dianoigo blog

Monday 9 January 2017

Review of "When Jesus became God" by Richard E. Rubenstein

1. Author, Genre and Scope
2. Overall Reaction
3. Some Criticisms
4. Reception of the book among experts
5. Reception of the book among unitarians
6. Conclusion

One of the gifts I received for the Christmas just passed was a book from my dear sister Sarah entitled, When Jesus became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, by Prof. Richard E. Rubenstein (New York: Harcourt, 1999; paperback, body text 231 pages). Apparently the book was separately published with the slightly more provocative subtitle The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. Having finished the book, I thought I would write a detailed review since the topic of the book—the Arian controversy in the fourth century—is of general theological interest to me and (I suspect) most people who read my blog.

This is not an expert review. I am not particularly well-read about the Arian controversy or fourth-century Church history more broadly, so I am not in a position either to vouch for or criticize many of its historical claims. My insights are offered from the point of view of one who has some theological training, is fairly knowledgeable about Church history and theological developments in the first and second centuries, and has a deep personal interest in the theological issues involved. Specifically, I have moved over time from a Christology probably on the outer fringes of what Rubenstein calls "radical Arianism" (one that is uneasy about applying the term theos to Christ in any sense, and that denies his personal pre-existence) to the orthodox, Nicene Christology that eventually—after much blood had been spilled—carried the day.

Rubenstein is, by his own account, an "American Jew" (pp. xii-xiii) who offers the reader "my rather unorthodox (although, I hope, not disrespectful) interpretation of the Arian controversy" (p. xviii). A Rhodes Scholar and a professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs, he is obviously a very learned and intelligent man. The book is written at a popular level, and as a review at Publishers Weekly describes it, the genre of Rubenstein's book is best described as "historical drama." It is important to recognize the difference between popular historical drama and sober, academic historiography. Rubenstein is not trained as a historian (or a theologian), and he does not provide a meticulously argued, carefully qualified historical reconstruction of the Arian controversy but a vivid, readable "interpretation of the Arian controversy." He relies mainly on secondary sources, which are cited rather sparsely (endnotes occur at a rate of just over one per page). When he does refer to primary sources, he sometimes cites them indirectly from his secondary sources. There is virtually no interaction with primary sources in the original languages, text-critical issues, etc. Moreover, on more than one occasion, Rubenstein explicitly invokes the imagination to support his suggested version of events where no historical evidence exists:
Bishop Athanasius did not lead the mob that lynched George of Cappadocia, but if he condemned their acts, the record of that condemnation has been lost. We do know how he felt about the Arian bishop who had tried to replace him. One can easily imagine him concluding that, distasteful as popular violence may be, the Alexandrian crowd on that occasion had done the Lord's work. (pp. 13-14, emphasis added) 
Arius appeared at the bishop's palace on the day scheduled and stood like a gaunt shadow before Alexander. No record of this interview remains, but we can easily imagine the priest upholding his ideas with gentle but implacable determination. (p. 56, emphasis added)
Once one recognizes what Rubenstein's book is not, one is in a better position to appreciate it for what it is. He is a master storyteller with a flair for the dramatic, and the result is a real page-turner. I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish it in one sitting! And, of course, there is no reason to doubt the basic veracity of his account of the controversy (i.e., people, events, dates, places, etc.), bearing in mind that Rubenstein has taken a certain amount of poetic license and put his own spin on the story.

Rubenstein certainly makes no effort to whitewash the unsavoury, and in some cases gory, details of the Arian controversy. This makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, especially for anyone with an emotional investment in the religious community involved—the Church. Probably any Christian reader will relate to Rubenstein's own comment on the impact of the controversy upon the believers of that time:
for devout Christians, of course, the Church was more than an organization. It was Christ's own congregation, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and to split it would be to desecrate the very body of the Savior himself. (p. 158)
It is painful to read of how theological disagreement led to Christians killing Christians, and of the Church's messy attempt to re-calibrate its relationship to the State after the rapid reversal of its political status, from suffering imperial wrath to enjoying imperial patronage; from outlaw sect to prestigious religion. From the perspective of 21st century Western Christianity it all seems very strange: in this age of religious freedom and tolerance it is difficult to imagine riots and running street battles erupting over a difference in Christology. However, a glance through online Christian discussion forums reminds one that the religious hostility that led to fourth-century fratricide is still very much alive. One suspects it is largely social and legal structures, not softer hearts, that prevents contemporary intra-Christian disputes from escalating into violence. Given the principle "Much given, much required" (Luke 12:48), rather than judging our fourth-century forebears, we should be thankful for the freedom and tolerance that prevails in our society, and redouble our efforts to conduct ourselves in a charitable, respectful and orderly manner in religious dialogue. Jesus reminds us that the line between invective and bloodshed may be thinner than we think (Matt. 5:21-22).

