Monday, November 2, 2020

The Plausibility of Arianism From a New Testament Perspective

The Holy Trinity Marcelo Coffermans (1560)
What if the Arians were right about New Testament teaching on the nature of God? It's come to my attention that I might have been wrong about the meaning of John 1 for many, many years now. Basically, ever since I first read it, which was likely in my early teens. 

Here are the opening verses in the familiar language of the King James Version:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

This has always been very straightforward to me. John 1:1 encapsulates a part of the doctrine of the trinity. Based solely on this we would come up with a form of binatarianism. For the full trinity in which the Holy Spirit is co-equal with the Father and the Son, other non-Johannine passages need to be brought it. I've long held that in order to lose the trinity, the canonical New Testament would have to be altered, removing at least John, Colossians, and Philippians, and radically re-interpreting other passages like the 'Great Commission' at the end of Matthew. While those others would still have to be dealt with, what if the writer of John never intended anything resembling a trinitarian view?

Here's how the New World Translation used by the Jehovah's Witnesses renders it.

1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a god. 
2 This one was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.What has come into existence 
4 by means of him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light is shining in the darkness, but the darkness has not overpowered it.

In my undergraduate ministry studies the professors, including those well familiar with the Koine Greek of the New Testament, derided the New World Translation, and usually pointed to this passage as evidence of its flaws. Although I'm no Greek scholar, what I've understood from those better informed than me is that the absence of a definite article in some places does not mean that an indefinite article is therefore appropriate. Superficially, that makes sense. Something new came to light recently for me that is causing me to question that conclusion.

1 In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god;
2 This one was present with God in the origin.
3 All things came to be through him, and without him came to be not a single thing that has come to be.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not conquer it.
(Hart, 2017)

David Bentley Hart's translation of the New Testament brought the surprise above to me, and fortunately he included fairly extensive explanations for his translation decisions in the footnotes and in a postscript. What follows are parts of that postscript, with my commentary. 

The average reader would never guess that, in the fourth century, those same verses were employed by all the parties in the Trinitarian debates in support of very disparate positions, or that Arians and Eunomians and other opponents of the Nicene settlement interpreted them as evidence against the coequality of God the Father and the divine Son. (Hart, 2017)

It's often not understood by rank-and-file Christians in our times that the core doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly regarding the nature of God and Christ, the afterlife, and bodily resurrection were not always a given. The theology developed in multiple streams in the first few centuries after the time of Jesus. Some were completely at odds with the others, while others varied in details of differing degrees of significance. The consensus around what constituted the canon was generally there, but the interpretations were far from uniform. Passages we take for granted to mean one thing today were understood completely differently by some in those times. In the Ecumenical Councils the church sought, with imperial pressure, to find common ground and establish some uniformity of belief. The debates were high stakes and intense.

The truth is that, in Greek, and in the context of late antique Hellenistic metaphysics, the language of the Gospel's prologue is nowhere near so lucid and unequivocal as the translations make it seem. For one thing, the term logos really had, by the time the Gospel was written, acquired a metaphysical significance that "word" cannot possibly convey; and in places like Alexandria it had acquired a very particular religious significance as well. For the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo, for instance, it referred to a kind of "secondary divinity," a mediating principle standing between God the Most High and creation. In late antiquity it was assumed widely, in pagan, Jewish, and Christian circles that God in his full transcendence did not come into direct contact with the world of limited and mutable things, and so had expressed himself in a subordinate and economically "reduced" form "through whom" (δι αὐτοΰ [di autou]) he created and governed the world. It was this Logos that many Jews and Christians believed to be the subject of all the divine theophanies of Hebrew scripture, Many of the early Christian apologists thought of God's Logos as having been generated just prior to creation, in order to act as God's artisan of, and archregent in, the created order. (Hart, 2017)

Anyone who has ever tried to translate from a foreign language using only a dictionary knows that words carry a lot of baggage. You can't simply translate word-for-word and expect it to make sense. You have to know about the context in which the language exists, and be familiar with its idiomatic expressions. For example, if I were to say to a Brazilian in Portuguese that they're barking up the wrong tree, they'd think I was nuts. That phrase makes no sense in that language. Another risk is the double entendre, such as when in The World Is Not Enough, while in bed with Dr Christmas Jones, Bond tells her 'I thought Christmas only comes once a year.' An English-speaking teenager would snicker about it while someone learning English might struggle to get the joke. 

