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Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. 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).

Monday 27 August 2018

Why the Trinity Just Doesn’t Make Sense to Christadelphians

Guest Article by Matthew J. Farrar


The denial of the Trinity doctrine is arguably one of the strongest identity markers of Christadelphians.1   Christadelphian arguments against the Trinity typically follow one of three lines:2
  1. Jesus is not the Father and is therefore not God.
  2. Jesus is a man and is therefore not God.
  3. The Trinity is inconsistent with the Scriptures' absolute insistence on monotheism.
The first objection is actually based on an erroneous conflation of Modalism3—a doctrine holding that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of operation of a single divine person—with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that there are three distinct, eternal persons who share a Divine nature. The second objection similarly conflates the doctrine of Christ’s Divinity with a denial of His humanity, whereas orthodox Christology emphatically affirms Christ’s humanity.4

However, in conversations with Christadelphians—and indeed my own experience as a former Christadelphian—by far the most compelling arguments against the Trinity are based on the third issue of monotheism. Undoubtedly, the Scriptures insist on an uncompromising monotheism.5 It therefore appears that the Trinity doctrine is a violation of basic common sense: if God is one, then God cannot be three, and if He is three, He cannot be one. An answer in The Christadelphian Advocate's Question Box feature succinctly exemplifies this objection:
The Bible is so clear on this matter it is a puzzle as to how anyone can conclude anything about a godhead consisting of three beings, acting independently of each other yet still together, as one single being. The idea that the three were co-existent as well as co-equal and each a part of the Supreme Being destroys the beauty of the Father/Son relationship that is so emphatically detailed in the Scriptures.
The objection is clear enough: to say that three beings are actually one being is a contradiction, and a rather obvious one at that. So why is it that orthodox Christians hold to this doctrine when it seems to be at odds with basic common sense?

An Important Assumption

What is tacitly assumed but not acknowledged in the Christadelphian line of reasoning is that the God of the Bible is rightly understood to be a being. That is to say, there are many beings (e.g. angels, humans, animals), and God is regarded as another being, albeit a unique and supreme Being who exceeds all other beings in power, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, etc. It is precisely under this assumption that the Christadelphian argument against the Trinity are so compelling: 
  1. A "being" is the broadest classification possible.
  2. Therefore, distinct persons are beings.
  3. "God" is a being.
  4. Therefore "God" is either one person and one being or three persons and three beings. He cannot be three persons but one being.
  5. Since the Scriptures affirm that God is One (being), the Trinity is false.
So how is it that the Church came to affirm the Trinity doctrine despite this glaring problem? The answer lies in that the Church does not consider God to be a being, but rather, being itself.

Nominalism: The Roots of a Theological Revolution

Believe it or not, the roots of this issue go back to the 14th century, a time prior to but very influential on the Reformation. This era ushered in a new philosophical position known as nominalism, a philosophy that is widely held—though seldom explicitly recognized—today. At its core, nominalism denies the real existence of universals. To understand what a universal is, consider the drawing below.

We would all quickly identify this drawing as a triangle, but on what basis? There are two basic answers to this question. The first is that there is a universal triangle, of which this particular triangle is a manifestation or instantiation. In other words, something is a triangle in the measure that it conforms to the universal triangle. The second answer—that of nominalism—is that there are simply a collection of objects which we call “triangles”, and this happens to be one of them. However, nominalists would claim that this classification is more or less one of convenience and therefore there is no such thing as the essential nature of a triangle.

To see the impact of this thinking in our own day, consider two hot-button issues: marriage and gender. Those who believe that universals are real—called realists—hold that heterosexual marriage and gender (male and female) are real universals. As such, a particular marriage is an actual marriage in the measure that it conforms to this universal and is a particular instantiation of it. Similarly, realists hold that a man is a man on the basis that he is an instantiation of a particular universal, namely, a male nature (and similarly for a woman).

