Monday, March 05, 2012

He is the true God

Antitrinitarian apostate Dale Tuggy is back to his old tricks. I’m going to comment on some recent remarks of his:

Christians believe in God. And Christians believe in Jesus Christ. How should we think these two (?) relate to one another? Consider this following inconsistent triad:
D: Jesus and God have differed.
N: Jesus and God are numerically one.
I: If any X and Y have ever differed, then they are not numerically one.
One can’t consistently accept all three. If any two are true, the remaining one must be false. (Go ahead: work through the combinations.)

At the risk of stating the obvious, isn't N equivocal? Strictly speaking, Jesus is the God-man. So whatever is true of Jesus isn't true of God simpliciter. Doesn't that invalidate Tuggy's syllogism?

That's even before we get to Trinitarian complications. And the Incarnation also distinguishes Jesus from the Father and the Spirit. Admittedly, that's an economic distinction. But it's sufficient to invalidate Tuggy's syllogism.

No, my N isn’t meant to sum up any Trinity theory. It’s just a claim of numerical identity, like Mark Twain = Samuel Clemens.

Actually, that's a pretty dicey example of identity. Counterproductive to Dale's logic, if you ask me:

James, I don’t see that in the context of the present argument this begs any question. This isn’t a trinitarian-unitarian debate. All that need be granted is that the NT throughout assumes and sometimes asserts Jesus’ Father to be the one true God.

i) Of course, a number of scholars have argued on syntactical (as well as contextual) grounds that 1 Jn 5:20 asserts Jesus to be the true God. Commentators who take that position include Brown, Bruce, Burge, Carson (in private correspondence), Marshall, Schnackenberg, Strecker, Thompson, and Yarbrough. Other NT scholars include Longenecker and Köstenberger.

This ranges all along the theological spectrum, so it can’t be chalked up to evangelical bias.

In addition, you also have Greek grammarians like Steven Baugh, Dan Wallace, and Stanley Porter (in private correspondence) who think the syntax favors Jesus as the referent.

Of course, that isn’t conclusive, but it furnishes prima facie support for that interpretation as a very reasonable interpretation. As such, it furnishes a prima facie undercutter to Dale’s appeal to Jn 17:3, for 1 Jn 5:20 would counterbalance Jn 17:3.

ii) But we could make the same point indirectly. Given how John uses the “true/truth” word-group as a contrastive term (in implicit opposition to what's untrue or unreal), if John ever calls Jesus “God” (e.g. Jn 1:1,18; 20:28), then the only kind of “God” he could be, given the Johannine antithesis between what's true and what's untrue, is the “true God.”

Put another way, John wouldn't say, “Yeah, Jesus is God too–just not the true God!”

iii) Although I’ve discussed this before, another basic problem I have with his handling of Jn 17:3 is that he seems to take the phrase “the only true God” thusly:

“The true God” as detachable from “only,” so that “only” modifies “true God.” From this he reasons that if the Father is the only true God, then Jesus can't be God.

But I think that syntactical analysis is dubious. I think “the only true God” is a semantic unit which functions as an idiomatic synonym for “Yahweh” or the “one true God of Israel.”

The adjective (“only”) isn’t added to “the true God” to contrast the Father with the Son. Rather, “the only true God” is just a stereotypical way for Jews to refer to God.

More needs to be said about this; on the face of it, your claim creates a problem for you with John 17, in which Jesus says that the Father is the one true God (meaning, no one else is – including Jesus).

Two problems:

i) It’s illicit to use Jn 17:3 as the standard of comparison. For it’s not as if Jn 17:3 is the benchmark against which all other Johannine passages (e.g. Jn 1:1,18; 20:28) must be harmonized. No one Johannine verse enjoys hermeneutical priority.

