The Trinity (IIIg)

Pushbacks: Problems in the NT Witness to Jesus


What I will try to do in this section is to list and to summarize some 'low level' objections relative to the deity of Jesus the Christ. 'Higher level' objections would belong to more skeptical areas of debate, such as 'were the disciples mistaken about this?', 'was Jesus mistaken?', 'did the church CHANGE the documents to make Jesus God?' etc.

The objections I will deal with below accept the basic historical witness of the NT documents, but are aimed against my particular understanding/discussion/exposition of their teachings.

Problems and Issues

Pushback:"Glenn, I have an obvious question for you. If Jesus were really God, why didn't He just come right out and say 'I am God'?--that way there would not have been any confusion about it. I just cannot believe that something that major would have been omitted in His teachings to us."

Response: This is a relatively complicated subject--the so-called 'secrecy phenomena'. There are several observations to make here about this.

  1. The first thing to note is that the same phenomena occurs regarding His messiahship (cf. Mt 16.20: Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. ), which He likewise admitted on occasion (Jn 4.25f: The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." 26 Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." ). No one really denies that Jesus made claims to be the Messiah, so why would we treat the 'secrecy' issues any differently in regards to His deity?

  2. Actually, such a statement by Jesus wouldn't have solved the 'problem' anyway. It would have made us wonder what the word 'god' meant at that point. AFTER we had seen all the integrity, miracles, authority, etc. of Jesus, THEN it would have made sense, and that is when we got the abundance of data from the Spirit in the apostolic revelation. I personally think that scholars would still be debating 'levels of deity' or 'Hellenistic divine-men' theories MUCH MORE than they do now IF Jesus had made such a statement.

  3. And it would have REALLY confused the locals! Imagine Jesus telling a good monotheistic Jew of His day that He was God. Apart from the obvious "Liar or Lunatic" options, if the hearer ACCEPTED that fact, then he would have lost "God the Father"! In other words, IF trinitarianism is true, THEN the ONLY way it could have been communicated historically (with the least amount of attendant confusion) would have been with Jesus affirming the Father's deity over a long period of time, and THEN communicating His OWN deity, in the "template" of Sonship. Until Jesus had demonstrated the reality of His obedience to God the Father, the term 'God the Son' would have been meaningless. Trinitarian thought was difficult enough to embrace for 1st-century Judeo-Christianity--any imbalance in the teachings/example of Jesus would have made it even more difficult. Jesus had an INCREDIBLY fine line to walk here--too much emphasis on His deity, then monotheism (or God the Father) would have disappeared; not enough communication on His deity, then the significance of His humiliation/sacrifice/exaltation would have disappeared.

  4. Plus, He probably actually DID say it! Several of the predicate-less "I AM" statements in John, for example, are probably statements of the OT divine name (YHWH="I am"...loosely). So, instead of a very bland "I am deity" or "I am God", we get the passionate, colorful, vivid, and invasive "I AM" of the OT context. [The predicate-less verses are 8.24,28, 58; 13.19; 18.5,6,8--some of these probably function so--esp. 8.58.]

  5. And, His use of the term 'Lord' to describe Himself came very close (if not all the way there) to such statements also. In John 13.13 we see Jesus say:

    "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am.

    Although the term 'Lord' was often used in situations of polite address (e.g. 4.11,15,19), its usage on the lips of Jesus is NEVER such, and is uniformly MUCH MUCH higher. If we consider the "the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" type passages (cf. Matt 7.21f; Matt 12.8; 22:44f; 24.42f; Mr 2.28 ) and other uses of "Lord" for God the Father (e.g. Mt 4.10; 5.33; 9.38; 11.25; 21.42; 22.37; Lk 10.21), and note that He NEVER uses the term in polite address, then its usage here becomes striking. That it is NOT used here as polite address (i.e. "Sir" or "Mister") is obvious from its juxtaposition with "teacher". To say something like "you call me 'Teacher' and 'Mister', and right you are" would be more than just a bit odd! No, its usage is that of exalted dignity and authority and, this late in Jesus' ministry may have already connoted deity (cf. Morris, NICNT, in loc.).

  6. Indeed, the data we displayed about NT Responses to Jesus showed that Jesus OBVIOUSLY communicated His deity to his audiences and contacts. He just seemed to use more colorful language and actions to do it! The "I am" passages of John are incredibly vivid images of a Savior-God: Bread of Life (6.35,41,48,51), Light of the World (8.12; 9.5), Gate of the Sheep/Good Shepherd (10.7,9,11,14), the Resurrection and the Life (11.25); the Way/Truth/Life (14.6). These are powerful claims, yet are couched in such a way as not to detract from the deity of the Father.

