The Great Trinity Debate has continued over at Parchment & Pen. Rob Bowman, the Trinitarian, has posted his third article here and David Burke, the non-Trinitarian, has posted his third article here. As in my last two posts on the debate (post 1, post 2), I will share some comments in regards to Burke’s article.
I will say from the start that it felt Burke was getting a little more ‘in your face’ with Rob. I think it would be best just to address the arguments, the Scripture passages, etc, rather than baiting with comments like, ‘Come on Rob, show us.’ Nonetheless, I still appreciate Burke’s interaction and laying out his theology in a very easy to follow format.
From the section – Jesus Christ: Prefigured and Prophesied
Near the beginning of his article, Burke states:
‘The OT repeats three principles constantly. They underpin the entire Law of Moses, which underpins NT atonement theology. It is essential to understand these principles and recognise how they were fulfilled by Christ, as they inform our understanding of his identity and purpose. The OT was a guidebook pointing forward to Christ (Galatians 3:24); thus any interpretation contradicting the OT’s view of Christ must be rejected.’
Burke has referenced Galatians 3:24 a few times now:
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
It’s a small quibble not fully relevant to the Trinitarian debate, but I believe that Galatians 3:24 speaks more about the role of law in regards to keeping us in check with regards to sin and transgression before Christ’s arrival. And ultimately the law would push us to Christ. I believe the larger context supports this – verses like Galatians 3:19, 21-23. Of course the Old Testament points us to Christ, but I think that if we wanted to show how this particular aspect, we would better use passages like Luke 24:44, which are Jesus’ words to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.
But, again, this is really another topic.
So let’s re-quote those bolded words above: The OT was a guidebook pointing forward to Christ (Galatians 3:24); thus any interpretation contradicting the OT’s view of Christ must be rejected.
This seems a trap, though a shaky one, for all side A now has to do if one does not agree with side B is claim something like this: ‘Well that interpretation does not line up with the Old Testament view of Christ.’ And this is the path Burke heads down as he quotes a lot of Old Testament passages to show Christ is a mere, mortal man. If Burke can show that a specific passage in the Old Testament points to the humanity of Christ, then this must show Christ is only human and not divine. This is what Burke believes he has done.
But again, in the full revelation of the Scripture, the Old Testament serves the New Testament. Not only that, but the New Testament sheds greater light on what is being spoken of in the Old Testament. So, yes, in an original context, a passage could be speaking about the human, Davidic king. I completely agree with this. But, many times, the New Testament writer utilises that passage to emphasise how Christ has come to be the greater fulfilment of that passage (i.e. Hebrews 1:8-9 showing how Christ is the great fulfiller of Psalm 45:6-7).
For example, Psalm 110:1 states: The LORD [Yahweh] says to my Lord [Adonai/Adoni]. In the Old Testament context, this seems like the great Lord is speaking to a kind of lesser Lord. And, in that context, it was focused in on Yahweh’s words to David. That is correct. But, when we turn to the New Testament and see how the title, Lord, is bestowed upon Jesus, not as a lesser Lord, but as the Lord of lords, then we are able to see how the New Testament shines greater light on who Christ really is.
One of my favourite prophecies (or allusions) to Christ is found in Ezekiel 34:15-16. Now this does not specifically deal with any accusation that Christ was only human, but nonetheless it is an example of how to understand a passage in its original Old Testament context and then in light of the fuller revelation of the New Testament. The prophecy goes as so:
15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
In the midst of judgment on the very evil shepherds of Israel, God states He, Himself, is going to come and shepherd His own people. Very intriguing. We are now sitting on the edge of our seats wondering what this looks like.
Well, lo and behold, Jesus, the Christ, arrives on the scene declaring to be the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18). I wonder what every good Jew who knew the Hebrew Scriptures is thinking when Jesus starts declaring such? I think they are pulling up that reference from Ezekiel’s words that God would Himself shepherd His own people. Wow, this is God Himself shepherding us!
Now, I know the argument by now. Jesus was simply God’s agent, but not God Himself. And so He could function on God’s behalf, shepherding God’s people in a way that it would seem like God were doing it Himself.
But, let’s go back to some other verses in Ezekiel 34:
23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken…29 And I will provide for them renowned plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations. 30 And they shall know that I am the LORD their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord GOD. 31 And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord GOD.”
