The Great Trinity Debate, Part 5: Dave Burke on Father, Son & Holy Spirit

The Divine Hierarchy: Father, Son & Angels
This week I hope Rob will show Biblical evidence for the essential relationship formulae of Trinitarianism:

  1. Father = “God”, Son = “God” and Holy Spirit = “God”
  2. “God” = Father + Son + Holy Spirit

In Week 1 we saw that proving the first does not automatically prove the second, for even if we agree that The Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, it does not necessarily follow that God = the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Both formulae (F+S+HS=G and G=F+S+HS) must be proved independent of each other. Additionally, Rob must show that all three are individual divine persons comprising a single divine being.

For Biblical Unitarians, the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit begins with the Father as head of a divine hierarchy:

  • God, the Father: “the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19); “God of gods” (Deuteronomy 10:17); “rules over all” (I Kings 18:15); “Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Luke 10:21); “He alone possesses immortality” (I Timothy 6:16); “Almighty” (Revelation 21:22)
  • Jesus Christ: “the Son can do nothing on his own initiative… I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me. If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true” (John 5:19, 30-31); “I live because of the Father” (John 6:57); “the Father is greater than I am” (John 14:28); “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36); “God is the head of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:3); “and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (I Corinthians 3:23)
  • Angels: “angels came and began ministering to [Jesus’] needs” (Matthew 4:11); “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14); “he did not put the world to come, about which we are speaking, under the control of angels” (Hebrews 2:5); “[Jesus] is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him” (I Peter 3:22)

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.

Note that Scripture never includes the Holy Spirit in this hierarchy (further evidence that the Holy Spirit is not a person). Even the book of Revelation contains no vision of the Holy Spirit, despite portraying God, Jesus, the heavenly court, and the redeemed saints in multiple instances.

Father, Son & Holy Spirit: in the Bible’s Own Words
How does God refer to Jesus? As His Son, representative and mediator to humanity:

  • Matthew 3:17, “This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight”
  • Luke 9:35, “‘This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him!'”
  • Acts 13:33, “‘You are my Son; today I have fathered you'”
  • Hebrews 1:9, “You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. So God, your God, has anointed you over your companions with the oil of rejoicing”
  • Hebrews 1:13, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”
  • Hebrews 5:6, “‘You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek'”

Galatians 4:4 reinforces this picture, telling us that Jesus was “made of a woman.” The Greek word for “made” here is ginomai as in John 1:3. Both occurrences refer to something which was brought into existence. Thus, Jesus’ existence has a commencement in time.

How does Jesus refer to God? As his Father and God, the source of his own authority and power:

  • Mathew 28:18, “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me'”
  • Mark 12:29, “‘The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one””
  • Luke 22:29, “‘Thus I grant to you a kingdom, just as my Father granted to me'”
  • John 5:22, 26-27, 43, “‘the Father does not judge anyone, but has assigned all judgment to the Son… just as the Father has life in himself, thus he has granted the Son to have life in himself… he has granted the Son authority to execute judgment… I have come in my Father’s name'”
  • John 17:7, “‘Now they understand that everything you have given me comes from you'”
  • John 20:17, “‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'”
  • Revelation 3:12, “‘The one who conquers I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will never depart from it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God (the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from my God), and my new name as well'”

Trinitarians might argue that many of these verses refer only to functional subordination (ie. difference in rank), not ontological subordination (ie. 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?

In Acts 2:24, the apostle Peter tells us that Jesus was raised by God, Who “released him from the pains of death.” (Why would “God the Son” require “release from the pains of death”?) This unquestionably refers to Jesus’ transition from mortality to immortality, with an echo in I Corinthians 15, where Paul tells us that Jesus “became a life-giving spirit.” (How can “God the Son” become a life-giving spirit? Surely he already is one?)

How does Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit? As the Father’s divine power and presence (occasionally personified), which guides, inspires and empowers:

  • John 14:16-17, “‘Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you'”
  • John 15:26, “‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father — the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father — he will testify about me.'”
  • John 20:22, “And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'”
  • Acts 1:6, “‘For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now'”

How did the apostles refer to God? Overwhelmingly as “God”, “the Father, “our Father”, and “the God and Father” of Jesus:

  • Romans 1:7, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!”
  • I Corinthians 1:1, “…called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”
  • Galatians 1:3, “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”
  • Colossians 1:2, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father!”
  • I Timothy 1:2, “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord!”
  • Titus 1:4, “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior!”
  • Philemon 1:3, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!”
  • II John 3, “Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Son of the Father”

How did the apostles refer to Jesus? Overwhelmingly by such titles as “Christ” (Messiah), “our Lord”, “our Lord Jesus”, “Jesus Christ our Lord”, “Saviour”, and “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Twice they call him “Son of God” (Acts 9:20 & 13:33). They carefully distinguish him from God and specifically identify him as human (“a man”, “the man”, “himself human”):

  • Acts 2:22, “Jesus the Nazarene, a man”
  • Acts 7:59, “‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!'”
  • Romans 5:15, “the one man Jesus Christ”
  • Romans 1:4, ” Jesus Christ our Lord”
  • Galatians 6:14, “our Lord Jesus Christ”
  • Ephesians 3:11, “Christ Jesus our Lord”
  • I Timothy 2:5, “Christ Jesus, himself human”
  • II Timothy 1:10, “our Savior Christ Jesus”
  • Titus 1:4, “God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior!”
  • II Peter 1:1, “our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ”
  • I John 4:14, “the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world”

How did the apostles refer to the Holy Spirit? As a miraculous gift from God; the Father’s divine power and presence, (occasionally personified), which guides, inspires and empowers — and could be bestowed by the apostles at their own discretion:

  • Acts 2:38, “‘you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'”
  • Acts 8:17, “Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit”
  • Acts 19:6, “when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them”
  • Acts 20:23, “‘the Holy Spirit warns me in town after town'”
  • Romans 15:13, “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”
  • I Thessalonians 4:8, “the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (cf. Acts 5:3-4)
  • Hebrews 2:4, “God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit”

Occasionally the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned together in the same context, but not in any way that suggests they are all distinct persons who together comprise the totality of God. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20, “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”), the Father works through the Son via the Holy Spirit (John 14:10, “the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds”), and all three were recognised as sources of apostolic authority (Luke 9:1, II Corinthians 12:11-12, I Thessalonians 4:8). It is therefore natural that they appear together in ways which reflects this relationship:

  • Luke 1:35, “‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God‘”
  • Matthew 28:19, “‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit‘”
  • Acts 20:28, “‘The flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son‘”
  • II Corinthians 13:13, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”

Throughout the NT we see Jesus’ followers expressing these concepts in the same way he did. They recognised the distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and appreciated that these distinctions formed the basis of their interrelationship. They refer to the Father and Son not only as two separate persons, but also as two separate beings (“God” and “man”). They describe Jesus as “Son of God”, not “God the Son” or some other proto-Trinitarian formula.

They treat the Holy Spirit as a divine power which is able to be transferred via the laying on of hands at the apostles’ discretion. Using language reminiscent of water, they describe it as something which can “fill up”, “baptise”, “fall on”, “come upon”, and be “given.” They refer to the Holy Spirit not as God, but as something belonging to God; an attribute and extension of His divine power and presence.

The apostle Paul describes himself as being “poured out” (Philippians 2:17), but he never describes himself as being poured out onto, or into, other people (cf. Acts 10:45, “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles“). When we contrast the number of times the Holy Spirit is described using functional language (including the “water” vocabulary) with the number of times it is personified, we find that the former is overwhelming and the latter is sparse. That is the opposite of what we would expect if the Holy Spirit was a real person.

Since the Holy Spirit is the medium through which God interacts with creation, His words and actions are often attributed to it, just as He is often credited with words spoken by His prophets. This is a literary device carried over from the OT:

  • Psalm 95:7, “For he is our God; we are the people of his pasture, the sheep he owns. Today, if only you would obey him!”
  • Hebrews 3:7, 15, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks!'”

The words are spoken by the psalmist under divine inspiration, so the author of Hebrews attributes them to the Holy Spirit.

In some cases it is more explicit:

  • Psalm 2:1, “Why do the nations rebel? Why are the countries devising plots that will fail?”
  • Acts 4:24-5, “When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, ‘Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things?””

Here the words spoken by David are attributed to God via divine inspiration. Note the progression: “God… said by the Holy Spirit through… David.” Thus, David, through the Holy Spirit, spoke the words of God. (Cf. Psalm 110:1, “Here is the LORD’s proclamation to my lord, ‘Sit down at my right hand'”; Mark 12:36, “David himself, by the Holy Spirit, said, ‘The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand””; Hebrews 1:13, “to which of the angels has [God] ever said, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?”).

A similar principle applies to Christ’s exercise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6-7, “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to do this”).

The natural way in which Scripture interchanges these references throughout the OT and NT is a demonstration of the first-century Christians’ adherence to OT Jewish religious teachings. There is no sudden ideological breach between the Testaments.

Jesus Christ: Son of God
Central to the relationship between the Father and Christ is Jesus’ role as the Son of God and Jewish Messiah. “Son of God” already possessed a generalized antecedent in the OT title “sons of God”, applied to angels (Job 38:7, “all the sons of God shouted for joy”) and mortal men (Psalm 82:6, “You are gods; all of you are sons of the Most High'”). Faithful believers are described as “sons of God” (Luke 20:36, Galatians 3:26) and Adam is described as the “son of God” since he was created by the Father as the world’s first man (Luke 3:38). But when Jesus is described in this way, we are left in no doubt that the meaning contains a unique significance (Luke 1:35, “‘Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God'”).

