Divine Determinism and Free Will are Incompatible

14 04 2011

Before we will examine Scripture on this topic, we will have to discuss the philosophical presuppositions of the views through which people interpret the Bible. Although God’s Word is our primary axiom of authoritative teaching, our primary axiom of identifying errors in interpretation is our God-given mental capacity to reason, i.e. to scrutinize. If there is a flaw in our reasoning, we can’t fully understand the authoritative teaching of the Bible. We argue from Scripture, yet in so doing, we have to use Reason accurately.

Two key important notions in this debate are predestination and free will. In philosophy these are known as Divine Determinism and Libertarianism. The traditional Reformed view of God’s providence includes the first and precludes the latter. I will make an attempt to put these two views in perspective just briefly.

Divine Determinism is the view that God, before the creation of the world, has predetermined exactly whatever comes to pass. Whether directly or through specific secondary conditions, God is causally involved in every event. From the smallest movement of atoms to the formation of entire galaxies, all must come to pass inevitably and necessarily because of God’s absolute will and divine decree. God wrote the story of your life, the beginning, the middle and the end. The most dreaded decision of your life has already been decided upon. Your destiny is entirely dependent on what God wills and decrees. Hence, everything you do is ultimately predetermined by God, long before you were born. Thus your actions are incidents part of a long chain of events much like dominoes and are reached by a necessary causal relationship between these events ultimately initiated by the good pleasure of God’s will.

This principle of universal causality, by the way, is a core tenet not only of the Reformed view of God’s providence, but also of Augustinian and Thomist Catholics, Muslims, ancient pagan religions and naturalistic atheists.

Thus, accordingly, most Calvinist’s understanding of God’s plan of salvation is entirely deterministic. God, by his absolute will, has decreed, fixed and selected before the foundation of the world who will be saved through Christ to eternal life and who will be damned to eternal death.

Historian, Philip Schaff explains how this view of predestination and election relates to divine determinism:

  • “Calvinism (…) starts from a double decree of predestination, which antedates creation, and is the divine program of human history. (..). History is only the execution of the original design. There can be no failure. The beginning and the end, God’s immutable plan and the issue of the world’s history, must correspond.”

– Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Chruch VIII, 1997: ch. 14, § 114)

John Calvin himself endorsed divine determinism. He wrote the following on this:

  • “God’s will is the highest and first cause of all things, because nothing happens except from his command or permission.”

– John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian religion, I.16.8)

  • “that his will may be for us the sole rule of righteousness, and the truly just cause of all things (…) Providence, that determinative principle of all things, from which flows nothing but right, although the reasons have been hidden from us.”

– John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian religion, I.17.2)

Libertarianism, however, is the view that people are self-conscious causal agents that have the ability to choose X or to refrain from choosing X. This ability or power to choose is called free will and the human soul is the seat of free will. By virtue of their creation in the image of God, human beings are free volitional agents. God freely chose to create this particular world out of nothing. Note that this freedom doesn’t mean that someone can do anything s/he likes, but simply that as a free causal agent, by his own choice, any human being could also have refrained from a decision. Free will is essentially the freedom to refrain, i.e. you could have chosen otherwise. This is, admittedly, by no means absolute. The range of your options may be partly outside your control, but you are not necessarily forced to choose something. You are the one in direct control over your decisions and are a direct initiator of an event yourself. Thus the ability to choose is part of who you are, it is ingrained in your soul, so to speak.

So it should also be noted that people make self-conscious choices, i.e. our decisions are not impersonal, irrational or morally neutral, but in accordance with our character. But it is not our character, our intentions or reasons that effectuate the choices we make. Reasons aren’t causal agents, they cannot make decisions between themselves: only a person with true causal agency can make such a decision. So, according to libertarianism, the person, the agent who decides is the direct efficient cause, that by means of which an effect is produced, and the reasons behind our decisions, whether for good or evil, are merely ultimate goals, i.e. final causes, which may concur with our decisions. So decisions are made for a reason but by a person.

Such libertarian freedom is certainly found in the Bible, f. ex. God permits Adam and Eve to eat from all the trees of the garden freely (Gen 2:16), yet he commands them not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (v. 17). Similarly, God’s cheerful giver is allowed to give freely and not under compulsion (2 Corinthians 9:7) and Paul writes to Philemon (v. 14) “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord”. The Bible actually ends with a free invitation: “And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17 KJV).

It is of course a matter of dispute to what extent our freedom is still ours in the fallen and corrupted state of this world. Yet whether by God’s antecedent grace or not, with respect to salvation, Libertarianism holds, accordingly, that, God desires all people to be saved and, therefore, calls all people to salvation, but every human, by his own free choice, has the ability to freely and personally respond to this call by accepting or rejecting God’s free offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This free acceptance or rejection, generally associated with Arminianism, is what a Calvinist rejects.

