Myth and history in the Epiphany of Matthew 2


The lectionary gospel reading for this Sunday is either the Ephiphany in Matt 2.1–12, or the readings for Christmas 2 in Year C, which is John 1.1–18 or John 1.10–18. If you are using the readings for Christmas 2, I commented on most of this text earlier in the year, since John 1.1–14 was the reading for the Second Sunday before Lent in Year B. If you are preaching on Epiphany, then I repost here my annual discussion of Matt 2; it is not quite a commentary on the text in the usual style, but does in fact deal with the main issues, and includes a fascinating historical comment from a friend which was posted in response to previous discussion. Enjoy!

The Feast of the Epiphany in the church’s liturgical calendar is based on the events of Matt 2.1–12, the visit of the ‘wise men’ from the East to the infant Jesus. There are plenty of things about the story which might make us instinctively treat it as just another part of the constellation of Christmas traditions, which does not have very much connection with reality—and these questions are raised each year at this feast.

The first is the sparseness of the story. As with other parts of the gospels, the details are given to us in bare outline compared with what we are used to in modern literature. We are told little of the historical reality that might interest us, and the temptation is to fill in details for ourselves. This leads to the second issue—the development of sometimes quite elaborate traditions which do the work of filling in for us. So these ‘magoi’ (which gives us our word ‘magic’) became ‘three’ (because of the number of their gifts), then ‘wise men’ and then ‘kings’ (probably under the influence of Ps 72.10. By the time of this Roman mosaic from the church in Ravenna built in 547, they have even acquired names. Christopher Howse comments:

[T]hink how deeply these three men have entered our imagination as part of the Christmas story. “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”

Those words, in a tremendous sermon by Lancelot Andrewes that King James I heard on Christmas Day 1622, were brilliantly stolen by TS Eliot and incorporated into his poem The Journey of the Magi. And we can see it all: the camels’ breath steaming in the night air as the kings, in their gorgeous robes of silk and cloth-of-gold and clutching their precious gifts, kneel to adore the baby in the manger.

Yet, that is not entirely what the Gospel says…

But for any careful readers of the gospels, there is a third question: how does the visit of the magi fit in with the overall birth narrative, and in particular can Matthew’s account be reconciled with Luke’s? Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart address this question in The First Days of Jesus pp 164–167, in dialogue with Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah (1993). Brown notes the points that Matthew and Luke share in common:

  1. The parents are named as Mary and Joseph, who are legally engaged or married but have not yet come to live together or have sexual relations (Matt 1.18, Luke 1.27, 34)
  2. Joseph is of Davidic descent (Matt 1.16, 20, Luke 1.27, 32, 2.4)
  3. An angel announces the forthcoming birth of the child (Matt 1.20–23 Luke 1.30–35)
  4. The conception of the child is not through intercourse with her husband (Matt 1.20, 23, 25, Luke 1.34)
  5. The conception is through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1.18, 20, Luke 1.35)
  6. The angel directs them to name the child Jesus (Matt 1.21, Luke 2.11)
  7. An angel states that Jesus is to be Saviour (Matt 1.21, Luke 2.11)
  8. The birth of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together (Matt 1.24–25, Luke 2.5–6)
  9. The birth takes place in Bethlehem (Matt 2.1, Luke 2.4–6).

This is a surprisingly long list, and Brown’s careful examination produces a longer list of points of agreement than is usual noted. But even a cursory reading highlights the differences, not just in style and concern in the narrative, but in material content. Luke includes the angelic announcements to Zechariah and Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the ‘Magnificat’, the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s song (the ‘Benedictus’), the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Jesus being laid in the food-trough, the lack of space in the guest room, the angelic announcement to the shepherds, and the presentation in the temple with Simeon and Anna—all omitted from Matthew. On the other hand, Matthew includes the visit of the magi, Herod’s plot, the escape to Egypt, the slaughter of the ‘innocents’, and Joseph’s decision about where to settle—all omitted from Luke. As Richard Bauckham notes, Luke’s is a largely ‘gynocentric’ narrative, focussing on the experiences, decisions and faithfulness of the women, whilst Matthew’s is largely an ‘androcentric’ narrative, focussing much more on the roles, decisions and actions of the men involved.

Brown sees these differences as fatal to the possible harmony of the two accounts, stating that they are irreconcilable at several points. But Köstenberger and Stewart disagree:

Nothing that Matthew says actually contradicts Luke’s account about Mary and Joseph being in Nazareth prior to the birth. Matthew is silent on the matter…[which] simply indicates his ignorance of or lack of interest in these details for the purpose of his narrative…Narrators commonly compress time and omit details (either from ignorance or conscious choice). Luke’s reference to the family’s return to Nazareth after the presentation of the temple does not contradict the events recorded in Matthew 2; he just doesn’t comment on them. Again, silence does not equal contradiction (pp 166–167).

Luke’s conclusion, in Luke 2.39, is sometimes seen as creating a difficulty; the most natural way to read the English ‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth’ (TNIV) is as a temporal marker, suggesting an immediate return. But the Greek phrase kai hos can have a range of meanings; the emphasis for Luke here is that, since they had done everything, they were able to leave, contributing to Luke’s consistent theme throughout the early chapters that Joseph and Mary, along with other characters in the story, are obedient, Torah-observant, pious Jews.

What is interesting here is that we have two quite different accounts, working from different sources, with different aims—and yet in agreement on all the main details. Normally in scholarly discussion, this double testimony would be counted as evidence of reliability and historicity, rather than a contradiction to it.

In response to this, critical scholarship has moved in the other direction, and by and large has pulled apart Matthew’s story and confidently decided that none of it actually happened—in part because of the supposed contradictions with Luke, but in even larger part because of Matthew’s use of Old Testament citations. Thus it is read as having been constructed by Matthew out of a series of OT texts in order to tell us the real significance of Jesus. So Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in The First Christmas: what the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth, come to this conclusion:

In our judgement, there was no special star, no wise men and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as a parable, is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative. Is Jesus light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes. Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes (p 184).

The approach presents problems of its own. For one, the stories are not presented as parables, but in continuity with the events Matthew relates in Jesus’ life later in the gospel. For another, if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? Even if the events we read about are heavily interpreted, there is an irreducible facticity in testimony; if this has gone, we ought to question the value of the testimony itself.

A good working example of this approach is found in Paul Davidson’s blog. Davidson is a professional translator, rather than a biblical studies academic, but he offers a good outline of what critical scholarship has to say about Matthew’s nativity.

His basic assumption is that Matthew is a ‘multi-layered’ document—Matthew is writing from the basis of other, differing sources. He takes over large parts of Mark’s gospel, as does Luke, and Matthew and Luke never agree in contradiction to Mark, a key piece of the argument of ‘Marcan priority’, that Mark was earlier than either of the other two. Whether or not you believe in the existence of the so-called Q, another early written source (and with Mark Goodacre, I don’t), Matthew is clearly dealing with some pre-existing material, oral or written. It is striking, for example, that Joseph is a central character in Matthew’s account before and after the story of the magi, and is the key actor in contrast to Luke’s nativity, where the women are central. Yet in this section (Matt 2.1–12) the focus is on ‘the child’ or ‘the child and his mother Mary’ (Matt 2.9, 2.11; see also Matt 2.14, 20 and 21). Some scholars therefore argue that this story comes from a different source, and so might be unhistorical.

This is where we need to start being critical of criticism. Handling texts in this way requires the making of some bold assumptions, not least that of author invariants. If a change of style indicates a change of source, then this can only be seen if the writer is absolutely consistent in his (or her) own writing, and fails to make the source material his or her own. In other words, we (at 20 centuries distant) need to be a lot smarter than the writer him- or herself. Even a basic appreciation of writing suggests that authors are just not that consistent.

Davidson goes on in his exploration to explain the story of the star in terms of OT source texts.

The basis for the star and the magi comes from Numbers 22–24, a story in which Balaam, a soothsayer from the east (and a magus in Jewish tradition) foretells the coming of a great ruler “out of Jacob”. Significantly, the Greek version of this passage has messianic overtones, as it replaces “sceptre” in 24:17 with “man.”

He is quite right to identify the connections here; any good commentary will point out these allusions, and it would be surprising if Matthew, writing what most would regard as a ‘Jewish’ gospel, was not aware of this. But if he is using these texts as a ‘source’, he is not doing a very good job. The star points to Jesus, but Jesus is not described as a ‘star’, and no gospels make use of this as a title. In fact, this is the only place where the word ‘star’ occurs in the gospel. (It does occur as a title in Rev 22.16, and possibly in 2 Peter 1.19, but neither text makes any connection with this passage.)

Next, Davidson looks at the citation in Matt 2.5–6, which for many critical scholars provides the rationale for a passage explaining that Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he is otherwise universally known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (19 times in all four gospels and Acts). But, as Davidson points out, Matthew has to work hard to get these texts to help him. For one, he has to bolt together two texts which are otherwise completely unconnected, from Micah 5.2 and 2 Sam 5.2. Secondly, he has to change the text of Micah 5.2 so that:

  • Bethlehem, the ‘least’ of the cities of Judah, now becomes ‘by no means the least’;
  • the well-known epithet ‘Ephrathah’ becomes ‘Judah’ to make the geography clear; and
  • the ‘clans’ becomes ‘clan leader’ i.e. ‘ruler’ to make the text relevant.

Moreover, Matthew is making use of a text which was not known as ‘messianic’; in the first century, the idea that messiah had to come from Bethlehem as a son of David was known but not very widespread.

All this is rather bad news for those who would argue that Jesus’ birth was carefully planned to be a literal fulfilment of OT prophecy. But it is equally bad news for those who argue that Matthew made the story up to fit such texts, and for exactly the same reason. Of course, Matthew is working in a context where midrashic reading of texts means that they are a good deal more flexible than we would consider them. But he is needing to make maximum use of this flexibility, and the logical conclusion of this would be that he was constrained by the other sources he is using—by the account he has of what actually happened.

St Denis 2012 - 26 - Version 2Davidson now turns to consider the magi and the star. He notes a certain coherence up to the point where the magi arrive in Jerusalem.

So far, the story makes logical sense despite its theological problems (e.g. the fact that it encourages people to believe in the “deceptive science of astrology”, as Strauss noted). The star is just that: a star.

Then everything changes. The star is transformed into an atmospheric light that guides the magi right from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where it hovers over a single house—the one where the child is. We are no longer dealing with a distant celestial body, but something else entirely, like a pixie or will-o’-the-wisp.

Here again critical assumptions need some critical reflection. Matthew’s inclusion of magi is theologically very problematic indeed. Simon Magus and Elymas (Acts 8.9, 13.8) hardly get a good press, not surprising in light of OT prohibitions on sorcery, magic and astrology. Western romanticism has embraced the Epiphany as a suggestive mystery, but earlier readings (like that of Irenaeus) saw the point as the humiliation of paganism; the giving of the gifts was an act of submission and capitulation to a greater power. For Matthew the Jew, they are an unlikely and risky feature to include, especially when Jesus is clear he has come to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10.6, 15.24).

There have been many attempts to explain the appearance of the star scientifically. The best contenders are a comet (for which there is no independent evidence), a supernova (observed by the Chinese in 4 BC) or the conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in the constellation Pisces—something that recently recurred to headline coverage. I think the latter is the best candidate; Jupiter signified ‘leader’, Saturn denoted ‘the Westland’, and Pisces stood for ‘the end of the age’. So this conjunction would communicate to astrologers ‘A leader in the Westland [Palestine] in the end days.’ This highlights a key problem with Davidson’s criticism; the issue is not whether a star could in fact indicate a particular house in our, modern scientific terms. This is clearly impossible. The real issue is whether Matthew thought it could—or even whether Matthew thought the magi thought it could. As Dick France highlights in his NICNT commentary, this was actually a common understanding for which we have documentary evidence. And any naturalistic explanations miss Matthew’s central point: this was something miraculous provided by God. If you don’t think the miraculous is possible, you are bound to disbelieve Matthew’s story—but on the basis of your own assumptions, not on any criteria of historical reliability or the nature of Matthew’s text.

Davidson cites the 19th-century rationalist critic David Friedrich Strauss in his objection to the plausibility of Herod’s action:

With regard to Herod’s instructions to report back to him, Strauss notes that surely the magi would have seen through his plan at once. There were also less clumsy methods Herod might have used to find out where the child was; why did he not, for example, send companions along with the magi to Bethlehem?

In fact, we know from Josephus that Herod had a fondness for using secret spies. And in terms of the story, the magi are unaware of Herod’s motives; we are deploying our prior knowledge of the outcome to decide what we think Herod ought to have done, which is hardly a good basis for questioning Matthew’s credibility.

botticelli-c-1475-adoration-of-the-magiFinally, we come to the arrival of the magi at the home of the family. Interestingly, Matthew talks of their ‘house’ (Matt 2.11) which supports the idea that Jesus was not born in a stable—though from the age of children Herod has executed (less than two years) we should think of the magi arriving some time after the birth. No shepherds and magi together here! (It is worth noting, though, that forming a ‘tableau’ of different elements of a narrative, all compressed together, is a common feature of artistic depictions of stories. We just need to be aware of what is going in here in the compression of narrative time.)

Davidson again sees (with critical scholars) this event constructed from OT texts:

According to Brown, Goulder (2004), and others, the Old Testament provided the inspiration for the gifts of the magi. This passage is an implicit citation of Isaiah 60.3, 6 and Psalm 72.10, 15, which describe the bringing of gifts in homage to the king, God’s royal son.

But again, the problem here is that Matthew’s account just doesn’t fit very well. Given that these OT texts uniformly mention kings, not magi, if Matthew was constructing his account from these, why choose the embarrassing astrologers? And why three gifts rather than two? Where has the myrrh come from? Again, it is Irenaeus who first interprets the gifts as indicators of kingship, priesthood and sacrificial death respectively, but Matthew does not appear to do so. In the narrative, they are simply extravagant gifts fit for the true ‘king of the Jews’. Subsequent tradition has to do the work that Matthew has here failed to do, and make the story fit the prophecies rather better than Matthew has managed to.

Davidson closes his analysis of this section with a final observation from Strauss:

If the magi can receive divine guidance in dreams, why are they not told in a dream to avoid Jerusalem and go straight to Bethlehem in the first place? Many innocent lives would have been saved that way.

Clearly, God could have done a much better job of the whole business. But it rather appears as though Matthew felt unable to improve on what happened by fitting it either to the OT texts or his sense of what ought to have happened.

The modern reader might struggle with aspects of Matthew’s story. But it seems to me you can only dismiss it by making a large number of other, unwarranted assumptions. (The main parts of this post were first published in 2015—but they clearly bear repeating.)

