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Showing posts with label Biblical Unitarian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Biblical Unitarian. Show all posts

Thursday 13 January 2022

Biblical Unitarian Pneumatologies and the Danger of Bitheism

Is biblical unitarianism bitheistic (believing in two gods)? Such a question, posed by a Trinitarian, may strike unitarians as audacious and absurd. "We accuse you of denying monotheism. How dare you accuse us of that." In this article, however, I am going to make an argument that the answer to this question is, "Yes." The argument is intended to be slightly tongue-in-cheek; its main purpose is to show that a particular unitarian logical argument against Trinitarianism is self-defeating. However, I also hope to persuade unitarians to think more carefully about their pneumatology—their doctrine of the Holy Spirit. 

I will not be arguing—though one could—that by worshipping and praying to a mere man (on which unitarians have historically disagreed amongst themselves) and ascribing the divine Name to him, unitarians are effectively making Jesus a second god. Instead, I will rely on the logic of Prof. Dale Tuggy, a philosopher who happens to be one of the world's leading biblical unitarian apologists. Tuggy has made a formal logical argument that the Trinity contradicts monotheism. I argue here that, if this argument is valid (which I deny it is), it also implies that unitarian theology contradicts monotheism, unless the Holy Spirit is defined in a way that does violence to the biblical witness.

Let me state up front that, unlike Tuggy, I am not a philosopher or an analytic theologian. So I will not be too formal or technical in my argument. If the reader spots flaws in my logic, please do let me know by leaving a comment.

In his research review essay, "Metaphysics and Logic of the Trinity," Tuggy briefly traces out the history of the Trinity as a philosophical theory (as he sees it).1 Tuggy then constructs a formal logical argument against the Trinity and discusses various ways that recent analytic theologians have sought to counter it (unsuccessfully, in his view) and salvage the Trinity.

The full argument can be viewed here; the claims and justifications (without the logical and semi-logical translations) are reproduced below.

1. The Father is divine.Premise
2. The Son is divine.Premise
3. The Father and Son have differed.Premise
4. Things which have differed are non-identical.Premise
5. Therefore, Father and Son are non-identical.3, 4
6. For any two (or “two”) things, they are the same god only if each is divine, and they are identical.Premise
7. Therefore, Father and Son are not the same god.5, 6
8. Therefore, there are at least two gods.1, 2, 7
9. There is exactly one god.Premise
10. But this is contradictory.8, 9
11. Therefore, one or more of these is false: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9.1-10

Tuggy observes that premises 1, 2, 3, and 9 are affirmed in Trinitarian dogma and argues that 4 and 6 follow from "Unaided human reason, quite apart from any theological concerns." If the argument is valid, it entails that the doctrine of the Trinity is polytheistic and thus contradicts monotheism (premise 9).2 Tuggy maintains that it is valid, and that the best option—in light of biblical revelation—is to deny premise 2 (that the Son is divine) and adopt unitarianism. Tuggy uses the argument to describe various Trinity theories in terms of how they seek (unsuccessfully, in his view) to avoid the conclusion that the Trinity contradicts monotheism. This is usually done by denying one or more of the premises.

While I personally lack the philosophical expertise to formally argue the point, my intuition is that premises 4 and 6 are both invalid as applied to God, since they treat "Father" and "Son" as "things" and "god" as a "sort" of thing. This runs contrary to the classical Christian doctrine of God's simplicity, which posits that God is not composed of parts and implies that God is not merely the greatest of all "things" that exist, but is existence itself, and thus the ground and cause of all "things."

However, for purposes of this article I am going to assume arguendo the validity of Tuggy's argument. In the next section, we will alter the argument slightly by replacing the Son with the Holy Spirit and use the revised argument to conclude that unitarian doctrine also entails multiple gods (bitheism to be exact).

We revise Tuggy's argument simply by replacing all references to "the Son" (in 2, 3, 5, and 7) with "the Holy Spirit."

1. The Father is divine.Premise
2'. The Holy Spirit is divine.Premise
3'. The Father and Holy Spirit have differed.Premise
4. Things which have differed are non-identical.Premise
5'. Therefore, Father and Holy Spirit are non-identical.3', 4
6. For any two (or “two”) things, they are the same god only if each is divine, and they are identical.Premise
7'. Therefore, Father and Holy Spirit are not the same god.5', 6
8. Therefore, there are at least two gods.1, 2', 7'
9. There is exactly one god.Premise
10. But this is contradictory.8, 9
11. Therefore, one or more of these is false: 1, 2', 3', 4, 6, 9.1-10

From a Trinitarian perspective, nothing has changed about the validity and implications of the argument (since, for Trinitarians, the Holy Spirit is another of what the Son is).3 From a unitarian perspective, however, the Holy Spirit is not another of what the Son is, but is something entirely different. This is precisely what makes the revised argument interesting, for while unitarians certainly deny the original premise 2 (that the Son is divine), it is not clear that they deny 2' (that the Holy Spirit is divine). Consequently, unless unitarians deny one of the other premises in the revised argument, the conclusion follows (according to Tuggy's logic) that unitarianism contradicts monotheism.

