At Forty Years Old I Best Saw the Light–Trinity Doctrine No Longer Seemed Right.

I am a born-again, evangelical Christian. The institutional church says I’m not, that I am a heretic. Why? It’s creeds. Those creeds say that no matter what a person believes about Jesus, if that person does not believe in the deity of Christ, that Jesus is God, co-equal with God the Father, that person is not a genuine Christian and therefore is not saved. I say that’s a bunch of rubbish!

I was saved when I was thirteen years old by believing in Jesus as my Savior who died for my sins on the cross. I then prayed with my Sunday school teacher, asking Jesus to come into my life. Five years later I went to college and began attending a Bible church. It was very serious about theology and learning the Bible. That’s where I was taught the church doctrine of the Trinity. I believed that for the next twenty years. But that had nothing to do with me being a “born-again Christian.” Believing in Jesus as my Savior and making him Lord of my life is what caused God to make me a child of God, and that’s what keeps me that way.

One day I was reading Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. I knew the text well because  I specialized in the study of Bible prophecy. Then I read a much beloved text of mine, in which Jesus said about his future second coming, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24.36; cf. Mark 13.32). At that moment a light went on inside of me. But before I tell you about it, I need to explain about belief in “the deity of Christ.”

The institutional church has taught that Jesus is both God and man, that is, that Jesus has both a divine nature and a human nature. The church calls it “the hypostatic union.” I also was taught that when we read in the New Testament gospels about what Jesus said or did, we must understand that he said or did that particular saying or thing from the perspective of one of his two natures, thus either his divine nature or his human nature. Now, in the case of Jesus saying that he did not know the time of his yet future second coming, I was taught that we must understand that Jesus said this in his human nature only and thus not in his divine nature. Why? I also was taught that God knows everything, including everything about the future, so that Jesus, being God, knew in his divine nature when his second coming will occur. (All of these things were taught by Nicene and post-Nicene fathers.)

So, as I read this saying of Jesus in Matthew 24.36, I was thinking of what I had been taught–that because of Jesus’ hypostatic union, he didn’t know in his human nature the time of his return, but he did know it in his divine nature. That’s when the light went on inside of me, meaning that I believe God then enlightened me. For, I said to myself, “that makes Jesus look like liar. He said he didn’t know when he would return, but he really did because he is God.” Then I thought to myself, “what is most important to me is Jesus’ integrity, and if I believe something I was taught which impugns Jesus’ integrity, I need to look into this.”

I knew very well what I was getting myself into. By investigating this issue, I would be questioning the deity of Christ. But this was as plain to me as anything could possibly be, that I believed something I was taught which made Jesus look like a liar.

What I cared about more than anything in the world was to know the truth. It was not most important to me to be comfortable, to be accepted by people, and thus to believe what my friends believed, or my church says, or the institutional church declares. I cared about what the Bible says. I cared most about God accepting me. However, I also believed that God teaches many people and therefore not just me. Thus, my attitude has always been to search out and listen to what others say and what they write about these matters. So, I would investigate this issue by studying the Bible diligently, asking God to teach me about it, and reading and listening to many others.

It launched me into what I call “my quest for the real Jesus.” At first, I thought what is most important is what Jesus said about himself. Did he say he was God? So, I bought a red letter Bible (Jesus’ sayings are in red). I read only Jesus’ sayings and concluded that he never identifies himself therein as God. I already knew the main text Christians cite in asserting that Jesus said he is God. It’s John 10.30, “I and the Father are one.” I said to myself, “if that’s the best they have to offer from scripture that Jesus is God, I’m on the right track in inquiring about this matter.”

It took me a little over two years before I decided, in 1982, that the Bible does not seem to clearly state that Jesus is God. For, when you examine the critical texts in the Bible which scholars cite to support that Jesus is God, oftentimes they do indeed say that in some English versions of the Bible, but in other versions they do not say that. I found this to be the case in Romans 9.5, Titus 2.13, Hebrews 1.8, and 1 John 5.20. Usually, the issue was grammatical, and I thought this was a red flag indicating that perhaps the deity of Christ rested on shaky ground. However, there were two texts that I regarded as obstacles to this direction I was taking: John 1.1c (“and the word was God”) and 20.28 (Thomas said to Jesus, “my Lord and my God”).