Additional note: when I post some of this material last year, my friend John Hudghton posted this fascinating comment offering a broader historical context:

I have to admit at one time I thought that the birth narratives, especially this one in Matthew were literary constructs which while they were metaphorically true as myth did not contain reliable historical content. Well that was what some of the scholars and commentators said. It was all a bit airy fairy, mysterious men from the East…who were they, what were they doing there? How likely was this at all – would these wandering fortune tellers have been received by Herod, his court and had an impact which would throw Jerusalem into panic? What kind of interest would THEY have had in announcing a future King of the Jews? Well I used to think that – but that was a result of very sloppy critical scholarship. Having continued in my reading and studying in the field of ancient history as well as biblical studies I have grown to understand that the story in Matthew is credible and likely and quite frankly I believe it thoroughly, from the coming of the Magi to the flight and return from Egypt. To understand the story of the Magi you need a good appreciation of the geo-politics of the time, as well as the religious situation. Without this you will flounder and make wild stabs in the dark as to the historical anchor of Matthew 2 and may well end up, like I did consigning it to the category of “myth” – a story constructed to teach truths but not necessarily being true in itself. While this may be ok in some holy literature, as far as the Gospels are concerned this sits uncomfortably with me, particularly if it is poorly done.

Let’s talk about the political situation in Israel at the time. Herod is in power as an ethnarc – ruling over the Jews. How did he get there? The Roman general, Pompey had invaded and in 63BC put an end to Jewish independence and carved up the state of Israel. Herod, the son of an advisor to Julius Ceasar was appointed governor of Galilee in 47BC and then in 41 BC promoted to tetrarch by Mark Anthony and in 39BC the senate exclusively proclaims him “King of the Jews” because his reign of terror brought in plenty of taxes to the coffers of Rome. However during this time he had to contend with the Parthians – who were in essence Persians.

The Parthian empire was second only to Rome. The Parthians ruled from 247 BC to 224 AD creating a vast empire that stretched from the Mediterranean in the west to India and China in the east. East of the Caspian Sea there emerged from the steppe of Central Asia a nomadic Scythian tribe called the Parni. Later called the Parthians and taking over the Seleucid Empire and fending off the Romans, they established themselves as a superpower in their own right. They were especially proficient in cavalry fighting using light cavalry horse archers and heavily armoured cataphracts. It was an equine culture, the Parthians only had a relatively small standing army but could call upon militia whose culture equipped them for this means of combat. Camels were used for baggage only….

The Parthians took advantage of the Roman infighting of the later years of the 1st century BC. They intervened in the region sending 500 warriors and in 40BC placed Antigonus II on the throne of Judea and made him High Priest while the unpopular Herod retreated to his fortress in Masada. However as the Romans reorganised and re-established their influence in the area they defeated the Parthians in Syria who pulled their expeditionary force back to their former borders. Herod then fought a war with the assistance of Mark Anthony to regain control of Judea, culminating with the defeat of Antigonus in 37BC and his subsequent brutal execution by Mark Antony. At various times there was peace and at other times disputes between Rome and Parthia. The Parthians were ever watchful of their borders and like the Romans persisted in trying to influence the buffer states along their borders. The traffic though was two way, as Herod attempted to influence the Jewish population within the Parthian empire by deposing the local priests and instead appointing priests to the Jerusalem temple from this Jewish diaspora.

Now what is of primary importance is the term Magi. Yes the term has been used of some individuals using supernatural powers “magic” as a means of making a living – but the primary usage and common understanding of the term Magi is related to the “tribe” of priests who acted almost like a religious civil service to the various empires of the area, from the Babylonian through to the Medo-Persian era and then to the Parthians. Josephus tells us that no one could be King in Parthia unless they knew the ways of the Magi and were supported by the Magi who some understood to operate in a not dissimilar way to a US senate. They were indeed not the Kings but they were the power behind the throne – the King makers. You may remember in the book of Daniel that Daniel is appointed chief of the Magi. They had a reputation throughout the region for being educated, wise, learned, religious priests with knowledge of religion from previous empires to that of Zoroastrianism, the prevalent religion of the Parthian empire. Conventional learning was interlaced with astrology, alchemy and other esoteric knowledge.

As Herod’s life was drawing to a close there was plenty of public debate concerning his succession – Herod had 11 Sons (and five daughters) but was subject to Roman support. In 7 BC he executed his own sons Alexander and Aristobulos because he believed they were plotting regicide and a coup and again in 4 BC he had his favourite son, his eldest, Antipater executed for the same reason causing Augustus Ceasar (who was no pussycat) to remark “Better to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios)”. Many other members of the family were also casualties including his favourite wife, Mariamne as were various members of his staff. There was much uncertainty as to his succession as Herod’s will changed more than once and on top of this the population were ready for revolt – which did in fact come to pass at Herod’s death in 4BC. Herod used secret police, spies and brutality to achieve his ends. He suffered depression and paranoia throughout his life and was now according to Josephus was suffering gangrene, severe itching, convulsions and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumours and he had constant fevers.

It is to this scenario that the Magi (king makers) came from Parthia (the neighbouring empire with a track record) seeking “he who is to be born King of the Jews” causing a huge amount of anguish to both Herod’s court and the establishment in Jerusalem. The Herodian-appointed Priests who depended on his patronage would have been as disturbed as Herod himself at the news of a new King. Had these strangers been wandering Gypsylike fortune tellers they would neither have gained access to Herod’s court or been given any credibility. However as they were the respected Magi – the Parthian religious civil service they received a hearing. We don’t know how many Magi there were, there is no record, but it is likely they arrived with an escort and would have been protected both physically and diplomatically from any action that Herod may have desired to bring against them.

It was not uncommon for astronomical events to be interpreted through astrology and significant potents such as comets or conjunctions of stars could signify a shift in the order of events on earth. This is what has alerted the Magi in Matthew’s story and they go seeking the new King of the Jews as it is in their interest to honour him as future good relations with this new King will stand them (the Parthians) in good stead. Herod (as may be expected) sees this as a threat and seeks to eliminate the new King. The Magi are warned in a dream to return by another route – and as we know from Daniel, this sort of thing was the bread and butter of Magi.

In so many modern day depictions of Magi they are riding camels. If, as I believe the extremely persuasive evidence indicates that they were Parthians, there is as much hope of them arriving on a camel as there would be of a chapter of bikers opting to travel in a van rather than on a bike. Camels were for luggage and yes they would have had some of this, but horses were for personal transport and the few depictions there are in the history of art of Magi on horseback have got it right.

So I now do believe the story of the Magi in Matthew 2 to be credible and likely. As was the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt – who in the light of the rebellion against Herod’s family in 4BC (and the subsequent brutal massacre, rape and enslavement of Jews following Varrus’ punitive recapture of the land when he sent in FOUR whole legions, laid waste to the land and crucified 2000 Galileans alone for rebellion) would have not been the only refugees fleeing the middle East in bloody and uncertain times.

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131 thoughts on “Myth and history in the Epiphany of Matthew 2”

  1. Thank you for republishing the comment by John Hudghton. I was vaguely aware of the geopolitics and the Parthians, but this puts a lot of flesh on the bones.

    I might add that another aspect of this is that Herod the Great was not a true Jew. His father was by descent an Edomite. King-makers turning up from the neighbouring empire and asking where was the newly born king of the Jews (born in Bethlehem) is rather provocative.

  2. Ian – many thanks for all these posts – it gives much to think about.
    My own (uneducated) thoughts are the following. Firstly, if inconsistencies were established and I had to choose between the two (and, as your post points out, there aren’t really inconsistencies), I’d take Luke. This is quite simply because Luke comes across as what he claims to be – a historian who has made a careful investigation and is trying to give an accurate summary of his findings. Matthew, on the other hand, comes across as someone who has read a bunch of prophesies from the Old Testament and is trying to produce a narrative which proves that they actually happened.

    I don’t think that Luke conclusively states that it was a virgin birth; the text can be understood in other ways. Matthew, on the other hand, understands the meaning of Isaiah 7 and aims to establish that this was fulfilled.

    Given that this is Matthew’s agenda, it is very difficult to see how the author of Matthew’s gospel was intending a literary piece of writing that was only ever intended to be taken as a parable. That would fail to establish anything at all. Either Matthew was convinced that what he was writing was true, or else he was a blatant liar. Any `parable’ theory simply does not hold water.

    Such a theory would also make a fool of the crucial aspect of Christianity, the special revelation, where God meets man at a specific time point in history, in a real event and not in any mythical way; `crucified under Pontius Pilate’, a historical event, the lowest point in human history. If the aim of Matthew is to establish this real `once for all’ event, then there is absolutely no room for parable here. Otherwise, there is no reason to believe that the remainder of the gospel wasn’t intended as parable – and then there is absolutely no qualitative difference at all between Christianity and any of the other pagan religions which were around at the time.

    • I don’t think that Luke conclusively states that it was a virgin birth; the text can be understood in other ways.
      If it was not a virgin birth, then you are saying that the conception came through a human father. Who do you have in mind, if not Joseph?
      If it was not a virgin birth, God was not the father and you have no gospel.

      • Steven Robinson – unfortunately I think you have some difficulties with reading and comprehension.

        I believe in the virgin birth – because Matthew’s gospel says so. If you look at what I read, I simply pointed out that this cannot be inferred from Luke’s gospel which, if it weren’t for the additional information in Matthew, could be taken to mean that Joseph is the father.

        • I dont quite get that. Luke’s narrative clearly portrays Mary as a virgin, which is precisely why she is so surprised at the angel’s message – how on earth am I going to give birth when I havent had sex?!

          You dont need Matthew to know Mary was a virgin. Luke believed it too.


          • PC1 – I think there is an issue here. If you read Luke in isolation, without Matthew, Mary poses the question of how can this be when she knows not a man – and the next verse could (at a stretch) be understood as the angel giving the instruction that she should get on with it – and then Mary conceiving the child could then be taken as indicating Mary’s acceptance of this task.

            There is an argument (in some circles) as to whether or not Mary had any choice in the matter. Matthew makes it clear that she had no choice – she was told that she was carrying the child Jesus – and it was presented to her as a `fait accompli’.

            I’m inclined to agree with you that the *natural* way of understanding Luke is just as you say – but I do think there is sufficient room for doubt when people start examining every detail of the language.

            Matthew removes all doubt.

  3. This is as ever very interesting. From my reading of Herodotus this year (!) I can confirm what John Hudghton says about the Magi: they are presented in the days of Cyrus and Darius as a tribal class in higher echelons of government.
    However none of this addresses the issue that surely Luke states that Mary lived in Nazareth, and travelled to Bethlehem with Joseph (likely although not certainly also from Nazareth) for the census, and then went home to “their own city,” whereas Matthew presents Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and some time later choosing Nazareth, seemingly for political and dream-guided reasons. There is no indication in Matthew that they had any previous connection with Nazareth. I also find it hard to understand how such a sensational and traumatic event as the flight to Egypt could have gone unmentioned by Luke.

    • Well, first we need to take into account their different theological purposes. James Bejon gave a great explanation of this earlier in the month:

      Second, why is harder to understand Luke’s omission of the flight to Egypt than the Synoptic’s omission of the raising of Lazarus, or for that matter the other gospels’ omission of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7)? How could Mark omit the Lord’s Prayer? Or the others omit the parables of the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son?

      All the gospels are selective! For your concern about Luke’s omission here to bite, you would need to argue that it is more essential than all the other mutual omissions. I don’t think it is; Luke is here—as *everywhere else* in *all* the gospels—being selective.

      • The one about the gospels being selective is an interesting one.
        Any presentation of Jesus’s life is bound to be majorly selective and to include a small minority of what could be included. The gospel writers however are primarily users of sources and fitters of source-material into templates, which enable them to have shapely and continuous narratives without gaping holes.
        Mark is a maximalist rather than being selective, because he includes absolutely everything he remembers from Peter’s preaching, and more besides.
        Matthew is not selective, because he has 90+% of Mark.
        Luke is selective to a degree, but his omissions (e.g. of much of Mark 6-8init) do not amount to a great percentage of his work, especially when we include his allusions thereto and the times he tweaks preexisting material. With Luke it is more a case of how very much of the preexisting material he includes, rather than of how much he leaves out (which is not very much).
        John is selective; he is following his own tack and is aware of other material not included. Rather than call him selective, it brings more clarity to say that he has a preexisting plan and template which serves as a principle of selection. He is a man with a message and will leave out almost anything if it does not fit his scheme.

        Among the synoptists there is less selectivity than one might think, and I am not convinced that across their writings as a whole they show any tendency to leave out pericopae of the first importance of which they were aware, or why they would want to do such a thing.

      • As Penelope said, None of this addresses the issue that surely Luke states that Mary lived in Nazareth, and travelled to Bethlehem with Joseph (likely although not certainly also from Nazareth) for the census, and then went home to “their own city,” whereas Matthew presents Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and some time later choosing Nazareth.
        The issue raised is not simply one of selectivity.

        • On the claim that Luke portrays Joseph as likely although not certainly also from Nazareth”, Ian Paul spends every Christmas declaring that Luke’s gospel is best understood – simply on the evidence in Luke, not engaging in attempted conciliation – as portraying a Joseph that was returning to family in Bethlehem.

          And Mathew does not portray where the pre-birth Mary & Joseph lived. It only with the birth that we learn a location. Nor do we learn of a choosing for Nazareth, instead it reads to me that having rejected Judaea that Joseph finds Nazareth the natural spot.

          • Much of the post is a discussion about reconciling Luke and Matthew, so keeping them separate doesn’t really answer the point. Luke tells us that Joseph was a resident of Nazareth and went up to Bethlehem only to comply with the census. Matthew appears to imply that on Joseph’s return from Egypt his natural home would have been Bethlehem, and he went to Nazareth for no other reason than that he had to fulfil a scripture which does not exist.

            Matthew does not come across as one who is well informed as to the circumstances. I understand Luke as clarifying Matthew rather than Matthew writing in the light of Luke (which he clearly doesn’t).

            Regarding the language, ‘but’ in ESV Matt 2:22 is de, a connective particle that can equally mean ‘and’, as in v. 21, if it is to be translated at all. So this slightly weakens the understanding that he meant to go to Bethlehem in Judaea. Secondly, ‘withdrew’ in v. 22 translates a verb that means to retire from a position formerly occupied, i.e. go back – Joseph went back to Galilee. And thirdly, ‘And he went and resided [in a city called Nazareth],’ Matt 2:23, translates words that literally read ‘And, having arrived [in Galilee], he resided’. This tempers the idea that he went to Galilee first and thought about where to live in Galilee afterwards.

            I think it is these points, taken together, that help to resolve Penelope’s perfectly reasonable sense of a discrepancy between the two gospels.

            And the scripture that was fulfilled by the return to Nazareth? Judges 13:5 seems closest.

        • Reading Luke, one sees in 2:39 Joseph, Mary and Jesus going to “their own town of Nazareth” (εἰς πόλιν ἑαυτῶν Ναζαρέθ). This is perhaps the major issue in comparing Luke and Matthew, with the latter having is verse extended to a trip to Egypt. But it does seem that one’s “own town” is where you live.

          But then in Luke 2:4 you have “all went to be registered, each to his own town” (εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πόλιν). And in the following verse Joseph travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Mary his betrothed wife.

          At the time of verse 4 either Nazareth was where Joseph lived and so it was his “own town”, and so he did not travel to his own town for the registration, or Bethlehem was his “own town” at the time, and Nazareth became his own town later by v39. Matthew seems to provide an explanation for the change in Joseph’s “own town”.