We will describe unitarian pneumatology in more detail below and discuss how unitarians might rescue monotheism from the jaws of Tuggy's argument, and at what cost in terms of interpreting the biblical witness. But first, let us pre-empt a shortcut that some unitarians may wish to take to avoid the issue. Perhaps a unitarian would deny premise 3', that the Father and the Holy Spirit have differed. But not so fast. Consider Tuggy's own justification for the original premise 3 (that the Father and Son have differed):
Premise 3 is implied by the New Testament and by any trinitarian theology. The Father sends his unique Son to save the world, but Jesus does not do that; Jesus doesn’t send his own Son into the world.
The same justification can be given for premise 3'. God (the Father) sends his Spirit,4 but the Holy Spirit does not send its Spirit. Therefore, the Father and the Holy Spirit have differed. By Tuggy's own logic, premise 3' stands.

There does not seem to be any doctrinal consensus among biblical unitarians concerning what the Holy Spirit is. Indeed, the statement of belief that one must affirm to join the Unitarian Christian Alliance (a biblical unitarian network organisation) makes no mention of the Holy Spirit! Thus, while biblical unitarians (today, at least) seem to be united in what they deny about the Holy Spirit—that it is a Person—there seems to be no particular affirmation about the Holy Spirit that unites them.

Moreover, unitarian/Trinitarian polemic concerning the Holy Spirit tends to concentrate largely on the question of personhood (and, a functional level, on whether the Holy Spirit is active).5 This debate is over personhood is practically a red herring, as I have argued previously. This is partly because unitarian-Trinitarian debaters do not agree on (and often do not even mention) a definition of personhood,6 and partly because Trinitarian theologians do not claim that "Person" (or any other noun) completely captures what the Father, Son, and Spirit are in their distinctness.7 Whether or not the Holy Spirit is a "Person" is also irrelevant to Tuggy's logical argument and thus will not be discussed here.

Biblical unitarians, then, emphatically deny that the Holy Spirit is a person, but it is very difficult to pin down what biblical unitarians affirm about that the Holy Spirit. I will attempt to summarise four views that I have encountered, but I must stress that biblical unitarian writers often use vague language about the Holy Spirit and sometimes seem to vacillate between two or more of the views below in the same document.

One of the most common definitions of the Holy Spirit that one finds in biblical unitarian literature describes it as God's power. For example, a website called Australian Christadelphians summarises Christadelphian beliefs about God thus: "There is only one eternal, immortal God. Jesus Christ is his only begotten son and the Holy Spirit is his power." Catechetical materials produced by the Christadelphian Bible Mission (CBM) state that "The Spirit of God is His power through which He makes and supports all things."8 The BBC's profile of Christadelphians states simply, "They believe that the Holy Spirit is the power of God." Christadelphian apologists James H. Broughton and Peter J. Southgate describe the Holy Spirit as "the Father's mind and power." They subsequently describe God's Spirit as "His agent," while qualifying that this agent is "not a separate person" and does not have "its own volition."9

This language is frustratingly vague. What kind of agent lacks volition (which seems to be necessary for agency)?10 And what exactly is meant by "his power"? Jesus Christ is also called the power of God (1 Cor. 1:24), but no one would accept "God's power" as an adequate definition of Jesus Christ. So what is this thing that is God's power? Is it something concrete like an energy or force, or something abstract like a property or attribute?

Some biblical unitarian writers tend more in the concrete direction. The Racovian Catechism of the Polish Brethren (originally published in 1605) offers such a view: "The Holy Spirit is a virtue or energy flowing from God to men, and communicated to them."11 In our own time, Anthony Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting write, "In both Testaments 'Holy Spirit' describes the energy of God directed to creation and inspiration. It is God in action and an extension of His personality."12 The 19th-century founders of the Christadelphian movement, John Thomas and Robert Roberts, describe the Spirit of God in concrete, quasi-physical terms as a kind of energy or matter, and Roberts seems to literally equate it with electricity.13 Graham Pearce characterises the Spirit of God as "power, as light from a source."14

Biblical unitarian writer Sean Finnegan, in an article entitled A Unitarian View of the Holy Spirit, sets out to "put forth a scriptural definition of the Holy Spirit." Having dismissed the idea that the Holy Spirit is "merely an impersonal power...like a battery pack," Finnegan describes "spirit of God" as a "literary device," "a way of referring to Yahweh in action" (which sounds like definition 4.3 below). Yet when he finally offers a "definition," it is more convoluted:
The holy spirit is God in action...as well as the abiding helper distributed under the auspices of the Father by the ascended Messiah... Thus one could say, 'the holy spirit is God,' as well as, 'the holy spirit is Christ,' even though it is technically neither, since they are in heaven, whereas the holy spirit is in God's people. The spirit is simply the way God and Christ are able to indwell and influence the church.
So the holy spirit is God in action, but one would technically be wrong to say "the holy spirit is God." The definition starts off plainly but ends with a non-definition, as a "way...to influence" simply raises the question, "So what is it?" Indeed, "way...to influence" sounds very much like an impersonal power, so it seems Finnegan has taken the reader by a circuitous route back to what he had rejected earlier.

If "Holy Spirit" names a concrete thing like an energy or force distinct from the Father, and this energy or force is divine (which appears to follow if it can be called "God in action" and "God's power"), then premises 2' and 3' hold firm. Therefore, this brand of unitarian pneumatology entails bitheism, if Tuggy's argument is valid.

