Unitarianism (or Socinianism)1 is a theological movement that believes God is one singular Person. Unitarians reject the triune nature of God and argue that the Bible teaches Jesus was not a divine Person but is simply the one Lord Messiah (a human being). Unitarians often make much of the fact that the Bible says there is only one God, but this assumes Christians believe something else. The Bible is clear that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4; cf. Mark 12:29). However, non-trinitarians confuse monotheism (belief in one God) with unitarianism (the belief that the being of God is possessed by one Person). Jesus’ divinity is part of the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that within the one Being that is God, there exist eternally three coequal and coeternal Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each is a distinct Person, yet each is identified as God: the Father (Philippians 1:2), the Son (John 1:1, 18), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). The doctrine of the Trinity is not a denial of the unity of God but is the God-revealed explanation of that unity. This issue is important, because if we deny the deity of Jesus then we do not know the Father and, therefore, we do not have eternal life (1 John 2:23, 5:12, 20).
William (Bill) Schlegel, author of The Satellite Bible Atlas and former professor at The Master’s University extension program in Israel (IBEX), now argues for unitarianism. Several years ago, Schlegel came to reject the deity of Christ (and the doctrine of the Trinity) and now believes that the Bible teaches that God is one Person and that Jesus is God’s human Messiah. Over the last few years, Schlegel has written numerous blog posts on why he believes Jesus is not God. In one of his blog posts, Schlegel rejects that he has become part of a cult and gives several responses as to why he thinks Jesus is just human:
I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. The God of Jesus the Messiah, like your God and my God, is the God whose name has been revealed to us in the Bible, spelled with the four Hebrew consonants יהוה.2
Like other unitarians, Schlegel reduces the concept of Jesus’ Messiahship to that of a mere human. The Old Testament, however, does not speak of the Messiah as merely a human, but as God (Psalm 45:6; cf. Hebrews 1:8), God with us (Isaiah 7:14), mighty God (Isaiah 9:6; cf. 10:21), the Lord (Psalm 110:13), and the Lord (יהוה) is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6). The New Testament authors also speak of Jesus (the Son) being active in the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:4, 9; Hebrews 1:2–3, 8–10; Jude 54). Moreover, the New Testament authors apply the divine name יהוה (YHWH) to Jesus (Hebrews 1:10; cf. Psalm 102:25–27). Israel’s belief in one God was firmly grounded in the introductory words of the Shema, the Hebrew confession that includes the central tenets of their faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In the first century, the early churches’ belief in one God set them apart from the polytheistic practices of the Greco-Roman pantheon (made up of many gods).
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was writing to Greek-speaking people who had come out of Greco-Roman culture. The Scriptures the Corinthians would have been familiar with was the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint, LXX). In 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul rejects the many “gods” and “lords” of Greco-Roman culture (1 Corinthians 8:4–5; cf. Deuteronomy 10:17) and affirms there is but one God (1 Corinthians 8:6). Paul does this by referring to Deuteronomy 6:4 from the LXX. In 1 Corinthians 8:6 when Paul refers to the Father, he uses the Greek word θεὸς (theos), which is a translation of the Hebrew word אֱלֹהֵינוּ (ʾĕlōhênû), but when he refers to Jesus, he uses the Greek word κύριος (kyrios),5 which is a translation of the Hebrew word יהוה (YHWH).
|Deuteronomy 6:4||1 Corinthians 8:6|
|שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד|
|ἄκουε ’Ισραήλ κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν κύριος εἷς ἐστι||ἀλλ᾽ ἡμῖν εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατήρ ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς αὐτόν καὶ εἷς κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός δι᾽ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς δι᾽ αὐτοῦ|
|Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.||yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.|
As a Jewish monotheist, the Apostle Paul clearly believed in the Shema, but because of the incarnation (Philippians 2:5–8), he also believed that Jesus shared the identity of YHWH (יהוה), the God of Israel. Paul is clearly trinitarian in his theology (1 Corinthians 12:4–6; Ephesians 2:18, 4:4–6).