          • I am reminded of the question of author invariants that Ian refers to. Is it not reasonable to suppose consistency of usage within the space of 36 verses? As put, the problem seems insoluble.

            I don’t have quite the same problem because I don’t (on systematic grounds) always follow the textual readings followed by modern translations and as epitomised by the Tyndale Greek New Testament. Luke 2:39 seems to me correctly read, but re Luke 2:3 I think it is better to read idian polin. The difference is subtle, and perhaps obscure, but surely intentional. At the moment I would suggest 2:39 is referring to the couple’s ‘own town’ in the sense of that being where they lived, whereas 2:3 (idios) is referring to one’s ancestral home town, the town where one’s parents were/used to live.

            Nazareth is described as Jesus’s idian polin in Matt 9:1.

  4. From a scholar on “The Latest Scholarship.”

    It seems to me that what passes for contemporary scholarship is just so much speculation.
    Lack of precision or comprehensive chronology or not answering questions that we, with remarkable hindsight, would wish to make and be answered, does not render texts historically unreliable.
    So much of the scholarship reminds me of bar-room barristers opining while being so very far from the sources, the evidences and first hand testimonies, inside information.
    In particular, so much of it reminds me of how far newspaper reports of legal court cases are so very far from key evidences ( most usually presented as eyewitness testimony, sworn truth).
    An example of vain speculation or desire for precision is the the guiding of the star. We look for laser like GPS locked on location, where as scripture merely says that it * came to rest rest over the place where the child was.” Matthew 2: 9
    ( My addition, then after arrive at that place, Bethlehem, they asked around were directed to, ‘And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother…” Matthew 2:11.

    To ask a *scholarly* question why warned in a particular way but not in a manner the scholar would suppose would be superior would, it is suggested, provide some weight to the critique of
    present day scholarship in the linked article.

        • Hello Steve,
          I don’t know whether he would classify himself as a biblical scholar, but Dr Andrew Wilson, linked the article as, “post of the day (27 Dec). Excellent”

        • Hello Ian,
          The article I presumed that Steve referred to was the linked article by brad east relating to, The latest scholarship, which in turn had been described by Andrew Wilson as post of the 27 Jan and excellent. It was from his twitter post that I became aware of it.
          Sure, Andrew Wilson has a PhD in NT, Corinthians, but I don’t know whether scholar would be the first self descriptor. His twitter handle doesn’t mention it. I suppose, that it may depend on the circles he is moving in, (or scholar’s guild, in the words of Brad East) perhaps a little like St Paul, who mentioned his learning credentials when seeking to establish his authority.
          Just a thought, maybe in the light of Brad East’s article AJW would be faintly embarrassed to fall within the scope of being one of the latest scholars, unless of course he sees himself to be an outsider looking in upon (the critical) consensus scholarship of which he is not part.
          For what it is worth, I’d consider him to be a scholar, having benefited from some of his writings, which are underpinned by but do not display his theological and biblical educational qualifications.
          If I remember correctly, he wrote with some self reflection about whether he fitted in with the theological stance of the magazine, Christianity Today for which he has contributed articles.
          From a distance, he seems to hold onto his scholarship and learning lightly.

  5. I don’t know anything about the history of the near East 2000 years ago but I noticed the symmetry between the way the star is described to rest over the place of the birth and the way the glory hovered over the threshold of the temple. Therefore the star is the same shekina glory returning to his new temple – Jesus. If the Chebar vision of Ezekiel is the one and the same shining glory then the first to see it return along the same parallel would be Babylonian men from The region of the Chebar/Euphrates. Rich men . Mobile men. Educated men.

  6. Borg and Crossan’s idea that X is true as a parable is worthless, because it is a given that they will never adjudge anything at all to be false as a parable.

  7. Brown’s list of 9 overlaps is very useful as a guide to assumptions that predate both Matthew and Luke. We need to look at this list closely, because of the 9 points there are few if any that could be otherwise without affecting the basis of the story in a major way. Pretty much all of the 9 are basic and fundamental grounding; pretty much none of them are the colourful details, and yet of colourful details there are many in the birth narratives.

  8. I appreciate the work that conservative scholars do in grappling with issues such as these. My worry, however, is that a great deal becomes speculative and uncertain and yet the very grappling with it may undermine faith and certainty and lead to compromises that ought not to be made. I think Geoff expresses my concerns.

    If we accept Matthew is inspired then it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who is the author of the gospel.

    • John – I’m interested in how you perceive the work of the Holy Spirit. As far as I understand the work of the Holy Spirit, the author made his (or her) own rational decisions, using his (or her) God-given mind, in a rational manner, when he (or she) penned, or decided upon, the work that we have. The Holy Spirit is responsible for transforming the thinking mind of the believer from a mind that has a level of participation in the evil ways of the world to a mind that is in the service of God and fit for the heavenly kingdom. So, when you say that the gospel of Matthew is inspired, then it means that those responsible for the text were applying their minds to the job – and that these were the minds of believers who had been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

      • Jock,
        I’m interested in your possible view of the Holy Trinity.
        And if indeed God is the author, and He is, what does some specious speculation reveal about us? And our hermenuetics? Especially as scripture as we have it, is unalterable.
        Sometimes the impression given is that it is merely a human construct which we pore over in microspic detail to undermine and render unreliable, hence disposable, when and as required.
        There are Christian scholars that I’m extremely grateful for who counter the consenus scholastic flow.
        For me, early in my Christian life, as a 47 year old lawyer, who through professional training saw much antisupernatural presuposition in historical and form criticism and indeed speculation that would be disallowed at law, a tome of inmense influence was “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict” by Josh McDowell which drew on scholars to counter all the concensus scholarship that jas been critiqued in the article I linked.

        • Geoff – my views on Holy Trinity are intuitive and not really precise. That is, I kind of understand what it is supposed to be all about, but any attempt to clarify will go wrong. But here it is anyway. God the Father is somehow apart from creation – and the first creative act was to create a God-forsaken space, separate from God, for the creation. The second person of the Trinity, Jesus, is the eternally begotten, both fully human and fully divine, through the crucifixion and resurrection reached into the fundamental ontological depths of our beings (to use a fancy phrase which I picked up from Tom Torrance) and dealt with the sin, the radical evil, which separates us from God. Where does the Holy Spirit come into this? Well, the Holy Spirit somehow applies the saving work of Christ to the believer, in ways that I don’t fully understand.

          Well, I indicated that it wouldn’t come across too well if I tried to explain it and it didn’t, but that is the best I can do.

          As far as Scripture goes – and its authorship – I kind of agree that most scholarship comes across as hogwash. I think back to my grandfather who was a fisherman (born 1890’s died 1970’s) and note with interest that he was a man of faith who never actually bothered with that sort of stuff – and his ignorance of modern biblical scholarship certainly never did him any harm. He had a bible and I think that was pretty much just about it as far as religious books went.

          I also see where much of this religious scholarship is going (so I more or less agree with you). If you really start taking the opening of Matthew as a `literary’ piece (in the sense that the author doesn’t even claim that it actually happened), intended as `parabolic’, then you remove the key aspect of the Christian faith – the special revelation, the once for all event, where God meets man at a specific time point in history, in a real event (and not as some sort of a myth). That is where it is leading – Matthew’s gospel is bending over backwards to prove that this really is the Messiah, that all the prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled here. Any attempt to say that it isn’t true, that in some sense it didn’t happen as stated, is an attempt to say that the entire gospel is rubbish – and that there is no qualitative difference whatsoever between the Christian faith and any of the other pagan religions that were around at the time.

          At the same time, I’d say, though, that `inerrancy’ is actually a very rude word and is absolutely always associated with bad news. I’d heard of the word previously in the context of the Flat Earth Society who would have us believe that Genesis 1 can be taken as a scientific text book. I think that if you *really* want to put people off taking the Christian faith seriously, then a very good way is to tell them that they can forget about Einstein’s theory of general relativity, they can forget about the observed red-shift that would date the universe to approximately 14 million years (the figure doesn’t really matter – it’s the line of reasoning that is important), tell them that all of this is utter rubbish and that, instead, one morning approximately 6000 years ago, God took it into his head to do a creation, he did it in 6 days flat and then rested on day number 7.

          If you look at the origins of the term `inerrancy’, you may find that it is connected to people trying to establish this.

          I’d say that the Scripture we have is exactly the Scripture that God wants us to have. Is it infallible? Well, depends on the sense that you mean. Try looking at Nehemiah and Ezra, where you see Ezra the racist duffing up perfectly good marriages because the women happened to be `foreign’. What I see here is that God wants us to use our brains when reading Scripture, to understand the arrogance of the priestly class throughout the Old Testament (which seems to reach its zenith in Ezra and Nehemiah), so that while it shocks us, it shouldn’t surprise us very much that the main force opposing Jesus, responsible for the crucifixion and which was forcefully opposing the gospel (as documented in Acts) was The Church (i.e. The Church established by God).

          • Thanks for your considered response Jock.
            I’d say your comment on the Holy Trinity is far from intuitive, especially as you mentioned Torrance. One of the Torrance’s has come in for some theological critique, but can remember which one.
            So far as irrerancy and infallability is concerned, there is first a need to define and have a common understanding of what they are an are not. Certainly tethering them to flat earth adherence exposes logic fallacies, such as straw man.
            You mention Ezra with, if I may say, something of disdain and of Ezra’s perceived errant view of scripture and God, without setting it in the context of scripture, apostasy, conflicting belief systems , return from exile and the Holiness of God, who brought them out, and seeking full scale devotion to him, even in the face of continued hostility and opposition from surrounding pagan cultures and peoples, as opposed to a cycle of falling away, even within a generation.
            Scripture was opposed to inter-belief marriage.

            Inter marriage had been taking place in defiance of God. It is a means of smuggling raw paganism, relativising God, into the whole community through the back door. (Carson, below)

            D A Carson in, For the Love of God (vol 2) fleshes out Ezra 9 and 10, in ways that substantially counters your understanding.
            (I’m on my phone, so can’t do justice to Carson’s points in summary.)

            But first “Ezra understands what brought about the exile, the formal destruction of the nation, the scttering of the people. It was nothing other than the sins of the people…often these sins had been fostered by links, not least marital links, between the people of the covenant and surrounding tribes.” Carson.
            I’d suggest there is far more to it than you have reduced it to. A look to the prophets Haggai and Zechariah would also help us to comprehend the context.

          • Geoff – I suspect that it is the other Torrance who came in for this critique. As far as I can see, Tom Torrance is weird and wacky when he is making up his own theology, but is actually very good when he is trying to explain the theological position of others. The phrase I lifted was from `The Trinitarian Faith’ where he is trying to describe what Athanasius had to say about the Trinity. I’d strongly recommend this book – I was very pleasantly surprised by it. In that book, he is trying to show that the early fathers, leading up to the Nicene Creed were evangelical Christians.

            On Ezra – yes, but three things. (1) the translation I was reading (NIV) said `foreign’ – meaning not of correct biological descent – and there was absolutely no attempt to qualify this. Also, if we take this in the context of the rest of Ezra, `foreign’ (as in not of correct genealogical lineage) makes sense, since he excludes from the priesthood anybody who cannot prove that they have the correct lineage. So he had a bee in his bonnet about racial purity. (2) Even if the woman in question was of a different faith, is the injunction of Genesis 2 (the creation ordinance) of becoming one flesh nullified if one of the parties believes the wrong things? I’d agree that it isn’t a good idea to marry someone who is not Christian, but I’d have thought that once one was married, then one was married and that divorcing a woman, even one who has weird and wacky religious beliefs, constitutes an even greater sin.

            The translation I was reading from (NIV) the word was `foreign’ and not seem to imply `of a different religion or belief’. If the woman was foreign, then she had to be put away. There was no question of inviting her to convert; there was no question about implementing the procedures outlined in the Pentateuch for receiving an outsider into the Jewish community. So I’d say that D.A. Carson is reading in that which is not there, based on his own presuppositions about what God is actually communicating to us with Scripture. He is reading in that which is not there in order to justify Ezra, conveniently overlooking the fact that for Ezra, the creation ordinance was of less importance than the purity of the temple.

            I’m aware of the arguments, fully aware of Haggai, Zechariah, the disintegration of society and the reasons for it. I’m also aware of the Pharisees of Matthew’s gospel and the fact that it was the priesthood that was responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate and that it was the priesthood who were the most vicious opponents of Paul after his conversion – and, in Ezra and Nehemiah, I see the seeds of this.

          • ‘Eternally begotten’ is a contradiction in terms. If you don’t think so, please explain what you mean, why you subscribe to it and where you find the concept in Scripture.

          • Hello Jock,

            Here is a far too lengthy filling out of Carson.

            Ezra, in summary, can not be used to corroborate an argument against infallibility or inerrancy of scripture. Fallibility and error of sinners, yes, certainly.

            For clarification. it was me, not Carson, who used the expression, belief system. The main point of it remains. Ezra didn’t get the law wrong, nor the gracious main purposes of it for the covenant people of God. It was not to establish what is today called racial purity. Covenant, I’d suggest is the main concept: our gracious covenant making and keeping God in contrast to God’s covenant breaking people and all the entailments.

            From Carson: “It may be difficult for some Christians, immersed in the heritage of individualism and influenced by postmodern relativism, to find much sympathy for Ezra and his prayer Ezra 9.
            “A hundred or so of the returned Israelites, out of a population that by this time would have been at last fifty or sixty thousand, have married pagan woman from the surrounding tribes.
            ” Ezra treats this as an unmitigated disaster and weeps before the Lord as if really serious harm has been done.
            “Has religion descended to the level where it tells its adherents whom they may marry? Moreover, the aftermath of this prayer is pretty heartless, isn’t it?
            ” In reality, Ezra’s prayer discloses a man who has thought long and hard about Israel’s history.

            “First, he understands what brought about the exile, the formal destruction of the nation, the scattering of the people…. Ezra 9:7

            “Second, he understands that if this community has been permitted to return to Judah, it is because. Ezra 9:7
            * for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us as a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage.*

            “Third, he understands that in the light of the first two points, and in the light of scripture’s explicit prohibition against intermarriage, what has taken place is not only singular ingratitude but concrete defiance of the God who has come to Israel’s relief not only in the Exodus but also in the exile.

            “Fourth, he understands the complex. corrosive, corporate nature of sin. Like Isaiah before him (Isaiah 6:5) he aligns himself with the people in their sin (Ezra 9:6).
            ” He grasps the stubborn fact that theses are not individual failures and nothing more: these are means by which raw paganism, and finally the relativising of Almighty God, are smuggled into the entire community through the back door.

            “How could such marriages, even among the priests, have been arranged unless many, many others had given their approval, or at least winked at the exercise?

