Today Hugh Knowlton joins Restitutio to talk about how to handle important doctrinal differences with other Christians. So often such intra-Christian discussions generate more heat than light. Does that mean we should all just ignore our differences, forcing smiles and hoping that no one peers beneath our thin veneer of unity? Or should we charge headlong like a bull at the matador, eager to present our case and defeat all objections whatever the cost? This interview will help you strike the balance between empathy and courage as Knowlton shows how he stood up for his monotheistic beliefs in a gracious way that refused to forsake kindness while disagreeing on a core issue. In the course of the interview, Knowlton addresses five main questions from a biblical unitarian point of view:
Based on John 1.1, do you believe that Jesus is eternal?
Do you believe that Jesus is the creator?
Does Isaiah 9.6 refer to Jesus when it calls him “God” and “eternal?”
Why does Jesus receive worship if He is not God?
If you do not believe that Jesus is God, who is he?
Here is the text of the letter he sent:
As I have mentioned I don’t come from a traditional Trinitarian background and as a result, I have a different paradigm or way of thinking in regards to the relationship of God and His son, Jesus. Even though there is a difference I sincerely pray that what I believe will not bring offense or cause you to think that I am diminishing the Son if I believe, as I do, that he is not exactly the same (identical) as the Father.
You will surely agree that Christology is a massive subject! I don’t consider myself a theologian or a master on this subject but do enjoy studying it occasionally; more so during the last several years when I have been attending an orthodox church where the Trinity is not questioned and alternative beliefs as to who Christ is are not generally welcomed. I am not out to change the Christian world to my beliefs but do like to do “a check up from the neck up” to see if what I hold true still makes sense or whether I need to consider changes.
By fellowshipping with men like you, Larry and many others at PBC I have grown in my respect and understanding of your mindset and beliefs. It is good to gain understanding even if it does not end up with agreement on all points.
Before I address your questions I want to say that my answers are, in my estimation, more of a summary of what I believe; they are certainly incomplete and are not as full an explanation with all the reasoning, historical evidence and scriptural support that I would like to include. I think that would take writing a book, which I want to avoid! I am sure more questions will be raised and if we want to continue a dialog, either in person or by email, we can both share more.
In your email below you express a concern about ‘agreeing on His nature’. I don’t see a similar concern shared by Jesus, Paul, John or the other writers in the New Testament. I am not saying the concern does not exist but I don’t recall scriptures that place an abundant emphasis on it other than what I read in Math 16:13-17 where Jesus asks his disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and Peter’s reply ‘You are the Christ (the Messiah), the son of the living God’. I think this is a great start for having common ground.
And this is where I would like to start by addressing your last question as who I think Jesus is. I believe him to be the son of God, the Christ, the Messiah, the promised seed, my redeemer and savior, the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation, the resurrection, the way, the truth and the life, the bread of life, the living Word of God, He declared the Father and reveals Him today.
Jesus has given me access to the Father, is my mediator, my High Priest, my King, forgiver of my sins, given me the new birth of eternal life, has made me absolutely complete in Him, has made unto me wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption, has filled me to capacity in all the fullness of God’s gift of Holy Spirit, has called me and set me in the heavenlies, and has given me his joy, peace and love. I’m sure there is more that can be added!
I like to think in simple terms and God uses the simplicity of a father – son relationship to communicate family, intimacy, and similarity and, also, distinct differences between himself, who I believe is the Father, and his only begotten son, Jesus. Things that are similar are not necessarily identical.
With your first question regarding John 1:1 the question that can be asked is who or what is the Word? The common answer is Jesus, but I have a problem with that interpretation (that understanding), because I don’t see the word ‘Jesus’ in the verse. It does not explicitly say Jesus but it is commonly supplied by inference.
I told you when we met that I have grown to disdain the phrase “Jesus is not God” because it does nothing to explain the deity connection between the Father and the Son. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” Col 2:9 (NIV). The word ‘deity’ or ‘Godhead’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘theotes’ (used only once in the Bible), which can be translated divinity or divine nature. How is this expressed in Jesus?