My belief lines up word for word with what Jesus said after his resurrection: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).6
This passage is often used by unitarians to argue against the truth of the deity of Christ. However, this argument ignores several things that have already been stated in the Gospel of John. First, it ignores the fact that the Apostle John already referred to Jesus as God (John 1:1, 18; cf. 12:41) and that Jesus himself made several claims to his own deity (John 5:17–18, 23, 8:58, 10:28–30). Second, it also ignores the fact that the Son (Jesus) eternally existed (John 1:1; cf. 8:58, 17:5), became flesh (human), and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In Jesus’ incarnate role as a sinless man (1 John 3:5), because the Father was functionally greater than him (John 14:28), he would humbly acknowledge the Father as his God. Therefore, because of his incarnation, Jesus can refer to the Father as “my God.”
My belief lines up word for word with what the Apostle Peter preached on the first Pentecost (Shavuot) after Jesus was raised from the dead. “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up . . . .” (Acts 2:22–36).7
Peter did believe Jesus was a man attested by God, but that is not all he believed about Jesus.
Peter did believe Jesus was a man attested by God, but that is not all he believed about Jesus. In the book of Acts, Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God the Father (Acts 2:33, 5:31, 7:55–56), a role in which he is active and not passive (see Acts 3:6, 4:10, 9:3–6, 34). In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter links calling on the name of the “Lord” to save (Acts 2:21; cf. Joel 2:32) to calling on the name of Jesus (Acts 2:36–39; cf. Acts 7:59). Peter further speaks of Jesus as pouring out the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33; cf. 2:17–18), the “Author of life” (Acts 3:15), the only name for salvation (Acts 4:12), Savior (Acts 5:31; cf. 13:23), the Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42), and “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).8 None of these things could be said of someone who is just human.
In 1 Peter 3:15, the phrase “honor Christ the Lord” is an adaptation from Isaiah 8:13 in the Old Testament (“the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy”). Most of the time in the LXX, the covenant name for God (יהוה) is translated as kyrios (Lord). The term Lord in the LXX of Isaiah 8:13 refers directly to the “Lord of hosts.” In Peter’s use of the LXX, he inserts “Christ” (Messiah), asserting that we should honor him as Lord. In his second epistle, Peter also clearly calls Jesus “God”: “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 1:11, 2:20, 3:18).9 Moreover, when Peter confronted Ananias about his sin, he said, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit? . . . You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:3–4). To lie to the Holy Spirit was to lie to God. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is not a force but a Person who not only can be lied to, but also fills, sends, and speaks to people (Acts 4:8, 13:2, 4, 21:11, 28:25). Like Paul, Peter was trinitarian in his theology.
My belief lines up word for word with what the Apostle Paul called a knowledge of the truth: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, a man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:4–5).10
The beliefs of those who hold to the deity of Jesus also line up with what the Apostle Paul teaches, but again we realize Paul said more about the identity of Jesus. The reason Paul refers to Christ as a man is because a mediator is a representative between two parties (cf. Hebrews 9:15). This is not a denial of Jesus’ divinity but an acknowledgment of his incarnation (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16). In another passage, and in the context of redemption, Paul calls Jesus “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13; cf. 2:14).
Paul also describes the Corinthians as those who “call upon [epikaloumenois] the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2; cf. Acts 2:21). In the Old Testament, people “called on” the name of the Lord (יהוה) (Joel 2:32). The Corinthians were people who addressed Jesus as Lord in prayer (cf. John 14:14). This was not just something the Corinthians did, as Paul directs his prayers for the Thessalonians to Jesus (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:5) and to Jesus and the Father (1 Thessalonians 3:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17).11 In 1 Corinthians 2:8, concerning God’s wisdom, Paul states, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Paul describes Jesus as “the Lord of glory” (cf. James 2:1; Psalm 24:7–8). What man could be described in this way? It would be blasphemous to call anyone the Lord of glory unless they were divine.
Because Schlegel operates from governing assumptions (that God is one Person) that keep him from arriving at a right conclusion (the deity of Jesus), he often engages in fallacious reasoning. For example, Schlegel states,
There is no Trinity described in John 1:14 (or John 1:1). If you are a Trinitarian, and John 1:1 and John 1:14 are your main proof texts for your understanding of who God is, you better look further, because there is no Trinity god anywhere near John 1:1 or John 1:14, or anywhere else in the Gospel of John. As a matter of fact, the word “God” Theos occurs some 1320 times in the New Testament, and the word never means the Trinity.12
This is simply a misrepresentation of what trinitarians believe; trinitarians do not teach that John 1:1 or John 1:14 by themselves teach the Trinity. Moreover, trinitarians do not argue that the word theos (God) means the Trinity. However, the term theos is used of Jesus (John 20:28) and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:4). Rather than explicitly teaching the Trinity, John 1:1 and John 1:14 support the doctrine of the Trinity as they teach the eternal Son of God (Jesus) took on flesh (humanity) and dwelt among us (see my article Jesus: The Word, Life, and Light).
