Answering Unitarian Arguments #7: The Word Study Defense

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

We now come to the last article of this series, in which we will discuss another defense used commonly by Unitarians to answer Trinitarian Scriptural arguments. I call this the word study defense. Here’s how it works. When a Trinitarian makes an argument from a given Scripture to the conclusion of a Trinitarian truth, such as the deity of Christ, the Unitarians searches the Bible to find any possible example that says something similar, but doesn’t lead to a Trinitarian conclusion. Many Unitarian books and websites have sections devoted to answering the Scriptural arguments advanced by Trinitarians, and quite a lot of them fall into this category.

John Schoenheit’s Biblical Unitarian website has a section called “Common Verses”, in which it answers some Trinitarian arguments from Scripture. Out of the 97 articles on this page, referenced by the passage being addressed, by my count there are 49 that use this defense in some form. Other websites are similar, some with more, some with less comprehensive lists and responses.

When This Works

First, I do want to address the simple fact that, at times, this defense may be entirely appropriate and expose a bad, or at least weak, argument for the Trinity. For example, if a specific word is a general term that has many referents depending on context, and is then used of Jesus, we shouldn’t assume anything special about its use in Jesus’ case, without other factors that make it unique. For example, Jesus is generally called “King”, “high priest”, “master”, etc. The use of these phrases of Jesus does not say anything about His status other than what they communicate themselves. If a Trinitarian were to say, “Jesus is King. God is King. Therefore, Jesus is God”, then it would be perfectly appropriate to point out that lots of people are called “king”. There’s a whole book called “Kings”, so it would indeed be a very weak argument to say that this title indicated deity.

For this reason, I do not take this defense to be bad in principle, but I do believe it is far more limited than the Unitarians who use it seem to think.

A Hermeneutical Misstep

One general weakness this defense has is that looking at all the places a particular word is used in the Bible is a terrible way to know what the correct interpretation of the text you’re examining is. This can cause us to come to the text in the wrong way. We should be following the flow of the text and interpreting words and phrases in light of the text at hand, first. When we have an unusual or difficult phrase, it may help to see how that phrase is used elsewhere, but this doesn’t give us warrant to just assume that’s what it means in the text in question.

On the other hand, this does not mean we should just go with whatever first enters our mind as a meaning. Sometimes there are words and phrases that get used in very particular, technical ways in Scripture, and we should be sensitive to that. Sometimes these technical meanings are universal for a given word, and sometimes not. It is generally wise, whenever you hear an interpretation that defines a word a certain way as soon as it comes up, but never supports that definition, to be careful with that interpretation. But the opposite caution is also true. Be wary of any interpretation that takes a word out of its context in the passage, goes over all the possible meanings, and picks whichever one the writer/speaker wants, as if any of those meanings is valid in the given context, or worse, after picking one meaning out of many, the conclusion is said to be the only reasonable one. These considerations will become rather important as we look at this defense.

Should We Worship Jesus?

This one example could be an entire article on its own, so I won’t be able to go into all the depth that could be done. However, this is probably one of the most prominent examples of how this defense gets utilized.

There are several Scriptures that depict the worship of Jesus by various people in the Gospels (Matt. 2:2, 2:8, 2:11, 8:2, 14:33, Luke 24:52, John 9:38), as well as worship by heavenly beings (Heb. 1:6), and by both at the same time (Rev. 5:13-14). The Trinitarian Scriptural argument is that the clear teaching of the Old Testament and the New Testament is that we are to worship only God, and since Jesus accepts this worship, both when he was on earth and now in heaven, He must actually be God, or this worship would be blasphemous. Now, I’ve purposefully made the Trinitarian argument as simple as possible, so that the Unitarian defense will look as good as possible. We will then look at how robust this Trinitarian argument actually is.