Another take-home message for me is that no ecclesiastical tradition is without a checkered history. In this case, both the Arians and their opponents used the power of the State to suppress one another and committed atrocities in the name of Christ. It is shameful, and we must learn from it, but we must also not exaggerate the ecclesiological implications. The story of Israel reminds us that the elect status of God's people is not revoked for moral failings (Rom. 11:29). Moreover, to impute the guilt of violence against Arians to contemporary Trinitarians—or even to all fourth-century Trinitarians—would be just as reprehensible as imputing the guilt of Jesus' crucifixion to contemporary Jews—or even to all first-century Jews.

I would summarize Rubenstein's overall narrative thus: the Arian controversy was a violent conflict in which corrupt clergymen and meddling statesmen succeeded in changing Christian doctrine. However, the most encouraging finding I take from the book is one that runs against the grain of this narrative, but which Rubenstein nonetheless acknowledges. This is, namely, that as the fourth century wore on, the Nicene party and the conservative Arian party ("a bloc representing a substantial majority of Eastern Christians", p. 197) increasingly found each other through dialogue. Rubenstein explains that the solidarity of Christians created by the brief reign of the pagan emperor Julian and the subsequent mild regime of the Arian emperor Valens "created a space in which Nicene Christians and conservative Arians could communicate thoughtfully with each other" (p. 204). The result was exemplified through the theological work of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus), who "developed the ideas that would make it possible for conservative Arians and Nicene Christians eventually to fuse" (p. 205). "The Cappadocians had provided a new theology capable of uniting a large contingent of Arian Christians with most Nicenes" (p. 210), who together "represented a probable majority of all Christians" (p. 200). Thus, according to Rubenstein's account, the orthodoxy that emerged from the Arian controversy (made official at the Council of Constantinople in 381) was a consensus of the Church achieved through theological reflection and dialogue. The Church's resolution to the Arian controversy was enforced politically, to be sure, under Emperor Theodosius—and ruthlessly, one should add, in relation to dissenting Arians—after the Council of Constantinople. However, what Theodosius enforced was the theological consensus of the Church, not merely his own private judgment or the will of a few politically connected bishops. This, I believe, supports the historical and theological legitimacy of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Rubenstein's expertise in conflict resolution shines through clearly in his writing. He approaches the Arian controversy from a purely anthropological perspective: it is fully explicable as a bloody power struggle involving competing personalities motivated by self-interest. Most of the "principal characters," statesmen and clergymen alike, are depicted as ruthless, manipulative schemers trying to outmaneuver their opponents. Rubenstein repeatedly invokes the metaphor of moves in a chess game to describe individual turns in the plot (pp. 16, 65, 166, 168). While this is a useful perspective on the controversy and is not without warrant, those like myself with Christian faith commitments are likely to consider it insufficient for two reasons. First, the community which suffered through this horrific controversy was the Church—the Body of Christ, founded by Christ, ruled by Christ—and so one must be open to theological interpretations of the conflict and not only anthropological ones. Second, a measure of respect for the tradition of the Church and her "Fathers" inclines one toward a more charitable view of the clergymen involved in the controversy. This does not mean overlooking evidence of their moral failings or denying that atrocities were committed on their watch. It does, however, mean maintaining a certain level of humility in judging their motives and character, and respecting the dignity of their office as leaders of the Church of that time.

There are a few perspectives in the book that I would quibble with. First, Rubenstein offers certain dichotomous contrasts between the priorities of the Church before and after the rise of Constantine that seem exaggerated. For instance, "While terror rained, most Christian leaders had maintained a common front. Survival, not doctrinal purity, had been the order of the day" (pp. 72-73). This suggests that during times of persecution, Christian leaders' concern for doctrinal purity loosened. However, the writings of the Church throughout its first three centuries show a consistent concern for doctrinal purity, regardless of historical circumstances. Another example:
Was the Christianity that emerged from the years of travail to be a religion for everyone, or only for those meeting certain standards of faith and virtue? Should the clergy's primary task be to help its members perfect themselves or to administer sacred rites and help maintain order, as the pagan priesthood had done? (p. 73)
Rubenstein offers no evidence that these were among the most pressing questions on the minds of Christian leaders in the time of Constantine. The Church had always insisted on "certain standards of faith and virtue," and it is not clear that the tasks of helping members perfect themselves, administering sacred rites and maintaining order are antithetical. Certainly some of the other questions raised by Rubenstein are more obviously relevant:
What should a Christian empire look like? ... How much doctrinal unity was necessary to a healthy and growing Church? To what extent should ecclesiastical power be regularized and centralized? What sort of relations should the bishops maintain with monks and holy men? With emperors and state officials? (p. 73)
Second, Rubenstein does a reasonable job of maintaining scholarly neutrality in his analysis of the controversy, but at certainly points his comments are clearly slanted toward the Arians. For instance, he avers that the Arians were Christians who "had a stronger sense of historical continuity than others"; for them, "Christianity seemed a natural extension of and improvement on Judaism" (pp. 73-74). By contrast,
the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past. It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be 'updated' by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son. (pp. 73-74)
This is a clear value judgment on the relative historical credibility of the Arians and their opponents, yet Rubenstein neither substantiates it nor refer us to any sources that do. It is unclear why he places the word 'updated' in inverted commas as though this were the language used by the anti-Arians. Obviously, opponents of Arianism did not think of themselves as 'updating' Christianity, nor as "blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son," but as defending the traditional doctrines of the faith against Arius' novel, heretical teachings. Probably both sides in the controversy laid claim to the historical high ground. The Church had traditionally maintained that Christ was God without dogmatically defining his relationship to the Father in philosophically precise language, and the controversy erupted exactly in that dogmatic gap. For Rubenstein to make the unsubstantiated claim that the Arians were historically minded conservatives while the anti-Arians anti-traditionalist innovators is a blight on the credibility of his book.

