Answering Unitarian Arguments #6: The Shaliach Defense

What is a Defense?

For the last two parts of this series, we will turn to some rejoinders, or defenses, that Unitarians turn to when seeking to handle Trinitarian arguments for the deity of Christ or other aspects of the Trinity they disagree with. First, I do want to make clear what I mean by defenses. Up until now, each article in this series has responded to an argument that, if sound, lends evidence either for Unitarianism specifically, or against the Trinity, and so indirectly favoring Unitarianism by attempting to refute a competing view. For the last 2 articles, I will be addressing a different kind of argument. A defense does not logically prove the view of the person using it. Nor does it even seek to prove the competing position false. Rather, it has, as its target, just one argument or type of argument given by the opposing side, in order to render that argument refuted and no longer truly useful to the other side if the defense is successful.

Looking back on this series, much of what I’ve written falls into this category. This is a series on answering Unitarian arguments, after all. This is not, primarily, a series that is intended to prove Unitarianism false or the Trinity true. It certainly has examined evidence that can be used in those kinds of arguments, and it isn’t devoid of those arguments, but, primarily, I have been engaging in argumentation that is defensive, answering what Unitarians put forth, categorized by type of argument.

Defensive argumentation is, on the one hand, absolutely necessary. It is the tool we use to give an answer when people ask us for the reasons we believe. It is how we respond to the attacks against the faith that are always present. So there is, of course, nothing wrong with defensive argumentation. However, we do need to be aware of its limitations. Since the target of a defensive argument is another argument, and not the belief or statement that the argument is intending to support, we have to realize that the most a defensive argument can do is to stop an argument. It doesn’t disprove the position that argument is meant to support. The most it can do is disprove the argument it defends against.

What this means is that a Unitarian argument of this kind may actually be successful, but all it does is expose a particular bad argument for the Trinity. It does not disprove the Trinity or establish Unitarianism. In fact, I’m always willing to weigh a defense against my argument to see if it really shows my argument to be bad. I think anyone engaging in this kind of activity ought to use only good arguments. There are definitely bad arguments on all sides of this issue and it is good when we can kick one out, no matter what side it’s on.

So, in the last two parts of this series, my purpose is to defend good Trinitarian arguments against the defenses used by Unitarians against those arguments. If my arguments here are sound, then, at least sometimes, the defenses offered by Unitarians against the arguments for the Trinity don’t work.  And if those defenses don’t work, then the Trinitarian arguments stand unrefuted.

What is a Shaliach, and why does it matter?

“Shaliach” is a Hebrew term, meaning “sent one”. It is much like the term “apostle” in the New Testament. It’s use by Unitarians is as a way of explaining how Jesus can be called “God” without being God. It is said that the “sent one” is a representative, and that in Jewish thinking, the representative is regarded as the one who sent him, so Jesus is regarded as God, but only representatively.

One of the most common arguments Trinitarians use is the argument that Scripture, in more than one way, calls Jesus “God”. It sometimes does this simply, like in Hebrews 1:8 , or in a more elaborate way, like in Philippians 2. Now, if you are a Trinitarian, but most of your experience in arguing for the Trinity has been confined to more prominent groups like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you have probably never heard of this defense. The reason is that both groups have their go-to defenses of when Scripture calls Jesus God. For the Mormons, they believe Jesus is God, just a separate God from the Father. So, the Scriptures calling Jesus God don’t really come up with Mormons, since the statement that “Jesus is God” isn’t actually an area of disagreement. The disagreement lies in how many true Gods there are and in the nature of God. This is reminiscent of what we discussed in the previous post regarding disputes between early Christians and early Gnostics. While they defined “Jesus” and “God” in different ways, the dispute was never over the statement “Jesus is God”, because both groups agreed with the statement, and disputed on other things. If you deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know that they say Jesus is “a god”, as in a lesser being that Jehovah God, but still a god in some way, so when Scripture calls Jesus God, they interpret those statements within their theology, not denying that He can be called “God” in a way.

For Unitarians, Jesus is a human being. He did not exist until he was conceived in Mary’s womb. He has great authority and power, but it is all given to Him and He is still strictly human. What this means is that Unitarians need a different way of explaining passages that call Jesus “God”. That is where the Shaliach defense comes in.