I also noticed that in every evangelistic message or definition of the gospel recorded in the New Testament, none of them say anything about Jesus being God, much less that God is three persons. Thus, there was no so-called “deity of Christ” in them. I found this to be true of such cherished texts as Acts 16.31, Romans 10.9-10, and 1 Corinthians 15.1-4.

To me, the best New Testament example of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is when he told Nicodemus he needed to be born again (John 3.3-5). Jesus then explained how such a spiritual birth would happen. He said Nicodemus needed to believe in “the Son of man,” referring to himself (cf. Daniel 7.13-14) being “lifted up” (John 3.14), that is, lifted up on a cross and dying for Nicodemus’ sins. Jesus compared it to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on his staff and the Hebrew people looking at it to be healed of their poisonous snake bites (Numbers 21.4-9). Jesus said the result would be that Nicodemus would have “eternal life” (v. 15), which must be synonymous with seeing and entering the kingdom of God (vv. 3, 5). Then Jesus proclaimed my favorite verse in the Bible by saying, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (v. 16). There nothing in any of this narrative in which Jesus proclaimed himself as being God, much less that Nicodemus must believe that in order to enter the kingdom of God and thereby receive eternal life. By the way, isn’t it interesting that only two people–Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, thus none of Jesus’ apostles–got permission from Governor Pilate to take Jesus’ body that was lifted up on the cross and buried it in the tomb (John 19.38-42).

I lived in metro-Houston, Texas. Sometimes, I would go to Dallas to study in Mosher Library at Dallas Theological Seminary because I had an association with that school. It certainly is as devoted to the deity of Christ and the Trinity doctrine as any school in the world. One day I got the courage to ask chief librarian Marvin Hunn if he knew of any New Testament scholars he respected who did not believe that the traditional translation of John 1.1c was correct. I was surprised that he answered “yes” and suggested I read a doctoral dissertation on it by one of their students and P.B. Harner’s article in the world’s premiere theological journal, the Journal of Biblical Literature. Then I asked Marvin what he thought of these two sources. I was astounded when he said he believed those two authors were right, that John 1.1c in the Greek text does not identify Jesus as God. He added that he still believed that the New Testament identifies Jesus as God in other texts. [See discussion below, in Comments, between Marvin and I about the recollection of this conversation.]

Harner’s article (“Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1,” JBL 92 [1973]) was somewhat of a rebuttal to C.C. Colwell’s article published in the same journal forty years prior (“A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” JBL 52 [1933]), which latter many cited to suport that John 1.1c calls Jesus “God.” I was convinced that Colwell was wrong and Harner was right.

But I had one more obstacle to overcome–Thomas’ confession in John 20.28. Does Thomas therein call Jesus “God.” Sometime later, I was reading Rudolf Bultmann’s commentary on the Gospel of John and I came to his remark on this text. He compared it to Jesus’ interaction with Thomas and Philip only a few days earlier and recorded only in this gospel, in John 14.

That scene is the Last Supper. Jesus informs his apostles that he is about to leave them and go to his “Father’s house” (John 14.2). He refers to his imminent ascension into heaven following his death and resurrection. Thomas said to Jesus that he did not know where Jesus was going or the way there (v. 5). Jesus then made his famous pronouncement, that he is the way, truth, life, and “no one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6). Philip then interjected, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (v. 8). Then we read, “Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me'” (v. 9).

I was amazed that Bultmann made this connection, which I thought was so insightful, yet he did not explain anything about it. To me it was obvious that when Thomas said to the risen Jesus days later, “my Lord and my God,” he meant that he was recalling Jesus’ teaching to him and Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Thus, Thomas meant that he now understood that God the Father indeed had raised Jesus from the dead and that the Father indwelt Jesus. So, Thomas was calling Jesus “my Lord” and recognizing “my God (the Father)” indwelling Jesus. Thomas therefore was not at all identifying Jesus as “God.”