Summarising his argument concerning the Holy Spirit in a debate with a Trinitarian, Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke writes,
In Week 4 we saw that the OT provides a consistent doctrine of the Spirit as the power of God manifesting His divine presence; yet not a divine person ('God the Holy Spirit') or the totality of God Himself. We saw that throughout the OT, God’s Holy Spirit is described as something that belongs to Him, like a property or a power. We saw that the NT follows this model exactly, without deviating in any way from OT teaching.
Again, we have some serious vagueness here. Is it like a property or a power, but in fact some unnamed third thing, or is it a property or a power? And if the latter, which of the two is it? (It is a recurring theme of biblical unitarian pneumatology that writers are unable to capture what the Holy Spirit is under a single term.)15 But, notably, Burke characterises the Holy Spirit as something that belongs to God but cannot be fully identified with him ("not...the totality of God Himself").

Is the Holy Spirit therefore something distinct from God? Or is the Holy Spirit a part of God (akin to his mind, or analogous to the spirit of man)?16 If the former, then premise 3' holds, and bitheism follows according to Tuggy's argument (unless the Spirit is sub-divine, on which see below). If the latter, then premise 3' may not hold (as the Spirit is then part of the Father, not different from him), but we are not out of the woods. This would be a denial of the classical doctrine of God's simplicity (which holds that God is not composed of parts). But if God (the Father) is a totality composed of parts, and his Spirit is one of the parts, there must be at least one other part that is not the Spirit. Take that part and replace "the Father" with it in premises 1, 3', 5', and 7' in the revised argument. We will still have two things (the Spirit and the Other Part) that differ and that are divine, so by Tuggy's argument we still have at least two gods.

A third view denies that the term "Holy Spirit" names any distinct reality. "Holy Spirit" is simply a name of God or a circumlocution for God, a "way of speaking" that emphasises especially God's presence and activity in creation. This view is less commonly articulated by Christadelphians but is prevalent among other biblical unitarians such as those who maintain the 21st Century Reformation website and BiblicalUnitarian.com.

The 21st Century Reformation website states, "The spirit of God is not a separate individual from the Father. It is the Father extending himself to us by his mighty power" (emphasis added). In another article on the same site, J. Dan Gill states, under the heading "His Spirit is Him,"
The spirit of God is the Father himself at work... the spirit of God is not a separate agent or person of co-Deity. Rather, it is the Father in action. What has been done by the hand or spirit of God has literally been done by the Father himself.
An anonymous article "What about 'the Holy Spirit'?" on BiblicalUnitarian.com expresses a similar view:
Since 'the only true God' is 'the Father,' and since He is 'holy' and He is 'spirit,' He is also referred to in Scripture as 'the Holy Spirit.' ... The Giver is God, the only true God, the Father, the Holy Spirit... the Holy Spirit is not a person, existing independently of God; it is a way of speaking about God’s personally acting in history, or of the risen Christ’s personally acting in the life and witness of the Church. (emphasis added)
Another anonymous article on the same site, "What is the Holy Spirit?" adds that the term "Holy Spirit" has two distinct meanings in Scripture, which should actually be capitalised differently to distinguish them:
In the Bible, “HOLY SPIRIT” is primarily used in two very different ways: One way is to refer to God Himself, and the other way is referring to God’s nature that He gives to people. God is holy and is spirit, and “the Holy Spirit” (capital “H” and “S”) is one of the many “names,” or designations, for God (the one God, known as “Yahweh”). Also, however, God gives His holy spirit nature to people as a gift to spiritually empower them, and when HOLY SPIRIT is used that way it should be translated as “holy spirit” (lower case “h” and “s”)... “HOLY SPIRIT” is either a way of speaking about God, or the gift of God’s nature17
This view of the Holy Spirit looks a lot like Sabellianism or modalism, a heresy in the early church that reduced the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to modes of divine revelation like masks God would put on, rather than maintaining the real distinction between the three.18 However, it is not really modalism, because in this case God the Father is the reality and the Holy Spirit is neither the reality nor a mode. It is merely a "way of speaking about" the Father: a literary device; a figure of speech. In short, the Holy Spirit as such does not exist—does not name any distinct ontological reality—and for that reason this circumlocution pneumatology could be called apneumatism. It is not very far removed from the view held by some disciples in Ephesus who admitted that they were not aware "that there is a holy spirit" (Acts 19:2).

The circumlocution view does avoid the charge of bitheism under Tuggy's argument, since it denies premise 3' (that the Father and the Holy Spirit differ). The question is, at what cost in terms of fidelity to the biblical witness?

