Tuesday, June 30, 2015

John 5:19 - God can do Nothing at All?

“19 Therefore, in answer, Jesus went on to say to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, The Son cannot do a single thing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing. For whatever things that One does, these things the Son also does in like manner.”

One of the most remarkable arguments I've seen promoting "the deity of Christ" involves John 5:19, and goes something like this:

"Since Jesus can do nothing at all of his own initiative, but can only do what the Father does, he must be God, because only God can only do what God does.  We can do things of our own initiative, including the commission of both righteous and sinful acts, but Jesus was incapable of doing anything but what the Father does."

This odd argument not only ignores the fact that John 5 obviously presents Jesus role using agency language (i.e. "the agent is equated with the principal" as the Rabbis would put it), but it involves a de-contextualized reading.  Clearly Jesus was speaking in reference to doing God’s work in the carrying out of his commission as God’s representative.  He did not mean that he was incapable of eating, drinking, tying his sandal laces, blowing his nose, etc., without having first beheld “the Father doing [it]”.

The same could be said respecting any number of verses that orthodox folks sometimes tend to de-contextualize.

Take John 16:30 and Matt. 24:36 for example:

John 16:30: "Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.”

Matt. 24:36: "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

While apparently ignoring context, some will assert that John 16:30 implies that Jesus must be God for he "knows all things" without exception. Yet we know that the verse shouldn't be read that way because Jesus' followers themselves tell us that "This makes [them] know that [Jesus] came from God" not that Jesus IS God. In other words, the disciples did not have in mind an all-encompassing reference, but they knew that Jesus was not lacking when it came to providing them with the knowledge that they’d need to be empowered for what was to come while they fulfilled their commissions as representatives of God and his Son. Thus, there's no contradiction between John 16:30 and Matt. 24:36, and no need to resort to verbal prestidigitation by asserting that as God Jesus knew all things without exception but as Man he had limited knowledge, as though that were even an intelligible statement.

John 9:32-34 also comes to mind:

“32 From of old it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of one born blind. 33 If this [man] were not from God, he could do nothing at all.” 34 In answer they said to him: “You were altogether born in sins, and yet are you teaching us?”

Here Jesus healed a blind man who goes on to defend Jesus to the religious leaders. When the blind man said “If this [man] were not from God, he could do nothing at all”, he didn’t mean that Jesus would be unable to eat, drink, trim his ear hair, etc. The “nothing at all” is clearly in a reference to the sort of miraculous works Jesus had just done.

Note also John 15:5:

“5 I am the vine, YOU are the branches. He that remains in union with me, and I in union with him, this one bears much fruit; because apart from me YOU can do nothing at all.”

Although Jesus tells his disciples that apart from him they can “do nothing at all”, he clearly didn’t mean that in an all-encompassing way. He is speaking in reference to “fruit” that his disciples can bear as “branches”. In other words, he was speaking of the work they would do as representatives of him and his Father, not about other things like eating, drinking, buying fish at the market, etc. And he certainly didn't mean that without Jesus, the disciples would be incapable of sinning!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Before Abraham was, I...what, exactly?

John 8:58 has come up so many times recently in various discussions, that I decided to upload my view here, briefly stated, so that I can stop typing it out and just provide the link in the future.

Here's the argument in a nutshell:

The Greek at John 8:58 fits an idiom described by grammarian Kenneth McKay as the "Extension from Past", which occurs when a present tense verb is "used with an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications." (A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek: An Aspectual Approach), p. 41, 42

Based on this understanding of the Greek, McKay offers this superlative English equivalent of what Jesus meant:

"I have been in existence since before Abraham was born."

If we accept McKay's observation that verse 58 is an example of the Extension from Past idiom (and there's no reason why we shouldn't), then Jesus' response (a) makes perfect sense and constitutes an exquisite response in light of the question posed, and (b) would have constituted a stoning offense if untrue. Notice how the pieces fall in place under McKay's view:

Verse 56 - Jesus: "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

Verse 57 - Opponents: “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham?”

Verse 58 - Jesus: "The truth is, I have been in existence since before Abraham was born!"

Jesus' opponents inferred from his statement in verse 56 that Jesus had personally observed (first hand) Abraham rejoice over seeing his day. For Jesus to say the equivalent of "I am God's name-bearing agent" (which is a paraphrase of what James McGrath and at least one other scholar argue that Jesus meant by EGO EIMI) as a response would be to utter a non sequitur. On the other hand, if we recognize the Greek idiom at work in the text and translate it the way we almost certainly would were it not for Church tradition, then Jesus' response fits perfectly, even exquisitely in context.