We know that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah would be the Son of God (Matthew 26:63, “‘I charge you under oath by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God‘”). Here the high priest equates “Christ” (“Messiah”) with “Son of God.” He saw no blasphemy in the idea that the Messiah would be the Son of God; in fact, the Jewish rulers never objected to this concept. What they objected to was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, since he did not match their preconceptions about the Messiah’s identity and mission.

The use of the term “Son of God” tells us that the person referred to in this way is not actually God Himself. “Of” denotes a distinction between “Son” and “God”, not an equivalence. Some Trinitarians try to circumvent this by arguing that “like begets like; human begets human; God begets God.” But the analogy fails on several grounds. If true, it would mean:

  • Jesus’ divine existence had a beginning in time (which Trinitarianism denies)
  • Jesus’ deity is not inherent, but derived from the Father (which Trinitarianism denies)
  • Jesus is a separate being from the Father (which Trinitarianism denies)

Most of the church fathers from the 2nd Century and onwards subscribed to this belief (known as “ontological subordinationism”), which formed the basis of what would later be known as Arianism.

Justin Martyr (ANF 1.170):

We assert that the Word of God was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation

Theophilus (ANF 2.103):

When God wished to make all that He determined on, He begot this Word. He uttered the First-Born of all creation.

Irenaeus (ANF 1.576):

As He was born of Mary in the last days, so did He also proceed from God as the First-Begotten of every creature.

Tertullian (Adversus Hermogenem, III):

Because God is in like manner a Father, and He is also a Judge; but He has not always been Father and Judge, merely on the ground of His having always been God. For He could not have been the Father previous to the Son, nor a Judge previous to sin. There was, however, a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son; the former of which was to constitute the Lord a Judge, and the latter a Father.

Hippolytus (ANF 5.150, 151):

This solitary and supreme Deity, by an exercise of reflection, brought forth the Logos… Him alone did [the Father] produce from existing things. For the Father Himself constituted existence, and the Being born from him was the cause of all things that are produced.

Origen (Contra Celsum, 8.14):

And I am therefore of the opinion that the will of the Father alone ought to be sufficient for the existence of that which He wishes to exist. For in the exercise of His will He employs no other way than that which is made known by the council of His will. And thus also the existence of the Son is generated by Him.

Examples could be multiplied. Suffice it to say that this later Christological development is well recognised by Trinitarian commentators. Catholic theologian Michael Schmaus (Dogma, Vol. 3, “God and His Christ”, Sheed and Ward, 1971, p. 216):

The Christian writers of the second and third centuries considered the Logos as the eternal reason of the Father, but as having at first no distinct existence from eternity; he [Jesus] received this only when the Father generated him from within his own being and sent him to create the world and rule over the world. The act of generation then was not considered as an eternal and necessary life-act but as one which had a beginning in time, which meant that the Son was not equal to the Father, but subordinate to Him. Irenaeus, Justin, Hippolytus and Methodius share this view called Subordinationism.

None of these early church fathers were Biblical Unitarians — but they weren’t Trinitarians either. In fact, even as late as the 4th Century AD, Christians were hopelessly confused about the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This situation was tackled by three prominent theologians: Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and his brother, Basil of Caesarea. Gregory of Nazianzus gives us some insight into the church of his day when he complains about his fellow Christians (NPNF 2-07):

But, they go on, what have you to say about the Holy Ghost? From whence are you bringing in upon us this strange God, of Whom Scripture is silent? And even they who keep within bounds as to the Son speak thus. And just as we find in the case of roads and rivers, that they split off from one another and join again, so it happens also in this case, through the superabundance of impiety, that people who differ in all other respects have here some points of agreement, so that you never can tell for certain either where they are of one mind, or where they are in conflict.

Now the subject of the Holy Spirit presents a special difficulty, not only because when these men have become weary in their disputations concerning the Son, they struggle with greater heat against the Spirit…

Jaroslav Pelikan (The Christian tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1, University Of Chicago Press, 1975, p.213) quotes Basil of Caesarea as saying:

Of the wise men among ourselves, some have conceived of him [the Holy Spirit] as an activity, some as a creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain which to call him… And therefore they neither worship him nor treat him with dishonor, but take up a neutral position.

Gregory of Nyssa was similarly offended, and wrote a letter to Bishop Ablabius of Nicaea complaining that he was accused of believing in three gods.

This snapshot of the church in the late 4th Century reveals that the Trinity was still not a fully established doctrine. Christians were still arguing about the identity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit; there was widespread agreement on various points, but not enough to maintain a united church.

Did the first-century Christians believe that Jesus was the God of Israel and the Holy Spirit was a co-equal divine person with him? No; these ideas emerged long after their time. Did the second-century Christians believe in a Trinity? No; 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. Perhaps the third-century Christians? No; Modalism, and ontological subordinationism were still common in that era. Maybe the fourth-century Christians? No; the identity of the Holy Spirit was not fully defined at the Council of Nicaea in AD325, while the First Council of Constantinople (AD381) left gaps in the definition of Christ’s dual nature that would not be covered until the Council of Chalcedon in AD451. Thus the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit was blurred for centuries.

Rob is vague about the point at which he believes the church embraced true Trinitarianism, but I receive a general sense that he perceives an implicit Trinitarian Christology within the NT which gave quickly rise to fully-fledged Trinitarianism. Precisely how long this took and what process was involved, Rob does not say. But the history of Trinitarianism — as admitted by its own theologians — reveals an excruciating mess of debate, controversy and confusion spanning several hundred years.

How can Trinitarianism be the doctrine once preached by the apostles, whom the Holy Spirit would “lead into all truth” (John 16:13)? It bears no resemblance to their preaching in the book of Acts, or the doctrinal statements in their epistles to fellow Christians. It is absent from the earliest extra-Biblical writings (e.g. the Didache) and the works of the first-century church fathers (e.g. Papias and Polycarp). It is contrary to reason, antagonistic to Scripture, and undermined by the record of history.

Jesus Christ: Sacrificial Lamb
Putting Jesus in His Place (hereafter PJIHP) is surprisingly light on atonement theology. Genesis 3:14-21 is universally regarded as the bedrock of Christian soteriology, but it’s not even mentioned. Even Christ’s atoning work is almost entirely restricted to a handful of references between pages 209-213. The argument presented throughout this section (entitled “The Way, the Truth, and the Life”) strongly emphasises Jesus’ ability to forgive sins (“Jesus’ contribution to our salvation is not limited solely to his death and resurrection, as great as those redemptive acts are”, p.210), though no attempt is made to address Christ’s words to his disciples in John 20:23 (“‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained”‘).

But if our atonement is primarily based upon the fact that Jesus is God and has the power to forgive sins, is there any need for an atoning death at all?

By contrast, the NT’s emphasis is on OT typology, with its theme of a perfect, sinless blood sacrifice. This principle is established in Genesis 3 (coats of skins for Adam and Eve), reaffirmed in Exodus 12 (institution of the Passover) and repeatedly emphasised throughout the Law of Moses, with its complex system of typological offerings. As we have seen in previous weeks, the atonement consists of three main points:

  1. Sin deserves death
  2. Sacrifice offers a covering for sin
  3. Only God can provide a sin-covering sacrifice; a sacrifice which is “other than God”

The sacrifice itself demands two essential qualities: mortality and moral perfection. Under the Law of Moses, moral perfection was symbolised by physical perfection; a sacrificial offering had to be healthy and flawless (Deuteronomy 15:21). Having lived an obedient, sinless life, Jesus fulfilled this typology as the perfect “Lamb of God” without any moral blemish, and was sacrificed for the sins of humanity (John 1:29, I Peter 1:19).

A common evangelical objection to the Biblical Unitarian atonement is that Jesus could not have been morally sinless unless he was God, because all humans are considered sinners from the moment of their birth as a result of “original sin” (or “total depravity”, as the Calvinists call it). But Biblical Unitarians do not believe in “original sin” or “total depravity.” We believe that human nature is capable of sin and prone to sin, but humans are not regarded as sinners until they sin. Thus Jesus’ human nature did not preclude the potential for sinlessness.

This presents yet another weakness for Trinitarianism: the question of Jesus’ nature. As an evangelical, Rob surely believes in some form of “original sin”; but how does he view it in relation to Jesus? If Rob’s Jesus does not have original sin, how can he be truly human and “made like his brothers in every way”? If he does have it, how can he be sinless? Rev. Donald Macleod wrestles with this problem (Did Christ have a fallen human nature?) and ultimately concludes that Jesus’ nature was not fallen, which leaves him with a Christ who is perilously close to Docetism. (He is contradicted by Karl Barth, J. B. Torrance, Edward Irving and others, who believed that Jesus “assumed ‘fallen humanity'”; Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: the Incarnation Reconsidered, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.91).

Rob believes Jesus could be tempted, yet was incapable of sin (PJIHP, p.122). But there can be no temptation without the possibility of sin. To deny that Jesus could sin is to deny that he could be tempted, so the statement “Jesus could be tempted but was not capable of sin” is both self-refuting and utterly meaningless. If Jesus cannot be tempted, then Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15 are both false. If Jesus was incapable of sin, then Hebrews 2:17 and Galatians 4:4 are both false.