            “Above all Ezra understands that the sins of the people of God are far worse than the punishment they’ve received. (Ezra 9: 13 -15)


            Carson continues identifying that Ezra Chapter 10 is understood broadly speaking in two different ways:

            1. What takes place is something akin to revival.
            1.1” Ezra’s tears and prayer prove so moving to the of the community, though they too have been compromised by these intermartriages, enter into a pact to divorce their pagan wives and send them home to their own people along with any children from the marriages.
            1.2 “Those who disagree with this decision will be expelled from the assembly of exiles and treated like foreigners themselves. (Ezra 10:8)
            1.3 “Appropriate Councils are set up, the work discharged.
            1.4 ” This is remarkably courageous, a sure sign of God’s blessing, ringing evidence that these people love God even more than they love their own families..
            1.5 “The purity of the postexilic community is maintained, and the wrath of God is averted,
            1.6 “The lesson, then , is that one must deal radically with sin.

            2 “Although Ezra’s prayer (Ezra 9) is exactly right, the steps that flow from it are virtually all wrong.

            2.1 “Marriage, after all, is a creation ordinance.
            2.2 “In any case, one can not simply undo undo a marriage: if the Law prohibits marriage with a pagan, it also prohibits easy divorce.
            2.3 “What about all those children/ Are they to banished to the pagan g/parents, without access to the covenant community and the one God over all the earth- quite apart from the psychological damage that will befall them?
            2.4 “Could not other steps be taken instead?
            2.5 “For example, all further mixed marriages could be proscribed and rigorously prevented, under sanction of being expelled from the community/
            2.6 “Priests who have intermarried could be stripped of priestly rights and duties.
            2.7 “The widespread repentance that is evident could be channeled toward faithful study of the Law, not east by these mixed families.
            2.8 “What sanction is there for so inhumane an action as that in this chapter?

            Carson’s conclusion:

            “I suspect that in large measure both views are correct. There is something noble and courageous about the action taken;there is also something heartless and reductionist. One suspects that this is one of those mixed results in which the Bible frankly abounds, like the account of Gideon, or of Jephthah, or of Samson.
            ” Some sins have such complex tentacles that it is not surprising if solutions undertaken by repentent sinners are messy as well.”

            He also asks how should these lines of thought shape our thinking about the people of God today?

            So there we have it; sinners, even repentant sinners are not infallible, are not without error, are not perfect. The passages say nothing about the fallibility or inerrancy of scripture, or otherwise. More about the error and fallibility of sinners. Christians (Jews and Gentiles) in marriage union with Christ remain simul justus et peccator. Even as partakers of the the new covenant in Christ.

          • Geoff – OK – thanks for taking the trouble to write this and summarise Carson.

            I think I like this. He expresses the dichotomy very clearly – in his points 2.1 – 2.4 he outlines and articulates much better than I could articulate exactly the concerns that strike me when I read Ezra – and his summary and conclusion when weighing up his 1 and 2 hits the nail on the head.

  9. Jock, I agree that the human writer brought to bear his skills as a writer. Yet working in him and through him was the Spirit directing his mind and ensuring the reliability of what he wrote. Quite how this happened we don’t really know nor do we need to know. However, faith accepts that it is so. Matthew is not simply writing as any other writer, he is borne along by the Spirit. In this he and other canonical writers differ from other Christian writers however learned. They write ‘infallibly’ and without error; we don’t. Words like ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ are viewed with suspicion if not hostility today yet they seem to express important truths gained from Scripture itself. Writers like Carson and others fought for these truths a generation ago. I hope we do not lose them today in the often sinking sands of sceptical scholarship. We may be sure that sceptical scholarship will gain no disciples for Jesus Christ.

    Once again Geoff has articulated some of my concerns.

    • John Thomson – yes – I more-or-less agree with your concerns and Geoff’s concerns. We have to be careful not to be wise beyond Scripture.

    • But it’s also important to show that the Gospel writers were speaking the truth, based on the facts as they knew them. Christian scholars of an evangelical bent should be arguing against those who seek to bring so much doubt on the historical reliability of those writings. I think there is a solid basis for doing so.

  10. Just a brief uneducated thought of my own, to reconcile the Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus birth. It’s a point about chronology and is admittedly speculative. We think Jesus was born around 6BC. We have been told that Herod died in 4BC, so he wouldn’t have lived long after the visit of the Magi, maybe only a few weeks. Joseph and Mary would have fled to Egypt under highly traumatic circumstances, possibly witnessing some of the atrocities from which they sought to escape, much like asylum seekers in our own day. They may have only needed to stay in Egypt for a few weeks before Herod died and the coast was relatively clear for their return, but Joseph decides wisely to return to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. If Luke gained details of his birth narrative from Mary, it is likely that recollection of this harrowing episode in Jesus’ early life would have been too traumatic for her to want to recount in a story which, according to Luke, is almost entirely positive. Just a thought.

  11. Well worth reposting.

    Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? … At one time I thought that the birth narratives, especially this one in Matthew were literary constructs which while they were metaphorically true as myth did not contain reliable historical content.

    Exactly the same issue arises in relation to Genesis 1-2. The difference is that most conservative theologians are willing to defend the historicity of the Christ birth narrative(s), but are not willing to defend the historicity of the Universe birth narrative(s).

    In the interests of scholarship, there is debate over when Herod died. A date of 4 BC should not be presented as fact, and the implication that Jesus was born in an earlier year does not sit well with Luke 3:23.

    In the first century, the idea that messiah had to come from Bethlehem as a son of David was known but not very widespread.
    This strikes me as similar to the ‘bold assumptions’ being criticised. Is our knowledge of Jewish knowledge in the 1st century so comprehensive that we can make such an assertion? It really boils down to how deep the knowledge was of the Prophets in general. If you knew them well, you would have known about Micah 5. John 7:41-42 has an undefined crowd debating this very question.

  12. Thank you… And for the background addition on the wider politics.

    “and the temptation is to fill in details for ourselves.” Plenty of filling in goes on at this time of year and I find it slightly depressing. Sloppy reading and sloppy applications… Conclusions in search of support, which when not found is done without…

    The” unadorned ” Gospel is more adequate than some seem to believe and trust.

  13. Steve Robinson – `Eternally begotten’ was an invention of (I think) Athanasius, to deal with the problem that (a) the Son proceeds from the Father, but (b) is not a created being in the sense that we are. You are correct that `eternally begotten’ sounds like a contradiction in terms – and it probably is – but it was the way that Athanasius dealt with the problem and this was more-or-less crucial in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.

    I found the following link

    which seems to explain where it comes from.

    But if you think that is sounds like the `empty philosophies of men’ and if you think it doesn’t really have Scriptural justification then you have good reason and I’m not the one to argue against that.

    • The concept goes back to Origen, I believe – not a reassuring pedigree.

      Yes, the Son must proceed from the Father, because that is a matter of definition, which in turn means he was not co-eternal with the Father. And yes he is not a created being in the sense that we are. Adam was created bodily in his image, so that Christ was the prototype after which we were all stamped. Christ was created with a spiritual body, Adam with a physical body.

      • Steven – yes – it probably does go back to Origen – and yes – I agree – Origen is not a reassuring pedigree.

        But Athanasius is not Origen and the idea of `eternally begotten’ is useful, at least for me. The `eternal’ part of `eternally begotten’ explains that Christ is fully God; the `begotten’ part explains that, at the same time, he is fully man – and hence he can be the Mediator.

        Simplistic and superficial I know – but that is more-or-less how I understand it.

        The concept is (in some sense) at the heart of the Nicene creed.

        • (1) To impute nonsense to Scripture when it is not there is not ‘useful’ in my opinion, though it is useful to be upfront about it.
          (2) The ‘eternal’ part of ‘eternally begotten’ does not explain that Christ is fully God. You’re starting with a proposition which, apparently, you don’t find sufficiently supported by Scripture and then looking for support outside Scripture. How can that be a defensible procedure? If your idea that Christ is fully God is scriptural, why do you need Athanasius?
          (3) If my father is human, why am I not entitled to say that I am fully human, even though I have not been eternally in existence?
          (4) In invoking Athanasius (have you in fact read any of his work?), I suspect you are thinking of the so-called Athanasian Creed. Here is Wikipedia: ‘A medieval account credited Athanasius of Alexandria, the famous defender of Nicene theology, as the author of the Creed. According to that account, Athanasius composed it during his exile in Rome and presented it to Pope Julius I as a witness to his orthodoxy. The traditional attribution of the Creed to Athanasius was first called into question in 1642 by the Dutch Protestant theologian Gerhard Johann Vossius.’ The creed has no valid authority independent of the authority of Scripture, which for Protestants at least is the only solid authority for matters of doctrine and belief.
          (5) The Nicene Creed, which has its own illogicalities and departures from Scripture, does not advance the concept of ‘eternally begotten’ in any sense (if you have more than one sense in mind).

          • Steven – OK – I probably owe you a reasonably full reply, which I’ll give tomorrow.

            In short, though – I have only read the selected quotes of Athanasius from Tom Torrance `The Trinitarian Faith’ – which did make sense to me – they did seem to me to explain Scripture (and I didn’t think they were reading in that which was not there). I’m not thinking of the `Athanasian Creed’ – my only reference here is Torrance, his quotes of Athanasius and here I’m reading Athanasius through Torrance.

            I’ll try to do a brief summary of my understanding of this. I’m pretty sure that it won’t exactly be your cup of tea,.

          • Hello Steven R,
            It has been clear for a good while now from your comments that you do not accept the Holy Tri-unity of Christianity.
            What is less clear is what you do believe and what or who that is based on, while continuing to oppose and seek justification for the Holy Trinity.

            It would be good if you could clarify what you do believe. One God, two, three or more? If one God, which God?

          • I too am curious as to how Stephen articulates this core theological mystery. I stand to be corrected but I not been assuming Stephen rejects the Trinity – rather he is questioning how this has been expressed in the historic creeds. We are, of course, seeking to express the inexpressible.

          • Not sure David R’s way of looking at things (which one often finds) makes sense. He already knows the conclusion (namely that there is a Trinity), but shows none of the ‘working’ that might make anyone trust that that conclusion was undergirded, nor does he recommend that anyone does the necessary thought.

            Conclusions are hard won, and they are the result of prior thought. One cannot glibly state a conclusion in any circumstances. But the circumstances of having not done the prior thought are the circumstances in which it is least possible to do so.

            All kinds of things are or would be inexpressible if real. But the question here is whether X is real.

          • Christopher Yes I do accept it actually. It is Steven who is been challenging it. I don’t understand why you are are directing these comments to me at all.

          • Because of your grounds. If something is a mystery that means we do not understand it to a degree sufficient to know whether it is true or not. Your ploy is to say you consider it true without fully understanding it; but it is precisely understanding that would help us know whether it was true in the first place.

          • Christopher “Your ploy is to say you consider it true without fully understanding it”. Not a ploy at all. It is called faith. God is not fully ‘understandable’. (Any more than you are here).

          • Yes, I agree with David R. I am not at all sure if Steven R is Trinitarian or that he is, but thinks that the formulation of words in the Creeds are deficient in some way.

            There is also the concept of ‘The Word ‘and the ‘Word made flesh’ in John chapter 1. So if Jesus was the Word made flesh, exactly what t kind of entity was the Word before the Word became flesh and how is it distinguishable from Jesus?

          • Which is not what the biblical texts mean by pistis (though it is a common caricature). Pistis is commitment to (and/or trust towards) anyone who has previously proven themselves trustworthy. Therefore it is a very evidential matter. One trusts the trustworthy and not the untrustworthy, on the evidence of their past record.

            All I am saying is that if God is not fully understandable, then it sounds like we are dealing with a complex issue. All the more reason not to claim conclusions, and especially not conclusions that are based on no visible working. Conclusions can come only at the end of the thinking process.

          • I feel I have already offered enough to see whether any meaningful engagement would result, without the need to throw in more. So far, and characteristically, the appeal has been to late-Roman Creeds rather than Scripture, and the question ‘One God, two, three or more? If one God, which God?’ seems distinctly peculiar. I would have thought both the OT and the NT settled the matter in repeatedly affirming only one God. The NT is even more insistent on this than the OT. The Trinity idea (three coeternal gods in one) isn’t based on Scripture, and the onus is on trinitarian readers to demonstrate otherwise. I agree with Christopher’s comment at 9.19 pm today.

            A book in the pipeline will go into the topic in more detail, but a propos the nativity, one might note that Matt 1:20 properly reads “that which is begotten in her of spirit is holy”, not that which is conceived (or begotten) in her is from the Holy Spirit. So the English translation is made to fit an a priori dogma, to put it bluntly. The Greek can be found here. The last four words are ek pneumatos estin hagiou. If the translation were sound, then Jesus would have three parents: Mary, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Trinitarians are happy with this. I am not.

            Two verses earlier the two crucial words, ‘holy’ and ‘spirit’ occur together, ek pneumatos hagiou, but that does not help the case, since there is no definite article. Matthew in both verses is simply saying that the spirit which gives life to the child is holy, i.e. not contaminated by flesh; rather it is God’s spirit (who alone is holy). The OT never speaks of the holy spirit, only of ‘his’ Spirit, the Spirit of God (no preposition in the Hebrew but genitive implied). Conversely, in Matthew’s account of the nativity God the Father does not appear in a parental role except as (the) spirit. Luke refers to the ‘Most High’ and thereby makes things perfectly clear.

            The Trinity is a pagan doctrine, and like the attempt to marry Moses with Darwin, should have no place in Christian thinking.

          • “Not sure Christopher’s way of looking at things (which one often finds) makes sense.” Happy to leave this strange exchange in 2021.

          • I know. It is what one always finds, that liberals unilaterally claim the right to jettison discussion before much light has yet been shed, rather like people who give up a glorious country walk at the first bend or hill. Is it that they don’t like light, or progressing in understanding? Or that they are short-termists, not in it for the long haul? The latter would cohere with the desire to have clear conclusions without doing any of the spadework required for them to be at all assured.

          • Christopher Shell – well, I for one feel that David Runcorn, on this particular thread, makes a certain amount of sense. We do have enough from Scripture to establish the solution to the existence problem of the Trinity (John1:1 establishes first and second person, while later in John the Paraclete seems to be established), but Scripture is way to sketchy to derive any hard and fast conclusions about it so, in its details, it remains a core fundamental mystery. I think that this is what David Runcorn was expressing.

          • Christopher I am encouraged that Jock can summarise my position here so clearly. That you are missing what I am saying and continuing to argue somethings I have not said is a rather familiar experience here. Engaging with you is an exercise in mutual incomprehension. We simply seem unable to understand each other. When this happens, as here, I seek to clarify my position a few times, but, if that does not work, I step back. I do not need anyones permission to do this. The debate is not jettisoned – don’t be silly. Others are still in the room with you. I just don’t think you and I are getting anywhere. As to whether Liberals typically run away from these debates and stay in the valley, avoiding the lovely, sunlit hilltops of Christian truth – well how would I know – Orthodox, Trinitarian, bible-centred believer that I am? Happy New Year.

          • Hi Jock

            Two things are circular, the concept of Scripture (because those who define it then argue from it – which makes it circular), and arguing from Scripture to the nature of reality (which is circular because the scriptural writings could only attain the authority to be such a fundamental basis as that if they had first been shown accurately to represent reality).

            We are all familiar with such modes of argument (although I don’t classify it as argument, since all argument has to be on the basis of 2 things: correspondence to reality and/or internal consistency and coherence – both of which two are *evidence*, on which all argument depends), but that does not mean they stand up. They are just conventional. The argument ”an assertion has been made therefore that assertion is accurate” is obviously faulty.

