The Reclaiming the Mind Ministries staff will be responding to all comments allowing David and Rob the time to focus on their debate. If you wish to post questions and/or comments directly to them please wait until the open Q&A time following Part 6.
I would like to begin by thanking Rob Bowman and Michael Patton for giving me the opportunity to present and defend my faith. Before I commence my argument, I’ll take a little time to introduce myself, my beliefs and my approach to Scripture.
I am a Christian. I belong to the Christadelphians (“Brethren in Christ”), a small Biblical Unitarian denomination which is spread across more than 60 different countries around the world (you can learn more about us here: www.thechristadelphians.org). Christadelphians are the largest Biblical Unitarian denomination and emerged out of the Restitutionist movement over 160 years ago. Biblical Unitarians are distinct from Rationalist Unitarians (who do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God) and Universalist Unitarians (who believe that all people will be saved, regardless of what they believe). The Christadelphian community has no hierarchy and no paid clergy.
I am 37 years old, married to a beautiful wife (Liz), with a gorgeous 13 month old daughter (Johanna). I was born and raised in a Christadelphian family, and attended Sunday School and Youth Group as a child. At the age of 19 I was baptised into Christ, and at 22 I became a lay pastor (a position I have now held for 15 years). I have a considerable amount of public speaking experience throughout Australia and the UK, having ministered at Christadelphian ecclesias (“churches”) in both countries. I am a founder and administrator of the Bible Truth Discussion Forum (www.thechristadelphians.org/forums) where I post under the pseudonym of “Evangelion.”
In summary, I believe:
- The Bible is the inspired Word of God and the sole authoritative source of Christian doctrine and practice
- The Father alone is God
- Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but not God himself
- The Holy Spirit is the power of God, but not God himself
- Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised to immortality by the Father
- At an appointed time (concealed from humanity) Jesus will return to Earth, judge the living and the dead, restore the nation of Israel to her former glory and reign over a kingdom that will last for 1,000 years
A comprehensive statement of my beliefs complete with supporting Scriptural references can be found at my forum (here: http://tinyurl.com/6fbfhc).
Throughout this debate I will be using the NET Bible (available online here: net.bible.org/bible.php) which is an evangelical translation. Despite its obvious doctrinal bias in some places, I recommend the NET as an accessible and demonstrably superior translation with excellent footnotes and a high degree of exegetical transparency. It is the Bible that I use for personal study and public speaking.
Since I believe that the Father alone is God, I will be using the words “God” and “Father” interchangeably. Any reference to “God” (capitalised) or “Yahweh” should therefore be taken as a reference to the Father, and any reference to the Father should be taken as a reference to God unless otherwise stated.
My approach to Scripture seeks to uphold the primacy of God’s Word above historical traditions and theoretical speculations. I believe that the essential message of the Bible can be understood by ordinary people without any academic training or professional expertise. When attempting to interpret a passage of Scripture, I apply the following rules:
Context is paramount
Scriptural statements do not exist in a vacuum. The context of a passage should always be our first consideration. A proper understanding of context is vital because context determines meaning; thus, the use of a word in one passage may be very different to the use of that same word in another passage.
For example, the word “baptism” is used in at least three different ways throughout the New Testament:
- Literal baptism with water (Matthew 3:13, Acts 8:37-39)
- Receipt of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8, Acts 1:5)
- Suffering through trial (Mark 10:38, Luke 12:50)
In each case the intended meaning of “baptism” is determined by the context and application of the word.
Scripture the interpreter of Scripture
This is the literal English translation of a Latin expression used by the Reformers: “Scriptura Scripturae interpres.” It goes hand in hand with another Reformation motto, “Sola Scriptura” (meaning “by Scripture alone”) which means that Christian doctrine must be derived purely from Scripture and no other source.
In the New Testament we find some explicit examples of Scripture interpreting Scripture:
- Matthew 2:13-15 quotes Hosea 11:1 and tells us that this prophetic saying was fulfilled by Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt
- Matthew 2:17-18 quotes Jeremiah 31:15 and tells us that this prophetic saying was fulfilled by Herod’s slaughter of the children during his search for the Messiah
- Acts 15:16-17 paraphrases Amos 9:11-12 and tells us that this prophetic saying was fulfilled by the Christian message, which called Gentiles into the covenant relationship originally established between God and Israel
We can apply this principle by cross-referencing Bible passages to obtain additional information or draw out their intended meaning. For example, we gain a greater understanding of events in the books of the Kings by comparing parallel records in the books of the Chronicles. Similarly, we will find that statements by the apostle Paul which may appear obscure in one place, are sometimes more clearly explained in another place.
