Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Trinity, Sin, and Jesus

The recent postings (#5) on the Trinity debate are available - Bowman on the Trinity and Burke on the Trinity. There has also been a recent set of rebuttals by Rob Bowman on round 3 that can be read starting here and here.

In this posting I am going to look at one aspect of the debate focusing on the humanity of Jesus in relation to his sinlessness and ability to be a sacrifice for all mankind. I started thinking through this issue as presented by Burke (representing the Biblical Unitarian view) and wondered how this view dealt with how the mortal man Jesus who was in no way divine could have taken on the sins of all mankind. As I read and thought through this issue I realized that there are many fundamental theological differences besides the Trinity that exist. It would seem that some particulars regarding the consequences of the Fall, the understanding of the atonement, and necessity for a holy and blameless sacrifice for sins before much progress can be made in debating who Jesus is.
I want to start with letting Burke define the Biblical Unitarian Jesus:
In posting #3, the Christology of Unitarians is summarized as follows:

The Biblical Unitarian Jesus was genuinely born to the virgin Mary following her miraculous conception by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20) and was therefore the literal Son of God (Luke 1:35). He grew up just like any other human child (Luke 2:52), was tempted like any normal man (Matthew 4:1-11) yet resisted sin (Hebrews 4:15) through the strength of his superior will (Matthew 16:23) and his close association with the Father, upon whom he depends for his existence (John 6:57), just as we do. Despite being capable of sin, he lived a sinless life (1 Peter 2:21-22), died on the cross as a perfect sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 7:26-27) and was raised to immortality by the Father (Acts 2:22-24, Galatians 1:1). (emphasis added)
In posting #5 another summary of the Christology of Unitarians  is given:
The Bible describes Jesus’ humanity in a way that leaves no room for deity and totally precludes the “God-man” hypothesis. Born as a mortal man and made like his brethren in every way (Hebrews 2:17), he was subject to the Law of Moses (Galatians 4:4) and capable of sin (Luke 4:1; cf. James 1:13-14). His sinless life was made possible by his superior mental and intellectual qualities (Luke 2:46-47), his close relationship with the Father (John 1:18, 10:30, 38), and the angelic assistance he received whenever necessary (Matthew 4:11; Luke 22:43).
We know that he struggled with the awful burden of his task (Matthew 26:39-42; Luke 22:42) and suffered when he was tempted (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 4:15), but completely resisted sin. As a mortal man, he required release from the pains of death (Acts 2:24) and recognised this need through his prayers and supplications to God, who was able to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7). Submitting obediently to his sacrificial death on the cross (Philippians 2:8; Colossians 1:20) he was raised to life by the Father (Galatians 1:1) and now sits at His right hand in an exalted, glorified form (Mark 16:19; Acts 5:31; Philippians 3:21), exercising divine power, authority and judgement while he awaits his Second Advent (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 21:27; John 5:27; Acts 1:11; Ephesians 1:20-22). (emphasis added)
The belief that Jesus as a man was under the curse of the Fall is stated clearly in a site that describes Christadelphian beliefs:
Because he had our nature, Christ had to die. He was a descendant of Adam through Mary, and all of Adam's children have to die (1 Cor. 15:22). All Adam's descendants had to die because of his sin, regardless of their personal righteousness: "Death reigned...through the offence of one (Adam) many be dead...the judgment was (on account of) one (Adam) to condemnation (to death) one man's disobedience many were made sinners", and therefore had to die (Rom. 5:14-19 cp. 6:23). (emphasis added)
The site goes on to say that:
The Jewish high priest had to make an offering firstly for his own sins, and then for those of the people (Heb. 5:1-3). Christ's sacrifice had this same two-fold structure. Although he did not have any sins personally, Jesus was still of human nature, and needed salvation from death. This salvation was provided by God on account of Christ's own sacrifice; thus Jesus died both to gain his own salvation, and also to make ours possible. (emphasis added)
From these excerpts here is a summary of the Biblical Unitarian view:
  • Jesus did not exist prior to the miraculous conception.
  • Jesus is a mortal man, who is like us in every way.
  • Jesus resisted sin through his superior will and intellect.
  • Jesus deserved to die because he was under the penalty of Adam.
  • Jesus lived a sinless life, therefore God raised him from the dead and sat him at His right hand.
  • Jesus was sinless, therefore his death pays the penalty for all our sins.
One thing that stands out is the theological assertion that Jesus deserved to die because of the sin of Adam. The basis for this is solid and based on the theological notion of imputed sin, which I agree with. Man shares the guilt and consequences of Adam’s sin regardless of whether or not they committed a personal sin (Rom 5:12-18). The Unitarian then makes the logical next step that if Jesus is a mortal man that he too has had Adam's sin imputed to him. This would mean that Jesus shares the guilt and consequences of Adam's sin. However if this is true then Jesus deserved death - physical death (returning to dust (Gen 3:19)) and spiritual death (separated from relationship with God and the wrath and condemnation due to lack of holiness) just as Adam does. How could he have been our substitute and taste death for all of us (Heb 2:9) or have all of our sins imputed upon him (Isa 53:6,12; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 9:28) if it was deserved?