However, if you ever come to a philosophical level in a discussion with Calvinists, which you inevitably will, many will say that they do believe in a form of human free will, something known as Compatibilism. It is an attempt to reconcile the significance of human decisions with God’s predestination by redefining free will. To put it simply, Compatibilists don’t understand free will to be freedom of refrain, but freedom of inclination, i.e. someone is free to act in accordance with their desires. Our choices are brought about by our strongest inclinations and, necessarily, due to God’s concurrent causal involvement, only one choice is possible. Hence, all human activity is the result of choices by real human desires, which inevitably have their origin in God’s will and decree.

Note that this is essentially not a form of free will, but a soft form of determinism. For, if someone is only free to follow their desires, then they are not free to refrain after all, but compelled by these desires ultimately resulting from God’s decree. So, contrary to Libertarianism and like Divine Determinism, Compatibilism asserts that not the human agent him/herself, but that God’s will is the invisible primary efficient cause of every human decision and human desires secondary. God is still in primary causal control of human conduct in all aspects of their lives.

Four views of human freedom

Four views of human freedom

As you can see, both Divine Determinism and Libertarianism are contradictory to each other. Free human agency simply requires free will. However, the Bible has got something to say about both God’s sovereign providence and the free choices of mankind, for which they alone are accountable. Therefore, a biblical Christian must deal with some form of predestination and must deal with some form of free choice. Nobody can exclude either to make sense of the Bible, a Biblical Christian must say something about both.

As we will see, those who maintain Calvinism are often left with mystery to God’s will. Similarly, many Christians conclude that their failure to reconcile divine predestination and human free will must be due to their human fallibility.

Even Charles Spurgeon, a great and beloved preacher, in his Defence of Calvinism, admits this:

  • “I see, in one place, God in providence presiding over all, and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions, in a great measure, to his own free-will. […] That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is foreordained, that is true; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other.”

– Charles H. Spurgeon (A Defense of Calvinism)

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but God is certainly not the author of confusion or contradiction, God is the author of wisdom, logic and reason. If God’s Word is the truth, then it shouldn’t contain logical contradictions. We reason from Scripture using human logic, human language and human thinking, so it is inevitable that our understanding of God and his Word will be incomplete and fallible. Nobody has perfect theology. But if your conclusion from Scripture is unreasonable, inconsistent and logically contradictory, then I’m afraid you’re simply wrong. Some things that the Lord reveals may be beyond reason, but absolutely nothing will go against reason. Fallibility or ignorance is no defence to resort to unacceptable views. Truth is necessarily reasonable and logically consistent.

Christians have to find a balance between two Scriptural truths, God’s sovereign control over his creation and humanity’s accountability for their free choices.

Calvinism is often weighed against Arminianism. Thus it is often claimed that Arminian theology is the only alternative to Calvinism, but this is certainly not the case. As a non-Calvinist, you certainly needn’t hold to all the distinctive doctrines of Arminianism. One position, for example, that coherently reconciles divine providence and human free will is Molinism, which I believe is the truth in light of Scripture. Molinism is providential enough to be accepted by Calvinists and libertarian enough to be accepted by Arminians, but it is certainly not a combination of the two. You should consider it a soft form of libertarianism. We’ll get back to this later, but in a nut-shell, Molinism is the view that God knows all possible circumstances with every possible person and their free choices in those circumstances, and so, accordingly, God sovereignly decrees a world, where his goals will be achieved perfectly and with precision, so that the maximum number of people will accept his free gift of salvation in their own God-given libertarian freedom of choice.

Thus, with respect to salvation, God, by the sovereign freedom of his loving will, has granted humanity’s freedom of choice, therefore, not determining man’s choice, but establishing man’s freedom of choice. He has so ordered the world that those he foreknew would freely accept his offer of salvation in whatever circumstances, will accept him in a freedom-giving circumstance and those he foreknew would reject him freely in whatever circumstances, will reject him in a freedom-giving circumstance. God’s perfect precise plan for the sovereign salvation of humanity is achieved through the free will of his creatures.

Follow my series and make your own judgement.


COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry a.k.a. Buckleherry. All rights reserved.

A Fair Chance

8 04 2011


In a preface to this series, I explained that our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour is what unifies all Christians and that every Christian has a shared goal to become more like him. For Christianity essentially is not a belief system. It is a Person we follow, not a system. It is Christ, we follow, not a religion. Christ is, quoting S. M. Lockridge: “the loftiest idea in literature. He’s the highest personality in philosophy. He’s the fundamental doctrine of true theology.” Jesus is the truth, the way and the life (John 14:6); it is him we all love and therefore desire to put his commandments into practice. That’s what unites us.