  7. The very point of His humiliation, as stated in the Philippians 2 passage, included His relinquishing insistence on His legitimate claim to exalted deity. That equality with God was NOT to be 'held on to selfishly' by the Son-on-earth makes perfect sense of the data of the NT. If His focus was to demonstrate His obedience and servanthood, then we would EXPECT Him to focus on his humiliation status ("son of man") and not go 'trumpeting' His deity. His claims and communications of that reality would have been more indirect and subtle (but still clear--as His enemies' responses attest!)--as indeed the data demonstrates.

  8. It might also be noted that His reticence along the lines above to proclaim Himself "God" is probably in keeping with OT ethics. Proverbs 25.27b ( nor is it honorable to seek one's own honor.) no doubt influenced statements of Jesus like:

    I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. (Jn 8.50)
    Jesus replied, "If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. (Jn 8.54)

    And the model He set (enjoined upon us in Phil 2): Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, is echoed elsewhere to us (Jas 4.10): Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

  9. There is, of course, an obvious practical matter which is worth mentioning. If everyone knew fully, from His birth, that He was/contained that blazing incandescence that is God--such that even to behold it in the OT was to die(!)--would anyone have treated Him as human also? Could a Mary have nursed such a baby, knowing this one at her breast was the very Awesome God of Sinai? Would the mothers have let their sons and daughters play with such a One? Would His brothers and sisters have played into the scriptural prophecies of derision? Would the wedding party still have invited YHWH to the wedding of John 2?! Would He EVER have been treated as the Son of Man by those later to be called His "brethren" (Heb 2.11-12)? The sheer pragmatics of the situation would have warranted a 'veiling of deity by humanity'--just to allow Him to become a perfect and complete High Priest for us (Heb 2.10-14,17).

  10. But the heart of the matter can be seen from a study of the 'secrecy' passages (i.e. "tell no one who I am"). They are numerous: Mk 1.43; 3.12; 5.43; 7.36; 8.30, as are the passages in which He tells His disciples privately about His person and mission (i.e. Mk 8.31f; 9.30; 10.32ff; Mt 16.21f; Lk 8.56). Although sometimes this secrecy/avoidance of publicity may be attributed to avoiding a premature death (and therefore one NOT in accordance with the Scriptural predictions--cf. John 8.59), it is generally understood as relating to a 'time-release' nature of the Savior's work. What this boils down to is this: the proclamation of Jesus' exalted nature could ONLY BE done AFTER His mission of obedience and Servant-sacrifice was complete. This can be seen from a number of different angles.

SUMMARY: The data demonstrating the deity of Jesus Christ DURING the earthly life of Jesus is clear, although NOT 'loud'. This fits with the pragmatics of the situation, the nature of the incarnation-humiliation of the Son, the messianic 'schedule' of the program, and the theological drama of redemption. The 'secrecy' (or more accurately, the 'quietness') of the identify of the God-man makes perfect sense in this context.

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Pushback:"Glenn, the NT is VERY clear--Jesus Christ was a man...he was born, hungered, experienced thirst, fatigue, etc. He was not a God--he was a man!...and remember, Gods don't die either!"

Response: This objection is based purely on an assumption--that this miraculous figure of history could not be God AND man at the same time. It should be obvious that this is a PURELY metaphysical assumption without foundation and without any possible way of verification.

We cannot even begin to guess how God could "be" localized in the Shekinah glory, the Temple, the burning bush, etc.--so how could we possibly be SO PRESUMPTIVE as to claim to KNOW SO MUCH about God's nature and existence as to POSITIVELY ASSERT that He couldn't also assume some relationship to a created nature as well?! This is creaturely presumption at its worse.

I don't mean to be cavalier or evasive about this, but frankly, we don't have neat-n-tidy metaphysical systems to deal with things like 'the Kingdom of God has drawn near' or the Pauline tension between the Already and the Not-Yet. What we DO have is an obligation to be honest with "high concentrations" of data, and we have to recognize scriptural motifs which structure and organize OTHER concept-clusters.

If there is one thing we have seen very clearly from the reams and reams of NT data examined so far, it is that Jesus Christ was divine--WHATEVER ELSE He might have been! So any evidence that He was human COULD NOT in anyway 'undo' the avalanche of previous research. It may render us hopelessly confused as how to understand the 'intersection' of such two natures, but the reality of the fact cannot be denied without wholesale, detailed repudiation of vast amounts of clear evidence.