The notion that the Holy Spirit, like the Son, is a sub-divine creature or created thing would allow unitarians to escape Tuggy's argument by denying premise 2'. However, this does not seem to be a popular position among contemporary unitarians. It has had its proponents historically; it seems to have been popular among non-Trinitarians of the patristic age.19 A famous post-Reformation defender was the 17th-century English unitarian John Biddle. In his Confession of Faith, Biddle argues that Ephesians 4:4-6 implies that the Holy Spirit is created:
For when he saith, that there is one Spirit, he must mean either one created, or one uncreated Spirit, since (whatsoever some talk to the contrary) no other kind of Spirit is conceivable: Not one uncreated Spirit, for so there will be another uncreated Spirit besides God, (which is absurd) since this Spirit here is plainly and purposely distinguished from God; wherefore he meaneth one created Spirit20
He proceeds to infer "that the holy Spirit is in the number of Angels... I intimate the Holy Spirit to be an Angel"21 To identify the Holy Spirit as an angel one must first accept his personhood, which Biddle did but most unitarians do not.22 However, it is in principle possible to view the Holy Spirit as a sub-divine energy or power (as in 4.1) that God creates or produces. Some contemporary unitarians seem to hint that the Holy Spirit is sub-divine without explicitly stating that it is created. Dave Burke, for instance, writes concerning the Farewell Discourse of John 14-16 that Jesus' language
does not ascribe any divine names or titles to the Holy Spirit, and it does not ascribe any uniquely divine properties, privileges or attributes to the Holy Spirit. Why doesn’t Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit as “God”, or even “Lord”?
Despite such language, one generally does not find unitarians who hold view 4.1 or 4.2 above explicitly calling the Holy Spirit sub-divine or denying that the Holy Spirit is divine. There are obvious logical reasons for this: how can "the Spirit of God" not be divine? How can God make himself present through a sub-divine force or energy? Or how can God have a sub-divine property or be composed of sub-divine parts?

Those who hold one of the first two views—that the Holy Spirit is a divine thing (such as a power or energy or property or aspect)—seem to affirm premises 2' and 3', and are therefore, by the logic of Tuggy's argument, bitheists. Those who hold one of the last two views—that the Holy Spirit is a circumlocution for God the Father, or a sub-divine created thing—escape the charge of bitheism, by denying premise 3' or 2', respectively. The third and fourth views are thus stronger theological positions (again, assuming the validity of Tuggy's argument). The question that we need to ask, however, is whether these two positions are tenable in light of the biblical witness. In the next section, we will argue briefly that they are not.

Before discussing the merits of views 4.3 and 4.4 in light of Scripture, let us observe that these two pneumatologies are in direct contradiction, as strongly as (say) Arianism and Sabellianism in Christology. Any argument that the Holy Spirit is simply a "way of speaking about" the Father will necessarily refute the idea that the Holy Spirit is sub-divine or created, and vice versa. In fact, however, the Scriptures overwhelmingly testify that the Holy Spirit is both distinct from the Father and divine.

In the Hebrew Bible there is definite tension between the identification between God and his Spirit and the distinction between God and his Spirit. Mehrdad Fatehi summarises well:
The ruach Yahweh in the OT is a relational concept referring to Yahweh in his active relation to his creation and his people. This has three important corollaries: 1) The Spirit does not refer primarily to Yahweh as he is in himself or to his inner being or personality, but to Yahweh as he communicates himself, i.e. his power, his life, his wisdom, his will, or his presence, to the world. 2) Nevertheless, the Spirit of Yahweh is never regarded as an entity distinct or separable from Yahweh. It rather represents Yahweh himself in his action towards the world. 3) Yahweh though is not reduced to his ruach. The identification between Yahweh and his Spirit is always dynamic. Yahweh is always greater than his revelatory or redemptive act through his Spirit.23
There is an obvious tension here: the Spirit is Yahweh himself but in a dynamic relation that cannot be reduced to simple identity as in Yahweh = ruach Yahweh. The tension means that the Spirit cannot be reduced to a sub-divine entity separate from God (pace view 4.4 above) but also that it cannot be reduced to a circumlocution for God (pace view 4.3). Preserving this tension and avoiding reductionism is one of the advantages of Trinitarian theology. But I digress.

One of the most intriguing references to the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible occurs in Isaiah 48:16. Here, between two oracles spoken by God in the first person ("Thus says Yahweh...") is sandwiched a little speech by a mysterious third party:
Draw near to me, hear this!
From the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
from the time it came to be I have been there.
And now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit. (NRSV)
This verse has so vexed scholars that some regard part or all of the verse as a late gloss, or propose various emendations of the text.24 If we interpret as it stands (as the Church Fathers did, unsurprisingly in Trinitarian fashion),25 we have a quasi-divine figure who uses language just like Yahweh has been using throughout deutero-Isaiah about having existed and spoken from the beginning,26 and yet who distinguishes himself from God as having been sent by him. Most intriguing for our purposes is that the quasi-divine speaker groups himself together with the Spirit as having been sent by God. If the Spirit is merely a circumlocution for God, we apparently have in this passage two circumlocutions for God—one of them unnamed—who are distinguished from God as having been sent by him!

Pursuant to the idea expressed in Isaiah 48:16, in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is re-revealed as a figure (whether you choose to call it a person or a thing) analogous to the Son of God. Just as the Father sent the Son, so he will sent "another Advocate" (allos paraklētos, John 14:16) who, like Jesus, will not speak on his own, but what he hears from the Father (John 16:13; cp. 5:30; 7:17). Since biblical unitarians emphatically affirm that the Son is distinct from the Father—indeed, Tuggy used precisely such "sending" language as proof of this—they should have no difficulty acknowledging that the Spirit is likewise distinct from the Father. And if this were not enough, we have numerous passages where the Holy Spirit is listed alongside the Father and the Son.27 How can we read "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19) and conclude that the Son is really distinguished from the Father but the Holy Spirit is not? Or how can the Spirit be described as the Spirit of God's Son (Gal. 4:6) if God's Son is a distinct,28 sub-divine figure but the Spirit is a circumlocution for God himself?