On another level, however, which is also important, what divides us is our theological persuasion, i.e. our interpretation of the Bible and our view of God and his plan of salvation for humanity. As we reason from Scripture, we sometimes come to different conclusions about what the authors meant. Now in many areas this is trivial, insignificant and superficial, such as the type of hymns, the organization of service, worship and ministries in the church, but in some areas, such as who God is and how he relates to mankind, teachings and beliefs can radically diverge, to such an extent that people won’t consider each other brother and sister in Christ anymore. This is not theological niggling or nitpicking over some minor details, this is a clash of different worldviews. And none is without its implications. Your theological persuasion will not only radically influence your interpretation of the Bible, but also your view of God, his church and the world. As you know, these different views can’t all be true at the same time.

One extreme way of thinking about God’s providence that is upheld by a minority group of Christians is Calvinism. It is also commonly called Reformed Theology, although not all Reformers were associated with Calvinism. This religious philosophy is known for its distinctive doctrines of sovereign grace and God’s eternal predestination and pre-election of who will be saved. But its teachings are certainly not limited to the national Reformed churches. They’re upheld across denominations and generally taught by Presbyterians and Calvinist Baptists, but also (Evangelical) Lutherans, Dominican Catholics and the like.

There are Calvinists of all sorts and sizes. There are many different branches, even in the Reformed Church alone, ranging from the sectarian and conservative to the more moderate and liberal churches, but they all endorse the concept of sovereign grace and unconditional election. Some believe Calvinism is the only true gospel, others rightfully understand it as tradition.

Needless to say, accepting the gospel of Calvinism has also encouraged many Calvinists to come to genuine repentance and to put their faith in Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But we should not credit such fruits of the Spirit to the power of their theology. Frankly, in my experience, it is in spite of the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism that people have been saved. Sadly, many people in the Reformed Church do not know Christ intimately.

What I would like to explore with you in this series is a debate that has been going on for a long long while between Calvinists and non-Calvinists regarding the role of God’s providence and man’s decision-making in salvation. Unlike other Christians, Calvinists believe that there is a pre-elected number of people, called the Elect, that God has loved particularly before the foundation of the world and has predestined to sovereignly draw to faith in him. Keep in mind that it is this what I refer to as “Calvinism”, which roughly comes down to the doctrinal views held by John Calvin himself. Not all Calvinists endorse the full story, some have added to the story, but don’t accuse me of misrepresentation, if I am using the Calvinistic trademark for a particular product of Calvin that you don’t support.

For the goal of our series is not to misrepresent or destroy Calvinism or run its adherents down, but to show with love and respect that Calvinism is wrong in several respects and to offer the Calvinist a better, more Christian and more Biblical view that reveals the splendour of God’s providence, his unconditional love and his universal call to salvation. And I hope my Calvinist brothers and sisters who are watching now will hear me on this without prejudice.

Of course, nobody’s understanding is perfect, so I am not so bold as to proclaim that I have the full understanding of the truth and that everyone who disagrees with me is necessarily wrong. I am not wise in my own eyes (Proverbs 3:7; Romans 11:25, 12:16), lest my folly put me to shame (Jeremiah 8:9; ; 1 Cor 8:2). But this is no excuse for intellectual laziness, we are called to love God with our mind. Surely, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7) and although it is the glory of God to conceal things, it is the glory of kings to search things out (Proverbs 25:2). So let my modest research be an encouragement to revere God’s power and love and to continue to study his Word.

For the sad thing is that a Calvinist can’t say to a stranger, let alone their own children: “God loves you”, for they don’t know whether they belong to God’s elected few and it would certainly be unfair to them to say so if they don’t. What’s worse is when Calvinism is presented as the one true Gospel, someone who rejects these teachings is labelled reprobate. It is dreadful that this extreme way of thinking has led many people away from God.

Whereas people speak of a resurgence of Calvinism in North America, in the Netherlands, where Reformed Theology took definite shape as the state religion, the total number of registered members of the Dutch Reformed Church has decreased from 43% of the population in 1899 to 12% in 2003. In Dutch, the term ‘Calvinistic’ unfortunately has become a pejorative for extreme strictness, prudishness and conservatism. The Reformed church had been fragmented into various denominations and many are emptying, because the preachers don’t preach the Lord Jesus Christ and thus many of its members don’t even know Christ or believe in his resurrection.

Often you won’t be able to argue with Calvinists on a subject like free will. You’ll be labelled Arminian without even knowing what this means. You’ll be accused of believing in salvation by works, diminishing God’s glory and being influenced by “humanistic” thinking. If you don’t accept their doctrines, sometimes you’ll be told you’re not spiritually born again and don’t know God and his gospel.