The reasoning is reversible. We could just as well use Jn 1:1 as the benchmark in reference to which we interpret Jn 17:3.

ii) He acts as though, in Jn 17:3, the “one true God” is set in antithetical contrast to Jesus. But as Michaels points out in his commentary, this alludes to earlier debates with Jewish unbelievers:

The phrase “the only true God,” though firmly rooted in Jewish monotheism, nevertheless echoes some of Jesus’ rebukes to “the Jews” themselves in earlier settings. Despite their monotheism, they did not “seek the glory that comes from the Only God” (5:44), nor did they understand that “the One who sent me is True, whom you do not know” (7:28), The Gospel of John, 860.

So the statement in Jn 17:3 is set in implicit contrast, not to Jesus, but to the attitude to Jewish unbelievers who prided themselves on following the only true God, but who, by rejecting Jesus, unwittingly rejected the Father who sent him.

It presents an invidious contrast between appearance and reality: Jesus’ Jewish opponents imagine that they are following the true God, the God of Israel (unlike those ignorant pagans); they even imagine rejecting Jesus goes to show that they are following the true God. To follow the true God means not following Jesus.

In reality, it’s just the opposite: You can’t be a follower of the “only true God” unless you’re a follower of Jesus. That’s the stinging irony, implicit in Jn 17:3. It’s not a choice between following God and following Jesus. Rather, it’s both or neither.

What’s really important though is this simple point: proper names and titles can be equivocal. If I call you Obama (I’m not sure why I’d do that – but never mind) that *may* mean that I think you’re the president married to Michelle, or I may have some other reason for calling you by his name. It all depends on the context what an observer will think about my beliefs.

Of course, the same could be said concerning OT passages about Yahweh or NT passages about the Father. So that objection cuts both ways.

And the context of the NT is highly relevant here… we are straight up told that Jesus, at his exaltation, was given the very “name about all names” by God, we assume, “Yahweh”. And “King of Kings”, “Lord”, and so on. There’s a perverse hermeneutic of hint-hunting out there, which says “See! They’re tell us that he’s God himself.” [facepalm] No, it *says* it was God himself who decided to share these names or titles with him!

i) Looks like he’s doing a bait-n-switch. He began with Jn 17:3, but he’s now alluding to Phil 2:9-10. Yet John doesn’t say that God gave or shared the name of “theos” with Jesus. It's illicit to recast Johannine practice in Pauline practice.

ii) Dale is also disregarding the redemptive/incarnational framework of Phil 2:6-11, where the upward exaltation complements the prior downward motion from a divine plane. Dale ignores the initial status, and the descent from that initial high status, then the resumption of that original status as the Son returns to what he had before.

iii) Likewise, the subject who’s exalted isn't the Son qua Son but the Son qua Incarnate.

Murray Harris disagrees: Jesus as God, pp. 253, 272.

i) That’s a non sequitur. To say Harris disagrees hardly disproves the contention that a good case can be made for Christ as the referent in 1 Jn 5:20.

Is that a slam-dunk? No. But it doesn't need to be. It functions as an undercutter for Tuggy’s unilateral appeal to Jn 17:3. He can’t rule this out as a reasonable rendering of 1 Jn 5:20. Seems to me that this alternative rendering is at least as good as Harris's.

ii) It’s also a double-edged sword for Dale to invoke Harris, for Harris defends the deity of Christ from other verses.

But what about the position of Harris?

i) One objection he raises is that “alethinos is applied to God in Isa 65:16 (LXX), Jn 7:28, and Rev 6:10.

However, it’s hard to see how that points to the Father. For as Harris has argued in the very same book, John does call Jesus “God” on other occasions. So using “God” doesn’t create a presumption in favor of the Father as the referent.

ii) Another objection is that in Jn 17:3, the title ho alethinos theos is applied to the Father as opposed to the Son.”

a) But that’s ambiguous. If he means what is said about the Father stands in syntactical opposition to what is said about the Son, that’s true–although it would be more accurate to describe that relation in terms of apposition rather than opposition. That, however, doesn’t mean John is drawing a theological contrast between the deity of the Father and the status of the Son. Rather, this involves an implicit and allusive contrast to the attitude of Christ’s opponents in the Gospel.

