4-2 Genuine Intellectual Failure?

There was an element of genuine misinterpretation. As you read through the New Testament chronologically, it becomes apparent that the Lord Jesus is spoken of in ever more exalted language. For example, the term “son of man” is a favourite of the Gospel writers to describe the Lord Jesus. But it occurs only once in the later New Testament. Mark, the first Gospel, never calls Jesus “Lord”- but “Lord” is Paul’s most common title of Jesus some years later. John’s Gospel, clearly written after the other three, uses much more exalted language about the Lord Jesus than the earlier Gospels. The growth in perception of the greatness of Jesus is also perhaps reflected in the way that Revelation, the last inspired book of the New Testament, employs the most exalted language about Jesus. Both Paul and Peter show a progressive fondness in their choice of words for terms which exalt Jesus higher and higher. And presumably this trend continued after their death, as believers realized more and more that the carpenter from Nazareth had in fact been God’s Son, and is now the exalted King of Heaven and earth. The penny dropped that in fact “we can never exalt Christ too highly”, as Robert Roberts put it in the 19th century. But… and it’s a big but. The language of exaltation can reach a point where Jesus is no longer Jesus, but somehow God Himself. Further, it’s my observation that intellectual failure very often has an underlying psychological basis. To make Jesus God was one thing, but to accept the doctrine of three Gods in one, the trinity, was another. And I submit that this intellectual failure was rooted, even unconsciously, in a desire for an easier ride. It is after all extremely demanding to accept that a man, born into all our dysfunction, could be perfect; that from the larynx of a Palestinian Jew there could come forth the words of God Almighty. It’s a challenge, because we too are human; and if this was how far one of us could rise, above all the things that hold us down, that retard our growth towards the image of God Himself… then He is setting us an example so challenging that it reaches into the very core of our being, uncomfortably, inconveniently and even worryingly. To have a Jesus who was in fact not truly human, but just acting out, a Jesus who was really God and not man… this removes so much of the challenge of the real, human Christ.

- It has to be admitted that any attempt to use human language in order to somehow express the greatness of what the Lord Jesus has achieved, who He was and who He is, is somehow doomed to failure. I may break the rules of grammatical convention in my writings by writing the personal pronouns related to Jesus with a capital 'H' ("He... His... Him"), but this of course quite fails to express in language and under "the tyranny of words" all that I think of Him. I like to imagine that all genuine believers know something of my dilemma. As Robert Roberts said so well, "We cannot lift Christ too high". Perhaps it was in this spirit that men began to speak of Jesus as "God"- the problem is that by ending up with the "Jesus=God" equation, we are doing violence to God's word and also actually minimizing the colossal, unspeakable achievement of the human Jesus. The New Testament is full of very high adoration for the Lord Jesus. Since those words and phrases were chosen under the inspiration of God, His Father, we would be better advised to stick with them rather than try to invent our own terms and analogies in order to express His greatness. The structure of the original text of the prologue to John's Gospel regarding the word, and also Phil. 2:9-11 regarding the exaltation of Jesus, are arranged in such a way that they appear to be hymns which were sung by the believers. Pliny the Younger (Epistle 10.96.7) writes of the Christians "singing hymns to Christ as to a god"; surely he had in mind these passages. It can often be that we adopt the very position falsely ascribed to us by our critics; and perhaps that's what happened here. The critics of early Christianity wrongly claimed that the Christians thought of Jesus as God; and this eventually became their position for the most part, although it was not originally.

- It could be that some read [or heard of] the Biblical descriptions of Christ in glory now and assumed that this is how He must have been whilst on earth- and thus artists depict Jesus praying in Gethsemane which the kind of halo of glory around His head which we might assume He now has. That, however, is a really quite inexcusable misuse of the Bible text, taking a few verses and images from one part of it with no respect at all for the others. I'm being generous by categorizing this kind of thing under 'intellectual failure'. For the Bible is God's word to us, carefully and amazingly preserved by Him... and to treat it like this is rather like my hearing your earnest and passionate explanation of something to me, but my only bothering to listen to a couple of phrases, and then using these to totally misrepresent to others your whole message to me.

