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Chapter 5. A Trinitarian’s Colossal Efforts to Prove that Jesus is Called “God” in the NT

Chapter 5

A Trinitarian’s Colossal Efforts to Prove That Jesus is Called “God” in the New Testament

Note: Theos is the Greek word for “God” (cf. theology) and is a transliter­ation of θεός or ΘΕΟΣ (miniscule and majus­cule script, res­pect­ively). We use theos in our discussion except when quot­ing writers who use θεός or ΘΕΟΣ, but they all mean “God”.

Troubling questions for the trinitarian

In the previous chapter, we saw that the only true God is the Father, not the Son. That being the case, does Jesus ever call himself theos (God)? Does the Bible ever call Jesus theos? These are not trick quest­ions or flippant statements but weighty questions discussed by biblical schol­ars, even trinitarian scholars. The fact that such questions could even be raised in the first place—and debated—may surprise those who believe that the deity of Christ is an established fact above biblical investi­gation.

But to Brian J. Wright, a biblical scholar and trinitar­ian, the quest­ion of whether Jesus is called theos in the New Testa­ment is not an idle question but one that merits scholarly investig­ation. He examines the question in a dense essay (with 149 footnotes) which is titled, Jesus as ΘΕΟΣ: A Textual Examination. Before I summarize his key find­ings, there are three things I need to say up front:

  • The author, Brian J. Wright, is a fervent trinitar­ian.
  • His essay constitutes the last chapter of the book, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, [1] edited by Daniel B. Wallace, an equally fervent trinitarian.
  • Wright investigates the question (of whether Jesus is called theos) from various angles, notably that of NT textual criticism.[2] This approach has the advantage of bypassing the trinitar­ian bias of English Bibles such as ESV and NASB, thereby removing one layer of distortion from our examination.

Wright’s trinitarian dilemma

Wright begins his essay with the crucial observation that “every major NT scholar” from Aland to Zuntz has searched the New Testa­ment for texts that explicitly call Jesus theos. This observation is striking when you stop to think about it. It is an early warning that New Testament refer­ences to Jesus as theos are rare, perhaps non-exist­ent.

Wright then pours cold water on the notion that a search for NT references to Jesus as theos is going to be “painless”. He also dismisses the fantasy held by most Christians that there are “plenty of proof passages” that refer to Jesus as theos. Wright, despite being a fervent trinit­arian, goes on to list several “stumbling blocks” for those who think that Jesus is explicitly called theos (θεός, “God”) in the Bible:

No author of a Synoptic Gospel explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. Jesus never uses the term θεός for himself. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus. No extant Christian confession of Jesus as θεός exists earlier than the late 50s. Prior to the fourth-century Arian controversy, noticeably few Greek manu­scripts attest to such “Jesus-θεός” passages. And possibly the big­gest problem for NT Christ­ology regarding this topic is that textual variants exist in every potent­ial passage where Jesus is explicitly referred to as θεός.

This quotation ought to be read a second time and a third time, so that we may take in the gravity of the trinitarian dilemma. Every sen­tence in this quotation is a weighty barrier against hastily con­clud­ing that Jesus is explicitly called theos (“God”) in the New Testa­ment. Wright’s last sentence tells us, further, that the “biggest problem for NT Christology” is that textual variants (i.e., conflicting manu­script witness) attend “every” passage that may po­tent­ially speak of Jesus as theos. This is a most perplexing dilemma to Wright, and he reiterates his sentiments in a footnote in which he says that it may “unfortunate­ly” be the case that all the verses that may potent­ially speak of Jesus as theos are textually suspect.

In another footnote, Wright observes that Jesus even differentiates himself from God: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mk.10:18; Lk.18:19). Wright then points us to Bishop H.W. Montefiore’s view that Jesus is here explicitly deny­ing his own deity (a denial that would agree with John 17:3).

Wright dismisses ten passages up front

Wright gathers 17 passages from the New Testament which he thinks may potentially speak of Jesus as theos (“God”). But he dismisses 10 of them up front for various reasons, keeping only 7 for the next round of examination. The following are the 10 dismissed passages, with my explanation of his reasons for dismissing them.

 

Bible passage (ESV)

Wright’s reasons for excluding the passage (as explained by B. Chan)

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.

Punctuation issue. The earliest Greek NT manu­scripts had no punct­uation. This is generally not a problem when we read the Greek NT because context often resolves any ambiguity that may arise from the lack of punctuation, but it poses a pro­blem in the case of Romans 9:5 because the meaning of this verse is governed by how we modern people punctuate it. One way of punctuation makes Christ the same as God, the other way makes Christ dis­tinct from God. Because of the ambiguity, Wright does not regard Romans 9:5 as a proof text for calling Christ theos.

Colossians 2:2 … to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ

Uncertain syntax. It is uncertain if the syntax of this verse allows us to identify Christ with theos.