To answer all of these passages, the Unitarian argument is to look at the Greek word used in each of these cases for “worship”, proskuneo. The Greek word has a range of meanings, but is often translated in terms of bowing down or prostrating. We could look at virtually any Unitarian’s work and find the same argument, but an easily quotable example does come from John Schoenheit:

The Greek word proskuneo (Strong’s number 4505) comes from the Greek words pros, “to” or “toward,” and kuneo, “to kiss.” It literally means to kiss the hand to (toward) someone in token of reverence, and among the Orientals, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence. Hence, in the New Testament it means kneeling or prostration to do homage or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication. [2]

The examples of “worship” in the Bible confirms that in the biblical culture, people bowed down before those to whom they wanted to show respect or honor. Lot “worshipped” (shachah) the strangers who came to Sodom even though he had never seen them before. He prostrated himself before them to show them respect (Gen. 19:1). Moses “worshipped” (shachah) his father in law, whom he respected and honored (Ex. 18:7). Abigail “worshipped” (shachah) David. She honored him by prostrating herself before him. These three examples can be multiplied many times over, but they show that when someone wanted to honor another, he would fall down before him. The act of falling down is called “worship,” and reveals the heart of the worshipper—respect and honor towards the one being worshipped.

These examples are expanded upon in the article, but if you read the whole thing, you get the distinct impression that “worship” is not something reserved for God at all. The word is defined concretely in its expanded range of meaning, so that the conclusion of Schoenheit’s article is this:

As we have seen, because the English word “worship” is often only used in Scripture of God and Jesus, it is often believed that only they can be “worshipped,” or even that Jesus must be God. This short study should have made it clear that anyone deserving of honor and respect can be “worshipped.” In the biblical culture, the “worship” was evidenced by bowing. However, in our Western society today it is not our custom to bow down to authority figures. Nevertheless, we do honor them, respect them, and in some cases should obey them. If we today honor a notable person by addressing him as “Sir,” singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and giving him presents, we do not call that “worship,” but in fact those acts are one way we in Western society would “worship” someone.

This article, like much of Schoenheit’s work, tries to keep things simple to a fault. There is no real distinction between the honor and obedience we give people in legal authority over us and our worship and adoration of the one true God. In the entire article, Schoenheit’s only purpose is to say that this word, “worship” can be applied more broadly than to God. He stops there. He does not answer how it might look different depending on its object.

In a previously mentioned debate, Anthony Buzzard said that it’s ok to worship Jesus because God “so ordained”, but that we don’t worship Jesus “as God”, but rather “as Lord Messiah”. He hasn’t always made this so explicit, and sometimes presents this concept in a more generic way, much like Schoenheit, but, in either case, the Greek word proskuneo is invoked and it’s wide range of meaning given as evidence that worship of Jesus is ok and doesn’t mean He is God, since worship gets applied to others as well.

An Answer to the Word Study

So, does this word study technique accurately deal with the Trinitarian argument? I think, if all there was to go on in the Bible was the fact that people bowed down to Jesus during His earthly ministry, and even after, honored Him in the same way as our resurrected King, then the Unitarian might have, at least, enough of a defense that the argument from the worship of Jesus would be fairly weak. And, indeed, that is how Unitarians typically treat it.

However, the testimony of Scripture is far more nuanced and full in its treatment of this issue, and the larger argument is not typically addressed.  In Schoenheit’s entire article, quoted above, there is only one paragraph given to any kind of mitigation on who can be worshiped. That paragraph gives about 1 or two sentences each to consideration of three passages (Ex. 23:24, Acts 10:25-26, Rev. 22:8-9). That is all. He says that, from these passages, it is wrong to worship other gods, and that in certain cases, it may be ok for a man or angel to refuse worship because of how they feel about it. Space prohibits deeper discussion of this paragraph, but I note it here because it is literally the only time in the entire article that an example of worship is ever hinted at as being inappropriate. The main thrust of the article and many treatments of this issue is to make worship as widely applied an activity as possible, to try to lessen the importance of when Jesus is worshiped.

So, how do we answer the word study? We look deeper at the actual texts that are actually teaching on this subject. First, we stay in the passages and seek to determine their meaning, also looking at the context of the book they are found in and what is going on there. Jumping completely out of the book and bringing in stuff from other books, authors, or even Testaments is a red flag. Again, this isn’t automatically wrong, but if the meaning of a passage cannot be found at all without all this jumping around, then there’s a problem. If we are going to bring texts together on a subject, they ought to be texts, not just where a word (and one with a range of meaning) is used, but rather where a specific subject is being addressed. In this case the subject is worship, and more specifically, what is worship of God supposed to be like and in what way might it be exclusive to God? I know these are the right questions to ask because that is what Jesus says.