Another feature that suggests pro-Arian bias is his characterization of Arius and Athanasius, two of the principal antagonists on the Arian and Nicene side respectively. Consider these comments on the two men respectively:
Arius must have been a persuasive man. Notwithstanding the scurrilous labels bestowed upon him by his enemies ('heretic' was among the mildest of them), his devotion to Christ and the Church was genuine, as was his desire to live at peace with other Christians, even if he and they differed in matters of doctrine. (p. 102)
The redheaded deacon [Athanasius] was one of the fourth century's 'new men': a person who came of age after the Great Persecution had ended; whose parents were very likely pagans, but whose education was Christian, not classical; whose ambition was boundless; and who was very much at home in the 'real' world of power relations and political skulduggery. For a similar combination of theoretical acumen, dogged adherence to principle, and political ruthlessness, one would have to await the advent of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Vladimir Lenin. (pp. 104-105)
Thus, Rubenstein defends Arius against his opponents' accusations, describing him as a sincere, devoted follower of Christ and the Church who desired peace. Meanwhile, Athanasius is depicted as power-hungry, ruthless, underhanded (as the word 'skulduggery' implies), and driven by boundless ambition—a picture Rubenstein rounds off with a comparison to an infamous communist revolutionary, dictator and atheist, Vladimir Lenin. 

I'm not familiar enough with academic literature on either Arius or Athanasius to critique Rubenstein concerning these two men, but it doesn't seem impartial (especially given that Rubenstein's theological sympathies lie with the Arians). Moreover, there are aspects of Rubenstein's own narrative that are in tension with these characterizations: is Arius' "defiance" (read: insubordination; see pp. 49, 60) toward his own bishop the behaviour of a man devoted to the Church and desirous of peace? This can at least be questioned. Conversely, Rubenstein narrates the soft-speaking, conciliatory approach of "friendly persuasion" that Athanasius took toward the conservative Arian party later in life (p. 197). He construes this in terms of Athanasius' "sharp-eyed perception" of the changing shape of Arianism—in other words, shrewdness rather than an Arius-like longing for peace or a checking of his "boundless ambition." This hardly seems charitable. Contrast the articles on Arius and Athanasius in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, both of which are sympathetic from a moral point of view (notwithstanding the pro-Trinitarian bias). The Encyclopedia says of Arius, for instance, that "his moral character was never impeached except doubtfully of ambition by Theodoret."

Finally, I would take issue with Rubenstein's characterization of the Arian controversy as a whole. The very title of the book is problematic. Christians were calling Jesus "God" long before Arius came along—already in the New Testament, in fact (e.g., John 20:28; Heb. 1:8)! Even Bart Ehrman, no friend to orthodox theology and himself the author of a similarly-titled book How Jesus became God, locates the crucial development within the New Testament. For example, according to Ehrman, the Christology of John's Gospel holds that "even before he appeared, he was the Logos of God himself, a being who was God, the one through whom the entire universe was created."1 The story did not end there, of course, as the subsequent centuries saw many different Christological views develop "as theologians tried to work out the precise implications of these rather imprecise early claims made about Christ."2 Thus the Arian controversy is best described as an advanced stage of the Church's deliberation about what "Jesus is God" meant; it was not a debate over whether Jesus is God at all. Hence, the title's suggestion that Jesus became God in the mid-fourth century is "misleading," as leading patristic scholar Paul Hartog agrees (he criticizes it in the same footnote as the Da Vinci Code and for the same reason!) Of course, a carefully nuanced title might have a negative effect on sales, which is probably why Rubenstein or his publisher decided to go with the provocative approach.

Rubenstein characterizes the development of Trinitarian orthodoxy as "Doctrinally...the point at which Christianity breaks decisively with its parent faith" (p. 210). He obviously means Judaism; but most scholars today, including Jewish scholars, recognize that rabbinic Judaism (that which existed in the fourth century) was not the parent faith of Christianity but the brother (or sister?) faith of Christianity. In other words, rabbinic Judaism (which developed from Pharisaic Judaism, and from which developed modern orthodox Judaism) and Christianity were the two surviving "children" of Second Temple Judaism with all of its diversity. These two children offered competing answers to questions such as the significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the locus and practice of religion without the Jerusalem Temple, and the means by which Gentiles might become joined to the people of God. And Christians, of course, see Trinitarianism not as a break with their Second Temple Jewish roots but as the legitimate growth and flowering of those roots, developed particularly in light of their experience of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

We have already noted Hartog's criticism of the book's misleading title. I also read two published, scholarly reviews of Rubenstein's book, one by Tim Vivian in Anglican Theological Review3 and the other by William B. Palardy in Catholic Historical Review.4 Both writers are experts: Vivian is a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, a "dedicated scholar in the field of early Christianity, with an emphasis in Coptic Studies and early Christian Monasticism"; Palardy is a Professor of Patristic and Systematic Theology and now Rector of a seminary. Both men are priests, so their bias is obviously Trinitarian. (Unfortunately I didn't find any reviews by secular historians.)

