Presented at Atlanta Bible College's 11th Annual Theological Conference, Feb. 9th, 2002
The Identity of Jesus
For some two thousand years the notion has prevailed in Christendom that the NT’s central, saving figure is really a preexisting, pre-historical, pre-human, pre-earthly Person, the second member of an eternal Triune Godhead. It is admitted on all hands that this concept of God as three is nowhere stated directly in the Bible. The Oxford Companion to the Bible says, with a rather annoying British understatement, that the Trinity “cannot be easily detected within the confines of the canon.” (Cockneys would say bluntly and more honestly; It ain’t there nowhere!) But the prevailing opinion continues to assert that an eternal “God the Son” is nevertheless clearly in Scripture by implication and is to be embraced with unquestioning conviction. Failure to do this, many say, will result in being burned for ever and ever.
Don’t let anyone tell you, “doctrines don’t matter”!
Now this is a challenging theological world to live in. Michael Servetus paid with his life-blood for daring to question this amazing Trinitarian proposition. Calvin, the reformer, who also read the Sermon on the Mount, authorized Servetus’ judicial murder in 1553. But then John Calvin was fiercely unsympathetic to those of us “pestilent Anabaptists” (as he called them) who believed that the dead are actually dead until the resurrection. Calvin also accused the trained disciples and Apostles of Messiah of completely misunderstanding what the Kingdom of God is. Calvin, you will remember, in his commentary on Acts 1:6, “Is this the time to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” declared that in asking this question the Messiah’s students committed “more errors than there are words in that question” — some 11 errors!
I propose that we dissenters marshal our case against the Trinitarian dogma, which features in Christian book after Christian book, in tract after tract, and systematic theology text after systematic theology text. We are up against a huge industry and propaganda, and, I think, a colossal ecclesiastical muddle, defended by astonishing verbal complexities and obfuscations. Our task is to witness on behalf of “the only one who is truly God” (John 17:3; cp. 5:44). Jesus identified that God as his Father. I propose that we urge Bible readers to go back to the beginning as Jesus did, to explain who he is. “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets Jesus expounded to them in all the Scriptures all the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Note the Messiah’s method in his Bible lecturing.
I would like to have attended that seminar.
It is impossible to imagine, if one has read Deuteronomy 18:15-18, that the Messiah was going to be God Himself. That text, a favorite of Peter’s and Stephen’s (Acts 3:22, 7:37), expressly states that the Messiah will not be God. The Savior is to be one who originates in the family of Israel, a prophet like Moses arising from among the Israelites. How appallingly confusing, nay, misleading, if God were then eventually to send a Messiah who was actually God Himself, existing consciously from eternity. This would be to overthrow the sacred testimony of Deuteronomy 18:15-18 and many other equally unambiguous Old Testament promises.
The Messiah, so the Jews were informed by their holy writings — and this is their belief today — was to be “the seed of Eve,” “the star arising in Israel,” the son of Abraham and the seed of David. The record of his origin dated back to early times (Micah 5:2, NASV). He was to be born in Bethlehem, and he was to be a superior Moses. In the OT’s most celebrated divine utterance (Ps. 110:1, very prominent in the NT), the Messiah was to be “my lord” (adoni). Adoni in all of its 195 appearances is never a reference to the Deity. God did not speak to God, but to His human agent. Jesus loved that psalm (Matt. 22:41-46) and used it to settle all disputes.
If, after all, the Messiah was an uncreated eternal being, how, on this evidence, could Israel, or anyone else, have recognized the Messiah when he came, if in fact he claimed to be God Himself? No Jew would have countenanced the notion that God was going to be the son of David or of Eve! What in post-biblical times became the “orthodox,” required view of the Son of God implies a tricky curveball thrown at Israel. It contradicts the plain expectations about who the Savior was to be, as described in the pages of their Holy Scripture.
It also contradicts the earliest pages of the New Testament. Matthew has in fact not presented us with an uncreated, eternal Son. Matthew could not possibly therefore have believed in the Trinity.
If we begin at the beginning of the New Testament we can make our case with success. Matthew has given us a detailed account of the origins of the Messiah. He is first said to be the descendant of Abraham and David (1:1), just as we would expect from the OT promises. But more than this, in Matthew 1:18 Matthew addressed the specifics of the “origin” of Jesus Christ. “Now the genesis [origin, creation, origination, beginning] of Jesus was like this: When his mother, Mary, was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she found that she was pregnant through the action of the holy spirit.”