While accepting imputed sin, the Unitarian rejects the notion of a sin nature. The sin nature can best be described as the affect of the Fall on man that damaged his will and gave him a propensity to sin such that we start off as helpless, sinners, and enemies (Rom 5:6,8,10) who by nature are under God’s wrath (Psalm 51:1-5; Ps 58:3; Eph 2:3). It has been said that we "sin because we are sinners, we are not sinners because we sin". Our imputed sin and sin nature allows Paul to safely write that "none are righteous" (Rom 3:10) and "all have sinned and fall short" (Rom 3:23).
Burke writes the following in posting #5:

A common evangelical objection to the Biblical Unitarian atonement is that Jesus could not have been morally sinless unless he was God, because all humans are considered sinners from the moment of their birth as a result of “original sin” (or “total depravity”, as the Calvinists call it). But Biblical Unitarians do not believe in “original sin” or “total depravity.” We believe that human nature is capable of sin and prone to sin, but humans are not regarded as sinners until they sin. Thus Jesus’ human nature did not preclude the potential for sinlessness.
The Unitarian view in rejecting a sin nature altogether does not require condemnation and wrath to fall upon the man Jesus. He was able to escape these penalties because he did not commit personal sin. This would make there view of the affect of the Fall on mankind similar to that expressed by Pelagius who believed that man by nature is capable of choosing to sin or not to sin and that only committing personal sin is punishable by God.
From various comments on forums and Bible Basics it is my understanding that in addition to rejecting the notion of sin nature/total depravity, the Unitarian also rejects the idea of spiritual death as a concept different from physical death. Because in this view there is simply physical death. Man has no soul and is unconscious or annihilated after the body dies. Only those that are in Christ are rewarded with a resurrection and immortality. This limits the wrath and condemnation of God to physical death with no hope of eternal life, eliminating any concept of eternal contempt (Dan 12:2; Matt 25:46). However, I have not seen Burke discuss these views so I am not if he accepts them or would describe them. But this seem to be an attempt to further remove problems with a mortal man paying the penalties of all mankind.
Burke goes on asking:

This presents yet another weakness for Trinitarianism: the question of Jesus’ nature. As an evangelical, Rob surely believes in some form of “original sin”; but how does he view it in relation to Jesus? If Rob’s Jesus does not have original sin, how can he be truly human and “made like his brothers in every way”? If he does have it, how can he be sinless?
The Unitarian view as noted above takes exception to the fact that in many ways the Trintarian view of Jesus is not like us in “every way” (Heb 2:17) if he did not have imputed sin or a sin nature.  Unitarians skip this problem reject sin nature despite Scripture that teaches that  man does have a sin nature from birth (Psalm 51:5) and is under condemnation and wrath (John 3:36; Rom 1:18; Rom 5:9,16; Eph 2:3, 5:6). However I do not agree with the assertion that Adam’s sin was imputed to Jesus or that Jesus had a sin nature. Scripture elsewhere describes Jesus as being sent in  the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3) and “being made in the likeness of man” (Phil 2:7). These verses coupled with the miraculous conception certainly allows for the conclusion that Jesus was made incarnate and born as a man without imputed sin and a sin nature. Therefore Jesus was not under wrath and condemnation like the rest of us. This state of humanity that Jesus did posses may have been like Adam before the Fall (this is conjecture on my part). Adam would not have had imputed sin or a sin nature at this point, yet had the ability to be tempted and the potential to sin or not to sin. This would make Jesus no less human than Adam would have been before the Fall.
Bible Basics goes on to say:

As a descendant of Adam, Christ was 'made' a 'sinner' and therefore had to die, as all Adam's descendants were classified as sinners worthy of death due to his sin. God did not change this principle, He let it affect Christ too. God "made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21).
Apart from Jesus, all of Adam's descendants deserve this punishment, for we have all sinned personally. Jesus had to die because he was of our nature, sharing in the curse which came upon Adam's descendants. Yet, because he personally had done nothing worthy of death "God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24 N.I.V.). Christ was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4). Thus it was due to Christ's perfect character, his "spirit of holiness", that he was gloriously resurrected. 
The Unitarian view states (or at least seems to) that Jesus deserved to die because of Adam’s guilt (imputed sin) but did not deserve to die because he was sinless (personal sin). How could a mortal man who by superior intellect and a close relationship with God lived a sinless life die for all the rest of mankind’s sin and taste death for us all when he had to pay the penalty he deserved (having Adam’s imputed sin)? Could someone with imputed sin and guilt be holy and perfect even if he was sinless? How could a man separated from God (by virtue of the guilt of Adam) have the relationship that Jesus had with the Father or have the ability to reconcile us to God? Doesn't this require more than any man is capable of? Does it not require a divine nature with inherent holiness, undeserving of death, wrath, and condemnation?

Because Jesus did not have imputed sin or a sin nature he could be the substitutionary sacrifice we needed because he did not deserve death, condemnation, and wrath. Because Jesus is human - having the likeness of sinful flesh he could taste death for all, and because He possesses the fullness of divinity He could live a holy life, be righteous, and be the perfect sacrifice that was required to pay the penalty for all mankind's sin.


On two various discussion boards with Christadelphians I have been corrected in my interpretation of the Bible Basics description of Rom 5:12-20. I took this to be describing imputed sin and meant that the Unitarian position held this doctrine. This seemed like a fair reading both from the description in the book as well as the usage of a passage that evangelicals would interpret as describing imputed sin (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 494). However, the Unitarian position is that Adam's sin and guilt were not imputed to Jesus and there were no other punishments that Jesus deserved by virtue of being human other than physical death. The position holds that Jesus suffered the effects of the Fall as all men do in that he was mortal and would suffer physical death much like we all live in a corrupted creation where growing food is more difficult. 
Interestingly enough this misunderstanding on my part demonstrates the main point that I was trying to make in this blog post - that there are a lot of theological presuppositions that each camp brings to the table and there are built in definitions to words (like nature) and passages (like Rom 5) that do not carry over the same meaning in the other person's theological vocabulary. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday with Wesley: On the Trinity

I have been trying to keep up with the Trinity debate over at the Parchment and Pen. The recent postings on the Holy Spirit are available.
This week Dave and Rob will be posting on their overall theology regarding the Trinity. Since it is Wednesday and it has been awhile, I decided to post excerpts from John Wesley's sermon #55 regarding the Trinity along with some of my commentary.

It should be noted up front that there are points that Wesley raises that can be disputed in this sermon, for example his arguing for the authenticity of the Comma Johanneum. That will not be dealt with in this post, but you can read more about it here. In addition I will be ignoring his  "rants" against Romanists (aka Catholics) and Calvinists. 