Scripture cannot contradict Scripture
This principle echoes Jesus’ words in John 10:35 (“…Scripture cannot be broken”). Apparent contradictions are often due to errors in textual transmission, translation, or misunderstanding. It is essential to determine where the problem lies before attempting a solution.
Arguments from silence are inadmissible
An argument from silence (“argumentum ex silentio”) is a logical fallacy defined as a conclusion based upon a lack of evidence. For example:
- The apostle Paul does not refer to the virgin birth in his epistles
- Therefore, Paul was ignorant of the teaching that Jesus’ mother was a virgin when she conceived him
This argument is flawed because the conclusion does not follow from the premise. There are any number of reasons why Paul does not mention the virgin birth, one of which could be that he is writing to Christians, who are already familiar with the life story of Jesus and do not need to hear it again. The absence of any reference to the virgin birth does not prove that Paul was unaware of it.
Another example shows why we must take care when applying this principle:
- Jesus never claimed to be God
- Therefore, Jesus is not God
The mistake here is less obvious because the argument appears more reasonable at face value. The fact that Jesus never claimed to be God is significant because it is precisely what we would expect him to do if he was actually God. So the initial statement has some rhetorical force.
However, we know that Jesus sometimes concealed his identity (Matthew 16:20 “Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ”) so it could be argued (albeit unconvincingly) that he concealed his deity in a similar way. Thus it is not enough to conclude that Jesus is not God simply because he never claimed to be. Additionally, some Trinitarians will claim that Jesus did claim to be God, so this argument can be attacked on other grounds.
Arguments should be predicated upon a variety of evidence; doctrine cannot be based upon a single verse
The point being made here is that our conclusions must be consistent with the wider body of Scripture. God’s word is a tapestry of many threads and they are often interlocked. If we focus too much on one part we lose sight of the whole.
For example, it is not enough to say “Jesus was worshipped in Matthew 2:11; therefore he is God.” We need to examine alternative lines of evidence. What is the Greek word for “worship” in this verse? Why is it translated “bowed” in some translations? Does it occur elsewhere? Applied to whom? In what context? An interpretation which appears “obvious” at first glance may prove to be flawed when we investigate more closely.
We must take Scripture literally unless we have a reason to take it figuratively; apparent “contradictions” in Scripture can often be seemingly resolved in this way
Figurative interpretations are valuable but they cannot be arbitrary; we may not resort to them simply to clear an obstacle. We must show that our interpretation is valid and explain why it must be figurative.
Scriptural consistency is a signpost of true doctrine; likely interpretations uphold this consistency
This principle follows naturally from the previous one. God’s message is consistent. If we find several dozen verses saying one thing and one verse which appears to say something different, we have either discovered an apparent contradiction which must be resolved, or an solitary exception to a pre-established principle.
Where alternative interpretations present themselves, we should follow the conclusion which is most consistent with the greater body of evidence
This principle follows naturally from the previous one.
Any proposed definitions of a word must be supported from several examples of identical usage
This principle is self explanatory.
God: Definition and Identity
Before entering any discussion about Who and what God is, it is important for us to keep in mind an essential point: the Christian God is the Jewish God and everything that we know about Him through the Christian message was already known to the Jews through Judaism. Christianity added nothing to the nature or identity of God, but took for granted the definitions and principles already present in Judaism. Biblical Unitarianism stands firmly within the context of Old Testament Judaism and first-century Christianity; our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Peter, John and Paul.
Equally important is the origin of Christianity. Although generally regarded today as a western religion, Christianity was originally a Jewish sect, with Jesus first preached to the Jews and later to the Gentiles. Since most of the earliest Christians were Jews, we must strive to understand the Christian faith as they did, and not as it was later interpreted by Gentile Christians of later centuries, many of whom lacked an essential understanding of Jewish religious traditions.
The first-century Jewish opponents of Christianity insisted that it constituted a heretical breach from Judaism, but in the pages of the NT we are able to see that Christians proved otherwise, demonstrating powerfully from Scripture that Christianity is the end result of a process which had begun with Israel. Thus, as Christians, we must recognise and acknowledge that there is a doctrinal continuity from Judaism to Christianity which cannot be broken. This continuity is emphasised by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:24, where he says that the Law of Moses was “…our instructor into Christ.”
But how was the Law of Moses our instructor? In what way could this rigid Old Testament legal system prepare anyone for the message of love and grace that we find in Christianity? This is a point to which I shall return in later discussions.
