In this episode, I walk you through an argument against confusing Jesus with his God. I’ll explain its structure, motivation, and why you should accept each premise. I urge you either to accept the argument as sound, or to tell us why we should doubt or deny one or more premises.
In contemporary American evangelicalism, in practice, the old catholic christology has been simplified into this: “Jesus is God.” This is particularly true for many contemporary apologists, for whom “Jesus is God” is the central Christian claim. This is ordinarily understood to mean that Jesus just is God himself (though many a sophisticated trinitarian disagrees – more on this in the podcast). One sees this belief in ordinary church life when a pastor freely interchanges “Jesus,” “God,” and “Father” while praying, or when people use “Jesus” as the proper name for the Christian God, in distinction to other alleged gods. At the same time, when evangelicals read the Bible, they intuit that there, Jesus is someone, and his God is someone else. This insight doesn’t jibe with the slogan that “Jesus is God,” so emphasized in some apologetic contexts. Confusion reigns. One way to deal with it is to celebrate it, treat it as a good thing. “Jesus is God and he isn’t – it’s a mystery.” Well, that’s one response the argument below… But is it the best response? WWJD?
It’s been more than a year now since I sent this argument, privately, to a well-known evangelical apologist. I don’t suppose that I will hear back. By my lights, this is a valid and sound argument, and an important one. I give some considerations in favor of each premise below, and in the podcast. So if you think that in the NT, Jesus just is (is numerically one with) the one God himself, then you are hereby urged to consider and weigh the following argument.
Here’s the argument; let’s call it the Challenge:
- God and Jesus differ.
- Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical)
- Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (1, 2)
- For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. are numerically identical).
- Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (3,4)
- There is only one god.
- Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (5, 6)
- God is a god.
- Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (7,8)
Some comments on the premises of the Challenge:
- First, note that this is not an anti-trinitarian argument. Some trinitarians will agree with me that it is sound. Others will deny various of the premises; it depends on which Trinity theory they hold to. Nor is it an anti-Christian argument! To the contrary, I’m a Christian arguing to my fellow Christians, and the argument is no more or less than a friendly invitation to critically thinking through the relation between Jesus and God, from a Christian perspective, and specifically from a New Testament perspective.
- The argument is valid. This is just to say, 3 really follows from 1 & 2, 5 really follows from 3 & 4, 7 really follows from 5 & 6, and 9 really follows from 7 & 8. In other words, if there’s a mistake here, it is one or more premises, and not a failure in drawing implications out of them. It is valid; but is it sound? I say that it is. You? The premises are: 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8. If all are true, then this is a sound argument. If you think it’s unsound, you should say which premise(s) you doubt or deny, and why.
- Many NT examples support 1, and just one example is sufficient to make 1 true. Take your pick among these, or come up with your own difference(s):
- God is triune, Jesus is not triune.
- God sent his Son, Jesus did not send his Son.
- God did not ask himself, in Gethsemane, to spare Jesus from the fate of the cross; Jesus did ask God, in Gethsemane, to spare him from the fate of death on the cross.
- God didn’t raise himself from the dead, Jesus was raised by God from the dead.
- God never died, Jesus died on the cross.
- God is not the mediator between God and man, Jesus is the mediator between God and man.
- God doesn’t have a mother, Jesus has a mother.
- God doesn’t pray to himself; during his ministry, Jesus often prayed to God.
- God said something like “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Jesus never said that.
- God hasn’t been baptised, Jesus has been baptised.
- 2 is a version of the indiscernibility of identicals. It is self-evident to anyone who understands the concept of identity (numerical sameness, aka “absolute” identity). Happily, we all do understand this concept, and we employ it often. 2 can be paraphrased this way: a single thing can’t (at one time) be and not be a certain way. If you find, at some time, that a and b differ, then you know that a and b are truly two.
- It’s hard to argue for this from something more evident, but we can give examples to help you to see its truth, and we can display how we rely on this principle even in non-theoretical matters. Imagine that a person mistakenly confuses together the recent two American presidents named “George Bush.” (#41 and #43) To cure this person’s confusion, and indeed to prove them to be two beings (i.e. not numerically identical), all we need is to point out one difference between them, such that #41 had a son who went on to be a president 2001-9, and #43 had no such son.