One apologist (Bowman, if memory serves) attempted to dismiss this view by saying something to the effect of, "Claiming to be really, really old wasn't a stoning offense." While that may be true generally speaking, offering such as a response to McKay's argument is really rather silly. Jesus' opponents wanted to stone him, not because a claim to be old was blasphemous, but because his claim to have been in existence since before Abraham was born could only have been viewed as a preposterous lie by them, and for Jesus to present himself as God's living, breathing power of attorney and then proceed to utter a lie while fulfilling his commission as God's agent would make God a liar, because as God's agent, his words were God's words, legally. Now THAT would be construed as blasphemous, especially by those who already sought his death!

McKay's understanding of the Greek isn't new, and sometimes when translators have broken away from committees and the unavoidable pressures such bodies sometimes exert out of allegiance to Church tradition, then they've offered renderings that attempt to capture the idiom.

Note a few examples:

Edgar J. Goodspeed rendered vs 58, "I tell you, I existed before Abraham was born."

James Moffatt similarly offered, "I have existed before Abraham was born."

Catholic James A. Kleist, S.J. offered, "I am here -- and I was before Abraham!" (In the footnote he claims that the utterance intimates eternity, but that's not a necessary implication of the Greek).

Charles B. Williams, whose translation was called "...the best translation of the New Testament in English", in part because it surpassed "...all other translators of the New Testament in bringing out the tense significance of the Greek verbs" (J. R. Mantey, comments on dust jacket), offered this rendering, "I most solemnly say to you, I existed before Abraham was born."

In their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Louw and Nida offer, "before Abraham came into existence, I existed."

All of these are fine attempts to capture the sense of the Greek, yet only McKay's rendering truly does it justice, as only his rendering "...expresses a state which commenced at an earlier period but still continues...", as George Benedict Winer put it [1], or "...which indicates the continuance of an action during the past and up to the moment of speaking...[which action is]...conceived as still in progress..." as Nigel Turner put it [2].

As William Loader asked, "Need ...[the words "I am" at 8:58] mean more than the stupendous claim: I am in existence since before Abraham?" No, they needn't mean *more* but they certainly mean that he WAS in existence since before Abraham was born.

Some Unitarians have suggested that since GENESQAI is typically used in the NT in reference to things that had not happened yet in the historical sequence of the story, we should render John 8:58 something like this:

Modern Unitarian: "Before Abraham comes to be [in the resurrection], I am [the Messiah]."

Abner Kneeland: "Before Abraham is to be [manifested understood], I am [manifested]."

For Abner Kneeland's argument, see:

https://books.google.com/books?id=sj4AA ... se&f=false 

Both of these renderings obviously import elements that are nowhere articulated in the text, and end up placing a non sequitur on Jesus' lips.  Thus, we know that GENESQAI must be past tense at John 8:58, because (1) of the context in which the word appears, and (2) because translations based on understanding it to have future tense are (a) non sequiturs, (b) gibberish, and, most importantly, (c) would not have the ability to incite the Jews' hostile reaction.


[1] A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, Seventh Edition, p. 267
[2] A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. III, Syntax, p. 62
[3] The Christology of the Fourth Gospel: Structure and Issues, p. 48

Sunday, January 18, 2015

And the Word was God "Qualitatively"?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 2)

Below is a list of nouns that Paul Dixon tags as "qualitative" or "probably qualitative" in the appendix of his thesis, but which are actually either indefinite or definite.  

"Qualitative" and "Probably Qualitative" Nouns that are Actually Indefinite

1.  John 4:19
a prophet you are

NRSV Translation: You are a prophet

2.  John 6:70
a devil is

NRSV Translation: ...is a devil

3.  John 8:34
a slave is

NRSV Translation: ...is a slave

4.  John 8:44
a manslayer was

NRSV Translation: ...was a murderer

5.  John 8:44
a liar he is

NRSV Trasnslation:  ...he is a liar

6.  John 8:48
a Samaritan are you

NRSV Translation: ...you are a Samaritan

7.  John 9:8
a begger was

NRSV Translation: ...as a begger

8.  John 9:17
a prophet he is

NRSV Translation:  He is a prophet

9.  John 9:24
a sinner is

NRSV Translation: ...is a sinner

10.  John 9:25
a sinner he is

NRSV Translation:  ...he is a sinner

11.  John 10:1
a thief is

NRSV Translation:  ...is a thief

12.  John 10:13
a hired hand he is

NRSV Translation:  ...a hired hand

13.  John 12:6
a thief he was

NRSV Translation:  ...he was a thief

14.  John 18:35
Not I a Jew am

NRSV Translation:  ...I am not a Jew

15.  John 18:37a
a king are you?

NRSV Translation: ...So you are a king?

