In order to support the traditional Christian view of the relationship of Jesus to the Father, we must understand the background for certain claims about the nature and identity of Jesus in the New Testament. Our general argument may be outlined as follows:
Jesus, as God's Word and Wisdom, was and is eternally an attribute of God the Father.
Just as our own words and thoughts come from us and cannot be separated from us, so it is that Jesus cannot be completely separate from the Father. But there is more to this explanation that is related to the distinction between functional subordination and ontological equality.
We speak of Christ as the "Word" of God, God's "speech" in living form. In Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern thought, words were not merely sounds, or letters on a page; words were things that "had an independent existence and which actually did things."
Throughout the Old Testament and in the Jewish intertestamental Wisdom literature, the power of God's spoken word is emphasized (Ps. 33:6, 107:20; Is. 55:11; Jer. 23:29; 2 Esd. 6:38; Wisdom 9:1). "Judaism understood God's Word to have almost autonomous powers and substance once spoken; to be, in fact, 'a concrete reality, a veritable cause.'" (Richard N. Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity , 145.)
But a word did not need to be uttered or written to be alive. A word was defined as "an articulate unit of thought, capable of intelligible utterance." (C. H. Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 263. It cannot therefore be argued that Christ attained existence as the Word only "after" he was "uttered" by God. Some of the second-century church apologists followed a similar line of thinking, supposing that Christ the Word was unrealized potential within the mind of the Father prior to Creation.)
This agrees with Christ's identity as God's living Word, and points to Christ's functional subordination (just as our words and speech are subordinate to ourselves) and his ontological equality (just as our words represent our authority and our essential nature) with the Father. A subordination in roles is within acceptable Biblical and creedal parameters, but a subordination in position or essence (the "ontological" aspect) is a heretical view called subordinationism.
It is not sufficient to object that because Jesus is a person, he cannot be an "attribute" of the Father. Personhood is not incompatible with being an attribute of another person. Moreover, we should not presume that our inability as humans to have a personal attribute also means that God cannot have one.
The background with Wisdom Christology is found in the concept of hypostasis. What is a hypostasis? Broadly defined, it is a quasi-personification of attributes proper to a deity, occupying an intermediate position between personalities and abstract beings.
In the Ancient Near East here are some examples:
- Hu and Sia, in Egyptian tradition the creative word and understanding of Re-Atum
- Ma'at, also Egyptian, a personification of right order in nature and society, a creation of Re
- Mesaru and Kettu, or Righteousness and Right, Akkadian hypostases conceived of as qualities of the sun-god, or as gifts granted by him, or sometimes as personal beings or independent deities
- the divine word, which proceeds via the character of breath and wind, in Sumerian and Akkadian literature
Wisdom in Proverbs
Wisdom in Proverbs 8, and Wisdom in Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, and Philo's logos, all fit hand in glove with these. Now, let's look at some cites, starting with Prov. 8:
Proverbs 8:22-30 The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him...
This passage is one of several in the Old Testament (see Ps. 58:10, 107:42; Job 11:14) in which abstract qualities are personified, following an Ancient Near Eastern tradition of personification. (Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 44.) Here, and in other parts of Proverbs, Wisdom "makes claims for herself which are elsewhere made only by, or for, God."
The verb used by Wisdom to call attention to its messages is the same used by the prophets to call for returning to God in repentance. (R. N. Whybray, Proverbs, 44) The speech made by Wisdom in this chapter is "a lengthy self-recommendation in which (Wisdom) boasts of her power and authority and of the gifts she is able to bestow," following a known Ancient Near Eastern literary genre in which a divinity praises itself. "Wisdom is intended to be understood as an attribute or heavenly servant of the sole God Yahweh to whom he has delegated certain powers with regard to his relations with mankind."
Finally, to complete the picture, Proverbs 2:6 tells us, "For the LORD giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding." God is the source of Wisdom; Wisdom is, therefore, one of God's very characteristics and attributes.
Bruce Vawter, in "Proverbs 8:22: Wisdom and Creation," Journal of Biblical Literature 99/2 (1980): 205-216, argues that Proverbs 8 depicts Wisdom as a separate deity that Yahweh "acquired." I follow Hurtado in replying that "this language of personification [used in Judaism as a whole] does not necessarily reflect a view of these divine attributes as independent entities alongside God." Such personifications "must be understood within the context of the ancient Jewish concern for the uniqueness of God, the most controlling religious idea of ancient Judaism."