What could be clearer? Matthew speaks of the genesis of the Messiah, not just his birth. Admittedly birth in the Bible, and outside, means that a new person enters into life, but genesis points to how that life originated. Matthew 1:20: “Do not be afraid, Joseph, to take your wife home, for what was begotten in her (to en autee genneethen) is from holy spirit.” Note the slightly clouded translation in our versions, “conceived.” Mary certainly did conceive but what the text emphasizes is the activity of the Father begetting, generating, initiating the life of a new person. We have already had that same verb “beget” 40 times in Matthew 1 (“so and so begat so and so”). It would be a grave contradiction of this matchless narrative to import into it the idea that in fact a previously existing Son of God was transmuted or transformed, or indeed transformed himself, into a new person or fetus. That whole idea is more akin to reincarnation. It is reminiscent of the very pagan idea that “the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11) or of Nicodemus’ naïve question about entering from outside into the womb of one’s mother. What Matthew has described is the beginning, the origin, the creation, indeed, of a new personality in the womb of his mother. The miracle is local and historical. And that person is the Son of God. At that moment of history the Son of God comes into being. There is no suggestion that he is exchanging one form of existence for another. (All of what I have just said here, is of course, “heresy” by modern standards.)
Gnostics are not keen on history and fact, and so the story was changed in the second century by gnostically-minded Christians. Gnostics, the first “theologians,” were the ones who sought to make Jesus less of a Jewish figure and more of a universal member of the Pantheon. This is the age-old ecumenical tendency: Let’s make Jesus a universal religious figure! Would he not then be more attractive to a greater diversity of people? What good would a Jewish Messianic Jesus be? (So the argument went.) The Gnostic twist showed good promotion techniques, maybe, but it was fundamentally false to the true, original Messiah. It promoted the ever-present danger of “another Jesus.” And that other “Jesus” was a religious figure, certainly, and he was offered as Savior, but was he the Jewish Yeshua Hamashiach (Jesus Messiah) of divine revelation, the seed of Abraham?
So, then, a “larger-than-life” fictional, legendary dimension was added to the portrait of Jesus, superimposed on the biblical text, to the effect that the Son had not in fact been given existence in his mother’s womb but had engineered his own “conception” in Mary. A false halo was added to Jesus. He suffered the fate of other religious leaders like the Buddha. He was divinized. He was really not a human being after all but a visitor from another world. The remark of a Roman Catholic priest on TV was entirely explicable on the basis of the new, revised story: “God came to Mary one day and said ‘Mary, will you please be my mother?’” This amazing new twist on the story is reflected in the early second century when Justin Martyr begins to speak of “another God and Lord under the Creator,” arithmetically other than the Father. And this Son comes, according to Justin, through Mary and no longer as Matthew says from, out of (ek) Mary (Matt. 1:16), originating in Mary.
With this amazing alteration in the identity of Jesus, “the historical Jesus completely disappeared” (Martin Werner, The Formation of Dogma, p. 298). The same author, who was professor of Systematic Theology at Bern, Switzerland, observed that early Catholicism was really a new Hellenistic mystery religion with “Jesus” at its center.
Professor Loofs described the changing of Jesus into God as “the camouflaged introduction of polytheism into Christianity.”
