Answering Unitarian Arguments #4: Argument from Scriptures that Describe Jesus as a Distinct Person or as a Human Being

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Answering Unitarian Arguments

Whereas the previous article addressed what I take to be the primary motivator for Unitarianism, I believe this article addresses the argument that the most prevalent. The fundamental argument is that Jesus is different from God by virtue of two things. First, He is human and presented as human in Scripture, but God is not human, so we see the contrasts between Jesus’ humanity and God’s Deity. These differences show that Jesus is not God. Second, Jesus is a separate person from the Father, and therefore not the Father, and therefore not God.

I believe this argument is most prevalent in two ways. First, it is used almost universally among Unitarians as proof against the Trinity. Second, it has nearly innumerable different examples. Virtually any statement in Scripture that affirms or references Jesus’ humanity in any way is then used to contrast Him with the Deity of God. And any example of a distinction between the Father and Son in terms of roles or actions is also used in the same way. In this article, I will go over some examples, and it will become very clear that all arguments of this type suffer from the same problems.

Jesus is distinct from the Father

As I’ve alluded to already, this argument comes in two forms, which technically argue against different aspects of Trinitarian Doctrine. This first form I will address argues against Jesus being God on the basis of any difference or distinction at all between Him and the Father. This is not necessarily any reference to His humanity, but rather the fact that He is seen as “someone else” than God in Scripture. One example of this comes from Anthony Buzzard. He is fond of quoting a professor who said, “If you’re the Son of God, you’re not God.” This same argument is made in the book Jesus Christ is not God, by Victor Paul Wierwille, the late founder of the Way International. Wierwille said in his book that Jesus is called “God” a very small number of times, but “Son of God” over fifty times, so we should go with what Scripture says more, not less.

Both of these arguments fail for more than one reason. I’ve addressed the fallaciousness of arguing by counting texts and pitting Scripture against Scripture before, so I won’t rehash it all here, but that’s one problem with Wierwille’s argument. Specific to these arguments, there is a problem of question-begging. Begging the question means assuming that which you are setting out to prove. Another way of saying it is circular reasoning.  Here’s why. There are many ways that Scripture and people talking about Scripture define “God”, “Son”, and “Son of God”. There are ways of defining these terms, Scripturally, that render Buzzard’s and Wierwille’s arguments unsound. For example, if “Son of God” works like “sons of the prophets” in 1 Kings 20:35, then it means that the son of something just is that something. This is Scriptural language. This render’s Buzzard’s statement simply false. Now, there are other meanings, too. “Sons of God” does refer to spiritual beings in many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, but those beings are also called “gods” elsewhere.

A Trinitarian is fine defining these terms in any of the way Scripture does in context, and would define them in terms of Jesus to say that, when Jesus is called “God”, it is identifying either his nature or the fact that He is a member of the one, Triune God. When it calls Him “Son of God”, this may be a reference to his being the “Son” member of that Trinity, or possibly that he relates to the Father as a Son, or, if we look at how it appears in the Scriptures he had, a title for the King of Israel. Depending on the context, any of these might be in view, and not all of them are a reference to Deity, but some are. Most importantly, though, none of them are a denial of Deity.

My point is that for either of these Unitarian arguments to work, we must assume several things. We must assume “Son” has a meaning analogous to human sons, i.e. point of origin, birth, a father who existed prior, etc. Also, we must assume that “God” is a name of a Unitarian being, not God the Father in a Trinitarian sense. So, if we just want to look at it as simply as possible, Trinitarians believe Jesus is the Son of God because he relates to God the Father as a son would. Unitarians believe Jesus is the Son of God because he is the human offspring of God the Father, virginally conceived in Mary. The problem with both Unitarian arguments is that they only work if one assumes the Unitarian definition of “Son of God”. This is why they are circular.

These different definitions also highlight the other reason this type of argument never works to refute the Trinity. Part of the definition of the Trinity is that the Father and the Son are distinct persons. So when Buzzard says, “if you’re the Son of God, you’re not God”, I agree, if we are distinguishing between the persons. So if he means, “If you’re the Son of God the Father, you’re not God the Father”, I know of no Trinitarian who has a problem with that. The only way this distinction can pose any challenge to the Trinity is if we define the terms in a way that affirms Unitarianism before we even get started. There is no problem with distinguishing between the Persons of the Trinity. The problem is with Unitarian arguments that have to assume Unitarian definitions in order to work. And this ends up being the problem with any argument from the distinctions found in Scripture.

