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Athanasius's scratchpad

by Athanasius (Archbishop)
on May 01, 2012 at 11:13 UTC ( #968232=scratchpad: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

For Polyglot (26 September 2022)

[With apologies for the long delay in replying. All Bible quotations from the KJV except where noted.]

You wrote: I'm not comfortable with basing my doctrines on traditions, historical perspectives, or assumptions about whom the Bible writers may have been trying to address. To me, all s‎crip‎ture is given by inspiration of God, and the writer may not even have been aware of God's purposes in giving the message.

I agree, we should be careful that our traditions do not contradict God’s word, especially in light of Jesus’ teaching on “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-13). But neither can we afford to simply reject all tradition. Without tradition we wouldn’t have the Bible at all, because it is tradition which has handed down to us the canon (authoritative list) of books which we recognize as Scripture.

I also think it’s a big mistake to ignore the historical context in which the Scriptures were written. God could have dictated the Scriptures if He had wanted to—but He didn’t. Paul wrote, “Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment...” (1 Cor. 7:25) If Paul were conveying a message dictated to him by God, he could not have written this. And Scripture itself does not claim to have been dictated by God, but rather to have been “given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Young’s Literal Translation has: “every Writing [is] God-breathed” (see also NIV). As you read the Scriptures, it becomes obvious that God is speaking, but He is speaking through the writers, and the writers are still speaking in their own voices. So of course, to understand what they are saying, we need to look at who they were and when they wrote. In other words, to put them into their historical context.

Now, Jesus came at the καιρὸς (Mark 1:15), “the right, critical, or opportune moment” (Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon). It is no accident, therefore, that He is identified as the λόγος at a time in history when that word had come to mean more than a spoken word: more like Reason personified. But let’s follow your reading of the λόγος as God’s spoken word (Ps 33:6). If that is all John means by the λόγος, then we should translate the pronoun αὐτός as “it” rather than “he.” Grammatically, this is possible; but is it sustainable? Try it: translate John 1 with all pronouns referring to the λόγος changed from the KJV’s “he/him/his” to “it/its”. By verse 14 you will be saying that “it” has “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,” and in the following verse John the Baptist would be testifying, “This was it of which I spake, It that cometh after me is preferred before me: for it was before me” (which is starting to border on the nonsensical). Two verses later, “it” has become Jesus Christ. Clearly then, if we are to be consistent, we must follow the KJV (and all other English translations I have seen) and translate αὐτός as “he,” indicating that the λόγος is a Person.

But when we come to the title Son of God the meaning is even clearer. In fact, the importance of this title in understanding Who Jesus is cannot be over-emphasized. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when He was baptized by John, there came “a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17) Towards the end of His ministry, on the mount of transfiguration, “behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” (Matt. 17:5) In both cases, it is clearly God Who speaks; and by calling Jesus His Son, God identifies Himself as Jesus’ Father. In between these two events, Jesus asks his disciples, “But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:15-16)

A preliminary explanation of the title Son of God is found in Psalm 2, where the heathen rage “against the Lᴏʀᴅ, and against his anointed” (v2), and a little later we read, “I will declare the decree: the Lᴏʀᴅ hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” (v7) This Psalm identifies “Son of God” with “anointed [one],” i.e. “Messiah”; and that is how the high priest used the terms at Jesus’ trial: “I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.” (Matt. 26:63) If that were the whole story, we would understand “Son of God” to be (merely) a synonym for “Messiah.” But when we turn to other NT passages, the Son is clearly more than just a man. The Letter to the Hebrews begins:

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; (vv1-2)

So the Son of God is the One “by whom also he [God] made the worlds.” Once this passage is understood, it is no longer possible to regard the Son as merely a man whom God has anointed. He is indeed the anointed Prophet, Priest, and King, Saviour and Redeemer; but He is also the agent of creation, and the agent of creation cannot be merely a man. So who is the Son? Hebrews 1 continues: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (v3, NIV). Either He is God, or He is not. If not, then how can this verse (3) be reconciled with Isaiah 42:8?

I am the Lᴏʀᴅ: that is my name:
and my glory will I not give to another,
neither my praise to graven images.

But Hebrews 1 makes it clear that the Son is indeed God: “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever” (v8) And in verses 10-12 a portion of Psalm 102 is applied to the Son. If you read that Psalm, it is clear that the Psalmist is addressing “the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Jehovah or Yahweh; God’s sacred name as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15). The author of Hebrews applies Psalm 102:25-27, verses addressed by the Psalmist to the Lᴏʀᴅ, to the Son.

