This article is an expanded version of the article published in Record, March 21. The expansions are particularly found in the footnotes.
Worshipping Jesus-the "eternally blessed God!" (Romans 9:5)
By Paul Petersen
From Worship towards Theology
At the now famous SDA Bible Conference in 1919 leading administrators and theologians among other issues discussed the nature of the Deity of Jesus. One aspect of their discussion concerned worship. How could they worship Jesus Christ if He was not eternal God? This question strikingly reiterates an argument used by Athanasius back in the fourth century. The presbyter Arius attacked the teachings of the Christian Church of the eternal divnity of Jesus with his claim that the pre-existent Jesus had a beginning. Athanasius powerfully countered "The whole earth sings the praises of the Creator and the truth, and blesses him and trembles before him." But does not the whole Bible point to Jesus Christ, the Word, as that Creator?
Both in the Adventist movement and in the early church devotion to Jesus played a major role in the development of what is known as the doctrine of the Trinity. In the ancient world, the first Christians' all decisive commitment to Jesus did not go without notice. Pliny the Younger, governor of the province of Bithynia, wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan that they "sing hymns to Christ as to a God." Everywhere they willingly testified to the full divinity of Jesus and some even died as martyrs because of that confession. On the floor in the earliest Christian Church building excavated in Palestine, burned into stone in Megiddo in the early 3rd century, we read the words of dedication "to our God and Saviour Jesus Christ."
The Christian pioneers ventured into the world with the gospel and proclaimed the risen and divine Saviour. But as they carried forth their witness to the Jesus they worshipped, questions and challenges arose. How can you say that Jesus is God? What does it mean that He is? Reflecting on and responding to these challenges, the Church developed its thinking and its theology-that is, speaking systematically about God.
The journey of the Seventh-day Adventist movement in many ways mirrors the way the early church arrived to its understanding. And just as the true nature of Jesus was a cornerstone for the first Christians, His eternal divinity is important for us today. It still matters because He matters. Let us, therefore, follow the process and look at the biblical foundation upon which the Church built its doctrine of the Trinity when it faced the challenges in its mission to the world.
Jesus - God in Person!
The basis was and is the Bible. The belief that Jesus is God was not a late invention of the fourth century in order to hide the real truth about Him, as claimed in "The Da Vinci Code" and similar conspiracy theories. Neither is the Bible nor the New Testament in particular only calling Jesus the "Son of God" as if that title makes him less divine, implying that He had a beginning. The claim to the full divinity of Jesus stems from the Bible itself. It arises first from a number of explicit statements. These are not few, nor are they difficult texts to comprehend. They are straight forward and permeate all of the New Testament. Just read the following, proclaiming Jesus to be God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1, NRSV).
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18, NRSV).
To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen (Romans 9:5, ESV).
. . . waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13, ESV).
. . . by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, ESV).
Christians read further in the Scriptures and observed how a number of texts attribute to Jesus the prerogatives which belong to God alone, such as the authority to forgive sins, lordship over nature, and power to grant eternal life.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:5-7, NIV)
They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" (Mark 4:41, NIV)
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3, NRSV).
Proving that Jesus had the right of God to forgive, He healed the paralytic. The early Christians realized that if eternal life depends on knowing Jesus Christ, He must share the basic attributes of God. As the One who is sent He shares them with Him who sends. This belief, however, presented them with a decisive choice when they faced the pagan cultures of the Roman Empire-the choice between one or several gods, the choice of monotheism or polytheism.
God is One!
Accepting the clear biblical testimony that Jesus is God raised the question which came to define Christianity in contrast to all other religions. What kind of God is Jesus?
You may think that was a simple question. But in the Greek-Roman culture monotheism was not the norm. The pagans were fully accustomed to having more than one God. To them it would not have been culturally strange if the Christians had proclaimed two Gods, a greater God called the Father, and a lesser god, namely Christ. So, this question became a major challenge for the Christians. How are we to understand the deity of Jesus? And what is our basis for defining what it means to be God?
Anti-Trinitarians, later with the Alexandrian presbyter Arius as their spokesperson, chose the pagan understanding of "god." "God" is someone or something you can become. "Gods" may have a beginning, they are not necessarily omnipotent and all-knowing, and they don't necessarily have life in themselves. Such was their culture. Popular religion of the time taught it, and the philosophers expressed similar thoughts in more sophisticated form. To the Greeks only the world - kosmos - was eternal. "Gods" came into being. They fought each other as they were not equally powerful, and they could be fooled as they did not know everything. Some Christian philosophers, among them Arius, were influenced by this concept of the divine, which became the underlining premise of their understanding of Jesus.
But in the end the Christian Church and its theologians chose another basis than Greek philosophy for defining what it means to be God. The Trinitarian doctrine takes God's self revelation in Jesus as presented in the inspired Scriptures as the starting point.