Non-Calvinists aren’t as charming either. They have to deal with an image of being worldly, fickle and compliant. Often Calvinists won’t get a fair chance to discuss God’s providence either. As a Calvinist, you might be labelled a Gnostic without knowing what this means. You’ll be accused of sectarianism, reluctance in evangelism and turning God into a tyrant.

Of course, these accusations don’t apply to most adherents of either view. And we need to give each other a fair chance to discuss our view on divine providence and human free will respectfully and constructively, so that we may learn from each other’s view and grow in our faith.

But what’s the problem here? What’s at stake? In debating Calvinism, a good illustration of the problem that we are going to face is the following one, which I’ve got from David Pawson. With regard to God’s salvation of mankind there are three opposing views, of which only one can be correct:

  • Assisting Grace (Personal Merits): a man (representing humanity) is drowning and God, standing on the shore, encourages and instructs him to save himself and swim to the shore;
  • Sovereign Grace (Forced Faith): a man has already drown, dead on the bottom of the sea, and God has to jump in and pull him onto the shore in order to revive him;
  • Free Grace (Free Faith): a man is drowning and God throws him a rope; neither would the man say he saved himself or would God say I forced you to be saved.

Of course, this illustration isn’t perfect, but it will stimulate your thinking on this subject. Calvinists say or actually fear that some form of human involvement in saving faith means that God will not be given all the glory that he deserves. That there is some credit in the free faith of people that glorifies the human being and diminishes the glory of God. But is this fear legitimate? Have you ever met someone who willingly received the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ yet glorified themselves instead of God who graciously offered it them?

(We, from YouApolgetics, understand that this covers difficult material that may come across one-sided. It is not our intention to misrepresent Calvinism or to attack Calvinists personally. If you’re inclined to comment on our videos or want to have a decent discussion, we would like you to make a video response on YouTube.)


COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry a.k.a. Buckleherry. All rights reserved.

The Historicity of the Empty Tomb is Rock-Solid

16 01 2011

This is a general defence of the historicity of the empty tomb as well as a response to the YouTuber myintellectualjourny. Well, I hope you can appreciate it and that this clarifies my position.

When it comes to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, most skeptics will cast doubt upon the general reliability of the Gospels and rest their case. Needless to say, their case normally hinges on some philosophical presuppositions biased against miracles and the supernatural or grounded in some theory that is without any plausibility and without a shred of evidential support, such as the conspiracy theory or apparent death theory. Such forms of scepticism turn out to be at best question begging or a feeble attempt at humour.

I won’t be tempted to give a defence of the Gospels’ general reliability, not just because this would take me a book or three, but also simply because it is unnecessary. I don’t believe there is any good reason to doubt their reliability. For now, one remark by C. S. Lewis will suffice:

  • “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage — though it may no doubt contain errors — pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”
    (Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, Christian Reflections)

However, a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t depend on my demonstration that the Gospels are generally trustworthy historical documents. Even if they were unreliable, they could still contain a historical core that the historian will be able to find properly using the methodology he has.

Thus New Testament scholars have come to the conclusion that the following facts are historical, namely that Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross, that he was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, that the tomb was found empty shortly after, that the apostles sincerely believed that the risen Christ really appeared to them bodily, such that some of them would die for their belief and, finally, that the apostles preached and testified to the resurrection in Jerusalem, where eyewitnesses were still alive. The case for the resurrection of Jesus depends on the established historicity of these facts and on its theoretical adequacy as the explanation inferred from these facts.

One of these facts, the discovery of the empty tomb, I am going to discuss with you now. First of all, very early independent sources report Jesus’ burial. We have the sermons in the book of Acts and four independent historical biographies based on eyewitness testimony. They relate Jesus burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and the women’s discovery of the empty tomb on the first day of the week. The three synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts were most likely written independently within about 35 years after the events, far too early for legendary influences to wipe out the historical core. It is implausible that the figure Joseph of Arimathea is a legendary embellishment, for one because the Gospels are extremely polemic against the Jewish Council and rich people in general.

But that’s not all, we also have an extremely early apostolic tradition that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15, which probably goes back no later than the first five years after Jesus’ death. A formula or creed that Paul hadn’t made up himself, but had received as such from the apostles.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:

  • that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
  • that he was buried,
  • that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and
  • that he appeared to Cephas,
  • then to the twelve.
  • Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
  • Then he appeared to James,
  • then to all the apostles.”

Is this the same empty tomb tradition as we find elsewhere? Probably, it is. If we compare the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 with the sermon in Acts 13:28-31 and the narrative in Mark 15:37-16:7 (see image below), you’ll find that the correspondence of these independent attestations is sufficient to conclude that the Pre-Pauline creed is a summary of the core events, incl. Jesus’ burial in the tomb.