In contrast, the nominalist perspective asserts that there are merely a collection of relationships called “marriages.” Therefore, to redefine marriage beyond monogamous heterosexual marriage is simply to broaden the usage of the word “marriage”. Similarly, “man” and “woman” are mere labels applied to groups of persons, and so the labels can be applied differently or new labels may be created as needed.

Now since nominalists deny the existence of universals, and natures are universals, it follows that nominalists deny the existence of natures. Thus, under this rubric there is no universal human nature (i.e. humanity) of which all human beings are instantiations; there are simply a collection of beings that we call “humans” just as there are three-sided objects that we call triangles. More to the point, if there is no such real thing as a nature, then there is also no such thing as a real divine nature: only a being we call “God,”6 and the phrase “the divine nature” simply becomes a shorthand for His personal attributes. Consequently, to acknowledge three divine persons is necessarily to acknowledge three divine beings, since “divine” and “persons” are again merely labels and “being” is simply the least restrictive classification possible.

Since Christadelphians—like most of the Western World—tend to be involuntary nominalists with respect to their conception of God,7 8 the Trinity doctrine appears to present an insurmountable contradiction. Nominalist Trinitarians attempt to circumvent a contradiction by false appeals to the mystery of the doctrine,9 while Christadelphians deny the mystery of the doctrine by appeals to the contradiction.

But what if we reject nominalism in the first place?

God is Being itself, not one being among many

Since nominalism was an innovation of the 14th century, it follows that the formulators of the Trinity doctrine in the first five centuries of the Church were not and could not have been nominalists. For example, the Nicene Creed states that Jesus is “one in substance/essence/nature with the Father.” Of course, this formulation necessarily assumes that natures are real! Even the Arians of the 4th Century—those opposing the divinity of Christ at the First Council of Nicea—did not dispute the real existence of natures, but instead argued that Christ was of a different, inferior nature from that of the Father. Semi-Arianism, a subsequent attempt at a compromise position, declared the Son to be of “like nature” (homoiousios) to the Father rather than of the same nature (homoousios) as the Nicene Creed affirmed.10 Thus, opponents of Christ's true divinity in the fourth century were not raising the so-called “common sense” objections outlined above.

Moreover, if nominalism is rejected, then we may also reasonably deny that God is one being among other beings.11 Instead, following the revelation of the divine name, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), the Church teaches that God is "the act of to be" itself.12 Thus, while I am a being, God is being itself. If this sounds unfathomable, perhaps we have not taken God’s transcendence seriously enough. God is not merely greater than us by degree but is utterly beyond us, of a different order. If the notion that “God is being itself” seems too abstract to grasp, consider by analogy the assertion that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The Biblical claim is not merely that “God is extremely loving” or “God has a lot of love”; love is not merely an abstract attribute that exists apart from God and that God has more of than anyone else. Love is essential to God’s nature, and does not exist apart from God. We are capable of love only because God has shared his love with us (1 John 4:19). The same is true of being, of existence. God is not merely a supreme being, i.e. one who has the attribute of existence (and other dependent attributes such as power, wisdom and love) in greater quality or quantity than others. Rather, God is existence; nothing exists except from him and through him and for him (Rom. 11:36; Heb. 2:10).

Given this understanding of God, the “common sense” rejection of the Trinity no longer holds for the following reasons. 

First, monotheism is actually a consequence of this understanding, not a condition imposed upon it. While we cannot truly comprehend what it means for God to be “to be itself”, it’s simply impossible to have more than one sheer act of being itself. Thus, it is rigorously consistent with Scriptural affirmations of monotheism.

Second, the key tenets of the Trinity doctrine—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal in nature—also follow directly from this understanding of God. It would be a contradiction in terms to say, for example, that the Son is the sheer act of being but not co-eternal with the Father, who is also the sheer act of being. Nor would it be possible to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father but not the sheer act of being, since that would mean that a being exists always with being itself, which is also a contradiction. Thus, the doctrine that God is “to be itself” and the joint doctrines of consubstantiality (i.e. the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same nature) and co-eternality are logical consequences, not additionally imposed doctrines.

