Is Our Culture “Post-Christian”… or “Post-Secular”? Or Both? (w/ Book Review)

post-christian

UNDERSTANDING POST-CHRISTIAN CULTURE

Gene Edward Veith’s book Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Crossway, 2020) is more of a State of the Union Address than a call to arms. The topics covered in this book are wide and sweeping; and though Veith provides suggestions to the church sprinkled throughout on how to respond, overall the book is a photograph of the landscape — a statement on where we’re at in Western culture and where the church stands within that culture.

It’s a readable, relatively quick book for the amount of land it covers. He covers trends in modern Western thought, worldview, religion, science, technology, politics, sexuality, our ideas about reality, the body, truth, certainty, and even newer cultural phenomenons like intersectionality, transgenderism, transhumanism, genetic engineering, sex robots, and the loss of community. As I said, he covers a lot of ground! 

Veith’s work is insightful and important. As any decent missionary, pastor, or church planter can tell you, Christians need to understand the cultural context of where they’re doing ministry. Post-Christian is certainly a good guide to give us the big picture of the spirit of the age and the challenges facing the church.

 

POST-SECULAR?

Depending on how attuned someone is to the changing culture, some of the information in Post-Christian may be surprising. But perhaps what is most surprising is Veith’s conclusion that we’re not just living in a post-Christian culture, but also a post-secular culture. 

He writes that today’s current version of secularism, which is usually marked by a rejection of religion, is only “skin deep because under the surface we find interior spirituality—often vague and poorly thought through, drawing on pagan elements old and new.” God has created us to know him. So, we are — by nature and design — religious creatures, even if we deny it. Thus, when Christian faith is abandoned, other spirituality rushes in to fill the void.

This post-secular religion, the child of Western postmodern thinking, is a cafeteria of pick-and-choose, including things like astrology, reincarnation, nature spirits, and self-deification (seeking the “god within”) but all “wholly internalized, ethereal spirituality” — which, of course, makes no moral or convictional demands on the individual. In other words, they can be the “god” of their own reality; they can be spiritual without self-denial, self-sacrifice, or even inconvenience — a religion based solely on self. So, where God made humans in his own image (Genesis 1:27), humans are making God into their own image — or, at the very least, in their own preferences.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the growing movement of what I call “Technology Cults” —  people who are looking to merge biological life with technology (called transhumanism) to achieve eternal life and propel humankind to god-like status (not unlike something you’d see on Black Mirror, the Netflix series.) But all “new” heresies are really just old news. Mixed in with the new is also a lot of the old. For example, as more people return to ancient pagan (or “New Age”) practices, people contacting Christian churches looking for exorcisms have spiked!

Peter Jones in his book The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat, draws the same conclusions about Western culture not just being post-Christian, but post-secular. He describes it as “the rebirth of ancient paganism, ” a “modern embrace of, principles originally found in the ancient spirituality of the pre-Christian, pagan world.” Jones writes, “Spirituality has become a do-it-yourself life hobby that blends ancient Eastern practices with modern consumer sensibilities.” And so, this is where the modern mantra “I’m spiritual, not religious” grows from.

Based on how things are going — despite what has been assumed (and often proclaimed by ardent atheists) — as “societies have grown more modern, they have not become less religious.” Perhaps much of secular culture has turned away from traditional religions — dreaded “organized religion” — but they’ve traded it in for disorganized religion. Veith concludes, “So scholars no longer accept the ‘secular hypothesis,’ the assumption that as a society becomes more modern, it becomes less religious.” Post-Christian does not mean post-religious.

 

THE DYING CHURCH?

Unfortunately, at the same time, religious institutions are becoming more secular, and the Christian church is not impervious to such things. This is not surprising as the battle between theologically liberal (mainline) and theologically conservative Christianity has raged for over 100 years. 

As another example of the dogged religiousness of humankind, the author writes about the (unintentionally ironic) “atheist church” movement, which has tried to have all the benefits of church without God. In one of Veith’s more humorous insights, he comments:

“Do you reject the existence of God except as a metaphor? Do you deny the authority and truth claims of the Bible? Do you believe traditional Christianity is outdated and oppressive? You might be an atheist. Or you might be a mainline [liberal] Protestant.”

As someone a lot smarter than me pointed out — something that is quite obvious — some time ago: Liberal Christianity and traditional, historical, biblical Christianity are not the same religion. They’re two totally different faiths. After all, as Veith plainly drew attention to, the beliefs of theologically liberal (mainline) Christians differ little from the beliefs of atheists. Therefore, “Post-Christian Christianity needs to be desecularized,” and even theologically conservative churches need to be aware of how the surrounding secular culture affects the thinking of their congregation (and leadership). 

It also has to be remembered that churches that have adopted secular or theologically liberal views have usually consciously done so to make themselves “relevant” to the culture, yet these liberal churches are the exact churches that have been in steady decline for decades. The liberal church is not thriving or growing. Think about it: If all the church is is a lousy imitation of the world, what does it have to offer that isn’t already readily available elsewhere?