Jesus is Human

The other argument we will address here is the argument from Jesus’ humanity in contrast to God’s divine attributes. This is undoubtedly the most common argument you will find against the Trinity. Often, it is presented as a list of “contradictions” between statements about Jesus and statements about God that supposedly prove that Jesus cannot be God. Other times, one of these arguments is stressed individually. Let’s look at a representative of the list style, again coming from John Schoenheit, in an article called “Is Jesus God? Logical Questions that Need Answers”.

Question #1: If Jesus is God, how could he die for our sins?

1 Timothy 1:17
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

God cannot die, yet Jesus was killed and then resurrected (Acts 5:30). The Bible does not say that only his “human nature” died; it says that Jesus died, which would include all of Jesus (100%).

1 Corinthians 15:3
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.

This article goes on to ask further questions, showing the relevant Scriptures each time. I will just reproduce the rest of the questions here.

Question #2: How can Jesus be “God” and have a “God” at the same time?

Question #3: If Jesus was sitting at the right hand of God in heaven when the book of Revelation was written, why does Jesus continue to make such clear statements that our heavenly Father is his “God” if he himself is God?

Question #4: If God cannot be tempted by evil, yet Jesus was tempted in every way we are, how can he be God?

Question #5: If Jesus is God, then why does he pray to God and call Him “the only true God” in John 17:3?

Question #6: If Jesus is God, why did he pray at all?

Question #7: If Jesus is God, why did he say to his disciples: “Trust in God; trust also in me”?

Question #8: According to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father and Son are co-equal. If that is true, how can the Father be (in any way) greater than Jesus?

Question #9: How can Jesus “be like us in every way” and still be “100% man and 100% God”?

Question #10: If Jesus is God and God cannot be tempted, why would the Devil tempt Jesus?

Each of these, of course, has Scriptures and further argumentation by Schoenheit, but all can be simply addressed. These all concern, in one way or another, Jesus’ status as a real human being in contrast with what God is like. There is truly one answer that can be applied to every one of these questions, in its own way. The answer is that Trinitarians recognize that Scripture affirms that Jesus, in addition to being God, is also fully human. What this means is that He possesses all human attributes. Trinitarians point to Philippians 2, and the hymn found there.

5 Think this in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

6 who, existing in the form of God,

did not consider being equal with God something to be grasped,

7 but emptied himself

    by taking the form of a slave,

    by becoming in the likeness of people.

And being found in appearance like a man,

8 he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to the point of death,

that is, death on a cross.

9 Therefore also God exalted him

and graciously granted him the name above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bow,

    of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth,

11 and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

This passage describes how it is that Jesus is both God and man. He existed in the form of God already. Notice that in verse 6, Jesus does not come into existence but is “existing” in the form of God. Then, he “emptied himself”, and this emptying is then described for us as taking something, namely the “form of a slave”, which is then paralleled with “becoming in the likeness of people”. So, adding or “taking” humanity to Himself is how He “emptied” Himself. This teaches several things. He couldn’t do any of things if He didn’t exist prior to “becoming in the likeness of people”, so we find preexistence here. Also, there is a parallel found between “form of God” and “form of a slave”, so whatever “form” means, it must apply similarly to both aspects. We see an obvious parallel then with becoming the likeness of people to taking the form of a slave, so we know that “form of a slave” is referring specifically to his humanity, not his later obedience. This is then strengthened by the next verse, which makes it explicit by saying that, already “being found in appearance like a man”, He then “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” So the obedience is not parallel to the emptying, it follows the emptying.  Therefore, when we see the parallel “form” phrases, we know that if He was only metaphorically or figuratively or representatively God, then He was only metaphorically or figuratively or representatively human. But if He was by nature human, then he was by nature God. This, I believe is why translations like the NIV do not render the word for “form” literally, but as “the nature of”. They see the parallels and draw the conclusions you see here.