Although, as mentioned, few unitarians since John Biddle have denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, it is worth briefly commenting on this issue. We have already stated that it is difficult to conceive of how the Holy Spirit could be a power, energy, property, or part of God without being divine itself. As for being a creature, the Scriptures speak of the Spirit's involvement in creation (e.g., Genesis 1:1-2, Job 33:4, Psalm 104:30, Judith 16:14), but never—as far as I can tell—of the Spirit having been created. In Acts 5:3-4, Peter equates lying to the Holy Spirit with lying to God. And Jesus teaches that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the one kind of blasphemy that will not be forgiven (Matt. 12:31-32 par.) This, together with the broad evidence for dynamic identity between God and his Spirit (as acknowledged by the "circumlocution camp") ought to suffice to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is divine.

We can very briefly respond to six of biblical unitarian Sean Finnegan's objections about the Holy Spirit, though he is not explicitly objecting to the Holy Spirit's divinity, but to the idea that the Holy Spirit is a distinct "person." (1) Finnegan objects that the Holy Spirit does not have a name, whereas the Father and the Son do. But Matthew 28:19 explicitly says "in the name of the Father and [the name] of the Son and [the name] of the Holy Spirit." The words to onoma ("the name") are not repeated thrice as this would be verbose and redundant, since it is obvious to the reader that the parallel occurrences of kai tou ("and of the") refer back to onoma. (2) The Holy Spirit never sends greetings in the salutations in Paul's letters. But if we regard Paul's letters as Scripture, and the Holy Spirit speaks through scriptural authors (Acts 28:25), then the Holy Spirit is speaking these greetings from the Father and the Son. Furthermore, Finnegan seems to have overlooked that in Revelation 1:4-5, the seven churches of Asia do explicitly receive greetings from God, "and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ". As Bogdan G. Bucur writes,
The blessing with ‘grace and peace’ is suggestive of a divine origin. The three must, then, in some way stand for the divinity…It seems most likely, therefore, that the mentioning of the ‘seven spirits’ corresponds to the expected reference to the Holy Spirit. In other words, the author’s expression ‘seven spirits’ would designate what the early Church usually referred to as ‘Holy Spirit.’29
(3) The Holy Spirit is owned by God, because it is called "the Spirit of God" the way Grace's dog might be called "the dog of Grace." This is an oversimplification of the function of the genitive, which has many functions besides ownership. Moreover, if Finnegan's argument holds then the phrase "the Spirit of Christ" implies that the Holy Spirit is also owned by Christ—a real oddity for unitarian theology. In fact, the genitive can refer to source. And as the Creed itself states, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. (4) The Holy Spirit is never prayed to. This objection misapprehends the function of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. The Spirit is not primarily regarded as dwelling in heaven but in the church and in the hearts of the faithful. Therefore, rather than praying to the Holy Spirit, believers pray in the Holy Spirit (Eph. 6:18; Phil. 3:3; Jude 20), and the Spirit intercedes for them (Rom. 8:26-27). (5) The Holy Spirit is missing from statements like that of Matthew 11:27 ("No one knows the Father but the Son, and no one knows the Son but the Father"). This is an argument from silence; if the theological implication is that the Holy Spirit does not know the Father or the Son, it is odd that Paul should elsewhere write, "So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God." (1 Cor. 2:11 NRSV) (6) The Holy Spirit is left out of heavenly throne visions such as those in Isaiah 6, Daniel 7, and Revelation 4. Firstly, some early Christian interpreters understood the two "seraphim" in Isaiah's vision to be the Son and the Spirit.30 Secondly, the absence of the Spirit of God from the vision of Daniel 7 is hardly surprising given that the Book of Daniel never mentions the Spirit of God at all.31 Thirdly, the throne vision of Revelation 4 does mention "and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God" (Rev. 4:5 NRSV). The unusual phraseology does not mean that the seven spirits of God are other than the Holy Spirit; the expression alludes to the seven operations of the Spirit of God mentioned in Isaiah 11:2-3 LXX.32 In Revelation 5:6, the seven spirits of God are depicted again, now as seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the midst of the throne. So the Holy Spirit is certainly not absent from the throne in this vision.

Biblical unitarians who teach a pneumatology like that described in 4.1 or 4.2 above—that the Holy Spirit is a power, energy, property, or aspect of God—have departed from monotheism, at least according to the logical argument of unitarian philosopher Prof. Dale Tuggy. Biblical unitarians who wish to avoid bitheism basically have two options, which are the circumlocution pneumatology that I have pejoratively called apneumatism (4.3) and a sub-divine creature pneumatology like that of John Biddle (4.4). However, both of these positions are biblically untenable.