 

BUT THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH IS DYING TOO, RIGHT?

So, the culture is growing more pagan. The liberal church is in steady decline. But what about the traditional, historical, conservative, orthodox, Bible-believing church? How is it doing? Isn’t it in decline too? Well, it all depends on how you look at it.

Yes, church attendance is down in general, but what seems to be happening is a “refining of the church.” Looking only at church attendance may be the easiest way to conduct a survey concerning Christian growth or decline, but it also has its limits. Based on the studies of Ed Stetzer, “The percentage of convictional Christians… has held steady over the years.” This may be the most surprising thing one finds in Post-Christian, but Veith (with Stetzer) isn’t the only one making this point. For instance, see Glenn Stanton’s book The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World. (For the record, I haven’t read Stanton’s book yet, but I’ve heard interviews with him — and others — making the same point.) 

Now, the thing to note in Stetzer’s assessment is that it is “convictional Christians” who are holding steady. Instead of just making general studies of church attendance or of anyone who labels themselves as “Christian,” Stetzer and Veith consider that calling oneself a “Christian” doesn’t make one a true follower of Christ. There’s a lot of cultural Christianity out there, folks. So, when we look at someone’s commitment to following Christ, church attendance of those who take their faith seriously — i.e. devout Christians — are not decreasing.

In fact, it looks like the more theologically conservative churches are growing steadily. The slight decline in attendance at evangelical churches over the years has to do with the “cultural Christians.” So, it’s not the case that devout Christians are leaving the faith in droves, but church-goers who never were invested much in the first place are coming clean. The growing acceptability of atheism has allowed these people to be honest on where they stand on God and the church: 

“The nominal believers are leaving. There is no longer a cultural pressure to be in church, so those who used to attend out of a desire to be socially respectable are no longer bothering… Increasingly, the only ones left in the churches are the true believers. Such defections, ironically, strengthen the church. Just as the refining process burns away the dross to extract the precious metal, the hostility of secularism is purifying the church.”

Mark Twain may or may not have once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” It seems Christianity can say the same. 

In fact, the church is growing at an alarming — well, alarming to secularists anyhow — rate worldwide. “If the United States and Europe are becoming post-Christian, the rest of the world is rushing into Christianity.” Compare the 286 million Christians in 2010 in North American to the 544 million in Latin America, 493 million in Africa, and 352 million in Asia. Those who claim Christianity is “the white man’s religion” need to look at the global picture. By 2050, says religious scholar Philip Jenkins, only one-fifth of Christians will be “white.” In fact, the most common Christian worldwide today is a brown-skinned woman. Post-Christian even lays out how Scandinavian countries, upheld by many in the U.S. as secular utopias, have a solid, devout Christian presence.

Not only are church numbers growing worldwide, but the Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia take the Bible seriously. They’re theologically conservative. This, ironically, puts them at odds with many Western churches who have liberal leanings. Some theologically liberal denominations are finding their denominational brothers and sisters in other countries aren’t willing to set aside the Bible to conform to secular cultural demands.

This was seen recently when the United Methodists voted to overturn certain policies concerning homosexuality; it was the African United Methodists who kept the church where it has traditionally (and biblically) stood for centuries. (And now it’s looking like the United Methodists, which is considered primarily a liberal denomination in the U.S., may split in two.) Let Veith point out the irony: “Western liberal theologians — whose social gospel praises multiculturalism, denounces Western colonialism, and lauds racial diversity — now find themselves as a beleaguered white minority in opposition to black Africans.” 

Veith concludes, “In this vast sea of faith, Americans and Europeans occupy a small island of secularism, like teenagers fixated on their cell phones, oblivious to what is happening all around them. It turns out that this is not a post-Christian world after all.”

 

*I received a review copy of Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (2020) by Gene Edward Veith Jr. from publisher Crossway.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints (Mormons) & the Titles of God: Almighty God, mighty god, Jehovah, Elohim

MormonMissionaries

This is a continuation of an earlier GFTM mini-series addressing Jehovah’s Witnesses, but let’s include another religious group that may come knocking on your door…

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus Be “Firstborn of All Creation” Yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19.

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:6 (& 1:18)

KNOCK, KNOCK. J.W., WHO? ALMIGHTY GOD VS. MIGHTY GOD

Sometimes more savvy Jehovah’s Witnesses will point out that theos and the Hebrew equivalent elohim, which are usually translated “God,” are titles that can be also applied to powerful humans or spiritual beings. They’ll appeal to Jesus’ words in John 10:34-36 about Psalm 82:1, 6-7 (“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?”) to show that some beings that aren’t the one-and-only God can be called (lower-case-“g”) “gods.” They’ll point out that within Christian scripture the apostle Paul even calls the evil spiritual being Satan “the god [theos] of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are correct that “god” (theos, elohim) is a title, not God’s personal name. (And don’t forget we can’t look for capitalization in the Greek and Hebrew to denote proper names.) And where I would agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses that every use of theos and elohim don’t necessarily refer to the one-and-only God of the Bible (though this is plainly the exception rather than the norm), there are still three big challenges to trying to use these passages to justify the Jehovah’s Witness view of Jesus as a special creation who is higher than the angels but lower than God.