And about God dying...

The trinitarian position does NOT maintain that "God died on the Cross". Rather, it affirms that "Christ died on the Cross". Jesus describes himself in John 2 as the New Temple:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”  21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body.


And John 1 describes how the Word 'became flesh' and tabernacled among us.

The NT points out consistently that "God was IN Christ", not that "God was exhaustively transformed into a human"…that God was 'inside' the body/life of Jesus, not identified with it:

Without trying to go into too much detail here, and getting off the subject into the 'nature' of the Incarnation and the two-natures issue, let me point out that NT thought teaches that the human (and human body of) Jesus was what died on the Cross. Nowhere does it say 'God died'--this is just a straw man some might have confused you with.

The death of Jesus was described by Him in the passage above as 'destruction of a temple'. Just as the Jewish Temple could be destroyed, so too could the humanity (as 'tabernacle') of Christ be destroyed (by death). In BOTH cases, though, the God who was present in those 'dwellings' did not 'die' per se.

If you keep the the analogy of God-in-the-temple and God-in-Jesus linked together in your mind, you will see the vague outline of how this can work.

Jesus specifically stated that He would be active HIMSELF in raising His humanity from the dead: "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life-only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” [John 10.17ff]. The sheer ability to 'raise one's self from the dead implies a continuity of personal consciousness of some kind. "Something" in Jesus obviously didn't die, and the part that didn't die had the ability to raise the dead--a strong indication that it was His 'deity' that didn't die…

To say 'Jesus is deity', 'Jesus died', therefore 'deity died' is a misrepresentation of the NT and early Christian position…just as it would be a misrepresentation to argue 'Jesus is human', 'Jesus raised himself from the dead', therefore 'humanity raised itself from the dead'…or even 'Yahweh is all the deity there is'; 'Yahweh came to dwell in the temple', 'therefore, there was no deity in heaven during the Kingship'…it is just not that simple...

Of course, in the other aspects of Jesus' human roles for us, he could 'die': as a prophet he could be persecuted to death by a group of his own people, as Messiah he could be rejected and smitten, as Suffering Servant he could 'pour out his soul unto death' as a sacrifice, as dynastic Son of God (a la bene elohim) he could be assassinated by the Wicked Tenants, as Lamb of God and inaugurator of the New Covenant he could be slain. But none of these roles involved 'deity' in any sense--these were functions, as it were, of the humanity of the Messianic Son. So, in these aspects it would be inaccurate to say that "God died" either.

To illustrate the way to think about this consider that the Jew would not have understood  painting the OT Temple or tabernacle as painting YHWH himself, nor would they have been 'packing YHWH up' when they moved from place to place. Even though YHWH was fully present in the tabernacle, they would not have confused the 'enclosure' with YHWH's presence. So too with Jesus--we don't assert that God had to shave or burp...
 

The messianic figure in the OT first and foremost was supposed to be able to walk, eat, etc…and these things are predicated of Jesus as Messiah--not of Jesus as God. There are almost NO predicates made about Jesus as God (other than acknowledgement of that fact, and of his post-resurrection power) in the New Testament. The NT is not about His deity, but about his perfect humanity, his perfect sacrifice, his perfect life, his submission to the Father, his perfect Davidic leadership, his perfect ministerial priesthood, and his perfect ethical example for humans.  His deity "only" adds immense and humbling depth to this grace, assurance of its long-term efficacy, and grounds this redemptive work in the covenant loyalty of YHWH. (This is oversimplified, I must admit, but it is very clear that the mission of Jesus was more dependent on his perfect human response to God and goodness, than on his divine pre-existence and nature…).
 
 

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Pushback:"Glenn, who are you trying to kid?! The NT CONSISTENTLY says that there is "ONE GOD" and then, in the SAME breath contrasts this God with Jesus! All your clever little exegetical tap-dancing and linguistic 'smoke and mirrors' can't remove those verses from the Bible! So there!"

Response: This is a surprisingly simple issue, and one that is easily developed from the passages themselves.

  1. We need to 'size' this issue first. The NT actually only uses the phrase "one God" in the same sentence or semantic unit with Jesus a meager THREE times (i.e. I Cor 8.6; Eph 4.6; I Tim 2.5). [It only uses the phrase 'one God' two other times, in different contexts--Romans 3.30 and Jas 2.19.]