Finally—and most importantly for the present discussion—the existence of distinct divine persons is no longer equated with the existence of distinct divine beings. Rather, within the divine nature (i.e. the sheer act of to be) we can discern three distinct persons, but at no point are there any beings involved, only the act of to be itself. Do we really comprehend what that means? No, and that is why the doctrine is truly and properly called a mystery. However, the contradiction suggested by the original argument is dissolved.

Concluding Remarks

The philosophical system of nominalism developed in the late Middle Ages, long after the creedal statements surrounding the Trinity doctrine were constructed, but its popularity—especially amongst the Reformers—was widespread. Not surprisingly then, Christadelphian objections to the Trinity doctrine on the basis of “common sense” appeals to Scriptural statements of absolute monotheism tacitly—if not unwittingly—assume an underlying nominalist philosophy, namely that God is one being amongst many other beings. This is an important observation since some Christadelphians (perhaps relying on Col. 2:8)13 view “philosophy” as a by-word, a distraction to be avoided. What this article has shown, however, is that all of us—Christadelphians included—engage in philosophy and what we may prefer to call “common sense” actually rests on our own philosophical presuppositions. My hope is that a greater awareness of this philosophical framework will open channels of future discourse.
  • 1 Though not entirely unique. Biblical Unitarians essentially agree entirely with Christadelphians on this point, while Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals share in the denial of the Trinity doctrine but do not share in Christadelphian theology and/or Christology. The Christadelphian doctrine of God underwent considerable evolution in the early period of the movement. The founder of the sect, Dr. John Thomas, held a somewhat ineffable doctrine of God that he thought was captured by the Greek word phanerōsis. While Dr. Thomas's ideas still have currency with some Christadelphians, the main stream of the movement has long since moved toward something closer to Socinianism or (biblical) Unitarianism—doctrines that Dr. Thomas emphatically repudiated!
  • 2 For example, see here.
  • 3 This view is also known as Sabellianism because it was taught by Sabellius, a 3rd-century priest. He was excommunicated for his teaching by Pope Callixtus I.
  • 4 Refer to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed defined at the fourth-century ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and the Christological Definition reached at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon.
  • 5 Historians of religion debate exactly when monotheism developed in Israelite religion; some earlier texts may suggest a belief closer to henotheism (allegiance to only one God, without necessarily denying the existence of others—see, e.g., Psalm 95:3). In any case, strong exclusive claims about “one God” that are synonymous with monotheism are present in Second Temple Jewish texts and in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 12:32).
  • 6 Granted, a very impressive being, even a Supreme Being. However, this being differs from us only in degree (e.g. we have limited power, while God has unlimited power) not by nature, since nominalists deny the existence of natures.
  • 7 As evidenced by the quotation above which starts from the use of the word “beings.”
  • 8 I wish to be clear that I do not mean this disparagingly. My point is merely that certain philosophical presuppositions are present in all arguments.
  • 9 This was blatantly the case in the writings of William of Ockham.
  • 10 Semi-Arianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., but by that time the three Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa) had succeeded through theological dialogue in persuading most of the Semi-Arians to return to the catholic faith.
  • 11 To be precise, while other beings have a real nature, we rightly say that God is His nature. In other words, I, as a human being, am a particular instantiation of a human nature. God, on the other hand, is not an instantiation of a divine nature, but rather, He is the divine nature.
  • 12 Ipsum esse subsistens, in the Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • 13 Of course, Paul does not here condemn philosophy itself, but only philosophy that is contrary to Christ and therefore false. Paul’s own willingness to enter into philosophical discourse is on vivid display in the account of his speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17). For a defense of the use of Greek philosophy by the early Church, see here.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

The Incarnation: Contradiction or paradox?

