Not Understanding what the Bible Means by “God”

Extracted from the book “The Doctrine of the Trinity Christianity’s self inflicted wound” by Anthony Buzzard.

A host of problems arises from the traditional proposition that Jesus is “God,” in the sense required by orthodox creeds.

Does the New Testament really present us with this definition of the Savior, or are we perhaps misunderstanding some of the data, and so distorting the New Testament’s Christological message?

Is there perhaps a semantic barrier between our customary reading of key New Testament words and the original intention of the authors of Scripture?

An Englishman visiting America and remarking that he is “mad about his flat” should not expect to be understood. The situation will be a good example of Shaw’s quip that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. In England, the Englishman will convey the notion that he is “excited about his apartment.” Across the Atlantic it will be thought that he is “angry about his flat tire.” A similar breakdown in communication occurs if an Englishman announces in America that Tom and Jane have “broken up.” Americans will think that the pair has ended a relationship. In England the same words inform us that their school term has ended.

An American was once asked in England: “Do you want a pie?” The question came from a man delivering milk, known in England as a milkman, though the word will have little meaning in America where milk is bought in stores. The American was surprised that the milkman would be selling pies until she realized that what he really intended, veiled by his cockney accent, was, “Do you want to pay?” Again, a serious misunderstanding arose because one party’s use of words was foreign to the one he was addressing.

A similar “crossing of lines” occurs when Bible readers are unfamiliar with the “language” of the authors of the New Testament.

This does not mean that everyone needs to learn Greek. They must, however, appreciate that the New Testament Hebrew Christians do not necessarily use words as we do in the twentieth century. (We all recognize that even since 1611, when the King James or Authorized Version was translated, some words have undergone a complete change of meaning.) In order to read the Bible intelligently, we need to enter into the thought world of the New Testament. We must “hear” words as they heard them. If we do not, we may seriously misunderstand the faith which the Apostles intended to communicate to us.

The Term “God” and the Issue of the Trinity in John

What, for example, do the biblical writers mean by the all important word “God”? Do they mean, as we do, an uncreated divine being who has always existed? Very frequently God is the name for the supreme being. But does the word “God” have another meaning in the Bible?

If we report that we have been introduced to the “president,” it may be thought that we have met the President of the United States. On the other hand it is quite possible that the context of our remark will allow our audience to know that we mean, say, the president of the local bank.

Fortunately there is not much room for misunderstanding. We all recognize that the term “president” can be used at different levels. It is, so to speak, an “elastic” term capable of referring to persons in different offices. The word itself, however, is ambiguous. Its meaning must be determined by its context. We would not consider someone very intelligent who insisted that the word “president” always and invariably means “President of the United States.”

If we read the Bible with our twentieth-century conviction that “God” invariably means an eternal, uncreated being, we quickly run into trouble at 2 Corinthians 4:4, where Satan is called “God.” Our original theory about the term “God” has to be adjusted to allow a secondary meaning for God, not to be confused with the use of God in the absolute sense. In John 10:34 we find the plural, “gods.” An examination of the context would reveal that Jesus here spoke of the leaders of Israel as “gods.”

They were representatives of God to whom God addressed His word and as such were given a divine title (Psalm 82:6). But no one would think that they were “Gods” in the same sense as the One God. A Jewish writer of the first century, Philo, speaks of Moses as “god and king”: “Did not Moses also enjoy an even greater partnership with the Father and Maker of the universe, being deemed worthy of the same title? For he was named god and king [theos kai basileus] of the whole nation.”

The words of Thomas, addressed to Jesus in John 20:28, read: “My Lord and my God.” Because many readers of the Bible have been conditioned to believe that Jesus is “God” in the sense in which we use that word in the twentieth century, they jump to the conclusion that this must be what Thomas meant. Jesus must therefore be an eternally preexistent being.

But if Jesus is “God” in that absolute sense, why only a few verses earlier does Jesus address his Father as “my God,” calling Him at the same time “your God,” the God of the disciples? When Jesus addressed the Father as “my God” (John 20:17) he acknowledged that he was inferior to God, the Father.

Jesus is not, therefore, God in the absolute sense.

For Thomas, too, Jesus is “god” in a qualified sense, as Messiah, the supreme legal agent of the One God. The one whom Thomas calls god is himself inferior to the One God addressed by Jesus as his God. Thus understood, Jesus remains within the category of Messiah, Son of God, a category which John expressly imposes on his entire book (John 20:31). Fundamental to John’s whole Christological outlook there are two primary facts:

Jesus is to be believed in as “Messiah, Son of God,” while the Father’s unique status is preserved as “the only true God” (John 17:3) and ”the one who alone is God” (John 5:44).

Most significantly, the promised Messiah was given the title God in Psalm 45:6: “Thy throne, O god, is for ever and ever.” In the next verse it is made clear that this “god Messiah” has been blessed by his God: “Therefore God, thy God, has anointed you … ” The highest honor was given to Jesus by Thomas when he addressed him with the royal Messianic titles “Lord” and “God,” derived from Psalm 45:6,11. New Testament evidence that Jesus is god in the same sense as God the Father is scant indeed. If we are sensitive to the proportions of the biblical use of the term God, we will note the fact that it refers to the Father over 1325 times in the New Testament, while “god” is used of Jesus only twice with complete certainty (other possible cases in which Jesus is called god are all doubtful, as is well known, for grammatical and syntactical reasons). These facts suggest that the very occasional use of “god” for Jesus is a special reference. Obviously, then, it might be very misleading to say in the twentieth century that “Jesus is god,” unless we first understand in what sense that word is used by John (and Thomas whom he reports).

Our use of words must not dictate the Bible’s usage. We may not simply rely on the sound of a word without inquiring about its meaning. Above all, we must be willing to let go of a dogmatic insistence on acceptance of doctrine without inquiry. Such inflexible adherence to the way we have always believed blocks the search for truth which is the hallmark of the growing Christian (Acts 17:11).

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