Vivian states that Rubenstein "has succeeded in writing a lively, engaging narrative that is reasonably accurate in its details," and calls him as "a good storyteller."5 However, he laments two recent major historical works that are absent from Rubenstein's bibliography and reminds us that
good storytelling is not enough to make good history. Rubenstein's footnoting of sources is, for a popular work, generally good, but when it is spotty it raises serious concerns.6
He observes that Rubenstein's appeals to imagination are more conducive to a novel than a work of history, and states, "If...one wants to argue historically that Jesus 'became' God, then one has to look at the writings of the first century, not the fourth."7 He adds that "The decisive break between Judaism and Christianity that Rubenstein places in the fourth century actually took place three centuries earlier"8 (on this point I might suggest two centuries earlier, if one defines the decisive break sociologically rather than theologically). He continues:
Rubenstein's laudable desire to bridge the differences between Judaism and Christianity leads, however inadvertently, to tendentious history, which then produces misleading theology, in this case an idealized view of Arianism over against Nicene Christianity.9
Vivian then concludes on a conciliatory note, acknowledging his admiration for the author's "forthrightness" and "his respect for both his subject and his audience", while expressing worry that the book "may unintentionally mislead a lot of readers...because of bad history beguilingly offered."10

For his part, Palardy describes Rubenstein's style as "dramatic, provocative, and eminently readable."11 He commends Rubenstein's "skills at analyzing social and religious conflict" and his being "generally well read in the pertinent recent literature in English" despite not being a theologian nor an historian. He further praises Rubenstein's "vivid portrayals of the major personalities involved" and "the generally successful attempt at making the very technical theological terms in this debate accessible for non-specialists." He also agrees with Rubenstein that the doctrine of the Trinity enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople (381) "was radically distinctive when compared with Greco-Roman Neoplatonism and Judaism."12

Palardy also criticizes Rubenstein on a number of historical inaccuracies as well as oversimplifications about the nature of patristic Christianity. He summarizes:
In sum, Rubenstein’s work may perhaps be acceptable for the non-specialist and in undergraduate courses dealing with this period of history, so long as it is read with caution. It is certainly not recommended otherwise. There are too many errors and unsubstantiated generalizations with too few references to primary sources.13
Given this somewhat muted critical reception (none of the major journals of patristics, late antiquity or theology reviewed it, as far as I can tell), let us consider the response to Rubenstein's book among contemporary unitarians.

Generally speaking, it appears that contemporary unitarians have lapped up Rubenstein's book, praising him as an "unbiased" "historian," although Rubenstein himself does not claim to be either (recall his description of his book as a "rather unorthodox...interpretation of the Arian controversy").

A self-published refutation of the Trinity by one Nathaniel Max Rock states that Rubenstein "presents an unbiased historical perspective on the development of the Trinity Doctrine" and describes him as "first an [sic] foremost a historian."14 A reviewer at biblicalunitarian.com, Matthew Johnson, writes, "Rubenstein not only does an excellent job in retelling history, but he does it from a very unbiased viewpoint." Barbara Buzzard, wife of leading unitarian scholar Sir Anthony Buzzard, praises Rubenstein's "rather unbiased perspective" on a "very volatile subject." (Her review, which is full of anti-Trinitarian polemic, is basically an apologetic for Rubenstein's thesis).15 She says Rubenstein "has managed to unearth the nuts and bolts of this conference and describe the goings on as if they were a suspense novel." But what exactly has Rubenstein "unearthed"? Anything that was not taken from his secondary sources was supplied by his own imagination—including much of the vivid detail that gives Rubenstein's narrative a "suspense novel" feel!

Philosopher (and unitarian) Prof. Dale Tuggy writes of the Arian conflict, "This controversy was complex, and has been much illuminated by recent historians," citing Rubenstein's work amongst others.16 This is a surprising statement from an academic, since Rubenstein is not a historian, and does not "illuminate" the history of the controversy in any academic sense.

The unitarian apologetic tome One God & One Lord relies on Rubenstein's book as a historical source, and at one point prefaces a quotation from the book thus: "Rubenstein points out the illogic of the assertion that 'God can do anything.'"17 However, the quoted portion is not Rubenstein's point but a reconstruction of what Arius said when testifying against Athanasius before Constantine (admittedly, a reconstruction seemingly drawn from Rubenstein's imagination, and thus perhaps indirectly reflecting his own ideas).

Another unitarian website places Rubenstein's book on a "Recommended Reading List," nestled among scholarly works like Dunn's Christology in the Making and N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God.