"The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation," writes philosophical theologian Brian Hebblethwaite, "is one of the two central doctrines which set out the unique features of Christian faith in God."1 Hebblethwaite goes on to explain that while many religions believe in an infinite and transcendent God and make possible rich spiritual experiences, Christianity goes further in asserting that 
God has made himself known more fully, more specifically and more personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.2
The classic, dogmatic statement of the Incarnation doctrine comes from the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).3 The doctrine contains three fundamental ontological claims: (i) Jesus Christ is truly man; (ii) Jesus Christ is truly God; (iii) Jesus Christ is one person and not two. Opponents of the Incarnation doctrine call it a contradiction, while proponents call it a paradox. What is the difference? A contradiction is a combination of mutually exclusive ideas, like a square circle, or the mathematical statements x > y and x < y. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that may not really be a contradiction. Take, for example, the saying, "Less is more." This saying is paradoxical since the words "less" and "more" are antonyms, but one can readily appreciate the wisdom of the saying (consider, for instance, the decision whether to offer a short speech or a long speech at a wedding.) Or which of us has never heard someone answer a yes-or-no question with "Yes and no"? We do not typically conclude that the respondent is irrational; we suspect that they perceive complexity and nuance in the question that requires a multi-faceted answer. In a word, they perceive a paradox.

The apparent contradictions in the Incarnation's three fundamental ideas are immediately obvious. First, whereas all other known persons are constituted by one nature, this doctrine affirms that Jesus Christ has two natures and yet remains only one person. Second, for specifically divine and human natures to co-exist in a single person seems contradictory, since we associate properties with "divinity" and "humanity" respectively that seem mutually exclusive (e.g., eternal vs. created, immortal vs. mortal, omniscient vs. limited in knowledge, omnipresent vs. locally present, etc.) However, as philosophical theologian Oliver Crisp points out,
we cannot know a priori that the two-natures doctrine is incoherent without first establishing (a) exactly what the constituents of divinity and humanity consist in (or, perhaps better, what divinity and humanity do not consist in), and (b) that these constituents are mutually exclusive of one another.4
Unfortunately, Christadelphians and members of certain other heterodox, sectarian movements commonly do dismiss the Incarnation doctrine a priori as logically incoherent. Indeed, I used to take this dismissive view of the Incarnation myself. My advice to those who consider the Incarnation a basic contradiction unworthy of serious thought is, not so fast. Here I will list four reasons why the logic of the Incarnation demands serious attention.

(1) The Incarnation doctrine has an impressive historical pedigree.

The statement from the Council of Chalcedon that definitively expressed Incarnational Christology was the fruit of over four centuries of intense theological reflection, discussion and controversy involving the entire Church. The resolution achieved at Chalecdon has stood the test of time, too. It has been the touchstone of Christological orthodoxy for over fifteen centuries and remains such among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and most Protestant denominations. Indeed, all forms of ancient Christianity that have survived affirm the Incarnation,5 and with the exception of some post-Reformation sectarian movements, all contemporary professedly-Christian groups affirm the Incarnation.

This history, read with a basic principle of respecting elders, forebears and authority,6 ought to make us at least think twice before dismissing the Incarnation as an obvious contradiction. If the Incarnation is basically a stupid idea, how did the entire Church by the fifth century come to a consensus that it was the best Christological synthesis? And how could an obvious contradiction achieve such staying power? It is remarkable, given the heated Christological controversies of the first four centuries of Christianity, that the ecumenical consensus achieved in the fifth century on Incarnational Christology should remain the ecumenical consensus over 1500 years later.7

(2) The Incarnation remains a respectable idea in the academic sphere.