There is only going to be one shepherd (vs23) and remember God already said that He would be that shepherd Himself (vs15). Now, vs24 is the great verse for the Unitarian, right? There is Yahweh and then there another – His servant, David. But this is not a problem for the Trinitarian who sees that the Father and Messianic-Son are distinguished, yet one (or one, yet distinguished).
Yahweh proclaims who is going to be the shepherd? He Himself. And in this great shepherding act, one is going to come from the line of David to do this. And, as vs16 says, this shepherd is going to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, etc. Hmmm? I wonder who did this? See also Matthew 15:24; 18:12; Luke 19:10. The two are equally one and yet functionally distinct. I know the Unitarian dislikes this terminology, but God said He was going to shepherd His people and Jesus arrives saying I am here to shepherd the sheep. He is not merely being a human pastor. He is the great shepherd of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).
From the section – Jesus Christ: Predestined, not Pre-existent
Burke specifically quotes Reverend Sigmund Mowinckel in showing that Jesus Christ was not pre-existent:
‘This is true of references to the pre-existence of the Messiah. It is his ‘name,’ not the Messiah himself, that is said to have been present with God before creation. In Pesikta Rabbati 152b is said that ‘from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created.’ This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose.’
Burke also goes on to say:
‘Scripture also uses this predestination language to speak of events and people as occurring and existing before they literally did.’
And he quotes Jeremiah 1:5; Ephesians 2:6; Hebrews 7:9-10 as examples of predestination language.
While this idea of ‘predestination’, or, at times, it seems more in line with proclaiming in faith what is already true in God (i.e. Ephesians 2:6), is an important aspect of our life in God, I don’t believe this fully addresses what is going on with Christ in all the varying passages pointing to His existence before becoming the incarnate Jesus. I know Burke tries to claim they only speak of ‘predestination’, but I don’t believe they are on the same playing field.
Well, for starters, the Jeremiah passage speaks of the plans God had for Jeremiah before He was born. Of course, there were predetermined plans for Christ before being born of Mary. No one denies that, or I certainly don’t (i.e. Acts 2:23). But Christ is not merely and only spoken of in the since that Jeremiah or Paul (Galatians 1:15) was. But Christ is spoken of as existing before Jeremiah and Paul and Abraham (John 8:56-58). There are plenty of verses which Burke tried to oppose as if they did not show Christ’s pre-existence and there are some that he did not address. So I will look at some of those he did address and some he did not.
4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
Do we really believe this simply refers to a plan that the Father had made before Christ became flesh? Do these words of Mowinckel do justice to Jesus’ words?
‘This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose.’
Certainly not. This is not just speaking of a predestined act before it would happen. Jesus is speaking of what was true of Him as He was with the Father from the beginning. Burke ends up saying:
‘Last week Rob quoted John 17:5 and told us it refers to the literal pre-existence of Christ. Now more familiar with Jewish religious language, we can see why Rob’s interpretation falls short. Jesus claimed ownership of the glory God intended for him long before his literal existence (he also said he had given that same glory to his disciples; a statement Rob didn’t explain).’
Burke might have informed us of some of the ideas surrounding Jewish religious language, but Burke definitely does not deal with everything. So Rob’s interpretation does not fall short by any means. The ‘predestined language’ does not fit the reality of what the New Testament teaches, and specifically with John 17:4-5. Jesus actually had glory with the Father before the creation of the world. But let’s press on to other passages.
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
Again, for Burke, this falls into the ‘predestined’ passages about Jesus, rather than pre-existence. As support, Burke quotes theologian G.H. Gilbert, who seems to be a theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But have we ever read the full context around John 6:52? Read John 6:53-58.
53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
I’m not here to argue about whether Jesus meant his literal flesh and blood and whether the doctrine of transubstantiation is true. But how could a mortal man (for remember, Jesus has not yet been exalted by the Father, as the Unitarian acknowledges His immortality only after the resurrection and ascension) give life eternal? And, remember, Jesus tells us He is the bread that came down out of heaven (vs58). Not only that, but a promise is being given by Jesus that He has the power to give life, just like the Father.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
I know how Burke dealt with this verse in his last post, but it is clear from the first phrase of vs14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – that the Word and the Son are connected. The Word became flesh (human) and the Son became flesh (human), meaning He existed beforehand. This is not a statement of definitive beginning at His birth from Mary. This is a statement of stepping into human flesh from His place of glory with the Father (i.e. John 17:4-5).