In summary, it appears that, by and large, biblical unitarians—even those of an academic bent—have accepted Rubenstein's book uncritically, overlooking its historiographical shortcomings and mistaking like-mindedness for unbiasedness in order to harness certain of its emphases for apologetic ends. None of the reviews or citations above, as far as I can tell, are the least bit critical of Rubenstein's book, nor do they show any awareness that it is not a scholarly historical work. For the most part, Rubenstein's vivid portrayal of the violence and political intrigue in the Arian controversy is simply steered into an attack on the theological legitimacy of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

The Arian controversy was an unpleasant chapter in Church history, and we are in Rubenstein's debt for retelling the story so vividly since, as it has been said, those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. However, it needs to be stressed first that the book is a popular work; Rubenstein is not a historian and the genre of his book is better described as a historical drama than a history. For a more sober, less imaginative reconstruction of the events and personalities one should consult a scholarly historiographical work that interacts critically with the primary sources in their original languages. Secondly, Rubenstein's bias is by his own admission "unorthodox"; he writes from the viewpoint of a secular American Jew. (There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and it is very interesting to hear this perspective on the controversy.) His narrative seems reasonably fair in its respective characterization of the Arians and Nicenes, but at certain points slants in an unduly pro-Arian direction, and one detects a bit too much enthusiasm in his vilification of revered Church figures like Athanasius (whom he compares to Vladimir Lenin).

A probably unintended consequence of Rubenstein's work is that it has attained the status of a cult classic18 among biblical unitarians, who view it as adding credibility to their interpretation of the Arian controversy as a politically motivated hijacking of Christian theology. I would recommend that unitarian readers be more critical in their reception of the book and base historical-theological arguments concerning the Arian controversy on scholarly histories rather than popular historical dramas. Moreover, as mentioned above, Rubenstein's book—and it may in this respect qualify as a "hostile witness"—attests that the Trinitarian dogma that emerged from the Arian controversy as orthodoxy was a theological consensus achieved through theological reflection and dialogue between the Nicene and conservative Arian parties (who together represented a majority in the Church). By contrast, a theological view corresponding to biblical unitarianism, if it existed at all in the fourth century Church, was restricted to the most radical fringe of the Arian party. And, without justifying the political action involved in either case, it must be conceded that whereas all State attempts to extinguish Christianity during the period of pagan rule failed, the State under Christian rule succeeded in extinguishing Arianism:
Arianism in its original form disappeared rapidly as a living force within the Roman Empire, and by the seventh century the last of the Arian tribes in Western Europe had been converted to Catholicism. (p. 227)
As I have argued previously, this extinction shows that, by the "Gamaliel criterion" endorsed in the Book of Acts, Arianism was not of God. Meanwhile, the Trinitarian orthodoxy achieved in the late fourth century has stood for over 1600 years, and despite schisms over other issues, remains the creed and foundation for ecumenical dialogue among Roman Catholics, the various Orthodox Churches and the various Protestant denominations. Weighed against the acrimony, violence and shifting balance of power during the Arian controversy, the durability of this ancient consensus is truly remarkable—perhaps even miraculous!


  • 1 Ehrman, Bart D. (2014). How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, p. 146.
  • 2 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 149.
  • 3 Vivian, Tim (2001). When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome [Review Article]. Anglical Theological Review, 83(3), 649-51.
  • 4 Palardy, William B. (2000). When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome [Review Article]. Catholic Historical Review, 86(3), 483-85.
  • 5 Vivian, op. cit., p. 649.
  • 6 Vivian, op. cit., p. 650.
  • 7 Vivian, op. cit., p. 650.
  • 8 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 9 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 10 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 11 Palardy, op. cit., p. 483.
  • 12 Palardy, op. cit., p. 483.
  • 13 Palardy, op. cit., p. 484.
  • 14 Rock, Nathaniel Max (2006). Christ is not God: A Powerful Deception. Published by author, p. 89.
  • 15 The review itself is "an attempt to show" (from Rubenstein's book) how Jesus "became God officially at Nicea". Having enthusiastically thanked Rubenstein for his "exposure of the roots of Trinitarian dogma," she ridicules the Church Father Gregory of Nyssa for describing the Trinity as a paradox ("Say what?!"), which she thinks is equivalent to a square circle. She asks, "How is it that 1700 years later we are still cowering under their very faulty leadership and the unscriptural “rules” they made up as the trinity was “invented”?"
  • 16 Tuggy, Dale (2013). "Trinity". In Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/trinity. Accessed at Google Books in a self-published book version, p. 85.
  • 17 Graeser, Mark H., Lynn, John A. & Schoenheit, John W. (2003). One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (3rd edn). Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, p. 368.
  • 18 I use this term in its usual sense, meaning a work that is popular among a particular demographic, without any of the pejorative connotation which the word 'cult' has when applied to sectarian religious groups. See here for my disavowal of the use of the term 'cult' for Christadelphians.

Monday 2 January 2017

Jesus: Son of God, God the Son, or both?