The first challenge can be brought into the light by simply asking Jehovah’s Witnesses a question: Are Satan and these other “gods” false gods or true gods? I’d be surprised if any Jehovah’s Witness would answer, “True gods.” Thus, according to Jehovah’s Witness thinking, Satan and these others are false gods. An interesting follow up question is, “Is Jesus a false god or true god?” The Jehovah’s Witness should answer, “True.” Now, doesn’t that mean Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in two Gods — Jehovah and Jesus? Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses insist they believe in only one God.

The second challenge has to do with how Jehovah’s Witnesses may respond to this first set of questions. Jehovah’s Witnesses make a distinction that Jehovah is the “Almighty God” and Jesus is the “mighty god.” Again, I would spotlight the issue with a question: If Jesus is “mighty god,” how is he different from Satan and these other false “mighty gods”? Clearly, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own beliefs, Jesus is unique from God, but also unique from these other “gods.” So, it appears the Jehovah’s Witnesses have invented a category to place Jesus in that doesn’t exist in the Bible. 

If your Jehovah’s Witness friend doesn’t find this convicting, you can simply point him or her to passages that show this sharp distinction between Jehovah as “Almighty God” and Jesus as “mighty god” isn’t in the Bible, because “Jehovah” is sometimes called “Mighty God.”

When you see “the LORD” in all caps in the English Old Testament, the Hebrew originally reads YHWH or “Yahweh,” which is God’s proper name. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible, the New World Translation, replaces all of these with “Jehovah.” It’s not a bad idea to show them these verses in their own Bible, but I’ll continue to use the ESV translation here:

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD [“Jehovah”], the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty [gibbor] God [el].  (Isaiah 10:20–21)

…I prayed to the LORD [“Jehovah”], saying: “Ah, Lord [adonai] GOD [“Jehovah”]! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty [gibbor] God [el], whose name is the LORD [“Jehovah’] of hosts…” (Jeremiah 32:16–18)

Yes, the LORD (“Jehovah” in the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation, but “Yahweh” in the Hebrew) is also called “mighty God.”

 

KNOCK, KNOCK. L.D.S., WHO? WHO’S JEHOVAH ANYWAY?

Please allow me to address our LDS (Latter-day Saint a.k.a. Mormon) friends. Afterall, I don’t want our Jehovah’s Witness friends to feel like I’m picking on them by only signaling them out. Jehovah’s Witnesses put a lot of religious significance in knowing the name of the one true God, which they say is “Jehovah.” Since they deny the Trinity, they distinguish Jesus from Jehovah, making Jesus a lower-case “god” — not Jehovah, but an elohim. Interestingly, Latter-day Saints do the exact opposite: According to LDS beliefs, Jesus is “Jehovah” and God the Father is Elohim.

First, what’s up with the hangup some religious groups have with the name “Jehovah”? It’s been well-established that “Jehovah” is a mispronunciation. Can we move on? 

Secondly, we only have to look at a few passages of the Bible to see that this sharp LDS distinction between “Jehovah” and Elohim is mistaken.

To begin, in Genesis, Jacob refers to Issac’s God (the God of Abraham) as “the LORD your God” — that is, “Yahweh [“Jehovah”] your Elohim” (Genesis 27:20). In Deuteronomy 6:4, we find one of the most important religious confessions of the Jewish people: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD [“Jehovah”] our God [elohim], the LORD [“Jehovah”] is one.”

Next, during the same exact event where God appears to Moses in the burning bush and gives his proper name, we find:

Then Moses said to God [elohim], “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God [elohim] of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God [elohim] said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD [Yahweh, “Jehovah,” literally “I am”], the God [elohim] of your fathers, the God [elohim] of Abraham, the God [elohim] of Isaac, and the God [elohim] of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15)

With this, sometimes we find the name Yahweh (“Jehovah”) paired up with elohim when speaking of the one-and-only God. Isaiah 10:23-24 calls God “the Lord GOD of hosts.” In Hebrew, “the Lord GOD” is “adonai Yahweh.” [1] We see the same exact thing — “adonai Yahweh” — in other examples in Ezekiel 34: 15, 17, and 20.

Finally, LDS will affirm that the famous prophecy in Isaiah 9:6 is about the birth of Jesus, yet in it we find Jesus called “Mighty God,” that is, “Might Elohim” [2]:

For to us a child is born… and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God… (Isaiah 9:6)

So, just like the sharp distinction Jehovah’s Witnesses make between “Almighty God” and “mighty god” doesn’t hold up to biblical scrutiny, neither does the LDS distinction between “Jehovah” and Elohim.