Incidentally, you asked, “Can God have a God?” Consider Hebrews 1:8-9, quoting Psalm 45:6-7:

But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

The author of Hebrews says here that God addressed the Son in the words, “Thy throne, O God.” The Psalmist continues, “therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee...” So Hebrews does indeed speak of God having a God! (as paradoxical as that may seem).

* * *

You wrote: According to Jesus, the words he spoke were not his own, but those of the Father. It should not surprise us, therefore, to hear him speak as God, because, of course, the Father is God....

I believe this is what causes so much confusion: Jesus would speak as the mouthpiece for the Father—using the Father's own wording. He would speak as God—because the Word was that of God.

Well, that sounds reasonable, but I don’t think it will stand up to scrutiny. The OT prophets spoke the words of God, but they always said “thus saith the Lord.” I don’t think anyone was ever in any doubt that when Moses, or Elijah, or Isaiah, or any other prophet said “thus saith the Lord,” they were speaking as men relaying a message from God. No-one would have thought they were claiming to be God. Yet within the space of three chapters of John’s Gospel (8:56-59 and 10:30-38) Jesus’ hearers do indeed twice have reason to think just that. And in both cases Jesus does not contradict the inference they have drawn from his words. Jesus said:

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. (John 8:56-59)

According to your stated interpretation, the word “my” refers to the man Jesus, but the “I” two sentences later is spoken by God. Yet there is no hint in the text that the speaker has changed, or that the “I” and “me” refer to different Persons. If Jesus were not God, would He not be careful to distinguish between his own (human) words and those which God was speaking through Him?

* * *

If you choose to respond to the arguments above, I would be grateful if you would state clearly exactly what it is you believe. In particular, I would like to know:

  • your Christology
  • how you translate αὐτός throughout John 1
  • your interpretation of Hebrews 1
  • how you harmonize Hebrews 1:3 with Isaiah 42:8.

In the meantime, let me again summarize my own, Trinitarian, position, this time by quoting John 20:26-28:

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God [Ὁ Κύριός μου καὶ ὁ Θεός μου].

For Polyglot (30 July 2022)

Interesting argument — and not what I was expecting! Here is my understanding of the issues raised:

(1) John’s target in 1 John is (an early form of) Gnosticism, which taught that the physical world (and the creator god of the Old Testament who made the world) is evil; Jesus (who is pure spirit) came to save us from the bondage of the physical world by means of knowledge (gnosis); so of course He cannot have come “in the flesh.” Not surprising that John would identify this blasphemous heresy with the “spirit of antichrist”! — but this has no bearing on the doctrine of the Trinity.

(2) I think we agree that Jesus is both Messiah (Christ, annointed one) and Son of God. The big question is then: how do we understand “Son of God”? You write, “Jesus was a Man, and God is not a man ... however, God—even “all the fulness of the Godhead”—dwelt in Jesus”. This sounds like some form of Adoptionism, which is an attractive doctrine in that it (a) renders many of Jesus’ sayings more readily understandable, and (b) does not require a distinction of Persons within the Godhead. But it simply isn’t Biblical.

John himself says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us...” (John 1:1,14) We see there:

  • a distinction drawn between God and the Word (and the Word was with God)
  • the identity of God and His Word (and the Word was God)
  • the pre-existence of the Word (in the beginning)
  • the Word as Creator (all things were made by him)
  • the Incarnation (the Word was made flesh)

There is no suggestion of adoption here: the Word did not adopt Jesus, the Word became flesh. This is a very Trinitarian passage. Put together with Colossians 1:13-16 and Hebrews 1, it clearly teaches that the Son created all things. (And if you read Hebrews 1:8-12 with reference to Psalm 102:25-26, it is clear that the Son is the creator God of the Old Testament.) Jesus Himself affirmed his pre-existence, as recorded in John’s Gospel: “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

(3) Once the doctrine of the Trinity had been settled at Nicea, the focus of theological debate shifted to Christology, culminating in the Confession of Chalcedon:

We, then, ... teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; ... one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved...

Or, more simply: Jesus is both fully God and fully man.

(4) Here is the gist of your argument:

Trinitarians claim that Jesus is “God the Son.” If we believe the Man himself, we must accept that God is a spirit, and that a spirit does not have flesh and bones. Therefore, strictly speaking, no Trinitarian or anyone who believes that Jesus IS God can honestly confess that Jesus came in the flesh—certainly not without contradiction to these plain passages—because God, who is spirit, does not have flesh.

This misses the point. If Jesus is, as Trinitarians believe, both God and man, then we must say, Christ as God is spirit, and Christ as man has flesh. Since I believe that Jesus is both God and Man, I have no difficulty in honestly confessing that Jesus came in the flesh. This does not contradict the Bible; on the contrary, I affirm with John: the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word was made flesh.

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