Matthew 4:10

Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan, for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”

This verse is not addressed by Schoenheit, and you won’t typically find it discussed when Unitarians are talking about worship of Jesus. And it is easy to see why. If worship is just this generally acceptable thing and in Scripture it is just the honor given to an individual who deserves it, why would Jesus say specifically that we are only to worship God? And notice He is quoting the Old Testament. Specifically, he is combining the ideas found in Deuteronomy 6:13 and 10:20. A Unitarian might say that Jesus is answering Satan’s temptation to worship him and that we are definitely not to worship Satan or demonic forces, and that is true, but that is a distraction. Jesus does not say, “Only worship those in authority, but not demonic forces.” Jesus says to worship and serve “only” God. So how does this exclusivity work when compared to other passages in which the propriety of who deserves worship is actually being addressed?

Acts 10:25-26

25 So it happened that when Peter entered, Cornelius met him, fell at his feet, and worshiped him. 26 But Peter helped him up, saying, “Get up! I myself am also a man!

Acts 14:11-15

11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices in the Lycaonian language, saying, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us!” 12 And they began calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, because he was the principal speaker. 13 And the priest of the temple of Zeus that was just outside the city brought bulls and garlands to the gates and was wanting to offer sacrifice, along with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard about it, they tore their clothing and rushed out into the crowd, shouting 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, proclaiming the good news that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all the things that are in them

Revelation 19:10

And I fell down before his feet to worship him, and he said to me, “Do not do that! I am a fellow slave of you and of your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

Notice what each of these passages generally have in common. The worship offered to Peter, Paul, and the angel are rejected, and the reason given is an equality between the ones attempting to worship and the one worshiped. For the men, they specifically make reference to their status as men. For the angel, it is his status as “fellow slave”, or a similar role. For Peter and Paul, notice that they do not follow the pattern the Unitarian is attempting to establish. They do not reject the worship because of an equality of rank, but rather, an equality of nature. If we are to believe the Unitarian argument, then worship is just honoring of another person, and this is ok with people or God. There’s no difference. The only reason it would be rejected is if the person worshiped thinks they are unworthy either of any honor or to be honored by a specific person, but that is not ever a reason given for rejecting worship. They make reference to being men. It is their nature, not their rank, that informs their rejection.  And in Paul’s case, and the angel’s case, they also call for this worship to be redirected to God. He is the proper one to be worshiped. This is in keeping with Jesus’ statement to Satan. It is only God who is to be worshiped.

So how does this fit with all the passages the Unitarian brings up that supposedly report worship being given to men? It really is quite simple. The problem, for the Unitarian, is that he is insisting that whenever a certain word is used in the original languages, it must have the same meaning. That is the only way the argument has any force. If, like words commonly do, proskuneo has a range of meanings, then we cannot assume the same meaning whenever we see the word. We have to look at the context. If people are bowing down before people of higher rank than them, and there’s no problem, what is the context? Almost universally, it is a non-religious setting, whether political or familial, in which one person is of higher rank than another, or the person bowing down wants to show respect by assuming a stranger is higher rank than them. However, in a religious context, bowing down before men or angels is strictly forbidden. It is this reason, not biased “mistranslation”, that causes translators to translate the same Greek or Hebrew word as simply “bowing” in one context, and “worshiping” in another. They see the context and allow passages like those quoted above to inform their translation decisions. Our English word, “worship”, does not have the same range as the Greek word it translates, and so it is used consistently for religious settings.

If you look at the worship of Jesus, on earth, but especially in heaven, you can see that it is unquestionably religious worship, even the same worship given to the Father in Revelation 5. Also, integral with worship is prayer. In Acts 7:59, Stephen prays to Jesus. Prayer is never righteously given to men anywhere. Unitarians typically brush this off with the Shaliach defense in some form, but it is never warranted in Scripture to offer prayers to someone who is less than God.

The Unitarian position doesn’t draw any of its interpretation of worship of Jesus from the actual texts in which it happens, or other texts that are related to them. The word study defense has to go find other contexts and, without warrant, force them onto the texts in question.

The One and Only Savior

I started with the “worship” word study because, to me, it looks like the strongest word study defense, at least in terms of number of references, that the Unitarian has. Let’s look at another.

Isaiah 43:11

I myself am Yahweh,

and there is no savior besides me!