[1]  adon, a form of adonai.

[2] Literally, in Hebrew, “gibbor el.” El is singular for elohim

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

 

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

 

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

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If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

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Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

MONOGENES

The fact that Jesus is sometimes called “only begotten” causes a lot of confusion (and is, likewise, emphasized by our Jehovah’s Witness friends).

The King James Version famously says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” John 1:18 in the King James Version also reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

If Jesus is the eternal Son of the Trinity, how could he be “begotten”? This is a valid question. I always wondered myself how the early church justified the Son being both eternal and begotten.

First, why are we – today – still saying “begotten”? Can’t we update to “born” already? Have you ever said, “Congratulations on your newly begotten daughter”? But I digress.

Secondly, the Greek word mongenes that is sometimes translated “only begotten” can also be translated as “one and only” (as the NIV does) or “unique” or simply “only” (as the ESV and NRSV do). In fact, if you were to do a study of all the available Bible translations, you’d notice something: It’s usually the older versions that translate it as “only begotten.” Why is this?

This is because Greek scholars used to think the two smaller words that form the compound word monogenes (“mono” + “genes”) meant “only” (mono) and “to beget” (gennao). But after discovering and studying more and more ancient Greek writings, it became clear that the second word wasn’t from the Greek word gennao (to beget), but genos (class, kind). The term monogenes literally means “one of a kind.” To understand monogenes as “only birthed” or “only born” is incorrect. New Testament scholar Michael S. Heiser describes “only begotten” as an “unfortunately confusing translation.”

The definitive Greek to English lexicon (BDAG!) give only two definitions for mongenes: “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” and “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind).” [1] Notice, BDAG only gives two definitions for monogenes; neither are “only born.”

 

BEGOTTEN, NOT MADE

The theologians who created two important creeds of the early church clearly didn’t take “begotten” literally. These creeds were statements of faith based on a close study of the Bible. 

In the Nicene Creed (325 AD), Jesus is described as “eternally begotten of the Father.” How can one be eternally born? The creed goes on to describe Jesus as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and then they wrote this: “begotten, not made.” Seems to me they’re emphasizing that “begotten” shouldn’t be taken literally. 

The main purpose of the Athanasian Creed (500 AD) is to explain the Trinity. It states, “That we worship one God in Trinity…  The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated…. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.” It goes on to say, “The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten.” Clearly, the hardcore Trinitarians that wrote out this long creed to explain the Trinity as precisely as possible didn’t see any contradiction is calling Jesus “eternal” and “uncreated” but also “begotten.” This is a big clue that “begotten” isn’t being used in a literal sense.

Still don’t believe me? God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only son” three times (in Hebrew) during the event of Abraham’s way-too-close sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Then, the Greek word monogenes is used by the author of Hebrews in the New Testament to describe Abraham’s son Isaac: 

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only [monogenes] son.” (Hebrews 11:17)

Isaac was neither Abraham’s only son nor first son. Before Isaac’s birth through Sarah, Abraham had his son Ishmael with Hagar. Monogenes illustrates Isaac’s unique relationship with his father and special status to his father, just as Jesus, God the Son, holds a unique relationship with and special status to God the Father. 

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 894). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ

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How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

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READ: Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” (Colossians 1:15-19)

PROTOTOKOS” – LITERALLY?

Our Jehovah’s Witness friends believe Jesus is not the second Person of the Trinity and God-in-the-flesh but a created being lower than God but higher than the angels. Because of this, they focus on the part in Colossians 1:15 above calling Jesus “the firstborn of creation” as evidence for this belief. Where Paul giving Jesus that title seemingly favors the Jehovah’s Witness’ understanding of Jesus, we’d have to ignore much of the rest of the passage (and other scripture) to hold their understanding.

Remember: Context! Context! Context! 

First, we see “firstborn” (prototokos in Greek) used twice in this passage. Jesus is also called “the firstborn from the dead.” This is a reference to Jesus’s resurrection. The Bible teaches of a future resurrection of all the dead, and Jesus is the first – a foreshadowing of this event. The point to get here is that “firstborn” is not used in a strictly literal sense in 1:18, so it’s possible it’s not used in a strictly literal sense in the earlier usage in 1:15 either.

PAUL GETS REDUNDANT

Secondly, Paul says Jesus created “all things… in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Jehovah’s Witness literature explains, “Jesus is the only one directly created by God. Jesus is also the only one whom God used when He created all other things.” But that’s not what the passage says! It says Jesus created “all things.” Yes, “all things”! Not all other things. 

Also, “heaven and earth” is a Hebrew way of saying “everything.” Paul is basically saying “Jesus created everything everything.” And he’s not stuttering; he’s emphasizing a point! If you don’t get it the first time, he goes on to say again: “all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things”! 