With this new understanding of John 1.1c and 20.28, in about 1986, I was now fully convinced that the Bible never identifies Jesus as God. However, for about the next six or seven years I still clung to my belief that some biblical texts indicated that Jesus preexisted. But at the same time I did not believe that preexistence required deity. Eventually, I came to understand that these texts did not mean that Jesus literally preexisted. Since then, I have believed that the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, is not God.

Through this period of almost thirty years of my quest for the real Jesus, I estimate that I read about 1,000 volumes on whether or not Jesus is God. That took a lot of work, a lot of determination, especially since I did not have easy access to the right sources, nor did I have others to assist me.

Also, during this time, I wrote a 600-page book about it entitled The Restitution of Jesus Christ. In this book, I present Jesus as everything the post-apostolic, institutional church has proclaimed about Jesus–his virgin birth, miracles, atoning death, resurrection, and ascension–but he is not God. I believe this viewpoint helps people to appreciate Jesus more for overcoming temptation, rejection, and suffering, and it exalts the so-called “forgotten Father” as the only true God and thus the Almighty.

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  • David

    Kermit – Jesus said ” Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”. How does a DEAD MAN raise himself back to life? You are correct in saying God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus was correct when he said he would raise himself from the dead. He is declaring that HE is God. He would HAVE to have a dual-nature of Man and God – in order to be physically FULLY-DEAD and yet be FULLY-ALIVE enough to raise himself to life.

    Kermit – IF Jesus is not God – then WHO do you say he is? Simply a human being? An Angel? A Cherub? How do you explain him raising HIMSELF from the dead?

    • kzarley

      I state many times in posts on this blog who I believe Jesus was and is. But I go into much detail about Jesus’ identity in my 600-page book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ, which is all about restoring the biblical identity of Jesus. I believe Jesus was and remains no more than a man, yet he was in his eartly life a man as God intended man to be when God created man.

      As for Jesus’ resurrection the NT, especially evangelistic sermons in Acts, says repeatedly God raised Jesus from the dead. In my RJC, I go into detail about this, explaining Jn 10 about Jesus saying he would raise himself, and in doing so I rely heavily on the excellent, Catholic, NT scholar Raymond E. Brown. He did not believe those two sayings by the Johanniine Jesus indicate he was God, though Brown believed he was.

      As for titles, I believe Jesus is first in importance “the Son of Man,” which is how he most often identified himself by implicitly referring to Dan 7.13-14. Jesus is also the one-of-a-kind (Gr. monogenes) Son of God, which should not be understood ontologically but relationally as this expression is used repeatedly in the OT. And both testaments identify Jesus by using “Son of God” interchangeably with “Messiah” (e.g., Ps 2; Mt 16.16; 26.63; Jn 20.31), indicating that they can be understood of Jesus as equivalents. This can be proved in several ways, one being that Matthew says Peter answered Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” whereas Mark (8.29) and Luke (9.20) only say Peter answered “the Christ.”

  • Marvin Hunn

    Kermit, I have just discovered that you briefly mention my view of John 1:1 in this old posting. I want to correct your summary of my view. I think John 1:1 distinguishes God the Father from the divine Word in the following sense: God the Son is not the same person as God the Father. But according to John 1:1c, the Word has the same quality of deity/divinity as the Father. This verse explicitly asserts the deity of Jesus, fully on par with God the Father, and it also supports the doctrine of the Trinity.

    • kzarley

      Marvin Hunn, good to hear from you. It’s been almost thirty years since we last saw each other and spoke. Well, that meeting in your office was very important to me, so I think I remember it correctly. I also think that after we had that conversation I recorded it in my notes, but I no longer have them. Perhaps we will find out for sure about this in glory.

      I asked you about scholars, and then what you thought, about John 1.1c. I still remember the name of the DTS PhD student whose dissertation you recommended that I look at, which I did–Dixon. But you highly recommended Harner’s JBL article. And I distinctly remember you saying that you believed they were right about John 1.1c. Because that shocked me, I recall then asking you this very question, “How can the head librarian of Dallas Theological Seminary believe John 1.1c does not say Jesus is God?” I obviously meant in comparison with v. 14. You replied that you still believed very strongly that the New Testament says in many other places that Jesus is God, just not in John 1.1c.