b) The comparison between the Father and the Son in Jn 17:3 is inherently relative inasmuch as John does call Jesus “God” on other occasions, as Harris himself would be the first to admit.

iii) Harris appeals to Jn 5:26 to establish the Father as the ultimate source of life.

a) But one issue is whether that has reference to the immanent Trinity or the economic Trinity.

b) He mentions the “intimate link between true deity and eternal life.” Yet that doesn’t distinguish the Father from the Son, for Harris thinks that John teaches the true deity of Christ.

c) Moreover, the fact that eternal life is inseparable from the Son makes more sense if the Son is inseparable from the Father. If both Father and Son are truly divine, then that’s why being in the Son automatically includes the Father–a major Johannine theme.

iv) Harris says the fact that “ho alethinos twice refers to the Father” in 1 Jn 5:20 creates the presumption that the referent is the same throughout.

However, John has a habit of making lofty claims about the Father as a set-up to make comparable claims about the Son. So it would make sense if John is drawing a parallel between the Father as the “true God” (Jn 17:3) and the Son as the “true God” (1 Jn 5:20).

v) Finally, Harris says “this verse provides the final member of the trilogy of affirmations found in 1 John,” viz. God is light, love, and life eternal.

But it seems to me that 5:20 forms an inclusio to the prologue:

“1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2  the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1 Jn 1:1-2).
“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn 5:20).

In the epilogue, John circles back to the opening theme of Christ as life Incarnate.

I’d make two additional points:

vi) In this epistle, John is combating Christological heresy. One facet of that heresy was denial of the divine sonship of Christ (1 Jn 4:15). Given John’s focus on correcting low Christology, it would make sense if he ended the letter on a Christological climax by reaffirming high Christology.

I’d like to see a proper study of this “true” usage. At first glance, a “true” F could also be that which is F in the most proper or fundamental sense. So other Fs would not be false Fs.

Well that’s ironic. I realize that Dale isn't a NT scholar. Still, if he’s going to constantly lean on Jn 17:3, shouldn't he himself have studied the key terms?

So let’s consider Johannine usage:

In John's view of the world, truth is attached to God, while falsehood is rooted in the nature of the devil. Again, there is no middle ground, and the lines of demarcation are clearly drawn...John attributes the characteristic of truth to each of the three persons of the Godhead... A. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, 288.

Given this dualism, if John classifies Jesus as “God” (theos), yet if the Father is the “true God,” in contrast to Jesus, then that puts Jesus on the wrong side of the ledger in John's moral and theological universe.

Here’s more analysis. It’s from an older reference work. However, the entry was written by Anthony Thiselton, who's quite sophisticated:

The view adopted in this article is that John uses aletheia regularly in the sense of reality in contrast to falsehood or mere appearance... (889).
Special consideration may be given to the use of the phrase “full of grace and truth” in the Prologue [1:14; cf. 1:17]...What John wishes to stress in these verses is that, in Christ the Logos, men can see God in his genuine actuality and reality. If men can see God's reality anywhere, it is in Christ (889-890).
There can be no doubt at all that sometimes in John aletheia and alethes means simply truth in contrast to 1 Jn a liar is one who does not speak the truth (2:4; cf. 2:21,27). To err from the truth is to be deceived (1 Jn 1:8) (890).
One of the most important uses of aletheia and alethes in John is to convey the idea of reality, in contrast to whatever the situation may seem to look like on the surface [Jn 4:23-24; 6:55] (890-891).
To say that Jesus is the way as well as the truth means that Jesus is the truth; he does not simply state it. One does not come to him to ask about truth; one comes to him as the truth (891).
In Jn 8:44-45, the truth spoken by Jesus is set in contrast to the lie spoken by the devil (892).
Often alethinos has its characteristic meaning of “genuine” or “real”. In Jn 1:9, Jesus is the real light, in contrast to John the Baptist (893).

