Friday, July 19, 2019

Unitarian prooftexts

I've often commented on unitarian prooftexts, so some of this will reiterate my stated interpretations. However, I'll add a few new things. Finally, there's value in pulling that together in a single post. So in this post I'll evaluate what I take to be the major unitarian prooftexts (such as they are). The most popular, most quoted unitarian prootexts. A few general observations before I comment on specific passages:

i) If we didn't have any prooftexts for the Trinity or deity of Christ, then some of the unitarian prooftexts would be more persuasive. But Trinitarians aren't reading these passages in a vacuum. Since Trinitarians rightly think the deity of Christ is multiply-attested in the NT, it becomes a harmonistic issue. 

ii) In my experience, most unitarians are so lacking in critical detachment that they don't know what it means for a Bible verse contradict Trinitarian theology. They fail to appreciate that when you contend that a Bible verse is inconsistent with Trinitarian theology, you have to argue that point on Trinitarian grounds. You have to take the Trinitarian paradigm into consideration, you have to adopt that viewpoint for the sake of argument, then show how the verse is incompatible with Trinitarian theology given Trinitarian assumptions. 

Instead, they quote prooftexts that are inconsistent with Trinitarian theology from a unitarian viewpoint. They don't bother to ask themselves how a sophisticated Trinitarian would respond. They don't play devil's advocate with their own position, to anticipate the counterarguments. This is true even for someone who ought to know better, like Dale Tuggy. 

iii) In addition, some unitarians are so uninformed or uncomprehending that they don't even know what the opposing position represents. They haven't stopped to consider the implications of the opposing position. They never studied the other side of the argument. 

1. Mt 28:18
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

i) In general, unitarians imagine that passages which say "the Father" or "God" gave Jesus something are incompatible with the deity of Christ. It's not entirely clear why they suppose that's the case.

a) Here's one possibility: if Jesus just is God, then God can't give Jesus anything because that implies a distinction between the donor and the recipient. It's nonsensical to say God gave himself something. 

While that may indeed be illogical on a unitarian concept of God, it fails to take into consideration the nature of a triune God. It's not contradictory to say one person of the Godhead gives something to another person of the Godhead. So the objection is confused.

b) Here's another possibility: What do you give to someone who already has everything? 

However, even in that respect, there's a sense in which creatures can give God something. We give God praise. We give God thanks. 

ii) More to the point, the objection fails to take the Incarnation into account. Even assuming that God can't be given anything, which is simplistic (see above), it doesn't follow that the Father can't confer something on the Incarnate Son. Something which might be inconsistent with mere deity may not be inconsistent with a divine-human composite. 

iii) Finally, as one scholar explains, this passage actually implies the deity of the Son:

Matthew's way of expressing the unique cosmic sovereignty—"all authority in heaven and on earth"—deserves a little more scrutiny. It is the climactic example of Matthew's frequent and significant use of the twofold division of the cosmos into "heaven" and "earth."36 It is clear that, for Matthew, these are importantly distinct realms (see, e.g., 6:10,19-20; 23:9). Jonathan Pennington argues that in 28:18 "in heaven and on earth" is not only a comprehensive expression for the whole cosmos but also an antithetical usage that contrasts Jesus's authority during his earthly life with his more comprehensive authority at his exaltation. Hitherto, he has had authority only on earth (9:6); now he has authority also in heaven.37 Unlike Adam, whose authority was explicitly limited to the earthly member of the pair "heaven and earth" (Gen 1:1, 26-28), the exalted Jesus has authority also in heaven. Unlike the Davidic Messiah, to whom God gives "the ends of the earth" (Ps 2:8), the exalted Jesus has authority also in heaven. This explicit extension of Jesus's authority to the realm that belongs to God and not to humans (Ps 115:16) invalidates Kirk's assimilation of Jesus's cosmic sovereignty to the rule of Adam or David over "the world" (e.g., pp. 258, 571). For first-century Jews such as Matthew, distinguishing "heaven" and "earth" was a far from quibbling issue (see, e.g., Ps 148:1-2,11,13; Isa 55:9; 2 Macc 15:3-5; 1 En. 12:4). Richard Bauckham, Bulletin for Biblical Research 27 (2017), 517. 