      Marvin, could it be that you had a time in your life when you thought Dixon and Harner were right about John 1.1c, but you later returned to your former belief that this text, along with v. 14, identifies Jesus as God? To repeate, I’m pretty sure of my recollection of this conversation we had that I have stated in this post and now in this comment here.

      Anyway, blessings, brother. I always appreciated you as a diligent librarian at Mosher Library because that was not the only time I asked you for help.

      • Marvin Hunn

        Kermit, although I remember you, I don’t remember the specific conversation you mention in the blog, and I’m not going to try to reconstruct who said what.

        Perhaps misunderstanding is a bigger issue than misremembering. Based on your “shock,” I suspect you then misunderstood (and apparently still misunderstand) not only me, but also Paul Dixon and Philip Harner. In my view, Dixon and Harner are correct when they say Theos in John 1:1c is qualitative, not definite. There is nothing shocking about a Trinitarian saying Dixon and Harner made a good grammatical point. The grammar is entirely consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity. Dixon and Harner do not hold to your interpretation of John 1:1. They do not support your rejection of the diety of Jesus.

        In my view, “God” in 1:1b is God the Father, not God the Son or God the Spirit. John 1:1c asserts the Word is of the same quality as the one called “God” in 1:1b. What quality/qualities must be understood from the context. In the context of John as a whole, 1:1 is saying God the Father and God the Son are of the same divine essence but they are not the same person. That is Trinitarian.

        I appreciate your many years of serious bible study and encourage you to keep at it.

        • kzarley

          Marvin, with all due respect, the original question I asked you was, “Do you know of any reputable scholars who don’t think John 1.1c means ‘the Word was God’?” And we both understood that in comparing this traditional translation with v. 14, that translation effectively identifies Jesus as being God. You then answered my question by mentioning Harner’s 1973 JBL article, which largely rebuts Colwell’s 1933 JBL article and thus the so-called “Colwell rule,” and added that DTS student Dixon’s dissertation was like it. Therefore, if I am right about this question to you, and I think there is no way I am wrong about that part of our conversation, at that time you believed Harner’s article meant that he did not think John 1.1c supports the deity of Christ. Otherwise, you would not have offered those two sources as an answer to my question. Also, in that article Harner concludes by endorsing the NEB translation, “what God was the Word was,” thus maintaining the syntax. NEB gen. ed. C.H. Dodd and members of that tr. com., such as J.A.T Robinson, clearly did not mean by this tr. that it says the Word/Jesus is God ontologically but exactly like God in character.

          You now have me thinking of asking Daniel Wallace what he thinks Harner means in this article. I will try to do it if he attends SBL-Atlanta in two months and I can find him.

          • Marvin Hunn

            I understand your broad argument is as follows.

            1. K asked the question quoted above
            2. [unstated assumption: K and M interpreted the question in the same way]
            3. M responded by pointing to Harner and Dixon
            4. Pointing to Harner and Dixon in that context would make sense only if one believed H&D do not think John 1:1c supports the diety of Christ.
            5. Therefore M must have believed H&D do not think John 1:1c supports the diety of Christ.

            I say #4 is false and #5 does not follow. In addition, it appears to me you make the false unstated assumption #2. I suspect we understood the question in different ways. I suspect that false assumption is partly why you incorrectly hold to #4.

            I originally posted in public in order to deny your public mischaracterization of my beliefs about the deity of Christ and John 1:1. I am satisfied I have had sufficient opportunity to do that, and I don’t think the general public will benefit from our continued exchange on this blog. I would like to terminate the exchange.

            But if the conversation is important to you, email me and I will continue at least a bit via private email. I can, for example, give you an example of why #4 is false. You can reach me at the library. We can even go to lunch some time if you wish.

          • kzarley

            Thanks for that invitation to lunch, Marvin. Yes, I will now terminate this discussion. That’s how I remember it, but, heh, I could be wrong. Blessings to you and peace.

          • kzarley

            BTW, Marvin, check out my innovative new book released this week by Wipf and Stock Publishers entitled “Solving the Samaritan Riddle: Peter’s Kingdom Keys Explain Early Spirit Baptism.” It’s endorsed by NT profs. Scot McKnight, Grant Osborne, Graham Twelftree, Jimmy Dunn, William Atkinson.