- Suetonius records that there were frequent "disturbances caused by Chrestus among the Jews of Rome" (Claudius 25.4). 'Chrestus' meant 'slave'- this was how Jesus was known, as the slave who was King. But those ideas didn't fit together well in the Mediterranean world, where the image of a humble King was somehow a contradiction in terms. For me, the significance of Suetonius' record is that the Lord Jesus was initially popularly known as Chrestus, the glorified slave, rather than Christos, the Christ. Of course it's quite Biblical and correct to call Jesus "the Christ"; but in early Christianity He was glorified for His humility, as a slave of all who was thereby exalted. The trinity seems to have partly arisen from a forgetting of this factor in His exaltation, and focusing instead solely on the titles of His glorification until the primitive and incorrect equation "Jesus=God" was reached.

- Christianity was and is radically counter-cultural. The very terms used by the Roman empire regarding its Kingdom and Caesars are all applied to the Kingdom of God and to His Son. I have exemplified this at length elsewhere (1). Thus 'Caesar is Lord' became 'Jesus is Lord' in early Christianity (2). I suggest that there may have been an element of genuine intellectual failure amongst some illiterate early Christians, who noticed this feature of Christianity, and wrongly inferred from it that therefore all that is true or claimed to be true of Caesar must therefore be true of Jesus- when the fact they shared the same verbal titles doesn't imply that at all. Thus when it was claimed that Caesar was a pre-existent God who on death returned to Heaven, those illiterate [and other] folks may have been tempted to assume that this was therefore also true of Jesus. But maybe I'm being too generous here. The early Christians virulently rejected the Emperor-cult; but as Christianity came to merge with the Roman world, it became modelled on the Emperor-cult in a way which the earliest Christians would've fiercely rejected. By the Middle Ages, icons were depicting Christ appearing like the Emperor, and God rendered as the Pope- Van Eyck and Botticelli presented God the Father as wearing the same triple crown which the Pope wore (3). In this we see the full mixture of apostate church and worldly state, and the Trinity was just a convenient means to that end.

- Initially, as we see from e.g. John's Gospel, the core issue in Christianity revolved around simply believing in Jesus. But soon, as we see from John's letters, it became important to counter wrong beliefs about Jesus. As controversy over interpretation developed, it was almost inevitable that the arguments led to exaggerations on both sides. We see it happen in political arguments today- the supporters of candidate X respond to criticisms of him by painting him as more exalted, wonderful and even Divine than he really ever could be. And as they do so, the critics become even more virulently against them. This is the nature of controversy. And as the Jews began expelling Christians from their synagogues (Jn. 9:22; 12:42; 16:2) and inventing many slanderous stories about Jesus, it was inevitable that those without a solid Biblical grounding in their faith would react rather than Biblically respond to this- by making Jesus out to be far more 'Divine' than He was.

The Hebraic Mindset

So many have pointed out that our difficulties in understanding the Bible often arise from reading Hebrew literature with a Greek, Western mindset. The Eastern, Semitic thinker will say things like "Israel killed 1000 Palestinians today!" when 10 were killed; "It's 1000 degrees today!" when it's only 40. The literalistic Western mind would see these statements as 'untrue', 'exaggerations' and lacking integrity. But they are perfectly valid forms of expression within Semitic mindsets. Many interpretations of the Lord's parables have come to grief because of the desire by Western readers to interpret each feature in a logical [to them] manner. 'Greek', Western thinking seeks to isolate and interpret each detail in a literal manner, rather than perceiving that Hebrew thinking uses exaggerations, paradoxes and elements of unreality in order to make a point. "There is much in most of the parables of Jesus which to the literal or logical mind is at best fanciful, at worst nonsensical. But the literal or logical mind is not the only kind of mind... the Hebrew religion ought to be taken by is, and was taken by its own prophets, Jesus among them, in a poetic sense, not in a prosaic or literal one. When theology fails to understand the Hebrew scriptures in this way, it becomes an immense misunderstanding of the Bible" (4). It's no wonder that there are such serious misunderstandings when we come to the language used about the relationship between the Father and His Son.

In Hebrew thought, it was quite common to speak of God as having an intention which was then fulfilled. Indeed, this kind of thing is found in the literature and epics of other Semitic languages. Thus the Exodus record records God's commands regarding the tabernacle, and then Moses' fulfillment of them. The prologue to John speaks of God's logos, His word or intention, coming to "flesh" in the Lord Jesus. This is classic Hebrew thinking, albeit written in Greek. We will demonstrate below that in Hebrew thought, a representative can be spoken of as being the person who sent them, or whom they represent. Thus the Hebrew way of reading John 1:1-14 would never come anywhere near interpreting it as meaning that 'Jesus is God'. This is a result of not reading the passage against its Hebrew background.