2. Mk 10:18
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.

Unitarians think Jesus is denying his deity. But that fails to take into account the nature of the dialectic. For instance:

Jesus uses questions and riddles to lead his audience into the mystery of who he is. Cf. Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels (WJK, 2006). 

Jesus ends by telling the rich young man that the "one thing" he still lacks is to sell all he has and follow him. This ending is essential for unlocking the riddle of his words. Yet it is constantly overlooked by those who claim Jesus is denying that he is God. After making his declaration about the goodness of God, Jesus does something stunning: he adds a command to follow him to the obligation to keep the Ten Commandments. In a 1C Jewish context, this would have been shocking. In Jewish Scripture, the Ten Commandments are written by the very "finger of God" (Exod 31:18). Yet here Jesus is adding the command to follow him as if that was on par with keeping the commandments.  As Simon Gatherole writes:
What is most striking is that having established the one good God as the one who defines what is required of human beings, in the final analysis Jesus is the one who defines what is ultimately commanded…If God alone is good and able to give commandments, then Jesus does as well. By implication then, he is also good. And he is good not in the sense implied by the rich man, but in the absolute, divine sense used by Jesus himself. Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus (Image 2016), 151-52.

3. Lk 2:52
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

i) Unitarians imagine that statements like this are incompatible with deity. But even if that was the case, it fails to take the Incarnation into account. So often, unitarians never engage the argument. They never get inside the opposing position. 

ii) In addition, it's possible to be a unitarian open theist. Dale Tuggy is a prominent example. If open theism is true, then the deity of Jesus is consistent with Jesus growing in wisdom. The God of open theism is on a learning curve. 

I think open theism is false (indeed, heretical), but I'm just responding to unitarians on their own grounds. 

4. Jn 5:26
For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.

i) Unitarians take this to mean Jesus is a creature. He owes his existence to God. 

But in Trinitarian theology, while the Son is eternally preexistent, Jesus is not. Jesus is a composite being. Jesus didn't always exist. There was a time before the Incarnation.

ii) But in any case, the unitarian appeal is beside the point since that's not what the passage can mean. In Johannine usage, "life" refers to salvation. The gift of eternal life. So it's not about existence. Rather, the Father grants the Son the authority to confer eternal life on Christians. Indeed, that's what makes them Christian. 

iii) In passing I'd note that this is also a prooftext for eternal generation. But that's a misinterpretation. It cannot refer to the divine life because it's something that God shares with humans. It's not the essence of deity but what is represented by eternal life in the Fourth Gospel. Spiritual renewal. Everlasting life. 

5. Jn 10:29; 14:28
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all

If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

i) Unitarians imagine that this is inconsistent with the deity of Christ. But even if that's inconsistent with mere deity, it doesn't follow that this is inconsistent with Incarnational theology. 

To take a human analogy, a son can be both his father's subordinate and his father's equal. A royal son may be subordinate to his father so long as his father reigns, but when his father dies or abdicates, and his son takes his place on the throne, the son is now his father's equal. 

ii) Father/son form a natural parallel to king/prince. The crown prince is typically the firstborn son of the king. So father/son language can have royal connotations. 

iii) While this is somewhat anthropomorphic (and scripture does use anthropomorphisms(, it's more than just a theological metaphor. The Son Incarnate can undergo changes in his status. While the Son qua Son has a timeless divine status, union with a human nature allows for changes in the status of the composite entity. 

iv) In context, Jesus said this (Jn 14:28) prior to his Ascension and enthronement. While he was subordinate on earth, it doesn't follow that he remains subordinate after the Ascension and Session. Indeed, books like Revelation, which may share common authorship with the Fourth Gospel, depict the Father and Son as coregents. 