This post is dedicated to Ruth Sutcliffe on the occasion of her birthday. Please check out Ruth's blog, R Sutcliffe Theologistics, if you haven't already done so.

1. A polemical slogan
2. Is the term "God the Son" scriptural?
3. "God the only Son" (John 1:18)
4. Conclusion

"God the Son" is a term used in orthodox Christian theology to refer to the Second Person of the Trinity, who became incarnate of the virgin Mary as Jesus of Nazareth. The term also features prominently in Christadelphian anti-Trinitarian polemical literature, where it is frequently used in a slogan that sets it in antithesis with the term "Son of God." The slogan appears designed to concisely depict the non-biblical excesses of Trinitarianism.

Examples of its use abound. A Christadelphian pamphlet by Fred Pearce is entitled, Jesus—God the Son or Son of God? Pearce's pamphlet gives very little attention to the term "God the Son" itself, however, apparently regarding it as self-evident that "the Biblical teaching gives no support to any such doctrine."

A different pamphlet by John Thorpe bears a similar title: Jesus ChristSon of God not God the Son. Thorpe explains,
While Jesus is frequently referred to by the term “Son of God" in the Bible, he is never referred to as "God the Son". The two phrases have different meanings, and the title "Son of God" does not imply the title "God the Son". There is no Scriptural justification for ever using the term "God the Son" to describe Jesus.
Yet another pamphlet, a broader introduction to Christadelphian teaching, contains a subsection entitled "Son of God not God the Son" which states:
The idea of a pre-existent "God the Son" in heaven changes the vital experience of Jesus as the independent, responsible Son of man who was also Son of God, and so takes away the true significance of his life and his death as the atonement for sin, achieved once for all.
The antithesis has even made it into statements of doctrine, such as that which sometimes features at the back of The Christadelphian Advocate magazine:
Jesus Christ is the Son of God (not "God the Son", a phrase not found in scripture), begotten of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke extends this slogan beyond the Christadelphian community to include all biblical unitarians:
Biblical Unitarians are united in our belief that Jesus is the Son of God and not God the Son.
Two claims are implicit in this slogan and the literature that uses it. The first is that the term "God the Son" is not scriptural, in contrast to "Son of God," which is scriptural. The second is that the terms "God the Son" and "Son of God" denote antithetical, mutually exclusive concepts. In this blog I want to briefly consider the validity of these objections.

If by "scriptural," we mean "used explicitly in Scripture," then the concession must be made that neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament ever uses the term "God the Son" (e.g., ὁ υἱὸς ὁ θεός or θεός υἱὸς in Greek). However, surely our criteria for what is theologically sound cannot be limited to what is "scriptural" in this narrow sense. In expressing doctrine, must we limit ourselves to terminology that Scripture itself uses? I doubt that the reader found any reason to object to my use of the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" in the first sentence of this paragraph. And yet Scripture never uses these terms in the way in which I have used them here—namely, to denote a twofold division of Scripture. Nor is there any semantically equivalent term the Bible uses to denote this twofold division of Scripture. Nor does Scripture ever use the term "canon" (or any equivalent term) to denote the list or set of books that belong to Scripture. All of this terminology for Scripture is extra-biblical and post-biblical, and yet Christadelphians and other non-trinitarian sects use them freely and would struggle to express their beliefs about Scripture without them.

Hence, the question that needs to be asked is not whether the term "God the Son" is scriptural in this narrow sense of appearing explicitly in Scripture, nor even whether there is any equivalent term that is "scriptural" in this narrow sense, but only whether the term "God the Son" is consistent with Scripture. A good case can be made that it is.

The term "God the Son" conveys two convictions about Christ: (1) that he is "the Son" in some sense; (2) that he is "God" in some sense. If both of these ideas are biblically sound individually, then there is no obvious reason why they should be unsound when combined into a single term. Now, it is obvious that the New Testament frequently uses the term υἱὸς ("Son") for Christ. This appears commonly in the designation ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ("the Son of God"), which appears in all four Gospels (e.g., Matt. 4:3, 16:16, Mark 3:11, Luke 22:70; John 1:49; 20:31), in Acts (9:20), in Paul's epistles (Rom. 1:4; Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 1:19), other epistles (Heb. 4:14; 6:6; 1 John 3:8; 4:15) and in Revelation (2:18). This designation has undoubtedly been influenced by Christological interpretation of passages such as 2 Sam. 7:14, Ps. 2:7 and Hos. 11:1. It also appears in the designation ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ανθρώπου ("the Son of man"), probably derived ultimately from Dan. 7:13, which is largely confined to the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 8:20; 10:23; Mark 2:28; 8:38; Luke 5:24; 12:8; John 3:13; 9:35; but cp. Acts 7:56; Heb. 2:6; Rev. 1:13). Of course, the theological import of each of these designations would be a study in its own right.