Trinitarians recognise the vital importance of the Judaeo-Christian continuum, as evidenced by their sensitivity to the theological tension which results from the anachronistic imposition of Trinitarian interpretations upon first-century doctrinal statements. Since it is now widely accepted that the first-century church was not Trinitarian, it has become necessary for Trinitarians to explain (a) why this was and (b) how Trinitarianism successfully emerged from an ideological climate which was wholly unfavourable to it.
Various scholars (not all of them strictly Trinitarian) have approached this problem with considerable ingenuity but limited success. For example, James F. McGrath postulates that Johannine Christological development was a tentative process which blurred the distinction between the pre-existent logos and the pre-existent Jesus without ever committing to a fully defined ontological unity between Father and Son. James D. G. Dunn takes a similar position.
Larry Hurtado (whose work reflects the influence of Alan Segal’s “angelomorphic” or “two powers” model) is bolder, but even he can only offer an “early binitarian” hypothesis which is ultimately unsatisfactory. A closer examination of these issues will be presented in Weeks 2 & 3 of the debate.
Attributes of God: Identity
God is a personal being Who exists as a single divine Person (Yahweh; the Father). This attribute is arguably the most important of all, since it has a direct bearing upon our debate. The identity of God is explicitly defined in Scripture on many occasions, and the unitary nature of His personhood is repeatedly emphasised. For example:
- Deuteronomy 6:4, “Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”
- Deuteronomy 32:6, “Is this how you repay the LORD, you foolish, unwise people? Is he not your father, your creator? He has made you and established you.”
- Psalm 89:26, “He will call out to me, ‘You are my father, my God, and the protector who delivers me'”
- Isaiah 63:16, “For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not recognize us. You, LORD, are our father; you have been called our protector from ancient times.”
- John 4:21, 23, “Jesus said to her, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… But a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers'”
- John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life – that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent”
- I Corinthians 8:6, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we live, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we live”
- Galatians 1:1, “From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead)”
Some of these verses present unique challenges for Trinitarian theology, since they demonstrate an unequivocal distinction between Father and Son as two separate persons who exist as individual beings.
As the debate progresses we will see that Trinitarians have found it necessary to construct an increasingly complex system of “solutions” and “work-arounds” by which they attempt to “explain away” the many Bible passages which contain this strictly Unitarian language. By contrast, Biblical Unitarians can take all of these verses at face value without resorting to lengthy “explanations” of statements which do not require any explanation at all.
A case in point is Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”) This statement, known in Hebrew as the Shema, was cited by Jesus as the greatest of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:28-29). It is explicit Unitarian language, as clear and simple as it can possibly get.
Biblical Unitarians can read this verse and accept what it is saying without any qualification whatsoever: Yahweh is one; ie. one person. Our understanding of this “oneness” is identical to that of Old Testament Judaism. But Trinitarians cannot accept the Shema without qualification, since to them Yahweh is not one; Yahweh is three. (I should add that this depends on which Trinitarian you ask; some will say that the Trinity is three but Yahweh is one, though they struggle to articulate what this means in practical terms).
A popular Trinitarian approach to this problem has been to seize upon the Hebrew word for “one” (echad) and claim that it means “a complex unity”, thereby offering a back door for the Trinitarian belief in a multi-personal Godhead. Trinitarian exegete Sam Shamoun employs this argument in an online article entitled The Binitarian Nature of the Holy Bible’s supreme proof text for the unity of God, where he says:
That God is multi-Personal can be seen from the following passage, known as the Shema, the monotheistic creed of Israel:
“Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one (Yahweh Eloheinu Yahweh echad)! You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NET Bible
Eloheinu is the 1st person plural declension of Elohim and can therefore be translated as “our Gods.” Moreover, the Hebrew word for “one,” echad, functions much like the English word in that it can refer to a solitary oneness or to a complex unity as in the following example:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (basar echad).” Genesis 2:24
Two separate and distinct flesh and blood human beings become echad or one flesh through sexual consummation.
In light of this we propose translating the Shema in the following way since it brings out more clearly the revelation that God is multi-Personal:
“Hear O Israel: Yahweh our Godhead, Yahweh is a complex unity.”
Notice Shamoun’s blatant refusal to accept the simple statement that “Yahweh is one”, correctly recognising the danger that this presents to his Christology. Instead he wants to affirm that Yahweh is more than one, contrary to the clear message of Scripture. Hence his appeal to the meaning and use of echad, which he claims “…can refer to a complex unity.”