6. Jn 17:3
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

i) The "only true God" is just a synonym for Yahweh. In OT theism, Yahweh is the one and only true God. Because the Fourth Gospel is written in Greek, it doesn't call the Father Yahweh. Instead, it uses an equivalent designation. Retranslating the passage back into OT terminology: "that they know you, Yahweh, and Jesus the Messiah, whom you have sent." But that's perfectly consonant with Trinitarian theology.

ii) The point of contrast isn't between the Father as the only true God and Jesus. In standard biblical usage, the point of contrast is between Yahweh and pagan polytheism. The one true God in opposition to idolatry. 

7. Jn 20:17
I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.

i) Notice the synonymous parallelism. In this passage, "God" is a proper name or synonym for the Father. But it's quite consistent with Trinitarian theology to distinguish between God the Father and the Son. 

ii) In addition, there's a distinction, in Trinitarian theology, between God and Jesus. Jesus has a human side. 

8. 1 Cor 8:5-6
5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

As several scholars have argue (e.g. Bauckham, Fee, Wright), Paul subdivides the Shema, assigning the Elohim designation to the Father and the Yahweh designation to the Son. Far from being a unitarian prooftext, this is a powerful witness to the deity of Christ.  

9. 1 Cor 11:3
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Unitarians think this is at odds with the deity of Christ. However, Paul is using Adam typology. You can see that in vv7-8:

7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

So Paul's point is that the Son, in his economic role as the Last Adam, is subordinate to the Father. 

10. 1 Cor 15:28
When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Once again, this must be understood in the context of Paul's Adam typology: 1 Cor 15:21-22,45-49. The subordination has reference to the economic Trinity, not the immanent Trinity. Although unitarians reject that paradigm, that's irrelevant since the point at issue is that the passage is entirely consistent with Trinitarian theology. 

11. Col 1:15
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 

i) Unitarians imagine that calling Jesus the "firstborn" means he's just a creature. But as one commentator explains: 

God says of David in Ps 89:27 that "I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth." This latter text is probably especially important for Col 1:15, since Ps 89 rings with messianic allusions, and Paul has just been describing Christ in messianic/kingly terms (vv12-14)…Against this background, then, and since the "hymn" goes on to affirm Christ's mediatorial role in all of creation (v16)–and hence his existence before creation–it is clear that the word is used here in this sense of "supreme over," D. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Eerdmans 2008), 119-20. 

ii) In addition, the unitarian appeal rips the passage out of context. Paul goes on to explain that the Son is the preexisting Creator of the world: 

16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

12. 1 Tim 2:5
For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus

Unitarians take this this to mean that Jesus is just a man, in contrast to God. That, however, is not the intended distinction. As one commentator explains:

This phrase establishes the central thrust of the christological formulation–namely, the association of salvation with the humanity of Christ, which the subsequent appeal to the Jesus tradition (v6) will complement by stressing the substitutionary and representative nature of Jesus' human death… Philip Towner, The Letter to Timothy and Titus (Eerdmans 2006), 181.

The passage stresses the humanity of Christ because Christ must be human to undergo sacrificial death, which lays a plank for his mediatorial role. But that doesn't rule out a divine Incarnation. 

13. 1 Tim 6:15-16
15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

Unitarians take this to mean that the Father alone is immortal, in which case the Father alone is divine. 

i) However, that's not the point of contrast. The intrinsic immortality of God stands in implicit contrast to creatures. 

ii) Moreover, the unitarian appeal proves too much. By that logic, since the Spirit of God is not the Father, the Spirit of God is mortal! 

14. Rev 3:14
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler [or beginning] of God’s creation.

Unitarians take this to mean the Son was God's first creation. However:

i) It could be rendered "the ruler" of God's creation:

Christ calls himself "the ruler" of God's creation (3:14), recalling how he was previously said to be "the ruler of the kings of the earth," Craig Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale 2014),  343, cf. 336. 

ii) Conversely, as one commentator explains: 

The thought is similar to 1:5, where Christ is “the firstborn from the dead” (see Col. 1:18). By his resurrection he has inaugurated or begun the new creation.

iii) In addition, this is from the same book that applies to Jesus one of Yahweh's exclusive titles: First and Last. 


