In several debates between Biblical Unitarians and trinitarians, the argument has been brought forward by trinitarians that Biblical Unitarians are guilty of “assuming unitarianism”; it is suggested that rather than deriving their unitarian beliefs from the Bible and/or sound reason, unitarians instead begin with the assumption that their views are true, and only by working backwards find what appears to be support for their views in the Bible. If one did not approach the Bible with the pre-supposition of that the one God is only one person and that Jesus Christ is a man, one would not find it there, these trinitarians argue. This is a very common trinitarian argument- is there a good answer to it?
In this post I want to look at some of the “assumptions” Biblical Unitarians are guilty of which lead them to find their views in the Bible, and show that these cannot fairly be painted as mere assumptions being forced upon the text of scripture. Rather I will argue that these are observations arising from the Bible itself, meaning that any support for Biblical Unitarianism arising from these observations will in fact constitute biblical evidence for the Biblical Unitarian position. I hope to show here that we do not in fact read unitarianism into the Bible, but derive our doctrines from it.
“Assumption” #1: A mediator is a third party who intervenes between two parties.
Here Biblical Unitarians are accused of unfairly insisting that a mediator must be a third party intervening between two parties, rather than an individual who somehow is both parties. Is this true? Are Biblical Unitarians stealthily shoehorning our own unitarian assumptions into passages like 1 Timothy 2:5, which tell us “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (NASB)?
The answer becomes clear when we consider what a mediator is by definition: a go-between between two or more parties; mediation by definition involves occupying a middle position between these various parties. In the case of these being two parties between whom there is a mediator, the mediator then, by definition, must be a third party, numerically and individually distinct from the two parties between which mediation is taking place. Anyone is welcome to look up the words ‘mediator’ and ‘mediation’ in the dictionary to verify these claims.
What’s that mean for Unitarians? It means that all Biblical Unitarians are doing is looking at what the words the Bible uses mean, and accepting that as the meaning of the text. God chose to reveal Himself to us using human language, and Christianity teaches that He was successful in this endeavor. Although God is infinite and transcends the limits of human language, He is able to -and in fact does- reveal truth to us using our terms. When He does so, we need to look at what those human terms denote to know what God is telling us. That’s all Biblical Unitarians are doing here; we look at the fact that the Bible tells us that Christ is a mediator between the one God and man, and therefore is by definition a third party standing between God and the rest of mankind. That’s merely looking carefully at what the Bible says and its necessary implications, and believing it, not reading anything into the Bible.
A trinitarian here might suggest that a biblical author such as Paul would be free to invent their own terms, or use terms in new ways, especially if they are seeking to describe something new for which there is not yet an established terminology. This is valid. However, in such a situation, we must expect the biblical author to give us some indication that he is using the term in question in a new or different way; if he does not, then we have no valid reason to assume the term means anything different than what it normally does; we are reasonably required to understand the term within the limits of its normal use and meaning, unless indication of such an exception is made. Therefore, in instances like 1 Timothy 2:5 where no such indication of redefinition is given, we are to understand the term according to its established meaning- which of course, inherently involves the mediator being a third party between the two parties between which there is mediation.
I’d end by pointing out here that not only are Biblical Unitarians being unfairly accused of reading their ideas into the Bible here, but also that their accusers make such accusations hypocritically. When we stop and examine what trinitarians do with the Bible’s teaching that Jesus is the mediator between God and the rest of mankind, we immediately see that they will often attempt to redefine what a mediator is, present an alternative meaning for ‘mediator’ which is not valid, and altogether dismiss the actual meaning of the word, all because the passage’s meaning does not fit with trinitarianism. Nothing from the text indicates the word here is being used in a special way, to mean something other than what it definitionally means; to argue it is appears to be nothing more than special pleading. This is a great example of someone attempting to read their own views into the text of the Bible, the very things they accuse Unitarians of doing.
“Assumption” #2: A son is a numerically distinct individual besides the one whose son they are.
Our method here will be the same as it was in addressing the last accusation; all we need do is stop and consider what sonship is, definitionally. If all Biblical Unitarians are doing is assuming that the Bible is using the words it speaks according to their meanings, this can hardly be considered assuming unitarianism; instead, its simply assuming that the Bible means what it says, and that this is a reliable representation of the truth.