The word “Word” as you certainly know is ‘logos’ in the Greek. There is much that can be written about this word; it has a wide range of meanings along two basic lines of thought: products of the mind like reason and logic and the other is expressions of that reason as a ‘word’, ‘saying’, ‘command’, etc. My understanding of logos as it has been previously used in scripture (to mention only a few references: Psalm 33.6,9; Psalm 147:15,17-18; Isaiah 55:10-11) is that it refers to God’s creative self-expression … His reason, purposes, wisdom, and plans, especially, as they are brought into action. Jesus was God’s plan for man’s redemption as foretold in Genesis (the promised seed in Gen 3:15); Jesus was the manifestation, the reality in the flesh of that plan. What the ‘Word’ was, Jesus became. This is my understanding of ‘logos’
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1:14 (KJV)
And [now] in His own appointed time He has made manifest (made known) His Word and revealed it as His message through the preaching entrusted to me by command of God our Savior Titus 1:3 (Amplified Bible, Classic Edition)
I don’t understand incarnation as you do. I do not think that God literally became a man (Jesus). Similarly, I do not share the Catholics belief that we are literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus in communion. I believe that the plan of God, the word of God became incarnate in Jesus (he did nothing of his own but only what the Father told him).
I have difficulty understanding if Jesus was literally God how could he die (Philip 2:8 if God “alone possesses immortality” (I Tim 6:16). Why did he say, “I can do nothing on my own initiative (John 5:30) while God “can do all things” (Job 42:2)? Why doesn’t he know the day and hour when he will return, and yet his Father, God does know (Matt 24:36)? How can he be tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1) when “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13)? Why should he be in subjection to the Father for all eternity (1Cor 15:28)? If Jesus is God how could he say that “my Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)? If Jesus is literally God how could Jesus call us brothers (Heb 2:11)? I am not asking you to answer these questions, but I simply want to express that orthodox Christology doesn’t make sense to me.
Jesus was a perfect man whose physical lineage was the line of believers as mentioned in Matthew chapter 1. His mother, Mary, believed the word of the Lord as delivered by Gabriel that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son and that she should call him Jesus. Conception comes from the woman contributing an egg and a man contributing a sperm. God did not need to break his natural laws. I have no problem seeing God create a perfect sperm with dominant genes, which resulted in the second Adam (the son of man), a perfect man with no sin nature.
Soul life is in the blood as Leviticus states (Lev 17:11 ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood’). Soul life is passed on from the male side. Jesus had perfect unblemished blood, which originated from His Father, God. Jesus did not have any sin nature but that was not enough. He had to learn obedience (Heb 5:8); he had to study the Word, the scriptures, to learn of himself and His Father’s mission for His life. He was tempted in all things but without sin (Heb 4:15). I believe Jesus could have sinned just like Adam did but (by the freedom of his will) he chose not to. Romans 5:11-21 tells us that by the disobedience of one man death was passed on to all and that by the obedience of one man, Jesus Christ, the gift of grace has abounded unto many.
Jesus had a beginning, a genesis, as told in Matt 1:18. ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on the rise’. The word ‘birth’ is genesis the same root word in Gen 1:1 for beginning.
The personal pre-existence of Christ is fundamental to the doctrine of the Trinity. What needs to be determined is whether that pre-existence was as a person or as an idea or plan in the mind of God. I am not able now to give the subject adequate attention but what I believe is that Jesus existed in the foreknowledge of God as the pre-existent plan and purpose of God. God also foreknew us ‘He has chosen us before the foundation of the world … having predestinated us unto adoption of children …’ Eph 1:3,4. Also, Rom 8:29; 2Th 2:13; 2 Tim 1:9). God calls things that are not as though they are: Rom 4:17 (related verses to that idea are Isa 43:13; Isa 46:9-11; Jer 1:5).