The fact that the tomb was empty is also implied by the statements “he was buried” and “he was raised on the third day”. But the emphasis is on the appearances of the risen Messiah. This tradition doesn’t simply proclaim the belief or profession that Jesus was raised from the dead, but also has the audacity to demand a verdict, as if it says: if you don’t believe it, ask these witnesses and make your own judgement.

Interestingly, the first Jewish objections to Jesus’ resurrection didn’t deny the empty tomb, but claimed that the disciples stole his body. This is something we wouldn’t expect, if Jesus’ body was still there or, as MIJ seems to suggest, if they were at all ignorant of Jesus’ burial site. Instead of questioning the integrity or credibility of the apostles or asserting that Jesus’ body was still there in the grave, they openly accepted the fact that the tomb was found empty, but explained it differently by way of body theft.

The idea that Jesus was buried in a criminals’ common graveyard cannot be substantiated and seems rather contrived to me. Indeed, if you want to avoid the early literary evidence of the family tomb, you will have to resort to some sort of conspiracy theory, which is the last thing a good historian would propose. There is also no good theological reason for a first century Jew to invent the burial in the tomb.

If Jesus’ body was still in the grave, why wouldn’t anybody correct the disciples in their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection? Especially knowing, as I said before, they proclaimed it in the very city of Jerusalem where Christ’s judgement execution and alleged resurrection occurred. Like MIJ, you might argue that his corpse was no longer identifiable. But this is actually false, since Jewish burial customs included excavating the bones of the deceased after a year and deposing them in an ossuary. So Jews would keep a close eye on every Jewish burial site, even in case of so-called criminals.

COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.

A Philosophical Definition of Atheism

5 01 2011

The definition of atheism appears to be an issue for some atheists. This is because in reality they are agnostics who don’t know what they believe (pun intended). Atheists will often tell you that there are two varieties of atheism: strong or positive atheism and weak or negative atheism. But if we don’t first define atheism, this distinction is meaningless. Only then we can add attributes such as strong or weak.

So what is atheism? Atheism is the negative or denial of theism: the existence of God. Thus the atheist holds to a specific view, s/he takes a specific standpoint in a discussion, s/he makes a knowledge claim, namely that God does not exist. In a debate between a theist and an atheist about the existence of God, the atheist takes the side that contradicts the question.

Just as there are varieties of theism, such as Christian, Jewish or Muslim theism, there are varieties of atheism, such as Hegelian, humanistic or naturalistic atheism. So note that atheism doesn’t necessarily imply naturalism, the denial of the supernatural. Naturalism is necessarily atheism, but atheism is not necessarily naturalism. An Hegelian atheist, for example, believes in a world spirit, a supernatural reality that is manifested in the collective products of the human mind, such as art, culture and philosophy. Yet he denies the existence of a personal, all-powerful, all-loving and morally perfect Creator, which is theism.

Contrary to what some people will make you believe, atheism is not the lack of belief in God or something like the default position. That’s rather agnosticism. An agnostic simply doesn’t know whether God exists. Let’s define knowledge as justified true belief. If knowledge is justified belief in the truth, then a lack of knowledge is consequently a lack of belief. Knowledge is necessarily belief. Without belief you can’t have knowledge. Disbelief is a form of uncertainty or doubt with respect to the truth. Always take this distinction into account.

There are also varieties or degrees of agnosticism:

  • standard agnosticism: “I don’t know whether God exists. It could be true, it could be false.”
  • skepticism: “I don’t know whether God exists, but I very much doubt it / don’t believe it.”
  • fundamental agnosticism: “I can’t know whether God exists. God is unknowable.”

Note that, while a skeptic simply doesn’t believe in the proposition: God exists, an atheist has justified belief in the falsehood of this proposition, s/he knows that the proposition “God exists” is false and thus asserts that its negative “God does not exist” is true. Strong or weak atheism, then, does not depend on the degree of certainty, but on the justification. A strong atheist has strong, positive arguments for his belief, a weak or negative atheist has no or little justification, but only demolishes the arguments of the theist (which doesn’t make atheism stronger, but only makes theism weaker). At any rate, whether weak or strong, an atheist still makes a knowledge claim, an agnostic or skeptic doesn’t.

So, summing up, how would you answer the question: Does God exist? and check to what position you belong:

COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.

The original video uploaded on the YouTube channel YouApologetics:

Does the Bible really say Jesus is God? – A text-critical study of corrupt passages (2/2)

29 05 2010

In the first part, I’ve discussed some passages that affirm the deity of Christ in the most literal sense. In this sequel, I will continue my discussion with some passages in the writings traditionally attributed to the apostle John.

