Barbara Buzzard Reviews The Only True God

The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish ContextIn an e-mail I received recently, my attention was drawn to a review of my book The Only True God by Barbara Buzzard. The review is in essence an assessment of whether my book argues that a unitarian or trinitarian view of God should be a tenet for Christians today. Anyone who has read it will know that the book focuses on history, and sets aside questions of systematic theology. And I think it is the fact that I do not come out in support of oneness theology that is has riled Ms. Buzzard, who seems to otherwise appreciate some of my arguments.
Buzzard is not the first non-trinitarian to get upset about the fact that, even though I conclude that the earliest Christians were monotheists in the same sense that many if not all of their non-Christian Jewish contemporaries were, this does not in my mind settle the matter as to whether trinitarian language about God can have a useful or appropriate place in theology today. That may seem like a cop-out, but the truth is that no one today – particularly in a North American context – thinks about God in exactly the way Jesus did. And so figuring out what Jesus or the earliest Christians thought is an important, but not on its own sufficient, step in the direction of reflecting on what Christians can or should believe today.

I should also say that I am rather disappointed that in the review, a sentence that is part of my summary of an approach taken by others is introduced early on as though it reflects my own viewpoint. In the same way, the fact that I talk of trinitarianism evolving out of first-century Christian beliefs is taken as though it were a statement of normativity rather than as a mere statement of fact. That Christianity gave rise to belief in the Trinity is beyond any historical doubt, I presume. Whether it should have developed such doctrines is a different sort of question. And if anyone wishes to discuss it here, you are welcome to do so!

Nevertheless, I am grateful to Barbara Buzzard for taking the time to read and write about my book.

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  • I don't think the early church thought as much about the theory of their faith; more so they were more interested in the outworking of it.While they may not have had the Trinity as well worked out; perhaps for them it was more important to experience the Trinity working through, over and within them?

  • Anonymous

    Tell that old buzzard to buzz off.

  • Maybe it's hard to do advance theology when you're being eaten by a lion.

  • Anonymous

    craigbenno1 how do you "experience" something that does not exist? Anonymous…what's your problem? Instead of simply attacking the person try attacking their argumentations.

  • Barbara Buzzard

    May I point out Dr. McGrath's mistaken assumption that I belong to the school of "oneness" (modalism). I do not subscribe to "oneness modalism" in any way, nor have I ever. Dr. McGrath concedes that the earliest believers were unitary monotheists. If this is the theology of Jesus, is it not supposed to be that of his followers? Or can the teaching of Jesus be set aside, while discipleship to him is claimed?

  • Ms. Buzzard, where exactly did I claim that you are a Modalist? It seems that your only disagreement with my book is that I suggested in the conclusion that the question of the validity of Trinitarianism cannot be settled only by a study of the meaning of the New Testament documents in their historical context, without taking into consideration the major changes of worldview and context that led to subsequent developments. It seems that you would be better off making the case for your viewpoint than criticizing me for suggesting that it is necessary to do so.

  • Barbara Buzzard

    Dr. McGrath, Thanks for your interesting comments on my review of your book, The Only True God. Just a point: “oneness” theology (your phrase) is equivalent to modalism, and I am not representing modalism. My assumption is that the words of Jesus are normative for Christians at all times. Jesus insisted on that often. If that is so, why is Jesus’ own unitarian creed not the standard for us today? We do not question the validity of “loving God with all your heart.” Why question or alter in anyway Jesus’ statement about who the true God is. Of course, as you say, it is a fact that Trinitarianism claimed to be a development from the NT. The issue I was trying to promote was, as you mention, whether that is a legitimate development, rather than a departure from Jesus. Jesus defined the true God in an easy unitarian statement, as the “Only true God” (John 17:3; cp. Mk 12:29). It would appear that it is hardly “systematic” to go beyond the words of Jesus. That is the major thrust of my criticism. The question of how today Christians think of God is exactly the issue I was trying to raise. It is not clear why Christians have the right not to follow the words of Jesus!

    • Please do call me James. I appreciate your points. As my book is an academic one, I set aside the issues related to contemporary theology, and focused all my attention on trying to clarify the meaning of the New Testament texts within the context of first-century Jewish monotheism. The result was the conclusion that the earliest Christians were completely and unambiguously monotheistic in the same sense as their Jewish contemporaries. Academics like myself have focused areas of expertise, and even when we have some competency in other areas, trying to do justice to those other issues can often lead to us not doing as full justice to the central focus of our research as we might have had we set them aside. I’ve been criticized both by unitarians who are annoyed that I did not rule out Trinitarianism as an invalid theological development out of first-century Christian beliefs, and I’ve been criticized by Trinitarians for interpreting the New Testament texts as thoroughly monotheistic and not representing a departure from Jewish monotheism. I was genuinely trying to do nothing else but emphasize that the later developments are later, and need to be set aside in asking what the NT texts mean. Only when we have done so can we hope to be in a position to evaluate those later developments accurately.

      On a related note, I am curious why, in the context of a strictly monotheistic Christianity, it would be considered inappropriate to go beyond the words of Jesus. I understand the point you were making as it relates to Christology, but the way you worded it seems to imply a broader application. Among those who agree in not thinking about Jesus as God, would that not suggest that God, and not the words of Jesus, should be the correct focus of attention?

  • Gary

    This is an old post, but I can’t resist, since I read some posts about the Gospel of Thomas as well. I am not making a point about 1 or 3. Not an issue for me. Just that politics and diversity ruled in the formation of the NT, well after Jesus was speaking in the flesh. And the early church fathers put together the scriptures (and dogma/creeds) based upon their interpretations at the time, post 100AD or more. Then they suppressed, and burned the scriptures/opinions they did not agree with. So Barbara mentions John 17:3. How about the first chapter of John, maybe about verses 1-19 or more. You read that, and you have to say, “What?” Sounds like more than one to me. I mentioned Thomas because John and Thomas were on opposites (whoever wrote them….not John and not Thomas, obviously – at best hopefully an oral history eventually written based upon more interpretations of what was oral at the time). But Irenaeus didn’t like Thomas, but promoted John (maybe). Thomas was pro-God-exists-in-everyone, (gnostic in a limited sense). John more Jesus-from-the-beginning with God. Anyway, my only point is, diversity suppression, so only one opinion existed, dominated at the time of the formation of the NT. So NO ONE can know for sure what exactly Jesus may or may not have meant. I think the only solution, assuming you are a Christian, is to say the Holy Spirit will tell you what is right. But do not be upset if someone else comes up with a different answer. The ultimate answer, “It’s a mystery”.