“He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end times for your sake.” 1Peter 1:20. The word translated ‘destined’ literally means ‘to know beforehand’. From it we get the word ‘prognosis’ meaning ‘known in advance’, usually used of doctors in predicting the course of an illness. On the basis of his foreknowledge the doctor can offer a good or bad prognosis about the outcome of the disease. In this passage I believe Peter is telling us that Jesus was known in advance by God in the sense that His plan for him was predetermined and at the appropriate time Jesus was born. Peter does not indicate that Jesus personally existed before he was born. There are verses in John that do apparently indicate Jesus’s pre-existence, which should be examined, but I will need a separate email.
Do I believe Jesus is the creator? No and Yes is my answer. No to the first (old) creation but He plays an integral part in the new creation. There are abundant scriptures that indicate that the Lord God created the heavens and the earth with no explicit mention of Jesus (Gen 1; Neh 9:5-7; Ps 33: 6-9; Ps 104:30-33; Isa 45:3, 5, 8, 12, 18;
Mal 2:10; Acts 7:48-50).
God delegated Christ His authority to create. Eph 2:15 (NKJV, NIV) refers to Christ creating “one new man” (his church) out of Jew and Gentile. In pouring out the gift of Holy Spirit to each believer (Acts 2:33,38), the Lord has created something new in each of them, that is the “new man,” their new nature (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 4:24). The Church of the Body of Christ was a brand new entity, created by Christ out of Jew and Gentile. He also had to create the structure and position that would allow it to function both in the spiritual realm and the physical world (Rom 12:4-8; Eph 4:7-11). The Bible describes these physical and spiritual realities by the phrase, “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible (Col 1:16).
I believe the passages that allude to a creative role for Jesus in Col 1:15-17 and in Hebrews 1:2 refer to the new creation and to a new perfect order on earth when Christ returns to rule on the earth and eventually paradise restored (Rev 21 & 22).
Col 1:15 (NASB) says Christ is “the firstborn of all creation”. I believe Him to be the author, the firstborn of a new race of men and women. I believe that we will be the second, third, fourth born, etc. When he returns we will receive a new body fashioned like His glorious body.
Phi 1:20, 21 “For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the savior: the Lord Jesus Christ who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned unto his glorious body according to the working whereby he is able to even subdue all things unto himself.”
In regards to Isaiah 9:6 there is way more that I would like to say than time permits. This verse gives 5 attributes of the son prophesied by Isaiah. I believe it is a basic tenet of the Trinitarian doctrine that Christians should “neither confound the Persons nor divide the Substance” (Athanasian Creed). I do not believe that this prophecy of the coming Messiah, Jesus, is equating him to God, the Father. I believe the phrase is mistranslated. The word translated ‘everlasting’ is actually ‘age’. I believe that Jesus will be called “father of the (coming) age”. Jesus ‘fathered’ eternal salvation. The words ‘everlasting life’ can also be translated ‘life in the age to come’.
I believe the phrase ‘Mighty God’ can also be better translated. The word “God” in the Hebrew culture had a much wider range of application than it does in our culture. English makes a clear distinction between “God” and “god”, but the Hebrew language, which has only capital letters, cannot make a clear distinction. In the Old Testament the original word for God, elohim, is used of God (Ps 19:1; Deut 6:4) but, also, of angels (Ps 8:5; Ps 89:6), rulers, judges, mighty men (Ex 21:6; Psalm 82:1-26. Note: in John 10:34 Jesus quotes Ps 82:6 in a way that confirms that the reference is to mortal men.) and the false gods and idols of the heathen (Ex 12:12; Ex 15:11; Ex 20:3; 1Kings 11:33) and it’s application to the Messiah is, in my opinion, no proof that he is the second person of the Trinity. A better translation would be “mighty hero” or “divine hero”. Both Martin Luther and James Moffatt translated the phrase as “divine hero” in their Bibles.
Regarding your comments concerning question 4 you see worshipping Jesus as a declaration of his divinity. I see worshipping Jesus as someone definitely worthy of worship as Rev 5:12 declares, “Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.”