I pointed out in Section 2-22 that frequently in the New Testament we meet a juxtapositioning of language emphasizing Christ's humanity alongside terms which emphasize His Divine side. This is typical Hebraic logic, whereby blocks of material are placed next to each other, in order to create a dialectic between them which leads to the intended conclusion. Back in Exodus, we find Pharaoh's heart hardened by God, and yet him hardening his own heart. Greek thinking panics here- for it works by step logic, logically reasoning from one statement to another. There appears to our European minds to be a crisis of contradiction, which many find worrying. But the Hebrew mind is far less phased. Rather the two seeming contradictions are weighed up and the conclusion reached- e.g. that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but God confirmed him in this. The language used about the Lord Jesus in the New Testament is similar. John Knox got somewhere close to understanding this when he wrote that "we do not experience the humanity and divinity of Christ in ways as separate as this language suggests; we are aware of them together" (5). John's Gospel is maybe the most evident example. In the context of all the high, lofty language relating the Lord Jesus to the logos, that was God from the beginning, we read of Him coming "to his own", eis ta idia, his own heritage of people and place; and being rejected by "his own people", hoi idioi, the Jews of his time and setting (Jn. 1:10-12). It is the "son of man" who is spoken of as having descended from Heaven (Jn. 3:13; 6:62). Truly "the Christ of John is actually more human than in almost any of the other New Testament writings" (6). So often does John's Gospel baldly speak of the Lord Jesus as "the man": Jn. 4:29; 5:12; 8:40; 9:11, 24; 10:33; 11:47, 50; 18:14, 17, 29; 19:5.

The Greek thinking minds who read the New Testament were sadly divorced from the Hebrew background which is the backdrop for God's revelation in the Bible. In the lead up to the AD381 Decree of Constantinople, which declared Trinitarianism as the only acceptable form of Christian faith, Gregory of Nazianzus preached a series of sermons in defence of the Trinity. He dealt with the two blocks of Biblical evidence as saying that e.g. in John 11:34, Jesus resurrected Lazarus by His Divine nature, and then wept in His human nature (7). Gregory utterly failed to appreciate Hebrew thought; he ended up splitting up the Lord Jesus effectively into two persons, rather than seeking to harmonize the two strands which there were within the one person of Jesus.

And so some seized upon the 'Divine' language about Jesus and concluded He must have been God; and then struggled to explain away all the 'humanity' language with complex philosophical theories about merely appearing human, the gods entering human bodies etc. Those who profess to believe in a 'Binity' have perhaps most clearly failed to grasp the idea of dialectic- they treat the two 'blocks' of reasoning as totally separate. It has to be said of course that some non-trinitarians have done the same the other way- grabbing hold of the 'humanity' passages and trying to explain away the 'Divine' ones by recourse to doubtful re-translations of the original and trying to reduce the full and obvious import of the Divine language being used.

It seems to me that there has been a chronic and even wilful failure to realize that Divine language can be applied to a person without making them God Himself in person. There are ample Biblical examples of this. It is in keeping with the Eastern way of seeing a person and their representative as very closely linked, to the point of functional identity. The great Rabbi Hillel was fond of taking language about God and applying it to himself- but this doesn't mean that he claimed to be, nor was, God Himself in person (8). This blurred identity between the sender and the representative is hard for the Western mind to understand. It's a line of thought that needs careful reflection upon. In Hebrew thought, it was common to call a substitute by the name of the thing whose place it takes- with no comment to this effect. Thus the tent Moses set up in which to meet God is called "the tent of meeting" (Ex. 33:7)- which is what the tabernacle was called. But that tent wasn't the tabernacle.

In a brilliant Biblical study of the cherubim, the Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto noted that sometimes the cherubim upon which God's throne is are at times equated with the throne; and "in the end the chariot is identified with the throne, and even the wings of the cherubim are regarded as identical with the throne". But what is significant in our context is Cassuto's explanation of why this confusion occurs: "In the thought processes of the ancient East the boundary between the symbol and the thing symbolized, and likewise between the distinctions between the different parts of the symbol, were liable to be easily blurred" (9). This blurring of semantic boundaries is, in my opinion, why the Bible writers can speak of God and His Son in such similar language, whilst also teaching a very clear separation of them. It was Greek and European influenced thinkers, with their need for step-logic and sharply defined boundaries, who ran into problems when they encountered the Hebrew way of thinking found in the Bible. And so they came up with the Trinity as a messy and ultimately failed attempt to cope with this problem of blurred boundaries.