An alternative is to reject the logic of Tuggy's argument. But in that case, biblical unitarians must either construct a new argument or admit that the doctrine of the Trinity is monotheistic. And so perhaps the best option of all for biblical unitarians is to return to their catholic roots and accept the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, the touchstone of Christian unity for over 1600 years. While Trinitarian theology is often accused of overcomplication, the Trinitarian view of the Holy Spirit can be stated very straightforwardly: the Holy Spirit is another of what the Father and the Son are. Call it a divine "Person" if you prefer.
  • 1 Dale Tuggy, "Metaphysics and Logic of the Trinity," Oxford Handbooks Online (2016): 1-8. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935314.013.27.
  • 2 "Multitheistic" might be a more accurate term, since the prefix "poly-" means "many" and not merely "multiple." However, the word English multitheism is usually used to refer to the existence of multiple kinds of theism, rather than the belief in multiple gods.
  • 3 This is not to say that the Son and the Holy Spirit are identical for Trinitarians, since for example the Son has become incarnate and the Spirit has not.
  • 4 See, e.g., Psalm 104:30, Wisdom 9:17, John 14:26, Galatians 4:6, 1 Peter 1:12, Revelation 5:6.
  • 5 The debate over whether the Spirit is active is sharpest among Christadelphians, who have historically held a hypercessationist position. I have not looked extensively into what other biblical unitarian groups believe about the Spirit's present activity, but they do seem to allow for it.
  • 6 See further discussion on pp. 3-4 of my Review of and Response to The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound, By Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting.
  • 7 St. Augustine discusses this at length in his work de Trinitate. He usually refers to the Father, Son, and Spirit as three personae ("persons"), but acknowledges that this term is insufficient: "When, then, it is asked what the three are, or who the three are, we betake ourselves to the finding out of some special or general name under which we may embrace these three; and no such name occurs to the mind, because the super-eminence of the Godhead surpasses the power of customary speech" (de Trinitate, VII.4.7). At one point he famously remarks that it cannot be denied that there are tria quaedem ("three somethings," de Trinitate VII.4.9), just as St. Anselm would later write, "And so it is evidently expedient for every man to believe in a certain ineffable trinal unity, and in one Trinity; one and a unity because of its one essence, but trinal and a trinity because of its three—what (tres nescio quid, literally "three I know not what")? For, although I can speak of a Trinity because of Father and Son and the Spirit of both, who are three; yet I cannot, in one word, show why they are three" (Monologion 79).
  • 8 Some biblical unitarian writers suggest that the Spirit of God and the Holy Spirit are different (e.g., Graham Pearce, The Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit Gifts [Adelaide: Logos, 1975], 13). Such a distinction is unwarranted. That these terms are interchangeable is evident from passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:3, Ephesians 4:30, and Romans 15:16-18. Often in the New Testament the shorter term "the Spirit" is used.
  • 9 The Trinity: True or False? (2nd edn; Nottingham: The Dawn Book Supply, 2002), 82, 93, 97.
  • 10 One definition of agency given by Cambridge Dictionary is "the ability to take action or to choose what action to take". Notably, 1 Corinthians 12:11 certainly appears to ascribe volition to the Spirit, stating that it allots gifts to each person as it wishes.
  • 11 Thomas Rees (trans.), The Racovian Catechism (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1818), 285).
  • 12 The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 226.
  • 13 See footnotes in the tenth paragraph of this article for relevant quotations from their writings.
  • 14 The Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit Gifts, 13.
  • 15 It is the Father's mind and his power; it is like a property or a power; it is one of the names of God and it is the gift of God. Christadelphian writer Aleck Crawford, in his book The Spirit: A General Exposition on New Testament Usage (1974) does not give any definition of the Spirit, and seems to think it inadvisable to do so. But he conflates the multivalence of the Greek word pneuma with the particularity of the reality designated "the Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit of God": "The very large number of attempts that have been made at establishing a blanket rule is itself an indication of the difficulty, not to say the impossibility, of arriving at a universally satisfactory solution to the problem."
  • 16 We have seen above that Broughton and Southgate equate the Holy Spirit with the Father's mind. About the closest that Christadelphian writer Peter Schwartzkopff comes to defining the Spirit of God in his book of that title is, "Clearly in one sense the Spirit of God has to do with his mind –his way of thinking and feeling" (The Spirit of God [n.d.], 5). To his credit, Schwartzkopff realises that he is trying to "Defin[e] the Undefinable" (ibid., 3), seemingly acknowledging that there is an element of mystery in any attempt to describe God. Biblical unitarian Kermit Zarley writes that "the Spirit of God is to God what the spirit of man is to man." This matter-of-fact anthropomorphism seems to miss that any analogy we may make from the human sphere to describe God is going to be woefully inadequate for describing his infinite majesty.
  • 17 Ironically, another biblical unitarian, Kermit Zarley, criticises Trinitarian translators for capitalising "Holy Spirit" whereas the original biblical manuscripts did not distinguish between lower and upper case and thus only reflect interpretative bias.
  • 18 Notably, Sean Finnegan actually describes Old Testament language about the spirit of God as "ways of referring to the almighty, transcendent God in His mode of acting within creation".
  • 19 Fourth-century Church Fathers such as St. Basil of Caesarea warned about those who attack the Holy Spirit (called Pneumatomachi) by asserting that he "is a creature" (Basil of Caesarea, Letters, 8.10).
  • 20 John Biddle, A Confession of Faith Touching the Holy Trinity according to the Scripture (London: 1648), 3.
  • 21 Confession of Faith, 50, 57.
  • 22 Biddle rebuts the arguments of other non-Trinitarians who held the Holy Spirit to be a personified power.
  • 23 The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul: An Examination of Its Christological Implications (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 63.
  • 24 For an overview of the text and interpretative options, see Wonsuk Ma, Until the Spirit Comes: The Spirit of God in the Book of Isaiah (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 117-21.
  • 25 Origen, the earliest extant writer to cite this passage, writes: "Since, however, it is a Jew who raises difficulties in the story of the Holy Spirit's descent in the form of a dove to Jesus, I would say to him: My good man, who is the speaker in Isaiah who says 'And now the Lord sent me and his spirit'? In this text although it is doubtful whether it means that the Father and the Holy Spirit sent Jesus or that the Father sent Christ and the Holy Spirit, it is the second interpretation which is right. After the Saviour had been sent, then the Holy Spirit was sent, in order that the prophet's saying might be fulfilled" (Contra Celsum 1.46, trans. Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum: Translated with an Introduction and Notes [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953], 42).
  • 26 Cf. Isaiah 40:21; 41:4; 41:26; 45:21; 46:10. Ma notes that if v. 16b ("And now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit") is removed, "the entire passage from v. 12 to v. 22 flows undisturbed" (Until the Spirit Comes, 117). In other words, there is nothing about the first part of v. 16 to suggest that it is spoken by a figure other than God himself.
  • 27 E.g., Matthew 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 13:13, Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Peter 1:2, Revelation 1:4-5.
  • 28 See also Acts 16:7, Romans 8:9, Philippians 1:19, 1 Peter 1:11.
  • 29 Angelomorphic Pneumatology: Clement of Alexandria and Other Early Christian Witnesses (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 92.
  • 30 Origen, for instance, writes concerning his Jewish Christian teacher, "My Hebrew master also used to say that those two seraphim in Isaiah, which are described as having each six wings, and calling to one another, and saying, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of hosts, were to be understood of the only-begotten Son of God and of the Holy Spirit." (De Principiis 1.3.4). This interpretation likely also underlies the throne vision in the late-first-century Jewish Christian apocalypse The Ascension of Isaiah (on which see more here), in which Christ and the Spirit are seated at the right and left of the great throne, and both receive worship and worship the Great Glory. 
  • 31 There are several mentions of "a spirit of the holy gods," but always on the lips of Babylonians.
  • 32 "And the spirit of God shall rest on him, the spirit of (1) wisdom and (2) understanding, the spirit of (3) counsel and (4) might, the spirit of (5) knowledge and (6) godliness. The spirit of (7) the fear of God will fill him." (NETS; numbering added). St. Augustine, quoting this text, asks, "Are they not there called the seven Spirits of God, while there is only one and the same Spirit dividing to every one severally as He will? But the septenary operation of the one Spirit was so called by the Spirit Himself" (Tractates on the Gospel of John 122.8). St. Hippolytus of Rome actually paraphrases Isaiah 11:2 as stating, "And the seven spirits of God shall rest upon Him" (Fragment on Proverbs 9:1).