Of the prominent Unitarians we’ve discussed so far in this series—Anthony Buzzard, John Schoenheit, and Sean Finnegan—all of them have made this defense a part of how they handle Trinitarian arguments. Buzzard and Finnegan did so in debates with Trinitarians, and Schoenheit in a video discussing the Angel of Yahweh. But where do they go to find support for this argument? Anthony Buzzard’s debate partner, Joseph Good, in a 2v2 debate he did against Drs. James White and Michael Brown, cited the Jewish Encyclopedia to define the Jewish concept of agency. Schoenheit cited the same source, and both emphasized the statement “A man’s agent is as himself”. The idea is that if a person appoints an agent, then that agent can do and say things that legally bind the person who appointed them. This is then applied to Jesus in any situation where He is called “God”. This is then tied together with any Scripture that calls a person “God”, such as when God says that Moses will be “as God to Pharaoh.” (Exodus 7:1)

This argument is applied both to Jesus and to the Angel of Yahweh. Schoenheit does so to try to only connect the roles of the Angel and Jesus, but deny that they are the same Person or equal with God in any real sense.  In the debate, mentioned earlier, Joseph Good also argues that the Angel is the agent. In a different debate, Sean Finnegan doesn’t quote the encyclopedia or apply the concept to the Angel, but simply states that Jesus is called “God” representationally, just like Moses.

The Defense Evaluated

So, does this defense actually work? To answer this, I’m going come at the issue from several different angles. Ultimately, I think we will see that it doesn’t really do all it’s asked to do, and that it is actually inconsistent for most Unitarians to apply this defense, considering the other arguments they make.

The Defense Should Fit the Argument

As we’ve discussed in this series, there are different forms of argument that draw from different foundational ideas. On the one hand, you can argue from logic and philosophy, that the belief you’re attacking violates some logical law or consideration, and so can’t be true. Or, you could argue from Scriptural interpretation, that a position contradicts Scripture in some way. In some, more specific cases, you might argue textually, that a certain view is not likely due to the strength of a certain Scriptural text being the right one. You could argue morally, that the view in question implies that a certain behavior is ok, when you can argue that behavior is immoral.

Now, this should be fairly obvious, but actually gets overlooked a lot, especially in theological discussions, but if someone makes an argument for their view, a defense against that argument ought to defend in the same way that the argument itself is made, with one exception I’ll discuss in a moment. What this means is that, if someone makes a historical argument, that, at a certain time, a certain Scripture was interpreted a certain way. It doesn’t answer that argument to just offer a different interpretation. Sure, maybe that is a better interpretation, but to answer a historical argument, you would offer historical information.

The exception to this, in some cases, is where someone makes an argument that is inferior in type to another type of argument. In those cases, the superior argument type may overthrow the first argument. This is exactly what we have when discussing, for example, some versions of the argument from logic. As I said before, any argument must be “logical”, as in, it adheres to the laws of logic and doesn’t lead to any contradictions. However, some arguments from logic, as we saw before, really just boil down to discomfort with supposed implications of the Trinity. These arguments are of an inferior type to Scripture-based arguments for the Trinity, and so don’t really need much in the way of defense. Essentially, a Trinitarian could say, “Sure, the implications of the Scriptures we’re examining in support of the Trinity do lead to questions that are difficult or even impossible to answer, but that’s only a problem if we put our demand for answers to those questions above what the Scripture says.”

So, does this defense fit the arguments it’s defending against? It is brought up when a Trinitarian makes an argument, from the Scriptural text, that Jesus is God, since he is called God, has attributes and authority of God, and has Scriptures about God applied, without qualification, to Him, both by others and by Himself. The defense is also used with reference to the Angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament, since He is certainly, at times, distinct from God within a passage, and yet at times speaks as though He is Himself God. What ought to be apparent here is that it is Scripture, and a lot of Scripture, that informs these Trinitarian arguments. What Scriptures teach the Shaliach concept in order to explain these passages? The only passages are mentioned that use “God” are usually just Exodus 7:1, mentioned earlier, or the interpretation of Psalm 82 that sees the “gods” in that passage as people. None of these passages explains what a shaliach is. So, what we have here is a large number of varied Scriptural arguments, being answered by an argument from Jewish custom with no reference to how old this custom is, and only loosely connected to Scriptures. The defense just doesn’t fit the argument.

The Problem with a Defense

Let’s assume, for a moment, that every positive claim Unitarians make about Jesus as God’s representative is true. He is a shaliach, and the ultimate one, as the Messiah. What does this tell us about His nature? In every citation of the Jewish Encyclopedia to discuss the concept of the agent of God or the Shaliach, this is always defined as a role with legal ramifications, but it does not address the nature of the sent one or the one sending. In the end, a Trinitarian can affirm, without any contradiction in his own theology, that Jesus is God’s representative, but also God. We do this when talking about Him as God’s Son, so it’s no problem to say He is God’s representative.