Let’s keep in mind, the Bible starts by filling two whole chapters explaining about God creating everything (Genesis 1-2). Elsewhere, God fills four chapters explaining to Job how he created everything and reigns over it (Job 38-41). God being the one and only creator of all things is repeated again and again throughout the Bible. This is undeniable.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself (Isaiah 44:24–25)

You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. (Nehemiah 9:6)

Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”  (Revelation 4:11)

And this is just the tip of a very large, unavoidable iceberg. Nowhere does the Old Testament or New Testament say, God created Jesus and then Jesus created everything else. No, God created “all things” and Jesus created “all things”! If there’s anything Paul is trying to emphasize in this very repetitive passage, it’s that!

ASK THE EXPERTS

Considering that Paul spends so much time hammering home this point, this is a pretty huge clue that (1) this is important and (2) “firstborn of all creation” must mean something other than Jesus is a created being. So, after doing some research, we find prototokos (“firstborn”) is often used not in the sense of the literal first child born, but as a title of prominence. 

The definitive Greek to English lexicon by scholars Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, (call it “BDAG,” if you’re nasty) defines prototokos as “[literally: pertaining] to birth order, firstborn,” but the second definition is “[pertaining] to having special status associated with a firstborn, [figurative].” [2]

Turn to the Psalms to see prototokos in the second sense, the figurative sense (whether in the Greek of the Septuagint [the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament] or the equivalent in the original Hebrew). Speaking of the eminent King David (Psalm 89:20), God says,

And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (Psalms 89:27)

David wasn’t the first child born to his father, Jesse. Not by a long shot. He was the youngest of several brothers (1 Samuel 17:13-14). Further, if anyone is God’s literal “firstborn,” it’s Adam, the first man ever created (Genesis 2). And God doesn’t say David is the firstborn, but he will “make him the firstborn.” This can’t be in any sort of literal sense because David is already born! 

Likewise, in Exodus God calls Israel “my firstborn son,” and in the Book of Jeremiah, God calls Ephraim “my firstborn.” Whether speaking of a person (Genesis 41:51-52), location, or tribe, it’s impossible to understand these uses of “firstborn” literally. 

“Firstborn” is a title given to someone or something that holds a special place of importance. Jesus – the eternal second person of the Trinity in the flesh – holds a place of prominence and unique intimacy with God the Father as the “firstborn” over all of creation.

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

READ: Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

[1] What Does the Bible Really Teach? Watch Tower Society

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 894). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

NEXT: If Jesus is “only-begotten,” how is he eternal God? (John 3:16)

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ.

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Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

NWT

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) (English Standard Version)

Now not so fast! These astonishing statements in John’s Gospel are traditionally understood to tell us two key, unique aspects of Christian belief: Jesus (“the Word” in John 1) is God, and God is at least two Persons, bringing into view the Trinity. But our friends at the local Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall (and the Watch Tower Society headquarters in Brooklyn) say we’ve gotten it all wrong.

Before moving on, let me give you some basics: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible is the Word of God, but they don’t believe in the Trinity; they don’t believe Jesus is God, nor do they believe the Holy Spirit is God. In order to interact with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you therefore need to understand why the Bible does, in fact, witness to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit being God, and you need to have your theology of the Trinity tight.

That being said, we’re going to look at (in this blog and future blogs) some specific things Jehovah’s Witness may throw at you to challenge the traditional (biblical) Christian views.

The Jehovah’s Witness version of the Bible, the New World Translation, has John 1:1 as follows: 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” 

Adding one teeny, tiny one-letter word to the sentence makes quite “a” difference!

JESUS: GOD OR “A GOD”?

Alright, which translation of John 1:1 is right?

The Greek word for “God” or “god” is theos. Ancient Greek didn’t use capitalization like we do today with English, so looking at the original Greek to see if “theos” is capitalized won’t help us here. So, forget capitalization. Let’s focus on “the Word was a god” because there’s “a” big problem with this. Actually, more than one. 

First, no scholar of New Testament era Greek – whether a traditional Christian or otherwise – has ever translated John 1:1 in this way. That says a lot.

Secondly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify this translation by pointing out that the original Greek literally reads, “the Word was with the [ton] theos, and the Word was theos.” This is accurate. But their argument is that since the second use of theos doesn’t have “the” (the definite article, for you grammar nerds), then the first use of theos is speaking of the one and only God (“the God”) and Jesus, the Word, is something like God but lesser; he’s “a god.” 

This idea of there being “a god” has its own problems, but first let me emphasize again that this isn’t how Greek grammar works and no Greek scholar would translate John 1:1 in this way. For one, the definite article (“the”) is used differently in Greek than in English, so it’s often not even translated into English. As we see, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation doesn’t translate the “the” either, but where do they get the idea that lack of “the” means adding an “a”?