The Bible is not silent on what it means to be God. God is the Creator. He made the world from nothing (the Latin expression ex nihilo, out of nothing, later came to signify that understanding), and as Creator, God is therefore independent of all created, He is before all, He has no beginning, and He is omnipotent, all-knowing, and for ever present. That is what God is as God, and there is no other. A text like Isaiah 44:6 summarizes this basic understanding of the Old Testament monotheism,
"Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god (NRS)."
Defining the Divinity of Jesus-Yahweh!
So, the Early Church chose the God revealed in Scripture. They preferred the Old Testament to Greek and pagan philosophy. But it was not an easy battle. Major opponents wanted to get rid of much or even all of the Old Testament, and even major parts of the New, considered too Jewish as well. But the Trinitarian doctrine developed on the basis of the whole Bible because Jesus clearly understood Himself as Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Let us look at a couple of the texts in the New Testament which make that identification.
"Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. "I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death (NKJ, Revelation 1:17-18).
Comment: in this verse Jesus quotes Isaiah 44:6 which is spoken by Yahweh
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep (NKJ, John 10:11).
Comment: all Jews knew that Yahweh was their shepherd (cf. Psalm 23:1)
Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am." Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him (NAU, John 8:58-59).
Comment: the language of Jesus in proclaiming Himself the great "I AM" is a clear references to the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament and to numerous texts in the second part of the book of Isaiah. The Jews perfectly well understood that He was claiming Himself to be God, and they wanted to stone Him for blasphemy (cf. John 10:30 ff.)
So, the New Testament presents Jesus as one with Yahweh. He is creator (cf. John 1:3; Colossians 1:15; and Revelation 3:14). This portrait reflects the clear prophetic statement by Isaiah about the eternal divinity of the Messiah to come, a "mighty God" and an "eternal Father."
For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (NKJ, Isaiah 9:6).
Oneness of Relationship
But how could Jesus be God and God be one at the same time? Some Christians moved toward one extreme position by identifying the Father totally with the Son-and later identifying the Son totally with the Holy Spirit. Doing so would, however, destroy the personality of each and conflict with the Bible, as the "Father" and the "Son" clearly are two distinct persons.
The answer to the question is in part found in the Hebrew word used for "one" in the famous text in Deuteronomy 6:4 - "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! (NAU). It denotes a unity of relationship, not necessarily a numerical or mathematical oneness (cf. the use of the word, ‘echad, in texts like Genesis 2:24; 21:25; Judges 20:1).
So, in establishing the Trinity doctrine the Christians on the one hand had to denounce those views which questioned that there are three distinct persons or personalities in the Godhead, willingly admitting that also the word "person" is from the human sphere and falls short of fully and exactly describing God. On the other hand, the Christian Church had to distance itself from any position which presented Jesus as substantially different from the Father. The language used was that Father and the Son share in substance, a term later used also by Ellen White when she writes, "Jesus said, ‘I and my Father are one.' The words of Christ were full of deep meaning as he put forth the claim that he and the Father were of one substance, possessing the same attributes."
The term "substance" is not to be understood as some kind of "stuff" mystical emanating energy, but as the basic attributes without which God would not be God, such as being eternal and without beginning, independent of all created, and thus omnipotent, all knowing, and for ever present. Only that way the early Christians were able defend the true oneness of God and avoid worshiping more than one God and thus return to paganism.
Anti-Trinitarians at the time of the Early Church either rejected the distinctive personalities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, making them identical persons, or they understood Jesus as having a beginning and thus being substantially different from the Father, treating Jesus as a second god. Anti-Trinitarians of today often perceive Jesus as a second and lesser god, returning to a view based on paganism or Greek philosophy.
The Trinity-Basic Argument!
Let me in short form outline the Bible based argumentation which led to the Early Church the doctrine of the Trinity.
1. Monotheism. God is one!
2. Jesus is God!
3. Yet, the Father and the Son are two distinct persons
4. There are at least two persons in that one God!
5. The Holy Spirit is a distinct person within the Godhead.
6. These three form a unity.
"But what about . . ." - and "So What"?
But does not the Bible, not least the New Testament, contain a number of texts which speak about the subordination of Jesus the Son? Anti-Trinitarians are quick to point this out by listing texts which do not speak about the eternal divinity of Jesus, but about his limitations, humility, and humanity. And is He not by being named the "Son" per definition lesser and later?
Neither modern Seventh-day Adventists nor the early Christian theologians are silent about these texts (the issue of the "Sonship" of Jesus and the term "the only begotten" is treated as an appendix to this article). What we have to remember is that all these texts speak about the role of Jesus in dealing with the created beings as the full representative of God, both before and after the origin of sin. They do not speak about, and they do not negate the nature of His eternal divinity.