Tuesday 23 November 2021

The Parts of John's Prologue that Unitarians Neglect

Despite being a Catholic and a Trinitarian myself, I'm a regular listener of unitarian apologist Prof. Dale Tuggy's trinities podcast. As someone who has written a fair bit on the Prologue of John, I was keenly interested to listen to his latest episode, What John 1 Meant. This was an edited version of a talk Tuggy gave at the 2021 Unitarian Christian Alliance conference.

At the beginning of the talk, Tuggy read John 1:1-18 from the NRSV. This—together with the episode's title and 76-minute length—made very hopeful that he was going to do something that I seldom see/hear/read unitarians do when discussing this text: offer careful exegesis of the whole Prologue. For, as I wrote a few months ago in my in-depth review of Buzzard and Hunting's polemical work, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound (p. 30), there are portions of this passage that unitarian exegetes tend to neglect when arguing for a particular meaning of the Word (ho logos). I refer specifically to vv. 5-13 and 14c-18. 

Alas, I was to be disappointed once again. Tuggy lavishes time upon John 1:1-4 and 1:14ab and pre-Christian parallels to the language of both. As for the other parts? Verse 5 is discussed briefly in connection with 1-4. He states that he is going to skip vv. 6-9. Verses 10-11 then receive a brief cameo, with 12-13 then passed over in silence to arrive at v. 14. Even within this verse, the first two clauses ("And the Word became flesh and lived among us") command far more attention than the third. As he begins to wrap up, Tuggy announces that there isn't time to discuss vv. 15-18, but that it does not matter, as these verses contain no difficulties for unitarians. He does provide the briefest aside on what he thinks v. 15 means (spoiler alert: "he was before me" does not indicate that he existed before me), and then gives his own paraphrase of the entire Prologue, including the verses he's skipped over. (He also, on a couple of occasions, voices his support for the minority textual view that 1:18 calls Jesus monogenēs huios rather than monogenēs theos.)