This is one of many theological contradictions Rob lists in his book. Since by his own admission he cannot resolve them, he simply labels them “paradoxes” and decides that this legitimises the contradiction. But it does not; it merely re-states the problem without addressing the cause. (Ironically, Rob’s “paradoxes” would disappear completely if he embraced Biblical Unitarianism).

The traditional method of addressing these Christological contradictions is to argue by reference to the hypostatic union, claiming that Jesus acts and responds “from his human nature” or “from his divine nature” depending on the context. Jesus’ physical weaknesses and limitations are thus attributed to his human nature, while his supernatural capacity is attributed to his divine nature. Rob seems to endorse this approach as an effective way to deal with the logical conflict of the hypostatic union. But it solves nothing.

Dividing the Trinitarian Jesus’ two natures in this way essentially treats them as two separate persons, thereby lapsing in to the heresy of Nestorianism (see Justin Cloute, Reformed Christology: Modern Nestorianism?, 2000). Reformed Christians have been criticised by Lutheran and Orthodox theologians for their neo-Nestorian Christology, while the Reformed respond with accusations of Monophysitism. Can Biblical Unitarians be legitimately criticised for rejecting Trinitarianism when even Trinitarians cannot agree on their own Christology?

The Message of Reconciliation
Trinitarians frequently overlook the differences between the post-resurrection Jesus and the pre-crucifixion Jesus. Biblical Unitarians take these differences very seriously. The man who rose from the dead is the same man who died on the cross, but free from the weaknesses and limitations of mortal humanity. He is not a “mere man”; he is the immortal, perfected, ultimate man. He is the Son of God, raised above all creation, imbued with the Holy Spirit beyond measure, whose power is almost limitless and whose authority is second only to God’s. Yet we can relate to him because we know he can relate to us, for he shares our humanity, having resisted human temptation and experienced human suffering during his mortal life.

The Bible describes Jesus’ humanity in a way that leaves no room for deity and totally precludes the “God-man” hypothesis. Born as a mortal man and made like his brethren in every way (Hebrews 2:17), he was subject to the Law of Moses (Galatians 4:4) and capable of sin (Luke 4:1; cf. James 1:13-14). His sinless life was made possible by his superior mental and intellectual qualities (Luke 2:46-47), his close relationship with the Father (John 1:18, 10:30, 38), and the angelic assistance he received whenever necessary (Matthew 4:11; Luke 22:43).

We know that he struggled with the awful burden of his task (Matthew 26:39-42; Luke 22:42) and suffered when he was tempted (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 4:15), but completely resisted sin. As a mortal man, he required release from the pains of death (Acts 2:24) and recognised this need through his prayers and supplications to God, who was able to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7). Submitting obediently to his sacrificial death on the cross (Philippians 2:8; Colossians 1:20) he was raised to life by the Father (Galatians 1:1) and now sits at His right hand in an exalted, glorified form (Mark 16:19; Acts 5:31; Philippians 3:21), exercising divine power, authority and judgement while he awaits his Second Advent (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 21:27; John 5:27; Acts 1:11; Ephesians 1:20-22).

Biblical Unitarianism’s high Christology is based on a high anthropology, recognising humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. Adam and Eve were the only creatures created made in the image and likeness of God, and we are the only creatures capable of reflecting Him. The first Adam sinned, fell, and lost his relationship with God. The second Adam (Jesus Christ) obeyed and was exalted, offering a way to restore the relationship between God and humanity. It is that relationship which God now invites us to share through the work of His Son.

Romans 5:11, “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.”

88 Responses to “The Great Trinity Debate, Part 5: Dave Burke on Father, Son & Holy Spirit”

  1. while I don’t agree with your position, yet it amused me when I read

    “For Biblical Unitarians, the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit begins with the Father as head of a divine hierarchy:”

    which, however they try to explain it away, is exactly the complementarian position on the Trinity and their rationale for the permanent subordination of women.

    They say that just as the Son is permanently subordinated to the Father (or in other words the “Father is Supreme”), in just the same way woman is always subordinated to man.

    funny isn’t it.

  2. Diana,

    What I find funny is that the words Father and Son don’t seem to mean that for a Trinitarian. Rob writes that Dave believes Jesus is a mere human being, but Dave states he is the Son of God (conceived in Mary). “This is My Son today I have begotten you” would normally be a description of the beginning of a Father and Son relationship, but Trinitarian ignore that as the Son existed before being begotten.
    Sorry, for me it does not make sense.
    By the way, the subordination of women was a consequence of Eden, a curse to be removed. But that’s a different subject.

  3. By reading the scriptures on a ‘broad brush’ basis most people form an opinion of an Hieratchy in the Heavenly realm.
    It was good so see this confirmed given a more ‘scholarly approach”.

    It seems that even in his ‘exalted state’ Christ is still not omniscient nor omnipotent.
    (i)”the Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him” and
    (ii)Corinthians 15v24 which states that in the end even the Son will be put under God the Father

    It seems that the Apostles creed got it right after all ” I believe in God THE FATHER ALMIGHTY.”

    Every Blessing

  4. Marke –

    “This is My Son today I have begotten you” would normally be a description of the beginning of a Father and Son relationship, but Trinitarian ignore that as the Son existed before being begotten.

    But these words were stated at Christ’s baptism. Is that when the relationship started? Or was it a confirmation of what was already true?

  5. ScottL,
    You might want to check your statement. What was said at the baptism (and on the mount of transfiguration) is to combine the Messiah (Christ) and the suffering servant.

  6. Marke –

    Yes, most likely a combination of both Ps 2:7 and Is 42:1.

    You stated it would ‘normally be a description of the beginning of a Father and Son relationship.’ I just wanted to know if the relationship began at Christ’s baptism (or Mount of Transfiguration) or sometime before.

  7. Well, I am absolutely sold. I am not a Christadelphian–but I am going to be one as soon as they will take me.

    Funny enough, I have been desperately seeking Christianity for years but finding the Trinity (and several other similar doctrines) too silly to swallow. It makes no sense. And it has been an absolute deal breaker for me.

    But I have never given up and now I have found my answers.

    I had never even heard of Christadelphians until this debate.

    And Dave Burke–THANK YOU! These writings have been absolutely stunning in logic and brevity of thought. I applaud your presentation.

    If Mr. Bowman does not renounce his views on the Trinity at the end of this debate, his integrity (even his intellect) will be questionable. He will have exposed himself as just another dogmatic egomaniac in pursuit of self aggrandizement and glory and uninterested in God or truth.

  8. Dave,
    Thanks for your references to the original biblical “ontological subordinationist” christology as universally adhered to by the early Christians, though it has nothing to do with “like begets like.” God is not a species.

  9. Hey AD,

    Welcome to the Light of Truth!

    I know what it’s like to desparately seek the Truth. And when it’s found, it reveals just how silly and senseless mainstream Christianitys’ doctrines are. Keep seeking, you’ll see.

    Bless God!

  10. AD,

    Your comments chrystalise the value of this debate. I’m sure Dave at times would feel frustrated by the effort and the energy that has gone into this debate with so many responses revealing so many readers to be “willingly ignorant” of the simple truth of God’s words. Your response is the minority and is what I’ve been watching and waiting for more than any of the comments in, or responses to the debate thus far. This is an answer to prayer, that the truth of God’s word is still powerful today, and that there are still people willing to open the ears and hear. May the Lord continue the work he has begun with you and perform it to the day of our Lord.
    God Bless AD

    Dave keep up the good work, the Lord will provide the increase

  11. Just a word of thanks to RB and DB for the time and effort spent on setting forth both viewpoints. The different approaches to the subject remind me of the theological challenges that were directed at Christ, who corrected the leaden footed dogmatism of his day in such a way that his opponents were forced to acknowledge his authority and “durst ask him no more questions”. Appeal to dogma and convoluted arguments will always be exposed by the purity of the truth.

    It has become clear that Trinitarians have argued for centuries amongst themselves and that understanding (?) of the “Godhead” was only reached after much compromise, repression and intellectual dishonesty. This is not the way of simple truth.

    It has also become clear that the God of the OT is the same God as that of the NT. This is important as an outreach to the Jewish nation – a reminder that a minority of Christians still believe in a monotheistic God. The God of the Jews is also the God of the Gentiles and he will gather all together as one in his Son, the Messiah – Jesus Christ.

    It has become clear that the humanity of Christ (and here we do not mean someone play acting at being human) is the only way to make sense of the atonement. The possibility of temptation, sin and failure had to be real as anything else is a sham and a lie. Any victory over sin by a divine being (in whatever “form”) is hollow. I want a victory that I can identify with.

    It has become clear that in the same manner that light shines in darkness (John 1:5) truth is still able to penetrate obfuscation but unfortunately “the darkness comprehended not” and I doubt that many will have the intellectual honesty and moral courage to admit the error of their cherished dogma’s.

    It has become clear that the purity of the truth is still able to reach those who are earnestly searching – “But as many as received him, to them he gave power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on his…

  12. Dear all ran out of characters (I was doing a word count) this is how the end of the previous mail reads PW

    It has become clear that the purity of the truth is still able to reach those who are earnestly searching – “But as many as received him, to them he gave power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12).

    Thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who through the power of his Spirit is still able to beget sons and daughters.

    Keep up the good work Dave!

    Paul W.