16.  John 18:37b
a king I am

NRSV Translation:  ...I am a king

"Qualitative" and "Probably Qualitative" Nouns that are Actually Probably Definite

1.   John 1:49
you the king are of the Israel

NRSV Translation:  You are the King of Israel! 

2.  John 3:29
the bridegroom is

NRSV Translation:  ...is the bridegroom

3.  John 5:27
the Son of Man he is

NRSV Translation:  ...he is the Son of Man

4.  John 8:33
the seed of Abraham we are

Rheims Translation:  We are the seed of Abraham

5.  John 8:37
the seed of Abraham you are

Rheims Translation:  ...you are the children of Abraham

6.  John 8:54
the God of you is

NRSV Translation:  ...'He is our God'

7.  John 10:2
the shepherd is

NRSV Translation:  ...is the shepherd

8.  John 10:36
the Son of the God I am

NRSV Translation:  ...I am the Son of God

9.  John 19:21
the King of the Jews I am

Rheims Translation:  I am the King of the Jews 

As you can see, Dixon's list of "qualitative" and "probably qualitative" nouns doesn't actually contain a single count noun that is not logically inferred to be either definite or indefinite.  In my next entry I'll address a couple problems with P.B. Harner's contribution to the "qualitative" theory.

And the Word was God "Qualitatively"?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 1)

Those who are familiar with the debate over the third clause at John 1:1 probably appreciate how much theology influences the answers folks will accept to the question: What or Who was the Word according to John?  Those who accept the real personal heavenly preexistence of the one who became Jesus the Messiah want to know whether the LOGOS was 'God,' 'a god,' or 'divine,' and whether the application of the divine title was primarily functional or ontological in its significance. 

In my view, John was developing Jesus' relationship to God in primarily functional categories in the Prologue, and in the rest of the Gospel.  I have no problem with either a definite or an indefinite rendering of John 1:1c, as both "the Word was God" and "the Word was a god" are grammatically possible and theologically and contextually appropriate when interpreted properly.  But for most orthodox Christians this verse is perhaps the most sacred of all theological cows, which must either state that Jesus is "God" definitely (i.e. identifying him as the one God of the Bible), or that he is God "qualitatively," which is presuppositionally nuanced to mean that he fully shares the 'divine nature' with the Father within a trinitarian Godhead.   

As I read the various arguments by people who are referenced to support taking QEOS "qualitatively" at John 1:1c -- i.e. Paul Dixon [1], P.B. Harner [2], Don Hartley [3], etc -- it became very clear that these folks are theologians, not professional linguists.  If you compare a good secular study in linguistics and grammar with these studies, you'll probably be struck by how qualitatively different the religiously motivated thesis is.  

Unfortunately, it's pretty clear that the "qualitative" thesis has never been properly vetted.  Rather, it was embraced with alacrity because it provided exactly what the doctor ordered, namely, a solution to problems that began lurking in the shadows as people came to realize that the previous answer probably wasn't the right answer after all.  (Note: The previous answer was that QEOS is definite at John 1:1c, per Colwell's Rule, which was articulated by E.C. Colwell in 1933 [4]).  Colwell's Rule as (mis)applied to John 1:1c was also embraced uncritically and with great alacrity for many years, beginning in the 1930s when Colwell's JBL article was written.  But then folks began to perceive problems. 

What were the problems?  Firstly, Colwell's rule states that "Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article," [5] yet most theologians, including Colwell himself (it seems), assumed that the converse were true, i.e. that anarthrous predicate nominatives that precede the verb are usually definite, which is obviously incorrect.   If you review part 2 of this series, you'll see that there are many anarthrous predicate nouns that appear before the verb in the Greek NT, which are clearly not definite.  Secondly, theologians came to believe that if QEOS were definite at John 1:1c, then this would result in Sabellianism.  This isn't necessarily correct, but it is a commonly accepted presupposition.  So these problems -- one legitimate and one assumed -- necessitated a 'new solution' to the problem of John 1:1c.