But echad does not refer to a “complex unity”; it is simply the Hebrew word for “one.” Occasionally it is used to modify a collective noun (e.g. “one bunch”; “one pair”; “one herd”) but its actual meaning never changes. It still means “one” and only “one.” The plurality is found in the collective noun, not in the word echad.
Rob Bowman appreciates the futility of the “echad” argument and neatly debunks it in an online article entitled Oneness Pentecostalism and the Trinity. Yet in the very same article he boldly asserts that “…nowhere in Scripture are we ever told that God is one person.” There are two problems with this claim.
The first is that it comprises a classic example of argumentum ex silentio – the argument from silence. Simply saying ” Scripture doesn’t tell us that God is one person” does not prove that He isn’t. Additionally, Rob does not qualify his assertion, so it is meaningless until we know what his parameters are. This prompts me to ask him two questions:
(a) What would you consider valid evidence of a Unitarian God?
(b) If God is one person how would you expect Scripture to say so?
The second problem with Rob’s claim is that it stands against a wealth of Biblical evidence for the unitary personhood of God. Throughout the entire Bible, God is consistently referred to by means of singular pronouns, clearly denoting a single being and therefore a single person. This single divine Person is referred to as “Father” 15 times in the Old Testament and 245 times in the New, where He is also unequivocally identified as “the only true God”, “one God, the Father”, etc.
Ignoring this Biblical pattern, Trinitarian doctrine developed new definitions for the words “being” and “person.” In Trinitarian parlance, a “being” can consist of more than one “person”, while a “person” is not necessarily a “being.” Thus, while “God the Son” (Jesus) is one “person”, he is not an individual “being”; instead he exists as one “person” within a tri-personal “being” known as the “Trinity.” To date, the use and acceptance of these definitions remain unique to Trinitarianism, since they contradict the use of “being” and “person” in regular human communication.
Inconsistent use of language and the need for careful qualifications when employing even a simple term like “God”, are common features of Trinitarian exegesis.
Attributes of God: Omnipotence
God’s nature is defined by a number of divine attributes, most of which are unique to Him. The first of these is omnipotence (meaning “all-powerful”). This attribute is explicitly stated in Revelation 19:6 (“…For the Lord our God, the All-Powerful, reigns!”)
The Greek word translated “All-Powerful” here is pantokrator, which occurs only 10 times in the New Testament (II Corinthians 6:18; Revelation 1:8, 4:8, 11:17, 15:3, 16:7,14, 19:6, 15, 21:22). The Hebrew equivalent is shaddai, which occurs 48 times in the Old Testament (e.g Genesis 17:1, 28:3, 49:25; Exodus 6:3; Ruth 1:21; Job 5:17; Isaiah 13:6; Joel 1:15).
These words are only ever applied to God. They are never applied to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit. God alone is uniquely all-powerful. Indeed, the very nature of the term “all-powerful” implies exclusivity.
God’s omnipotence does not preclude our free will, nor is it undermined by the fact that we can choose to disobey Him. While He is undoubtedly capable of forcing obedience, He allows us to make our own choices. God’s will would be irresistible if He chose to impose it upon us, but because He does not, we retain our free will.
In theory, “omnipotent” could mean that God can do absolutely anything – even if it is illogical, irrational, or physically impossible. In reality, the truth is a little more sophisticated.
An old philosophical question asks: “If God is omnipotent, can He create a stone that is too heavy for Him to lift?” The question raises a paradox: if God cannot lift the stone, He is not all powerful; yet if He is not all powerful, how did He create it? Here we have an example of the logical traps we can fall into unless we take care to define our terms of reference.
The Bible is very clear that the attributes of God preclude Him from exhibiting certain behaviours or being subject to certain conditions. For example:
- God cannot die, because He is eternal (Psalm 90:2, “Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God”; see also I Timothy 1:17)
- God cannot lie (Titus 1:2, “…in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began”; see also Hebrews 10:23)
- God cannot invoke a higher authority than Himself (Hebrews 6:13, “Now when God made his promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, he swore by himself”)
- God cannot sin or be tempted by evil (James 1:13, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one”)
Thus the Christian God can do anything and everything which is consistent with His character and nature. (The converse is equally true: God cannot do anything contrary to His character and nature). Ultimately, this means it is impossible for God to cease being God, or to become simultaneously “God” and “not-God.” God is not self-contradictory.
