An Oversimplified Account of Deity
by Richard W. Coffen | 8 March 2019 |
Let’s begin with some significant historical high points in the development of deity:
- c. 51 centuries ago, the first pharaoh was proclaimed a god;
- c. 42 centuries ago, Naram-Sin was the first Mesopotamian king to be considered a deity;
- c. 34 or 33 centuries ago, the Ten Commandments taught henotheism (“… have no other gods before [“ahead of”: literally—“in my face”] me”);
- c. 33 centuries ago, Akhenaten initiated a monotheism (more likely, henotheism) that lasted for about a dozen years;
- c. 16 centuries ago, the Council of Nicaea formulated a christology; and
- c. 13 centuries ago, the Third Council of Constantinople refined christology.
Some Additional Observations
First, because we believe that the Judeo-Christian God is infinite, it shouldn’t surprise us that archaeological evidence has revealed that early Homo sapiens worshiped multiple deities, who typically resembled themselves. The characteristics and duties of these numerous gods (sometimes overlapping) can be regarded as an attempt to represent vividly the persona of God.
Second, the sheer number of deities whom ancient Near Easterners recognized is amazing. We know of 1,500 named Egyptian deities, and there were possibly as many as 2,000. The Mesopotamians had over 3,000 named gods, and there are 234 Canaanite gods named in the Ugaritic texts.
Of course, none of these numbers come anywhere near infinity, but they might be understood as an effort by these people to grasp the divine immensity.
“Just the Facts . . .”
Consider these undisputed facts:
Jesus, each of his disciples, and all the writers of both Testaments were staunch monotheists. (Although Luke was a Gentile, he apparently was a convert to Christianity and perhaps to Judaism preliminarily.) New Testament Jewish Christians had to grapple with the identity of Jesus Christ, his significance, and the impact that he had made in their lives. In their attempts to grasp his importance, they ascribed honorifics to him, while, at the same time, remaining unwavering monotheists. Some of their language echoed that used by Jewish writers of the pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls who, although resolute monotheists, when speaking of a coming priest and a coming monarch resorted to Old Testament traits that had been ascribed to YHWH. Nevertheless, those authors would have felt appalled had someone accused them of compromising strict monotheism! They were merely using honorific terminology that they felt appropriate for the imminent priest and the impending king.
Skip past centuries. The prescientific and even Neo-Platonist church fathers did their sincere best to work out a christology, which, in turn, became foundational for our time-honored trinitarian theology. They allowed some, although there aren’t many, scriptural proof texts to guide them. The finest one—1 John 5:7, 8—does not appear in the best and oldest manuscripts but was added later by a pious scribe. It is absent in most modern versions or relegated to a footnote. In the synoptic gospels, the next-to-the-best proof texts come from the mouth of the tempter, who called Jesus “son of the God” (Matthew 4:3,6 in the Greek). Also, his Satanic minions addressed Jesus as “the son of the highest God” (Luke 8:28). An awestruck pagan centurion exclaimed that the crucified Jesus must have been divine—“a son of a god” (Mark 15:39, in the Greek). Are they appropriately authoritative sources for theology?
Things are more concrete in the Gospel of John, which was penned much later than the Synoptics. Here we find what scholars call a “high christology.” Jesus is frequently referred to as “the son of the God” (1:34, 49; 11:4; 20:31) and “a son of the God” (10:36).
The basis for the formulations of the church fathers came from not only Scripture (most came from the New Testament. To interpret certain Old Testament passages as proto-trinitarian is anachronistic eisegesis and would never have convinced any of those early learned rabbis) but also from assumptions with roots in Greek philosophical thought. Those church leaders, through no fault of their own, had no modern biological understandings to help them articulate their conclusions.
Because of obvious ambiguities in the Sacred Text, not all church leaders agreed with the formulations made by the Western church fathers, although their objections likewise didn’t have biological grounds. Such disagreements led to consecutive church councils, each of which reiterated and/or reformulated previous conclusions and creeds. The majority labeled these individuals as heretics, even those these dissidents had also wrestled with Christology and Trinity but had arrived at differing perspectives.
Such theological differences regarding the ontology (inner essence; the “what” and “who”) of Jesus Christ and the nature and relationship of the members of the Godhead (“emanated”? “created”? “same” or “similar” “substance”?) have persisted throughout the history of Christianity. Arguably, most of our Adventist pioneers (Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, J. H. Waggoner, James White, and others) found convincing none of the proof texts in favor of the Trinity—they were not trinitarians but arians, or what some call semi-arians.
Although Seventh-day Adventist consensus evolved to support the hand-me-down Roman Catholic christology and Trinitarianism, even today there are theological naysayers among us who continue to argue against the “received” doctrines of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Whether or not we may agree with them, these believers are not insincere. They are not malicious rabble-rousers. They, like the rest of us, are wrestling with the biblical evidence.
Despite protestations to the contrary, most people in the pew are, for all practical purposes, tritheists and not monotheistic trinitarians. They/we are not conversant with the ancient arguments, and even when such are known, these rationalizations don’t hold much meaning for those of us with today’s scientific mindset.
Divisions in the Church
It’s always dangerous to categorize people. But let me be reckless. The issue, in this context, is Trinitarianism. What follows are some of the main varieties (or to use a horticultural term cultivars) of perspectives within contemporary Adventism.
