The Revival of Unitarianism Should Not Be Taken Lightly

The manifestation of heresies tend to bring with them their own crises to the orthodox. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was assumed, to be sure, among the early Church fathers but was not systematized and well-articulated until the fourth century, when Arius (250-336 CE), a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, began expounding upon his errant views of Christ Jesus, and His relationship to God the Father. The deity and eternality of Jesus was denied, the Holy Spirit was, by consequence, rendered synonymous with God the Father, and thus God was rendered one Essence and one Person, conceptions not held unanimously by the majority of believers.

That there is only one God was defended in the early Church. From the Didache, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas to Ignatius (mid to late first century) and Polycarp (late first century to mid second century) we find that the "apostolic fathers preserve the commitment to monotheism." However, we also learn that "this one God has revealed himself in and through Jesus his Son (Ign. Magn. 7.2; 8.3) ... Ignatius extends the exclusiveness to Jesus: Just as there is but one God, there is also only 'one physician ... God in man, one Jesus Christ' (Ign. Magn. 7.2; cf. Pol. Phil. 4.1)."1 Who is Jesus, in relation to God, or to God the Father?
Christianity ... recast Jewish monotheism in light of Jesus' death, resurrection and installation to God's right hand ... Early on, Christians recognized the divine status of the risen Jesus, despite the high threshold that Jewish monotheism had established. Christians offered worship and prayers to Jesus (e.g., Acts, Revelation). Christians also began to call Jesus theos [God] (e.g., Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1; 2 Clem. 1.1; 12.1; Ign. Eph. presc. 1.1; 7.2; 15.3; 17.2; 18.2; 19.3; Ign. Trall. 7.1; Ign. Rom. presc. [2x]; 3.3; 6.3; Ign. Smyrn. 1.1; Ign. Pol. 8.3). The trinitarian seeds planted within the later NT documents and the apostolic fathers (Acts 2:33; 1 Clem. 46.6; 58.2; Ign. Eph. 9.1; 18.2; Ign. Magn. 8.2; 13.1, 2; Ign. Trall. 9; Ign. Smyrn. 1.1; Mart. Pol. 14.3; Pol. Phil. 3; Did. 7.1, 3) were destined to flower into the great confessions of the church. The later NT documents and the apostolic fathers demonstrate that the office of the one true God had been enlarged to include Jesus as worthy of worship and service.
Regarding the Person of the Holy Spirit we find the same basic qualifications from the fathers in His deity and relation to the Father and the Son. The orthodox baptismal formula granted by Christ at Matthew 28:19 rendered possible the foundation for orthodox Trinitarian ideology (cf. Did. 7:1, 3; 1 Clem. 46:6; 58:2; Ign. Magn. 13:1; Mart. Pol. 14:3; 22:1). Polycarp prays:
I praise thee for all things, I bless thee, I glorify thee through the everlasting and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved child, through whom be glory to thee with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and for the ages that are to come. Amen.2
G.F. Hawthorne comments: "From this time on Christian thinkers had the materials that enabled them to theorize about the mystery of the nature of the Godhead and hammer out the doctrine of the Trinity."3 Though one God as one Essence in three equally-divine Persons was assumed among first-, second-, and third-century believers in and followers of Christ, they would be forced to officially systematize Christian orthodoxy by the fourth century with the arrival of Arius and the rise and spread of non-Trinitarian or Unitarian heresy.

The Unitarian heresy raises its erroneous head from time to time and is always a threat not merely to Christian dogma or orthodoxy but to the salvation of souls. The difference between atheism and Unitarianism is that the latter acknowledges the existence of God, albeit the wrong God, yet its adherents share the same eternal fate as the former. Christian orthodoxy settled the issue of the Trinity by the fourth century: "Whosoever will be saved," as is explicitly stated in the Athansian creed, "before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly."

What is the "Catholic," or Universal, faith? "And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost." The one who rejects this basic, orthodox, Christian fact rejects salvation itself, or, I should convey, Himself. Thus every revival of Unitarianism is a revival of eternal damnation. This is why the current revival of Unitarianism cannot be treated lightly.