Why should it be concerning or frustrating that a 76-minute talk on "What John 1[:1-18] Meant" (in the Christological sense) dedicates almost no airtime to vv. 5-13 and 14c-18? After all, if the main difficulty of John's Prologue is to correctly interpret the term ho logos, shouldn't we focus on the verses that use this term? Well, context is king, as they say. If John 1:1-18 is a literary unit within John's Gospel, surely we cannot neglect any part thereof if we hope to understand the whole.

If all we had in the Prologue were John 1:1-4 and 14ab, our efforts to identify who or what the Word is might devolve into a Sisyphean struggle of opinioneering. Fortunately, those other, sometimes neglected parts enable us to settle the matter decisively.

I have written in some detail about these verses in my article Jesus Christ in the Prologue of John: The Word Per Se, or the Word Made Flesh Only? (see also my review of Buzzard & Hunting, pp. 28-30), so I will just give a bullet-point overview of the exegetical arguments from the "other verses" of the Prologue.

First, concerning 1:5-13,
  • "The light" (to phōs) is—like ho logos—an abstract noun that can easily be used—and probably is, in vv. 4-5—in a purely abstract sense (and there was little Jewish precedent for regarding it as personal.) Nevertheless, it is unmistakable that from v. 7 onward, to phōs refers to a person. Otherwise, the author's clarification about John, "He was not the light," is superfluous, even absurd.
  • This person, the True Light, is in view throughout vv. 9-12, where we learn that the True Light is identical with the Word (from the parallels between 1:3a and 1:10b and between 1:7b and 1:15a) even as it remains obvious that the True Light is a person (from the words "believe in his name," amongst others). The Word and Light imagery are both drawn ultimately from Genesis 1.
  • The True Light imagery gives no idea of an ontological transition from one thing (the pre-existent Word) to another (the man Jesus). The language is seamless: he who was in the world is he through whom the world came to be. The transition is a spatial one: he comes into the world, to his own.
  • If any reader were in doubt at this point as to which person the True Light (= the Word) is, they could not remain so after reading the rest of the Gospel, which is replete with parallels to 1:8-12:
    • "He was not the light" (1:8a) = "I am not the Christ" (1:20; 3:28)
    • "the True Light" (1:9a) = "I am...the Truth" (14:6); "I am the Light of the world" (8:12; 9:5)
    • The light "was coming into the world" (1:9b) = "I came into the world as light" (12:46); "you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world" (11:27); "I...have come into the world" (16:28; 18:37)
    • "He was in the world" (1:10a) = "I am in the world" (9:5); "now I will no longer be in the world" (17:11)
    • "He came to his own" (1:11a) = "He loved his own in the world" (13:1)
    • "His own did not receive him" (1:11b) = "You do not receive me" (5:43); "Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me" (18:35)
    • "But to those who did receive him" (1:12a) = "Whoever does receive his testimony..." (3:32-33)
    • "he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe" (1:12ab) = "believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light" (12:36)
    • "believe in his name" (1:12b) = "many began to believe in his name" (2:23); "believed in the name of the only Son of God" (3:18)
Second, concerning 1:14c-18,
  • "The Word" (ho logos) is the referent throughout vv. 14-16. This is often overlooked because the statements from 14c-16 are clearly also statements about Jesus Christ:
    • 1:14c equates the Word's glory with "glory as of the Father's only Son"
    • 1:15a quotes John's testimony about the Word using the same words John will proclaim about Jesus in 1:30
    • 1:16a speaks of the Word's fullness and grace, which is linked via the conjunction hoti to a statement about grace coming through Jesus Christ in v. 17
  • But the syntax is unambiguous: the three occurrences of the pronoun autos in vv. 14c ("we saw his glory"), 15a ("John testified about him") and 16a ("From his fullness we have all received") all have ho logos in 14a as their antecedent.
  • Thus, it is not that we have one statement about the Word, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us," followed by other statements about the man who figuratively embodies the Word. The syntax disallows such a reading. Rather, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us" is one statement about the Word per se that is followed by several other statements about the Word per se.
  • If these statements about the Word per se are also statements about Jesus Christ, it follows inexorably that Jesus Christ is the Word per se.
  • Again, the statements about the Word in 1:14c-16 have parallels elsewhere in the Gospel.
    • "We have seen his glory" (1:14c) = "Jesus...so revealed his glory" (2:11); "Isaiah...saw his glory" (12:41)
    • "the only begotten of the Father" (1:14c) = "the only begotten God/Son" (1:18); "only begotten Son" (3:16, 18)
    • "he was before me" (1:15e; cf. 1:30) = "In the beginning was the Word" (1:1); "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (6:62); "Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58); "the glory that I had with you before the world was" (17:5)
  • 1:18 causes some difficulties for unitarians if, as the UBS committee considered "almost certain" (B rating), the correct reading is monogenēs theos. It is not just that there would then be biblical warrant for the much-maligned phrase "God the Son." It is also that this would be an instance of the literary technique of inclusio, by which the Prologue is deliberately bookended by references to someone other than the Father as theos. The implication is that the one called theos in 1:1 is the one called theos in 1:18, thus reinforcing that the Word = the Son.
Given the abundant exegetical data concerning the identity of the Word in John 1:5-13 and 14c-18, can the reader blame me for feeling exasperated when a unitarian apologist devotes an hour-long lecture on John's Prologue to verses 1-4 and 14ab, giving only cursory attention to the rest of the material?

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.