So what’s it mean to be a son? For one to be the son of someone denotes a relation between that one and another individual- a son and a parent. One individual relates to the other as its son, the other relates to the one as its parent. This inherently and necessarily involves the son and parent to be two distinct individuals, since it is a relation between two individuals by definition. Naturally, this relation involves not only a social relation between the two individuals, but also a causal relation, where the son is begotten or born from the parent, and the parent is cause of the son. At its most basic level, a son is simply a male offspring of an individual. Sonship however can simply be used to denote the social relation itself, aside from causation, as in the case of adoption. Either way, though, sonship universally and definitionally involves a relation between one individual and another.
So then, when the Bible in the Old and New Testament identifies the Messiah, Jesus, as the Son of God, we have to ask what these words signify. According to their established meaning, that Jesus is the Son of God tells us that Jesus Christ is another individual besides God, who relates to God as his Father. In the case of Jesus, this father-son relation not only involves the social aspects of sonship (like inheritance), but also causation; we are told that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, on account of his being miraculously caused by God in Mary via the agency of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). If Jesus is really the Son of God (the only true God -Jn 17:3), then he is then necessarily and by definition an individual distinct from God, who relates to God as another, namely, his Father.
If this isn’t what being ‘son’ signifies in relation to Christ, why? We have acknowledged that a biblical author could, if they wished, use a term in a unique or new way; but we also noted that such a significant change in how a term is used would require explicit explanation. Otherwise, using the term in a different way would be equivocation, and risk being both confusing and deceptive. The fact is, we are never given a reason to think that Jesus’s sonship is somehow definitionally different than what sonship normally is. All Biblical Unitarians are doing here then is making observations off of what the words of the Bible mean; saying that the usage of terms here is exceptional and that they do not mean what they normally do will be nothing but special pleading, unless biblical justification were given for a change in meaning. Wanting to insist that sonship does not denote what it always definitionally denotes because that does not fit with trinitarianism sounds not only like special pleading, but attempting to read one’s own theological assumptions back into the Bible, the very thing these trinitarians are accusing Biblical Unitarians of doing.
“Assumption” #3: YHVH, the one God of the Bible, is only one person.
This one really gets to the heart of the debate between trinitarians who say YHVH, the one God, is three persons, and Unitarians, who insist that YHVH, God Almighty, is only one person. Do Biblical Unitarians read the Bible with this assumption, or is this idea derived from the Bible? Its worth noting here that the answer is actually ‘both’. The fact is, everyone reads the Bible assuming their preconceived theological ideas are true, whether they are trinitarian or unitarian. No one is going to come to the Bible pretending they do not actually believe whatever they understand the truth to be. The difference between trinitarians and unitarians here will then not be whether we assume our positions are true when we come to the text of scripture, but which of our positions is derived from scripture. When someone comes to the Bible without presuppositions in favor of either view, which way does the Bible direct them to go?
We may start here by noting that trinitarians and unitarians both agree that YHVH is a single being, so let’s begin there. YHVH is one entity, one being. What sort of being is YHVH? I will argue that it is clear throughout the Old Testament that YHVH is a personal being. YHVH is referred to using personal language, such as personal, rather than impersonal pronouns. YHVH can be related to; He knows and is known, He acts, He speaks, He loves, has wrath, etc. There can be no doubt that YHVH is personal. We also already noted that YHVH is one individual being. Now we must put these together: is there any particular term human language has to denote a personal being? Indeed, this is exactly what the term “person” is. So, is YHVH a person? Absolutely. As a personal being, YHVH is obviously a person. That’s why all through the OT, the one God, YHVH is spoken of using not only personal pronouns, but specifically singular personal pronouns. He refers to Himself using terms denoting a single self; and when others speak of Him or to Him, they use singular personal language. The one YHVH of the Old Testament scriptures then is presented throughout those scriptures not as an impersonal being, but as a personal being- that is, as a person.
Now, while this explanation is clear, it is a little too imprecise for my comfort. Simply defining a person as a personal being, while not incorrect, does not satisfactorily explain the matter in the sort of precision this discussion often requires of us. So I will note that definitionally, a person is ‘a rational individual being’.