  13. Further to Paul W’s post, we need to thank God that this truth can be openly debated, and wonder just how many faithful people have been added to the “souls under the altar” (Rev 6:9) by the adherents who over the centuries, not only used ‘compromise, repression and intellectual dishonesty’ but murder and martyrdom to keep this travesty against the true glory of the Lord Jesus Christ locked into mainstream christianity’s “essential doctrine”.

  14. This truly has been a great debate. But in the end, what sums it up for me is Acts 10, particularly verse 47. It is God’s spirit that identifies us as brothers and sisters in the eternal kingdom, not any creed nor judgment by man.

  15. I love all of the people who state how much doctrine doesn’t matter and then go on to dogmatically ascribe to their respective theologies. Just say it does matter. Otherwise, people can just worship their big toe and call it by the magic words, “Jesus,” since it doesn’t really matter who He is. Let’s have some consistency in our heresy.

  16. I have also noticed that Scot McKnight has been running some blog articles related to the Trinity, where he is posting thoughts from Ron Highfield’s book, Great Is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God. You can see all 6 posts here, and there is more to come.



    You wrote:

    “Rob believes Jesus could be tempted, yet was incapable of sin (PJIHP, p.122). But there can be no temptation without the possibility of sin. To deny that Jesus could sin is to deny that he could be tempted, so the statement ‘Jesus could be tempted but was not capable of sin’ is both self-refuting and utterly meaningless…. This is one of many theological contradictions Rob lists in his book. Since by his own admission he cannot resolve them, he simply labels them ‘paradoxes’ and decides that this legitimises the contradiction. But it does not; it merely re-states the problem without addressing the cause.”

    I am not the only person in this debate who has a theological “problem” regarding Christ’s temptations. You and I both agree (I think) that the constitution of Christ’s humanity was identical to ours. We also agree that he experienced the full range of human temptations (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-13; Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15). Yet, as we both agree, Jesus never sinned; unlike all other human beings (Rom. 3:23), he was perfectly holy and righteous (Matt. 27:3, 19; Mark 7:37; Luke 23:41, 47; John 8:27, 46; Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 1:9; 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:21-22; 3:18; 1 John 2:1, 20; 3:5). How shall we account for this fact? Although you object to my view that Jesus could not sin because he was the divine Son incarnate, your own explanation (in your third-week post) was quite vague:

    “He grew up just like any other human child (Luke 2:52), was tempted like any normal man (Matthew 4:1-11) yet resisted sin (Hebrews 4:15) through the strength of his superior will (Matthew 16:23) and his close association with the Father, upon whom he depends for his existence (John 6:57), just as we do.”

    I have no idea what you mean by “the strength of his superior will,” and Matthew 16:23 does not shed any light on this statement, at least that I can see. I actually agree that Christ’s will is the key, but I have an explanation for why his will was perfectly resistant to sin, which I will defend below. First, though, let me address a couple of common explanations that don’t satisfy me.

    It is popular among both Trinitarians and Unitarians to relate the sinlessness of Christ in some way to his virginal conception. One may see some indication of a correlation or association between these two truths in Luke 1:35, where Gabriel states that the child of Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit will be “the holy one born.” However, Gabriel does not say that the child will be holy because of the virginal conception. Furthermore, “holy” in this context may mean sacred, separated, or consecrated; it might not connote moral perfection per se. By the way, the popular notion that the “sin nature” was passed down from the biological father rather than the mother has absolutely no basis in Scripture. Christ’s conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb may have been a sign of his holiness, or at most a necessary condition of his sinlessness (though Scripture does not even say this), but we have no reason to think it was a sufficient condition of his sinlessness. Adam had no biological father or mother, was born innocent, and had everything he needed (including the only woman on the planet!), and still he sinned.

    Another popular explanation of the sinlessness of Christ (typically among non-Trinitarians, though today increasingly in some Trinitarian circles) is that he overcame sin by depending entirely, as any human might, on the spiritual power of the Holy Spirit. At best, this is a theological deduction, not a biblical teaching. None of the many NT texts referring to Christ’s sinlessness (cited above) offers such an explanation. The temptation narratives in the Synoptics report that the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1), and Luke states that Jesus went into the wilderness “full of the Spirit” and returned from the wilderness “filled with the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:1, 14). However, these statements neither state nor imply that Christ’s resistance to the temptations depended on the Spirit. Other human beings since Christ have been filled with the Spirit, but they were not sinless. One might argue that Jesus, unlike other people, was sinless because he had the Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34), but in context John is not talking about the Son’s sinlessness and it is not clear that the statement has any bearing on that question. Again, being filled with the Spirit may have been a necessary condition of Christ’s sinless life, but it does not seem to be a sufficient condition or explanation.

    This leaves the classically orthodox Trinitarian explanation: Jesus, as the divine Son of God, in some sense simply could not sin. The usual objection to this explanation is that if Jesus could not sin, he could not be tempted. There is no biblical justification for this objection; it is a rationalistic assumption that has no biblical basis and is not even true to human experience. It confuses capability with moral capacity. Jesus had the capability, physically speaking, of committing sins (e.g., he had a mouth and knew enough to lie; he had hands and was physically capable of stealing), but evidently he did not have the moral capacity to commit sin. The faulty assumption is that for a person to be tempted to do something, it must remain open and uncertain as to whether he will do it. Every human being experiences temptations to do some things that he or she simply cannot do, whether by training or temperament or for whatever reason. Most men have the physical wherewithal to molest children, for example, but even if they notice a temptingly attractive young girl are morally incapable of committing such an act. Nearly all people have such lines across which they simply will not and could not go. The difference between us and Christ is that for him that line was any and all sin. Our moral lines are relative and changeable; his was absolute and unchanging. Although Jesus experienced human temptations, there is never any doubt in the Gospels that he will resist them all. It was physically possible for him to sin, but it was morally certain that he would not sin.

    I realize how widespread and deeply ingrained is the belief—the assumption—that in order to be tempted one must have a “live possibility” of giving into the temptation. But consider what this would mean in the case of Christ, if he were only a man (even a virgin-born man). It would mean that throughout his thirty-plus years as a mortal on earth there would always have been a “live possibility” that he might have sinned. It would always have been possible that God’s virgin-born son, the hope of humanity, might have blown it. The fate of the human race would have rested on a man who “really” could have sinned. Jesus, if he knew just this much, would have known that at any moment he might slip and take a lustful glance or have a covetous thought, and so he would have had no way to know that he was going to make it to the end of his life without sinning. If it was necessary for Jesus to have the real possibility (in the sense you mean) of sinning for the temptation to be real, then by that same reasoning it would be necessary for Jesus to have no knowledge of whether he was going to succeed in living an entirely sinless life. For suppose he knew (say, by the Father telling him) that he would definitely never sin. Then he would not consider it a real possibility that he might give into temptation, negating your own premise of the necessary precondition for genuine temptation. Yet the Gospels report Jesus confidently and repeatedly predicting that he would rise from the grave on the third day (Matt. 12:40; 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; John 2:19-21). Such a prediction presupposed that Jesus would successfully live a perfectly sinless life in order to be vindicated in the resurrection. Thus, Jesus knew he would never sin. It was a certainty in his mind. There was no real possibility that he would sin, as far as he was concerned. Here again, it seems to me that the view that Jesus was just a man and could really have sinned, but (whew!) did not, has serious if not insuperable problems.

    We have confirmation that Jesus could not sin, and that he knew he could not sin, in a statement that Jesus himself made. When Jewish critics accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus answered them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son cannot do anything of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19). Notice that Jesus does not say, “the Son should not do anything of himself” or even “the Son does not do anything of himself,” but rather, “the Son cannot [ou dunatai] do anything of himself.” If he cannot do anything of himself, then he cannot sin. Thus, Jesus’ statement in John 5:19 entails that he considered it impossible for him to sin.

    The explanation that Jesus did not sin because as the divine Son incarnate he was impeccable (unable to sin) is also a theological inference, but it has two advantages over the other two explanations already considered. First, this explanation provides a sufficient causal explanation for Jesus’ sinlessness, whereas the other two do not. It accounts for why Christ’s will, his volitional capacity, perfectly and uniformly refused to sin. Second, the evidence detailed above shows that Jesus not only did not sin but could not sin. This conclusion is consistent with the divine Son explanation of Jesus’ sinlessness but not with the other explanations (his virgin birth or his dependence on the Spirit). Furthermore, in John 5:19 Jesus implicitly explains why he could not do anything of himself: he is the Son. As the Son, he is like his Father, and does only what his Father does. In short, John 5:19 suggests that Jesus could not sin because of who he was. Thus, we have some good reasons to conclude that the best explanation for Jesus’ sinlessness is that, as the divine Son incarnate, he could not sin.

    Of course, for the explanation that Jesus was impeccable because he was the divine Son incarnate to hold up, we must show that he was the divine Son incarnate. Actually, that is the easy part of this argument, since the evidence is massive (as shown in Putting Jesus in His Place and defended in this debate).

    A common anti-Trinitarian criticism to this conclusion is that if Jesus is God incarnate, granted he could not sin (because God cannot sin), he also could not be tempted, because James says:

    “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13).

    The anti-Trinitarian argument, superficially, looks unassailable:

    P1. God cannot be tempted.
    P2. Christ was tempted.
    C. Therefore, Christ was not God.