The Father and the Son are deserving of equal honor. John 5:23 “That all men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He that honors not the Son honors not the Father which has sent him.”
The way I understand Thomas’s words “My Lord and my God” is similar to the way I understand Jesus saying to Philip in John 14:9 “He that has seen me has seen the Father.”
John 1:18 “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.” You can’t see God (God is spirit John 4:24) but you can see Jesus who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1: 15). If Christ is God why doesn’t this verse just say so? The Father is plainly called God in dozens of places and this would have been a good place to say that Jesus was God. Instead it says that Christ is the image of God. If one thing is the ‘image’ of another thing, then the “image” and the “original” are not the same thing.
My understanding is that things that are similar are not necessarily identical. Jesus revealed the father in the senses world; I believe he was the exact representation (likeness, resemblance) of God’s will in a man. Jesus “being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person (Heb 1:3) There is so much more that could be shared on Jesus being the image of God.
You mention, Ben, that Jesus saying “Because you have seen me you believe” as equivalent to Him labeling the declaration of His own Deity, belief. After reading the entire section of John 20:24-29 I think that the emphasis in not on His Deity but on Thomas believing that Jesus was alive … that Jesus was resurrected; He had been dead 3 days and nights but was brought back to life. I love verse 29 because it talks about us. We do not have the opportunity today of seeing in his hands the print of the nails or to be able to thrust our hands into his side but we are blessed because we believe without seeing.
My understanding of Christ is today He is the head of the body. He is Lord who has been given all authority and power. I believe that today Jesus functions as God in a relationship similar to what Joseph had with Pharaoh in Egypt, but some day in the future I Cor 15:28 tells us “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”
I think doctrinally in the Scriptures there similarities and there are differences between the Father and the Son, but on the practical side or the relationship side there is little distinction between the Father and the Son (unless the Holy Spirit indicates otherwise). I John 1:3 says “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
If you Google “greek prepositions diagram” and click on ‘images’ you will see a handy diagram which helps to explain the prepositions in I Cor 8:6 which says “Yet for us there is but one God, the father, from (ek = out of) whom all things came and for (eis = unto ) whom we live (unto God), and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through (dia w/ genitive) whom all things came and through (dia) whom we live.” (NIV)
I do not believe “all things came through him” is referring to the creation of all things in the beginning; rather, it is speaking of the Church. God provided all things for the Church via Jesus Christ. The whole of 1 Cor is taken up with Church issues. I believe the verse states clearly that Christians have one God who is the ultimate source of all things, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the way by which God provided all things to the Church. In my words Jesus is the ‘user friendly interface’ to God. Everything that comes from God to us comes through Christ and everything we do for God goes to Him through Christ.
Well, in conclusion, my prayer is that you don’t consider this an attack on what you believe but I offer my reply (as incomplete as it is) as a different understanding of Christology than the orthodox view … which believes Jesus is God; whereas, I believe it is God living/working in Christ. “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is man; and the head of Christ is God.” (I Cor 11:3) “That God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:19)
I ask that you honor my request that the things I’ve shared are meant to be confidential between the four of us. This is not because I am embarrassed by what I believe, but I also have a pastor’s heart. I understand my beliefs can be divisive and cause confusion, which is not my intent at all. My mindset has been and will continue to be to place my differences in beliefs and understanding in subjection to His love and Lordship … to think more highly of others than myself. This is why I have kept silent on the subject and plan to continue with body of believers I fellowship with.
All my love in Christ Jesus, our Lord!
Here are the books Hugh used in order of reliance:
- One God & One Lord by Graeser, Lynn and Schoenheit
- The Trinity: True or False? by James Broughton and Peter Southgate
- One God: The Unfinished Reformation by Bob Carden
- “To God Be The Glory” CD Series by Joel Hemphill
- The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound by Anthony Buzzard and Charles Hunting
Also, look up explanations to commonly misunderstood verses at christianmonotheism.com