Numerous theologians in Church history have masterfully defended Incarnational Christology (Origen, St. Augustine, St. John of Damascus, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.) However, for some sectarians, the Church's theological tradition between, say, 200 and 1500 A.D. is shrouded in darkness and superstition, whereas the achievements of modern academic scholarship blaze brightly. While I could say much against this chronocentrism, I would hasten to add that in the contemporary academy the Incarnation has not been relegated to obscurity. It remains an idea worthy of serious attention among philosophical theologians. For example, no less a publisher than Oxford University Press produced a volume of essays in this decade entitled The Metaphysics of Incarnation exploring the philosophical viability of the Incarnation from a variety of perspectives.8 OUP doesn't publish edited volumes debating the merits of obsolete, Mickey Mouse ideas. Several of the contributors to this volume, and many other scholars, have separately published philosophically rigorous defenses of Incarnational Christology.9

Of course, there are also accomplished academics who reject the philosophical viability of the Incarnation. My claim is not that the mere existence of rigorous philosophical defenses of the Incarnation in contemporary academia vindicates the truth of the doctrine a priori.10 One would really need to be trained in philosophy—which I am not—to engage critically with this scholarly debate. However, the existence of the debate at least shows that the Incarnation cannot be dismissed a priori as logically incoherent.

(3) Paradox plays an indispensable part in Christian theology.

Christian theology is inescapably paradoxical. Take eschatology for instance: biblical scholars today widely agree that New Testament eschatology can be summed up with the obviously paradoxical phrase "already and not yet." The kingdom of God, the new age, has arrived and yet it is still coming. One can point to numerous other theological paradoxes whereby seemingly contradictory ideas are held in tension: grace and merit, faith and works, sin and mercy, predestination and free will, and so on. There are also numerous paradoxes within the Bible pertaining to God's nature and character. That God is apparently gentle and loving in the New Testament but warlike and severe in the Old spawned heresies in antiquity (Marcionism) and provides fodder for skeptics today. The perennial problem of evil represents a paradox in Christian theology: the prevalence of natural and moral evil in the world today appears to conflict with the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly good and perfectly loving God.

The New Testament contains, of course, blatant paradoxes specifically in the area of Christology. A crucified Messiah? A crucified Saviour? "A stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," says Paul (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel of John is so audacious as to interpret Jesus's physical "lifting up" on the cross as his "lifting up" in the sense of exaltation as foretold in Isa. 52:13 (cf. John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). So is New Testament Christology paradoxical? Absolutely. We should not be surprised, then, to find paradox in core Christian dogma about God and Christ.

(4) Non-Incarnational Christologies also face philosophical difficulties.

Many liberal theologians and some sectarians (e.g., Christadelphians) assert that Jesus was/is merely human, that is, ontologically no greater than any other human. (Of course, those who affirm a literal resurrection would assert that Jesus's human nature is now superior to ours.) Proponents perceive this as the simplest and most logical Christology. After all, every other human known to history has been "merely human." However, those who see a "merely human" Christology as the default or natural option may overlook that it is not without philosophical problems. Consider just a few:

i. By all accounts, human conception is an ontologically significant event. Does Jesus's unique human conception in the womb of a virgin not therefore have ontological significance? If so, what is the ontological significance of the virgin birth?
ii. Is the exalted Jesus omnipresent? If not, how does he function as mediator between God and humans? If so, how can a physical, bodily person be omnipresent?
iii. How is it that Jesus was sufficiently like us that he experienced the same frailties and temptations we face, and yet sufficiently unlike us that he never once succumbed to temptation but remained perfectly sinless?
iv. Since the success of God's plan of salvation depended on the perfect obedience of a free human agent (Christ), could God guarantee that his plan of salvation would not fail? If not, was it not a mere gamble rather than a foolproof plan? If so, how did God guarantee this without impinging on Christ's free will?
v. Can a person who is not ontologically one with God be granted the very prerogatives and honours that demarcate God's uniqueness? If God extends his unique "God-ness" to a sub-divine creature, does his "God-ness" not lose its uniqueness (and thereby cease to be "God-ness")?