  2. I Cor 8.4ff: So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.


    Notice carefully that the phrase 'one God' is immediately qualified with the phrase 'the Father', as if Paul did not want us to misunderstand this passage. Indeed, in EVERY joint reference to God the Father and the Son, Paul qualifies the term 'God' with 'the Father' or 'our Father' --esp. in the opening Greetings (Rom, I and II Cor, Gal, Eph, Phil, 2 Thess, I and II Tim, Titus, Phlm). This is a strong indication that the term "God" had become more specialized in standard (but not exclusive) usage to refer to one specific Agent of the Trinity--God the Father.

    And notice how quickly Paul qualifies the term "Lord", with "Jesus Christ". The fact that Jesus was not called "God" in this passage no more means that He did not participate in deity, than the fact that God was not called "Lord" would mean that God the Father had no authority! One simply must not make these verses say more than they intend to, which in this passage is simply that every religious figure other than God the Father and Jesus Christ the Lord is an idol! (A rather obvious statement of deity for Jesus, of course!)

  3. Eph 4:4f: There is one body and one Spirit -- just as you were called to one hope when you were called -- 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

    It is quickly noted that this passage falls into the same pattern as the previous--the 'one God' phrase is immediately qualified by 'Father'--lest we misunderstand the implications. As such it doesn't constitute a witness AGAINST the deity of Christ.

    But, oddly enough, it actually witnesses FOR a basic trinitarian theology. This passage has a trinitarian structure to it--Spirit, Lord, Father--as is generally considered to have been an ancient creedal form. As such, it would be a very ancient witness to the co-operative roles of Father, Son, Spirit in the life of the Church. So, rather that counting AGAINST the deity of Jesus, it actually provides some support FOR the equal status of Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

    (It is structured similarly to the trinitarian passage in I Cor 12.4f: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. )

  4. I Tim 2.1f: I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone -- 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all men -- the testimony given in its proper time.


    Notice a couple of things about this passage:

SUMMARY: The 'one God' passages certainly don't count AGAINST the deity of Christ, but generally offer some supporting data, from (1) the trinitarian character of some of the passages; (2) the deliberate and consistent qualification of "God" by "Father"; and (3) the context of Divine action/initiative in I Tim 2.

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Pushback:"I have been watching you, Glenn, to see when you would really betray a true Fundamentalist approach to life, and I've got you now! The way you have just been slinging proof texts around, clustering them together to support your wishful thinking seems AWFULLY "Funny-mentalist" to me!"

Response: Strictly speaking, this is a methodological criticism. The GOOD NEWS is that it is sometimes cognizant that we CAN bring theological pre-conditions (a la Bultmann!) to these texts, such that the texts cannot 'speak for themselves'. The BAD NEWS is that it is faulting me for using the only HARD data available--the biblical text!

These types of criticisms seem a bit silly (and often pretentious) to me. They are generally methodologically naive and theologically myopic. Let me make a few brief observations before moving on to a 'real' objection.

  1. Textual citation is the ONLY 'real' way to start. Even the Procrustean biblical-theological method (sometimes advocated by the Objector-types) begins with SOME TEXTS that are considered 'central' motifs. These textual-based motifs or patterns (e.g. covenant community, Kingdom of God, Eschatological Paradise) are used to organize, structure, and qualify the OTHER data. This is essentially the same procedure, differing only in how many extra-biblical assumptions are taken as 'central' as well (e.g. religion develops from animism to monotheism, cultus precedes theology, early deities must be 'smaller' than later concepts of the same deity, predictive prophecy cannot occur).

  2. Textual citation is the HISTORICAL approach to these issues. From the use of the OT by later writers in the OT to the use of topical testimonia by the various pre-Christian Jewish sects, to the literary explosion created by the revelatory advent of God upon the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, those people embedded in the stream of God's revelation in history interacted with it AT A DETAIL LEVEL.

  3. Textual citation is the "SCIENTIFIC" approach to this material. Scientists bury their noses in the raw data, and attempt to deal with the primary data BEFORE constructing extensive (and often constrictive) theoretical grids.

  4. Textual citation is the LITERARY approach to this material. The dominant methods for dealing with scripture today are Redaction Criticism (which treats the text as a theological whole) and Literary Criticism (which treats the text as a literary whole). The interplay between the semantic units WITHIN the whole is the foundation for discovering the 'whole'!

To fault an approach which starts with looking at the data and then supports theories from that data, is either methodologically arrogant or epistemologically parochial. So there.