In a comments section, Unitarian Dr. Dale Tuggy was asked why Jesus did not correct the people who accused Him of blasphemy, a charge which led to His crucifixion. Dr. Tuggy assumes that Jesus actually did correct His opponents -- that He is not the divine Son of God, not divine in any sense whatsoever, and thus not the Second Person of the Trinity. In his own video, he confesses that Scripture nominates Jesus as being God between one to ten times (2:19-2:27), but conveniently concludes that Jesus is not God. 

In his logistic schema, Dr. Tuggy qualifies the view of the Pharisees regarding the relationship between Jesus and the Father as being "numerically one" (1:59-2:08). I think Dr. Tuggy is incorrect in suggesting that the Pharisees viewed Jesus' statement as maintaining that He and the Father were merely "numerically one," or the same. We know that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three equally-divine Persons, share one Essence as God. At least that is orthodox Christian teaching. They are not three Gods; they are not one Person; there is one God in three Persons. As stated often, the fact of the Trinity can be conceived mathematically not as 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 but as 1 x 1 x 1 = 1. So, the Father and the Son are not "numerically one." They are two Persons who share one Essence as God. But Scripture itself explains what the Pharisees and others meant by charging Jesus as "making Himself God."

In his attempt at getting Jesus to "correct" His opponent's complaint of committing blasphemy, Dr. Tuggy assumes: "So what they [the Pharisees] think is that Jesus is saying that He is numerically identical to God: Jesus and God are one and the same" (4:38-4:47). This is not entirely true: elsewhere Jesus' opponents charged Him as claiming to be "equal with God," meaning, equal with the Father (John 5:17, 18). The charge is not merely that Jesus claims to be God ("numerically one" or "numerically identical"), but that He claims to be equal with the God of the Jewish people, His Father. He is claiming to be His own separate Self who is equal in divinity with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, His Father, who is His own separate Self.

The Son and the Father are not "numerically one" nor are they "numerically identical." When Jesus claims that He and the Father are one (John 10:30), He is not claiming to be the Father, which Jesus-only, Modalists, or Oneness Pentecostal false teachers claim; nor is Jesus confounding the separate Selves of the Son and the Father: "neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance," as the Athanasian creed states the truth of the matter. The Person of the Son is one in union with the Person of the Father, as well as with the Person of the Holy Spirit, and the three Persons share in one unified Essence as a triune God. The Pharisees' alleged conception of "numerically one" would be in the same vein mathematically as we find the false equation 1 + 1 + 1 = 1, in lieu of Christian orthodoxy, used in the mathematical equation of 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.

Incidentally, Dr. Tuggy makes the comment that, at John 10:25-30, Jesus' "Father is somebody else; so the passage presupposes that the Father is not the same as Jesus -- they are not numerically one." (9:35-9:45) Yet Dr. Tuggy, perhaps like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, makes the classic general error of assuming orthodox monotheism requires one Person as well as one Essence in God. The problem, of course, with this assumption is that Scripture will not grant it support or sanction. Dr. Robert Morey responds:
A Unitarian would never apply the Hebrew word אֶחָֽד [echad] to God because it means a compound or unified oneness. If the authors of the Bible were Unitarians, we would not expect to find אֶחָֽד applied to God.

On the other hand, if the writers of Scripture believed that God was multi-personal, then we would expect to find that they would apply אֶחָֽד to God because this would mean that God is "one" in a composite or compound sense. As a matter of fact, אֶחָֽד is the only available Hebrew word they could use to express this idea.

When we open the Bible, what do we find? We find that אֶחָֽד is applied to God. He is "one" in the sense of compound oneness. This is so central to the Old Testament concept of God that it is found in Israel's Great Confession [at Deuteronomy 6:4].4
So, the Son and the Father, the "God" to whom Jesus references as being equal, are not, as the Pharisees allegedly assume, according to Dr. Tuggy's interpretation, "numerically one." Yet Tuggy thinks that Trintarians, like the Pharisees, miss Jesus' correction of our alleged misunderstanding. 



Jesus answers His critics: "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'?" (John 10:34-36 RSV) Tuggy assumes Jesus is making no claim here to godhood, but, perhaps, the very opposite. 