Thus he regards claims like that of Vawter's, that Wisdom here is depicted as an "independent deity," as something that is "simply unwarranted and imports into such passages connotations never intended by the writers." Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 46-7. For more on this verb, see here.
Thus he regards claims like that of Vawter's, that Wisdom here is depicted as an "independent deity," as something that is "simply unwarranted and imports into such passages connotations never intended by the writers." Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 46-7. For more on this verb, see here.
Context Between the Testaments
We will now examine Jewish speculations that accorded "the Wisdom of God" a quasi-personal status. We will then be able to see a continuity between the intertestamental literature and the New Testament that defines the nature of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Dunn puts it succinctly: "What pre-Christian Judaism said of Wisdom and Philo also of the Logos, Paul and the others say of Jesus. The role that Proverbs, ben Sira, etc. ascribe to Wisdom, these earliest Christians ascribe to Jesus." [James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, 167] This conception of Wisdom parallels a less significant, general Jewish explanation of how a transcendent God could participate in a temporal creation. The Aramaic Targums resolved this problem by equating God with His Word; thus, in the Targums, Exodus 19:17, rather than saying the people went out to meet God, it says that the people went out to meet the word of God, or Memra.
This term became a periphrasis for God; whether it could have been reckoned as a separate person, as in Christian Trinitarianism, is a matter of debate. The risk involved with making Wisdom/Word an independent deity was too great for the rabbis to speculate further, but Christians found in the Wisdom tradition an ideal categorical conception within which to place the person of Jesus.
N.T. Wright observes in Who Was Jesus? [48-9] that Jewish monotheism "was never, in the Jewish literature of the crucial period, an analysis of the inner being of God, a kind of numerical statement about, so to speak, what God was like on the inside." Rather, it was "always a polemical statement directed outwards against the pagan nations." Rabbis of Jesus' time had no difficulty in personifying separate aspects of God's personality i.e., His Wisdom, His Law (Torah), His Presence (Shekinah) and His Word (Memra). This division had the philosophical purpose of "get(ting) around the problem of how to speak appropriately of the one true God who is both beyond the created world and active within it."
Similarly, Brad Young writes:
Within Judaism, the 'hypostatization' of Wisdom or Torah did not seem to undermine monotheism, since ultimately it was a kind of periphrasis used to circumvent the implication of direct contact between the transcendent God and the creation.
This concept, Young continues, did not challenge God's "ultimate originality and sovereignty" at all. Hence, the idea of Christianity identifying an actual person in such a way is not problematic for monotheism in any sense. Nor is a trinitarian concept entirely foreign to Judaism. O'Neill [JCO.WD, 94] records the words of the Jewish historian Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, who laid out this exposition upon the three men who came to visit Abraham in Genesis 18:2, and were presumed to be divine figures:
...the one in the middle is the Father of the Universe, who in the sacred scriptures is called by his proper name, I am that I am; and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power.
No one would question that Philo was a Jewish monotheist; yet here we have an exposition perfectly compatible with the Trinity: the Father, The Creative Power (the Son, or the Word), and the Royal Power (the Holy Spirit).
Similarly, in the apocryphal Baruch 4:22, we read:
For I have set hope for your salvation on the Eternal One; and joy has come to me from the Holy One, at the mercy which will soon be present for you from your Eternal Saviour.
Now we move to passages concerned directly with Wisdom.
Ecclesiasticus 1:1-4 All wisdom cometh from the Lord, and is with him for ever. The sand of the sea, and the drops of the rain, And the days of eternity who shall number? The height of the heaven and the breadth of the earth And the deep and wisdom, who shall search them out? Wisdom hath been created before all things, And the understanding of prudence from everlasting.
The book of Ecclesiasticus was written by Jesus the son of Sirach in about 100 B.C. It describes Wisdom as having been "created before all things," as being "from everlasting" and as comparable to "the days of eternity." In this we are in harmony with the Trinitarian view of Jesus as created or generated by the Father eternally, that is, finding his source in the Father and having no existence apart from Him, yet also having existed eternally as God does. Sirach writes further:
I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, And covered the earth as a mist. I dwelt in high places, And my throne is in the pillar of the cloud. Alone I compassed the circuit of the heaven, And walked in the depth of the abyss. (Ecclesiasticus 24:3-5)
He created me from the beginning of the world, And to the end I shall not fail. (Ecclesiasticus 24:4)
This is another speech of self-praise of the sort found in Proverbs, only this time, the speech takes place in the heavenly court -- a place where only God would offer self-praise. Wisdom says of herself: "I came forth from the mouth of the Most High" (the "Word" of God) and "my throne was in the pillar of the cloud" -- an allusion to the Old Testament sign of the divine presence.