Another fascinating use of "Son" terminology for Jesus is the stand-alone designation ὁ υἱὸς ("the Son"), in which Jesus' status as Son of God is shortened and absolutized: he is "the Son" par excellence, just as God is "the Father" par excellence. This designation appears in three distinct units of Synoptic tradition: the so-called Johannine thunderbolt (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22), a saying of Jesus within the Olivet discourse (Mark 13:32; Matt. 24:36), and the baptismal formula of Matt. 28:19.1 In all three of these sayings, "the Son" is juxtaposed with the "the Father" (and, in Matt. 28:19, also "the Holy Spirit"), reflecting a remarkable closeness and union. Familiarity has desensitized the modern reader to the boldness of designating God and a human being simply and jointly as "the Father" and "the Son," which must have been jarring to first century Jewish ears. The designation ὁ υἱὸς recurs frequently in the Johannine tradition (e.g., John 3:35-36; 5:19-23; 6:40; 8:36; 14:13; 17:1; 1 John 2:22-24; 2 John 9), and is also used once by Paul (1 Cor. 15:28; "his Son" appears numerous times) and appears in Hebrews (1:2, 8). The remarkable closeness which the designation expresses is aptly captured in the saying, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), which renowned scholar Richard Bauckham regards as an allusion to the Shema` (Deut. 6:4); Jesus is saying "that he and the Father...are one God."2

"The Son" is clearly a designation for Jesus that is scriptural in the narrowest sense, used alongside "the Father", who is also frequently designated "God the Father". If Jesus is also called "God" (θεός), then it would be a natural extension of New Testament teaching and terminology to designate Jesus as "God the Son," even if no New Testament writer takes this step explicitly.

In fact, it is uncontroversial that Scripture refers to Jesus using the term θεός, even if the number of references is small and most of them are disputed on text-critical or exegetical grounds. In Murray J. Harris' monograph on New Testament references to Jesus as God, he concludes that this word is applied to Jesus seven times in New Testament (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1), while acknowledging that "the NT customarily reserves the term θεός for the Father" and that "As used of the Father, θεός is virtually a proper name."3 Of these seven instances, John 1:18 may be disputed on text-critical grounds (but see below), while John 1:1, Rom. 9:5, Tit. 2:13, Heb. 1:8 and 2 Pet. 1:1 may be disputed on exegetical grounds. By "may be disputed" I mean it is syntactically possible to read the referent of θεός in these texts as other than Christ; I do not mean in every case it is exegetically defensible. Even if one, against the grain of contemporary scholarship, rejects the application of θεός to Jesus in all of the disputable cases, one is left with the indisputable instance of John 20:28. Hence, it remains uncontroversial to assert that ὁ θεός is—in the narrowest possible sense—a "scriptural" way of referring to Jesus, even if it is not a common designation for Jesus. (And we have reached this conclusion without even considering designations that are tantamount to referring to Jesus as God, such as ἐγὼ εἰμί in John 8:58).

It is noteworthy that three of the seven references just mentioned, if accepted, refer to Christ as θεός in conjunction with denoting God as θεός (John 1:1, 18; Heb. 1:8). Hence there are two distinct figures referred to as θεός, and these are the same two distinct figures who are—by these same writers and others—designated "the Father" and "the Son." Thus, taking the biblical term "God the Father" as a model, it is quite consistent with the collective biblical witness to refer to Jesus as "God the Son." To do so is not antithetical to the designation "Son of God," as the Christadelphian slogan suggests. In fact, "God the Son" can be thought of essentially as shorthand for "God the Son of God", a designation which captures, as John 1:1-2 and Hebrews 1:8-9 do, that the one so designated is both God in some sense and distinct from God in some sense.

Before concluding I want to go one step further and suggest that there is a term used explicitly in Scripture which is semantically very close to "God the Son." This is the term μονογενὴς θεός in John 1:18.

Now those who (like me) were raised on the King James Version of the Bible will be by default biased in favour of the reading "the only begotten Son" here, which translates ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς. The reality is, however, that most New Testament scholars today agree that θεός, not υἱὸς, is the original reading here. This is not due to Trinitarian bias but to consistent application of the methods of textual criticism. Bruce M. Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition) classifies the reading μονογενὴς θεός as a "B" on a certainty scale from "A" to "D", based on the deliberations of the Editorial Committee of the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament.4 This nomenclature is explained as follows:
The letter {A} signifies that the text is certain, while {B} indicates that the text is almost certain. The letter {C}, however, indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text. The letter {D}, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision.5
Hence, the "B" decision indicates that the Committee regarded the reading μονογενὴς θεός as "almost certain," and that the Committee did not have difficulty reaching a decision about which reading was best. The decision is primarily based on external evidence, i.e. manuscript data, since the reading μονογενὴς θεός or ὁ μονογενὴς θεός is found in the two earliest extant manuscripts of the Gospel of John (P66 and P75), as well as in Codex Sinaiticus (א) and Codex Vaticanus (B) among the early codices. Of the most highly regarded early manuscripts, only Codex Alexandrinus (A) supports the reading ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς, although this reading has far greater support among later Byzantine, Caesarean and Western manuscripts.