This verse was one of the most influential in my conversion. I had a way that I described my theology when speaking with Christians. If the Trinity came up, I would say I don’t believe it. I would say I don’t believe Jesus is God. When I talked about what I did believe, however, the first thing I would always say is that I believe Jesus is the Savior. I would follow that with other titles I was comfortable applying to Jesus, in an effort to show that I was a Christian, too, just not a Trinitarian one. At that time, I had read fairly extensively on this subject, but had never read this verse in all of my study of Unitarianism and Trinitarianism. So, needless to say, this hit me hard. Now, of course, I did not just convert on the spot. I went to my resources and sought answers to this verse, and I found the word study defense of this verse.

Let’s look again at Schoenheit’s answer to this text. Here are some excerpts.

Some Trinitarians believe that Christ must be God because they are both called “Savior.” There are many references to God the Father being called “Savior.” That makes perfect sense because He is the author of the plan of salvation and is also very active in our salvation. For example, God, the Father, is called “Savior” in Isaiah 43:11, 1 Timothy 1:1; 2:3; 4:10; Titus 1:3; 2:10; 3:4; Jude 25. Jesus Christ is called “Savior” because he is the agent who carried out God’s plan, and without whom it could not have come to pass.

So, Schoenheit’s view is that, God is the ultimate Savior, but Jesus is Savior, too, because he was the one God sent. Schoenheit then goes on to give the word study defense in the following.

The term “savior” is used of many people in the Bible. This is hard to see in the English versions because, when it is used of men, the translators almost always translated it as “deliverer.” This in and of itself shows that modern translators have a Trinitarian bias that was not in the original languages. The only reason to translate the same word as “Savior” when it applies to God or Christ, but as “deliverer” when it applies to men, is to make the term seem unique to God and Jesus when in fact it is not.

Charges of translational bias are another common tactic for Unitarians, but here we see, clearly, that there is a term that is used of God and of men, and translated “savior”, so this proves there are other saviors besides God. Open-and-shut, right? Jesus can be called “savior” without being God.

Well, just like with the previous example, the word study defense leaves one lacking something. As we saw before, the word study defense seeks to expand the meaning and range of a term to others besides God in order to apply it to Jesus, but in doing so, it doesn’t go back and deal with the text we started with. God said there is no savior besides Him. What did he mean by that? Schoenheit, in the first quote above, does give an answer, that God is the author of salvation, but he may appoint others to carry out the work. Now, as far as it goes, I don’t disagree with that.

Here’s a problem with this defense. First, Schoenheit, and other Unitarians like him, do not deal seriously with passages like Isaiah 43:11 in this kind of defense. Second, this interpretation creates two categories of savior, one occupied by God alone, and one occupied by men. So, which one does Jesus fit into? This argument just assumes that Jesus is a savior like the others God has raised up, rather than the Author of Salvation, alongside the Father. There is no argument for why we should put Jesus in the lower category. These two issues are the common ones that cause the word study defense to fail. Let’s look at each in turn to see why this defense fails.

First, let’s look at a few passages about God as Savior from the context of Isaiah.

Isaiah 43:3

For I am Yahweh, your God,

the holy one of Israel, your savior.

Isaiah 43:10-13

10 “You are my witnesses,” declares Yahweh,

“and my servant whom I have chosen

so that you may know and believe in me

and understand that I am he.

No god was formed before me,

    and none shall be after me.

11 I myself am Yahweh,

and there is no savior besides me!

12 I myself declared and saved,

and I proclaimed. And there was no strange god among you.

And you are my witnesses,” declares Yahweh,

“and I am God.

13 Indeed, from this day I am the one,

and no one can deliver from my hand.

I perform, and who can cancel it?”

Isaiah 45: 21

Declare and present your case, also let them consult together! Who made this known from former times, declared it from of old? Was it not I, Yahweh? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God besides me, and no savior besides me.

Here we see, repeatedly, that when God talks about being the Savior, it is connected with Him being God. His status as the “only savior” is contrasted in chapter 43, verses 12 and 13 by contrast with other gods. He says he alone saved and “there was no strange god among you”, and says “no one can deliver (save) from my hand”. So God is essentially saying, “I am Yahweh, your only true God and so only I can truly save you. Don’t depend on other gods.” So when we see, in other books of the Bible, others Yahweh raised up as deliverers or saviors, what is the difference? If you read carefully, other deliverers were saving Israel from their enemies, other nations. None of them are involved in any spiritual salvation or giving of eternal life. That role belongs only to God. Notice also that other, human saviors are never called the “only” savior in any sense. They had limited roles that were not unique. God’s position as “only Savior” is connected to His position as “only God” repeatedly.