Rather, they highlight the very point of the doctrine. Rightly understood, these texts help us to see why it is important because they reveal what the gospel is all about. Jesus is the slain Lamb; but He is also our divine Shepherd (Revelation 7:17). The Christian message is based on the fact that the Creator of the Universe, the eternal omnipotent and all-knowing God Himself, stepped down and became a human being, even to the death on the cross. This is what we today using a Greek word, call the agape love of God. He was fully God, he humbled Himself and became fully human, and He is now exalted above all (Philippians 2:5-11).
As Trinitarians, Seventh-day Adventists-with the early Christian Church- reject any pagan concept of the divine and instead, based on the Bible, choose to believe in such a God of agape love. If Jesus was anything less than "the eternally blessed God" (Romans 9:5), this love would disintegrate and become a phantom. We would no longer really know God as a person because He if that were the case in reality had sent someone else. And Jesus could no longer provide full sacrifice and atonement for our sins because He would not be eternal, and the cross would just be trading with the Devil. But the Biblical God of agape love was willing to sacrifice Himself in order not to compromise or trade with sin.
That was why the doctrine mattered so much for the early Christian Church. Jesus Christ was able to become the perfect mediator between God and human beings (1 Timothy 2:5), not because He is somewhere in between, but exactly because He is both fully God and fully human. The significance of this truth has not changed and is all important also for the Seventh-day Adventist Church today.
Jesus-the One and Only!
One of the most beloved texts of the Bible is John 3:16. Let me quote from two major translations: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (NIV)." "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (NKJ)."
Which is it? Is Jesus the "one and only", or is He "the only begotten"? What is the meaning of the Greek word "monogenes"? And what difference does it make?
Let me begin by dispelling a common misunderstanding. However way the word monogenes is to be translated, it does not denote a literal birth in our modern sense of the word. I was strongly and quite aggressively challenged at a meeting by a group who asked me whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes that Jesus literally is the only begotten Son of God? Such language imposes upon the Bible our modern culture, and a yes to this question presupposes that there is a mother with whom the Father God had intercourse! That would be the meaning if the expressions are to be understood literally. But we are not speaking about humans, we are speaking about God, and our language is in this case metaphorical and has clear limitations.
Moreover, we have of course to understand the expressions against the background of the culture into which the Bible was spoken, not our present culture. "Fatherhood" and "Sonship" had different connotations both in Semitic and Indo-European cultures of biblical times from what these concepts carry today. In the Bible a "son" may of course mean a "son", but also a descendant, a successor (like Belshazzar in Daniel 5), students (like the sons of the prophets), or a representative (like the King of Israel, cf. Psalm 2:7)
So, what is the meaning of the "monogenes" in John 3:16? Greek scholars have proposed two origins for the word. One theory has been that the word stems from the verb gennao, which means "to beget" and is generally used only about males, as in the genealogy in Matthew 1. In that case the meaning of the term "monogenes" with the prefix mono (one or only one as in words like monogamy and monotheism) would be "the only one born to/begotten."
This view is, however, today rejected by the vast majority of Greek scholars. Rather, the origin of the word is understood as genos, which means "kind, type." The term monogenes in John 3:16 (and in 1:18 and other NT texts) therefore means "the only one of its kind" or as said in NIV, "the one and only." In this view the meaning could, but does not have to include the sense "only one born to/begotten." Any "only begotten" son is of course unique, but being unique does not necessarily mean that you are the only one born.
How is this view substantiated? Let me mention two supporting arguments. One is a little technical and requires some understanding of Greek grammar; one, however, is based on the usage of the word and easily checked also without any training in Ancient Greek. First, the natural way to form a participle from the verb gennao creates the word monogennetos, not monogenes. Second, the use in Hebrews 11: 17 of the word monogenes about Isaach as the unique son of Abraham makes the meaning "only begotten" impossible as everyone knows that Abraham in a literal sense had more sons (and several million Muslims would, by the way, be quite upset if we claimed that Ishmael was not a son of Abraham!).
So, the meaning "one and only" or "unique" is the natural and obvious meaning of the word monogenes. Does that imply that Jesus had a beginning? The answer is no, unless you claim that Jesus is a different God and entertain a pagan view of the divine. Jesus is the unique representative of the Godhead to all creation. This is what He has always been.
The final aspect I want you to notice is that when the New Testament speaks about the Father and the Son, it describes a unique relationship. God is mentioned as a Father in only 18 texts of the Old Testament. In the Gospel of John alone, Jesus mentions His Heavenly Father more than 100 times in direct speech. We know the Father because we know the Son. As Son, so Father. Their relationship is unique in part because it is eternal. There never was a time when it did not exist. If there was a time when the Son was not, there would have been a time when God would not have been the Father. The unique unity and intimate relationship between the two presupposes, as expressed by Seventh-day Adventists today that the persons within the Godhead are "co-eternal."