Wisdom also says that it has "encircled the vault of heaven, and walked in the depths of the abyss...ruled over the waves of the sea and over all the earth, and over every people and nation." In the book of Job (12, 28), these things are what God asks whether Job can do, with the very clear implication that only God can do them.
Finally, Sirach says, "(God) searches out both the deep and the heart, and he perceives all their cunning devices. For the Most High knows all, and he sees the signs of the age. He declares changes that occur, and reveals the searching out of hidden things. He does not lack insight, and nothing escapes him. The might of his wisdom he measures out, He is the same from eternity. Nothing is added and nothing is withdrawn, and there is no need for anyone to instruct him." (42:18-21)
Wisdom is an attribute of God, and is co-eternal with Him -- otherwise, Wisdom is a thing "added" to Him, or someone has "instructed" Him.
Bauckham makes a similar observation concerning a much later passage: "2 Enoch 33:4, in an echo of Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40:13), says that God had no advisor in his work of creation, but that his Wisdom was his advisor. The meaning is clearly that God had no one to advise him. His Wisdom, who is not someone else but intrinsic to his own identity, advised him." [Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, 21]
The Wisdom of Solomon
In this intertestamental work written under the persona of Solomon, Wisdom is described as the artificer of all things (7:22), "the breath of the power of God and a pure effluence flowing from the Almighty" (7:25), and is spoken of as the "image" (eikon -- for the significance of this term, see Chapter 1 of my book, The Mormon Defenders) of the goodness of God (7:26), able to do all things and make all things new.
"Wisdom" was also envisioned as sharing God's throne, having been present with God from all eternity, and was thought of as proceeding from God. God's Wisdom and Word are equated in verse 9:2 -- "O God of my fathers, the Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word, and ordained men through thy wisdom." Wisdom is also credited with performing miracles, like the parting of the Red Sea (Wisdom of Solomon 10:18-19).
The Jewish philosopher Philo was a contemporary of Jesus and the author of several philosophical and historical works. Philo calls Wisdom (which he also refers to as the logos) the "image (eikon) of God," and refers to the Wisdom of God as the one through whom the universe came into being, and describes Wisdom as God's "firstborn son," as neither un-begotten like God or begotten like men, as Light and as "the very shadow of God." He regarded the logos as one of several attributes of God which he referred to collectively as "powers," with the logos as the chief power in the hierarchy.
On to the New Testament
Now that we have concluded our brief survey of Jewish intertestamental literature, some observations are in order before proceeding to the New Testament evidence. As we will show, what these writers said of Wisdom, the authors of the New Testament also said about Christ.
But we are not necessarily arguing for direct dependence by Paul or John or any New Testament writer on Philo or any particular writer. Rather, we are establishing that there existed in Judaism certain set motifs about Wisdom with which the writers of the New Testament worked, and that, as Hurtado (44, 46) puts it, "ancient Judaism provided the first Christians with a crucial conceptual category" that was applied to the risen and exalted Jesus.
We will now show that Jesus identified himself with Wisdom, and thereby identified himself with its qualities, including co-eternality, functional subordination, and ontological equality with God.
The Synoptic Gospels
Matthew 8:20//Luke 9:58 Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.
Witherington notes that the image of this saying "had been used earlier of Wisdom having no place to dwell until God assigned her such a place (cf. Sir. 24:6-7 to 1 Enoch 42:2), with Enoch speaking of the rejection of Wisdom ('but she found no dwelling place')." Witherington also notes the parallel to Sirach 36:31, "So who can trust a man that has no nest, but lodges wherever night overtakes him?" The use of these allusions "suggests that Jesus envisions and articulates his experience in light of sapiential traditions..."(Jesus Quest, 188).
Matthew 11:16-19//Luke 7:31-2 To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: "'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.'" For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon. 'The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."' But wisdom is proved right by all her children."