    The problem here is context. If we take a superficial approach to the texts we will find a verbal contradiction between the two premises and the claim that Christ was God. However, verbal contradictions are often not genuine contradictions. Here is an easy and obviously relevant example:

    “…God tempted [LXX, epeirazen] Abraham” (Gen. 22:1).
    “God…does not tempt [peirazei] anyone” (James 1:13).

    This is the sort of “contradiction” that skeptics compile to show that the Bible is riddled with error, but the contradiction is merely verbal, not substantial or factual. The point that James is making is that God does not create circumstances that test people for the purpose of getting them to sin. (The word epeirazen can be translated “test” or “tempt.”) It is never God’s intention to elicit sin from people. When God tested Abraham, it was not for the purpose of getting Abraham to sin, but for the purpose of eliciting from him a greater degree of faith.

    Let’s look more closely now at what James is saying. Discussions of this question typically quote verse 13 by itself, but I think we should consider a bit more context:

    “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:13-15 NASB).

    Notice that James describes exactly what he means by being “tempted” in this context: he means being carried away and enticed by his own lust. The Greek word epithumia can have a neutral or good sense (desire, longing, e.g., Luke 22:15; Phil. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:17) but more commonly in the NT has a pejorative meaning of wrongful or forbidden desire, lust, covetous desire (Mark 4:19; John 8:44; Rom. 1:24; 6:12; 7:7, 8; Rom. 13:14; Gal. 5:16, 24; Eph. 2:3; Phil. 4:22; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:5; 1 Tim. 6:9; 2 Tim. 2:22; 3:6; 4:3; Titus 2:12; 3:3; 1 Peter 1:14; 2:11; 4:2, 3; 2 Peter 1:4; 2:10, 18; 3:3; 1 John 2:16, 17; Jude 16, 18; Rev. 18:14). This pejorative sense clearly fits the context in James 1:14-15. Thus, James 1:13 means that God cannot be tempted in the sense that God cannot be carried away and enticed by lust.

    Now, when the Bible says that Jesus was tempted, it means that he experienced the same kinds of testing, trying situations that other humans do that often result in us committing sin. It does not mean that Jesus was ever carried away or enticed by his own lust. Thus, in the sense of being “tempted” that James is talking about in James 1:13-15, Jesus was never “tempted.” So the verbal contradiction between saying that Jesus is God and so could not be tempted and saying that Jesus was tempted is merely a verbal contradiction due to the different connotation of “tempted” in these two statements. It is not a substantive contradiction.

    That particular objection set aside, the evidence I have presented here shows that Jesus was both sinless (he never sinned) and impeccable (he could not sin), and that the best, if not the only, sufficient explanation for his impeccability is that he was the divine Son incarnate. Certainly, impeccability fits nicely in a Trinitarian Christology, while it is almost always rejected in non-Trinitarian Christologies. We have here, then, another evidence for the eternal deity of Christ.



    You wrote:

    “This week I hope Rob will show Biblical evidence for the essential relationship formulae of Trinitarianism:
    1. Father = ‘God’, Son = ‘God’ and Holy Spirit = ‘God’
    2. ‘God’ = Father + Son + Holy Spirit
    In Week 1 we saw that proving the first does not automatically prove the second, for even if we agree that The Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, it does not necessarily follow that God = the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Both formulae (F+S+HS=G and G=F+S+HS) must be proved independent of each other. Additionally, Rob must show that all three are individual divine persons comprising a single divine being.”

    I have already responded to this argument of yours. Your demand that I must prove these two statements “independent of each other” is an absurd demand calculated to place an unreasonable burden on me that you know cannot be met.

    As you know, Dave, if statement #1 is true, and if there is only one God (one single eternal divine being), then statement #2 follows. However, you and I already agree that there is only one eternal divine being. Therefore, I do not need to argue for this premise of the doctrine of the Trinity.

    What you are really trying to do here is to claim that unless I can show some Bible verses in which the word “God” specifically refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together, my case for the doctrine of the Trinity fails. But this is not correct. I already agree that no biblical text expressly or specifically uses the term “God” to denote all three persons. In some texts the term might refer to the God whom we know (from other texts) is triune, but there is no biblical text that actually says “God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But does this mean the Trinity cannot be defended biblically? No. All I need to show from Scripture to prove that the Trinity is true is that the following propositions are all taught in the Bible:

    1. There is one God (one eternal divine being).
    2. The Father is God.
    3. The Son is God.
    4. The Holy Spirit is God.
    5. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct from one another.

    If the above five propositions are true, then the doctrine of the Trinity is true. You affirm the first two propositions already, so I do not need to defend them in this debate. I have presented a lot of evidence in support of the third proposition. You also agree that the Father and the Son are personally distinct from one another. If the Holy Spirit is a divine person distinct from the Father and the Son, this will establish the fourth and fifth propositions as well. Thus, in reality I only need to defend two claims in order to establish the doctrine of the Trinity over your Unitarian theology: that the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is a divine person distinct from the Father and the Son. Of course, I have defended these two claims with substantial biblical evidence. I will not let you get away with trying to distract people from that evidence with the red herring that unless I can find a verse that spells out “God = Father + Son + Holy Spirit” the Trinity somehow remains unsubstantiated.



    You wrote:

    “Galatians 4:4 reinforces this picture, telling us that Jesus was ‘made of a woman.’ The Greek word for ‘made’ here is ginomai as in John 1:3. Both occurrences refer to something which was brought into existence. Thus, Jesus’ existence has a commencement in time.

    I have it on good authority that the word ginomai need not mean that something was “brought into existence.” Commenting on John 1:10, that authority wrote:

    “The Greek for ‘created’ here is ginomai, meaning anything from ‘came into existence’ to ‘appeared’ or ‘became’ (in the sense of one thing becoming another).”

    That authority, of course, is Dave Burke.

    Context is king, and in John 1:10 as well as John 1:3 the meaning of “came into existence” is clearly correct, as I explained in my comment in which I responded to your exegesis of John 1:10. The tail of the theological agenda is clearly wagging the dog of biblical interpretation when you argue that ginomai means the same thing in Galatians 4:4 as it does in John 1:3 but does not have that same meaning in the contextually and conceptually close statement in John 1:10.

    In Galatians 4:4, the exact same form of ginomai occurs twice, the aorist participle genomenon: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, becoming of a woman, becoming under the Law” (my translation). The meaning of the second occurrence of genomenon is not that the Son came into existence under the Law, but that he “became under the Law,” that is, as we might put it, he became a Jew (in the religious sense). Paul is the only biblical author who uses the expression “under the Law” (hupo nomon), and it always means to be subject to the jurisdiction or spiritual authority of the Mosaic covenant, the Jewish Torah (Rom. 6:14, 15; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 3:23; 4:4, 5, 21; 5:18). In only one other text does Paul use this phrase with the verb ginomai:

    “To the Jews I became [egenomēn, aorist middle indicative of ginomai] as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law” (1 Cor. 9:20).

    When Paul says that he “became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews,” he does not mean that he came into existence as a Jew in order to win Jews! Of course, Paul was born Jewish, but after his conversion to Christ, he would “become as a Jew” in the sense of living like Jews (eating the same foods, etc.) in order to evangelize them. He is making the same point when he says that he “became…as under the Law”; he lived as though he were subject to the Torah even though he was now subject to the new covenant in Christ.

    Similarly, in Galatians 4:4-5 Paul says that God’s Son “became under the Law so that he might redeem those who were under the Law.” The wording and the thought are very similar to 1 Corinthians 9:20. Just as Paul did not need to live according to the Torah but chose to “become as under the Law” so that he might win those who were under the Law, God’s Son “became under the Law so that he might redeem those who were under the Law.” The statement actually presupposes that God’s Son already existed and then became subject to the Law in order to redeem those who were living under the Law.

    In this light, Paul’s parallel statement in the same verse about the Son being born of a woman fits the context in which Paul presupposes that the Son existed before his birth. What Paul says is that “God sent his Son, becoming of a woman, becoming under the Law.” We can now see that what this means is that God sent his Son, and the circumstances of this sending was that his Son came to be born of a woman and came to be under the covenant of the Torah.

    Obviously, if Jesus was nothing more than a human being (even the greatest of all human beings), it would be perfectly normal and ordinary for him to be “born of a woman.” Every human being who has ever lived other than the original pair Adam and Eve has been “born of a woman.” Paul’s use of this otherwise oddly redundant expression is an affirmation that God’s heavenly Son deigned to enter our world through the humble means of being born of a woman in order to redeem us. That this is Paul’s meaning is clear when we observe how several elements of the text come together:

    (1) the statement that “God sent forth his Son”
    (2) the description of this Son as “born of a woman”
    (3) the contrast between Jesus as God’s (apparently natural) “Son” and believers as those who have received “adoption as sons”
    (4) the parallel statement that “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son”

    What really clinches the conclusion that the Son is being spoken of as a preexistent person is the fourth element—the parallel statement in verse 6 that “God sent forth the Spirit of His Son.” The implication is clear: first God sent his Son from Heaven to redeem his people, and then he sent the Spirit of his Son from Heaven to dwell within them.



    You claim that the Holy Spirit cannot be a person because he “could be bestowed by the apostles at their own discretion.” However, none of the three texts that you cited to support this claim do so. In Acts 2:38, Peter states that God will give “the gift of the Holy Spirit” to whoever repents and is baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. In Acts 8:17 and 19:6, people who believed in Christ received the Holy Spirit when apostles laid hands on them, but this does not mean that the Holy Spirit was bestowed “at their own discretion.” It simply means that God willed that the Holy Spirit would come in power on those believers when the apostles laid hands on them. But the Holy Spirit was never at their discretion. For example, the Holy Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius before Peter had a chance to lay hands on them, baptize them, or even finish his sermon (Acts 10:44-48)!