My primary purpose here is to point out some of the methodological problems, unsupported assumptions, dubious and faulty assertions, and unwarranted conclusions that have been promoted by advocates of the "qualitative noun" thesis, and to reveal the true motivation behind it.   

Let's start with the last item, i.e. what motivates some to embrace and promote the notion that QEOS at John 1:1c is "qualitative"?  Paul Dixon gives the game away on page 2 of his DTS Masters thesis, The Significance of the Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John, to wit:
"The importance of this thesis is clearly seen in the above example (John 1:1) where the doctrines of the deity of Christ and the Trinity are at stake.  For, if the Word was 'a god,' then by implication there are other gods of which Jesus is one.  On the other hand, if [QEOS] is just as definite as the articular construction following the verb because, 'the dropping of the article…is simply a matter of word order,' then the doctrine of the Trinity is denied."
So, in Dixon's view, either an indefinite or a definite QEOS is problematic and must be rejected.  The former would supposedly result in polytheism, while the latter would supposedly result in the demise of his favored doctrine, the Trinity.  While both of these assumptions are highly dubious, what is certain is that, as a student of DTS, Dixon was doubtless compelled to secure an understanding that is not out of harmony with the Trinity doctrine.  Note that "the Trinity" is the first of the "Essential Doctrinal Commitments" for DTS students:


So Dixon had to secure a third alternative: A "qualitative" use of QEOS.  In order to make this objective at least appear to work, he made a move that represents the first of the methodological problems I want to address.  Notice how Dixon sets up his approach:
"An indefinite noun is a noun which stresses neither definiteness, nor qualitativeness, but membership in a class of which there are other members.  Technically, any noun which is not definite is indefinite.  For expediency, however, we exclude qualitative nouns from the class of indefinite nouns."  (ibid, p. 9)
Dixon erroneously asserted that indefinite nouns only stress membership in a class of which there are other members, and then used that faulty assumption (or assertion) to justify the "expedient" upon which his entire thesis hangs: The separation of indefinite nouns that are used to stress nature from those that are used to stress categorization, and re-dubbing them "qualitative" as a third distinct category.  Ironically, his use of "expediency" was singularly appropriate, for "expedient" means "Suitable for achieving a particular end in a given circumstance," [6] and in this case I suspect that the "end" was determined before the thesis was begun: He needed an alternative to the two natural understandings of John 1:1c [7].

In reality, indefinite nouns are used to categorize, to stress nature, and to convey blended nuanceMoreover, it is critical to note that when an indefinite noun is used to stress 'nature,' the "qualitativeness" we infer depends on the noun's indefiniteness.  For example, if you wanted to say that a woman is "beautiful," you could say (among a number of available choices):

"She's a beauty."    


"She's beautiful."

These two sentences mean essentially the same thing, but in one case an indefinite noun is used to stress the quality of the woman's appearance, while in the other an adjective is used for this purpose.  Moreover, in the first example, the noun "beauty" must be indefinite lest the meaning become obscuredNotice that if you omit the indefinite article or insert the definite article in its place, you get the following:

"She's beauty." 


"She's the beauty." 
You wouldn't typically say "She's beauty," or "She's the beauty," if your sole purpose were to assert that the "she" in question is "beautiful." The lack of indefiniteness as signaled in English by the indefinite article changes the statement to an abstract one, perhaps suggesting that "she" is the personification or embodiment of beauty.  Moreover, "beauty" would be an abstract noun in that case (=a mass noun), not a count noun like QEOS at John 1:1c. This could ultimately mean the same thing, but the meaning is arrived at differently, i.e. not via the application of a "qualitative" count noun, but with an abstract noun instead.   On the other hand, the presence of the definite article makes the assertion specific, and could be viewed as shifting the focus from "beauty" to the "She" (depending on context, of course).

Interestingly, definite nouns can also be used to stress 'nature,' and, once again, the "qualitativeness" that we infer depends on the noun's definiteness.  For example, if someone wanted to really ram home how wicked he felt another person is (e.g. Hitler), he might say: "That monster is the Devil himself."  Here "qualitativeness" is emphasized by a formal lie, and "Devil" is clearly definite. 