Attributes of God: Omniscience & Omnipresence
God is omniscient (“all knowing”). Nothing is hidden from Him. He knows everything which has ever happened in the past, everything that is currently happening, and everything that will happen in the future. His knowledge is absolutely perfect and unfalsifiable. This attribute is explicitly stated in a variety of passages. For example:
- Psalm 147:5, “Our Lord is great and has awesome power; there is no limit to his wisdom”
- Ezekiel 11:5, ” Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon me and said to me, “Say: This is what the LORD says: ‘This is what you are thinking, O house of Israel; I know what goes through your minds”
- Hebrews 4:13, “And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account”
- I John 3:20, “…that if our conscience condemns us, that God is greater than our conscience and knows all things”
(See also Psalm 139:1-16).
Since God is omniscient, it is impossible for Him to be ignorant of anything. This attribute is unique to God; He alone possesses omniscience, and He alone possesses exclusive knowledge of future events (Matthew 24:36, “But as for that day and hour no one knows it – not even the angels in heaven – except the Father alone”).
In addition to His omniscience, Christians have traditionally viewed God as omnipresent, meaning “everywhere present.” While there are passages in Scripture which provide evidence for this (e.g. Psa 139:7-8, “Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence? If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there. If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be”); it can appear logically redundant in light of God’s other attributes.
For example, if God is omnipotent, He can perform His will in any part of the universe without being “present.” By the same token, if God is omniscient, He knows what is happening everywhere in the universe without actually being there. Thus it appears that omnipresence is a superfluous attribute.
The concept of omnipresence also begs the question: “What does it mean for God to be ‘present’?” Scripture appears to show that God’s presence is occasionally localised (Genesis 4:16, “So Cain went out from the presence of the LORD and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden”; Leviticus 10:2, “So fire went out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them so that they died before the LORD). But how can this be, if God is always present everywhere?
These questions introduce a line of discussion that will not be continued here, but may arise in future posts. Suffice it to say that I accept omnipresence as a unique attribute of God, possessed by nobody except the Father.
Attributes of God: Self-Existence
God is self-existent, meaning that His existence is not derived from another source. He exists independently of anything and anyone. Consequently, God is eternal; He has no origin, He cannot die, and He will exist forever. This attribute is explicitly stated in many passages. For example:
- Genesis 21:33, “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer Sheba. There he worshiped the LORD, the eternal God”
- Psalm 90:2, “Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God”
- I Timothy 1:17, “Now to the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.”
Scripture tells us that God’s self-existence is unique; all other beings are dependent upon Him for their existence:
- Job 12:10, “…in whose hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all the human race”
- Job 34:14-15, “If God were to set his heart on it, and gather in his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together and human beings would return to dust”
- Acts 17:24-25, 28, ” The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone. For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring'”
Even the “eternal life” which is promised to faithful believers is not equivalent to the eternality of God, for He has always existed, while those who receive eternal life have a finite origin. The distinction is occasionally blurred because Scripture sometimes uses the term “immortality” interchangeably with “eternal life”, e.g. Romans 2:7, “…eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality”. Nevertheless, God is the only One Who possesses immortality as an inherent attribute (I Timothy 6:16, “He alone possesses immortality and lives in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen or is able to see…”)
Attributes of God: Moral Perfection
God is morally perfect: He cannot sin, and He cannot be tempted. This attribute is derived from a variety of Biblical data, both explicit and implicit. For example:
- Psalm 18:30, “The one true God acts in a faithful manner; the LORD’s promise is reliable”
- Matthew 5:48, “So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”
- Titus 1:2, “…in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began”
- Hebrews 10:23, “And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy”
- James 1:13, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one”
God’s moral perfection (an attribute that He shares with Jesus and the angels) is utterly comprehensible under Unitarian theology, but raises curious dilemmas for Trinitarianism. These will be identified in the examination of Jesus during Weeks 2 & 3.
Attributes of God: Invisibility & Incorporeality
God is invisible (ie. he cannot be seen) and incorporeal (ie. non-physical). These attributes can be directly inferred from His omnipresence (e.g. God is everywhere but we cannot see Him; ergo He must be invisible and incorporeal) but they are also supported by statements throughout Scripture. For example:
- I Timothy 1:17, “Now to the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.”
- John 4:24, “God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (see Luke 24:39, “a spirit does not have flesh and bones…”)
God’s inherent invisibility and incorporeality are features unique to Him.
Attributes of God: Conclusion
We have seen that God’s character and attributes set Him far apart from His creation and demonstrate His total superiority in every possible aspect of existence. This is both awe-inspiring and deeply humbling, particularly when we reflect upon the incredible work that He has wrought on our behalf:
John 3:16, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”