            One sometimes gets the unedifying and dishonest (and known by the participants to be dishonest) spectacle of people saying ”Scripture has been proven yet again” when they know that their own assumptions (or rather preferences or what they can tolerate psychologically) would disallow its being disproven on even one occasion; this being the case, their excitement at the ‘proof’ is not honest. I became a Christian partly to get away from the dishonesty that is found in so much nonChristian discourse.

          • O Steven

            I am genuinely very sorry to read your denial of the trinity. I find it hard to grasp given your orthodoxy and conservatism on other areas. John in particular makes believing in the deity of the Son fundamental to saving faith.

          • John

            I am sorry to say your comment exemplifies how utterly hopeless it is to try to get Christians to think intelligently about this issue. Everyone is thinking it’s orthodoxy to believe in one God who is also three gods (or ‘persons’, if you prefer – as if gods in other contexts were not persons) without quite wishing to put it that way and without actually focusing on why they feel they must believe it. So no Scriptural argument, and in your case no careful reading of what I have written to try and penetrate the miasma, the ‘mystery’ which in fact is just Christians’ religious term for disguising the fact they don’t understand what they are referring to and don’t want to (Christopher Shell has made this point). I have nowhere denied the deity of the Son and my salavation is not imperilled (though I suspect that the cultural fear of imperilling one’s salvation lies behind at least some of Christians’ unwillingness to think about what they believe they are required to believe). On the contrary, though I would not go so far as to say it is necessarily a matter of salvation, Christians who believe that Jesus had no origin not only go against the Nicene Creed (which is neither here nor there, except that they are not aware of doing so) but go against the very heart of the Christian gospel, which reveals Christ as the Son of God. If Christ had no origin, then he is not the Son, and denying his sonship really is a serious matter (I John 2:22f). Of the four gospels, John’s reveals his sonship and consequent subordination to his Father most clearly of all.

            So what is the reality? Trinitarian Christians hardly know God at all, because they deny that he created all things. They know Jesus hardly at all, because they deny his sonship (and therefore don’t appreciate that we should imitate his whole desire to do the will of his Father), and they hardly know the Holy Spirit at all, who after all is given to us not least in order that we might be guided by a spirit of truth (truth-seeking) and humility (distinct from pseudo-humility before a false mystery) and grace, before him and before each other.

            People are not being converted in this country, and one reason for that is that they see a Church that does not have a rationally coherent, distinctive understanding of either the world or God. So on top of not knowing God ourselves, which is bad enough, we don’t allow others to know the truth either (Matt 23:13).

          • Steven R.
            For the benefit of the rest of us could you clarify a few points as to how you see the nature of God as I for one, are baffled as to what you mean.

            1. You reject the doctrine of the Trinity finding it logically inconsistent.
            2. You think there is just one God not three persons in one, or three Gods. i.e. you don’t believe in the concept of the Godhead.
            3. Jesus had an origin and was created by the Father and was not co-eternal yet you say you affirm his deity. So does that imply the one God i.e. ‘the Father’ created another God ‘Jesus’?
            4. In your scheme, how does the Holy Spirit fit into all this? Was he co-eternal as well? – then that increases it to two Gods (or persons).
            5. How exactly to you understand the nature of Jesus? Was he just a human ‘avatar’ if you like, that became God when the Holy Spirit came upon him?
            6. What do you think John means when he talks about the ‘Word ‘ and the Word made flesh in 1 John? If Jesus is the ‘Word made Flesh’ then was the ‘Word ‘ something that was not co-eternal but also created and proceeded from the Father?

            This may not be a fair summary of your position and I appreciate that you have difficulties with the wording of the Creeds, but if you could expand a bit on the points above it may help the rest of us to see where you are coming from. At the moment it does seem to me that espousing a modified form of Modalism but do correct me if I am wrong.

          • Just one further point. Do we take it that when you assert that the Trinity is a pagan concept are you alluding to the idea that Athanasius was strongly influenced by the prevailing Platonistic thought or do you consider there are wider paganistic influences?

  14. May I suggest a reading of ‘The Virgin Birth of Christ’ by J. Gresham Machen. Although written back in 1927, it is undoubtedly the best and fullest work on the subject. He even addresses the two genealogies of Matthew and Luke and reconciles them remarkably well.

    These days we are liable to believe that any book written more than 20 years ago must be unreliable, but in this case the old really is better.

    • I havent read the book but you make a valid point. But I suppose it is natural for a generation to read the books of that generation?

      But I wonder if people continue to discuss such issues it is because such books as the one you quote do not answer all the questions?

  15. Steven Robinson (on `eternally begotten’).

    OK – if you think that this falls into the category of the `empty philosophies of men’ then I don’t object too much. I would say, though, that we should take the faith of people like Athanasius (and those responsible for the Nicaean creed) seriously – surely we want to understand the history of the Christian faith and surely we don’t believe that it all went horribly wrong shortly after the apostles until the reformation came along in the 16th century.

    Torrance (bottom page 78 going on to page 79)

    God the Father, precisely as Father = Godhead is the one supreme almighty being, uncreated, self-sufficient, all-perfect, who is the transcendent Fount, Source and Author of all other being (Athanasius Con. Ar. 2.54; 3.1; 4.3; De Decr., 16; De syn., 46; Ad. Ans., 5). It may even be said that in the fullest sense he alone is being, for all other beings are beings only in a derived sense, as his creatures (he cites more of Athanasius, among others here). God is the ultimate Source or Fountain of being, however, only as he is eternally Father of the Son and as such is the Fount of beings in the same way as he is Fount of the eternal Son, but to say that if he is not the Father who has eternally generated the Son from his own being, he cannot be essentially generative or fruitful in his own being, or therefore be regarded as intrinsically a Source of being or indeed as the Source of any being at all, for he would be no more than a mere Maker and Shaper o being. (more references to Athanasius). It is because God is inherently productive and creative in his very being as God, that he is Creator.

    Then, on page 84 under the heading (1) God was not always Creator, Torrance writes, `While God the Father is the Fount of all being, he is not the Fount of created beings in the same way as he is the Fount of the Son. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father within the one being of God, as God of God, while the created beings are not begotten of God, but made by him out of nothing and as such are external to God.

    • Hello Jock,
      I see from another Christian site that TF Torrance’s book is one of the blogger’s top ten books of this year, 2021.
      However, this is likely to be a subject of an article in its own right, rather than a substantial offshoot of Ian’s original article: How far, if at all, does Torrance’s greatly contested view that Christ had a fallen human nature, impinge on his understanding of the Trinity and Torrance’s understanding of a Christian’s Union with Christ, as the telos of the Trinity?
      Yours in Christ,

      • Hello Geoff, and a happy new year to you.

        Firstly, I think the pieces that I gave from Torrance (the first part essentially quoting various bits from Athanasius and the second his summary) should indicate what is going on: there is a very serious issue here, which Athanasius has seen, and this is a resolution which (a) makes sense, (b) doesn’t contradict Holy Scripture and (c) actually helps us to understand Holy Scripture if we keep it in the background.

        God the Father is the fount of all being – including the Son, who was there from the beginning. The Son is within the Trinity and is therefore `begotten’ and therefore has to be `eternally begotten’, while the rest of creation (us) is external to God and created out of nothing (i.e. not begotten).

        At the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for Steven Robinson – we are in danger of being wise beyond Scripture and putting time into endless speculation which can degenerate into the `empty philosophies of men’ if we’re not careful. Scripture tells us that there is a Trinity; it doesn’t exactly do very much to help us unpack the nature of the Trinity.

        As far as Torrance goes: I don’t really see why his position was / is so controversial, since he *never* says that Jesus sinned. I’d say that the question you ask is extremely relevant to his book `The Trinitarian Faith’, since the whole business of Christ assuming our *fallen sinful* nature is inspired by Gregory Nazianzen’s dictum, `the unassumed is the unhealed’, which is one of the main themes in his book (where he explains that the early fathers, those who crafted the Nicene Creed, were evangelical Christians). Torrance is simply saying that, while Jesus did not sin, nevertheless he assumed our *fallen sinful* human nature, which was necessary for it to be healed through the crucifixion and resurrection.

        I don’t really see anything wrong with his position and I think he makes a very good point. It does come entirely from his understanding of The Trinity, which is formed by his understanding of the early fathers and, in particular, Gregory Nazianzen.

        As a footnote: when I was a student at Edinburgh (back in the 1980’s), Tom Torrance (professor of systematic theology back then) was considered to be something of a dodgy theologian by the conservative evangelical theology students whom I knew (I was studying sciences at the time). I therefore mistakenly considered him to be somewhat heretical and (arrogantly) I didn’t give him a second thought. It is only within the last two years that I have started reading some of what he wrote and taking him seriously. I don’t think I have changed my `conservative evangelical’ position one bit, but nevertheless I found `The Trinitarian Faith’ extremely useful and enlightening and I now regret not having taken him more seriously back then.

      • Geoff – post script – I just read Steven Robinson’s longer post and I take back what I said – I don’t really have any sympathy at all for his anti-Trinitarian position. There is some picky point about the grammar of a verse in Matthew’s gospel – but most importantly zero attempt to acknowledge things clearly stated in Scripture (e.g. in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God). I had mistakenly assumed that he had a good `horse manure-ometer’ which kicked in whenever people expressed ideas that went beyond Scripture, resolving things that Scripture had (quite deliberately) left unresolved – but his longer post goes way beyond this – and cannot be read in this context. So I was too charitable – my apologies for this.

  16. Thanks for posting and reposting this, Ian.

    My only quibble is that Syria did not yet have “FOUR” legions in 4 BCE. Not only does Josephus relates that Varus used three, but the fourth Syrian legion (later attested) is recorded elsewhere around that time. (If memory serves, it was Galatia and/or Macedonia.) Check the Oxford Classical Dictionary has an excellent article with elaborate details about the assignments of each legion.

  17. Geoff – I am curious to know why Torrance’s *book* was one of the blogger’s top 10 last year ; given that he died in 2007 at the great age of 94! And, more to the point, exactly which book are we discussing here?
    Thomas Torrance was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. He was born in 1913, the eldest of six children, to Scottish missionary parents based in China. For once, I actually (more or less) agree with Jock’s assessment of his (Torrance’s) profound intellectual, moral and spiritual standing.From which source therefore have you picked up the idea that,according to TT, “Christ had a fallen human nature”?

    In his short yet deeply, penetrating work *The mediation of Christ” [1983] he says this about the holocaust in the context of Christian/ Jewish relations :” Instead of allowing it (the holocaust) to shatter the relations of humanity to himself, God in his immeasureable love has held hold of it in order to absorb it in his own passion in the crucifixion of Jesus and make it through atoning sacrifice for sin to serve the bond of union he has ever forged with mankind in Jesus”.
    This echoes what Paul was highlighting when he asserted: “God made him (Jesus) *who had no sin to be sin for us* , so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”[ 2 Corinthians 5:21]. Jesus not only bore on the cross the (i.e. our) guilt; he bore the power of sin! In the words of another great theological figure of the 20th century, CK Barrett, “he (Jesus) came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath”.

    • Colin – thanks for this – and a happy new year to you.

      The book we’re referring to here is `The Trinitarian Faith’. I mentioned it further up the thread and that is the one that Geoff is referring to.

      As I indicated, over the last two years I’ve started to read TF Torrance and come to like his work a lot. I now completely fail to understand why the theological students who described themselves as `conservative evangelicals’ had a problem with him back in the 1980’s.

      • Thanks for that clarification. Re the problem that some still might have with Torrance? possibly his unease with conservative evangelical conceptions of evangelism could be one factor? and possibly his rejection of what he has called “dichotomous ways of thinking” in relation to (among other things) “detaching Jesus Christ from Israel” will not go down a bomb in some quarters!
        Incidentally, neither will *Israel, God’s Servant” written by the youngest brother, David W Torrance, meet with universal approval. ( David in now in his 98th year)! The Mediation of Christ is still worth a read.

        • Colin – I remember back in the ’80’s the objections that the `Conservative Evangelical’ theology students seemed to have of Tom Torrance, which was that he was `Barthian’. I think they had misunderstood Barth, but I also think that is a very easy thing to do – and perhaps says more about Barth than about them. You can read one passage out of Barth and think that he is a universalist, but then you read another piece out of Barth, which makes it very clear that he isn’t. Anyway, one incident I remember: I studied science out at King’s Buildings (two miles away from the New College where the divinity faculty was). At the KB students union, one could buy a T-shirt with `I love KB’ written on it. One bright spark from the divinity faculty said, `what does KB stand for? Karl Barth?’ and then a bunch of divinity students bought these T-shirts and wore them to one of Torrance’s systematic theology lectures (or at least so I heard).

          The basic misunderstanding is that Barth teaches universalism (ultimately all are saved). It’s easy (from some things that Barth wrote) to see how they might have thought that, but it blatantly contradicts other things that Barth wrote.

          Tom Torrance was (of course) a student of Karl Barth.

          I got into Torrance quite by accident. It was basically political: I didn’t like the fact that some Christians read Scripture, saw the prophecies that could be understood that the State of Israel might arise again and overlooked huge moral outrages, such as the ethnic cleansing of 1947-48 and subsequent outrages against the Palestinians – God has made promises and, according to huge swathes of Evangelical Christians, it seems that he needs the USA/UK military to give him a helping hand to keep these promises – and we can overlook the odd major moral atrocity on the way.

          I wanted a commentary on Romans 9 – 11 which was written before 1948. It was this accident that led me to read Barth’s commentary on Romans (which I had on my shelf unread).

          I really would recommend *everybody* to read this commentary on Romans 9-11. I won’t explain why here, because the comment would be too long. It was wonderful and explained to me an awful lot about The Church. Also, his commentary on Romans 7 is also brilliant, where he equates `the law’ with `religion’.

          Anyway, after that, I read Torrance’s `Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian’ and after that his `The Trinitarian Faith’ – and I understood that both Barth and Torrance had had an unfairly bad press and they were my kind of theologians.

          Although Torrance may have been Church of Scotland, I know that he also had strong sympathies with the Holy Rollers. I know this, because one day, my mother told me that when she had been in the Holy Roller book shop in Edinburgh, Torrance had come in (over 90 years old at the time). A nice cheery hello, making it clear that this wasn’t the first time he had been there and he was clearly on familiar terms with everybody in the shop.

          While this is all very nice, it did have the feel to me (especially given the list of great books by Torrance that you have given us) of, say, William Shakespeare going into the local newsagent and buying a copy of the Beano.

          • Jock, Actually I only recommended one book to you. I think you will find that it provides insights into,say, Romans 9 -11 that are rooted in OT covenental and prophetic precepts often bypassed or modified in contemporary biblical studies. It might even help to add insights to your rather singular interpretation of events in the Middle East. Many thanks for this exchange – I would recommend the Eagle rather than the Beano! Happy New Year.

          • Colin – thanks for yours. It was Thomas Torrance (not David Torrance) who was visiting the Holy Roller bookshop in Edinburgh.

