3-2 Genuine Intellectual Failure?
There was an element of genuine misinterpretation. As you read
through the New Testament chronologically, it becomes apparent that the
Lord Jesus is spoken of in ever more exalted language. For example, the
term “son of man” is a favourite of the Gospel writers to describe the
Lord Jesus. But it occurs only once in the later New Testament. Mark,
the first Gospel, never calls Jesus “Lord”- but “Lord” is Paul’s most
common title of Jesus some years later. John’s Gospel, clearly written
after the other three, uses much more exalted language about the Lord
Jesus than the earlier Gospels. The growth in perception of the
greatness of Jesus is also perhaps reflected in the way that
Revelation, the last inspired book of the New Testament, employs the
most exalted language about Jesus. Both Paul and Peter show a
progressive fondness in their choice of words for terms which exalt
Jesus higher and higher. And presumably this trend continued after
their death, as believers realized more and more that the carpenter
from Nazareth had in fact been God’s Son, and is now the exalted King
of Heaven and earth. The penny dropped that in fact “we can never exalt
Christ too highly”, as Robert Roberts put it in the 19th century. But…
and it’s a big but. The language of exaltation can reach a point where
Jesus is no longer Jesus, but somehow God Himself. Further, it’s my
observation that intellectual failure very often has an underlying
psychological basis. To make Jesus God was one thing, but to accept the
doctrine of three Gods in one, the trinity, was another. And I submit
that this intellectual failure was rooted, even unconsciously, in a
desire for an easier ride. It is after all extremely demanding to
accept that a man, born into all our dysfunction, could be perfect;
that from the larynx of a Palestinian Jew there could come forth the
words of God Almighty. It’s a challenge, because we too are human; and
if this was how far one of us could rise, above all the things that
hold us down, that retard our growth towards the image of God Himself…
then He is setting us an example so challenging that it reaches into
the very core of our being, uncomfortably, inconveniently and even
worryingly. To have a Jesus who was in fact not truly human, but just
acting out, a Jesus who was really God and not man… this removes so
much of the challenge of the real, human Christ.
has to be admitted that any attempt to use human language in order to
somehow express the greatness of what the Lord Jesus has achieved, who
He was and who He is, is somehow doomed to failure. I may break the
rules of grammatical convention in my writings by writing the personal
pronouns related to Jesus with a capital 'H' ("He... His... Him"), but
this of course quite fails to express in language and under "the
tyranny of words" all that I think of Him. I like to imagine that all
genuine believers know something of my dilemma. As Robert Roberts said
so well, "We cannot lift Christ too high". Perhaps it was in this
spirit that men began to speak of Jesus as "God"- the problem is that
by ending up with the "Jesus=God" equation, we are doing violence to
God's word and also actually minimizing the colossal, unspeakable
achievement of the human Jesus. The New Testament is full of very high
adoration for the Lord Jesus. Since those words and phrases were chosen
under the inspiration of God, His Father, we would be better advised to
stick with them rather than try to invent our own terms and analogies
in order to express His greatness. The structure of the original text
of the prologue to John's Gospel regarding the word, and also Phil.
2:9-11 regarding the exaltation of Jesus, are arranged in such a way
that they appear to be hymns which were sung by the believers. Pliny
the Younger (Epistle 10.96.7) writes of the Christians
"singing hymns to Christ as to a god"; surely he had in mind these
passages. It can often be that we adopt the very position falsely
ascribed to us by our critics; and perhaps that's what happened here.
The critics of early Christianity wrongly claimed that the Christians
thought of Jesus as God; and this eventually became their position for
the most part, although it was not originally.
- It could be that some read [or heard of] the Biblical descriptions of Christ in glory now
and assumed that this is how He must have been whilst on earth- and
thus artists depict Jesus praying in Gethsemane which the kind of halo
of glory around His head which we might assume He now has.
That, however, is a really quite inexcusable misuse of the Bible text,
taking a few verses and images from one part of it with no respect at
all for the others. I'm being generous by categorizing this kind of
thing under 'intellectual failure'. For the Bible is God's word to us,
carefully and amazingly preserved by Him... and to treat it like this
is rather like my hearing your earnest and passionate explanation of
something to me, but my only bothering to listen to a couple
of phrases, and then using these to totally misrepresent to others your
whole message to me.