Let’s break down that definition in detail: a ‘being’ is simply an entity; an entity may be either individual or generic. For example, we may speak of human nature, a set of ontological properties which define what it means to be human, as an entity, but this abstract entity is generic or universal, finding existence in many individuals. And individual entity on the other hand would be, for example, an actual human being; this is not an abstract, generic entity, but a concrete individual subsistence. A person is not an abstract nature, but a specific individual entity, that is, an individual being. However, not all individual beings are persons, but only rational individual beings. Classically the idea here is that by rational, we mean to indicate only those being which possess higher rational faculties capable of abstract reasoning; a cow, therefore, is not a person, despite the fact that it is an individual being; whereas a man, or an angel, since they are individual beings which are rational in nature, are persons. Thus we arrive at our definition that a person is a rational individual being.
Is then YHVH a rational individual being? That is, does He meet the technical definition of a person? Yes, He does. That He is an individual being we see again and again; He is clear that He is one entity, and trinitarians and unitarians agree on this. But He is also rational, able to think reason, possess wisdom, speak, and even knows all things. So then, YHVH, God Almighty, the one God of the Old Testament, is clearly a person, according to the standard definition of a person.
A trinitarian may object here, and attempt to argue that other definitions of ‘person’ and ‘being’ must be found which would better fit with their doctrines. This however, we must not allow. It is not Biblical Unitarians who first introduced ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostasis’ into theology proper, but trinitarians, or rather, the Logos-theorists who preceded them. Trinitarians opted to continue using this language employed by the unitarian subordinationists of the third and fourth century, and to make it an integral part of their creedal definitions. If then they will insist on using the terms ‘being’, and ‘person’, they must use them according to their actual definitions. Otherwise, we must politely ask them to not bother using these terms at all, as it only serves to horribly obscure their meaning, and throws the entire discussion into confusion, when they seek to use terms like ‘person’ to denote something other than an actual person.
If anyone doubts the legitimacy of this definition, as with ‘son’ and ‘mediator’, I welcome them to consult common dictionaries. I would also illustrate the validity of these definitions by giving a more familiar example: what is the difference between “a human being” and “a human person”? None exists; they refer to the same exact thing. That’s because all humans are by nature rational, and so, all individual beings which are human, being rational, are persons. Or to return to our much simpler explanation we started with, all human beings are personal. Thus, every human being is a person. This all serves to illustrate the relation of ‘being’ to ‘person’, as classically understood, laid out above.
YHVH then, the God of Israel, the Most High, the Creator of all things, is not only one being, but one person, according to what the very word ‘person’ signifies by definition. Since YHVH is only one rational individual being, and not more than one, He is only one person, not more than one.
All this means that the Unitarian view of God, as being only one person, is not merely a presupposition which we impose upon the Bible; it is a truth which is unavoidably present in the Bible itself, clear to anyone trying to look objectively at the matter. All we have to do it look at how many entities God is: one. And is this entity individual? Yes, thus it is one. Is this entity rational? Indeed, all knowing and all wise. This God, then, the God of the Old Testament, is only one person. Now, if we approach the New Testament with the base assumption that the one God is the same one God in both the Old Testament and the New- an assumption which can be proved from many passages- then we will find that the one God is only one person in the New Testament as well. One passage we may note is John 8:54:
Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you [Jews] say, ‘He is our God’;John 8:54 NASB
Who did the Jews Jesus here interacted with claim as their God, except YHVH, God Almighty, the God of the Old Testament? But Who then is YHVH, the God of the Old Testament, in relation to Jesus? “My Father”, is what Jesus calls Him; the person Jesus calls “my Father” is the one the Jews call their God, that is, YHVH God Almighty. This is exactly what Biblical Unitarianism teaches: the one God is only one person, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The one God of the Jews, YHVH is equated with someone trinitarians acknowledge is a person here, the Father. So again, we have confirmation that YHVH is a person. But we are not left wondering who that person is in relation to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Son of which God? YHVH, the God of the Bible. We have already addressed that as Son, Jesus is distinguished as another individual besides His Father.
We find then that the trinitarian accusation of ‘assuming unitarianism’ is an empty and pointless response to unitarian arguments; in fact what trinitarians making this charge are really taking issue with is that unitarians are taking biblical language at face value, and understanding the words the Bible uses according to their standard meanings, rather than according to some sort of special definition contrived to accommodate the doctrine of the trinity. As we saw above, the unitarian understanding that God is a single person and that Jesus is another numerically distinct individual besides the one God is something derived directly from the language of the Bible itself, any not merely an assumption foisted into the text by unitarians; rather, we find it is trinitarians who are repeatedly having to try to get around what the Bible is saying due to their assuming trinitarianism.