Proverbs 1:24-28 Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: "How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you. But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you -- when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. "Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me.
This passage provides some important clues once we have the social data in hand, and add in the factor of Jesus' communal meals with the dregs of society. Witherington notes passages like Proverbs 9:1-6, "which speaks of a feast set by Wisdom herself where she invites very unlikely guests to the table" for the sake of helping them acquire wisdom. Witherington therefore argues that Jesus dined with sinners and tax collectors because he was "acting out the part of Wisdom." (187-8)
Matthew 11:29-30 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Sirach 6:19-31 Come to (Wisdom) like one who plows and sows. Put your neck into her collar. Bind your shoulders and carry her...Come unto her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might...For at last you will find the rest she gives...Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord.
Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under the yoke, and let your soul receive instruction: she is hard at hand to find.
Jesus is clearly alluding to the passages in the very popular work of Sirach. His listeners would have recognized that he was associating himself with Wisdom.
Matthew 12:42//Luke 11:31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.
Noting the association of Solomon with the Wisdom literature, Witherington writes (186, 192):
If it is true that Jesus made a claim that something greater than Solomon was present in and through his ministry, one must ask what it could be...Surely the most straightforward answer would be that Wisdom had come in person.
Matthew 23:34//Luke 11:49 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city...Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute...
In Matthew's version, Jesus says, "I will send them prophets..." Luke specifically identified Jesus with Wisdom.
The Gospel of John identifies Jesus with Wisdom in a number of ways. Jesus speaks in long discourses characteristic of Wisdom (Prov. 8, Sir. 24, Wisdom of Solomon 1-11). John's emphasis on "signs" mirrors that of the Wisdom of Solomon, and John uses the same Greek word for them (semeion). Finally, John's overwhelming use of the term "Father" (115 times) matches the emphasis on that title in the late Wisdom literature.
John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
The prologue to John's gospel makes a precise identification of Christ with Wisdom, describing the Logos' Christological role (1:3), its role as the ground of human knowledge (1:9) and as the mediator of special revelation (1:14) -- the three roles of the pre-existent Logos/Wisdom. In calling Jesus God's Logos, John was affirming Jesus' eternality and ontological oneness with the Father by connecting him with the Wisdom tradition.
Now consider these parallels with John's prologue and the Wisdom literature:
John 1:1 -- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Wisdom of Solomon 9:9 -- With you (God) is Wisdom, who knows your works and was present when you made the world.
John 1:4 -- In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
Proverbs 8:35 -- For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.
John 1:11 -- He came unto his own, and his own received him not. (1:11)
1 Enoch 42:2 -- Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, and found no dwelling place.
John 1:14 -- And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
Sirach 24:8 -- The one who created me assigned a place for my tent. And he said: 'Make your dwelling in Jerusalem.'
John 6:27 -- Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
Wisdom of Solomon 16:26: On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. So that your children, whom you loved, O Lord, might learn that it is not the production of crops that feeds humankind but that your word sustains those who trust in you.
John 14:15 -- If you love me, you will obey what I command.
Wisdom of Solomon 16:18 -- And love of Wisdom is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality.
- The Word was in the beginning (John 1:1)
- Wisdom was in the beginning (Prov. 8:22-23, Sir. 1:4, Wis. 9:9)
- The Word was with God (John 1:1)
- Wisdom was with God (Prov. 8:30, Sir. 1:1, Wis. 9:4)
- The Word was co-creator (John 1:1-3)
- Wisdom was co-creator (Prov. 3:19, 8:25; Is. 7:21, 9:1-2)
- The Word provides light (John 1:4, 9)
- Wisdom provides light (Prov. 8:22, Wis. 7:26, 8:13; Sir. 4:12)
- Word as light in contrast to darkness (John 1:5)
- Wisdom as light in contrast to darkness (Wis. 7:29-30)
- The Word was in the world (John 1:10)
- Wisdom was in the world (Wis. 8:1, Sir. 24:6)
- The Word was rejected by its own (John 1:11)
- Wisdom was rejected by its own (Sir. 15:7)
- The Word was received by the faithful (John 1:12)
- Wisdom was received by the faithful (Wis. 7:27)
- Christ is the bread of life (John 6:35)
- Wisdom is the bread or substance of life (Prov. 9:5, Sir. 15:3, 24:21, 29:21; Wis. 11:4)
- Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12)
- Wisdom is light (Wis. 7:26-30, 18:3-4)
- Christ is the door of the sheep and the good shepherd (John 10:7, 11, 14)
- Wisdom is the door and the good shepherd (Prov. 8:34-5, Wis. 7:25-7, 8:2-16; Sir. 24:19-22)
- Christ is life (John 11:25)
- Wisdom brings life (Prov. 3:16, 8:35, 9:11; Wis. 8:13)
- Christ is the way to truth (John 14:6)
- Wisdom is the way (Prov. 3:17, 8:32-34; Sir. 6:26)
The letters of Paul continue the identification of Jesus with God's Wisdom. 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30 is the most clear: Christ is explicitly identified as "the power of God and the wisdom of God." Elsewhere in 1 Cor. of relevance:
Colossians 1:15-18 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
This passage is full of allusions to the Wisdom literature. Note the following parallels:
Colossians 1:15a -- He is the image of the invisible God...