A potential biblical example of this may be John 6:70, where DIABOLOS may be a definite noun (possibly, though I take it to be indefinite).  Wallace believes that it is monadic, and, like Tyndale, favors the rendering "one of you is the Devil" (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics), p. 265.  If so, then here again we have the 'nature' of a subject stressed via a definite noun offered in the context of a formal lie.  

With both examples the word "Devil" is used to stress the 'nature' of a subject, and the "qualitativeness" we infer depends on the definiteness of the nounsIf they were purely qualitative then we wouldn't know whose "qualities" are being transferred to the subject via formal lie, as quality isn't a who.

So, both definite and indefinite bounded nouns can be used to convey the nature of a referent (="qualitativeness"), and in all cases the qualitativeness actually depends on the definiteness or indefiniteness of the terms.  I would argue that this applies in biblical Greek just as it does in English.  The difference is that in Greek there is no indefinite article to signal that a noun is not definite, and so this must be inferred from context.    

The problems with Dixon's approach don't end with employing an invalid expedient.  In order to massage the statistics in his "favor," he misidentifies categorical indefinites as "qualitative" nouns, even though they don't appear to be stressing nature at all.  With this flawed two-fold approach, i.e. (a) placing indefinites used to stress nature in a third distinct category dubbed "qualitative," and (b) identifying indefinites that aren't even used to stress nature as "qualitative," he manages to end up "concluding" (=asserting) that there is only one solitary indefinite predicate nominative in all of John's Gospel! [8]  Sound plausible to you?  It doesn't to me, either.  

I'm sure that Paul Dixon is a fine man with many admirable qualities, but the thesis that won him fame is not a serious piece of linguistic/grammatical research.  It is an apologetic piece, inspired by fidelity to his doctrinal commitments.  This is hardly surprising coming from a student of Dallas Theological Seminary!   

In my next blog entry I'll list many of the nouns that Dixon claims are "qualitative," which are actually either definite or indefinite.  It's quite revealing.


[1] The Significance of the Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John, Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary (May 1975).

[2] Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1, JBL, Vol. 92 No 1 (March 1973), pp. 75-87.

[3] Criteria for Determining Qualitative Nouns with a Special View towards Understanding the Colwell Construction, Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary (1996).

[4] A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament, JBL, Vol. 52 (1933), pp. 12-21.

[5] Colwell, “A Definite Rule,” p. 20.

[6]  See: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expedient

[7] J. Gwyn Griffiths was also critical of the view that Θεὸς is used "adjectivally" (yesteryear's term for "qualitatively") at John 1:1c, and observed that, "Taken by itself, the sentence καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος could admittedly bear either of two meanings: (I) 'and the Word was (the) God' or (2) 'and the Word was (a) God.'"  (The Expository Times, Vol. 62, October 1950 — September 1951), p. 315.  Griffiths favored the former because of πρὸς τὸν Θεόν whereas I favor the latter for the same reason.  While I'm confident that the former rendering is acceptable if interpreted properly (=functionally), I highly doubt that the Evangelist could have said or his readers heard that someone was literally Θεὸς and  πρὸς τὸν Θεόν (i.e. "God" and "with God") without necessitating further explanation about how such a paradox could be true.   We must bear in mind that at the time the Gospel of John was written, the Trinity doctrine did not yet exist as a conceptual grid into which such seemingly paradoxical statements could be placed to avoid cognitive dissonance.  It is therefore historically unlikely that the Evangelist intended or his readers inferred what orthodox expositors tell us the controversial verse means, because if he did have such meaning in mind, then there would have been concerns expressed and disputes severe enough for us to hear about them, along with a call for discussion and clarification.  That discussion, once begun, would have led quickly to the sorts of disputes that occurred only later, on the road to Nicaea.  

[8] "The Significance...," p. 57.  Dixon lists John 11:38 as the only verse in all of John's Gospel that contains an indefinite predicate nominative!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Note on Philippians 2:6

Sometime back a friend and I discussed Philippians 2:6 in relation to Roy Hoover's double-accusative view [1]. I indicated that I found the argumentation offered by Hoover in his article dealing with HARPAGMOS at Philippians 2:6 compelling, and that I was of two minds vis a vis the grammatical understanding of the text [2]. Before reading Hoover's article I considered translations such as "...he did not consider equality with God as something to exploit" simply implausible. After reading Hoover's article, and N.T. Wright's views in Climax of the Covenant, which built on Hoover's thesis, I came to think that such a rendering was quite plausible. Indeed, if there is an anaphoric link between MORFHi QEOU (form of God) and EINAI ISA QEWi (equality/likeness with God), as Wright and others contend, then a translation that offers "exploit" or "a privilege to use for his own advantage" (or something similar) is not only plausible, but logically necessary.