This is just one of the many passages in which Trinitarians see the two natures of Christ. He is both God and man. This passage then also further explains the consequence of this emptying and obedience. It says that “God exalted Him and graciously gave Him the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This illustrates that the human being, Jesus, is now given back all of the privileges and glory He formerly had as described in verse 6, but now as a man. And to make sure there is no confusion, and that this exaltation is seen correctly as full equality with the Father, Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23, applying this passage about Yahweh directly to Jesus.

I have sworn by myself;

a word that shall not return has gone forth from my mouth in righteousness:

‘Every knee shall kneel down to me;

    every tongue shall swear.’

Now, Unitarians will dispute this interpretation of the passage, of course. For my purposes here, it is not necessary to answer all of their objections. Suffice it to say at this point that I was able to walk right through the text, without jumping to other contexts or bringing in other information, and draw directly from the text the dual nature of Christ and His exaltation as God. The point of looking at the text is to illustrate my earlier point about how it is Trinitarians answer the questions related to differences between Jesus’ human attributes and attributes of God. The answer, found in this text and elsewhere, is that Jesus has eternally possessed all divine attributes as the eternal Son of God, and, from the time He took on flesh, He has possessed all human attributes as well. So, when we see that Jesus died, we have no problem with that, He was a human being, and came for that purpose. When Scripture says he has a God and worships and prays to that God, again, this is not a problem. What would you expect a perfect human being to do?

Some of Schoenheit’s questions also fall into the same category of mistake I responded to in part 1 of this series. For example, he asks,

Question #6: If Jesus is God, why did he pray at all?

Simple answer: He is also a man, and men must pray. This shows that Schoenheit is judging the two natures of Christ the same way he judges the Trinity. He has some idea in his mind of what it would be like for Jesus to be God that contradicts the Scriptures and says Trinitarians are contradicting the Scriptures. But of course, Trinitarians don’t have the same idea of what Jesus is like that Schoenheit thinks they do. Trinitarians derive their picture of Jesus from all the Scriptures concerning Him. If you really examine these questions, you begin to see that the only position they challenge is one that says Jesus is only God in nature, and not human. When I read these questions, I realize that this is the reason I used to find them convincing. I did not understand that Jesus has two natures, nor did I know what Trinitarians meant by Jesus being God and man. When I understood that Trinitarians affirm each and every Scripture concerning the humanity of Christ with just as much conviction as any Unitarian, I found the lion’s share of my objections to the Deity of Christ were nullified. Unitarians, when they are using this type of argument, and they all do, can only do so by either misunderstanding or misrepresenting the Trinitarian position on Jesus’ two natures.

A Unitarian Rejoinder

I want to address one rejoinder some Unitarians offer with regards to Trinitarians’ affirmation of Jesus two natures and belief that this answers any challenge related to a difference between Jesus and the Father. Sean Finnegan argues that for Trinitarians to say that Jesus was “100% God and 100% man” is logically incoherent. He does this by analogy.

It is possible to be both fully God and fully man if and only if both natures are entirely compatible. To illustrate this, one can consider a man who has children. It can be said that he is both a father and a son at the same time. He is a father to his children, and he is the son of his father. Thus, he is 100% a father and 100% a son at the same time! Even so, this is only possible because there is no contradiction of attributes between these two relationships. However, another analogy may be the case: imagine trying to fill one glass with milk up to the brim and then filling that same glass with an equal amount of water. This is impossible because both substances require the same full volume of the glass. The best one can do is to fill the glass with 50% of each milk and water, but that is not what the doctrine of the hypostatic union requires. It is important to determine which of these two analogies is applicable. Below is a chart containing a few of the attributes of deity and the corresponding attributes of humanity. If any one of the two rows conflicts with the other, then the latter of the two analogies applies, and we have a logical contradiction of substance.

The first analogy was one that said the same man can be both a father and a son, and he is not just 50% of each. Percentages don’t factor in that case. This is followed by the above quote. The quote is followed by a simple list of attributes of deity and humanity to show contradiction and insist that the analogy of liquids must apply.

So how is this answered? Well, it would be good in this case to put Finnegan’s argument into logical form so we can see if it is valid and address premises individually.