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 -- (Wisdom is) a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.
Colossians 1:15b -- ...the firstborn over all creation.
Philo's reference to Wisdom as the -- "firstborn son" and offspring of God. For more on this matter see here.
Colossians 1:16a -- ...by him all things were created..
Wisdom of Solomon 1:14 -- "for he created all things that they might exist"
Sirach 1:4 and Philo refer to Wisdom as -- the "master workman" of creation.
Colossians 1:17b -- He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Wisdom of Solomon 1:7 -- ...that which holds all things together knows what is said...
The book of Hebrews, while never identifying Jesus directly as Wisdom, does indicate an equivalence. In verse 3 the rare Greek term apaygasma is used to describe Jesus as the "brightness of God's glory," just as the word is used in Wisdom of Solomon (7:25-26) to describe Wisdom's radiance.
Hebrews ascribes to Jesus the same functions that the Philonic/Alexandrian Wisdom literature assigned to Wisdom: mediator of divine revelation, agent and sustainer of creation, and reconciler of God and man (Wisdom of Solomon 7:21-8:1). For more on this word see here.
Hebrews also says of Jesus what Philo says of the Logos. Philo referred to Wisdom as the "charakter of the eternal Word" just as Hebrews uses this term of Jesus. Hebrews also "asserts the superiority of Jesus over a group of individuals and classes that served mediatorial functions in Alexandrian thought," including angels, Moses, Melchizidek and the high priest.
Finally, in Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, though universal in scope, by God's decree rests in Jerusalem, and is regarded as having the role of the priesthood: "In the holy tabernacle I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion." (24:10) Compare this proclamation with what is found in the Book of Hebrews chapters 3-10 describing Christ as our "high priest" ministering at a heavenly tabernacle.
Appendix: The Economic Trinity
In the final 2009 issue of the Christian Research Journal, a re-evaluation was offered of the teachings of the “Local Church” (LC) in which it was determined that CRI had been in error in previously denouncing this group as a cult. One particular issue on which corrections were offered was an evaluation of the LC’s doctrine of the Trinity. The LC had been accused of the heresy of modalism in the past, but CRI determined that rather than being expressions of modalism, various statements by the LC were rather expressions of a completely orthodox notion termed the “economic Trinity” – having to do with the unity of the members of the Trinity in function, as opposed to identity.
One example of these statements is:
The Son is the Father, and the Son is also the Spirit…
It will not be the purpose of this article to address CRI’s evaluation of the LC, which I see no reason to dispute – so that neither CRI nor LC will be referenced again in this article. Rather, we will ask the question, not of whether this concept of an “economic Trinity” is orthodox (for it certainly is), but whether it offers the best explanation for certain NT passages from which the concept is derived. Based on my prior studies in pre-Christian Jewish Wisdom theology, and the anthropology of the social world of the NT, I do not perceive the “economic Trinity” to be a particularly useful way to explain certain NT passages under consideration. (Of course, some of the same passages have also been used by modalists, so our evaluation serves to correct that idea as well.)
Let us now look at some of those passages and how they might otherwise be interpreted.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
It isn’t hard to see what the argument here would be: Since this is seen as a prophecy of Jesus, it is assumed that there is some equation of identity with the “everlasting Father.”