I am no longer of two minds on this matter. This week I read Denny Burk's 2001 DTS thesis [3], and I have made something of an about-face. Denny Burk contends that there is no anaphoric link between MORFHi QEOU and EINAI ISA QEWi, and while I previously favored his view by a slight margin, I now find it so compelling that I can no longer accept N.T. Wright's grammatical understanding.

Burk's thesis helps one recognize that there’s little to no reason to believe that there is an anaphoric link between the two phrases in the subject text. Not only does Burk point out that there are many infinitives in the NT that are not anaphoric, but he offers the following in relation to the accusative specifically:

“There are many non-anaphoric examples of the articular infinitive in the accusative case as well–indeed, many more than in the nominative case. In fact, it is difficult to construe an anaphoric reference for the majority of the accusative examples of this construction.” (ibid, p. 47)

If Burk is correct here, then the burden to demonstrate an anaphoric link falls on the proponent of that view. This is esp. the case since, as Burk points out, “…most articular infinitives indeed do not denote anaphora…” (ibid, p. 49).

N.T. Wright doesn’t satisfy that burden, as Burk demonstrates in his thesis. It might be possible for proponents of Wright’s view to meet their burden if the article were otherwise seemingly unnecessary, but, as Burk demonstrates, the article was critical for a reason that had nothing to do with anaphora. As he explains:

“…the grammatical context of the sentence requires the presence of the article in this particular infinitive phrase. If the article were not present in Philippians 2:6, the sentence would make little if any grammatical sense…the article is required in this context as a grammatical function marker to distinguish the accusative object from the accusative compliment.” (ibid, p. 50)


“In such reversed order situations where neither of the accusatives is a proper name or pronoun, the presence of the article is syntactically required in order to indicate which accusative is functioning as the object. Such is the case at Philippians 2:6.” (ibid, p. 52).

So, at Philippians 2:6, Paul had to include the article to indicate which accusative is functioning as the object.

Is it possible that the article is doing double duty here, i.e. marking the object and also establishing an anaphoric link between MORFHi QEOU and EINAI ISA QEWi?  Perhaps, but those who would insist that this is the case have the burden to prove it, and I have yet to see anyone rise to meet that burden.

Conclusion: Until compelling evidence is offered to suggest otherwise, we have no reason to assume that MORFHi QEOU and EINAI ISA QEWi speak of the same reality. We can therefore embrace a translation of Philippians 2:6 that incorporates the best of Hoover’s argument (the grammatical/syntactical features of the double-accusative idiom), with a meaning of HARPAGMOS that comports with its cognates, e.g.:

Although he existed in God’s form, he did not consider equality with God as something to be seized/grasped for

[1]  THE HARPAGMOS ENIGMA: A PHILOLOGICAL SOLUTION, by Roy W. Hoover, Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971), pp. 95-119

[2] When I say that I was of "two minds", I mean that I was formerly undecided between the two alternatives that I had come to view as the two most likely renderings of the Greek at Philippians 2:6, namely:

(a)  Although he existed in God’s form, he did not consider equality with God as something to exploit

(b) Although he existed in God’s form, he did not consider equality with God as something to be seized/grasped for

I now favor "b" as the best rendering of this controversial verse.

[3]  The Meaning of HARPAGMOS at Philippians 2:6, by Denny Burk, DTS Thesis, 2001

Sunday, September 15, 2013

On the Problem of Expectation

Those who are familiar with the work of Larry Hurtado are probably aware that he is among the most influential religious scholars/historians in the world.  The high esteem in which he is held is well deserved, for he is a very thoughtful scholar, whose writings are a paradigm of clarity, elegance, and a tasteful touch of literary flair.  Even when I disagree with what he says I often can't help but enjoy the way he says it.

Many feel that his work establishes an early high Christology, as evidenced by the Christ devotion that was an integral part of the life of the new movement.  A certain irony has impressed itself on my own mind, though, in that while many orthodox believers I’ve conversed with seem to rush to embrace his conclusions because they believe that it puts the old argument that the Trinity emerged via syncretism to rest once and for all, they fail to notice the rather conspicuous lacunae that his historical model seems to create.