Wesley starts off acknowledging that even religious men hold opinions on religious matters some of which are wrong though that would not make them any less a Christian. However, he also holds that some issues are vital to get right - among them is the Trinity:
But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.
While it is highly improbable that the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) is part of the original inspired letter by John, it does capture the essence of the Trinitarian belief quite well: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one. I believe that one examines the Scriptures one would find the following facts (see debate entries for lots more details, it is not my intention to defend these facts here):
  1. There is One God (Deut 6:4)
  2. The Father is God (Matt 6:9)
  3. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God (Heb 1:8)
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3,4)
However far more complicated is understanding how these facts can be described into a coherent theological definition. Wesley argues that
...all who endeavored to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, "darkened counsel by words without knowledge." It was in an evil hour that these explainers began their fruitless work I insist upon no explication at all; no, not even on the best I ever saw; I mean, that which is given us in the creed commonly ascribed to Athanasius.
Wesley has a point. The Trinity is an implicit doctrine, that is built precept upon precept. Having searched the Scriptures and discovered the facts as laid out above, one will certainly find that the Scriptures do not reveal how these facts all work together.
I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.”
Nor will one find the term substance. In fact there seemed to have been debate during the Council of Nicea regarding using terms that were not found in the Scriptures when composing the creed. (See Schaff for some details and Athanasius' De Decretis chapter 5 for his defense in use of the term "homousios"). However even if we don't understand the manner in which the Trinity is true, Wesley warns that:
Still I insist, the fact you believe, you cannot deny; but the manner you cannot comprehend.
To apply this to the case before us: There are three that bear record in heaven: And these three are One. I believe this fact also, (if I may use the expression,) that God is Three and One. But the manner how I do not comprehend and I do not believe it. Now in this, in the manner, lies the mystery; and so it may; I have no concern with it: It is no object of my faith: I believe just so much as God has revealed, and no more. But this, the manner, he has not revealed; therefore, I believe nothing about it. But would it not be absurd in me to deny the fact, because I do not understand the manner? That is, to reject what God has revealed, because I do not comprehend what he has not revealed.
Fair assessment - even if strongly worded. While I hold that the Nicene/Athanasian definitions are the best (and accepted as orthodox) attempt by man to describe and explain what the Scriptures present as fact, this may not be exactly right. These are man's attempt to explain the data but the Bible does not explain how the Trinity works. However as Athanasius explained using terms not found in the Scriptures (like Trinity, person, and substance) are useful in separating and explaining a position and contrasting that with other non-orthodox explanations including Arianism, Modalism, and Adoptionalism. Since these are man's best attempts to explain Biblical data (see the Trinity is like 3 in 1 shampoo), I don't see a Nicene understanding of the Trinity as required for salvation. I do think that the accepting what the Bible teaches regarding God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are essential. Rob Bowman said the same thing here
...what does the Bible tell us we need to know about the Trinity? Obviously, it does not tell us that we need to use words like Trinity or formulas like three persons in one God. These do not appear in the Bible. On the other hand, we are expected to make a faith commitment to the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as is evident from the injunction to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)
That leaves us with the following points to think through:
  1. trying to describe the Trinity is difficult and often filled with lack of understanding
  2. words used to describe the Trinity are not in the Bible. 
    • Trinity, Person, Substance
  3. belief in the facts not the illustrations is what is important
Wesley concluded with this:
I know not how any one can be a Christian believer till he “hath,” as St. John speaks, “the witness in himself;” till “the Spirit of God witnesses with his spirit, that he is a child of God;” that is, in effect, till God the holy Ghost witnesses that God the Father has accepted him through the merits of God the Son: And, having this witness, he honours the Son, and the blessed Spirit, “even as he honours the Father.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Trinity Debate

The Parchment and Pen is hosting a 6 week debate on the Trinity between Dave Burke a Christadelphian and Rob Bowman who will defend the Trinity.

The Rules for the debate

Defining the Trinity (Bowman)

Bowman's position is stated as:
This doctrine of the Trinity is a conceptual framework or system for affirming the following six core propositions drawn from the Bible:

1. There is one (true, living) God, identified as the Creator.
2. This one God is the one divine being called YHWH (or Jehovah, the LORD) in the Old Testament.
3. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is God, the LORD.
4. The Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is God, the LORD.
5. The Holy Spirit is God, the LORD.
6. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each someone other than the other two.

In this debate, I will be seeking to defend the doctrine of the Trinity by showing that each of these six propositions is taught in the Bible.

Unitarian Position (Burke)

Burke's position is stated as:
  • The Bible is the inspired Word of God and the sole authoritative source of Christian doctrine and practice
  • The Father alone is God
  • Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but not God himself
  • The Holy Spirit is the power of God, but not God himself
  • Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised to immortality by the Father
  • At an appointed time (concealed from humanity) Jesus will return to Earth, judge the living and the dead, restore the nation of Israel to her former glory and reign over a kingdom that will last for 1,000 years

Who is Jesus? (Burke)

Who is Jesus? (Bowman)

Who is Jesus Part 2 (Burke)

Who is Jesus Part 2 (Bowman)

Join the discussion:
Debating the debate at Theologica