But there are several problems with this reading, whether it is used in an orthodox sense for an “economic Trinity” or in the heretical modalist sense. The main problem is that “father” was not a title for Yahweh in Isaiah’s time. Since there is no biological component involved, readers of Isaiah’s day would have understood this terminology in terms of group identity, as in this verse: Gen. 4:21 And his brother's name [was] Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.
We are not justified in reading NT-era usage of the word “father” into Isaiah’s text. The notion of group identity is, however, quite pertinent, in terms of Jesus Christ as the “father” of the Body of Christ and would suit the passage much better.
Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou [then], Shew us the Father?
Under the rubric of Wisdom theology, this passage is provided a much less contrived explanation than the concept of the economic Trinity. Wisdom (Jesus) is referred to in Hebrews 1:3 as the brightness of the Father’s glory – analogically, the “light” to the Father’s “bulb”. This context fully establishes how, in Jesus, the Father is “seen”, without resorting to the expedient of saying (in whatever sense) that Father and Son are identical.
2 Corinthians 3:17
Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord [is], there [is] liberty.
Simply put, it is said that the “Spirit” here must be the Holy Spirit; this in spite of the fact that the word “Holy” is not used. Similar logic is used of 1 Cor. 15:45.
However, as I have said in Defending the Resurrection regarding that latter verse:
Put another way, "spirit" should be read here in terms of a "spirit of fear" or a "spirit of peace" -- referring to a functional influence, not a ghost. Jesus’ description as a life-giving spirit “relates directly to the raising of the bodies of deceased Christians.” One can see in this a contrast between Adam, who needed God’s breath (pneuma) to be made alive, and Jesus the last Adam, who is also to give life as an influence (pneuma).
2 Cor. 3:17 should be read in the same way. There is no need to resort to the “economic Trinity” to explain it.
And that is all I can find for now. I must conclude that there is thus far no reason to resort to the “economic Trinity” as an explanation for these passages. The view may be orthodox, but it is not in any way warranted by exegesis.
Critiques of Alternate Views
- Skeptical Objections -- critique of common skeptical misunderstandings of the Trinity, with reference to this article
- Mormon Objections -- critique of the Mormon view of Jesus, and of responses.
- Jehovah's Witnesses' Objections -- critique of the Jehovah's Witnesses' view of Jesus
- Unitarian Objections -- based on dialogues with Unitarians
- Christadelphian Objections -- some unique Christadelphian arguments; the Christadelphians are Unitarians; also contains an answer to the issue, "Wisdom was female; Jesus was male."
- A look at the work of L. Ray Smith
- A look at the work of "Biblelogic.com"
At reader request, we are examining the remains of a written, online debate, held in 2101 between apologist Rob Bowman and Unitarian Dave Burke on the subject, "The Great Trinity Debate." As is often the case, we are seeking any fresh arguments that would counter what I would consider to be the most critical argument for Trinitarianism, which is the Jewish Wisdom template (link below). Does Burke provide any answers to it? Is he even aware of it? Let us find out.
In Part 2 of the debate, Burke begins his defense by establishing several titles and attributes of Jesus, none of which are offered in direct opposition to a Trinitarian reading. It is said of these points: "None of these points requires Jesus to be God. He is presented consistently as a mortal man before his death and resurrection, and an immortal man after he is raised from the dead. This consistent positive evidence is very strong." However, apart from the fact that Burke's listing excludes any references to Jesus as Wisdom, a couple of others, quite contrarily, do require Jesus to be divine.
We should note first that Burke does not offer any distinction between the word "God" as a personal name, and "God" (theos) as an abstract noun. He does say that the meaning of theos "can vary according to context," but offers no serious discussion that would clarify the matter.
In particular, passages where Jesus is called the Son of Man, and is said to be seated on the throne of heaven at God's right hand, are prime evidence of Jesus' divinity (see link 2 below).
I said that Burke's list offers nothing that connects Jesus to Wisdom, but I should clarify this point. He does list Col. 1:15, which calls Jesus the "firstborn" of God, and this is one of the most direct references identifying Jesus as Wisdom, yet Burke carelessly dispenses with this reference as one that offers "no suggestion" that "Jesus is God."