  1. To supplement Steve great comments:

    //1. Mt 28:18
    Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

    One can be given something publicly de jure long after it had already (or always) been his de facto. For example, a father can publicly and legally transfer ownership of a business to a son which was his by right of sonship, by right of inheritance, by private promise and by the fact that the son has been behind the scenes running the company for many years already. Christ has been upholding the created order "by the word of His power" from the beginning of creation. cf. Heb. 1:3

    //2. Mk 10:18
    “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.

    It's been said by others, but I like the way it has been stated from Richard N. Davies' book The Doctrine of the Trinity page 18-19
    QUOTE: Christ said to a certain ruler: "Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God." (Mark x, 17, 18.) Christ did not deny that he himself was "good," nor did he deny that he himself was God; but the ruler had not acknowledged him to be God, and our Lord's question to the ruler was based upon that fact. It was as much as to say, As you do not confess me to be God, why call me good? Our Lord said: "There is none good but one, that is, God." It would follow from this that whoever is perfectly good must be God; but our Lord is perfectly, infinitely good, hence must be God........The dilemma, as regards the Socinians, has been well put (see Stier II, 283, note), either, 'There is none good but God; Christ is good; therefore Christ is God;' or, 'There is none good but God; Christ is not God; therefore Christ is not good.' " (Alford, in loco) END QUOTE

    Unitarians must pick one of the horns of the dilemma. Either affirm that Jesus is Almighty God, or affirm that Jesus is not truly good and holy (and so contradict Mark 1:24 which has demons calling Jesus the Holy One of God, with Mark's apparent approval).

    //6. Jn 17:3
    Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

    A good case can be made that 1 John 5:20 refers to Jesus as "the true God". I've collected some commentaries that argue for that translation/interpretation HERE.

    //7. Jn 20:17
    I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.

    Steve's appeal to the unique incarnational situation the Son was in is perfectly legitmate and plausible. Another way to resolve the issue is the way Trinitarians have done in the past (esp. those who held to eternal generation). These Trinitarians have pointed out that if Unitarianism were true, it would make more sense for Jesus to simply say "I am ascending our Father and our God". By phrasing it the way Jesus actually did, it suggests a difference in which the Father, who is God, is Father and God to the Son in contrast to Father and God to adopted and redeemed humanity. As Trinitarians have pointed out for centuries the word "God" can have a sense of having authority over someone without the connotation that that "God" being the creator of the subordinate person. Historic Trinitarianism is consistent with not only incarnational subordination, but also eternal functional subordination (EFS). Though, many modern Trinitarians reject the later (EFS). Nevertheless, all Trinitarians reject eternal ontological subordination and inferiority of the Son and Spirit.


    1. //8. 1 Cor 8:5-6.......//

      It should also be noted that Paul refers to (pagan) gods and lords in a way that doesn't imply the "gods" are ontologically superior to the "lords". He using them as synonyms. In which case, we shouldn't eisegetically read into verse 6 the idea that the Father's "Godhood" is superior to the Son's "Lordship". If the one Lordship of the Son doesn't preclude the Lordship of the Father, then the one Godship/Godhood of the Father shouldn't preclude the Godship/Godhood of the Son. Especially since, as Steve has pointed out, commentators have clearly explained how Paul is applying the Shema to both the Father and the Son.

      //10. 1 Cor 15:28
      When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

      This likely refers to (or emphasizes) the incarnate Son's rule as human messiah. Whereas His divine rulership explained and emphasized in Dan. 7:14 is described as being a "dominion [that] is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." Given Unitarian assumptions, there's a Bible contradiction here. That the Son will have an everlasting dominion and that his dominion will end. On Trinitarianism both are true and easily hamonized.