BREAKING THEIR OWN RULE

Most of us aren’t Greek scholars to know one way or another, but this next reason why the Jehovah’s Witness translation fails is very telling: The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even follow their own unorthodox grammar rule! To be consistent, every time theos (“God” or “god”) appears without the definite article (“the”) in the original Greek of the New Testament, they should translate it as “a god.” Again, this is according to their own reasoning. 

Theos appears many, many times in the New Testament without “the,” yet their New World Translation doesn’t insert “a” or interpret theos as a lower-case “god” anywhere else! Their own New World Translation breaks their own odd grammar rule again and again. 

In fact, we don’t even have to leave John 1 to see this! None of the following include “the” with theos in the original Greek:

               John 1:6: There came a man who was sent as a representative of God. (New World Translation)

Why didn’t they translate it “representative of a god”?

               John 1:12-13: he gave authority to become God’s children, because they were exercising faith in his name. And they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from God. (New World Translation)

Why didn’t they translate this “become a god’s children” and “from a god”?

                John 1:18: 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. (New World Translation)

Why didn’t they translate this, “No man has seen a god” and “a only-begotten god”?

And there are many more examples of this throughout the New Testament. If the “translators” of the Jehovah’s Witness Bible are going to make up a grammar rule to wiggle around a clear teaching about Jesus, they could at least follow their own made-up grammar rule consistently.

DIGGING THE HOLE DEEPER

Thirdly, John 1:1 isn’t the only passage in the New Testament to declare Jesus as God. I’ve never met a mean Jehovah’s Witness, so when they come to my door sometimes I get my Bible and give them some friendly push-back. This led to me meeting up for coffee several times with a local Jehovah’s Witness elder to discuss Jesus. Of course, John 1:1 came up in our discussion, and despite me pointing out the above to him, we weren’t getting anywhere. So, I said, “Neither of us are Greek scholars, so let’s put John 1:1 aside for now and look at other reasons I believe the Bible teaches that Jesus is God.”

The whole of the Christian belief that Jesus is God isn’t based on only a single verse! I can’t say how the Jehovah’s Witnesses get around every one of them (nor would I take the time to address every one here), but the biblical evidence is substantial. 

Fourthly and finally, even if we accept “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god” as a legitimate alternative translation, this would make Jehovah’s Witnesses polytheists. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation avoids the Trinity in John 1:1 but declares two gods! 

Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, will deny this. Their own literature explains the wording in John 1:1 as “because of his high position among Jehovah’s creatures, the Word is referred to as ‘a god.’ Here the term ‘god’ means ‘mighty one.’” [1] Well, that seems unquestionably arbitrary! Why does this instance of theos (compared to the many, many other times theos is used throughout the New Testament) mean only “mighty one” instead of the one, true God? 

John and almost all of the writers of the New Testament were first century Jews. This Jehovah’s Witness idea of Jesus being a lower-case “god” would be totally alien to them. To a first century Jew, you were either God or you were not. There’s no third option. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim the idea of Jesus as God was added later to Christianity by the formerly-pagan Romans, yet the Jehovah’s Witness idea of Jesus being a near-god is certainly more Roman than Jewish. For the Jews, there were no partial gods, no near-gods, no lower-case “gods.”

By the Jehovah’s Witnesses mistranslating John 1:1 to avoid something that contradicts their beliefs, they’ve made matters worse for themselves. For the record, I don’t truly think Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in more than one God. My point is that by them trying to avoid the plain grammar of John 1:1, they’ve dug themselves into a deeper hole!

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

[1] What Does the Bible Really Teach? Watch Tower Society P.202

NEXT: If Jesus is the “firstborn” of creation how is he eternal God? (Colossians 1:15-19)

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ.

Confidence in Christ v2

James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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Did the Apostles Paul and James believe in the same Jesus?

The thesis of Mustafa Akyol’s 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims is basically this:

The first faithful followers of Jesus (who, like Jesus, were Jews) understood Jesus to be the completely human Messiah who the Jews had been waiting for. These Jewish Christians stayed faithful to all of the Old Testament law and their leader was the Apostle James, brother of Jesus.

Then, the Apostle Paul came along. He taught that Christians didn’t have to follow the Old Testament law and that they are saved by faith alone. Furthermore, mixing in some beliefs of the pagan Romans, these Christians proclaimed Jesus to be God in the flesh.

Clearly, according to Akyol, these two branches of early Christianity were at odds with each other, but Paul’s version won out and survives to this day as mainstream Christianity, which is the corrupted version of true Christianity. Akyol seems quite confident in his theory, even stating that it’s “historical fact that the two men had become the originators of two different branches of Christianity.” (P.5) Yes, you read that right; this, according to Akyol, is “historical fact”! According to Akyol, the true Christian faith of the first Jewish Christians “vanished in history,” condemned as heresy.