    In your fourth-round post on the Holy Spirit, you denied that the Holy Spirit “is in some way separate from God or independent of Him.” You asserted that “although the Holy Spirit is not a person itself, it operates as God-in-action.” I do not see how the Holy Spirit can be something that the apostles could bestow “at their own discretion” and not in some sense be something separate from or independent of God. I do not see how the apostles could bestow “God in action” at their own discretion.



    Although our debate has focused on the biblical evidence for and against our respective positions, you devoted some of your fifth-round post to the evidence from church history. You gave over a thousand words to argue that the early church in the postbiblical era was not Trinitarian. Buried in those thousand-plus words were less than ten words acknowledging, “None of these early church fathers were Biblical Unitarians”—only to add “but they weren’t Trinitarians either.”

    For some reason—you are hardly alone in this regard, Dave—anti-Trinitarians think it is bad news for the doctrine of the Trinity if second-century and third-century church fathers were not consistently Trinitarian in their theology, but that it is not bad news for them if their particular non-Trinitarian brand of theology is completely missing from those centuries.

    It is true that many of the church fathers in the second and third centuries held to some form of ontological subordinationism. However, a fair-minded reading of these church fathers shows that this was a deviation within a generally trinitarian theology. They were not Arians, and by that I mean that their theology was distinctively different from Arianism and far closer to Trinitarianism.

    Let’s establish a context within which to consider this matter. You and I agree that the New Testament writings are inspired Scripture, unerring in their revelation of truth. We also agree that the writings of any other Christian writers will be errant at least in principle and to varying degrees.

    Given these assumptions, my expectation would be that after the end of the apostolic era, the writings of Christians from the very end of the first century and later would be theologically fallible. In fact, since second-century Christians were often working from only part of the NT canon (since it took some time for all 27 books to circulate everywhere, among other factors) and did not have the benefit of centuries of study, reflection, discussion, and debate, we would reasonably expect and predict that their writings would be quite errant in some ways.

    At the same time, I would expect some continuity with the theology of the NT writings, since second-century Christians would have been members of Christian churches that could trace their founding back to apostles and had members who had known one or more of the apostles personally. These connections would not ensure complete conformity to apostolic doctrine, but they would tend to maintain at least some doctrinal continuity with the apostles in those churches that accepted the NT writings to which they had access. (Churches that rejected Paul’s epistles, on the other hand, or that had their own alternative “gospels,” would not maintain as much continuity with the apostles.) Again, the extent of this continuity would probably vary from one church to another or from one Christian writer to another.

    When we turn to the postapostolic Christian writings, then, with these expectations in mind, what do we find? We find some variations in the theological views among the “catholic” writers of the period (Clement, Ignatius, Papias, Aristides, Polycarp, Justin, et. al.), but in general what we find are theologies that might fairly be described as defective or immature forms of Trinitarianism. None of them is anything close to a Unitarian. None of them is Arian, though as you correctly state some of them have tendencies in their theology that one could describe as leaning that direction.

    If we look at writings outside the “catholic” tradition—writings of people who professed to follow Christ but generally rejected the NT writings in favor of their own apocryphal gospels, acts, and epistles—we also do not find any Unitarianism. The major alternative theologies that emerged in the second century were in that nebulous family of beliefs that scholars usually call Gnostic. You would find them totally alien to your Unitarian form of Christianity. Around the end of the second century forms of Monarchianism (such as modalism or Patripassianism) emerged; those are obviously theologically abhorrent to Unitarianism. You might at first suppose that the Ebionites, who viewed Jesus as a human Messiah, would be candidates for early Unitarians; but they rejected most or all of the NT (particularly Paul), required adherence to the Mosaic Law, and denied Jesus’ virgin birth.

    So here’s the problem you face. If Trinitarian theology is correct, what we find in the second century among believers in the NT writings is exactly what we should find: proto-trinitarian theologies that are generally closer to Trinitarianism than anything else, but from a Trinitarian perspective some of them are not quite right and in some cases they are seriously defective. On the other hand, if Unitarian theology is correct, what we find in the second century is precisely what we should not find: an utter lack of anything remotely akin to Unitarianism contrasted with a wealth of writings that reflect something embarrassingly close to Trinitarianism.

    Here are some examples of statements from postapostolic writers (ca. 95-160) that illustrate the point that Christian writers who accepted the writings of the apostles were generally Trinitarian in their theology. Some of these statements illustrate those writers’ acceptance of Christ as uncreated deity; other statements illustrate their generally Trinitarian theological perspective. Again, you’ll notice some defects in some of these statements judged by a later, classical Trinitarian standard, but such defects are exactly what one would expect at this immature stage of theological development.

    Clement of Rome—1 Clement (ca. 95)

    “Have we not one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace that was shed upon us?” (46:6).
    “For as God liveth, and the Lord Jesus Christ liveth, and the Holy Spirit, who are the faith and the hope of the elect…” (58:2).

    Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 105-115)

    (Note: Ignatius’s authentic writings have come down to us in different versions. I quote from the least explicitly Trinitarian version, which most scholars accept as genuine.)

    “Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.” To Polycarp 3.
    “Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.” To the Magnesians 13.1, 2.

    Martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. 156)

    “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast fore-ordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen” (14.1-3).
    We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy elect…. I have collected these things, when they had almost faded away through the lapse of time, that the Lord Jesus Christ may also gather me along with His elect into His heavenly kingdom, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (22.1, 4)

    Justin Martyr (150-160)

    “And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. But both Him, and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught.” First Apology 6.
    In chapters 37-39 of First Apology Justin presents an argument from prophetic speech spoken by the Father, Christ, and the Spirit respectively: “And that this too may be clear to you, there were spoken from the person of the Father through Isaiah the prophet, the following words…. And again elsewhere, when the same prophet speaks in like manner from the person of the Father….” (37) “And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks from the person of Christ, the utterances are of this sort….” (38) “And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks as predicting things that are to come to pass, He speaks in this way….” (39) These chapters nicely illustrate the Trinitarian structure of Justin’s thought, despite its defects.

    I could continue further, discussing Theophilus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, and others, but the results would be similar. Theological discussion and debate continued, one century after another, but that is exactly what we would expect. What we would not expect, if Unitarianism were true, is for it not to have been even a participant in the discussions. The church fathers were not shy about denouncing as heresies those doctrines that departed from the catholic tradition, but they have nothing to say about anything akin to Unitarianism. Most heresies in the second and third centuries agreed that Christ was divine and that he preexisted his human conception—in fact, other than the Ebionites, this seems to have been almost universally accepted.

    You wrote:

    “Rob is vague about the point at which he believes the church embraced true Trinitarianism, but I receive a general sense that he perceives an implicit Trinitarian Christology within the NT which gave quickly rise to fully-fledged Trinitarianism. Precisely how long this took and what process was involved, Rob does not say. But the history of Trinitarianism — as admitted by its own theologians — reveals an excruciating mess of debate, controversy and confusion spanning several hundred years.”

    Indeed—but it is a history of Trinitarianism, from the moment the apostle John died right through the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon and beyond. It is a history in which the belief that Christ had existed since before creation as God was almost universally accepted among religious groups professing to be Christian. It is a history in which almost everyone agreed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are divine. And it is a history in which Unitarianism is glaringly absent.



    Thanks for your comments on the sinlessness of Christ.

    Firstly, I appreciated your presentation of the Scriptural evidence for Jesus’ inability to sin. Thank you for pointing me to John 5v19 “the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do.”

    I had come to the same conclusion as you about Jesus being unable to sin based on 1 John 3v9: “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”

    It seems significant that in both John 5v19 and 1 John 3v9, Jesus’ inability to sin is directly connected to the fact that God was Jesus’ Father and that Jesus was the Son of God.

    The angel’s words to Mary in Luke 1v35 explain the means by which Jesus became the Son of God: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you: therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”

    These passages of Scripture lead me to conclude that Jesus is the Son of God as a direct result of the virgin birth (via the Holy Spirit), and that Jesus’ sinlessness is a direct result of being the Son of God.

    Thus, there appears to be a direct connection between the virgin birth (and therefore the Holy Spirit) and the sinlessness of Christ.

    1 John 3v9 explains the reason for Jesus’ inability to sin: “for His seed remains in Him …. because he has been born of God.”

    Also, I don’t see how the sinlessness of Christ is incompatible with Unitarianism or leads inevitably to the doctrine of the trinity.

    I would be interested in your comments on the above.

    Secondly, I appreciated the clarity of your explanation of how Jesus could be tempted, yet not be able to sin.

    It seems to me that Joseph in the Old Testament is a good example of this. I am not aware of reason to doubt that Potiphar’s wife was tempting Joseph, yet his response was “How then can I do this great…

  23. NIB Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.

    I would like to offer a new translation (sic) of Hebrews 4:15 in order to clarify the Trinitarian position:

    Jesus (who was human and like us in every respect)
    sympathizes with our weaknesses and was tempted the same as us but because he was divine (he was really God) he was incapable of sin.

    So Jesus never felt the tug of selfish desire? Well in that case what was his “victory” over sin? How can a divine being incapable of sin (yet supposedly bearing my nature) hope to sympathize with me?