John’s writings are known for their emphasis on the divine credentials of the Christ as the Son of God. If there ever was an apostle that believed Jesus was God incarnate, without doubt it would be John. In no other gospel but the gospel of John, the deity of Christ is described so unequivocally that many skeptics doubt the authenticity of passages such as chapter 8, 10 and 17.

John 1:1
But I need not resort to such passages. Our first encounter of a possible theos reference to Christ is in the well-known verse: John 1:1, which reads in the first part:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”

Which in Greek reads: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν.

John clearly has Genesis 1 in mind here. If you compare John 1 and Genesis 1, you will find many parallels, the same applies to the first chapter of John’s first epistle. Moreover, whatever logos may mean or allude to, it clearly stands for a person, whose identity is Jesus Christ. The preposition pros, for instance, implies an intimate relationship between the presence of one person and another. So Christ, the logos, is personally distinct from God. Then the verse continues with:

  • καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος “and the Word was God.”

Yes, the Greek article is missing in front of the second theos as you may know, and no, this verse is not as controversial as you might think. Grammatically, there three possible readings:

  1. indefinite: “and the Word was a god”
  2. definite: “and the Word was God”
  3. qualitative: “and the Word was God in essence”

Most scholars agree that this passage καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος does not mean ”and the Word was a god” and that theos should not be taken as indefinite, unless you want to argue that John was a polytheist. So this option clearly is out.

Now some argue that a definite reading would suggest that Jesus Christ be taken personally identical with the Father, i.e. “Jesus = the Father”. Yet, frankly, this implication is a trivial one, for we don’t find an article with reference to the Father either, for instance, in John 1:18, 3:2 and 8:54 etc. and, as you’ve seen in Part 1, we do find an article with reference to Jesus in other verses identifying Jesus as “God”. Moreover, considering the preceding clause “the Word was with God”, the personal distinction between the Father and the Word could still be preserved, even if one should read “and the Word was God”1.

But should the omission of the article incline us to read theos qualitatively, it would only serve to confirm again the idea that Jesus was fully God, one in divine essence with the Father (John 10:27). For the absence of the article as well as the fronting of the noun theos could indicate that a qualitative meaning or a more abstract nuance was intended, as most scholars assert. In that case theos would suggest that the Word was not just “divine”, but the same as God in nature, i.e. one in essence with the Father, but distinct in person (as is suggested by the preceding “the Word was with God,” i.e. the Father). So, in that case, a better translation would be “and the Logos was God in essence” or as the New English Bible (1961) puts it “And what God was, the Word was”.

So whether we read it as definite or qualitative, either reading would constitute John’s confession that Jesus was God, which in light of his gospel as well as his other writings seems to make perfectly sense.

There are some textual variants that show the article was added later, but this is far from evidence for the extrapolation that the text was corrupted by Trinitarians in defence against Arianism. For 1) Arius never contested that Jesus was God, but defended the idea that Jesus was a created being, which the presence of any article would not necessarily disprove, and 2) it could be misunderstood to make Jesus personally identical with the Father, which is not what Trinitarians believe.

John 1:18
Let’s move on to v. 18:

  • “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (NASB)”

This is a verse well-known for its textual problem, namely: the majority of manuscripts, esp. the younger ones, read ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός “the unique Son” instead of μονογενὴς θεός “unique God”. Note that μονογενής is traditionally rendered “only-begotten”, but it actually means “one of a kind”, i.e. unique or only (cp. English heterogeneous “of a different kind”), its use in the NT happens to be restricted to children. (The common thought that the Son is begotten and the Father unbegotten can’t be substantiated based upon this word.)

The external evidence is ambiguous here. Though we find “unique God” in the earliest manuscripts, they are of the same or closely related textual traditions and the patristic citations support both readings. Yet the reading “unique God” would be the shortest as well as the most difficult reading. It is far more likely that a scribe would emendate μονογενὴς θεός “unique God”, which even has no article, into ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός “the unique Son”. The latter occurs predominantly in the writings of John and could easily have been altered to assimilate this verse with, for example, John 3:16. Moreover, again we have no article with theos, which intentionally allows for a qualitative nuance, so that it is about the essence of God and not the identity of God, the Father, keeping the two personally distinct. After all, since the use of monogenés “unique” and kólpos “bosom” obviously imply the Son, one would be inclined to read μονογενής substantively as in John 1:14, meaning: “the unique [Son], essentially God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made [him] known.”

John 20:28
We’ll continue with Thomas’ proclamation in John 20:28,

  • “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.””

