I am a born-again, evangelical Christian. The institutional church says I’m not, that I’m a heretic. Why? Its creeds have the Trinity doctrine in them. Those creeds say that no matter what a person believes about Jesus, if that person does not believe in the deity of Christ–meaning 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. Why? It’s not in the Bible! But I didn’t used to think that. I used to be a Trinitarian; then I changed.
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 learning theology and the Bible. That’s where I was taught the doctrine of the Trinity–that God is three Persons and Jesus is one of them. I believed this for the next twenty years. But that had nothing to do with me being a “born-again Christian.” Believing in Jesus Christ as my risen 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.
I graduated from the University of Houston with a business degree in 1963, did six months active duty in the Army, and then began my career on the PGA Tour. The next year, in the summer of 1965, I co-founded the PGA Tour Bible Study with my dear friend and fellow Tour player Babe Hiskey. Eventually, I was the senior leaders. Over the years, this group made a profound impact on the PGA Tour. It even caused other similar ministries to occur in golf. All of this time I was a Trinitarian Christian.
Then one day I was alone in my office, studying Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. I knew the text well since I had specialized in studying Bible prophecy ever since my college days. I read a much beloved text of mine in which Jesus said of 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 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 by having a divine nature and a human nature. The church calls this “the hypostatic union.” Church fathers decided this at the Fifth Ecumenical Council held at Chalcedon in 451. I also was taught that, in applying the hypostatic union to what the New Testament gospels say Jesus said or did something, we must understand that it was from the perspective of only one of his two natures, thus either his divine nature or his human nature.
In the case of Jesus saying 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 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.
As I read this saying of Jesus in Matthew 24.36 (also in Mark 13.32), I was thinking of what I had been taught. It was that because of Jesus’ hypostatic union he did not know in his human nature the time of his return, yet he did know it in his divine nature. That is when the light went on inside of me, meaning that I believe God enlightened me. For, I literally blurted out loud to myself with intense emotion, “That makes Jesus look like a liar. He said he didn’t know when he would return, but he really did know since he is God.” Then I thought to myself, “what is most important to me is Jesus’ integrity. If I believe something that I was taught which impugns Jesus’ integrity, I need to look into this.” I then actually exclaimed firmly, “I will stand on the integrity of Jesus.”
It was a decision that would change my life forever. I knew very well what I was getting myself into. By deciding to investigate this issue, I would be questioning the deity of Christ. But what I had discovered was as plain to me as anything could possibly be. It was that I had believed something that 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 what my church says, or what the institutional church has proclaimed for so many hundreds of years. What I cared most about was what the Bible says. And I cared most about God accepting me.
However, I also believed that God teaches many people and therefore not just me. So, my attitude has always been to search out and listen to what others say and what they write about such important matters. I decided that I would investigate this issue by studying the Bible diligently, asking God to teach it to me, and reading and listening to many, many others, especially biblical scholars.
This endeavor 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. I concluded that he never identifies himself therein as God. I already knew the main text some Christians cite in their assertion 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.”
It took me a little over two years before I decided, in 1982, that the Bible does not seem to clearly say 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 is grammatical, and I thought this is a red flag indicating that perhaps the deity of Christ rests 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 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.
My favorite New Testament example of the proclamation of the good news (gospel) about Jesus is when he told Nicodemus he needed to be born again (John 3.3-5). Jesus explained how such a spiritual birth would occur. 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). I believed this is synonymous with seeing and entering the kingdom of God (vv. 3, 5).
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 doctrine of the Trinity as much as any other seminary. One day I got the courage to ask chief librarian Marvin Hunn if he knew of any New Testament scholars that he respected who did not believe that the traditional translation of John 1.1c was correct. I was surprised that he answered “yes.” He then 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 say Jesus is 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 ) 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 ), 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. The question is, 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 which is 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 ascension into heaven following his imminent death and resurrection. Thomas said to Jesus that he did not know where Jesus was going, nor did he know the way there (v. 5). Jesus then made his famous pronouncement, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that “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 nowhere identifies Jesus as “God.”
However, for about the next six or seven years I continued to cling to my belief that some biblical texts indicated Jesus literally had preexisted. Nevertheless, I did not believe preexistence required deity. Many famous Jewish rabbis have believed that certain heroes of their faith preexisted, or visited heaven and returned to tell about it; yet these rabbis did not also believed this indicated that those people were divine or possessed deity or were literally gods. Eventually, I came to understand that these biblical texts did not mean Jesus literally preexisted. Since then, I have believed that the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, is not God and that he did not literally preexist. I concluded that much of this false notion was based on a misunderstanding of the logos.
Throughout 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 and a lot of determination, especially since I did not have easy access to the right sources, nor did I have others assisting me.
Also, during this time, I wrote a 600-page book about it entitled The Restitution of Jesus Christ. This book focuses primarily on critical biblical texts as to whether or not they identify Jesus as God. I present Jesus as everything the post-apostolic, institutional church has proclaimed about him–his virgin birth, miracles, atoning death, resurrection, and ascension–but he is not God. I believe this viewpoint helps people appreciate Jesus more for his overcoming of temptation, rejection, and suffering, and this viewpoint exalts the so-called “forgotten Father” as the only true God who alone is The Almighty.
To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book, with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.