The plural Hebrew word for gods, אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim), is often used for those thought of as being great, or rulers, judges (cf. Exodus 21:6; 22:7, 8; judges acted in God's name), as well as referring to mortals (cf. Ps. 8:5, 6, 7, 8), angels (cf. Gen. 6:2), or to false gods and goddesses worshiped by pagans (Exodus 18:11). Jesus' immediate point is that God appointed judges, those who were appointed by Him to represent Him, to speak and to judge in His name, and Jesus Himself was also sent and appointed by the Father for the same purpose, to speak and to judge for the Father, especially as He "reflects the glory of God [the Father] and bears the very stamp of his nature" (Heb. 1:3 RSV). Is Jesus merely claiming to be like all other men or prophets?

Jesus is more than a mere human judge who represents the authority of God the Father: Jesus is the unique Son of God (Ps. 2:7; John 10:36). After all, the angels are even a higher form of being than are mere mortals, yet even they have not been granted the position of the Son of God by God Himself (Heb. 1:5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13). Jamieson-Faucett-Brown comment:
The comparison of Himself with mere men, divinely commissioned, is intended to show ... that the idea of a communication of the Divine Majesty to human nature was by no means foreign to the revelations of the Old Testament; but there is also a contrast between Himself and all merely human representatives of God -- the one "sanctified by the Father and sent into the world"; the other, "to whom the word of God (merely) came," which is expressly designed to prevent His being massed up with them as only one of many human officials of God.

It is never said of Christ that "the word of the Lord came to Him"; whereas this is the well-known formula by which the divine commission, even to the highest of mere men, is expressed, as John the Baptist (Luke 3:2). The reason is that given by the Baptist himself (... John 3:31). The contrast is between those "to whom the word of God came" -- men of the earth, earthy, who were merely privileged to get a divine message to utter (if prophets), or a divine office to discharge (if judges) -- and "Him whom (not being of the earth at all) the Father sanctified (or set apart), and sent into the world," an expression never used of any merely human messenger of God, and used only of Himself. (link)
What Unitarians do with Jesus is rob Him of His divine nature, make Him a man, even if a glorified man, and present us with another, very different Jesus. This is unacceptable. 

Jesus' answer did not dissuade His opponents nor convince them against His blaspheming God for making Himself out to be God (John 10:39), or, rather, to being equal with God (John 5:17, 18). Why? Because Jesus qualified His answer: "If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." (John 10:37, 38)

Jesus had made a similar comment earlier at John 5:17 and He did not attempt to qualify or deny the claim to being equal with God His Father. Jesus even claimed to be the "I Am" of Exodus 3:14-15 at John 8:24, 28, 58 and did not in the slightest attempt to qualify or deny the claim to being equal with God His Father. Such equality with God, if Jesus were a mere man, would have been blasphemous and worthy of the death penalty (Lev. 24:16). 

Even when being judged before His accusers and the high priest Jesus boldly claims the truth about Himself: "Again the high priest asked him, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?' And Jesus said, 'I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.'" (Mark 14:61, 62) When His accusers were outraged for this alleged blasphemy, Jesus did not qualify His words, nor did He correct their alleged misunderstanding. But suddenly, at John 10:39, Unitarians think that Jesus is finally qualifying and denying His claim to equality with God His Father, though He did not qualify or deny the same at His own trial, the trial that would have Him crucified for such a claim.5 In my amateur opinion, that is an entirely untenable claim, and demonstrates inept scholarship. 

Dale Tuggy insists we not rely on the misunderstanding of the spiritually-blind Pharisees and others for our knowledge of Jesus' claims about Himself, and I agree, in part. Jesus' own words render Him as being equal in divinity with that of His Father -- two separate Selves (Persons) sharing one divine Essence as triune God -- so that we need not rely on misinformed views. Jesus is explicitly called God, θεὸς, at John 1:1, a passage that can only be interpreted as indicating that Jesus is equal with His Father, who is also God. Jesus already existed "in the beginning," He was "with" God, and He "was" God. Even the prophet Isaiah foretold of Jesus' nature: "and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14); Matthew explains, "which means, God with us" (Matt. 1:23). Jesus, then, is God (Isa. 9:6) with us. (cf. Ps. 45:6; Heb. 1:8)