- 4 too is, in my view, self-evident, though alas, some philosophers deny it. (That’s the problem with philosophy, you know.) In general, if x and y are the same F, this just means: Fx & Fy & x=y, that is, that x is an F, y is an F, and x just is y (x and y are numerically one). (In the earlier steps, I use “God” as a name or title, as a singular referring term; here “god” is used as what logicians call a sortal term.)
- Don’t take much comfort in the fact that a few philosophers deny 4; some famous philosophers have denied that you exist, that anything changes, that any action is morally right or wrong, or that there is more than one being in existence! The point is: to save their various theories, sometimes philosophers deny what is obviously true.
- Any Christian should agree with 6. It says not that only one can properly be called “god” (which is false according to the NT) but rather, that there is only one who satisfies the monotheistic, biblical conception of a god (on which YHWH is the only one). I go into some detail about this concept in Isaiah here.
- Any Christian should agree with 8.
- As God (Yahweh) is the only god, it follows that he is a god. That he is a god doesn’t imply that he has any god-peers. Compare: if Sally is a child of Bob and Margaret, this doesn’t rule out that she’s their only child.
- Again, consider NT usage of god-terms. As many scholars of all stripes have observed, and notably Dr. Harris in his book, “God” in the NT is nearly always the Father. And since around the end of the 4th century, “God” often refers to the tripersonal god taught by catholic tradition. Either way, 8 will be true.
- Exposition of the conclusion, step 9:
- By definition, what is not a god is not (literally) divine; 9 implies the falsity of the deity (or “full deity”) of Jesus.
- He may still be divine in the sense of belonging to God, being God’s Messiah, doing God’s work, being “in” God (and vice-versa), having God as his Father, even having a divine nature in addition to a human one, etc. 9 only rules out that Jesus is a god in the way that God is a god.
- Accepting this argument as sound (so, affirming 9) leaves a lot of options open when it comes to christology and the Trinity – both trinitarian and unitarian ways lie open.
Don’t like 9? Then you need to point to at least one premise, and be able to give convincing reasons why we should deny or at least withhold believing that premise. I know well what various of my fellow Christians philosophers would say; I’ll post on that another time. But this is not a matter for only philosophers, scholars, or apologists. It concerns the very beating heart of Christian belief, and how we make sense of the whole Bible, and any thoughtful Christian ought to be able to either endorse this argument as sound, or say which premise(s) should be denied or doubted. All the more so for one who would teach about these matters. Here are your choices: either the argument is sound, or we should deny or withhold one or more of: 1, 2, 4, 6, or 8. So print this page, study it and the links, sleep on it, pray about it, and then step up to bat. What say you?
- I will post below any links to your public replies in the comments below (or you can),
- and I will post any anonymous reply in the comments too, if you so desire. (Just email me; I will respect your anonymity.)
- I will also include any recorded reply you would like to send on the trinities podcast.
- Just upload the audio file (any kind) here.
- Just take care to stay on point, clearly pointing out the problematic premise(s) and clearly explaining why they should be doubted or denied. It would be a helpful discipline, I suggest, to try to keep your reply to one paragraph, or two minutes or less.
In a future episode of the trinities podcast, I’ll discuss some various replies that Christian philosophers would make to the Challenge. Honestly, I think it is far more reasonable to just accept the argument as sound, and then to adjust one’s views on the topics of Trinity and Incarnation to fit.
Finally, just for fun, here’s an unscientific poll for readers of this blog post. Do vote; but consider it a warm up for your public reply.
Which premise in the Challenge is false or doubtful?
Let us know what you think in the comments below, in ourFacebook group, upload audio feedback for possible inclusion in a future episode of this podcast, putting the audio file here. You can also listen to this episode on Stitcher or iTunes (please subscribe, rate, and review us in either or both – directions here). It is also available on YouTube (you can subscribe here). You can support the trinities podcast by ordering anything through Amazon.com after clicking through one of our links. We get a small % of your purchase, even though your price is not increased. (If you see “trinities” in you url while at Amazon, then we’ll get it.)
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