Trinitarians Without Colons? Rob Bowman on 1 Corinthians 8:4-6

Trinitarians Without Colons? Rob Bowman on 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 May 25, 2010

Having had my attention grabbed, I looked to see where else I was mentioned in the Trinity debate. I knew that my book had come up, but I was not aware just how often it was mentioned in the comments section.

Rob Bowman mentions my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 in a comment. His first major point is as follows:

McGrath finds it dubious that Paul could have adapted the Shema to distinguish “God” as the Father and “Lord” as the Son without any explanation or defense (39). This objection does not quite get right what Bauckham and others of the same perspective (including me) are saying. The claim is not that Paul took the Shema, which referred to the Lord as God, and split its divine figure into two deities, one who is God (not Lord) and the other who is Lord (not God). Rather, the claim is that Paul treated these two divine names “God” and “Lord” as both identifying the one divine Creator and proper object of religious devotion, but included Jesus in that divine identity. As for Paul not stopping to explain or defend this idea, this may simply reflect that the identity of Jesus Christ was not an issue of dispute between Paul and the Corinthians.

I’ll begin with the last point and say (again) that it would be striking if Paul was making a point that distinguished him and the recipients of his letters from Jews as well as everyone else in the Roman world, and yet he failed to ever have to defend or explain it. Absence from one letter is explicable, and Paul sometimes doesn’t mention issues relation to the Torah and Gentile Christians. But if Paul had never mentioned these views and defended them, would we dare to claim that he simply assumed them?

On the earlier point, the whole notion of “divine identity” is useless unless it is defined. God can be shown in relevant texts to appoint spokespersons, messengers, rulers, and various others to exercise divinely-appointed authority. Some such individuals are even said to share that most distinctive indicator of divine identity, the divine name. If the divine name can be shared, then clearly “inclusion in the divine identity” did not mean for Paul what it means for some of the modern fans of that language, namely “eternally part of the divine identity.” Hence Paul saying that Jesus was given (or perhaps better granted) the name above all names.

Bowman’s second point is as follows:

McGrath asserts that “we would surely have expected Paul to express himself differently” had he meant to identify Jesus as the one God of the Shema. McGrath suggests that Paul “could have written, ‘There is one God: the Father, from whom are all things, and the Son, through whom are all things’” (40). This would make the point in modern English, all right, with its convenient use of the colon, but it would have not said what McGrath is suggesting in ancient Greek (which ran words together with no spaces and rarely used any sort of punctuation).

All those who are familiar with church history will know that there were plenty of Trinitarians in the Greek-speaking world. It wasn’t necessary to have the colon in order to make the distinctions they did. It was only necessary to use a different way of putting things than Paul did. My point was that Paul does not use any of the sort of language that he might have been expected to if he wanted to clearly and unambiguously affirm a Trinitarian (or even binitarian) perspective.

His third point is this:

McGrath proposes that verse 5 distinguishes “gods” as heavenly figures from “lords” as their earthly representatives, setting up verse 6 to distinguish between the Father as God and Jesus as his representative Lord. He presents the following outline in support of this explanation (41):

in heaven . . . or on earth
many gods . . . many lords
one God . . . one Lord

There are several reasons to reject this explanation. (a) Paul refers to the “gods” as being both in heaven and on earth: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth….” This shows that McGrath’s outline is flawed; Paul was not distinguishing between “gods” in heaven and “lords” on earth. (b) According to the Christology that McGrath appears to favor (and that you explicitly defend), Jesus did not become “Lord” until his exaltation to heaven. Thus he is not an earthly representative of God but is, like God the Father, a heavenly figure—making McGrath’s proposed distinction of no relevance. (c) McGrath cites no evidence to show that such a distinction between “gods” and “lords” was in play in the first century, and for good reason: from all the evidence we have, it was not. The terms “god” and “lord” were overlapping in their semantic domains, with “god” favored more often in some contexts and “lord” in others, but never so far as I know distinguished in the way that McGrath proposes.

