The Definition of God is Important

by Anthony Buzzard

The Problem of Language

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.” [1]

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, 0 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 … ” [2] 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 wilting 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).

Scholars Point to the Adverse Effects of Philosophy

Nineteenth-century liberalism raised the issue of the negative effect of Greek philosophy on the original faith. The celebrated but they act as if those teachings were self-evidently biblical.”[3] F.F. Bruce’s shrewd observation deserves the closest attention:

“People who adhere to belief in the Bible only (as they believe) often adhere in fact to a traditional school of interpretation of sola scriptura. Evangelical Protestants can be as much servants of tradition as Roman Catholics or Greek Orthodox, only they don’t realize that it is tradition.” [4]

To Michael Servetus, and the Dutch Anabaptists led by Adam Pastor, as well as to the whole community of Polish Anabaptists, the Trinity was a deviation from biblical monotheism, a mistaken attempt to translate apostolic belief in one God, the Father, into the language of Greek metaphysics. Worse still, the creeds and the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon were used in coercive and destructive ways to force belief in these dogmas. This was all the more regrettable since the terminology of the discussion on Christology was itself a jumble of ambiguous terms – in sharp contrast to the Bible’s plainly Unitarian creed.

The freedom to explore apart from the ”tyranny of dogma” (represented, for example, by the Athanasian Creed which threatens death to deviants from orthodox Trinitarianism) led to the rediscovery of a frequently forgotten element in the Church’s presentation of Jesus – his humanity. It was widely admitted that traditional understandings of Jesus had often suffered from a latent “docetism” (belief that Jesus only seemed to be human), which for John, the Apostle, signaled very “antichrist” (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7).

Moreover, traditional formulations about Christ seemed to demonstrate a fondness for a particular interpretation of John 1:1, to the exclusion of the very human portraits presented by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. In fact, the Gospel of John had been allowed a more than proportionate influence in the formation of Christology.

Could this have been because the style of John’s writing, while actually very Hebraic, appealed to the speculative Greek mind, and could be easily misunderstood and distorted by Gentiles?

The subsequent development of Trinitarian thinking was encouraged by a misunderstanding of the Hebrew notion of “word” by Justin Martyr. For John, “logos” signified not a second person in the Godhead, but the self-expressive activity of God. Justin, who as Platonist had been accustomed to thinking of the “logos” as an intermediary between God and man, not unnaturally reads Jesus back into the “logos” and thinks of him as the preexisting Son, a person numerically different from and subordinate to the One God. Justin then proceeds to find Jesus in the Old Testament, even identifying him with the angel of the Lord, before his incarnation. Yet even in Justin we are a long way from the final creedal formulation of the Council of Chalcedon.

The important point to be noted is that developed Trinitarianism cannot be traced back to the New Testament, through the earliest Church Fathers. These Fathers always thought of Christ as subordinate to the One God. Some believed the Son had a beginning.

Complaints about mistreatment of John’s concept of the “word” have frequently been steam-rollered into obscurity. It is time for some significant voices to be heard. In 1907 the Professor of Systematic Theology at Jena in Germany produced his System der Christichen Lehre, the culmination of a lifetime’s reflection on the nature of the Christian faith. In company with many later distinguished commentators the professor put his finger on the Trinitarian problem which arises when the “Word” of John 1 is treated as a preexisting second Person or Being, rather than a synonym for the wisdom and creative purpose of the One God.

No Trinitarianism is found in John’s prologue if the “Word” is given a lower-case “w” and if it is thought of as a way of describing the intention or Plan of God, not (at that stage) the Son of God.

Hans Wendt of Jena subjects the problem to a penetrating analysis. He shows that when the ”word” is understood in a Hebrew sense as God’s creative activity – based on its consistent appearance in that sense in the Old Testament – there is no warrant whatsoever for thinking that John meant to say: “In the beginning was the coeternal Son of God and the Son was with the Father and the Son was God.” Such an interpretation merely confuses the great central principle of all revelation that God is a single person. If the Word is the Son in a pre-human condition, then both Father and Son are equally entitled to be thought of as the supreme Deity.

This development, however, dealt a fatal blow to the monotheism of the Hebrew Bible, that monotheism which Jesus had publicly confirmed (Mark 12:28, 29) in the presence of both an inquiring theologian and his own circle of disciples. If the “word” in John 1 is taken to mean ”the word of God,” it is clear that John has in mind the creative word of Genesis 1:1-3, Psalm 33:6, 9; 119:103-105.

A fatal step was taken, says Professor Wendt, when the ”word” of John’s prologue was understood, not in terms of its Hebrew background, but in the Alexandrian and Philonic sense as an intermediary between God and man.

The opening sentences of John’s Gospel, which might sound like the philosophy of Philo, could be understood by an educated Jew or Christian without any reference to Philo. Therefore we should not argue from Philo’s meaning of “word” as a hypostasis that John also meant by “word” a preexisting personality. In the remainder of the Gospel and in 1 John, “word” is never to be understood in a personal sense.

It means rather the “revelation” of God which had earlier been given to Israel (John 10:35), had come to the Jews in Holy Scripture (John 5:38) and which had been entrusted to Jesus and committed by him to his disciples (John 8:55; 12:48; 17:6, 8,14,17; 1 John 1:1) and which would now be preserved by them (1 John 1:10; 2:5,14).

The slightly personifying way in which the word is spoken of as coming into the world (John 1:9-14) is typical of the personifying style of the Old Testament references to the word (Isaiah 55:11; Psalm 107:20; 147:15; cp. 2 Thessalonians 3:1). It cannot be proved that the author of the prologue thought of the word as a real person. Only the historical Jesus and not the original word is said to be the Son (John 1:14,18).

Definition of words used

1. Christology

The word “Christology” comes from two Greek words meaning “Christ / Messiah” and “word” – which combine to mean “the study of Christ.” Christology is the study of the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

2. Hypostasis

The word hypostasis is Latin for “person” or “substance.” It refers to the essential part of a person or what makes a person what he truly is. The term is used in referring to Christ and His nature.

3. Docetism

Docetism was an early Christian heresy that promoted a false view of Jesus’ humanity. The word Docetism comes from the Greek dokein, which meant “to seem”; according to Docetism, Jesus Christ only seemed to have a human body like ours.

4. Philo Judaeus

Also called Philo of Alexandria, (born 15–10 bce, Alexandria—died 45–50 ce, Alexandria), Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher

A Definition of God

The term “God” is often misunderstood by both Trinitarians and Unitarians, supposing that it refers to a KIND of being (WHAT God is in His nature and impersonal essence) or to simple Personhood (WHO God is as a Person). But the truth of the matter is that the term “God” primarily refers to a ROLE – God’s STATUS as the supreme authority over everything and everyone. The title “God” defines His Sovereign role and relationship over everything that He has originated.


[1] Life of Moses, I: 155-158.

[2] Hebrew 1:8, quoting Ps. 45:6, applies the title God, used in a qualified sense, directly to Jesus.

[3] The Nature of Doctrine and Religion: Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 74.

[4] From correspondence, June 13th, 1981.

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