Consider two historical facts side-by-side:

1) The early Christian movement used the Hebrew Scriptures to contextualize, understand, and defend its view of Christ, who came to be seen as the fulfillment of OT prophesy.

2) The acceptance of Trinitarianism renders the view of God as understood by Jews in light of the Hebrew Scriptures to be heretical (or at the very least, erroneous).

Regarding #2, notice what Gregory of Nyssa had to say:

“For, in personality, the Spirit is one thing and the Word another, and yet again that from which the Word and Spirit is, another. But when you have gained the conception of what the distinction is in these, the oneness, again, of the nature admits not division, so that the supremacy of the one First Cause is not split and cut up into differing Godships, neither does the statement harmonize with the Jewish dogma, but the truth passes in the mean between these conceptions, destroying each heresy, and yet accepting what is useful in it from each. The Jewish dogma is destroyed by the acceptance of the Word, and by the belief in the Spirit; while the polytheistic error of the Greek school is made to vanish by the unity of the nature abrogating this imagination of plurality.” (see  http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/205/2050223.htm)

So we have two historical features in tension:  (a) Christianity arose as a sect within Judaism;  and (b) the later trinitarian concept of God was incompatible with the very Judaism from which it emerged. Now, if the converts who formed the incipient church heard something similar to what Trinitarians hear when encountering the early teachings about Christ, and if they had similar assumptions to that of modern Trinitarians -- e.g. (a) the notion that there are two strict categories of gods, “true” (the One God) and “false” (condemned/idolatrous*), and (b) that the application of QEOS to Jesus necessarily meant that he was “true deity as to his nature”, etc. -- then they would have needed the leaders of the new movement to make sense of those teachings, which would have been paradoxical and potentially dangerous under those sorts of assumptions.

When orthodox Christians hear the expressions "Jesus is God", "Jesus is God's Son", “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus”, etc., they aren’t troubled, because they have a conceptual grid into which such seemingly paradoxical statements can be placed to avoid cognitive dissonance.  But the early church didn’t have such a conceptual grid, and so such statements would have caused comment, concern, and controversy. Yet there is no compelling evidence that this was a point of concern to the early Christians, or even a point of casual interest, for that matter. Notice what both James Dunn and Maurice Casey observe vis a vis Christ devotion:

“The silence on this score cannot be because we have no means of knowing what Jewish reaction to earliest Christian theology was at this stage; on the contrary, we can see well enough from the literature of first generation Christianity that Paul’s understanding of the law was a sore bone of contention for those who valued their Jewish heritage highly. Had Paul’s christology been equally, or more contentious at this time for his fellow Jews, we would surely have heard of it from Paul’s own letters. The absence of such indicators points in the other direction: that Paul’s christology and the devotional language of the earliest Christian worship did not cause any offense to monotheistic Jews. So far as both Paul and his fellow Jews were concerned, early Christian devotion to Jesus still lay within the bounds of the Jewish understanding of God in his dealings with his world and people.” (The Partings of the Ways, 1st edition), pp. 205, 206

“The disputes extant in Acts and the epistles are about halakhah rather than christology, and if there had been a general perception among Jewish members of the communities that other Christians were hailing Jesus as fully God, there would have been disputes severe enough for us to hear about them.” (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God), p. 115

So, in my opinion, this creates a severe problem vis a vis reasonable expectation:

1) If the early church believed that applying the term QEOS to Jesus and including him as a central figure in the context of cultic religious devotion meant that he is in some sense the one God of the Bible ontologically, then there unavoidably would have been concern, controversy, discussion, and disputes about this. Such disputes would not only have occurred between the early converts and their opponents, but it would have existed among the new converts themselves, who would have been desperately driven to resolve the cognitive dissonance they would have been experiencing while engaging in the constellation of cultic religious practices that were part of the emerging community’s religious life. (Did you catch the echoes of Hurtado in that last sentence? [grin]).

2) That discussion, once begun, would have raised issues that would have been a major stumbling block for many, and would have naturally evolved very quickly into the types of disputes that arose in later centuries. Full doctrinal delineation by the Apostles would have ultimately been required, and this very early in the life of the new movement.