- Historic Adventists retreat to positions held by James White, Uriah Smith, and other Arian SDAs. Such a perspective has resurged among some of our brothers and sisters. It may even be that some form of Arianism may never had died out among Adventists.
- Subordinationist Adventists advocate a permutation of Trinitarianism in order to buttress the subordination (some might say “subservience”) of women to men. Many of our brothers and sisters (some in independent ministries but many not) embrace this perspective, referring to some “creation order” or whatever. They speak vociferously against, say, the ordination of women.
- Traditional Adventists wish to preserve the tried-and-true Trinitarianism spelled out in the historic creeds. Our list of 28 Fundamental Beliefs spells out such a position. Therefore, it’s the “official” perspective of our denomination. Some may think it ironic that our typical Catholic bashers espouse a doctrine handed down by Catholic leaders!
- Neo-orthodox SDAs resort to linguistic taxidermy, using time-honored terminologies while gutting them of their old meaning and stuffing them with new meaning. For instance, when original non-Adventist neo-orthodox theologians talked of the resurrection, they sounded orthodox. However, they did not mean a raising of Jesus’ corporeal human body from a state of death. Likewise, when neo-orthodox Adventists speak of the urgency to emphasize “righteousness by faith,” they still cling to what most of us would understand as works righteousness. They speak of the necessary equivalency of both faith and works to propel us to heaven.
- Iconoclastic Adventists jump astride their intellectual steeds and challenge the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” leaving troubled minds reeling. Another term may be contrarians. Regardless of the issue at hand, these individuals seem not to have outgrown their teenage rebellion, or perhaps are late bloomers when it comes to rebellion. They appear to be “agin” most anything that is “received.” The target of their rebellion may be vegetarianism, teetotalitarianism, state of the dead, whatever.
- Agnostic (using a very technical and limited sense of the word) SDAs are mindful of their own finiteness. They don’t know and know that they don’t know much of anything about our Infinite God.
It’s sad when cultivars become obnoxious in their claims to know truth, and doubt the integrity of other ideological cultivars! It’s akin to an American Beauty rose claiming to be the only true rose, and so fie on English Miss and Garden Party and the rest.
A Tentative Suggestion
Because floods of intellectual water have poured over the dam since the Council of Nicaea, it just may be time for yet another church council! Contributing members of this council should consist primarily of Biblicists, systematists, biologists, linguists, and, perhaps, astronomers (no administrators, please!). Terms of reference for their task: address once again christology and then Trinitarianism. (Trinitarianism is based on a particular permutation of christology.)
Their formulations (cognitive discourse) should comport well with what we know in an age of scientific discovery (informative data). For example, geneticists tell us that parthenogenesis results in only females. Or, how does 100 percent (humanity) and 100 percent (deity) equal just 100 percent? Their report should be based neither on the Greek (ousios = “substance”), because that’s Greek to us, nor the Latin (persona = “actor’s mask”), because that’s a dead language. Rather, it must be articulated in contemporary English that we mere mortals who sit in Sabbath school and church can comprehend. Whether their conclusions would agree with the creeds remains to be seen.
Here’s a gentle nudge (OK, a shove) to help facilitate dialog: honorifics. Using honorific language has a long history. Today we say: “Yes, your Honor” or “his holiness the Pope” or “Father Shaughnessy” or “the Most Honorable,” or “Elder Wilson” (even though we may be older than he). We use honorifics even though the addressee may not, even to public knowledge, be all that moral or decent! We find similar usages in the ancient Near East: “son of god” or “god” or “virgin divinely impregnated” or a mystical and/or physical “omen appeared at his birth” or “he was seen in public after his death.” Just as today we don’t take literally such honorifics, it’s a good assumption that neither did the ancient Near Easterners, especially those serving in the hero’s immediate household! They knew what he was really like even while addressing him with such terminology!
From my admittedly incomplete study of ancient Near Eastern cultures, systematic theology, and biblical studies, it seems to me that nearly all (if not all) attributions about Jesus did not make ontological affirmations. Rather, they were honorific terms commonly used of other religious and political heroes. The language was repurposed to help Christians designate the import of Jesus of Nazareth (there were multiple men by the name of Jesus during the first century) in their own lives.
OK, committee members, Ready, set, go!
A big problem. A huge problem! Theologians tell us that God is ineffable—too great to be expressed or explained in human thoughts and words. Paul Tillich and other theologians have referred to God as the “Wholly Other.” Assuming both terminologies are accurate, we finite mortals are clearly in no position to say much of anything noteworthy when it comes to understanding our infinite God! We have a difficult enough time trying to understand ourselves, not to mention fathoming another human being, let alone the “Wholly Other”!
To think that we finite creatures, whether or not inspired, can calculate the ontology of our infinite Creator, pushes us in the direction of assuming an equality with the Most High! (“It takes one to know one.”) Isaiah 14:12-14 depicts an individual audaciously claiming to be like the Most High! Surely, claiming that we have the Trinity figured out (even partially) manifests high hubris, and we need to be reminded that we are not like the Most High.
Maybe, then, we should just tape shut our theological mouths lest we fail to “walk humbly with . . . God” (Micah 6:8).
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.