So, which kind of Savior is Jesus? Is His salvation like God’s, or like the human deliverers’? Is He just one savior among many, or is He alone? Instead of assuming the answer based on overriding theological commitments, let’s look at how the Scripture describes Jesus’ role as Savior.

Matthew 1:21

And she will give birth to a son, and you will call his name ‘Jesus,’ because he will save his people from their sins.”

Romans 10:9,13

9 that if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…13 For “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Quoting Joel 2:32 – And it will happen—everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be rescued

Acts 4:10-12

let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man stands before you healthy! 11 This one is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, that has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that is given among people by which we must be saved.”

Acts 13:23

From the descendants of this man, according to his promise, God brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus.

Consider this handful of passages about Jesus’ office as Savior. First, He saves His people from their sins, so he is not just like the previous “deliverers” who were just military commanders. Second, in Romans, Paul clearly connects salvation to acknowledging Jesus as “Lord”, but makes it clear by his quotation of Joel 2:32 that he is not just saying to acknowledge Jesus’ rulership, but rather, to identify Him as Yahweh God. The reason calling Jesus “Lord” saves is because He is Yahweh, and Yahweh saves. So, of the two categories of savior given in the Old Testament, Jesus clearly falls into the “God” category. In Acts 4, we have more of this in the exclusivity of Jesus position. Jesus is the only one who can save, a strange thing to say if God is the only Savior. Here, though, we see a difference. It says there is no other name “under heaven” that can save. Then in Acts 13:23, we see that God brought to Israel Jesus as savior. So, in addition to being identified within the “God” category of savior, Jesus is also identified within the “human” category of savior. For the Trinitarian, nothing in any of these passages needs to be explained away. Jesus is both God and man and that is reflected in how He is spoken of as Savior. The Unitarian, on the other hand, must insist that He is only in the human category of savior, and look for ways around the other texts.

So, once again, we find the word study defense to be lacking. As before, it fails to handle what these passages are actually saying about Jesus. And, as before, there is no further Scriptural statement that tells us to put Jesus in the category they are saying He occupies. They have to assume their conclusion based on their theology.

Plurality in the Hebrew Scriptures

We have examined before the undisputable fact that the Old Testament has plurality in it when speaking of God, and that this was noticed and written about by the Jewish people before the time of Christ. These facts are, perhaps, the most difficult, tactically speaking, for Unitarians to handle. When it comes to certain Scriptural statements, they use what they can from other texts to work around what is being said. And this is no different when looking at plurality passages in the Old Testament. Because these passages predate the coming of Christ, and thus the full revelation of the Trinity, they are understandably less clear and more ambiguous than New Testament passages. This leads many Unitarians to just dismiss them. The problem, as noted before, is that the Jews, who knew nothing of Christ or the Trinity, nonetheless speak a lot like Trinitarians in terms of applying plurality to God. Thus, it cannot be said that seeing plurality in the Old Testament is a Trinitarian novelty. It just isn’t.

So how do Unitarians deal with them? One, Anthony Buzzard, has attempted to do so with a version of the word study defense. He uses it to answer this verse:

Genesis 19:24

Yahweh rained down from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Yahweh.

There appears to be two Yahweh’s in this passage. One Yahweh is in heaven, from which the brimstone and fire come, and another Yahweh, possibly standing on earth, is calling down the destruction. Anthony Buzzard, in an attempt to address this kind of passage, looks to two texts to word study this argument away.

1 Kings 8:1

At that time, Solomon assembled the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes, and the leaders of the families of the Israelites before King Solomon, in order to bring up the ark of the covenant of Yahweh from the city of David, that is, Zion.

Genesis 4:23

Then Lamech said to his wives,

“Adah and Zillah, listen to my voice;

O wives of Lamech, hear my words.

I have killed a man for wounding me,

Even a young man for injuring me.

Now, the simple fact that someone refers to himself in the third person, as Lamech does, doesn’t indicate plurality, this is true. And God often does this as well and Trinitarians do not take that to indicate another person. As for the 1 Kings reference, it does bear some similarity to Genesis 19, and if Genesis 19:24 were the only thing in the Old Testament that pointed to plurality within God, I would join with Unitarians in saying it certainly doesn’t prove much.

