Check out this exchange between Islamic apologist Paul Williams and evangelical Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie:
Williams makes the reasonable point that for a (consistent) trinitarian, Jesus is not the Trinity, while God just is the Trinity. So then, for the trinitarian, Jesus is not God (not numerically identical to God); the relation between Jesus and God is going to have to be something less than that. Most evangelical apologists simply choose not to think about this difficulty. Battling the infidels with stock rhetoric and a fistful of proof-texts is far more enjoyable than working out the problems with one’s own theories.
The Trinity issue too is generally rushed past, with a nod to the old catholic language, or to recent simplifications of it. Most evangelical apologists more or less ignore the plethora of Trinity theories and instead focuses all on “the deity of Christ,” i.e. the claim that Jesus is God himself, that Jesus and God are numerically one. You see this in pop evangelical spirituality constantly in prayer, when the names “God,” “Father,” and “Jesus,” are swapped just for matters of good style, as if they’re just interchangeable, co-referring terms.
They then move (as in the last half of this video) to show that New Testament writers are always slyly (but in their view clearly) asserting the numerical identity of Yahweh (pronounced YAH-hu-way) and Jesus. They employ here what I think is a beginner’s mistake in reading the NT – what I call the fulfillment fallacy. (I’ve lampooned it here.) In the clip Bart Ehrman quite correctly resists the confusion. All NT writers habitually and clearly distinguish God and his Son as two selves and two beings.
But the important point is this: Mr. McLatchie’s confidence is misplaced. There have been plenty of Christians who’ve denied that Jesus and God are one and the same. One sort of case would be mainstream (catholic) Christians who defended logos speculations c. 150-381. These were opposed by “monarchians,” some of whom allegedly identified God and his Son, even using the term “Son-Father.” McLatchie’s statement reminded me of a passage feature in a recent podcast, from famous church historian and theologian-bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, expressing a view which was the majority view at least in the East in his time, and which was expressed by many councils.
But why do I dare essay a hopeless task, to recount the mighty works of the Word of God, and describe an energy which surpasses mortal thought? By some, indeed, he has been termed the Nature of the universe, by others, the World-Soul, by others, Fate. Others again have declared him to be the most High God himself, strangely confounding things most widely different; bringing down to this earth, uniting to a corruptible and material body, and assigning to that supreme and unbegotten Power who is Lord of all an intermediate place between irrational animals and rational mortals on the one hand, and immortal beings on the other.
On the other hand, the sacred doctrine teaches that he who is the supreme Source of good, and Cause of all things, is beyond all comprehension, and therefore inexpressible by word, or speech, or name; surpassing the power, not of language only, but of thought itself. Uncircumscribed by place, or body; neither in heaven, nor in ethereal space, nor in any other part of the universe; but entirely independent of all things else, he pervades the depths of unexplored and secret wisdom. The sacred oracles teach us to acknowledge him as the only true God, apart from all corporeal essence, distinct from all subordinate ministration. Hence it is said that all things are from him, but not through him. (Ch. 11-12 here.)
This “supreme source” is God, aka the Father (note the allusion to 1 Corinthians 8:6 at the end). So yes, there have been many Christians – mainstream ones, in good standing with the majority, and even leading thinkers – who asserted that it is a serious mistake to identify the eternal Son with his (and our) God. Eusebius is no oddball here. Other examples would be the outstanding catholic apologists of their generation, Tertullian and Origen. (Many like Origen also distinguish this Son from the man Jesus, but they’d say it’d be at least as great a mistake to identify the man Jesus with his God too.)
If McClatchie wants to hold out for a council statement, here’s one in which a distinction between God and Jesus is implicit, but clearly drawn, in this creed, widely used and reaffirmed c. 342-359. (Here, section 25.) It’s subtle, though. The distinction takes the form here of (1) declining to describe the Son as “true God,” (2) omitting the claim that God and his Son are one ousia, and (3) describing the Son as “begotten,” which they take to imply that he’s another being than the one who eternally caused him. In the context of this catholic controversy, their point was that God and his Son are two beings, not one (historians call this “duohypostatic” theology).
A similar meeting of bishops (discussed here) declares “Whosoever says that the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one Person, be he anathema.” One self, one intelligent being (here, hypostasis), one God – yes, that’s what evangelical apologists like McClatchie constantly assert as NT teaching.
Perhaps Mr. McLatchie should withdraw his promise…
Dale Tuggy is Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.