This statement clearly flies in the face of the relevant evidence from outside a Jewish context. “Lord” was not commonly used as a way of referring to deities (with some exceptions within the mystery cults), and was certainly used far more frequently in reference to human rulers. The latter were often believed to have been posthumously exalted to heaven, as was also believed about Jesus, and so my claim is not that the heaven/earth distinction is absolute, but that it is characteristic and indicates something about the primary domain, or perhaps the domain of origin, of gods and lords respectively. Be that as it may, Paul’s language clearly has the Shema in view inasmuch as he uses the characteristic Jewish summary of it, “one God.” But he explicitly is contrasting the Greco-Roman so-called gods and lords with God and the Lord Jesus, and so it is the explicitly-mentioned Greco-Roman use of ‘lord’ that Paul is interacting with first and foremost.

McGrath cites 1 Timothy 2:5, “one God and one mediator,” as a parallel to 1 Corinthians 8:6, suggesting that the meaning of both texts is the same (41-42). You liked this argument and quoted it in your comment. The problem with this argument is that the word “mediator” is not in the Shema, whereas the word “Lord” is—twice. Again, there is no basis for interpreting “Lord” to mean a mediator or representative.

The idea of mediation is present in 1 Corinthians 8, since Jesus is the one through whom are all things while God is the one from whom are all things. Besides that, strictly speaking the noun or title “Lord” is not mentioned in the Shema except to the extent that this word was used as a circumlocution for the divine name. But to assume that every instance of “Lord” has that specific Jewish usage in view (or at least, every occurence that one wants to consider theologically relevant) cannot be justified without detailed argument. Whether in Semitic languages or Greek, the term “lord” was more widely used, and thus unless it was being substituted in the reading of a text that used the divine name in the original, it cannot be taken for granted that the tetragrammaton “YHWH” was what was intended.

Finally, Bowman writes:

McGrath also cites an OT text as another example of a text supplementing the Shema: “For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you… And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people” (2 Sam. 7:22-23). McGrath is almost sarcastic: “I doubt whether anyone has ever suggested that in this passage the people of Israel are being included in the Shema” (42). You also liked and quoted this argument in your comment. In response, perhaps the reason why no one has ever suggested that Israel is included in the Shema is that “the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people” is obviously not even remotely synonymous with “God,” whereas “Lord” is the divine name emphasized in the Shema itself!

The aforementioned point also relates to this one, and so I’ll simply add that I was not almost sarcastic in the passage quoted, I was sarcastic in it. Because the addition of “one Lord” alongside “one God” sounds much more like “one God, one mediator”, “one God, one people”, and “one God, one temple” than “Hear O Israel, the Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.”

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  • Anonymous

    Your last paragraph nails it. An ungodly amount of human energy has been wasted trying to harmonize contradictory scriptural passages, and developing systems that assert that the books of the bible contain ideas that had not even been conceived when the authors were writing.If just one of the authors who wrote the bible books believed in the trinity, doesn't it make sense that at least one of the time would have mentioned it? If Bowman is asserting that Paul didn't have to argue the trinity because it was so widely accepted, well, that's just transparently silly. The leader of the Jesus movement worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, where belief in the trinity (or the deity of Jesus in any way) would have been scandalous. Yet he seems to have been pretty well respected as a Jew. And Paul's letters are filled with arguments about a lot of things, both important and trivial, but something as vital as a change in the nature of god would have been too insignificant to even mention? Even once? Every ounce of plain and simple logic argues against the idea that the earliest Jesus followers believed him to be divine. pf

  • Dr. McGrath, what of passages wherein Paul and other early Christian writers do clearly use the LXX language of Lord as replacement of YHWH to refer to Jesus?I have Romans 10 in mind specifically, but there are others. I'm not saying that Paul was a Trinitarian in the modern sense, but I do think that Trinitarianism is an apt way to describe the way Paul speaks about God.