Thereafter, Burke directly addresses some of Bowman's claims of passage that identify Jesus as divine, but, as it turns out, all of these are passages I would not use (such as Is. 7:14) in my own arguments. We do not get to a point where I can and will offer a defense on any specific passage-at all. The most that can be said is of general statements like one in which Burke refers to "the Bible's exclusive emphasis on Jesus' humanity." He refers to 2 John 1:7, "For many deceivers have gone out into the world, people who do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the deceiver and the antichrist!" and says:
For John, the touchstone of orthodoxy is Jesus' humanity - not his alleged deity. John writes against those who believed that Jesus was somehow more or less than human.
However, this is exactly as we would expect because in the Biblical world there was a strong dichotomy between the human and the divine. As I once wrote:
Our next factor is related to the one above about resurrection, and it is a problem from both a Jewish and a Gentile perspective. Earl Doherty, a Skeptic, has referred to the incredibility of "the idea that Jews, both in Palestine and across the empire, could have come to believe-or been converted to the idea by others-that a human man was the Son of God....To believe that ordinary Jews were willing to bestow on any human man, no matter how impressive, all the titles of divinity and full identification with the ancient God of Abraham is simply inconceivable." And so it would be: Unless it actually happened, and that "human man" proved himself to be the Son of God. Doherty's "fallacy" thusly amounts to an argument in favor of Christianity.
And it would be no better in the Gentile world. The idea of a god condescending to material form, for more than a temporary visit, of sweating, stinking, going to the bathroom, and especially suffering and dying here on earth-well, this would be too much to swallow!
In this light, Burke has misapprehended 2 John 1:7 and its socio-historical context. Jesus' humanity is rendered a "touchstone" of orthodoxy because it is precisely the aspect of Jesus that would be most likely to be denied while still preserving Christianity as some sort of religious system. This is why, as Burke puts it, the "apostles focused entirely on proving Christ was a man...." Denying Jesus' humanity was simply the heretical "flavor of the month" which would emerge in the Biblical world; denying Jesus' divinity would not. And so this focus does not at all indicate that there was no divine aspect of Jesus that was a feature of orthodoxy.
A contrary argument is presented making use of Matthew 12:18:
Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I take great delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
According to Burke:
If Jesus was God, he would already possess authority and power by virtue of his deity. There would be no need to authorize, empower or protect him. Yet we find in Scripture that the prophecies speak of a man who is greater than any other man, but still totally human; he is not the Trinitarian "God-man."
However, this is completely lacking with respect to Wisdom theology. Burke, like many Unitarians, makes no distinction between ontological equality and functional subordination within the Godhead. Wisdom, though sharing in the divine identity as a hypostasis, still did not "possess authority" of its own. Burke's only conception of Trinitarianism amounts to a functional modalism.
Our next point of concern relates to Burke's "questions for Trinitarianism."
Why is Jesus never accused of claiming to be God throughout his trial?
Actually, the equivalent is done, for the context: Jesus is accused of blasphemy for claiming to be the divine Son of Man. Obviously, "claiming to be God" would not be a specific charge within a Jewish legal book!
Why is Jesus only ever accused of claiming to be the Messiah?
The obvious answer is that the Sanhedrin was looking for a charge to bring to Pilate. Claiming to be Messiah would dovetail into a Roman charge of sedition. Claiming to be "God" would only get a response from Pilate like, "Why are you bringing me this nut?"
Why are none of the alleged "Jesus claimed to be God" incidents (e.g., John 2:19, 5:18, 8:58, 10:30, etc.) raised at the trial?
They may well have been; no one thinks the Gospels present a complete account of the proceedings. It is noted that witnesses presented evidence, but it could not be used because they could not agree (Mark 14:56), which hardly mattered, because the Sanhedrin got what they wanted-something useful to charge Jesus with (sedition) in a Roman court.
If the Sanhedrin had any evidence that Jesus had broken their law (e.g., healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sins), why was it necessary to bring false witnesses against him?
This question misses the point. Again, the Sanhedrin needed something that would be useful to bring to Pilate like a sedition charge. Healing on the Sabbath would only get from Pilate the response he gave: "take him and judge him by your own law."
The High Priest equates "Christ" (Messiah) with "Son of God." If "Son of God" was considered a blasphemous claim to deity, why did the High Priest believe Messiah would be the Son of God?
Sorry, but this wasn't the blasphemous claim, rather, it was the claim to be the Son of Man (see link 3 below).
The next general point made is that Jesus calls the Father the "true God." We discussed this in a response to Buzzard and Hunting (link 4 below). Yet again, Burke fails to account for functional subordination as part of the Trinitarian theological package.