No doubt proponents of a "merely human" Christology would offer intelligent answers to these questions. My point, however, is that the matter cannot just be settled out of court. Both sides have a case to argue and a case to answer.


My point in this article is not that reason compels us to accept the doctrine of the Incarnation. That argument would require a sharper intellect and a lot more space. My point is simply that reason cannot rule out the Incarnation a priori; that reason compels us to at least seriously consider this doctrine. In fact, anyone who rules out the Incarnation a priori effectively ensures that s/he will never be taken seriously as a Christian theologian.

I have, over time, become more and more convinced that our ecclesiology—our understanding of the nature, purpose and gifted prerogatives (or lack thereof) of the Church—determines, to a large degree, our other theological positions. It is a fact of history that the early Church reached a consensus that the Incarnation best explains the biblical and apostolic witness concerning the person of Christ. If I believe that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in her doctrinal deliberations, I will place considerable weight on this historic consensus. If, however, I believe that the Church was left to her own devices and inevitably wandered astray, I will consider it a light thing to cast aside the historic consensus and replace it with my own private judgment (perhaps identified facilely with "what the Bible teaches").


  • 1 Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 21. He adds: "The other central doctrine is that of the Trinity."
  • 2 Hebblethwaite, op. cit., 21.
  • 3 "Following, therefore, the holy fathers, we all in harmony teach confession of one and the same Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and the same truly man, of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father in respect of the Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in respect of the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin, begotten from the Father before the ages in respect of the Godhead, and the same in the last days for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary the Theotokos in respect of the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (the difference of the natures being in no way destroyed by the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved and coming together in one person and one hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ, even as the prophets from of old and Jesus Christ himself taught us about him and the symbol of the fathers has handed down to us" (trans. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon: Translated with introduction and notes, vol. 1 [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005], 59).
  • 4 Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 166.
  • 5 In the wake of post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue, there is now mutual recognition between Chalcedonian Christianity and the Oriental Orthodox (whose rejection of Chalcedonian Christology was the occasion of their existence as a separate communion) as well as the Assyrian Church of the East that historical Christological differences were a matter of semantics rather than substance.
  • 6 Of course, sectarian ecclesiology does not usually think in such terms. Sectarians often exult in their minority status and their rejection of established authority and tradition in line with their self-understanding as a "remnant." The notion of a righteous remnant does admittedly have a strong biblical pedigree. Much more could be said about such "remnant ecclesiology," but for now I will just say this: there are many groups today that make mutually exclusive claims to be God's righteous remnant. Clearly, all but one (if not all) of these groups are mistaken.
  • 7 When I made this argument recently in a Facebook dialogue, my Christadelphian interlocutor asked, "How is your 'long and illustrious pedigree' any more relevant than the 'long and illustrious pedigree' of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse?" The answer should be obvious. Given that one believes in a heavenly, transcendent God (Allah) and that Mohammed is his prophet, the idea of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse is not very paradoxical. Nor was this idea, to my knowledge, the occasion of epoch-making theological controversy in early Islam. I suspect that very few Christians reject Islam specifically because of the Muslim belief that Mohammed went to heaven on a horse (which is, after all, similar to Judeo-Christian beliefs about the prophet Elijah). It is precisely because of the very contentious and complex debates about Christology in the early church that a 1500-year consensus on the Incarnation is remarkable, and not easy to dismiss.
  • 8 Anna Marmodoro and Jonathan Hill, eds., The Metaphysics of the Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). On a similar note, see Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O'Collins, The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • 9 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1989); James K. A. Smith, Speech and Theology: Language and the logic of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2002); Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003); Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Oliver D. Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Richard Cross, "The Incarnation," in Thomas P. Flint & Michael C. Rea, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London: T&T Clark, 2009); Andrew Ter Ern Loke, A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2016); etc. Of course, the list would become much longer if we extended our scope beyond the English-language literature.
  • 10 I was misinterpreted as making such a claim recently when I made this appeal to scholarship in a Facebook discussion.