(John 20:27-29)

This climactic confession of faith by doubting Thomas after touching the risen Lord is an unmistakable affirmation that Jesus revealed himself as both Lord and God. We find the same wording throughout the Bible in, for example, Deut 6:13 “It is the LORD your God (lit. YHWH, your God) you shall fear”, 2 Sam 7:22 “Therefore you are great, O Lord God (lit. O Lord, YHWH). For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you” Ps 35:23 “My Lord and my God”, Rev 4:11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God” etc. There are no textual problems here and this verse so explicitly proclaims Jesus as God that it requires no further discussion, but may it continue to amaze us.

1 John 5:20
Our last verse is 1 John 5:20, which reads:

  • “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”

The question here is what person the pronoun houtos rendered “he” or “this” refers to. Grammatically, it is ambiguous: although Jesus Christ would be the closest preceding referent, it could still refer to the Father. Contextually, however, the predicate “eternal life” is never used with the Father and John applies it like logos as a personification of Jesus Christ. Yes, both the Father and the Son have life (John 5:26, 6:27), but only the Son is eternal life. For John begins his letter with a wording very similar to the first words of his gospel: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us (1 John 1:1-2).” And earlier in this chapter, John identifies the eternal life with the Son, distinct from the Father: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (1 John 5:11) Therefore, the final predicates of this verse “the true God and eternal life” constitute another strong and remarkable affirmation of the deity of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.

1. “the Word was God” could also be understood in the sense of property (like the qualitative reading), not of identity, like “Charles is king”, i.e. Charles has the property of kingship, such that “the Word was God” could make perfectly sense as the Word has the property of divinity.

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COPYRIGHT © 2010 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.

Does the Bible really say Jesus is God? – A text-critical study of corrupt passages (1/2)

29 05 2010
  • “You are my witnesses,” declares YHWH, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.”

(Isaiah 43:10)

Muslims, Jehovah’s witnesses and anyone else to whom the doctrine of Christ’s divinity is a stone of stumbling continually accuse Christians of the deification of a mere created person. They will try to show that the earliest New Testament manuscripts were corrupted to conform to the doctrine of the council of Nicaea (325 AD) that declared Jesus to be one in essence with God, the Father.

Does the Bible say that Jesus is God? Even though the answer is straightforward for most orthodox Christians, I think this is a legitimate question that needs to be addressed. Before we can assess this, we must critically examine what the Bible says. So the question is: Do the earliest manuscripts demonstrate that Jesus is God, i.e. theos, or was it added to the Bible later by Trinitarians?

One of the reasons why this is an important question is that Christianity is all about Christ: how Christ is presented in the Bible marks out our Christian faith. Yet even if I should fail to provide any overtly explicit statements that Jesus was theos meaning ‘God’, this still wouldn’t mean that the Trinity is an unbiblical doctrine and should be abandoned. It may well be that Jesus made undeniable implicit or oblique claims to divine status, which I believe is the case, but our quest will be rather for explicit claims. For it is these claims that most skeptics cast doubt upon.

First of all, we must acknowledge that Jesus never used theos meaning ‘God’ to refer to himself. For, although Jesus may have called himself the Son of God, whatever that may mean, He never used theos ‘God’ directly. He even distinguishes himself from God in several passages such as the well-known cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And even Paul, who believed Jesus was God, confirms this distinction in, for example, Eph 1:17, which reads “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory”. Moreover, we don’t find any theos claims either in the synoptic gospels or in the apostles’ preaching in the book of Acts. So we have to look in other sources.

The idea skeptics tend to defend is that the early church altered the Biblical manuscripts to make sure it agreed with their Trinitarian understanding of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Father. Though we can’t deny that such practices may have occurred, it doesn’t follow that all direct theos claims we might find must be the result of corruption. After all, prior to the Arian controversy in the 4th century, early church fathers explicitly professed the deity of Christ. They must have concluded this from a certain authority other than the council of Nicaea.

Romans 9:5
One of the possible earliest confessions of Jesus’ being called theos is the passage of Romans 9:5.

  • “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (ESV)”

(which in Greek reads: ὧν οἱ πατέρες, καὶ ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα: ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν)

Since this final doxology1 in the relative clause ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας meaning “the one being God over all worthy of praise unto the ages” doesn’t have punctuation in the earliest manuscripts, it can either be read as a syndetic doxology to ὁ Χριστoς meaning “Christ” preceding it or an inserted asyndetic2 doxology to the Father. But what is the most plausible reading? Bruce Metzger (1994: 460-461), a textual commentator, gives us five reasons why the doxology most likely refers to Christ. In brief, these are:

  1. it suits the natural structure of the sentence: we would not expect a change of subject;
  2. the participle ὁ ὢν meaning “the one being” or “he who is” would otherwise have been superfluous;
  3. the construction, if asyndetic, would be unique for Paul’s doxologies;
  4. the construction, if asyndetic, would be syntactically unique for the Bible;
  5. there is no contextual-psychological explanation for the insertion of a doxology to the Father.