I should briefly note that Burke makes much of Bowman believing in Jesus' "eternal Sonship." I do not hold to this view; I think "Son of God" is exclusively a title of the incarnate Jesus, in the New Testament.
Also alleged to be problematic for Trinitarianism are the doctrines of atonement and the account of the Temptation. Burke finds the atonement problematic for Trinitarians because of these questions:
What was it about Jesus that made him a perfect sacrifice for our sins? Did he need to be God in order to save us? If so, then why? Above all, what died on the cross? Was it God who died, or simply a mortal human body?
In my view, however, Jesus is not, in religious terms, a sacrifice; he did not need to be "God" per se, but a broker between God and man, and was incarnate Wisdom. The temptation is also alleged to be a problem because of questions like, "Was Jesus genuinely tempted? Was he capable of sin?" My own answer bypasses the rigor Burke discusses:
I have a personal view of the matter of the burning question, "Could Jesus have failed the Temptations?" that is different than some may have heard.
No, I don't think Jesus could have failed-not in the least. Someone will say, "Well, so what did the temptations prove, then?"
I'll explain what they proved with an analogy. Let us recall the story of the Sphinx (pictured to the left): Persons approaching this creature were required to answer a riddle posed by it in order to pass. Losers were summarily dispatched. The only way to get past it was to answer the riddle-right?
Well, let's say that rather than answer the riddle, one of these Greek fellows stopped by the time travel surplus store, and instead of answering the riddle, blew the Sphinx away with a howitzer. So did he defeat the Sphinx? Of course he did. And he did so by rendering the Sphinx's challenge irrelevant.
As I see it, this is what the purpose of the Temptation of Jesus was; namely, to prove Satan to be irrelevant in context. Jesus experienced temptation firsthand (Hebrews 4:15) and knew what it was like, but this is not the same thing as saying that he could have fallen for it (and as Hebrews goes on to say, he didn't fall for it, Hebrews 2:17-18: "Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted.").
A Greek could hear the Sphinx's riddle, and say, "Yeah, so what?" before blowing the beast to smithereens. In the same way, Jesus was tested, and was guaranteed a 100%. The Temptation was a glorious demonstration of what the Incarnation had accomplished.
A problem is then alleged in that:
...nowhere in the book of Acts do we find any apostle preaching the deity of Christ. Nowhere do we find the Jews reacting to any suggestion that Jesus is God. Why not? How does Rob Bowman explain this deafening silence on the subject of a doctrine that he believes is vital to the Christian message?
I find no such silence. Reference to Jesus as exalted to God's right hand (Acts 2:33), supplemented by reference to Jesus as Lord (2:36), serves that purpose.
The disconnect between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism is well illustrated by this comment from Burke:
Thus we see that the Father is utterly supreme. He is the source of everything that exists; He is above the Son and the angels in every conceivable way, whether functional or ontological. The Son is subject to and dependent upon the Father for his very existence, while the angels are subject to the Father and Son.
Here at last Burke claims a distinction between the functional and the ontological; but he fails to take note of such distinctions within Trinitarianism. He also fails (again) to separate the incarnate Son from pre-incarnate Wisdom. In the above, "Wisdom" could be put in place of "Son" at every point but one: "every conceivable way" (in which, Wisdom is ontologically equal with the Father). Burke further hits upon the right question, but should have looked harder for an answer:
Trinitarians might argue that many of these verses refer only to functional subordination (i.e., difference in rank), not ontological subordination (i.e., difference in nature). But if they take this line of reasoning, they must explain their apparatus for distinguishing one from the other. On what basis do they decide that a verse refers merely to functional subordination instead of ontological subordination? What criteria do they use?
Despite the ominous reverb to the questions, the answer is a simple one: The distinction is arrived at by way of the template provided by Jewish Wisdom, and by the concept of hypostatic entities. The only awareness Burke shows of this sort of concept is found when he refers to second-century Christians: "...many followed the Logos Christology of Justin Martyr and others, believing in a pre-existent Christ whom they considered a type of finite divine creature." Finite…in what way? Having limits to authority? Yes, that is true; that is functional subordination; however, if the Logos was "divine," then it shared the Father's ontological nature. Burke is describing Trinitarianism even if he does not know it.
On the Trinity (this document)