  1. If Jesus has two natures, then either the relation analogy applies to Him or the liquid analogy applies to Him.
  2. If Jesus has two natures, then He is 100% God and 100% man.
  3. If the liquid analogy applies to Him, then He is not 100% God and 100% man
  4. If the relation analogy applies to Him, then there is no contradiction between the natures.
  5. If there is a difference between the two natures, then there is a contradiction between the natures.
  6. There is a difference between the two natures.
  7. Therefore, there is a contradiction between the natures
  8. Therefore, the relation analogy does not apply to Him.
  9. Therefore, if Jesus has two natures, the liquid analogy applies to Him.
  10. Therefore, He is not 100% God and 100% man.
  11. Therefore, Jesus does not have two natures.

I have added some assumed premises to make this a valid argument. In normal writing, people leave some things to the reader and don’t necessarily make every premise explicit, but I feel this does accurately represent Finnegan’s argument. So validity is not an issue. I think he makes 1 pretty explicit. 2 is just a common Trinitarian explanation of Jesus’ two natures, which his argument seems to assume. His explanation of what I’m calling the liquid analogy implies 3, and his statement that “if any one of the two rows conflicts…then the latter of the two analogies applies” would imply 4. His statement about conflicts between the rows implies 5, and the lists themselves imply 6. The rest of the argument is implied by these statements.

So, the argument is valid, but is it sound? Are all of the premises, 1-5, true? Or, must Trinitarians accept 1-5 as true on their own theology? I think this argument fails on several counts. Several of the premises would not be accepted by Trinitarians, for both theological and Scriptural reasons. Starting at the top, premise one is suspect, both because it makes the foundation of the entire argument to be analogies, and just these two analogies at that. Does Finnegan really think that only these 2 analogies could be possible? And, since we are talking about God, who is unique and not a part of the created order, is there likely to be any analogy that would accurately portray this situation? Finnegan doesn’t give us any particular reason to accept this either/or situation, and, due to the propensity for analogies to break down, it seems highly unlikely that premise 1 is true.

Concerning premise 2, there is no objection from Trinitarians to the statement on its face, since this is a way Trinitarians describe Jesus’ two natures quite often. Premise 3 is not objectionable either, since it doesn’t commit the Trinitarian to accepting the liquid analogy. Premise 4 is also ok on its own, but premise 5 is, once again, something not accepted by Trinitarians. Trinitarians discuss openly the differences between man and God, and apply those differences to the human and divine natures of Christ. They see no contradiction because they see statements about Jesus that describe his humanity to be true of Him with regard to that humanity, while statements about Jesus that describe attributes of Deity to be true of Him with regard to His Deity. This is a truly unique situation. If Jesus has two natures, then He is possibly the only thing in existence like that.

The liquid analogy, while it may apply to liquids, may not apply to Jesus. One simple way to make the analogy irrelevant is to define “100%” as this: Having 100% of the attributes of that nature. In other words, Jesus has all of the human attributes and all of the divine attributes. Seeing it that way, it is not that “100%” applies to Jesus, but rather to the natures. Later Trinitarian creeds are clear on the point that the natures do not mix. The only issue then is the unanswered question of just how it is that one person can function like that. This is not a contradiction, but a question. It is one Trinitarians don’t really have an answer to, but only because that much is not revealed in Scripture, and concerns an infinite and infinitely powerful and wise God. We may never know, but that doesn’t mean that it’s false that Jesus has two natures.

One analogy I’ve heard but not really examined in too much detail is that of the Scriptures themselves. The doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration is implies that the Scriptures are both divine and human in origin. That is to say, every single detail of Scripture comes, in one sense, directly from God. For this reason, it was written down in such a way that exactly what God wanted to be written was written and it is perfect and without error in the originals. In this sense, it is 100% from God. However, it is not the case that God simply took over the mind and body of the human writers themselves, so that they were just mindlessly writing what He made them write. Rather, they wrote exactly what they wanted to, for the reasons they had in mind, and their voice is preserved in the text. There is no part of the text that did not come, in this way, from the human writers. In other words, the human writers’ thinking and communication is on the entire text, not just parts of it. So for this reason, it is also 100% human in character.