Luke’s account of the beginning of the Son of God is equally clear. Neither he nor Matthew could possibly have been Trinitarians or even Binitarians, and would have been automatically disqualified from pastorship in the main denominations today. Thus Luke in his brilliant and succinct account of the visitation of Mary by Gabriel: “Holy spirit will come over you [Mary], and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and for that reason precisely the one being begotten will be called Son of God.” “For that reason…” There is a clear causal connection between the Sonship of Jesus and his miraculous begetting. Jesus is the Son of God, not because of any prior existence in eternity (Trinitarianism) or from just before the Creation of the world (Arianism), but because he is the new creation in Mary and in history, under the direct influence of the Father through holy spirit. This, surely, is the coming into being of the last Adam. This is God’s ultimate Son, who arises as a blood descendant of David, as the prophecies demand for the Messiah. When the Solomon line was cursed in Jehoiakin (Jer. 22:28: “Is this man Coniah [Jehoiakin] a despised broken idol? Why are they cast out, he and his seed, into a land which they do not know? Oh earth, earth, earth, hear the word of God…Write this man down as childless, for none of his seed will prosper sitting on the throne of David and ruling any more in Judah”), Jehoiakin’s natural descendants were disqualified from sitting on the royal throne of Israel. Another Davidid was apparently “borrowed” from the line from David through Nathan (Luke 3:27-31), and thus the blood line from David to Jesus was established. Jesus was related to David through his mother and legally so through his father. His real Father of course was God, who undertook the New Creation of the Last Adam, and he worked within an Israelite maiden. Paul confirms that this is the proper order of events when he says that the “first Adam was of the earth, earthy; the second Adam is to be the Lord from heaven.” But “the spiritual man was not first” (see I Cor. 15:45-47).
As early as the beginning of the second century, this story was being turned on its head: 2 Clement: “Christ, the one who saves us, being first spirit became flesh.” “That,” observes Harnack, “is the fundamental theological and philosophical creed on which the whole Trinitarian and Christological speculations [note the word!] of the Church of the succeeding centuries are built, and it is thus the root of the orthodox system of dogmatics” (History of Dogma, Vol. 1, p. 328).
What we are proposing about Matthew’s and Luke’s understanding of who Jesus is has been powerfully affirmed by the celebrated Roman Catholic scholar, the late Raymond Brown, in his detailed work on the Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1979).
Raymond Brown and Preexistence
He shows conclusively that neither Matthew nor Luke believed that the Son of God had existed literally before his birth. Thus these writers could not have been “orthodox” in the modern sense. For them the creation/begetting/coming into existence of the Son was by miracle in Mary. They promote a Jesus alien to the Trinitarian Jesus of post-biblical Christianity.
The idea that Jesus merely changed form from spirit to flesh at his birth is foreign to the whole NT. “Incarnation” is in fact more like transmigration or reincarnation. If the Son was alive before his begetting he was not really born at all. Birth implies the coming into existence of a new person. Jesus, the Son of God, was not in transit between two worlds or forms of existence. His beginning was in about 2 or 3 BC.
“Matthew and Luke press [the question of Jesus’ identity] back to Jesus’ conception. In the commentary I shall stress that Matthew and Luke show no knowledge of preexistence; seemingly for them the conception was the becoming (begetting) of God’s Son. The harmonization whereby a preexistent Word takes on flesh...is attested only in the [later] NT period” (p. 31).
“The fact that Matthew can speak of Jesus as ‘begotten’ (passive of gennan) suggests that for him the conception through the agency of the holy spirit is the becoming of God’s Son. [In Matthew’s and Luke’s “conception Christology”] God’s creative action in the conception of Jesus begets Jesus as God’s Son...There is no suggestion of an incarnation whereby a figure who was previously with God takes on flesh. For preexistence Christology [Incarnation], the conception of Jesus is the beginning of an earthly career but not the begetting of God’s Son. [Later] the virginal conception was no longer seen as the begetting of God’s Son, but as the incarnation of God’s Son, and that became orthodox Christian doctrine. This thought process is probably already at work at the beginning of the second century in Ignatius of Antioch (Hoben, Virgin Birth, 20-21); Aristides, Apology 15:1; Justin, Apology 1:21 and 33; Melito of Sardis, Discourse on Faith 4” (pp.140, 141, 142).
“Just as one should not confuse the conception Christology found in Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives with the preexistence Christology of John’s prologue...[one cannot speak of] an incarnation in Matthew and Luke. Also one should not read ‘God with us’ in a Nicene sense, as if it were identifying Jesus with God. For Matthew Jesus is the expression of God’s presence with His people. Matthew is not one of the NT works which begins to call Jesus ‘God.’ And of course no NT work achieves the clarity of the council of Nicea in calling him ‘true God of true God’” (p. 150).
Luke 1:35: “’Will be called’ — calling brings to expression what one is, so that it means no less than ‘he will be’ (cp. Matt. 5:9: ‘will be called Sons of God’ and Luke 6:5: ‘you will be sons of the Most High’)” (pp. 289, 290, 291).