Jesus was "in the form of God," and "equal with God" (Phil. 2:6), having all power (John 6:36; 10:25, 37-38; 14:11 15:24), being immutable (Heb. 1:12; 13:8), self-existent (John 1:4; 5:26; 8:58), and possessing within Himself eternal existence, which is an attribute of deity (John 5:26; 1 John 5:11-13; Rev. 1:8).6 This same Jesus, who existed eternally with His Father, was enfleshed (John 1:14) in order to reveal the Father (Matt. 11:25, 26, 27; Heb. 1:1, 2, 3). "No one has seen God [the Father] at any time," confesses Jesus the Son; "the only begotten God [μονογενὴς θεὸς], who is in the bosom of the Father, He [i.e., Jesus] has explained Him." (John 1:18 NASB)

Jesus was no mere man, or super-human, who had a unique relationship to God. His divine relationship to His Father demonstrated His own divine nature. Allan Coppedge writes:
In light of what he has seen and heard, the writer of the Fourth Gospel begins by identifying Jesus with God before the creation of the world: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (Jn 1:1). This identification of Jesus with God the Father is so strong that the New Testament repeatedly affirms it (e.g., Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-8; 2 Pet. 1:16-17; 1 Jn 1:2-3; 2:22-24). This is nowhere clearer than when Paul affirms the oneness of God to the Corinthians: "There is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4). But he goes on, "Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Cor. 8:6). Paul identifies one God, but then in the same breath he identifies the Father with the one Lord Jesus Christ. And both are identified as divine Creator. Clearly for Paul this monotheistic God includes both Father and Son.7
Dale Tuggy states: "The reasonable claim I found in the New Testament was that Jesus is God's Messiah -- his special agent and human Son, now raised to his right hand and made Lord over us all. The language almost appears Christian except for the refusal to grant to Jesus His deserved, eternal, divine nature. The "only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father," is denied that title and reality by Unitarians like Tuggy, those who are guilty of the following: "For if some one comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached ... you submit to it readily enough." (2 Cor. 11:4) Note, however, that this is "another" Jesus, not the one whom Paul, the authors of the New Testament, and the early Church fathers received, embraced, and followed. 

The mere-mortal Jesus of Unitarianism, Modalism, Oneness Pentecostalism, the Arians and Jehovah's Witnesses cannot in any sense whatsoever save anyone. He is stripped of His own divinity, His eternal existence with His Father, as well as the Person of the Holy Spirit, and is no greater than any other creature, be it angelic or mortal. We can be sure of this tragic conclusion due to the claims in the word of God:
Any one who goes ahead [transgresses] and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God [referring, contextually, to those who deny Jesus' incarnation and humanity]; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son." (2 John 1:9 RSV, emphases added) 
The conjunction καί, translated as both, is a connective particle. Here the clear implication is that two equally-divine Selves is in view: the Father and the Son. To deny the latter is to deny the former. This is why the revival of Unitarianism cannot be treated lightly. The Jesus of Unitarianism is not the Jesus of the Bible. 

__________

1 Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 429.

2 Ibid., 498.

3 Ibid.

4 Robert Morey, The Trinity: Evidence and Issues (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1996), 89.

5 Even at John 20:28, when Thomas claimed Jesus as "Lord and God," Jesus neither scolded nor corrected him; and at that moment was the time to correct all misunderstandings among His disciples on this very issue. But Jesus affirmed Thomas' confession of Himself as Lord and God by stating: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:29 NIV)

6 Kevin J. Conner, The Foundations of Christian Doctrine: A Practical Guide to Christian Belief (Portland: City Christian Publishing, 1980), 163-64. Conner continues to note the claims to Jesus' deity (John 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:18, 19; 2:9; 1 Tim. 3:16; Titus 2:13; 1 Pet. 5:15; 2 Pet. 1:1; Jude 1:25; Rev. 19:13). (168-69)

7 Allan Coppedge, The God Who is Triune (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007), 29-30.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.