Even with this analogy, the Scriptures themselves are a divine/human communication, not a divine/human Person. Regardless, Finnegan’s insistence that any difference implies some logical contradiction, while it would likely be true of anything with only one nature, the fact is that he doesn’t know this is true with respect to Christ. And this is the main problem with the whole argument. How does Finnegan or any Unitarian know what it would be like for one person to have two natures? They don’t, and it’s as simple as that. So when they argue that the two natures have contradictory attributes, Trinitarians would agree, but so what? How does Finnegan know that the way the two natures interact in Christ must cause contradictions? What can he compare it to that isn’t woefully inadequate as a part of the created order? His argument implies that God must not have the ability to become a man at all. But, when you look at it closely, you see that there is no explicit contradiction, only questions we can’t answer. He would have to know the answer to these questions in order to say, conclusively, that every premise in this argument is true.

A Different Perspective

Since no contradiction can be made explicit in two-natures Christology, why do Unitarians continue to use this kind of argument? I believe it stems, ultimately, to the commitment to monotheism. They believe that any plurality threatens monotheism, so it just cannot be the case that Jesus, obviously not the same Person as the Father, is also God, and so the differences between divine and human nature are interpreted within this worldview. Then, any Scriptural reference to Deity related to Jesus must be explained away, because it does not fit the conclusion that He is not God.

There is another way to approach the Scriptures. If we just take at face value both the Scriptures that affirm Jesus’ humanity, and the Scriptures that affirm His deity, we may come away with unanswered questions, but we will develop a Christology and theology that reflect the Scriptures as a whole, rather than being in the position of having to “answer” Scripture, rather than just embracing it. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any difficulties to overcome, but it is much more solid ground than depending on what we would “reasonably expect” the Scriptures to be like. I can put this another way. Consider the following three items.

  1. Scriptures affirming Jesus’ humanity without qualification
  2. Scriptures affirming Jesus’ deity without qualification
  3. Statements about Jesus that are easy for our human reason to accept

Each of these items is a category of statements. No matter who you are, if you take the Scriptures to be the words of God, you are going to have to reject one of these categories of statements. If you’re a Unitarian, you are likely to reject the second category. If you’re a gnostic, you would reject the first category. And if you’re a Trinitarian, you reject the third category. In any case, no one has the luxury of embracing all three. If you’re a Unitarian, you reason like this: Scripture is clear that Jesus was a man, and our reason cannot accept that humanity alongside a belief that He is God, therefore, any Scriptures that appear to say that He is God must have alternate explanations. If you’re a Trinitarian, then you reason like this. Scripture is clear that Jesus was a man, and Scripture is clear in affirming that He is God, therefore, the fact that these are difficult for our reason to accept means that we should question, not logic itself, but our natural tendencies of thought.

I ask, which is more solid ground to stand on, to stand on human expectations and to have to explain away Scripture, or to stand on all of Scripture and to have to explain away human expectations? I look at Sean Finnegan’s challenge to the doctrine of Jesus’ two natures, and its entire foundation is analogies out of his own mind. The Scriptures he appeals to only challenge the Trinitarian understanding of Jesus if we accept his intuitions and analogies. So, really, there is no true, Scriptural challenge to two-natures Christology. It rests on Scripture and no Scripture contradicts it. The only arguments Unitarians can muster come from their own intuitions about Scripture, not Scripture itself. So two-nature Christology stands.

To make this explicit, let me finish this article by making a list of my own, with the Unitarian statement, followed by the Trinitarian answer to a handful of these arguments.

U: Jesus died. God cannot die.

T: Jesus was human, too, and humans can die, even if that human is also God in the flesh.

U: Jesus was ignorant. God is omniscient.

T: Jesus was human, and as a human being he could be ignorant, even if he is also God.

U: Jesus was tempted. God cannot be tempted.

T: Jesus was human, and so could be tempted. This is not a problem.

U: Jesus was begotten. God has no beginning.

T: Jesus was a human being that had a beginning, but prior to the beginning of the human being, Jesus “existed in the form of God”.

U: God said, “this day I have begotten you”, so he began at a certain time.

T: That phrase refers to His enthronement in heaven after the resurrection. Wherever it appears, it refers to enthronement, not origin.

The belief in the two natures of Christ is much like the Trinity itself. It is not that both natures are frequently taught together, though Philippians 2 does so. Rather, the Scriptures teach His human nature at times and His deity at times. Trinitarians simply accept all that the Scriptures say about Jesus.

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