The absence of interest in the seemingly paradoxical language used (paradoxical, that is, if interpreted in light of orthodox assumptions), along with the absence of discussion, dispute, concern, or controversy over Christ as “G-god” or as an object of veneration, viewed in conjunction with the absence of concomitant doctrinal delineation by the NT writers, constitutes perhaps the clearest evidence there is that: (a) the arbitrary assertion that there are only the one true God and false gods is unfounded from a biblical perspective (this is a common assertion from the Evangelical camp, many of whom ignore the instances where divine titles are appropriately applied to representatives of God*); (b) the arguments put forth by the majority of grammarians over the significance of verses like John 1:1c are gravely flawed; and, most importantly, (c) neither Trinitarianism nor its underlying assumptions are in harmony with early Christian thinking or teaching from the standpoint of history and historical probability.

*Note:  This should not be taken to suggest that I believe the early Christians were polytheists.  Rather, I'm merely observing the historical fact that divine titles could be applied to agents of God in pretty much all forms of Jewish literature that existed at the time the New Testament was written.  One often finds a strange disconnect in the writings of so many scholars and religious commentators in that while they often discuss the uncontroversial application of divine titles to agents of God in the Bible and in the literature of the period, they fail to recognize that it is precisely because Jesus is God's agent -- his living, breathing power-of-attorney -- that we find divine titles applied to him.  Once we recognize (a) the flexible use of such divine titles in the biblical period among monotheistic Jews, and (b) the contexts in which such applications were considered appropriate, then we come to realize something we might not have expected:  Not only is it not surprising to find divine titles applied to Jesus in the New Testament, but it in light of his unique status as God's agent par excellence, it would be downright shocking to find that such titles were not applied to him!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Pop Goes the Strawman: Ken Miller Misrepresents Behe

One of the scientists who testified at the oft referenced Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial was evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller.  I have stated more than once that Miller seems to do more to confuse than to enlighten about the evolution vs. ID debate, and a talk he gave as part of a debate with Paul Nelson that was broadcasted on C-Span provides a classic example of this.

This debate took place around the time of the Dover trial, and Miller included a supposed refutation of Michael Behe's argument vis a vis the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum.  Miller showed an exhibit which demonstrated that you can remove a whole bunch of parts of the flagellum, i.e. strip it all the way down to the base, and what remains looks like the Type III Secretory System.  He then quoted Behe who said that if you remove a part from an irreducibly complex system, it is by definition non-functional.  Behe must be wrong, Miller assured us, because he removed a whole bunch of parts from the flagellum and what remained closely resembles something that's known to be functional.

It was a clever trick.  I could take away all the parts of a mouse trap until all that's left is the base, then use the base to prop up an uneven leg on a table so it doesn't wiggle, and then claim that the mouse trap isn't irreducibly complex either, because that base has function all by itself.  When Nelson pointed out that Miller misrepresented Behe's argument, Miller rejoined that he did not, because he quoted Behe directly.  Surely Miller knows that one of the most common ways of misrepresenting someone is by quoting the person directly, while leaving out clarifying material that the author has offered.  That's what Miller did.

Behe has pointed out about 10,000 times that you can use the various parts of a mouse trap to do other things, but when you take away one of the parts it's no longer a functioning mouse trap.  The same applies here.  Behe isolated a specific function, motility, and pointed out that if you take away one of the parts of the flagellum you loose that function.

Once Miller was forced to address Behe's complete argument rather than the denuded straw man he came to the debate prepared to tackle, the power of his refutation was thoroughly diminished, and could be likened to a balloon that had just been introduced to a pin, to wit (Miller's response):

"Now the type III system doesn't have the function of flegellar motility, but intelligent design people use this idea of 'irreducible complexity' to explain why these machines couldn't evolve. If you say, 'Well, this system only does protein secretions, and that system only does surface recognition, and this system only does signal transduction,' you know what you're doing? You're giving away the store, because you're explaining these systems could evolve, because first we evolve this part, then we evolve another part, then we evolve a third part, and the whole function comes from the totality of parts."

See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHsB6I1gBto

 Did you catch that scientifically rigorous refutation of Behe's undenuded argument?  Let me repeat it, just in case someone missed it:

"...first we evolve this part, then we evolve another part, then we evolve a third part, and the whole function comes from the totality of parts."


Note:  Respecting one example of misleading testimony Miller gave during the trial, see: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/07/ken_millers_random_and_undirec002331.html