This is a subtle issue. How big a problem this is for the defense depends on what the Unitarian thinks it proves. If all they are saying is that it shows a way for Jesus to be called God without implying His nature is the same as the Father’s, then it may be successful at that in a given case, but what it does not do is prove that Jesus isn’t God. When a Unitarian employs this defense, but then leans on it to say that Jesus isn’t God, then that is an invalid argument. The only way it can be valid is if the Unitarian adds the premise essentially saying “if Jesus represents God, then He isn’t God”. The problem is that this premise assumes what the Unitarian is setting out to prove, so it would be circular reasoning to suppose any premise like this to be the case.

The Sufficiency Problem

The idea that a concept like representation could account for all Scriptural arguments that Jesus is God is, when you think about it, a very large claim. The statement that Jesus represents God doesn’t carry much meaning with it other than that Jesus can speak and God is bound to what He says. Let’s compare that relatively simple concept to the various ways in which the Scriptures speak of Jesus as God.

Jesus is called “God” – In some cases, Jesus is just referred to as God, but even these have differences between them. Thomas call Him “my Lord and my God”, which may have allusions to the Shema. There are several places where Peter and Paul, in their letters, appear to call Him “God and Savior”, in passing. And of course, there is Hebrews 1:8, where the Father calls Him God, in a quotation from Psalm 45:6 about the king of Israel. Each of these has its own context and is unique in how it is calling Jesus “God”. The Unitarian says “representative” covers them all.

Jesus is implicitly called “God” – Here, we have passages, like Philippians 2 and John 1, which describe Jesus as God in some way other than just calling Him God. Again, they do this in their own unique ways. Philippians 2 says Jesus was in the “form of God”. We went over that passage in detail in a previous article in this series. John 1 talks about the Logos, or Word and says the Word was with God and was God, and later that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  Of course, Unitarians have their attempts to deal with some of these texts that are separate from the representative defense we are addressing here, but again, it is said that any reference to Jesus as God can be answered with this simple defense.

“Yahweh” passages are applied to Jesus – Jesus, at times, either applies Old Testament texts to Himself or other writers do so, when the text in question is unquestionably a text about God. These also come to us in more than one form, but we see, for example, in Romans 10:9 that we are called to confess “Jesus is Lord”, but then the foundation of that in verse 18 is a quotation of Joel 2:32 “Whoever calls on the name of the LORD (Yahweh) will be saved.” Examples are too numerous to rehearse here, but it would be simple to show that, by way of quotation of Old Testament passages, Jesus is called “Yahweh”, the personal name of the one God, much more often than He is called “God”. And since that is the personal name of God, rather than a generic term, it is even more telling. So the shaliach defense also needs to handle how, not just any name, but the name of God alone, is applied to someone other than God, and how a legal custom explains all the various ways Jesus is called “Yahweh”.

Divine activities and attributes are applied to Jesus – Jesus is creator of all things in John, Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, and Collossians. He is Lord of the Sabbath in John 5. He is the rider on the clouds, a title reserved only for Yahweh. He raised His own body from the dead, according to His own words in John 2. He accepts worship repeatedly and in religious contexts, even sharing the exact same exalted worship as the Father in Revelation 5, and is specifically separated in that text from “all creation”. He is found in the center of the throne of God in Revelation, where, in a scene of ever more exalted beings He is at the very top. He is prayed to by Stephen, an act of worship in itself but something only ever addressed to God. All of these things and many more are said to be answered by the statement. “Jesus was God’s representative.” And that is said to negate them all and show that it is all just figurative and He isn’t really God.

The Angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament – The Angel of Yahweh appears many times in the Old Testament, sometimes just speaking as a messenger from God would speak, but other times doing things like accepting sacrifices or claiming He was the one who did or said the things that God did or said. Unitarians argue that the modern statement, “A man’s agent is like himself”, makes it ok for a messenger to say he is God, but just in a representative sense.

Can a Jewish legal custom really cover all of that? If it does, what type of argument or text would actually convince a Unitarian that Jesus is God? When a concept is so elastic that it applies, basically by definition, to any possible argument, how would God even theoretically communicate to us that Jesus is God?

An Inconsistent Position

There is one more problem I want to address now, that I have been fighting myself not to discuss earlier in this post. That problem is that, for any prominent Unitarian I’m familiar with, there is no consistent way to use this defense, while also using any argument against the Trinity that attacks it for being defined with extra-biblical language. This is the old, “The word ‘Trinity’ isn’t in the Bible” argument. This also goes for other like arguments attacking other terms, like co-equal, essence, person, etc. And, of course, this is inconsistent with the argument that “The Trinity is nowhere explained in the Bible”, or that “Jesus is never described as a God-man or any equivalent.” The reason it is utterly inconsistent for the Unitarian to use any of these arguments and yet employ the shaliach defense is that “Shaliach” does not appear in the Bible, either. Nor the concept of agency as described here ever explicitly taught anywhere in Old or New Testament.