“The combination of spirit and power is very Lukan, occurring in Luke 1:17, 4:14, Acts 1:8, 6:5, 8, 10:38). Not knowing the rules of parallelism in biblical poetry which make it clear that ‘power from the Most High’ is synonymous with ‘Holy Spirit’ some patristic and medieval theologians thought that the ref. in 1:35, b, c, were respectively to the Third and Second Persons of the Trinity, so that ‘power’ was the Second Person descending to take flesh in Mary’s womb. As we shall see there is no evidence that Luke thought of the incarnation of a preexistent.”
Luke 1:35: “‘Therefore’ — Of the nine times dio kai occurs in the NT, three are in Luke/Acts. It involves a certain causality and Lyonnet (L’annonciation, 61.6) points out that this has embarrassed many orthodox theologians since in preexistence [orthodox] Christology a conception by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb does not bring about the existence of God’s Son. Luke is seemingly unaware of such a Christology; conception is causally related to divine Sonship for him.
“‘Will be called Son of God’ — It is tantamount to saying ‘he will be.’ And so I cannot follow those theologians who try to avoid the causal connotation in the ‘therefore’ which begins this line, by arguing that for Luke the conception of the child does not bring the Son of God into being, but only enables us to call Him ‘Son of God’ who already was Son of God.”
“However, there is no evidence that Luke had a theology of incarnation or preexistence; rather for Luke (1:35) divine Sonship seems to have been brought about through the virginal conception ...Jesus was conceived and born, and that is solidarity enough with the human race” (p. 432).
“First, in orthodox Christian belief, Jesus would be God’s Son no matter how he was conceived, since his is an eternal Sonship not dependent upon the incarnation...In Matthew and Luke the virginal conception was connected with an articulation of the divine Sonship of Jesus” (p.529). “Both narratives develop the Christological insight that Jesus was the Son of God from the first moment of his conception” (p. 561).
“Later Christian orthodoxy understood Jesus to have preexisted as God’s Son in a non-corporeal manner from all eternity...that view [does not correspond to any Lukan thought]” (p. 90).
Luke and Matthew: “There is more of a connotation of creativity. Mary is not barren, and in her case the child does not come into existence because God cooperates with the husband’s generative action...Rather Mary is a virgin who has not known man, and therefore the child is totally God’s work — a new creation....I have stressed...that Luke does not think of a preexistent Son of God...Only in second-century writings do we find the Lukan and Johannine concepts combined into an incarnation of a preexistent deity (see Ignatius, Ephesians 7:2, Smyrnians 1:1, combined with Magnesians 8:2, also Aristides, Apology 15:1, Justin, Apology, 1 21, 33. Melito, Discourse on Faith, 4)” (p. 314).
“Luke had no difficulty in stating that Jesus grew in wisdom and God’s favor…This saying caused great difficulty for later Christian theologians raised upon a Nicene Christology of eternal preexistence, for they could not admit that an incarnate Word could grow in wisdom or grace. Renie lists their theories on how such a growth could not mean a growth of grace of union or sanctifying grace, but only the exterior manifestation of a grace already possessed. Today we would see these as problems of systematic theology rather than of exegesis” (p. 483).
I think that the backing of a distinguished NT scholar for our view of Jesus is of great value as we present Jesus to the public. We might add that Paul speaks of the Son of God who “came into existence from a woman” (Gal. 4:4; Rom. 1:3). Paul uses the word ginomai = to come into being, rather than the ordinary word “was born” (gennao). In Galatians 4:23, 29 he speaks of the birth of Esau using the normal word for birth (gennao). Paul appears to be stressing that the birth of Jesus, the Son of God was not only his birth but his entrance upon existence.
 The Trinity did not become set in stone until the councils of Nicea, 325, Constantinople, 381 and Chalcedon, 451.
 It is interesting to note the attempted corruption of the text in some MSS which replace the word “genesis,” origin, creation, with the less explicit term gennesis (with two n’s), meaning birth. See The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, by Bart Ehrman, Oxford University Press.
 Dialogue with Trypho, 56.
 For a fascinating account of the long struggle to change Jesus into God, see When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome, by Richard E. Rubenstein.
 Joseph may also have been related to David through the Nathan line.
 For us Socinians, even John knew nothing of a literal preexistence of the Son, but only of the word — AB