With that in mind, it shouldn't seem strange that 'logos' ('word') would have some connotations around the time it was written that have been lost in translation with time. In this case, the sense of the word as used then could mean something quite dramatic for theology. While the debate took place and the Trinitarians won the day, meaning that they were able to overcome the subtleties of the language with their arguments, the Arian position seems somewhat stronger to me in this new light.

Moreover, the Greek of John's prologue may reflect what was, at the time of its composition, a standard semantic distinction between the articular and inarticular, (or arthrous and anarthrous) forms of the word theos: ὁ θεὸς (o theos) (as in πρὸς τὸν θεόν [pros ton theon], where the accusative form of article and non follow the proposition), was generally used to refer to God in the fullest and most proper sense: God Most High, the transcendent One; the latter, however, theos (as in καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος [kai theos ēn o logos]) could be used of any divine being, however finite: a god or derivative divine agency, say, or even a divinized mortal. Ad so early theologians differed greatly in their interpretation of that very small but very significantly absent monosyllable. (Hart, 2017)

These are nitty-gritty details that could make a big difference. Take a look at how John 1:18 compares, in the light of this new information.

18 No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (KJV) 
18 No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him. (NWT) 
18 No one has ever seen God; the one who is uniquely god, who is in the Father's breast, that one has declared him. (Hart, 2017)

I mentioned above that other parts of the New Testament would need to be reconciled for this view of Christ to work, but I don't think it really should be that difficult. 

Colossians 1:15-16

15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:
16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (KJV) 
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 
16 because by means of him all other things were created in the heavens and on the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All other things have been created through him and for him.  (NWT)  
15 Who is the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, 
16 Because in him were created all things in the heavens and on earth, the visible as well as the invisible (whether Thrones or Lordships or Archons or Powers); all things were created through him and for him. (Hart, 2017) 

Here I see no real adaptation required to confirm with this alternative perspective on John 1 and the nature of God. Jesus was the 'image of the invisible God,' and it was by means of this 'firstborn of all creation' (or 'of every creature') that the rest of the cosmos was brought into order, if this reading is correct. In fact, 

Philippians 2:5-8

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (KJV)

5 Keep this mental attitude in you that was also in Christ Jesus,
6 who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.
7 No, but he emptied himself and took a slave’s form and became human.
8 More than that, when he came as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, yes, death on a torture stake. (NWT)   
5 Be of that mind in yourselves that was also in the Anointed One Jesus, 
6 Who, subsisting in God's form, did not deem being on equal terms with God a thing to be grasped, 
7 But instead emptied himself, taking a slave's form, coming to be in a likeness of human beings; and, being found as a human being in shape, 
8 He reduced himself, becoming obedient all the way to death, and a death by a cross. (Hart, 2017)

Here we have the verses describing Christ Jesus emptying himself to serve humankind. This can fit within an Arian view either directly, by affirming that the only-begotten, firstborn of all creation did this emptying to be born of Mary, or else from an Adoptionist perspective. With the latter solution one possibility is to say that the divine son of God united with the man Jesus at his baptism by John, was confirmed through miracles and the transfiguration, and then declared to be so through his resurrection. 

While this is all academic, reflecting no observable realities and having little bearing on the thoroughly-established Trinitarianism of most Christianity today, it does point to a different path that the religion could have taken, raises questions about why that didn't happen despite the evidence, and perhaps helps shed some light on the meaning of other parts of the New Testament. It also should, I would hope, at least open some room for forbearance and patience among contemporary Christians among themselves on this topic. Although I understand full well how heated the question of a deity's nature can be among theists, there is at least room for difference here, as I see it.


Hart, D. B. (2017). The New Testament: A Translation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures Copyright © 2020 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.