Since it is a lament about Paul’s kinsmen rejecting the Messiah, a climactic doxology to Christ would be more likely. Objections to this syndetic reading could be that Paul never designates theos to Christ elsewhere and that in the light of what we know of Paul’s doxologies, an equation of Christ’s glory with that of the Father would be improbable. So, in short, taking the doxology together with Christ would be grammatically as well as contextually the most plausible reading, but theologically the most implausible. However, the alleged theological uniqueness of this theos designation to Christ is questionable.

Titus 2:13
For, not only do we find Paul equating Jesus with theos in Phil 2:6, which reads “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”, but also in Paul’s epistle to Titus we may be dealing with yet another reference of theos to Christ. In Titus 2:13, we read:

  • “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us …”

(Titus 2:11-14a ESV)

The final part in Greek: ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς δόξης τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

There are no significant discrepancies between textual variants for this verse. Moreover, the essential unity of the titles God, Saviour and Jesus Christ in this passage is grammatically, textually and contextually unmistakable. First of all, in the Greek, both the initial article of tou and the final pronoun hemon in Greek enclose the unity of “great God and Savior”, which is again combined with the following apposition “Jesus Christ” through case agreement. (This copulative construction is found quite often, cf. Revevelations 1:6, but also 2 Corinthians 1:3, Luke 20:37). If it weren’t about one and the same person, we would definitely expect an article after the conjunction. Lastly, even though, throughout Paul’s epistle to Titus, the title soter meaning “Saviour” is taken together interchangeably with both God (1:3, 2:10, 3:4) and Jesus Christ (1:4, 3:6), the concurrence of epipháneia meaning “appearance” and “Jesus Christ” has many parallels in Paul’s letters, cf. esp. 2 Tim. 1:10 “the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus” and 1 Tim. 6:14 “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

2 Peter 1:1
In 2 Peter 1:1 we find a similar case:

  • “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

A few manuscripts have “our Lord” instead of “our God”, but the reading we find here has the best external evidence and is according to the lectio difficilior potior principle3. It also likely to be intended by the author, for Peter begins to speak of “his divine power” and things pertaining to “godliness” in v. 3 and calls his addressees “partakers of the divine nature” in v. 4. Therefore, we are forced to conclude, together with Daniel B. Wallace (1995), that both in Tit 2:13 and 2 Pet 1:1, “on a grammatical level, a heavy burden of proof rests with the one who wishes to deny that “God and Savior” refers to one person, Jesus Christ.”

Hebrews 1:8
Let’s have a look at another passage, where theos may refer to Christ, namely Hebrews 1:8-9:

  • “But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

Here the writer of Hebrews quotes a royal Psalm, Psalm 45:6-7 from the LXX (44:7-8). There is an early textual variant that reads rhábdos tês basileías autoû meaning “the sceptre of his kingdom” instead of “your kingdom”, in which case other variants could have been corrected to correspond with the LXX and thus one should render the first part of the quotation with God as the subject something like “Your throne is God forever and ever, the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of his kingdom.” But grammatically this would imply a shift from the third to the second person in the next sentence, which would be odd. Contextually, God as the throne of the Son would either imply that God gives up his throne, which doesn’t make sense at all, for Yahweh was believed to be enthroned forever (Ps 102:12) and the Messiah sat down at the right hand of God’s throne (Hebrews 1:3, 12:2), or it would imply that God has final authority over the Son, which could also be said of any angel, whereas this passage is about the supremacy of the Son, being “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (1:3) and “much superior to the angels” (1:4). So, together with the external evidence, the standard reading with sou meaning “your” is to be preferred, making the unique Son of God coequal in sovereignty with God, the Father. It is not surprising that some take this very passage to be the source for the early veneration of the Messiah.

Furthermore, there is a clear parallel here to Yahweh’s Messiah or ‘anointed one’ in Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus read out loud in the synagogue on the Sabbath in Luke 4, thus essentially professing that He was God. Moreover, in Hebrews 1:10, the writer of Hebrews continues his quotation chain with Psalm 102 from the LXX (Ps 101) with reference to the Son: “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” thus practically equating him with Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth.

1. A doxology is an expression of praise.
2. Asyndetic means without a connector.
3. The reading that is the most difficult is more likely to be the correct one.

B. M. Metzger, 1994. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.
Wallace, D. B., 1995. The Article with Multiple Substantives Connected by Kaiv in the New Testament: Semantics and Significance. Ph.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary.

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