It may come as a surprise to hear that a Hebrew term is not actually in the Bible, but it isn’t. If you look up the word, you will find its verb form, shalah, which means, roughly, “to send forth”, is all over the Old Testament and is used for many things. It is the same word used for Adam when he “reached out” his hand to take the fruit, and when they were “cast out” of the Garden. The noun, though, as a title of an agent in this all-important law of agency, never appears in Scripture. Also, nowhere do we have any explanation of a law of agency either. There are examples of representatives, to be sure, both human and divine, but the details of their role are not ever made explicit.

Now, at this point I want to make an important statement. I am not saying that a person cannot derive concepts from Scripture that are not named or explicitly explained. I’m a Trinitarian. Of course I’m ok with believing doctrines that are based on Scripture, but not explained all in one place. And of course I’m ok with using words not found in Scripture to describe biblical truths. I’m not saying that a person cannot argue for concepts that aren’t explained or named in Scripture. I’m saying that Unitarians cannot argue for concepts that aren’t explained or named in Scripture. It is inconsistent with their arguments against the Trinity. Sure, logically speaking, one can be a Unitarian without using the “Trinity isn’t in Scripture” argument, but in the real world, I’ve never met or read or listened to a Unitarian who doesn’t use that argument in one form or another. By arguing that the Trinity is false because it isn’t named or explained in Scripture, the Unitarian must, to be consistent, reject any argument, of any kind, that depends on things not named or explained in Scripture. And the shaliach defense is just that.

Now, this defense is actually not comparable to the Trinity itself, since there really is no place or places in Scripture that can be reasonably brought together to get all that it is asked to do. As we saw, it is hardly sufficient to do all the work asked of it to answer all of the many and various ways the Scripture testifies to the Trinity and the deity of Christ.

The inconsistency of using this defense also has huge implications for many other defenses that Unitarians employ. It is a version of Jesus’ “representative” status that allows people to worship and pray to Him, but if Unitarians have to go into explanations using extra-biblical and non-ancient data to explain how Jesus is the ultimate shaliach, they have to do so even more to explain how it applies in each case where it is said to. In other words, not only is the concept not found explicitly, but its application to the specific Trinitarian arguments against which it is employed is also not found in Scripture. It is a concept that a Unitarian can bend into whatever shape he wants, depending on the Trinitarian argument he’s working with, but the irony is that none of the permutations this defense must take is ever affirmed in Scripture. How does it apply to the divine Name? The Angel of Yahweh? Jesus described as creator? Jesus worshiped and prayed to? To prove a good defense, not only would the concept have to be taught in Scripture, but its application to these very different situations would need to also be taught in Scripture.

Ultimately, the shaliach defense is something invented to answer arguments Unitarians can’t answer another way. It does not arise from the clear statements and implications of Scripture.

One Final Observation

Unitarians may have many individual defenses for particular passages, and that is fine and those can be argued individually, let’s remember one last thing. If Unitarians had consistent, Scriptural responses to all of the Scriptural arguments Trinitarians make, then they would have no need to depend on an unbiblical, anachronistic concept in any case, let alone in the many that we see it used. The fact that it is so commonly depended on should give one pause. Why, if Unitarianism is the biblical choice, does so much of it depend on a concept that does not come from the Scriptures, either explicitly or implicitly?

Series Navigation<< Answering Unitarian Arguments #5: The Argument from HistoryAnswering Unitarian Arguments #7: The Word Study Defense >>

6 thoughts on “Answering Unitarian Arguments #6: The Shaliach Defense”

  1. It is a concept that a Unitarian can bend into whatever shape he wants, depending on the Trinitarian argument he’s working with, but the irony is that none of the permutations this defense must take is ever affirmed in Scripture.

    GREAT POINT! The Shaliach Defense is so broad that it’s non-falsifiable (in the bad/negative sense). I’ve added your Blog and youtube channel to my own blog in defense of the Trinity:

  2. Great discussion on Shaliah. I think your strongest point is about how it disallows the text to claim that Jesus is God even if it wanted to. I think another good place to go perhaps is the early church’s understanding of the nature of Jesus. Surely if Shaliah was so popular as to invade every NT writer’s thinking then the early church would have never thought Jesus to be God. I would say one thing to your point that the claim to Shaliah does not claim that Jesus isn’t God: it doesn’t have to. It just has to dismantle the strongest trinitarian arguments and then utilize other Unitarian arguments to prove that Jesus isn’t God. So I don’t think a Unitarian would even claim that a Shaliah proves that Jesus isn’t God.

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