene claim: Jesus is "Very God" [this category I call the green category]. In this study, I hope it is clear from the many other references that I have included in the blue category that I am consciously being as neutral as I can be. I am not attempting to demonstrate textual credibility for the doctrinal conclusions any more than I am attempting to discredit these conclusions, simply to examine the ways in which the various texts seem to lean and how they collectively add up - if indeed they do or must do. For me, the lack of clarity so far and the ongoing debate, with evidence pointing in different directions, could open the way to either or both of the following projects:

  1. Legitimising a change in where we lay down our limits of divine and christological comprehensibility.
  2. Proceed in a more cautious way in response to what I am defining as “canonical pressure”, in opposition to Stephen Holmes’ and others' “exegetical pressure”.

So why exclude “I and the Father are one”, if I am as open-minded as I claim and strive to be? Why exclude any passages from the study? Because some passages can be described as compatible with both positions, or even in some instances are considered actively supporting both positions, as one day we shall see in the historical battles over John 5:19 and other instances also.

If we had John 10 alone, then it would have to be blue, for sure. Not because it provides overwhelming evidence for Jesus' deity - Jesus neither accepts nor denies the allegations that he is calling himself God (unitarians will take the OT quote further in their own defence) - but because the statement could be and consistently has been labelled as solid support for the claim. The point of this post is to say that this seems to me a clear case of REVERSE ENGINEERING (a wonderful expression a theologising friend and companion taught me today - a pretty solid trinitarian as it happens).

However, we do not have just John 10 - we also have John 17, which provides us with greater context for this expression and what John understands Jesus meant in this statement.

Before I proceed, we should be clear that we are working on the assumption that between John 10 and John 17 we have the same author whose views and language are consistent, who views that Jesus' views are consistent, and who when he uses the same words in a different context does not mean something radically different than what he understood Jesus to mean in the first context. That sounds like a big assumption, but I do not think it actually is (although I should probably find a good example to back this up). I also note that the contexts are actually not so different: Jesus is referring to his beloved believers in both cases.

My point is this: John 17 gives us good reason to reject intended reference here to common divine identity of Jesus' saying "I and the Father one", i.e. one divine personality or one divine essence, because of how this same wording, used twice more in John 17, is applicable in the same way to humans. Perhaps I am being too subjective here (I do not think I am), but a natural reading of this phrase is that of a unity of purpose, a total lack of disagreement, total agreement, common vision, alignment of wills, etc. Here again are those verses, with my emphases (v11 and v20-23) :

"I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one...

"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity."

The oneness between Jesus and the Father is the same as that which can be shared by humans, or hoped and prayed to be shared. The hope here is never that the believers become one self - indeed the beauty of the oneness is that it is achieved by distinct persons, in a way that can remind us of a how a husband and wife become "one". I need to be careful here not to appear to argue this text from a unitarian position (this is why I deliberately write "persons" and not "beings"). That is not at all the purpose of this post! The point therefore is to stress inter-person oneness for a purpose: unity. Both unitarians and Trinitarians should be happy with that conclusion, as this text should be compatible with both positions:

Unitarian: the oneness is compatible with our view that as invested with authority as Jesus is by God (Matt 11:27, all things have been given to me by the Father), he is not God himself because the same oneness is plainly requested by the Messiah for humans, so there is nothing here that demonstrates that Jesus is God any more than I am my wife or even I am my couple. Taken out of context like in John 10, then we might think that. We can also ask, as does Apolytus, what does “is” mean? the Father and I are (plural) one, rather than the Father and I am one. 

Trinitarian: although this kind of unity-bond is of the same kind that two or more like-minded humans can share, we would expect nothing less from a triune God so it is compatible for us trinitarians too. We should also remember: Tertullian and Hypolytus' understanding of the “Divine Economy” as a way of organising relationships. Three distinct beings but perfectly unified in will and purpose.

So we have compatibility in both directions, but no specific support from these passages for either position (even though I sense that there is more natural flow on the unitarian side on this one). Since we are looking for verses that support one position rather than are simply "compatible", then these passages become less useful to this task.

Thus, my reasoning provides a rather surprising exhortation: unitarians and trinitarians - you can be relatively united over this text! Pick your fights elsewhere please.

NB: I also wonder if the "being that they may be brought to complete unity", could be an indication of how Jesus seeks that those who believe in him take their momentary or partial oneness to a total and permanent state of unity. Note that the pressure of this conclusion is toward beautiful harmony of persons who do not lose their separate states of consciousness, being, etc. To resume the marriage example, therefore, we could see the oneness cemented in "wedlock", a state of permanent and desired unity.

- I see I mentioned Tertullian there, and another quote I have found of his demonstrates his interpretation of this passage, which I sense is already in discord with John's meanings, or at least seems to require John to apply his language of unity inconsistently. Here's the interpretation he gives:

... Qui tres unum sunt, non unus, quomodo dictum est, Ego et Pater unum sumus, .... ("Thus the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. These three are one [thing], not one [Person], as it is said, 'I and my Father are One,' in respect of unity of substance not singularity of number.")

Tertullian seems so caught up in a debate over "unity of substance" and "singularity of number", and there is true occasion to his writings, notably the patristic passion heresy. This means that he might not see other options. For instance, as described above, a unity of purpose and vision. There is no need for "substance" here, at least in my view, and this seems to be backed by a lot of modern social Trinitarian writers.

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