Now, if you read my previous article on this subject, you’ve gotten a small start, but I would direct you to a very interesting series of articles by blogger Dominic Bnonn Tennant, and there are various videos available from ancient Hebrew Scholar Michael Heiser that can flesh out the many and various ways that plurality is presented in the Old Testament. For our purposes here, I just want to point out the same things I did with the previous examples. First, the word study is insufficient to deal with all the data in the arguments being presented (you won’t find much more than the 1 Kings reference anywhere). Second, the word study can only show something similar to the argument being presented, but never proves we are supposed to reinterpret the passage in question the way the Unitarian does. Notice there’s no passage that explains how the Solomon reference applies to the Yahweh references.

To show, again, that this word study (or syntax study?) doesn’t deal with the passage, I will do my own word study. Only instead of looking for an obscure, unrelated verse somewhere that looks like what I want, I will look at how later Old Testament writers looked back at the Sodom and Gomorrah event. Do they give any clues about what they saw in this weird verse with two Yahweh’s?

Isaiah 13:17-19

17 Look! I am stirring the Medes up against them,

who do not value silver

and do not delight in gold.

18 And their bows will shatter young men.

And they will not show mercy on the fruit of the womb;

their eyes will not look compassionately on children.

19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor of the Chaldeans’ pride,

will be like when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.

Yahweh is the speaker, and doesn’t just speak in third person like Lamech, but actually compares what he will do (first person) with what God already did (third person). Unitarians are fond of pleading with us to just go with the plain meaning of the text. The plain meaning is that one Person is comparing what He will do with what a second Person did in the past.

Jeremiah 50:40,44

40 As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah

and their neighbors,” declares Yahweh,

“no one will live there,

and the son of humankind will not dwell as an alien in her…

44 Look, like a lion he comes up from the thickets of the Jordan

against a pastureland by a constantly flowing stream,

so I will chase them away quickly from her,

and I will appoint whoever is chosen over her.

For who is like me, and who can summon me,

and who is this shepherd who can stand before me

Yahweh speaks through this whole passage, and in verse 40, again compares His current actions to “God”. He doesn’t say, “As when I overthrew…” And once again, there is far more going on here than merely using third person language.

Amos 4:11

I overthrew some of you as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a stick snatched from the fire, and yet you did not return to me,” is the declaration of Yahweh.

Have you noticed the other similarity these passages have, besides this combining of first and third person language, as well as the conscious comparison of the actions of two Persons? They are all talking about the same event, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is also what Genesis 19:24 is about. Genesis 18 and 19 have multiple ways in which they point to plurality within God, which we don’t have space for here, but all these parallels cannot be just a quirky way of speaking or chalked up to an idiom. This is a conscious, deliberate pattern, from three separate prophets, linking back to the same event and using the same pattern of speaking of the plurality in that event. This is not “overthrown” by a similar sentence structure that can be found in 1 Kings.

Another Consistency Problem

As with other Unitarian arguments, this one suffers from a problem of inconsistency. You see, this defense can easily be employed against Unitarian arguments as well, and, I believe, with greater force.

Exalt in Philippians 2

Philippians 2:6-11 is a powerful passage concerning several truths related to the Trinity, but one verse is commonly parked on by Unitarians to attempt to make it fit their theology. Verse 9 reads:

“Therefore also God exalted him and graciously granted him the name above every name,”

The argument from this verse basically states that any high status Jesus is said to have is explained by the fact that God “exalted” Him. If Jesus were God, then He wouldn’t need to be exalted, since would already be as high as possible.

What if we apply the “word study” technique to this Unitarian argument? The Greek word that is here translated “exalted‭” is huperupsoó, which is more literally translated “highly exalted”, this particular word appears only once in the New Testament, right here. However, it does appear in the Old Testament in the Greek Septuagint, twice. The first is Psalm 37:35, which reads:

I have seen the wicked acting violently and spreading (Greek: huperupsóo, highly exalting) himself out like a luxuriant native tree.

The context of the surrounding verses concerns the Israelites taking the land from the ones here described. Other than the contrast between their exalting of themselves and Jesus humility, there is little other connection to this verse. The other is Psalm 97:9, which reads:

For you, O Yahweh, are most high over all the earth. You are highly exalted (Greek: huperupsóo) above all gods.

So, if the reasoning the Unitarian uses in Philippians 2:9 is true, then it would follow that Yahweh couldn’t be God if he was exalted above the other gods, since God has no need to be exalted. That reasoning clearly falls apart when we see this verse. Notice not only that we have the same Greek term applied to God, but also there are other parallels. Yahweh is “most high” and “above all gods”. And Jesus has the “name above every name”, and “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord”.