            At the same time, I also know that David Torrance also has sympathy with – how to put it – `charismatic’ in a way that one wouldn’t normally associate with Church of Scotland.

            I know the views of David Torrance on the issues connected with the Middle East – and I’d say that that is one area where I disagree with him quite profoundly.

            Nevertheless I’ll certainly buy (and read) his book – since I know it will be well argued and will have good insights. There is also some personal connection here – on which I’d prefer not to elaborate on this forum.

    • My memory is that Torrance was a close follower of Barth who believed Christ had a fallen human nature. My understanding was that Torrance agreed. However, research would be necessary to check this was true. McLeod’s Person of Christ would be a potential source. I define a fallen nature as a sinful nature and culpable nature. Fallenness is not weakness it is wickedness. David was ‘born in sin’. I take this to be the state of an unregenerate heart.

      For what its worth I don’t think Christ had Adam’s humanity/human nature either. He was not innocent but holy. In my view neither nature (divine or human) had a capacity to sin. I believe the human nature he had at incarnation is the one we receive at regeneration – a holy nature incapable of sin. When we sin we do not say this was the result of my new life in Christ we see it for what it is ‘a work of the flesh’. In heaven we will be incapable of sin for the flesh (fallen nature) will be gone. It is that eschatological humanity that Christ (in my view) brought into incarnation.

      We must distinguish between humanity and ‘states’ of humanity. Innocent humanity and fallen humanity give way to holy humanity and eventually perfected humanity. At least, as I say, that is how I see it. I do think ‘fallen nature’ far from honouring Christ dishonours him.

      What makes a hero a hero is not that he has an inner attraction to things that sinful yet resists them. This reveals moral weakness that is not truly heroic even if all ends well. However, if someone is invincibly committed to what is good and right and loves what is good hating what is false, if that person continues with his convictions however much it may cost him then that person is a hero. That’s the kind of person I can trust to get me to heaven.

      • That is very well put. Thanks John. BTW. I am intrigued by the Holy Spirit not having a name. My immediate thought takes me to Jesus letter to the Philadelphians. He says they will have a new name. It seems to me that our new name, written in stone is or will be shared with the Holy Spirit. In this way we can share His Spirit yet still apprehend Jesus objectively.

  18. Happy New Year all!

    Thank you for David Runcorn’s clear statements above. I am finding Christopher Shell’s response very difficult to make sense of, but Christopher does say this:
    “All I am saying is that if God is not fully understandable, then it sounds like we are dealing with a complex issue. All the more reason not to claim conclusions…”
    I was very struck by this. Christopher, do you think that God *is* fully understandable? Surely you can’t really claim that? Surely understanding God is quite beyond humans. If we could undersand God, we would be like God, wouldn’t we? So there has to be mystery here. This is not being liberal. This is being totally orthodox.
    What I have always said many times before, echoing the early Christian Fathers, applies – words are not adequate in describing God, but unless we would remain silent, then we have to use words with all their limitations. Words are helpful to us, rather than descriptive of God.

  19. Happy New Year all!

    Thank you for David Runcorn’s clear statements above. I am finding Christopher Shell’s response very difficult to make sense of, but Christopher does say this:
    “All I am saying is that if God is not fully understandable, then it sounds like we are dealing with a complex issue. All the more reason not to claim conclusions…”
    I was very struck by this. Christopher, do you think that God *is* fully understandable? Surely you can’t really claim that? Surely understanding God is quite beyond humans. If we could undersand God, we would be like God, wouldn’t we? So there has to be mystery here. This is not being liberal. This is being totally orthodox.
    What I have always said many times before, echoing the early Christian Fathers, applies – words are not adequate in describing God, but unless we would remain silent, then we have to use words with all their limitations. Words are helpful to us, rather than descriptive of God.

    • No – I am saying that what we say we say on the basis of that portion which we *do* understand.

      Moreover, the more thought we do, it is likely that the amount we understand will increase.

      What will not happen is being able to speak with authority or indeed at all on the basis of lack of understanding. It sounds very clever, but it makes no sense.

      • So Christopher you would agree with me when I said that understanding God is quite beyond humans. And I agree with you that what we say we say on the basis of that portion which we *do* understand.
        We understand that fully understanding God is not possible for humans. Therefore, there is bound to be something beyond our understanding – something which is a mystery.

        • My objection is to boasting in one’s ignorance, or alternatively seeing it as a virtue. It is the precise opposite. I am ignorant about astrophysics, but I do not boast about the fact, not demand admittance to the next international conference on that basis.

          My second objection is to denial of the spectrum between knowledge and ignorance. Yet the spectrum is literally everything, so if one denies it one denies everything.

          My third objection is to wasting time repeating how little we know. If the time we spent doing such a fruitless activity were spent instead trying to learn more, we would know a great deal more by now.

          My fourth objection is to being quite sure of the reality behind the concepts (God, Trinity) while being not at all sure about their nature. I should have thought that grasping whether concepts referred to anything real or not was at least as difficult as grasping their nature. Nor is any rationale given for this improbable stance.

          There will always be a degree of mystery especially about complex or large issues. Sometimes a very large degree, sometimes not. But one gets perplexed by the way that people seem so confident in estimating the degree of the mystery, as also by the fact that they seem far more at home doing grandiose things like that than actually doing any spadework.

          • Thanks Christopher. Then let me just remind you exactly what David said – which is what you took such objection to.

            “I too am curious as to how Stephen articulates this core theological mystery. I stand to be corrected but I not been assuming Stephen rejects the Trinity – rather he is questioning how this has been expressed in the historic creeds. We are, of course, seeking to express the inexpressible.”

            Nothing there that “seem(s) so confident in estimating the degree of the mystery” and if you know anything at all about David you will know that his style is not grandiose and that he is very willing to do the spadework.

            So what you are saying seems to be a total mystery I am afraid

          • I don’t get that David R is boastful about his lack of understanding of the Trinity. It is a very difficult concept to comphehend even for the most knowledgable of us. I think he is just expressing the fact that some things are difficult to know and there may be things unknowable about God that will be always remain a mystery. I don’t think he is saying we should give up trying though.

            I often think that there are an awful lot of questions I would like to ask Jesus when I meet him but when that time comes, they probably won’t really matter any more.

          • None of that is relevant to the point I am making, which is simply that there is a pattern of people claiming they know what the answer/conclusion is and then claiming they have only a tiny amount of the evidence needed to justify any such conclusion. The two parts of that do not match up. If you are in possession of only a small percentage of evidence, then it is highly unlikely that you can say with confidence what the conclusion will be. One’s confidence here will, all things being equal, be proportional to one’s evidence. And as for saying ‘it’s all faith, isn’t it?’ then that employs (see above) a confused concept that is not the same as biblical pistis.

            It is the idea that you can be completely gnostic about what the correct conclusions are going to be, and *simultaneously* almost completely agnostic about how to arrive at or justify them. That is an improbable combination that almost never arises in real life.

          • Christopher: in that case you are making a very general point and rather longwindedly at that.

            The specific question is: is there sufficient evidence, biblical and otherwise, to claim *knowledge* of the triune nature of God?

          • One of the main features of any philosophy course is that ‘knowledge’ is a very high bar indeed. It ends up with people trying to rack their brains about whether there is anything at all non-tautological that they certainly know.

            For something to be written in a text is not ‘evidence’ of its truth but an assertion. Evidence comes from 2 places: internal coherence and correspondence to reality.

          • Thank you Christopher. I am still struggling to understand what point you are making beyond nice generalisations but let me ask two questions based on what you have just said.

            1. Do scriptural texts provide the reader with any evidence for what has happened in reality or are they only assertions? (The latter is what you appear to be saying here.)
            2. Is the nature of God disclosed in scriptural texts?

          • Then you certainly have misundertood me in 3 ways:

            (1) What you say I am saying would have been a colossal generalisation about multiple thousands of assertions. But is it not obvious that these need to be examined one by one, and are not susceptible of being generalised about? I think we have been through this before.

            (2) You group texts together as ‘scriptural’ but that is an imposed category and so anything that arises from it will be circular.

            (3) Also, speaking of a separate category called ‘scriptural texts’ assumes the same standards are not applied to these as to texts in general. So do texts not have to *earn* special status? The only way they would be seen to earn it (or not, as the case may be) would be by virtue of outstripping other texts on a *level* playing field.

          • Christopher: it is very well known what the scriptural texts I am referring to are. Of course they are a collection of different writings. This goes without saying. And yes they are grouped together into a larger volume commonly known as the bible. But often known as the canon of scripture.
            My questions have not been answered but we might assume that your answer in both cases is ‘no’.

            Your response in this whole thread has been to avoid any direct question and obfuscate. As David Runcorn has done, I shall leave the matter there.

          • ? Where did I say I did not know what the texts you were referring to were? I said something quite different: that they cannot be generalised about, as indeed they can’t.

            As for you assuming that the answer is no, it is clear that the answer is no, since a generalised ‘no’ for thousands of disparate texts would be a generalisation sans pareil. So: to repeat, the generalised answer cannot possibly be yes or no or anything else, and least of all in advance – simply because the very idea of a generalised answer of any kind is a non starter, which would be obvious to most people. Answers are piecemeal, assertion by assertion. The main 4 options for each individual assertion are: not applicable, yes [proven], no [proven], not enough evidence.

          • I phrased that badly:

            For ‘As for you assuming that the answer is no, it is clear that the answer is no…’

            read ‘As for you assuming that the answer is no, it is clear that that assumption is incorrect’.

            As for your saying I am obfuscating, that is something done only by dishonest people, and therefore the claim is an untrue slur.

          • “As for your saying I am obfuscating, that is something done only by dishonest people, and therefore the claim is an untrue slur.”

            It most certainly is not. I have asked a number of direct questions on this thread, as have others, and you have quite clearly avoided giving answers.

          • I thought I had replied to everything. List the things you think have not been answered and I will answer immediately, as always.

            your recent 1. and 2. I already answered and will simplify:

            1. ”Do scriptural texts provide any evidence for what has happened, or are they only assertions?”
            This is a false either/or, as there is no way they can avoid being assertions, and to be an assertion is neutral not negative or positive.
            No assertion is evidence simply by virtue of being an assertion.
            The historical-genre scripture texts are regularly among our main evidence, yes.

            2. ”Is the nature of God disclosed in scriptural texts?”
            Certainly not. Anything that is said of God, or is true of God, in scriptural texts, must *already* have been disclosed *prior* to its being written down. Else where did the impulse come to write it down? But (in cases where true things are said of God in the texts) yes in the case of the readers or hearers who were not privy to the initial disclosure.

  20. Hello Colin and Jock,
    While I’m far from any theological expert, the book is the one Jock referred to.
    I surmise that it was part of a USA bloogger’s top ten books of 2021, as it wasn’t read until then, perhaps as it specifically related to the Trinity. Or he may not have paid much heed to Scottish Presbyterian theologians.

    It seems to me that Torrance was opposed mainly in two or three areas.
    1 His view of vicarious liablity or more specifically the federal aspect.
    2 He espoused view the fallen nature of Christ’s humanity; fallen but sinless. I think Barth also had a view of Christ’s human nature as fallen. But I know even less about him. Simon Ponsonby, who sometimes dips in this comments, if I’m not mistaken has studied Barth in some detail. He may be able to elaborate.
    3 It seems that Torrance did not accept the view in some Reformed circles that there was a pre-creation intra- Trinity covenant of Redemption.

    It seems that his understanding of a Christian’s Union with Christ differed from Calvin’s, but again I know next to nothing about Calvin’s works and commentaries.
    A Scottish Presbyterian theologian I’ve benefitted greatly from over the last decade or so is Dr Sinclair Ferguson with some detailed, edifying teaching on Union with Christ. I don’t know how far his teaching matches up with or diverges from Torrance’s. ( I’d be interested in knowing more about Torrance’s view that a Chritian’s unity with God is the telos of the Trinity!!! Sounds a little like the end point of a pre-creation intra-Trinity covenant of redemption.

    Perhaps it reveals something of the paucity of my reading but other than, Anglican, Mike Reeves I’ve not encountered much, if any, teaching on Union with God in Christ, outside Presbyterianism.

    ( I’ve mentioned this before, but Ferguson’s book The Whole Christ is rich and deep, delving into a historical theological dispute in the church in Scotland (on topics which loom large today in the Christian Church – repentance, legalism, anti- nomianism).

    An afterthought: don’t Presbyterian ministers have to sign -up to the full Westminster Confession of Faith? If so, if Torrance was seen as diverging from it, that may have been a catalyst for criticism.

  21. Above, I defined Trinitarianism as belief that God consists of three coeternal gods in one. Snide responses from one person in particular have (as I feared) not conduced to greater understanding. Nonetheless, not put off, some readers may still be interested in seeking the truth in the light of what Scripture reveals, and how far that is supported by the Nicene Creed (which an awful lot of people recite without reflection and understanding).

    The Creed affirms this:
    καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς μονογενῆ, τοὐτέστιν ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός, Θεὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ, Φῶς ἐκ Φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα
    ‘… and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, the only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God, begotten …’
    ‘Son’ is the noun υἱός, meaning a human being who has a father (and ordinarily a mother). By definition, a son cannot be as old as his parent and cannot be ‘eternal’ in the sense of never having had an origin.
    ‘Begotten’ is iterated three times for emphasis. The verb is γεννάω, meaning ‘beget (of the male), (of the female) bring forth, give birth to’, thus supporting the meaning of ‘Son’.
    ‘From’ is the word ἐκ, which means ‘from, out of’, supporting what is meant by ‘begotten/ generated’.

    The Creed could hardly be clearer. Like Scripture itself, it does not affirm three coeternal gods.

    As the BBC says, ‘The Trinity is a controversial doctrine; many Christians admit they don’t understand it, while many more Christians don’t understand it but think they do. In fact, although they’d be horrified to hear it, many Christians sometimes behave as if they believe in three Gods and at other times as if they believe in one.’

    Borne out by comments on this page, this is a sad state of affairs in relation to what is regarded as one of Christianity’s most fundamental tenets.

    • Why would you hope to fully understand the very nature of the ultimate Being?

      ‘God ‘is’ love’ not ‘God shows love’. Therefore there must be relationship within Himself, as without relationship love does not exist.

    • Steven

      Unfortunately the trinity is not a topic I can hope to tackle with you. I am sure you will have read the creeds and confessions and various books on the trinity. I remember a writer that I valued comment that while the language of the creeds was man made and no doubt inadequate he would continue to use it because he could do no better. Over the years whenever I’ve had to look a little closely at this issue I’ve found that it seems to express the perspective of Scripture. I also take some comfort from knowing that all orthodox branches of the Western church and I more or less Eastern Orthodoxy hold to the same view. That surely gives pause for thought.

      However, it is Scripture that is the final arbiter.

      That God is one being expressed in three persons (not gods) seems to best express what the Bible teaches. ‘Persons’ may not be the best word but is the best available. Being allows for ‘one God’ while ‘persons’ allows for individual identity and something beyond modalism.