“Truth,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3.


  1. Many neo-Arian heretics since the days of Isaac Newton have liked to criticize the Trinitarian worship of Christ as somehow similar to the Mariolatry or saint-worship as practiced by the RCC - thus casting themselves as mantlebearers or continuators of the Reformation.

    This parasitical attempt must be stopped in its tracks: we must note that a non-trinitarian that yet continues in some way to worship or venerate Jesus Christ is a more grotesque idolater than the worst Romanist Mary-fan ever.

    As H.M. Gwatkin aptly put it:

    "The Arian Christ is nothing but a heathen idol invented to maintain a heathenish Supreme in heathen isolation from the world. Never was a more illogical theory devised by the wit of man. Arius proclaims a God of mystery, unfathomable to the Son of God himself, and goes on to argue as if the divine generation were no more mysterious than its human type. He forgets first that metaphor would cease to be metaphor if there were nothing beyond it; then that it would cease to be true if its main idea were misleading. He presses the metaphor of sonship as if mere human relations could exhaust the meaning of the divine; and soon works round to the conclusion that it is no proper sonship at all. In his irreverent hands the Lord's deity is but the common right of mankind, his eternity no more than the beasts themselves may claim. His clumsy logic overturns every doctrine he is endeavouring to establish. He upholds the Lord's divinity by making the Son of God a creature, and then worships him to escape the reproach of heathenism, although such worship, on his own showing, is mere idolatry. He makes the Lord's manhood his primary fact, and overthrows that too by refusing the Son of Man a human soul. The Lord is neither truly God nor truly man, and therefore is no true mediator. Heathenism may dream of a true communion with the Supreme, but for us there neither is nor ever can be any. Between our Father and ourselves there is a great gulf fixed, which neither he nor we can pass. Now that we have heard the message of the Lord, we know the final certainty that God is darkness, and in him is no light at all. If this be the sum of the whole matter, then revelation is a mockery, and Christ is dead in vain."

  2. Of course, a number of scholars have argued on syntactical (as well as contextual) grounds that 1 Jn 5:20 asserts Jesus to be the true God.

    Here's a link to my blog where I quote a long passage concerning 1 John 5:20 from Robert Morey's book "The Trinity: Evidences and Issues"

    Here's a sampling of the longer passage where Morey quotes other scholars.

    Robertson states the rule:

    [Greek] does, as a rule, refer to what is near or last mentioned and [Greek] to what is remote.

    Brown: Grammar favors a reference to the nearest antecedent, and this would be "Jesus Christ." In this case Jesus Christ is called true God.

    Candlish: The Lord Jesus Christ is the person here meant. Such seems to be the fair inference from the use of the pronoun "this;" which naturally and usually indicates the nearest person spoken of in the context; and therefore, in this instance, not "him that is true," but "his Son Jesus Christ." That inference indeed is so clear, in a merely grammatical and exegetical point of view, that there would not probably have been any doubt about it, were it not for its implying an assertion of our Lord's supreme divinity; an assertion which no sophistry or special pleading can evade or explain away.

    Morgan and Cox: There can be no doubt they refer to Jesus Christ. We are shut up to this conclusion by the construction of the passage. Christ is the near and natural antecedent to the assertion of the apostle.

    Marshall: The NIV rightly adopts the view that [Greek] refers back to Jesus.

    For the last time John hammers home the point. He-Jesus- is the true God and eternal life. Here, as in the Gospel (Jn. 1:1; 20:28; cf. 1:18 mg.), John declare that Jesus is the true God.

    Lenski explains:

    In the first place, if [Greek] has as its antecedent "the real God" (the Father), then the statement is a tautology: John would say: "This real God is the real God." He would say it after having twice said: we know the real God and are in the real God.

  3. Albert Barnes' New Testament Notes (AKA "Barnes' Notes on the Bible") gives FIVE persuasive reasons why "true God" refers to Jesus in 1 John 5:20.