So we have a very rare word so it would be silly to say Paul was getting it from somewhere else, coupled with the same subject matter, the unique, lofty position of God, then Jesus, and similar language as well. This is a much stronger parallel than those arguments we’ve addressed from the Unitarians, so the Unitarian who accepts his own but denies this one is showing himself to be inconsistent in the application of the word study defense.

Testing/Temptation in James

For another example, consider the argument so often advanced that Jesu cannot be God because He was tempted and God cannot be tempted, nor does He tempt anyone (James 1:13). We can apply the word study defense to this by finding other examples of peirazo, “to tempt”, elsewhere in the Scriptures.

And what do you know? We find it right there in Genesis 22:1 where God “tested” Abraham. In the Greek Septuagint that James would be familiar with, it uses the same word that he chose. Obviously, the concept of temptation is more broad than most Christians think and translators are creating a distinction between testing and temptation that doesn’t exist in Scripture. (Does this sound familiar? It’s the same argument We reviewed from John Schoenheit on the words “worship” and “Savior”)

Now, unlike our previous example, this is a terrible argument. The problem it has is that there really is a distinction between a trial and a temptation, even though they come from the same Greek word. Context reveals which one is being addressed.

But this also hurts the Unitarian word study defense, because it proves that drawing these parallels is not enough. The parallel must be relevant. If there are good reasons to show that a given word study parallel is not relevant, then the defense fails for that reason. It is insufficient to address the issue by merely citing texts with the same word.

A Power Isn’t a Person

For my final example of turning this defense on the Unitarian, I will look at another example of a good word study parallel that actually defeats a Unitarian argument.

Despite the examples where the Holy Spirit is revealed to be a person (John 16:13, Acts 1:16, 15:28, etc.), Unitarians say that the Holy Spirit is just the power and presence of God, not another person. They do appeal to some Scriptures that speak of the Spirit in impersonal ways (Acts 2:3-4, 2:17, Ephesians 5:18).

However, the language used of the Spirit in the above passages, fire, being poured out, being filled with, etc, is used elsewhere of persons. God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Paul is “being poured out” (Philippians 2:17). Christ and all the fullness of God “fill” us (Ephesians 3:17,19). Finally, Christ is called both the power of God and the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18,24). These are all common descriptions of the Spirit and are freely said of persons, both divine and human. Add this to the fact that Scripture does describe the Spirit as a Person in the previously cited texts and never denies that He is a Person, anywhere, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason from the Scriptures to deny that the Spirit is a Person. The only reason left to deny personhood to the Spirit is the need to support a certain theological system.

A Final Thought

As I’ve said before, it may not always be the case that a given Unitarian defense is wrong. There are bad arguments for true positions, so there can be good arguments against those. If you run across this type of argument, spend some time first determining if your argument is good or not. If it is a sound argument, then there will be ways to answer any defense against it.

Conclusions for the Series

As I said in part 6, this entire series has been a form of defensive argumentation at its heart. This is answering Unitarian arguments. As I said before, a successful defensive argument doesn’t prove your position true or your opponent’s position false. But there is one thing to consider. What if every positive argument for Unitarianism fails? There are a few arguments made by Unitarians that fall outside the scope of this series. But, for the vast majority, the actual, positive arguments do fall into these categories. As we saw in parts 1-5, Unitarian arguments almost always involve a lack of understanding of the Trinity or some aspect of it. The facts are: The Trinity is perfectly logical. The ancient Jews were diverse in their views of God, and had a strong contingent who saw plurality in God and did not see the Trinity as anti-Jewish at the time when it mattered. The Trinity is monotheistic. There is nothing illogical or unbiblical about Jesus having two natures. The history of the Trinity is much older than Nicea and there are no primary sources within Christianity that said “Jesus is not God” prior to Arius. None of these arguments against the Trinity work. And two of the favorite Unitarian defenses fail on several counts as well. There’s a reason the Trinity is with us. It is because there are believers who read and believe their Bible, and are willing to submit themselves to it, rather than forcing it to conform to their own limited thinking.

Series Navigation<< Answering Unitarian Arguments #6: The Shaliach Defense

2 thoughts on “Answering Unitarian Arguments #7: The Word Study Defense”

Comments are closed.