      Regarding the nature of Christ’s deity this is initially expressed in ‘the Word’. The word who was with God and was God. He was in the beginning with/towards God. How does language express identity yet distinction? I take it ‘the word’ takes us back to Genesis ‘and God said’. We have in Genesis the word of God and the breath of God. Both clearly part of God yet having their own identity. That God (later, the Father) always works through the Spirit and Word (the Son) is the ongoing story of the Bible. It seems to me trinity is stamped on the opening verses of Genesis and may even be implied in the ‘let us make man in our image’.

      This brings us of course to Jesus not only as the word but as the Son. As the Son he bears the divine image in a way that Scripture always wants us to see as unique. John’s gospel is particularly anxious to establish that his Sonship is not titular but is a sonship of divinity. The prologue introducing themes later developed. Shared identity (word was God… became flesh). Shared glory yet it is the glory of Father and Son (Jn 17). John develops this divine sonship in various ways. Father and Son have shared identity (Jn 14: 8:11). This is why the Son can make the Father known (v18). Shared eternity (1:2; 17:5). Shared Creatorship (1:3). ‘’Without him was not anything made that was made’ guarding against any assumption he was created. Shared life (1:4; 5:26)

      John, throughout his gospel is constantly emphasising the divinity of Christ often through examining the Father Son dynamics. We are never given the impression Father/Son relationship is about chronological priority rather the opposite. Father/Son dynamics are more about shared purpose with hierarchy of relationship (the Son does what he sees the Father do but not vice versa). Hierarchy however never conveys ides of inferiority.

      John with other NT writers frequently takes OT activities that God does and as Christ doing them.. E.g calming of the storm. He deliberately uses titles of God God or Yahweh and unabashedly applies them to Christ. Jesus says. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’. Jesus clearly appropriates a divine title.

      Of course the climactic confession to which John heads is that of skeptical Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God.’

      Im still not clear what you are finally affirming Steven. I doubt if your interpretation of the creed would gain much support. I don’t think we can assume divine Father Son/begotten metaphors correlates exactly with human experience in this area. I am my father’s son but a)I live within a temporal existence b) I cannot say of myself I am my father’s word c) nor can I speak of a glory I shared with my father before the world was. We must see the ways Scripture treats the Father/Son relationship. It is in these analogy lies.

      I appreciate none of this will be new to you. I’d ask you to further reflect on the body of support that these creedal statements have. It suggests they articulate well with Scripture.

      • As I have shown, you are denying what the Nicene Creed says (which is permissible, but you should at least recognise this, and see that the Creed follows Scripture in this regard). “God from God … begotten.” And you are denying the sonship of Jesus: a grave matter.

        Regarding the scriptures you quote, you are reading into them what is not there (cf. John 21:23). Neither John 1:2 nor John 17:5 say that Jesus had no origin. John 1:2 say that he was in the beginning with God. In the beginning is clearly a reference to Genesis 1:1 – is common ground that he was with God before anything was made. God refers to a person distinct from he and thus underlines my point. ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ are nearly always distinct terms in the NT. John 17:5 says much the same: Jesus was with God before anything came into existence. Logically, that must be so if all things were made through the Son (Col 1:16).

        It seems to me you are starting with a belief in three coeternal gods (derived from extrabiblical sources) and then reading this belief into Scripture and saying, “Look, here is the scriptural proof.” The belief is pagan in spirit and this way of reading Scripture will not lead to understanding things that you feel you don’t already know.

        John is constantly emphasising the divinity of Christ often through examining the Father Son dynamics. We are never given the impression Father/Son relationship is about chronological priority rather the opposite. Father/Son dynamics are more about shared purpose with hierarchy of relationship (the Son does what he sees the Father do but not vice versa). Hierarchy however never conveys ides of inferiority.The divinity of Christ is not at issue, as I have been saying ad nauseam, and of course chronological priority is not the essence of what John and the other gospel writers want to get across. (This is argument by straw man.) Chronological priority is simply part of what it means to be the son of anyone. Words mean what they mean – you are not authorised to tamper with God’s word and apply a Humpty Dumpty approach to biblical exegesis, especially not in this central aspect of God’s revelation: “This is my Son.”

        ‘Hierarchy’ and ‘inferiority’ are more straw men. Hierarchy is foreign to NT thought – it’s part of what began creeping into the church in the 3rd and 4th centuries, soon followed by the nonsensical ‘eternal generation of the Son’ – while what Jesus continually emphasises about himself in John is not inferiority but submission to his father (John 4:34, 5:19-36, 6:37f, 6:57, 8:28, 8:42, 8:54, 10:18, 10:29, 12:49f, 14:10, 14:16, 14:26-28, 15:15, 17:2f, 17:24, 20:17). If you don’t get this, then your spiritual eyes really are veiled.

        • Hi Steven

          According to Wikipedia the 325 creed says ‘ [But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]

          This appears to be intended to guard that ‘only begotten’ is not interpreted to mean he had a beginning or a time he was not. I’m not sure when ‘eternally begotten’ was introduced but it seems to contain the sense of the original.

          As soon as we go before ‘the beginning’ for what was already existing ‘in the beginning’ we are in eternity where different rules apply. To inhabit eternity seems to be eternal. Or to say this in another way, when John says ‘in the beginning was the word’ it is his way of saying the word never had a beginning.; the word was eternal. If ‘the word’ is ‘the word of God’ it cannot be other than eternal. God has never been dumb.

          I don’t think you addressed the Spirit and Word as as the breath and word of God which seems to me a powerful picture of ‘identity with while distinct from’.

          The Spirit is not just another word for God but ‘I will send my Spirit’ in the OT and again in John’s gospel. The baptismal formula in the name of the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit suggest identity (one definite article) yet three distinct persons.

          The declaration that the word was God and was with God is a powerful statement of divinity with distinctions. In itself it implies eternal parities. Standing outside of all that is created reinforces the divine status of the word. It is made before father/son relationships are explored. Jesus own statement… before Abraham was I am” was not only the taking of a divine name but one that involved eternity. As Micah says, ‘Your goings forth are from everlasting’ (Mic 5:2). Col 1 he is before all things… points in similar direction.

          Outside of John, Hebrews says of Melchisedek ‘ He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. It seems that Melchisedek resembles Jesus by having ‘neither beginning of days…’. One way Revelation describes God, in a world that to Christians seems very threatening, is as the “Alpha and Omega’ (Rev 1:8). In Ch 22 this includes the beginning and ending. Used alongside ‘who is, who was, and is to come’ a similar meaning is implied. John is drawing from Isa 41:4 where God is the first and the last and there is no other beside him. Jesus of course takes these same titles upon himself (1;17, 22:6). These titles imply shared divine identity and eternity.

          I think you ask ‘only begotten’ to carry freight that is not there. Probably ‘one and only son’ or ‘unique son’ or ‘ only son of the same kind’ is what John intends to convey (Hebs 11:7). Only Jesus is God’s son’ in John’s writings. Believers are children. Your insistence on a ‘birth’ as necessary to father/son relationship avoids the limits of analogy. As I said before it does not take account of how the NT employs the dynamics of father/son. Insistence on a birth denies the Son of his eternity and so his deity both of which I’ve tried to show NT authors wish to affirm. The big issue in father/son is relationship; intimacy/mutual love/identity/oneness/hierarchical directing and obeying etc. Jesus is never child but always son. John’s climactic ‘my Lord and my God’ show the trajectory of his gospel.

          In eternity he was in the form of God and equal with God. In time, to see him was to see the Father.

          Incidentally I don’t know how you can discount hierarchy in the NT. It is evident in the headship issues of 1 Cor 13. Source gives authority.

          • Sorry last txt should be 1 Cor 11. And Stephen, I don’t get it. Your attacks (which you criticise in others) do your cause no good. If you wish to convince saying ‘your spiritual eyes really are veiled’ is not likely to do so.

            Jesus’ relationship with his father is Father/Son. This is functionally hierarchical. The Father instructs the Son obeys. The Father never obeys the Son. The Son is sent by the Father. There is nothing essentially inferior here. There is nothing essentially inferior between a Father and Son. The difference is that one is ‘Father’ and one is ‘Son’. Within the functional differences this relationship implies the word hierarchical or better ‘patriarchical’ belong.

          • John

            Your latest comment is the first time on this page anyone has mounted a reasoning argument in response, so it comes as something of a relief.

            I take your point re the 325 creed. But note that the words were deleted from the 381 revision. If you can reconcile them with “God from God, light from light [whatever that means], begotten, not made [whatever that distinction means – were you made but not begotten?]”, then good luck.

            When John says ‘in the beginning was the word’ it is his way of saying the word never had a beginning.; the word was eternal. If ‘the word’ is ‘the word of God’ it cannot be other than eternal. God has never been dumb. I don’t follow the logic in any of this, sorry.
            The Spirit is not just another word for God but ‘I will send my Spirit’ in the OT and again in John’s gospel. The key word is ‘my’.

            The baptismal formula in the name of the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit suggest identity (one definite article) yet three distinct persons. Identity yes – one name and one God. ‘The name’ is ‘Jesus’. The idea of ‘name’ is bound up with identity. The ‘Holy Spirit’ has no name (presumably you’re not supposing ‘[the] Holy Spirit’ is itself a name), and with the revelation of God in the Son the name of Yahweh ceases to be used. The Holy Spirit has no identity, no personhood, because the Holy Spirit, when given (ideally at baptism), does not enable you to know the Holy Spirit per se but the Father and the Son, because the Spirit issues from the Father and the Son. This is the particular thrust of John’s gospel. Jesus comes to reveal the Father, and looks forward to the coming of the Spirit in order that the Father and the Son may be revealed to our hearts and the work of revelation thus be completed.

            The NT specifically says that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus.

            It seems relevant to raise again the point about Jesus having only one heavenly father, not, as per your reading, two – a nonsense that the Nicene Creed also perpetrates.
            Jesus’ own statement… before Abraham was I am” was not only the taking of a divine name but one that involved eternity. No, it implies divinity but not necessarily eternity. As Micah says, ‘Your goings forth are from everlasting’ (Mic 5:2). Micah does not say this. ‘Goings forth’ is OK as a translation and seems to refer to his having variously acted, unseen, in the history of Israel before his foretold nativity. ‘Everlasting’ in the Hebrew is qedem. Used temporally, it means ‘of old’. Another case of dogma leading to mistranslation (along with Matt 1:20).

            Col 1 he is before all things… points in similar direction. I have already dealt with this point re John 1:1 and 17:5.

            Hebrews says of Melchisedek ‘He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.’ It seems that Melchisedek resembles Jesus by having ‘neither beginning of days…’. I think the sense here is that Jesus pre-exists his earthly life and continues to live after his earthly life. How do you construe Heb 1:5?

            One way Revelation describes God, in a world that to Christians seems very threatening, is as the “Alpha and Omega’ (Rev 1:8). In Ch 22 this includes the beginning and ending. Again I have dealt with this. These titles imply shared divine identity and eternity. They imply divine identity but not eternity in the sense of having no origin. Rev 1:14 says Jesus is the beginning of creation, also Col 1:15 and 1:18. Trinitarians attempt to wriggle out of ‘firstborn’ by suggesting the word should not be understood literally, just like they suggest that ‘son’ should not be understood literally, but that strikes me as special pleading, inspired not by the texts but by the determination to save the dogma.

            As I said before it does not take account of how the NT employs the dynamics of father/son. This has been discussed before.

            Insistence on a birth denies the Son of his eternity and so his deity both of which I’ve tried to show NT authors wish to affirm. The big issue in father/son is relationship; intimacy/mutual love/identity/oneness/hierarchical directing and obeying etc. Jesus is never child but always son. John’s climactic ‘my Lord and my God’ show the trajectory of his gospel. Again, there is logical confusion in equating deity with eternity. Jesus is characterised as the Son of God precisely so that you would not make this mistake. I will ask once again: If my father is human, why am I not entitled to say that I am fully human, even though I have not been eternally in existence? The conceptual problem is also addressed at John 10:34.

            ‘Hierarchy’ strictly and etymologically refers to priestly ranking, and erecting a division between priests and laity. The idea is distinct from other structures of authority, which (as you say) the NT affirms. I don’t know why you have gone back to the idea of ‘inferiority’ (12.56 pm), which I have already dealt with. As for ‘attacks’, I have been attacked for making ‘zero attempt to acknowledge things clearly stated in Scripture’ and being ‘arrogant’ for suggesting that there is something seriously wrong with how Christians understand the God they worship, been called ‘an unreconstructed Modalist’ and a covert Jehovah’s Witness. You are the only person to seriously engage with Scripture on the question. When I adduce no fewer than nine NT scriptures that affirm the shema, the number of them attesting God’s concern that there should be no mistaking the point, I am castigated for ‘firing off proof texts’. This quality of reaction speaks volumes to me. In the circumstances I think I might be forgiven for expressing some exasperation.

            But to go back to the central issue. To me, it boils down to the question of whether ‘son’ means ‘son’. You are arguing for a redefinition of the word so that a son, in this one instance, need not imply coming from his father and owing his existence to him. In this respect I can’t help thinking of current attempts to redefine ‘woman’ in the interests of transgender ideology. I don’t think Scripture gives any warrant for either attempt. One might think of similar attempts in Animal Farm, 1984, and (as noted before) Alice in Wonderland.

            John is particularly explicit, not only about the identity of the Holy Spirit (I John 2:1) but also in pointing out the danger of abolishing Jesus’s sonship. ‘No one who denies the Son has the Father.’

            Particularly at this time of year it is worth remembering that the understanding that Jesus is the Son of God comes primarily from the incarnation and virgin birth (but note the emphasis – he was in fact begotten three times, once before creation, a second time in the flesh in 4 BC, a third time at the resurrection). Jesus was literally the son of Mary and literally the son of God the Father, who begot him by his holy spirit. Are you wishing to redefine the idea of sonship there too?

    • But Stephen, arn’t you misunderstanding how language itself works? We understand words only in the context they are used. Else what does it ‘mean’ that James and John were ‘sons of thunder’?

      • Well, you tell me how language works if you think I’ve misunderstood. In my own simple mind I find no difficulty in understanding ‘son of x’, where x is the name of a person, as denoting a true family relationship and ‘son of y’, where y is a thing, as a Hebraic figure of speech. That’s perhaps because persons are capable of begetting children whereas things are not … I dunno.

        • Steven (sorry for misspelling your name earlier), all you have done is given ‘son of y’ a label: ‘a Hebraic figure of speech’. You did not comment on what it means. Presumably when a speaker says ‘son of y’ they are intending to communicate something.
          Is ‘He could be your son’ always ‘denoting a true family relationship’? Can you not see that communicating with language is a bit more complex than saying ‘This WORD means x or y’?

  22. Maybe, Steven R, there is a need to check out the 4,9338 results on the Trinity, in this new year.

    Far from pagan, it is mainstream Christianity, drawn from scripture, rather than New World followers of “Russell” – group, devotees, Jehovah Witnesses or any other offshoots or continuation of Judaism.

  23. To Geoff – There are things in your contribution about which I cannot comment, simply because I have been a lifelong Anglican. Nevertheless, there was a period in the past during which I was strongly attracted to systematic Reformed theology . However subsequent reflection led me into a different understanding of Reformed principles; particularly in relation to what I now see as the dangers of imposing extrinsic concepts upon the biblical texts.
    Perhaps Tom Torrance did overstep the mark within his own denomination. But for me his theological acuity and grasp of biblical truth was (and still is) an eye-opener. Doctrinal truth must emanate from the Word of God, otherwise our particular tradition can muddy the waters.

