Editor’s Note: The numbering of this series has been altered to reflect which part of the multi-part series is being responded to.
The term “Christian theology” is something of a misnomer and a regular exercise in mental gymnastics for those whose desire it is to conform the text of Scripture to how they desire for it to be seen, since the term “Christian” refers to the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth who is identified as “Christ” and “theology” refers to the study of God, as if God can be put under the light of inspection in the same way that an octopus can, but if specifically refers to the study to religious beliefs and practices.
The practice of theology can often be seen as a game of intellectual play dough, where ideas are conceived and justified through the citation of various texts. The sheer volume of theological treatises that are produced and published every year are a testimony to the industrious nature of the human mind and will.
This is not to say that every such treatise by its production is merely manufactured hokum, but that when it comes to the largest self-identified religion in the word at the current time, theology is a buyer’s market: if you want to believe something, there’s usually a theology for it. And this is especially true for any theology that markets itself as “Christian”.
This is not to say that there is not something that can be rightly called “Christian theology”, but that theology can often call itself “Christian” and actually not have any meaningful connection with historic Christian teaching.
One of the great theological issues that underlies and creates obstacles in that which calls itself “Christian” are the various views that exist on its namesake, and more explicitly how the theology has evolved into two streams: trinitarian and non-trinitarian. That is that there are those who hold that there is one God who has made himself known in three Persons, and that there is only One God.
Now, I’ve written a rather extensive multi-part post on this matter, looking at one strain of non-trinitarian theology, so I won’t rehash that here. Also I have written an essay on the reality and necessity of the incarnation as a fact of history. They do a very good job of representing my position so I will refer you to them in reference to my own position.
There is one non-trinitarian position that has gained some popularity again in recent years. And that position is largely forwarded by a group called the Unitarian Christian Alliance, and this group denies both the incarnation and the deity of Christ.
Skylar McManus, a Master’s student in theology at Regent University, has done a rather comprehensive examination on the organization, but in this post, I want to look at a specific argument used by a unitarian to deny both the deity of Christ and the incarnation, specifically in a key Trinitarian prooftext, that of John 1:1.
What’s in a “Word”?
“…compare what his [John’s] Jewish contemporaries would have understood it [John 1:1] to mean versus how Trinitarian scholars translated it centuries later.
Now, what I would like to point out is that the author is conflating the translation of a text—the process of rendering a text from one language into another—with the act of interpreting a text, which involves explaining what a text means.
Oftentimes translation involves interpretation because of certain cultural peculiarities, such as idioms and other figures of speech while translatable as words, often convey greater meaning in the original language. So the argument is properly meant to be against Trinitarian interpretation of the text since there is a general correspondence between words even if there as an additional layer of meaning that gets applied when making a translation syntactically coherent and a further layer when articulating what the text means in application.
Now, I will agree with certain premises as they are laid out, such as when the author (hereafter UA) writes,
“…the beginning of John’s gospel should be in keeping with the end; there should be a continuity of message.
I entirely agree with the sentiment, and such consistency demonstrates that there is a constant message that starts at the beginning and follows through to the end of John’s Gospel. To that end, UA points to the gospel’s “purpose statement” found in John 20:30-31 and quotes from the NASB,
“Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (emphasis by UA)
To which UA adds,
“Note that John did not say that the purpose of his gospel was so that we might know that Jesus is God. He could have stated that plainly if that were the case, but he didn’t. After all, the revelation that Jesus was God would have been of greater importance than that of his being Messiah. (emphasis original)
Now, we have to keep in mind that when these unitarians speak of “God,” they speak without the distinction between that which is deity as a matter of ontology and as a matter of personhood. “God” and “Father” are distinctions without a difference and are thereby synonymous in this form of unitarianism. This means when a Trinitarian–someone who holds the distinction between the categories of being and person–says, “Jesus is God” we do not mean it in the same way the unitarian does because the unitarian thinks that a Trinitarian is saying, “Jesus is the Father,” and that is simply an error. That is to say that when the unitarian says, “The Father is God,” the subject and predicate can be swapped to “God is the Father” and the meaning be the same. The Trinitarian recognizes that saying, “Jesus is God” is not identical to “God is Jesus” without further clarification of terms.
“…the title Son of God was not a designation of divinity, but was a synonym for the Christ (Messiah) and King of Israel. (link removed)
And I will agree with that as the Old Testament tends to use the term to designate special divine agents or particular recipients of God’s love. As such “Son of God” is not a deitific title as much as a relationship title, particularly drawing on the OT notion of kings as divine sons and Jewish messianic expectations of the time. This brings us to John 1:1-3, which we will pick up in the next post in this series.
- It must be admitted that there are various species of Trinitarianism within Christian theology, and that each one is simply an attempt to articulate what is seen in Scripture. While there is variation, they all stem from an ontological recognition that there is one Being of God that is shared between three Persons of God, and that the theories are relating to the operations of the Persons within that Being and their relationship to one another and the creatures of God.
- See this article on the technical distinction between translation and interpretation of language.
- David Seal. “Son of God”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary (LBD). Lexham Press. 2016.