Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A unitarian conundrum

1. The Synoptic witness to the deity of Christ is somewhat muted compared to John's Gospel or some other NT writings. Unitarians try to capitalize on that difference in emphasis as if that poses a special problem for orthodox Christians. However, this is far more problematic for unitarianism.

2. To begin with, there's no epistemic parity between the evidence for Trinitarianism and unitarianism. To take a comparison, suppose one historian says Ulysses S. Grant was a Civil War general, but doesn't mention his presidency–while another historian says Grant was a US president, but doesn't mention his military career. Those omissions don't generate a contradiction.

Suppose, for argument's sake, that the Synoptics were altogether silent on the deity of Christ. That doesn't contradict other NT writings which witness to the deity of Christ. If some NT documents provide evidence for the deity of Christ, while other documents don't assert that, their silence doesn't conflict with what other documents attest. If some documents provide positive evidence, absence of evidence in other documents isn't equivalent to counterevidence. Lack of evidence isn't evidence to the contrary. It just means a particular document doesn't speak to that particular topic.

Take the fact that one Gospel mentions things that another Gospel fails to mention, and vice versa. But a conservative unitarian doesn't consider that to be a contradiction. 

Justification by faith alone is a central plank of Paul's theology, yet it's only a major theme in two of his epistles. But the fact that several of his letters never affirm sola fide doesn't mean they disaffirm sola fide. Rather, they are neutral on that topic. They don't speak to that issue one way or the other. 

So there's a crucial evidential asymmetric between unitarianism and Trinitarianism. Not to say Jesus is deity isn't equivalent to saying Jesus is not deity. So even if (arguendo) the Synoptics said nothing to indicate the deity of Christ, which is a tremendous overstatement, that would still be entirely consonant with other NT documents affirming the deity of Christ. 

3. In principle, a unitarian could take a liberal position. He could say the NT contains divergent Christologies. Some NT documents reflect a high Christology (i.e. Jesus is fully divine) while others reflect a low Christology (i.e. Jesus is merely human). 

That would at least be a consistent position for a unitarian to take. But it would also be self-defeating. In that event, the NT lacks revelatory authority. Why believe the low Christological books rather than the high Christological books? Why think the NT is theologically trustworthy at all? 

A unitarian could say high Johannine or Pauline Christology contradicts low Synoptic Christology. But that would be a counterproductive strategy. If, however, he refuses to countenance a contradiction, then even assuming a prima facie contradiction between Synoptic Christology and Johannine or Pauline Christology, it's not as if that's a special problem for Trinitarians rather than unitarians. To the contrary, that would be a problem for both sides. 

Unitarians are like suicide bombers who must destroy themselves to destroy Trinitarians. By contrast, Trinitarians don't face the same dilemma. 

4. The alternative is for a unitarian to take a conservative position on the NT. Traditional authorship. Inerrancy. However, that's going to be deeply problematic for unintarians. For instance, if Luke is Paul's best friend, then it would be quite incongruous to have low Lukan Christology alongside high Pauline Christology. 

Mind you, a difference in emphasis is unsurprising inasmuch as Luke is biographer and historian whereas Paul is a theologian. Theological interpretation draws out the Christological implications of the historical record. Like the difference between news and news analysis. 

Likewise, Mark is a member of the Petrine and Pauline circles alike. He moves in the same company as the apostles (Acts 12-13,15; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24; 1 Pet 5:13). So it would be incongruous to have low Markan Christology alongside high Pauline Christology. 

By the same token, Hebrews has high Christology. In his commentary. J. Ramsey Michaels has suggested that Timothy is the author of Hebrews. If so, that puts the author firmly in Paul's high orbit. 

Of course, unitarians try to explain away the high Christology of various NT passages. That's an argument for another day. And I've discussed it before. My immediate point is to reframe the debate by correcting the fallacious way in which unitarians shift the burden of proof, as if the onus is somehow on orthodox Christians to align Synoptic Christology with the more overt or sustained witness to the deity of Christ in other NT documents. But unitarians are hardly exempt from discharging their own burden of proof, which is far higher. 


  1. I enjoyed this post, thanks.

    No, of course there is no problem in one gospel says A, B, C, and D, and another says only A and B. A Christian ought to accept all four claims, as part of the apostolic witness.

    We biblical unitarians are wholly unworried about the the fourth gospel, which we love and fully agree with. This phrase "the deity of Christ" depends on its ambiguity for its popularity. If it means, being the one true God himself, then it simply doesn't fit with the fourth gospel, which consistently distinguishes Jesus from his and our God. Only a few less than fully clear passages - or rather catholic ways of looking at these - stand in the way of this being fully obvious nowadays. More details here. If "the deity of Christ" means just that Jesus was and is uniquely related to God, then... we agree! In any case, in all the gospels, and in Acts, the one God is someone, i.e. the Father, and Jesus is someone else. No - not "Persons" mysteriously within one Being - but just, the one true God, and unique, human Anointed One - two beings, one the creator of and god over the other.

    "Not to say Jesus is deity isn't equivalent to saying Jesus is not deity."

    Things are not so simple, Steve. If one doesn't say something, that *can* count as evidence that one does not believe that thing, just in case IF one *had* believed it, probably one would have said it. More info here:

    Now let us ask: If Mark, say, believed that Jesus is God himself, God in the flesh, would we expect Mark to say so clearly?

    (I think the question answers itself.)

    Now, we should look closely at what Mark says and doesn't say:

    "In principle, a unitarian could take a liberal position. He could say the NT contains divergent Christologies."

    FYI - this sort of view would be very rare in biblical unitarian circles today. Possibly, less common than in trinitarian circles, beyond the evangelical bubble.

    "Unitarians are like suicide bombers who must destroy themselves to destroy Trinitarians."

    LOL! Nice image. No, we just read the fourth gospel very carefully, in its 1st c. context, trying not to import 4th c. concerns into it. Same with Paul, BTW. We are wholly unworried by his "high" christology. We agree that it is "high" in that Jesus should be worshiped, along with God (Rev 5), having been exalted by God for his obedience (Phil 2). But we don't agree that it is "high" in confusing together Jesus and God, or in implying classical, creedal Incarnation and Trinity views, such as we find in church history starting in the 4th c.

    "My immediate point is to reframe the debate by correcting the fallacious way in which unitarians shift the burden of proof"

    Steve, this is all based on the mistaken idea that somehow we prefer the synoptics to Paul and John, Hebrews and Revelation. But, we don't. We find the same christology and theology in all the NT books, thank God.

    God bless,

  2. O please, Dale stop making a fool of yourself. John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God.