    If temptation does not resonate in some way with the one being tried then it is not temptation – the line between temptation and sin is very fine but nevertheless distinct. Temptation can become sin (even if not acted upon) if it is internalised, fantasized about etc. However, we are informed that Jesus was without sin –temptation never reached the point of sin, temptation was not indulged but met with immediate response – get behind me Satan! Or….it is written… Moreover, the tempters were to my knowledge external provocateurs (such as Peter) and not rogue internal thoughts (such as often beset us).

    Jesus’ resistance to sin did of course have to do with his origins – his proximity and access to the Father, his love for his Father (unmatched), his willingness to surrender his ego and his implicit trust in the Father. Although “like us” we must not forget that Jesus was nevertheless unique – the true image – nothing in heaven (angels) or earth (adam) can match his unparalleled position or was capable of achieving atonement (Rev 5:3-6) between God and man except Jesus the Son of God and the Son of Man.

  24. RB says:

    In your fourth-round post on the Holy Spirit, you denied that the Holy Spirit “is in some way separate from God or independent of Him.” You asserted that “although the Holy Spirit is not a person itself, it operates as God-in-action.” I do not see how the Holy Spirit can be something that the apostles could bestow “at their own discretion” and not in some sense be something separate from or independent of God. I do not see how the apostles could bestow “God in action” at their own discretion.

    So, while the apostles could not bestow the power of God (his Spirit) “at their own discretion” they could bestow (is this the correct word or should we say invite?) the third person of the Trinity because this “third person” is independent from God (yet not really because it is co-substantial, coexistent and essentially the same). In plain speak this is called “having your cake and eating it”. So the although the apostles cannot bestow “God-in-action” (i.e. divine power) they can “bestow” God himself? More meaningless semantics………


    Seems as if we have touched a sore point regarding church history and the development of Trinitarian dogma – in the first century we have no explicit Trinitarian belief – how do we know? Because we can’t find any explicit Trinitarian teaching in the Bible…… on the contrary we are warned “every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (is fully human) is not of God”(1 John 4:3). Of course Trinitarians believe that Jesus is fully human but then disingenuously add that he is also “fully God”. Apostasy was already starting to make inroads in the first century and after the Nero persecution (and death of the Apostles) and destruction of the Jewish nation in AD 70 the process accelerated. So the doctrine developed from Unitarian (first century) to “proto-Trinitarian” (Second century) to fully Trinitarian (Third century) – this is a natural progression and what we would expect to find. After the first century the lack of guidance from the Apostles (who were dead) and the Holy Spirit (withdrawn) ensured that pure doctrine was quickly corrupted. Christianity became institutionalised, paganised and adopted as the state religion. Do we really believe that a true understanding of God was only achieved some three centuries after the death of the Apostles? And if the Apostles knew that apostasy would prevail after their death (which they did) then why did they not include explicitly Trinitarian “proofs” that would prevent three centuries of arguments? The answer is that they did not have to because they believed in the God of the OT (the Apostles were all Jews) and in his promised Messiah.


    I have carefully read the Trinitarian (proto-Trinitarian??) proofs that RB has submitted:

    Clement of Rome—1 Clement (ca. 95)
    Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 105-115)
    Martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. 156)
    Justin Martyr (150-160)

    As a Unitarian I cannot find anything that I would really object to….is it just me? …..Or are these texts lacking any real Trinitarian “bite” that cannot be explained by reference to Biblical idiom?
    Even RB says, “These chapters nicely illustrate the Trinitarian structure of Justin’s thought, despite its defects.” Maybe the defect is that it is not really a proof of Trinitarian doctrine? Just because a passage refers to Jesus/God/Spirit does not make it Trinitarian.


    “This week I hope Rob will show Biblical evidence for the essential relationship formulae of Trinitarianism…

  28. Do Trinitarians practice exegesis or eisegesis?

    1 John 3v9: “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed (God’s seed) remains in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”

    This verse used to prove Jesus’ inability to sin is not about Jesus but about believers. Please read the context.

    We should be called children of God (vv.1)…..those “born” of God i.e. baptised believers

    Whoever abides in Him does not sin (vv.6)….believers who remain in “Christ”

    This does not mean that baptised believers never sin (or in your version are incapable of sin) but they are made clean because they abide “in him.”

    NKJ 1 John 4:15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, (note….not confess that Jesus is God) God abides in him, and he in God.

    NKJ 1 John 2:6 He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked (not commit sin).

    NKJ 1 John 3:24 Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.

    Jesus commands believers to partake of bread and wine (1 John 1:7…the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin…) in order to “abide” in him….believers live and walk under grace and forgiveness of sin and are therefore counted righteous- because believers are “reckoned” sinless this does not mean that they are not capable of sin (1 John 1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us)nor does it mean that believers never commit sin – however, sin is not imputed to the believer who truly abides in Christ and walks after his example (this doctrine is called justification by faith).

    So your “proof” proves nothing except your inability to understand any of the Johannine writings.

  29. Paul W,

    If I understood him correctly, MH was not arguing from a Trinitarian perspective in using 1 John 3:9 to show that Jesus could not sin. I myself would not use that text in that way.

  30. Dear Paul,

    Here are some thoughts on your post “WHERE WERE THE UNITARIANS?

    This statement would lead me to conclude that God is not worthy of worship. Allow me to explain my reasoning.

    1) Jesus promised Peter, “I [Jesus] will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Thus, Jesus promises that his church will be a result of JESUS’ doing.

    2) Paul says “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (I Cor. 3:9) and again “As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1). Thus, Paul identifies that he is in fact, GOD’s co-labourer, and that God is at work in his church.

    3) In his letters, Paul identifies numerous other “fellow labourers” in the gospel.

    So if your statement is true, namely that at the dying breath of the Apostles, the whole church unanimously fell into apostasy, this would lead me to believe that a) Jesus failed b) God failed c) Paul failed and d) all the disciples of the Apostles failed. I would thus conclude that God failed to do what He promised He would do, and so could not be trusted to do what He has promised He will do in the future. Unfortunately, your picture of God is pretty bleak!

  31. M.J. Farrer,

    If God’s goal was to create as large a church as possible, without caring about quality of faith, then yes, he would have failed. I think the apostles understood that Isael is an example for the Christians, and both have reached about the same result. In the last epistles of Paul, Peter and John they all warn about the apostasy that is coming (as did Jesus). Did they get it so wrong? I am not sure if Paul (above, not the apostle) intended that the entire church had fallen into apostasy, or that the faithful would be a pursecuted minority.

  32. Dear M.J. Farrer,

    My picture of God is not bleak – however, my picture of humanity is rather bleak. Is the church somehow better than the Jewish nation? The Jews committed apostasy as soon as they left Egypt and they continued to rebel in the wilderness. They refused Moses and they refused the Messiah and therefore the nation was destroyed in AD 70. But are the Gentiles any better? What does Hebrews say:

    NKJ Hebrews 4:2-3 For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them (the Jews in the wilderness); but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ ” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

    The warning to the first century church is that they would not enter into God’s “rest” if they continued to apostatize – just like the generation of faithless Jews that had perished in the wilderness without entering the land (kingdom), so also with the church if it continued to apostatize. The Nero persecution and death of the Apostles accelerated the apostacy. The temple was destroyed in AD 70 and the Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem after the Bar Kochba revolt (ca. 135) – by then “Christians” were arguing amongst themselves.

    KJV Numbers 14:34 After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years , and ye shall know my breach of promise. {breach…: or, changing of my purpose}

    Continued on next blog……

  33. continued from previous blog….

    So God rejected the Jewish nation and he will reject the apostate church, ……..both the church and the nation knew his “breach of promise” but God always preserves a remnant – and now in these last days (after nearly 2,000 years) God has restored the Jewish nation and a remnant of true faith in anticipation of the return of his Son. An eschatological purging of Israel will soon occur. If there are nearly two billion Christians on earth why does Christ say –“When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)


  34. Dear Mark,

    Thanks for your reply. First, having been raised a Christadelphian and converted to orthodoxy later in life, I am aware of the (appropriate) emphasis placed on the promises to Abraham in Christadelphian ecclesias. However, there is a promise whose realization seems to be in contradiction to what you have just said, namely Genesis 22:17

    “I will surely bless you and make your descendants AS NUMEROUS AS THE STARS IN THE SKY AND THE SAND ON THE SEASHORE.”

    Also, Revelation 7:9 says:

    “After this I looked and there before me was a GREAT MULTITUDE THAT NO ONE COULD COUNT, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”

    On the basis of these verses, I have to conclude that God’s goal is, was, and always has been to have a very large church.

  35. Moreover, you have questioned the “quality of faith”of the early church. Mark, I have to be honest: your implication that the early church fathers’ quality of faith was lacking is disingenuous. Polycarp, Ignatius, and Justin were all martyred for their faith. I would not so quickly dismiss their faith as being “low quality”.

    Mark, you note that Paul and John point forward to false teachers. I agree that this is true. False teachers did come, and we have good historical data to back up what those teachers were like and what they taught, dominantly Gnosticism as is expounded upon and refuted by Irenaeus of Lyons. In contrast, we never see Incarnational theology condemned in either the pages of Scripture nor in the subsequent church. Please also note that neither Paul nor John indicate that these teachers would result in the total collapse of the church.