The claim here is not that the text-critical issue is certain or undisputed. One member of the UBS Committee, Prof. Allen Wikgren, had a dissenting opinion published in Metzger's Textual Commentary, where he suggested, "At least a D decision would be preferable," implying that he considered the θεός/υἱὸς decision very difficult. Moreover, one of the world's most respected textual critics, Bart D. Ehrman, argued in his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture not only that ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς is the original reading but that the substitution of θεός for υἱὸς was a deliberate corruption intended to enhance biblical support for the deity of Christ.6 This sensational claim has not obviously gained support in the academic community. Ehrman's arguments have been critiqued, for instance, by Burkholder, who observes that early Alexandrian Church Fathers like Clement and Origen do not seem very interested either in defending the reading μονογενὴς θεός or in using it to prove Christ's deity, which we would expect them to do if this reading were manufactured there in the heat of theological controversy. Burkholder adds that, given the generally accepted date of c. 200 C.E. for P66,
any thought that the Christological debates of Nicea and the repudiation of the Arians would have provided some kind of theological impetus to alter Joh 1,18 is profoundly anachronistic. Nicea is far too late to be of relevance here. P66 effectively limits the time period of concern to the first two centuries7
It is thus defensible to go Wikgren's route and call this an inscrutable text-critical problem, or to go Ehrman's route and call this an orthodox corruption of the original reading ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς (though to do so as a matter of dogmatic necessity would be rather suspect). However, it must be conceded that most scholars regard μονογενὴς θεός as the original reading. This is reflected in the NA28 and SBL Greek critical texts, most modern English translations as well as in several recent journal articles relating to this text.8

What is more, the renderings of John 1:18 in several recent studies and translations yield something very close to "God the Son": "the only Son, God" (NABRE), "God the only Son" (NRSV);9; "the only begotten God" (NASB), "the one and only Son, who is himself God" (NIV), "(the) only Son, who (in addition to the Father) is God".10 Indeed, although the meaning of μονογενὴς in the Johannine writings is disputed (as to whether it means something like 'unique' or 'only' or 'only begotten'), if the reading μονογενὴς θεός is adopted then virtually any translation will support the notion of "God the Son," since the one described as "God" here is "in the bosom of the Father," a filial relationship.

In summary, current scholarship on the text and meaning of John 1:18 supports the idea that this text calls Jesus something semantically equivalent to "God the Son." Consequently, it can hardly be maintained dogmatically that the term "God the Son" is unscriptural even in the narrow sense of the word.

We have seen that both the designations "the Son" and "God" are undoubtedly applied to Jesus in Scripture, which—taken in concert with the intimate "oneness" between "the Father" and "the Son" and the designation "God the Father"—provides a rather clear scriptural rationale for the designation "God the Son," even if Scripture itself does not use this designation. This designation is not antithetical to the more familiar biblical term "Son of God"; it could in fact be thought of as a shorter form of "God the Son of God." Furthermore, we have seen that one can reasonably claim—with the backing of most contemporary New Testament scholars—that John 1:18 calls Jesus something very similar to, if not essentially identical to, "God the Son."

Hence, contrary to Christadelphian polemic there is Scriptural justification for using the term "God the Son." Moreover, the terms "Son of God" and "God the Son" need not and should not be set in opposition to each other. The slogan "Son of God or God the Son?" actually presents a false dilemma, because it implies we can only confess one of these Christological titles, whereas it is possible—and, according to orthodox Christology, correct—to confess both. Indeed, it was probably reflection around the first title that gave rise to the second, and this development in early Christology can be observed within the New Testament itself.


  • 1 From a source-critical perspective it appears in Markan, Q and special Matthew material. Combined with 1 Cor. 15:28, this independent attestation lends credence to the idea that it was used by the historical Jesus himself.
  • 2 Bauckham, Richard (2008). Jesus and the God of Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 104-106.
  • 3 Harris, Murray J. (1992). Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 298. One might also add Ps. 45:6 and Isa. 9:6 to the list as OT instances that may be read messianically.
  • 4Metzger, Bruce M. (1994). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edn). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, pp. 169-70.
  • 5 Metzger, op. cit., p. 14.
  • 6 Ehrman, Bart D. (1993). The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 78ff.
  • 7 Burkholder, Benjamin J. (2012). Considering the Possibility of a Theological Corruption in Joh 1,18 in Light of its Early Reception. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 103, 64-83, here p. 68. This comment is not a refutation of Ehrman, who had not claimed the alteration of John 1:18 occurred amidst the Arian controversy.
  • 8 E.g., Morgen, Michèle (2007). Le (Fils) monogène dans les écrits johanniques: Évolution des traditions et élaboration rédactionnelle. New Testament Studies, 53, 165-183, here p. 178 n. 32; Fennema, D. A. (1985). John 1.18: 'God the only Son'. New Testament Studies, 31, 125-135; Boyarin, Daniel (2001). The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John. Harvard Theological Review, 94, 243-284, here p. 283; Pendrick, Gerard (1995). ΜΟΝΟΓΕΝΗΣ. New Testament Studies, 41, 587-600, here p. 594.
  • 9 Cf. Pendrick, op. cit., p. 595 n. 39.
  • 10 Fennema, op. cit., p. 128.