Akyol isn’t the first person to try to argue that Paul invented Christianity as we know it or that Paul corrupted the pure Christianity of Jesus. Akyol isn’t even the first person to pit Paul against James.

Akyol puts much stock into his idea that the Epistle of James, which is part of the New Testament canon, demonstrates an “implicit divergence from mainstream Christianity.” (P.4) Christians throughout history have noticed what may be a tension between Paul’s emphasis on salvation-by-faith-alone and James declaring “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and this has been addressed by many, many Christian theologians and scholars over the centuries (and we’ll take time to address it in a later blog), but Akyol goes even further in suggesting that the letter of James is totally at odds with historical, orthodox Christianity, as if it’s a remnant of the earliest, truest Christianity that has somehow snuck itself into the New Testament canon.

Akyol points out that James’ letter never calls Jesus “the Son of God” (P.3) and elsewhere he states James (and the early Jerusalem Church, which James led) did not believe Jesus was God incarnate (P.35).

If Akyol is right and James’ letter  is representative of the first Jewish Christians – the true followers of Jesus, according to his theory – then the letter would NOT confirm the deity of Jesus. 

Did James believe Jesus was a strictly human messiah? Did James not believe Jesus was the incarnate, divine, second person the Trinity? If the idea of Jesus being divine was foreign to James, we should expect, at least, that he is silent on the issue of Jesus’ divinity in his letter, right?

“LORD” VS. “GOD”

Let’s go to the actual letter of James in the New Testament and see what James has to say himself:

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

So, as we start with chapter one, we are only one verse in and we already run into an issue with Akyol’s theory. (Yes, we didn’t even get out of James 1:1!) Here, James begins by referring to Jesus as “the Lord.”

Here’s the thing: we modern people see the word “God” and we think – well – “God,” meaning a divine being. And when we see the word “Lord,” we think that could just be a human. For example, Lord Byron was just a man. And those familiar with the Bible likely see “Lord” and think, “Well, that could be God, but it could also be just a human.” And how they determine which “Lord” it is – divine or human – they must look at the context of the writing to figure it out.

But there’s the rub: when we read the New Testament and we see “Lord,” it is a divine title. In other words, “God” means God and “Lord” means God. Thus, when Jesus is called “Lord” in the New Testament, he is being called “God.”

Let’s go back to the Old Testament.

The name of the one, true God of the Bible is Yahweh, as given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is God’s personal, proper name.

In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, adonia is a title often given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh, but it is a title that can also be given to people. Adonia is usually translated as “lord.”

The Hebrew word elohim is another title, which is usually given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh. This is usually translated “god.” But, the thing is, elohim can (though not often) even be a title given to powerful humans. For example, see Psalm 82:1 and 82:6 (and Jesus’ comments about this Psalm in John 10:34-35). Yet over time, as we see in our day, the title “god” came to only refer to divine, supernatural beings, and when someone says “God” today, they are referring usually to a specific idea of a divine being and using it like a proper name for that being.

(Important note: Biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have lower and upper case letters; thus, when reading the original languages, we can’t depend on a word being capitalized or not – like in English – to help us interpret the understanding of certain words. We must look at context.)

In ancient Israel, in order to not accidentally break the commandment to not use Yahweh’s name carelessly (one of the Ten Commandments – Exodus 20:7), the ancient Jews would avoid saying “Yahweh,” even when reading Scripture, and would instead substitute it with adonia (Lord). They would do this in writing as well.

This tradition carried over into the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament). So, where the original Hebrew reads “Yehweh,” the translators of the Septuagint instead wrote the Greek word for LordKyrios.

This tradition continues into our modern English translations today. If you open up your English Old Testament to a random page, you’ll likely find “THE LORD” written in all small caps. This is to signify that the original Hebrew reads “Yahweh.”

The evidence in the New Testament shows that when Jesus and the first Christians quoted Scripture, they quoted the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. Scholars confirm this. Thus, the Septuagint was the translation of Jewish Scripture primarily used and read by Jesus and the Apostles, and the Septuagint refers to the only one, truly divine being as Lord (Kyrios).

My point?

Just as “god” became a word to exclusively mean divinity, the word “lord” (kyrios) to the New Testament writers was a word to describe divinity as well. In other words, when the New Testament authors write that Jesus is “Lord,” they are saying Jesus is the God of Israel.

Read the New Testament letters carefully. You’ll notice almost exclusively (with some exceptions), God the Father is called “God” and Jesus/the Son is called “Lord.” (And, yes, sometimes, Jesus is called “God” too!)

So, James 1:1 should be understood as follows:

“James, a servant of God [the Father] and of the [God] Jesus Christ.”

The New Testament writers understood the Father and the Son as two persons (of three) of the Trinitarian Godhead; they were different persons sharing the same divine substance. Thus, they referred to one divine person by the title “God” and the other by the title “Lord,” yet both were titles for divine beings.