    Finally, the argument of a “persecuted minority” is decidedly tired. In essence, you postulate that a Unitarian minority simply must have existed despite the total lack of historical evidence that would validate such a claim. We don’t even see writings against Unitarianism! While I mean no disrespect Mark, there is about as much evidence to support a persecuted minority of Unitarians in the early church as there is for the existence of first-century leprechauns.

  36. Dear M.J. Farrer,

    You have read more into my comments than I said or intended.
    I do see a large parallel between Israel and Christianity. But even in very bleak days in Israel there were “the seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (of which Elisha was not aware). I also don’t believe in the total collapse of the church, but that it was torn, especially after the death of the apostles and the large number of Christians with a Jewish background.
    My comment on the quality of faith was not directed at specific church fathers. It was a statement that as I read the Bible in all times “belonging to the majority” is not necessarily a safe bet, but neither is belonging to a minority any guarantee. A large portion of most epistles contains warnings not to take faith lightly. There is a wide road and a narrow road, but I am not implying this is linked to specific doctrines. I am lead to believe that in general the majority will not be saved (not linking this to Trinitarians or Unitarians!).
    I assume our understanding of the woman in Revelation fleeing to the dessert, and the woman coming back riding the beast differs.

    What I see throughout history is an ongoing debate about the nature of God and Christ, and I also read about people being killed by fellow Christians for their belief in this nature. There was and is a wide variety of beliefs, there are not simply two contradicting ideas. From what I have read, most concepts seem to develop over time. I do see these variety of beliefs being a reason for some professing to be Christians killing others professing to be Christians. That started during the Roman empire, but even as late as the reformation there is documentation how Calvin killed for this specific reason.

  37. To believe that “the whole church unanimously fell into apostasy” at the death of the Apostles is an over simplification. In a previous blog I stated that from a Unitarian viewpoint I could not find anything immediately objectionable (that cannot be explained by reference to Biblical idiom) in the patrician quotes that RB posted….without knowing the exact beliefs of each individual it is difficult to know…..this is not a judgement on the faith of individuals for that can only be made by Christ but a simple statement of fact that the church corrupted with the introduction of manifold beliefs…Nestorianism, Gnosticism, Arianism, Modalism, Subordinationalism…Bla, Bla,….. from the simple purity of the truth…..Jesus Christ the Son of God and the Son of Man (Unitarians can actually say this sentence without qualification).

    A great multitude………….from all ages…….from the “foundation of the world” will be saved. But to suggest that the “church” (here I use the term broadly without reference to denominations) is not corrupt is completely blinkered as numerous examples of paedophilia, financial abuse, false doctrine etc, etc, etc, can be found in the modern “church” — but the “historical church” from the third century onwards has a history that is just as sad. Moral impurity is often the bedfellow of doctrinal impurity. So, shall we take our blinkers off and read some newspapers (and history books)?

  38. For clarity…..THE GREAT MULTITUDE………are the (resurrected) saints from ALL THE AGES but about his return Christ says…..

    Shall I find faith in the earth?

  39. Anyway, we are off topic……….. a reminder of David Burke’s challenge-

    “This week I hope Rob will show Biblical evidence for the essential relationship formulae of Trinitarianism…

    So far as I can see RB has failed to demonstrate this convincingly

  40. Paul W, I find your views about the “correct” teaching of the Church very similar to Mohammed’s insistence that Jesus and his disciples taught Islam but there was widespread heresy after their deaths resulting in no evidence that Jesus ever taught Islam. The beauty of a conspiracy theory is that the complete lack of evidence to support that theory is taken as proof that the theory is true.

    I find the Trinitarian position articulated by JP Holding to be a most interesting way of tying the doctrine to pre-Christian Wisdom theology.

    Incidentally Michael Partyka has a series of quotes from the early church fathers looking at how they regarded Jesus here.

    Also, since the question that RB was asked was loaded in such a way that no one could answer it it is simply invalid.

  41. Dear Mark,

    My intention was not to misrepresent you, and as it seems that I have done so, you have my heartfelt apologies. I agree with you that belonging to the majority is not a safe bet, especially after Constantine’s influence. I also agree with you that we should grieve over the violence that has been done surrounding theology, such as the burning of the monophysite churches or Calvin’s murdering of Michael Servetus.

    Augustine, Calvin, Luther and others may have been brilliant in some areas, but all of them seem to have a violent side which is contrary to the teaching of Christ. I agree that this is to be deplored.

    However, for the first 3 centuries, Christians were the persecuted, not the persecutors. Resignation from military service was a requirement. In these discussions, I believe we must

  42. Dear Paul,

    I agree, we should get back on topic, so Illl keep this brief. I also agree that false doctrine and a slide in morality go hand in hand. Please understand: I by no means defend all the practices of the church. However, I do believe that the early church fathers, who elsewhere are much more explicit in their belief in Incarnational and proto-Trinitarian theology, as Jason has pointed to.

    Paul, on several occasions, you have appealed to Luke 18:8 in order to argue that when Jesus returns, only a small minority or perhaps none at all will hold to a proper doctrine. However, Luke 18:1-7, of which 18:8 is the conclusion, is a passage about persistency in prayer, not about doctrinal purity. I have to insist that we interpret 18:8 in this light, which requires us to reject the idea that this verse is saying that when Jesus returns all he will find is apostasy.

  43. You are right….no one can answer the question of the Trinity….from scripture…….because it is not there.

    Well then, lets call the question invalid…..

    Islam would never have got off the ground had it not been for the centuries of arguing among “Christians”……they took the safe option and called Jesus a “prophet” thus avoiding the question.

    There is plenty of evidence for “one God” it is called the Bible and there is plenty of evidence for three centuries of arguing, repression, false doctrine etc.

    There are no conspiracy theories here just intellectual dishonesty on the part of Trinitarians

  44. Let us restate what is invalid. It is invalid to ask RB to prove:

    1. (a) Jesus=God (b) Holy Spirit=God (c) God=God

    2. (a)+(b)+(c) = God

    You adimit that RB cannot prove this from the Bible (he needs to prove both statements) and cannot……but both statements require proof in order to establish the Trinity…..and he cannot.

    Therefore the question is unfair (not the doctrine wrong)… unfair….

  45. And another important point……..try preaching the Trinity to the Jews. How do they ever stand a chance of coming to a knowledge of the Truth in the Messiah with a doctrine that stands as a wedge between them and God?

    Did Abraham worship a Trinity?

    Did Israel worship a Trinity?

    No, they did not and neither did the Apostles

    And neither did Christ……he worshiped the Father

  46. Dear M J Farrar,

    So it is ok if we pray to God (not knowing what he really is or how he achieved forgiveness of sins for us)…… long as we are persistent then our faith (in what?) will save us. From now on I will pray to Buddah

    Will I find faith in the earth?

  47. NKJ John 4:22 “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.

  48. We state again the truth about your Self, the holy Son of God Who rests in you, whose mind has been restored to sanity. Bradyn Christian

  49. Dear Paul,

    I think it is safe to say that since we are both commenting on a debate blog about precisely who God is and who He is not, we can acknowledge that we both affirm that “knowing what he really is or how he achieved forgiveness of sins for us” is of utmost importance. Let us put that canard to rest.

    What I have said is that you are quoting Luke 18:8 out of its context and ascribing to it a meaning which it clearly cannot have. Were Luke 18:8 to occur in the context of a discourse on doctrinal apostasy, the interpretation you suggest would be quite valid. However, it is in the context of persistent prayer and should thus be understood in that light; a statement about doctrinal apostasy simply does not fit in here.

    I hope that clarifies my point.

  50. Also, a point of correction to one of my previous posts (thoughts and typing didn’t align). Paragraph 1 in Post #44 should read:

    “I agree, we should get back on topic, so I’ll keep this brief. I also agree that false doctrine and a slide in morality go hand in hand. Please understand: I by no means defend all the practices of the church. However, I do believe that the early church fathers, who elsewhere are much more explicit in their belief in Incarnational and proto-Trinitarian theology–as Jason has pointed to– are a good guide to understanding the Christian doctrines handed down by the Apostles.”


  1. The Great Trinity Debate (Comments Part 5) « The Prodigal Thought - May 19, 2010

    […] May 19, 2010 by ScottL I am a few days behind in posting some comments in regards to Part 5 of The Great Trinity Debate over at Parchment & Pen. For Rob Bowman’s fifth installment, click here. For David Burke’s fifth installment, click here. […]

  2. trinities - May 21, 2010


    I still mean to comment on Bowman’s 5th round, but my inner logic nerd was drawn in by some action from round 5 here, comment 19: [Burke:] “This week I hope Rob will show Biblical evidence for the essential relationship formulae of Trinitarianism…

  3. Thinking Matters » Blog Archive » The Great Trinity Debate at Parchment and Pen - May 26, 2010

    […] David Burke on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit […]

  4. trinities - SCORING THE BURKE – BOWMAN DEBATE – ROUND 5 – BURKE – Part 1 (DALE) - May 27, 2010

    […] Burke’s fifth round opens some interesting cans of worms. […]

  5. trinities - SCORING THE BURKE – BOWMAN DEBATE – ROUND 5 – BURKE – Part 2 (DALE) - May 28, 2010

    […] we saw last time, Burke in round 5 argues like […]

  6. trinities - May 29, 2010


    Were there any “biblical unitarians”, or what I call humanitarian unitarians in the early church? Buckle your seatbelts – this post isn’t a quickie. First, to review – in this whole debate, Burke has argued that all the NT…