  • Thanks for your comment, Geoff. There are a number of ways we might try to make sense of what Paul does with Scriptural language in Romans 10. And once again, a lot (perhaps everything!) depends on what we think Paul presupposed.But I think your last point is the more specific and substantive one. I assume that you meant, in essence, that Paul's views may not have been exactly the same as later Trinitarian formulations, but the latter may be attempts at systematizing what Paul and others wrote and in so doing be faithful to some of Paul's key ideas. And as long as one is acknowledging that the later formulations sometimes were seeking to answer questions that had not been posed yet in New Testament times, and were sometimes seeking clarity in the form of an "either/or" answer where at least some New Testament authors were willing to say "both/and", then I certainly think it is possible to make such a case. But if it is to be made persuasively, it will be made by doing justice to all these complex aspects of the Christian theological tradition and its developments, rather than trying to read all the later formulations back into earlier texts that at the very least did not spell things out in exactly that way or address all the same questions explicitly.

  • James,Thanks for the response. That is what I was trying to say. For instance, certain aspects of Calvinism (total depravity) are not exactly taught in the New Testament, because nobody was concerned with Mr. Arminius' Remonstrance, but a corollary to Romans 3 may be (I stress the may) total depravity.And with regards to Romans 10, it seems, based on stuff Paul writes elsewhere in the letter, that we can guess Paul's presuppositions fairly accurately. For instance, in Romans 5 and 6, Jesus is the resurrected Lord whose death and resurrection was mysteriously also God's act of deliverance. In Romans 8, he is the agent who changes the epochs from the present evil age to the age of the Spirit. And in Romans 2 and 10, he is the Lord who judges at the eschaton and must be called on in the same fashion YHWH must be called on.Paul seems to presuppose, or be too inconsistent to realize (which I doubt, he's fairly clever) that Jesus takes on divine perogatives, but a strange passage in Romans 8 (the form of sinful flesh) indicates that these perogatives were his before the resurrection.Anyway, a comment box is no place for this kind of discussion, but it seems (you're the expert though) that Paul presupposed Jesus functioning in a divine way. I hope your point about presups was not aimed Paul's presuppositions concerning the LXX…if so I missed the boat.

  • Geoff,Read Isaiah 45 closely.

  • Thom,Okay, the point being?

  • I spell it out on my blog. If you follow this link: and then scroll down to the heading "Is Jesus Yahweh? Alluding to (all of) Isaiah 45" you'll see why I pointed you to Isa 45. You might also be interested to read these four posts: (1) those I show that ascribing divine characteristics to human or angelic agents was quite commonplace in Second Temple Judaism, as well as before and beyond. Divine characteristics, when applied to someone other than Yahweh, are indicative of agency, not ontology.

  • yahoel

    I know this is an old thread, but it seems to that 1 Cor 8:6 is as adaptation of Malachi 2:10 LXX, to show how Jesus could have a role in creation without contradicting Isa 44:24 and the like (I know Im probably behind the times with this whole "cosmic christ" thing)

  • Yahoel, thanks for sharing your thought. This is indeed an old thread, and thus unlikely to be revived, but you'll find that Christology and monotheism are regular topics of discussion, and so I hope that an opportunity will arise at some point for you to get the discussion of your suggestion that you were hoping for!

  • How very refreshing to hear Dr. McGrath make the obvious point that Paul in 1 Cor. 8:4-6 did not lurch, unannounced, into a new definition of God! As McGrath points out, too, conversation fails because of the wonderful non-distinct fog word “divine identity.”

    The very easy fact is that Paul believed that God was the Father and only the Father. I cannot understand why participants in the discussion do not rush to Ps. 110:1 (as Jesus and the NT do) to prove that the One God YHVH addressed a second lord, not Lord. ADONI (my lord), which seems like a taboo word, is non-Deity all 195 times. Of course!

    The lord Messiah was never confused with the one Lord God.

  • Cillendor

    Great response! Although I’m seven years late in commenting. My preschool understanding of Greek means that both Rob and Dave speak way over my head. It’s good to see another voice chime in. I’m coming from Dave’s perspective, but I’ve been in Rob’s for most of my life, and he does make some compelling arguments. Their whole debate has been dizzying to this point.