The language of Jesus as the image of God, bearing His exact likeness so that whoever perceives the Son perceives the Father, has likewise been misunderstood by those who don't read the Bible within the context of the language use in which it was written. The Belgian theologian Henricus Renckens puts it like this: "For the Oriental, the image and its original are very much more closely bound up together than they are for us; there are many texts in the Bible which go to show that the image of a god was habitually more or less identified with the god himself" (10). But the image of the god, or even of the one true God, was and not and is not the god or Yahweh Himself.

All this intellectual failure, at both extremes, can be avoided by trying to read the Scriptures against their Hebraic background. We have elsewhere noted how the New Testament uses various terms current at the time but then redefines and reuses them with relation to the Lord Jesus. Appreciating the background is vital to correct understanding. Indeed, it has been observed that many of the uninspired 'Gospels' that began to circulate in the 2nd century (e.g. Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews, of the Ebionites, of the Nazoraeans, of Peter, Protoevangelium of James) are all characterized by a distinct lack of attention to the Hebrew background of the Gospel. They "do not characteristically present Jesus with reference to the Old Testament and the narrative world of Israel... Jesus is not, for example, usually presented [by these 'gospels'] as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, or of typological events or characters of the Old Testament. In some cases [they] specifically deny any relevance or validity to the Scriptures of Israel for understanding Jesus (e.g. Gospel of Thomas 52)" (11). Indeed the 'Epistle of Barnabas', dating from the early second century, virulently denounced the Jews.

The Greek / European mindset loves to define and pin down. But when we come to the Hebraic language of the God who is so far above and beyond us, we're set on a disaster course if we will not jettison that mindset. The Hebraic mode of language use "does not so much analyze, reduce, and narrow down toward definition as it uses metaphor to expand and open out meaning" (12). The Trinity is in my opinion yet another such Western / Greek attempt to reduce and narrow God down, rather than letting the real Christ, as His Son, reveal Him.


On balance, whilst I accept that the trinity may have arisen from an element of genuine intellectual failure, being honestly mistaken in Bible study, it seems to me that this doesn't really excuse the huge and basic ignorance of God's word as the source of truth about Himself and His Son. It seems that the early church 'fathers' began desperately grabbing any Bible verse which would justify their position, as we have commented so many times. Thus commenting on the Hebrew and Septuagint of Mic. 5:2, James Dunn concludes: "In neither instance does the Hebrew suggest the idea of pre-existence... it was not until Justin took it up in the middle of the second century AD that it began to be used as a prophecy of Christ's pre-existence" (13). In this observation, which Dunn documents at length, we see how once the ideas of Christ being God and pre-existing were accepted and assumed, the church 'fathers' started casting around for Biblical evidence to support those positions. This, sadly, is typical of the inductive reasoning that has plagued Christian thinking. An idea is seized upon, often because it is acceptable to the surrounding world, and then Bible verses are appended to it, regardless of their context.


(1) See 'The Objections To Christianity' in my Bible Lives section 16-4.

(2) Adolf Deissmann gives very many examples of how the titles of Caesar used in the Imperial Cult were applied to Jesus- see his Light From The Ancient East (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927) pp. 342 ff.

(3) See F.E. Hulme, Symbolism In Christian Art (Blandford: Blandford Press, 1976) pp. 43 ff.

(4) R.H. Ward, The Prodigal Son (London: Gollancz, 1968) pp. 9,10. The same point is exemplified throughout J. Danielou, Gospel Message And Hellenistic Culture: A History Of Early Christian Doctrine Before The Council Of Nicaea (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973).

(5) John Knox, The Humanity And Divinity Of Christ (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1967) p. 113.

(6) J. E. Davey, The Jesus Of St. John (London: Lutterworth, 1958) p. 89.

(7) Quoted in John McGuckin, Saint Gregory Of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001) p. 350.

(8) David Flusser, 'Hillel's Self-Awareness And Jesus', in Judaism And The Origins Of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988) pp. 509-514.

(9) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997) p. 333.

(10) H. Renckens, Israel's Concept of the Beginning: The Theology of Genesis 1-3 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964) p. 119.

(11) Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003) p. 484.

(12) J.B. Russell, A History Of Heaven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 7.

(13) James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) p. 71. A similar conclusion concerning Mic. 5:2 is to be found in J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea In Israel (New York: Macmillan, 1956) p. 77.



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