    • I do not get the impression that the Trinity is defined as ‘three co-eternal Gods’ as one but as *three persons* in one and that these three persons are in relationship with one another. I think there is plenty of evidence in scripture that indicates this.

      Thus the ‘One God ‘ is revealed as a tri-person entity as opposed to a human which is a uni-person entity. This is a hard concept for us to understand as personality-wise we are singular in nature and internally, we are relationship with ourselves.

      I struggle to understand what Steven R’s actual view is here, but he does seem to me to be espousing a form of Modalism with One God having three different aspects.

  24. Hello, Colin
    As a 47 year old convert on a CoE Alpha Course, moving to study on a Local Preacher’s course in the Methodist Church, which prompted a desire to understand as far as possible, the whole counsel of God, leading to self-directed study, denominations seem to me to be as result of theological separations, perhaps something inherent in human nature.
    Influences have been cross denominational, gleaning from many, but few have been Anglican, other than Packer, Stott and Motyer, and in later years Reeves.
    I suppose in the last 15 or so years, key influencers have been mostly American Presbyterian and Baptist.
    I have found a depth in some reformed teaching, which I’d contend are biblical, while seeking to place it within whole bible systems.
    Again, in later years, there has been much gained from longitudinal biblical canon theology, starting with Graeme Goldsworthy, then Tim Keller and others.
    Inevitably, within Christianity there seems to have been some resistance to that approach from systematicians, but I see no conflict between the approaches.

    Of significant effect on me was being asked, a number of years ago, by a friend, who had come out of Jehovah Witnesses, to go through the Arminius v Augustine kerfuffle and how it developed. We spent 2 hours a week for two years going through the pros and cons, biblical based. I used various resources, book and web based.

    Two lay level (not that I’m any other) books that had further edifying and stabilizing effect were by Mike Reeves: “The Good God” and “Christ Our Life”. His other books on the reformation and some puritans (they get unjustified bad press) have also been helpful. While perhaps not strictly puritan, the writings of John Owen are marvellous, such as The Glory of Christ, and Communion with God, both Banner of Truth. By all accounts he was a bit of a peacock in dress, while living in truly tumultuous times and suffering many family deaths, but he was a man who knew his God. His theology sings.

    My wife and I now are part of a youthful (even though we are not) evangelical Anglican church, that subscribes to 39 Articles, with great preaching, teaching and bible study.
    Through various medical interventions, I’m no longer drawn nor able to read as much, short of mental stamina.
    I see it as becoming a church member, part of the body of Christ, not joining a denomination or as seen printed on a t-shirt years ago – Carpenter is looking for joiners.
    Yours in Christ,

    • Geoff – Many thanks for this. I have to say that it resonates greatly with of my own past experiences ( which I have to say considerably pre-date yours). Incidentally, while not always agreeing with your observations, I perceive you are someone who, on the one hand, wishing to maintain a solid biblical witness, is also capable of stepping outside pre-packed theological boxes!
      Every blessing for the coming year.

  25. ‘There have been many attempts to explain the appearance of the star scientifically. The best contenders are a comet (for which there is no independent evidence),’

    This is not true. Colin Humphreys makes a strong case for the star to be a comet in 5 BC as recorded by the Chinese –

    It ‘stood over’ Bethlehem from the pov of the Magi just as Haley’s Comet ‘stood over’ Rome as recorded by a Roman historian.


  26. Chris

    What I think is of no account, except it be in line with what Scripture reveals: not the Creeds, still less sub-Christian folklore. Also, I think your bafflement reflects your own unclarity on the issues, not mine in expressing things. Your own points (sometimes questions) show that you have understood a fair amount of what I have been saying.

    To address your points:
    1. You reject the doctrine of the Trinity finding it logically inconsistent. Yes.
    2. You think there is just one God not three persons in one, or three Gods. i.e. you don’t believe in the concept of the Godhead. Yes, there is just one God. Taking the whole of the Bible as inspired and authoritative, I do not set the OT against the NT, and Moses was quite clear (Deut 6:4). ‘One’ means one and therefore not ‘three’ (Christian polytheism), nor a hundred, nor any other number (pagan polytheism, what God’s self-revelation to Israel was designed to counter). But the NT is even more forthright in the number of its iterations: Mark 12:29-32, Rom 16:27, I Cor 8:6, Gal 3:20, Eph 4:6, I Tim 2:5, 6:15f, Heb 2:11, Jude 25. In what respect have I hitherto been baffling, apart from waiting for others to recognise, from their own knowledge of Scripture, that this is the scriptural view?
    3. Jesus had an origin and was created by the Father and was not co-eternal yet you say you affirm his deity. So does that imply the one God i.e. ‘the Father’ created another God ‘Jesus’? First, a question for you: do you accept the Nicene Creed (I set out the relevant part at some length – was there something unclear there)? If you do, then your question is answered. I also refer to my (unanswered) question to Jock: If my father is human, why am I not entitled to say that I am fully human, even though I have not been eternally in existence? Jesus addressed your conceptual problem at John 10:34.
    4. In your scheme, how does the Holy Spirit fit into all this? Was he co-eternal as well? – then that increases it to two Gods (or persons). As I said, I don’t have a scheme. The OT never speaks of the holy spirit, only of ‘his’ Spirit, the Spirit of God (no preposition in the Hebrew but genitive implied). That means the Holy Spirit is not another god but, first, a quality of God and, second, a gift from God. Do you not know that God is spirit (John 4:24)? Therefore the Spirit coming at Pentecost is not another deity distinct from God being given to the Church but God’s own holy Spirit – and Jesus’s holy Spirit. Despite the Creed and the doxology at the end of Anglican psalms, he is never worshipped and glorified in Scripture (on the contrary). The Spirit comes from the Father and from the Son. This is also clear from Scripture, and I expect you to see that; you shouldn’t expect me to spell it out for you.
    5. How exactly to you understand the nature of Jesus? Was he just a human ‘avatar’ if you like, that became God when the Holy Spirit came upon him? Obviously not. In an earlier comment I referred to Matt 1:20. Jesus is the Son of God. So I ask again: If my father is human, why do you have a problem with my considering myself human? If God is Jesus’s father, why do you have a problem with his being his son? In the resurrection I too will be a son of God and Jesus’s brother. Perhaps you should think about what it means to be a son, in quiet reflection (not on these pages), without invoking eastern ideas like avatar.
    6. What do you think John means when he talks about the ‘Word’ and the Word made flesh in 1 John? If Jesus is the ‘Word made Flesh’ then was the ‘Word ‘something that was not co-eternal but also created and proceeded from the Father? The Word was the creative Word, that gave life to men and all animals at the beginning, that brought the whole universe into being (Ps 33:6, 33:9). Jesus co-created with the Father (hence ‘us’ in Gen 1:16). If you are like most churchgoers, you don’t believe in creation by fiat, by the Word, you don’t believe in creation at the beginning, so don’t point the finger of unorthodoxy at me! In 4 BC that Word – the firstborn of all creation (Eph 1:15) – took on human flesh, so that we might see what God was like in the flesh, and see what we are destined to become as sons of the resurrection.

    Regarding paganism, a plurality of eternal gods is an essentially pagan concept, though I would add that some/most polytheistic systems had a single Father at the head of them (see Wilhelm Schmidt). One can trace the paganisation of Christian theology of God just through the mutation of the Nicene affirmation over the centuries, from ‘begotten’ to ‘begotten before all ages’ to ‘eternally begotten’. Platonism doubtless was part of the Zeitgeist.

    • I clearly stand to be corrected Steven R but this seems to have strong echoes of official teaching of Jehovah Witnesses, who accept Jesus as Son of God, but not God the Son and mainsteam Christianity as polytheistic, who are indoctrinated in ways to countern the main tenets of Christianty, who see the Holy Spirit not as a person, but as some sort of power of God, a little like electricity, who see 144,000 mentioned twice in the Book of Revelation as precise numbers, who in the New World Translation, add to scripture in John 1 with the word was “a” God.
      And in the New World, God is absent, not with his people.
      It is all readily available on their official website, and it’s authorised teaching.
      It is fascinating, in the light of the original article of Ian’s to look further to see the official teaching about the Star (of the Devil) and the visitors.

      And certainly, following their teaching there would be no celebration over the birth(day) of Jesus at this or any other time of year.

    • Steven R.
      Thank you for your reply.

      You state “What I think is of no account, except it be in line with what Scripture reveals: ”

      Well actually, what you think does matter doesn’t it? What you think *is* of account because what you are saying is what *you* understand Scripture reveals. The majority of people here on this issue I would have thought , understand it differently to you, so in your mind, they are not in line with Scripture. This debate is about whether your account or mine (or others) is correct so it does matter. It’s whether you, I or others can demonstrate that it is Scriptural which I don’t think you have done.

      You fire off a lot of proof texts in point 2 yet many others have demonstrated here that there is strong evidence that God is understood in 3 person and the overall trajectory of Scripture is in this direction as is what the early church Fathers thought when they had a similar debate like we are having now. You clearly disagree though.
      Fair enough.

      You state “If you are like most churchgoers, you don’t believe in creation by fiat, by the Word, you don’t believe in creation at the beginning” .

      So how do you know what most churchgoers believe?

      and in another post:

      “I am sorry to say your comment exemplifies how utterly hopeless it is to try to get Christians to think intelligently about this issue. ”

      So you think there are not many people here who have thought intelligently about this? In your eyes we are all blinded by orthodoxy or group think? We are all a bit thick on this perhaps? Certainly in my theological training the concept of the Trinity was examined thoroughly and I am sure there are quite a few others here who have done so as well and to much greater depth than you or I.

      But your statement (and I repeat in all its fullness) on yet another post -really takes the biscuit.

      “So what is the reality? Trinitarian Christians hardly know God at all, because they deny that he created all things. They know Jesus hardly at all, because they deny his sonship (and therefore don’t appreciate that we should imitate his whole desire to do the will of his Father), and they hardly know the Holy Spirit at all, who after all is given to us not least in order that we might be guided by a spirit of truth (truth-seeking) and humility (distinct from pseudo-humility before a false mystery) and grace, before him and before each other.”

      I am not sure if you have sufficient humility Steven, to see just how arrogant that statement sounds to Trinitarians like me and most others here. So nearly 50 years of being a Trinitarian Christian, after acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Saviour , being baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to you – hey – I hardly know Jesus at all , I deny he is the Son God and have no real clue about the Holy Spirit. Yeah right.

      I do humbly beg to differ on your assertion so I think would a few others here.

      However, you have clarified one thing for me Steven. While to your horror, I am unashamedly Trinitarian, these exchanges have completely convinced me that you are in fact, an unreconstructed Modalist.

      Ecclesiastes 1:9

      Happy New Year mate!

      • I have repeatedly challenged people, including yourself, to justify Trinitarianism on the basis of Scripture, and I have to point out that you for one have failed to do so. Indeed you just brush off scriptural argument as ‘firing off proof texts’. Apart from that rhetorical stratagem, you make appeal – for want of any scriptural support – to ‘many others’ outside the biblical canon and to ‘the early church Fathers’, presumably those later than the Nicene Creed, given that the latter, based on Scripture, supports my view. That’s about as nebulous an argument as one could imagine.

        So you think it is not a matter of concern to deny that God created all things, and to deny the sonship of Jesus Christ, and – as an example of how the Holy Spirit works in believers – to argue theology by resorting to ad hominem, joining ranks with the snide interlocutor to whom I referred earlier. You think you can ignore Scripture in the numerous places where it unequivocally states that God is one and say, “No matter, they are just proof texts, and proof texts are irrelevant.” Human tradition trumps everything and the word of God is made void. But I am on the cusp of referencing Scripture again and I mustn’t do that.

        Only God knows the heart, and we can be deceived about how well we know him. Consequently I do not pronoune either on your intimacy with him nor my own. But this I know, that the surest way of getting to know him better is to drink deep from the written revelation of him. “Sanctify them in the truth,” Jesus prays. “Your word is truth.” Those who belittle his word are unlikely to know him well.

        • Don’t be coy, Steven, the teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses runs deep in your biblical views and the God who reveals himself therein, does n’t it?
          You have avoided answering. Not only here but in a much earlier blog comment section.
          You have denigrated the unique tenet of Christianity, what you don’t believe, but at the same time not simply set out what you do believe. Not much of a Witness to the Triune God of biblical creation methinks. Indeed a poor witness to Jehovah, Yahweh.
          144,000 in Revelation. Is that a literal, precise, accruate number? Do you believe that?
          If you do, do you think that the surrounding verses are literally true?
          Yours in Christ Jesus, our LORD and Saviour, the I AM, the Shekinah Glory of God, Alpha and Omega, King of Kings, God incarnate.
          Every blessing in Him. May you know and love and worship him more as a one born from above, indwelled by God the Holy Spirit.
          Every blessing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
          If you have been baptised, into whose name were you baptised.

        • You are attributing things to me that I have not said Steven. I have nowhere denied that God created all things nor have I denied the sonship of Jesus Christ. The fundamantal difference between us is that we have different views and understandings of what the essence of God is, may be why you might think that.

          I have not said that the texts you quote are irrelevant and I do not ignore them, but they are selective and must be weighed with those that do support the Trinitarian position and I think you have failed to do that. It is your onus to do so and not mine. To my mind, your analysis lack objectivity.

          But- you *do* make pronouncements on my intimacy and other’s with Christ. You have clearly and unequivocally stated that Trinitarians hardly know God at all, and that many of them lack sufficient intelligence. You are now insinuating that I am belittling God’s Word because I don’t agree with your understanding of it. I respect it as much as you do.

          Now these are not judgements that I or most others make about you Steven. I do not question your intimacy with God, nor do I consider you unintelligent, nor do I think you beliitle God’s Word, but I think your assertions about trinitarians here is just plain arrogance on your part.

          What you are arguing for is not particulary new. In my view, it is a form of Modalism. It has been looked at before and has been found wanting although it won’t stop people like you continuing to argue for it -which you have every right to do of course.

  27. I’m bored watching ‘Masked Singer’ on TV. So I turned to this blog and find much the same. Who is the latest masked Gnostic? Can we Guess? Or is it an A.I. algorithm programmed to do theological battle?

  28. Oh, how these would-be ‘theologian’s wrangle among themselves! Meanwhile, the work of the Gospel of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ goes on – even without their provenance.

    “My ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts. Where are their philosophers (wise men) now?” Thank God the mission goes on, despite the arguments about its provenance or even its veracity! “Christos Incarnatus Est! Deo gratias!” We need another Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

    • Oh well – I suppose that one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

      I enjoyed the discussion – and I learned something from it, although I concede that I don’t suppose it was the sort of discussion that would convict a person of their sins and bring them to Christ for salvation.

      I was disappointed that one of the participants seemed to be getting upset that people weren’t buying his arguments – but on the whole good natured and enlightening.


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