In his prayer in John 17:3–5, Jesus both refers to his preexistence and uses terminology that can only be used about deity,
And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
However, just as with other clear passages in the New Testament that speak to Jesus’ deity, Schlegel tries to find a way to get around this:
As with any difficult biblical passage, we must consider the context of Jesus’ statement in this prayer to God (the Father). Just two sentences before, as recorded in John 17:3, Jesus prayed to God: “Father (17:1) . . . this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.” In John 17:5, two sentences after Jesus said that the Father is the only true God, it would be very strange for Jesus to imply that he too, Jesus himself, is also God.13
What Schlegel fails to highlight is that according to Jesus, to have eternal life is to know two Persons: both the Father and Jesus (see John 14:6–7, 16:3). Jewish monotheism (unlike unitarianism) could contain the idea that the Messiah was divine (see above) and that together with the Creator, he could give life (see John 5:25–26). This is why the Apostle John could also say that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is “the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). But notice in the John 17 conversation, Jesus is speaking of the glory he shared with the Father before the world existed.14 The words “before the world existed” show that Jesus’ sonship did not begin at his baptism or resurrection (as many unitarians believe) but is an eternal sonship (John 1:1). John 17:3–5 is an example of a divine, yet incarnate (John 1:14), Person, the Son, communicating with a divine, but non-incarnate Person, the Father in heaven.
In John 20:28, Thomas famously answers the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou). Thomas’ statement is from the Old Testament (Psalm 35:23, 99:8, 106:47). In response to this verse teaching the deity of Christ, Schlegel offers a creative way to get around it.
Contrary to the “deity of Christ” interpretation, Thomas did not fail to acknowledge the work of the Father, the One Eternal Life-Giving God, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Indeed, Thomas acknowledged the Father, seeing two “persons” involved in the resurrection of Jesus:
- my “Lord” is Jesus the Messiah, who suffered and died, but was raised from the dead.
- my “God” is the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead.
The Trinitarian “deity of Christ” interpretation of John 20:28 fails to see or acknowledge the Father who raised to life the dead Jesus.15
It’s a strange thing to say that trinitarians fail to acknowledge the Father raised Jesus from the dead when this is not even part of the surrounding context in John 20:28. All trinitarians believe the Father raised Jesus from the dead (Galatians 1:1), but they also recognize that Jesus said he would raise himself from the dead (John 2:19-22) and that the Holy Spirit was also involved (Romans 8:11). The resurrection of Jesus involved all three Members of the Trinity.
The problem with Schlegel’s interpretation of John 20:28 is that both nouns—Lord (kyrios) and God (theos)—are in the nominative case and are addressed to Jesus (cf. Revelation 4:11).16 Thomas’ confession is directed to one Person, Jesus. If Jesus was not divine, then Thomas made a serious error; but Jesus made no effort to correct Thomas in his worship. Yet Peter (Acts 10:25–26), Paul (Acts 14:14–15), and the angel in Revelation (Revelation 22:8–9) all corrected others for trying to worship them, clearly demonstrating that worship belongs only to God. The confession of deity here is unmistakable because Jesus accepted Thomas’ worship of him (John 20:29). What’s more, in the book of Revelation, the elders and every creature in heaven and upon earth ascribe universal worship “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Revelation 5:11–14; cf. John 1:29).
Unitarians may claim the Bible as their authority, but they reject and distort anything in the Bible that they cannot comprehend.
Schlegel’s objections to the deity of Jesus are nothing new and are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of God (that God is one Person) and taking verses out of context. Unitarianism is a rationalistic approach (placing human reason above revelation) to the text of the Bible. Unitarians may claim the Bible as their authority, but they reject and distort anything in the Bible that they cannot comprehend. It is not the text of the Bible that determines unitarian theology but what they think is possible. The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians about accepting a Jesus that is different from the Jesus proclaimed by the apostles (2 Corinthians 11:4).