- Suetonius records that there were frequent "disturbances caused by Chrestus among the Jews of Rome" (Claudius
25.4). 'Chrestus' meant 'slave'- this was how Jesus was known, as the
slave who was King. But those ideas didn't fit together well in the
Mediterranean world, where the image of a humble King was somehow a
contradiction in terms. For me, the significance of Suetonius' record
is that the Lord Jesus was initially popularly known as Chrestus, the glorified slave, rather than Christos,
the Christ. Of course it's quite Biblical and correct to call Jesus
"the Christ"; but in early Christianity He was glorified for His
humility, as a slave of all who was thereby exalted. The trinity seems
to have partly arisen from a forgetting of this factor in His
exaltation, and focusing instead solely on the titles of His
glorification until the primitive and incorrect equation "Jesus=God"
- Christianity was and is radically
counter-cultural. The very terms used by the Roman empire regarding its
Kingdom and Caesars are all applied to the Kingdom of God and to His
Son. I have exemplified this at length elsewhere (1). Thus 'Caesar is
Lord' became 'Jesus is Lord' in early Christianity (2). I suggest that
there may have been an element of genuine intellectual failure amongst
some illiterate early Christians, who noticed this feature of
Christianity, and wrongly inferred from it that therefore all that is
true or claimed to be true of Caesar must therefore be true of Jesus-
when the fact they shared the same verbal titles doesn't imply that at
all. Thus when it was claimed that Caesar was a pre-existent God who on
death returned to Heaven, those illiterate [and other] folks may have
been tempted to assume that this was therefore also true of Jesus. But
maybe I'm being too generous here. The early Christians virulently
rejected the Emperor-cult; but as Christianity came to merge with the
Roman world, it became modelled on the Emperor-cult in a way which the
earliest Christians would've fiercely rejected. By the Middle Ages,
icons were depicting Christ appearing like the Emperor, and God
rendered as the Pope- Van Eyck and Botticelli presented God the Father
as wearing the same triple crown which the Pope wore (3). In this we
see the full mixture of apostate church and worldly state, and the
Trinity was just a convenient means to that end.
Initially, as we see from e.g. John's Gospel, the core issue in
Christianity revolved around simply believing in Jesus. But soon, as we
see from John's letters, it became important to counter wrong beliefs about
Jesus. As controversy over interpretation developed, it was almost
inevitable that the arguments led to exaggerations on both sides. We
see it happen in political arguments today- the supporters of candidate
X respond to criticisms of him by painting him as more exalted,
wonderful and even Divine than he really ever could be. And as they do
so, the critics become even more virulently against them. This is the
nature of controversy. And as the Jews began expelling Christians from
their synagogues (Jn. 9:22; 12:42; 16:2) and inventing many slanderous
stories about Jesus, it was inevitable that those without a solid
Biblical grounding in their faith would react rather than Biblically respond to this- by making Jesus out to be far more 'Divine' than He was.
The Hebraic Mindset
So many have pointed out that our difficulties in understanding the
Bible often arise from reading Hebrew literature with a Greek, Western
mindset. I pointed out in section 2-22
that frequently in the New Testament we meet a juxtapositioning of
language emphasizing Christ's humanity alongside terms which emphasize
His Divine side. This is typical Hebraic logic, whereby blocks of
material are placed next to each other, in order to create a dialectic
between them which leads to the intended conclusion. Back in Exodus, we
find Pharaoh's heart hardened by God, and yet him hardening his own
heart. Greek thinking panics here- for it works by step logic,
logically reasoning from one statement to another. There appears to our
European minds to be a crisis of contradiction, which many find
worrying. But the Hebrew mind is far less phased. Rather the two
seeming contradictions are weighed up and the conclusion reached- e.g.
that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but God confirmed him in this. The
language used about the Lord Jesus in the New Testament is similar.
John Knox got somewhere close to understanding this when he wrote that
"we do not experience the humanity and divinity of Christ in ways as
separate as this language suggests; we are aware of them together" (4).
John's Gospel is maybe the most evident example. In the context of all
the high, lofty language relating the Lord Jesus to the logos, that was God from the beginning, we read of Him coming "to his own", eis ta idia, his own heritage of people and place; and being rejected by "his own people", hoi idioi, the Jews of his time and setting (Jn. 1:10-12). It is the "son of man"
who is spoken of as having descended from Heaven (Jn. 3:13; 6:62).
Truly "the Christ of John is actually more human than in almost any of
the other New Testament writings" (5). So often does John's Gospel
baldly speak of the Lord Jesus as "the man": Jn. 4:29; 5:12; 8:40;
9:11, 24; 10:33; 11:47, 50; 18:14, 17, 29; 19:5.
Greek thinking minds who read the New Testament were sadly divorced
from the Hebrew background which is the backdrop for God's revelation
in the Bible. In the lead up to the AD381 Decree of Constantinople,
which declared Trinitarianism as the only acceptable form of Christian
faith, Gregory of Nazianzus preached a series of sermons in defence of
the Trinity. He dealt with the two blocks of Biblical evidence as
saying that e.g. in John 11:34, Jesus resurrected Lazarus by His Divine
nature, and then wept in His human nature (6). Gregory utterly failed
to appreciate Hebrew thought; he ended up splitting up the Lord Jesus
effectively into two persons, rather than seeking to harmonize the two
strands which there were within the one person of Jesus.
so some seized upon the 'Divine' language about Jesus and concluded He
must have been God; and then struggled to explain away all the
'humanity' language with complex philosophical theories about merely appearing
human, the gods entering human bodies etc. Those who profess to believe
in a 'Binity' have perhaps most clearly failed to grasp the idea of
dialectic- they treat the two 'blocks' of reasoning as totally
separate. It has to be said of course that some non-trinitarians have
done the same the other way- grabbing hold of the 'humanity' passages
and trying to explain away the 'Divine' ones by recourse to doubtful
re-translations of the original and trying to reduce the full and
obvious import of the Divine language being used.
seems to me that there has been a chronic and even wilful failure to
realize that Divine language can be applied to a person without making
them God Himself in person. There are ample Biblical examples of this.