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (John 3:13)
Again, this points to the Son coming down from heaven. If Christ did not exist before, then how did He descend, come from heaven?
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
I wonder why the Jews picked up stones to throw at Christ (vs59), meaning they wanted to kill Him? For them, it was blasphemy to describe Himself as the I AM. Utter blasphemy!
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)
If Christ did not exist before becoming human, how in the world could Paul declare that all things were created by Him, through Him and for Him? And how can all things hold together in Him? Is this predestined language or pre-existent language?
I realise that the question that has to also be answered is, ‘Does this prove Christ has always been with the Father? Could not He just have been created sometime before the creation of the world?’
Well, let me go ahead and make clear that the use of the word firstborn does not mean Christ was created. In a Jewish context, the firstborn was the pre-eminent one, the most important one, the special one. The word firstborn made one think of the firstborn son who was allowed a double inheritance from the father. And I believe it’s easy to recognise that Christ takes first place, since by Him, through Him and for Him all things were created and are held together by Him. This loudly proclaims Christ’s pre-existence.
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7)
I will let Bowman address this himself from his own words in his third article:
‘Again, Paul’s line of thought here presupposes that Christ existed in heaven before becoming a man. A human being cannot humble himself to become a human being because that is what he already and originally is. What Paul says here, then, must refer to Christ’s decision before the Incarnation to become a human being.’
From the section – Jesus Christ: Son of God; Son of Man
Burke’s second paragraph into this section declares:
‘I maintain God predicated our salvation on the involvement in His plan and purpose of a man He would raise up from among men, among his fellows, his brethren, with whom he would share the very same nature, with all its qualities and weaknesses. I further maintain this message was contained in the OT and that NT believers were expected to know it.’
This might be a ‘jot and tittle’ thing, but I would say our salvation is solely predicated on an act of God alone. Jesus, thus, is that saving act of God. Yes, He was man. I shall never deny it. We should never deny it. That is part of what makes it special. But it is also special because God said He would act in salvation and He actually did it in coming to us.
Yes, I know the argument that God did bring about the salvation act Himself, but through an agent. But this was not only just like Moses leading the Israelites into salvation from Egypt. This is not just like a judge or David saving the Israelites. Those all pointed to the great salvation giver Himself, Christ. And Jesus’ sacrifice is nothing less than a divine, eternal sacrifice. How could a sacrifice reach back and cover the sins already committed if the One bearing the sin was not already eternal? How could one bring about eternal salvation (Hebrews 5:9), providing eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12) through an eternal covenant (Hebrews 13:20) if He Himself was merely mortal?
Burke then goes on to charge Trinitarians:
‘Trinitarians make it a fundamental fellowship issue that Christ was both 100% man and 100% God. But if this was truly the apostolic understanding, why can’t we find it in Scripture?’
That is what we are doing here – showing how Scripture teaches that Christ is both God and man. Not in the literal biblicist way where we have to find a specific reference, in Romans or Galatians or wherever, that says Christ is both 100% man and 100% God. But we take the full tenor of Scripture and conclude that He is both God and man, making Him the perfect, eternal sacrifice – the eternal man who shared in our humanity.
Then, Burke goes on to challenge:
‘If Jesus was God, he would already possess authority and power by virtue of his deity. There would be no need to authorise, 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.”’
This has already continually been addressed from the Trinitarian view. The Son humbled Himself (i.e. Philippians 2:6-7) and thus was pleased to receive His authority from the Father.
In regards to John 5:18 and John 10:30, which are two important passages for Trinitarians, Burke espouses:
‘Some had accused Jesus of making himself equal to God (e.g. John 5; John 10) but he successfully refuted this false charge, which was never raised again.’
Did Jesus refute these false charges? Yes, in John 5:19f, Jesus speaks of doing only what He sees His Father doing. But this is no refutation of the Jews ‘false’ charge. Rather, Jesus is fleshing out what it means for He and His Father to be equal.
And with John 10:30, well this easily echoes the words of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). Hence why they are so angry and want to kill Jesus. And I’ve already shown how God said He would shepherd His people Himself and how Jesus shows up stating He is the Good Shepherd. Even John 10:28-29 speaks of the ability of both the Father and Son being able to protect the sheep from being snatched from their hand. Then, in John 10:31-39, we see that they wanted to stone Jesus. Why? Because of blasphemy.