      //11. Col 1:15
      15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

      As has been pointed out, Paul readily had a word to describe "first created". But he didn't use it. Nor does he even teach it didactically in sentences or paragraphs. On the contrary the context teaches Jesus is the instrumental Creator of all things visible and invisible. Hence, He cannot be a created entity. Paul says, "all things were created through him AND FOR HIM." Creation ultimately exists for the Divine, therefore Jesus is fully God.

      //12. 1 Tim 2:5
      For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus

      Unitarians presuppose that "Christ/Messiah" has absolutely no Divine connotation ever ("Divine" with a capital "D", that is). But Scripture suggests it sometimes does. Paul seemed to think so in Rom. 9:5. See my blogpost where I quote commentaries on Rom. 9:5 that argue for why the best translation has Paul referring to Jesus as the "blessed God" of the OT.

      Romans 9:5 and Christ's Full Deity

      //14. Rev 3:14
      These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler [or beginning] of God’s creation.

      This passage refers to Jesus as "the Amen", which is a name of God in Isa. 65:16. YHVH is there called the "God of truth", "God of Amen", "God of faithfulness", "faithful God". This fact coupled with the fact that Jesus is often strongly implied to be fully God in different ways (including by other divine titles and names) in the same book weakens the Unitarian interpretation of Rev. 3:14. Jesus is referred to as "first and last", and likely also "beginning and end" as well as "alpha and omega" (as I argued in a blog regarding Rev. 22:12-13). He's called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus Himself applies Jer. 17:10 to Himself in Rev. 2:23. Examples could be multiplied.

    2. Additions to my comments regarding Mt 28:18.

      Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."- Acts 2:36

      Trinitarians have pointed out that Jesus was "Lord and Christ" BEFORE He was officially "MADE" to be "Lord and Christ" at the time Peter indicated (whether at His resurrection or Ascension). Jesus was Lord and Christ even during His earthly ministry. In fact, given the evidence that Trinitarians has provided, Jesus was YHVH even in the OT when He appeared in Christophanies. The Unitarian interpretation of Matt. 28:18 conflicts with the proper exegesis of Phi. 2:6 by Trinitarians where Jesus is taught to be God and have all the prerogatives (and hence also authority) of God which He could have taken advantage of, but in humility temporarily refrained from for the sake of human redemption.

      To add to my commments regarding 1 Tim 2:5, this passage emphasizes Christ's mediatorial role which is based on His atonement. Some Unitarians have pointed out that nowhere in the OT does it teaches that YHVH will Himself make atonement. However, while I was listening to Karaite Jew Nehemia Gordon quote Ex. 34:6-7 he said that verse 7 that says in English translations that YHVH forgives sins, that in the Hebrew it literally says YHVH carries or bares the sins of those whom He forgives. I thought that might be suggestive of the Trinitarian view where Jesus (as YHVH) bears the iniquity of sinners. I wondered if other Christian scholars who knew Hebrew picked up on this possible connection.

      I checked John Gill's commentary and he made the same connection. Gill says in his commentary on verse 7: "...the word used signifies a lifting it up, and taking it away: thus Jehovah has taken it from the sinner, and put it on his Son, who has borne it, and made satisfaction for it; and in so doing has taken it quite away, so as to be seen no more; and, through the application of his blood to the conscience of a sinner, it is taken away from thence, and removed as far as the east is from the west; from whence it appears, that it is in Christ, and for his sake, that God forgives sin, even through his blood, righteousness, sacrifice, and satisfaction; and this forgiveness is of all sin, of all sorts of sin, original or actual, greater or lesser, public or private, open or secret, of omission or commission, of heart, lip, and life...."

      Applying the Jewish PaRDeS method of Biblical interpretation, this might be a Remez, "wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p'shat. The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware." [David H. Stern's Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 12].

      All this to reiterate my earlier point that Unitarians are likely wrong in thinking Messiah/Christ never has [fully] divine connotations in Scripture.

  2. Great stuff Steve.

    Unitarians raise John 17:3. How can God talk to himself?

    Interesting, I was watching the science fiction movie Looper recently. You have the same character (Bruce Willis) talking to a younger version of himself (Gordon Joseph Levitt) after travelling back in time.