It is in keeping with the Eastern way of seeing a person and their
representative as very closely linked, to the point of functional
identity. The great Rabbi Hillel was fond of taking language about God
and applying it to himself- but this doesn't mean that he claimed to
be, nor was, God Himself in person (7). This blurred identity between
the sender and the representative is hard for the Western mind to
understand. It's a line of thought that needs careful reflection upon.
In a brilliant Biblical study of the cherubim, the Jewish scholar
Umberto Cassuto noted that sometimes the cherubim upon which God's
throne is are at times equated with the throne; and "in the
end the chariot is identified with the throne, and even the wings of
the cherubim are regarded as identical with the throne". But what is
significant in our context is Cassuto's explanation of why this
confusion occurs: "In the thought processes of the ancient East the
boundary between the symbol and the thing symbolized, and likewise
between the distinctions between the different parts of the symbol,
were liable to be easily blurred" (8). This blurring of semantic
boundaries is, in my opinion, why the Bible writers can speak of God
and His Son in such similar language, whilst also teaching a very clear
separation of them. It was Greek and European influenced thinkers, with
their need for step-logic and sharply defined boundaries, who ran into
problems when they encountered the Hebrew way of thinking found in the
Bible. And so they came up with the Trinity as a messy and ultimately
failed attempt to cope with this problem of blurred boundaries.
intellectual failure, at both extremes, can be avoided by trying to
read the Scriptures against their Hebraic background. We have elsewhere
noted how the New Testament uses various terms current at the time but
then redefines and reuses them with relation to the Lord Jesus.
Appreciating the background is vital to correct understanding. Indeed,
it has been observed that many of the uninspired 'Gospels' that began
to circulate in the 2nd century (e.g. Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the
Hebrews, of the Ebionites, of the Nazoraeans, of Peter, Protoevangelium
of James) are all characterized by a distinct lack of attention to the
Hebrew background of the Gospel. They "do not characteristically
present Jesus with reference to the Old Testament and the narrative
world of Israel... Jesus is not, for example, usually presented [by
these 'gospels'] as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, or of typological
events or characters of the Old Testament. In some cases [they]
specifically deny any relevance or validity to the Scriptures of Israel
for understanding Jesus (e.g. Gospel of Thomas 52)" (9). Indeed the 'Epistle of Barnabas', dating from the early second century, virulently denounced the Jews.
balance, whilst I accept that the trinity may have arisen from an
element of genuine intellectual failure, being honestly mistaken in
Bible study, it seems to me that this doesn't really excuse the huge
and basic ignorance of God's word as the source of truth about Himself
and His Son. It seems that the early church 'fathers' began desperately
grabbing any Bible verse which would justify their position, as we have
commented so many times. Thus commenting on the Hebrew and Septuagint
of Mic. 5:2, James Dunn concludes: "In neither instance does the Hebrew
suggest the idea of pre-existence... it was not until Justin took it up
in the middle of the second century AD that it began to be used as a
prophecy of Christ's pre-existence" (10). In this observation, which
Dunn documents at length, we see how once the ideas of Christ being God
and pre-existing were accepted and assumed, the church 'fathers'
started casting around for Biblical evidence to support those
positions. This, sadly, is typical of the inductive reasoning that has
plagued Christian thinking. An idea is seized upon, often because it is
acceptable to the surrounding world, and then Bible verses are appended
to it, regardless of their context.
(1) See 'The Objections To Christianity' in my Bible Lives section 16-4.
Adolf Deissmann gives very many examples of how the titles of Caesar
used in the Imperial Cult were applied to Jesus- see his Light From The Ancient East (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927) pp. 342 ff.
(3) See F.E. Hulme, Symbolism In Christian Art (Blandford: Blandford Press, 1976) pp. 43 ff.
(4) John Knox, The Humanity And Divinity Of Christ (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1967) p. 113.
(5) J. E. Davey, The Jesus Of St. John (London: Lutterworth, 1958) p. 89.
(6) Quoted in John McGuckin, Saint Gregory Of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001) p. 350.
(7) David Flusser, 'Hillel's Self-Awareness And Jesus', in Judaism And The Origins Of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988) pp. 509-514.
(8) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997) p. 333.
(9) Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003) p. 484.
(10) James Dunn, Christology In The Making
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) p. 71. A similar conclusion
concerning Mic. 5:2 is to be found in J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea In Israel (New York: Macmillan, 1956) p. 77.