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Pushback:"Glenn, you made the fact that Jesus received worship WITHOUT rebuke into evidence of His deity. But is the word 'worship' used elsewhere in the NT as applying to officials--sorta like the Daniel passage you discussed? Wouldn't that count AGAINST your use of it as evidence?"

Response: Good question.

There ARE two special passages in the NT which do use the Greek word that is translated 'worship' in English. These passages DO indicate obeisance, albeit probably to a ruler-position (approximating analogically a 'lord'). Let's look at these briefly, make some observations, and draw some conclusions.

[BTW, this point ALONE would eliminate all “Jesus is—in His nature—an angel”. The worship of angels is forbidden by the above scriptural teachings, and explicitly in Col 2.18, and is contrasted with Jesus in Hebrews 1.2. This means—since worship is encouraged/afforded to Jesus in the NT—that Jesus CANNOT be an angel in nature, but only in function (as a prophet was also a 'messenger'), and only then occasionally (in some cases, e.g. As messenger of the Covenant [Malachi] and Head of the Army in the OT/Tanaach). This is a strong argument against the belief of some groups that Jesus was an angel, or an archangel. His rebuke of the Angel of Light with 'only God shall ye worship' is proof positive of this fact.]


SUMMARY: The data in the NT is surprisingly uniform--'worship' is for GOD ALONE!
 
 

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Pushback:"Glenn, you argued that 'blasphemy' meant 'claiming to be God' or something like that above, and that since Jesus was accused of blasphemy, that this fact constituted evidence that He actually claimed to be God...yet, there seem to be passages in which 'blasphemy' means simply to 'insult God' instead...Doesn't that sorta empty your argument of force?"

Response: Better question.

This objection has some force to it, in that the 'blaspheme' group of words DO have a wider general meaning than just "act like you're God"--it can refer to cursing God, insulting Him, making fun of Him, etc. (cf. Mt 12.31 with Luke 12.10ff--in which men are said to 'blaspheme' the Holy Spirit and the Son of Man--another implicit claim to deity!)

Let's think about this for a second.

Let's 'test the theory' that the accusations of Jesus' enemies against Him of 'blasphemy' were NOT about His claims to deity/equality and instead were about cursing, making fun of, insulting God. IF THAT WERE the case, we would expect to see such actions/attitudes displayed in those passages in which the accusation occurs. We would expect to find passages in which Jesus insults His Father, the religious authorities accuse Him of 'blasphemy', and then they EXPLAIN their charges as based on His insults.

Needless to say, this is a rather preposterous position! There is not the slightest scrap of evidence to indicate any such irreverent actions of Jesus, nor any textual warrants that the blasphemy charges were anything different than charges of 'claiming equality with God'.

So John 10.32:

but Jesus said to them, "I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?" 33 "We are not stoning you for any of these," replied the Jews, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God."

Brown indicates the same conclusion: "'Blasphemos', 'blasphemia', and 'blasphemein' do at times refer to cursing God, making fun of God, or belittling God. That too can be dropped from the discussion because nothing in the tradition suggests a deliberately irreverent attitude toward God by Jesus. From the attested meanings of the blasphem- words, the only likely historical charge would have been that Jesus arrogantly claimed for himself status or privileges that belonged properly to the God of Israel alone and in that sense implicitly demeaned God." (DM: 531). [The Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, in his The Religion of Jesus the Jew consistently affirms Jesus' righteous and reverent life (RJJ).]

SUMMARY: So, regardless of how the words might be used ELSEWHERE, in their application to Jesus in the textual data, the only reasonable conclusion is the position we have advocated--that of His claims to deity.
 
 

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Pushback:"Glenn, you brought forward a considerable amount of data that argued for the deity of Jesus from usage of phrases like 'glory' and 'nature' and ability to forgive sins. But ALL of these are also ascribed of 'mere' Christians--God will glorify us (e.g Rom 2.10; 8.18; I Cor 2.7 ), we have become 'partakers of the divine nature' (2 Pet 1.4 ), and we are commanded to 'forgive sins' (Col 3.13)"--SURELY you aren't going to argue that WE are ALL GOD(s) also ?!

Response: Best question.

Although this question could drive us deep into the metaphysical issues surrounding the Christian's union with Christ, I will endeavor to steer as far away as practically possible (at least until we get to theology).

There are several motifs and issues that must be covered here.

The above issues/problems/objections assume the basic witness of the NT documents. I have tried to show how they are generally not 'real' problems, but only issues that require more careful exegetical and historical analysis. The conclusions relative to the deity of Jesus Christ I still find compelling. 


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