Now the Unitarian would say, ‘Ah, but Jesus quoted from Psalm 82:6 showing that multiple people are referred to as gods (elohim). So Jesus is just a highly exalted elohim like others.’
But, again, the Jews give this reason for stoning Him: but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God (vs33). The Jews understood the statement in vs30, might I add they understood it correctly, as a statement of divinity. Jesus never corrected their theology. What Jesus is saying is that, if human judges (see Psalm 82:2–4) can in some sense be called ‘gods’ (in light of their role as representatives of God), this designation is even more appropriate for the one who truly is one with the Father and the Son of God.
Again, there is no refutation from Jesus in either passage. Rather there is a fleshing out of His role as the Son who is one with the Father.
From the section – Jesus Christ: Son of David; Born of a Woman; Made Like His Brethren
This is the last section to deal with in Burke’s article. He starts out with some sharp words:
‘Jesus is referred to as the “son of David” fourteen times in the New Testament, usually in a Messianic context. This title reaffirms his genuine humanity, emphasising his ancient lineage all the way back to the father of Solomon. The Trinitarian Jesus cannot make such a claim, since the Trinitarian Jesus is not a son of David but a divine being who pre-existed in heaven before David was born. What does “son of David” mean in a Trinitarian context? Can Rob explain?’
‘The Trinitarian Jesus cannot make such a claim, since the Trinitarian Jesus is not a son of David…’ What? Huh?
Of course, we would passionately agree that Jesus is the Son of David. He even more properly had four titles with regards to being ‘the son of’: He was Son of Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David and Son of God (see Matthew 1:1 and Luke 3:38).
As Burke asks: What does “son of David” mean in a Trinitarian context? It means He was the one long ago promised to come forth as the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour, the Lord. It means that all the prophecies and promises of Scripture rest in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20). That’s what it means to be the Son of David, the Messianic King (or at least a very essential aspect, as we could really expound on this topic).
Later, he goes on to exclaim:
‘Scripture therefore affirms that Jesus’ existence had a beginning and that he was made just like other human beings in every possible way.’
To support this, Burke quotes Galatians 4:4. I’m not sure how this supports the Son having a beginning.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.
The Son had a beginning in becoming flesh. No Trinitarian doubts that. But this does not, by any means, cut at the reality that we hold to Christ existing with the Father from the beginning. Think about it: If one is sent on a mission today, they would be sent forth by a local church, or possibly a mission’s agency. The day the person began their mission did not constitute their existence, but rather the initiation of their specific mission. The same is true of the Son. To be sent forth means He was already existent, but His mission to humanity was initiated as Christ became flesh.
Burke also quotes Hebrews 2:17 as proof that Christ was created:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
But this also does not cut at Christ’s eternal nature. Rather this fits into the understanding of the incarnation that the divine Son was willing to be made like humanity in every respect. Absolutely beautiful, and it links in quite nice with Philippians 2:6-7.
Near the end of his article, David Burke offers what I believe is some very poor rhetoric to the debate:
None of this is true of the Trinitarian Jesus, who remains a theological paradox and a logical contradiction. Visible despite being invisible (Colossian 1:15); seen but “never seen” (John 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:16); tempted even though God cannot be tempted (Matthew 4:1-11; cp. James 1:13); “made like his brothers and sisters in every respect”, which in Trinitarianism means “not being made like his brothers and sisters at all”; “dying” on the cross yet simultaneously eternal (1 Timothy 1:17).
Readers, ask yourselves which Christology is more consistent with the Biblical evidence. If the Trinitarian Jesus pre-existed, he is neither “son of David”, nor “Son of Man”, nor “Son of God.” If he is God, he was not tempted, cannot be seen and was not seen, did not really die, and was therefore not a sacrifice for sin. If his nature was simultaneously human and divine, he was not made like his brothers and sisters in every respect.
This is quite silly, I must say. It really deserves more rebuke than just referring to it as silly. It’s playing on emotions, it’s acting as if Trinitarians do not look to ground their theological understanding in Scripture. It’s simply poor argument. Sure, the Unitarians and Christadelphians might be cheering from the stands. But these kind of statements fail in being response worthy.
Until next week….. And don’t forget to check out the assessment over at Trinities blog.