Matthew 1:23. “Behold, the virgin shall con­ceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Uncertainty over how to interpret a name. It is uncertain if the meaning of the name Immanuel (“God with us”) is to be taken as identifying Jesus with theos. In fact many Hebrew given names contain the short form of YHWH or Elohim.

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

Uncertain syntax. It is uncertain if the syntax of this verse allows us to identify Jesus Christ with theos.

Ephesians 5:5. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inherit­ance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Uncertain syntax. It is uncertain if the syntax of this verse allows us to identify Christ with theos.

2 Thessalonians 1:12. so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ambiguous syntax. The final clause of this verse can be trans­lated as “according to the grace of our God and Lord, namely Jesus Christ” or as “accord­ing to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Wright thinks that the latter is more proba­ble (i.e., that this verse does not equate Jesus with God).

1 Timothy 3:16. Great indeed, we con­fess, is the mystery of godliness: He was mani­fested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, pro­claimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

Uncertain syntax. It is uncertain if the syntax and the context of this verse allow us to identify Christ with theos.

Titus 2:13. waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ

Uncertain syntax. It is uncertain if the syntax of this verse allows us to identify Christ with theos. Daniel B. Wallace thinks it does. Gordon Fee, a NT scholar and trinitarian, thinks it does not.

1 John 5:20. 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.

Uncertain syntax. It is uncertain if the syntax of this verse allows us to identify Christ with theos.

Jude 4. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were design­ated for this condemn­ation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Textual uncertainty. The best manuscripts have “Master and Lord” (Wright accepts this variant) but a few have “Master God and Lord”.

 

Wright’s short list of seven verses

The following are the seven remaining Bible verses which Wright be­lieves are the best candidates for providing explicit reference to Jesus as theos (“God”). We quote these verses from ESV, but in two cases also from NJB because of its signifi­cant non-trinitarian departures from ESV (the differences between the two versions are highlighted in boldface):

 

Bible verse (from ESV, with two verses also from NJB)

John 1:1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:18. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

New Jerusalem Bible. No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 20:28. Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Acts 20:28. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you over­seers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

New Jerusalem Bible. Be on your guard for your­selves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you the guardians, to feed the Church of God which he bought with the blood of his own Son.

Galatians 2:20. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Hebrews 1:8. But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.”

2 Peter 1:1. 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

Wright’s final conclusion

To spare you the technical details, I will skip Wright’s technical discussion on these seven verses (it deals with textual-critical and other issues) and go straight to his final con­clusion. Those who are interested in the details and know some basic Greek and NT textual criticism can buy Daniel B. Wallace’s book at Amazon.com (paperback, 284 pages, US$23).

At the end of his essay, Wright arrives at this final conclusion: In the whole New Testament, only in John 20:28 (“my Lord and my God”) is Jesus explicitly called theos with full certainty! Wright offers a few other, less certain, verses for which he says there is “no reason to doubt” that they refer to Jesus as theos despite having textual or other difficulties.

Towards the end of his essay, Wright triumphantly says that there is “at least one text that undoubtedly calls Jesus θεός in every respect (John 20.28)”.

From this and other statements, I get the feeling that Wright is not satisfied with what he has obtained for the deity of Christ from his detailed investigation. If anything, his es­say seems to accomplish the opposite, by exposing the paucity of NT refer­ences to Jesus as theos.

Because John 20:28 does not suffer from any textual uncertainty, Wright goes on to conclude that Jesus is thereby called theos in this verse. He says, “John 20.28, no matter which variant or manuscript one chooses, is categor­ically secure for refer­ring to Jesus as θεός.” (p.250)

But this is a non sequitur (a conclusion that does not follow logic­ally from its premise) because textual cer­tainty alone proves nothing but text­ual certainty. The text­ual cer­t­ainty of John 20:28 is not de­bated by scho­lars; in fact UBS5’s critical appara­tus has zero com­ment on this verse.

Trinitarians will need to take a second step—biblical exegesis—to demonstrate that Jesus is actually called theos in John 20:28. This leads us to the next chapter.



[1] Full title, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manu­script, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Daniel B. Wallace, ed., Kregel, 2011). This book has six essays which argue for the textual reliability of the New Testament.

[2] In its traditional sense, New Testament textual criticism aims to recover the “original” words (the autograph) of the New Testament writings through a sci­entific analy­sis of the thousands of extant NT manuscripts. A read­able intro­duction to this topic is Neil R. Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible, 3rd edition; but it is totally silent on the crucial topic of deliberate alteration of the manuscripts. A stand­ard work is The Text of the New Testa­ment: Its Transmiss­ion, Corrup­tion, and Restora­tion, 4th edition, Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman. A recent (2015) intermediate-level work that is aware of recent developments in textual criticism is Fundamentals of New Testa­ment Textual Criticism, by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts.

 

 

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