If you don’t believe me, let’s let James speak for himself…

 

JAMES SPEAKS FOR HIMSELF

Make a short, short jump from 1:1 to 1:5-8, and we already see this in James’ letter:

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Here, James first says to ask for wisdom from God. Then, James explains how to ask properly, saying we shouldn’t assume we’ll “receive anything from the Lord.” James is clearly using “God” and “Lord” as interchangeable synonyms; God is the Lord, and the Lord is God. Who did James call “Lord” in 1:1?

Later in Chapter 1, James refers to God as “the Father” (1:17) and also writes “God, the Father” (1:27). Though God is referred to as a father in the Old Testament, referring to God as “the Father” and as “God the Father” are unique titles given to God by the writers of the New Testament, implying the Trinity.

Chapter 3 of James’ letter begins with the famous “taming of the tongue” section, where he warns of the dangers of careless talk. Using the tongue as a symbol of human speech, he writes:

9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (3:9)

Already, we saw how “God” and “Lord” are interchangeable in 1:5-8 and also that “Father” is a title for God. Here in 3:9, we see that “Lord” and “Father” are interchangeable. Not only that, but the whole point of 3:9 is that humans are not to use the same mouth they use to praise God to curse humans, who are made in God’s image. Clearly, the Father, the Lord, and God all share an identity.

Moving on to Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” throughout. Should we understanding these to be references to the strictly human, non-divine Jesus of Akyol’s theory or as references to Jesus, God the Son, second person of the Trinity? Let’s see what the context tells us:

Verses 7 and 8 speak of the end times coming of “the Lord.” If what we looked at above is ignored, a Muslim like Akyol could likely argue that this reference is to Jesus and nothing about it implies divinity; it’s a common Muslim belief that Jesus was a human prophet of Allah who will also return at the End Times. But as we read on in Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” (which is how Jesus is referred to in 1:1) is clearly God, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament:

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (5:10-11)

Take note, James refers to the prophets (which can only mean the Old Testament prophets) “who spoke in the name of the Lord,” i.e. Yahweh, i.e. God. Next, we have a reference to the book of Job of the Old Testament and Job’s encounter with “the Lord,” which can, again, only mean Yahweh, i.e. God.

Thus, the “Lord” of verses 7 and 8 who will return at the End Times is Yahweh, and both Christians and Muslims agree that it is Jesus who will return at the End Times. Further, again, who is called Lord in James 1:1?

There are other times “Lord” appears in James, but I think you get my point. James calls Jesus “the Lord.” James calls God “the Lord.” Thus, James believed Jesus is God.

 

OK, ONE MORE VERSE

Finally, let’s jump back to James 2:1:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

If this is a proper translation, here we find James explicitly stating that Jesus is God. To a good Jew like James, only Yahweh is “the Lord of glory”! Now, to be perfectly transparent, this is a hard sentence to translate, and other translations do not translate it in the same way as the ESV quoted above. Here are other ways to translate it:

“…faith in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord of glory, Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory.”

“…faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

Some of these translations may be giving Jesus a divine title more overtly than others, but in David P. Nystrom’s commentary on James, he states, “In any event it seems clear that in this rare case of Christology in the book of James, Jesus Christ is identified with the Shekinah, the visible manifestation of the divine. James believes that in Jesus God is revealed… the very manifestation of God’s glory” (James: NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan P. 114).

In support of this understanding, see 1 Corinthians 2:8, where Paul speaks of Jesus as “the Lord of glory,” and Acts 7:2, where Stephen describes Yahweh as “the God of glory.”  

Ironically, Akyol actually quotes 2:1 in his book to emphasize how Jesus is only mentioned by name twice in Jame’s epistle, not realizing the significance of Jesus being called “Lord” in both passages where Jesus is named and “the glory” in 2:1.

 

WRAPPING IT UP

To wrap up, Akyol makes a mistaken assumption when using James’ letter to argue that James did not believe in the divinity of Christ: he assumes that just because James’ epistle is in the New Testament, that the letter must explicitly declare the divinity of Christ. Think about it: if – for example – a pastor was writing to his church, which he already knew believed Jesus was God, would he need to lay all that out to them again?

Yet, Akyol does not take into account the specific purpose, audience, or even genre of the writing. If James is writing to Christians already familiar with Christian beliefs, why would he need to explicitly declare Jesus’ divinity? Why assume every letter written by an Apostle will lay out the whole of Christian theology?

The truth is, most letters in the New Testament are not theological manifestos. They are written to specific churches about specific topics and issues. With this, James’ epistle more closely follows the genre of Proverbs than the theologically heavy letters of the New Testament, such as Romans or Hebrews.

Finally, as we’ve seen, what Akyol misses is that James does declare Jesus to be God. Does James explicitly proclaim it? No, he assumes it. This implicit proclamation is weaved throughout his letter, and once noticed through careful reading, it is just as powerful as any explicit declaration of the God-man Jesus Christ.