Friday, November 20, 2009

Defending the deity of Christ

I'm currently reading through, for my own edification, On the Trinity (De Trinitate) by Hilary of Poitiers (315-367 AD). Alongside Athanasius, Hilary was one of the great defenders of the deity of Christ in that period following the composition of the Nicene Creed.

There are several striking features about this work that I will write about in due course. Let me mention two that made an impression on me as a reader.

1. Again and again Hilary chides the Arian heretics for their fear of God's infinitude and their wicked attempt to reduce the sheer greatness of God to more intellectually manageable proportions. In other words his opponents were reductionists and rationalists when it came to their doctrine of God.

2. Furthermore he exposes them as bad expositors of Scripture and unmasks their false doctrine by demonstrating from the Word of God that God is eternally and necessarily one in being and three in person. He does not hold back from pointing out to the reader how poor and perverted the approach to Scripture offered by the heretics proved to be.

On this latter point he is insistent that even the Old Testament knows of no solitary divine person who alone is God, but that the One God is Father, Son and Spirit. In fact it is this insistence that is so strikingly odd to modern readers. I mean, who on earth would set out to defend the deity of Christ from the Old Testament? The answer? Hilary of Poitiers did. And he did so in order that the bogus claims of the Arians would be refuted from one end of the Bible to the other.

Take a look at some of the highlights. He may not convince you by his use of every single text, but there are many that are so irreducibly Trinitarian in scope that it is hard to evade their meaning without either slipping into a stubborn perversity or by reaching for a priori reasoning about how they could not possibly have known about distinct persons in the Godhead in the Old Testament.
Book 4, section 15

Let us see whether Moses, who announced to Israel, The Lord thy God is One, has also proclaimed the Godhead of the Son. To make good our confession of the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ we must employ the evidence of that same witness on whom the heretics rely for the confession of One Only God, which they imagine to involve the denial of the Godhead of the Son.

Book 4, section 22

We do not forget that the assertion is true in the sense that there is One God, from Whom are all things; but neither do we forget that this truth is no excuse for denying the Godhead of the Son, since Moses throughout the course of his writings clearly indicates the existence of God and God. We must examine how the history of God’s choice, and of the giving of the Law, proclaims God co-ordinate with God.

Book 4, section 24

In this passage [Gen. 16] the one Deity is first the Angel of God, and then, successively, Lord and God. But to Abraham He is God only [Gen. 17]. For when the distinction of Persons had first been made, as a safeguard against the delusion that God is a solitary Being, then His true and unqualified name could safely be uttered. And so it is written. And God said to Abraham, Behold Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as far Ishmael, behold. I have heard thee and have blessed him, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve nations shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. [Gen. 17:19-20]

Is it possible to doubt that He Who was previously called the Angel of God is here, in the sequel, spoken of as God? In both instances He is speaking of Ishmael; in both it is the same Person Who shall multiply him. To save us from supposing that this was a different Speaker from Him who had addressed Hagar, the Divine words expressly attest the identity, saying, And I have blessed him, and will multiply him. The blessing is repeated from a former occasion, for Hagar had already been addressed; the multiplication is promised for a future day, for this is God’s first word to Abraham concerning Ishmael.

Now it is God Who speaks to Abraham; to Hagar the Angel of God had spoken. Thus God and the Angel of God are One; He Who is the Angel of God is also God the Son of God. He is called the Angel because He is the Angel of great counsel; but afterwards He is spoken of as God, lest we should suppose that He Who is God is only an angel. Let us now repeat the facts in order. The Angel of the Lord spoke to Hagar; He spoke also to Abraham as God. One Speaker addressed both. The blessing was given to Ishmael, and the promise that he should grow into a great people.

Book 4, section 26

What blind faithlessness it is, what dulness of an unbelieving heart, what headstrong impiety, to abide in ignorance of all this, or else to know and yet neglect it! Assuredly it is written for the very purpose that error or oblivion may not hinder the recognition of the truth. If, as we shall prove, it is impossible to escape knowledge of the facts, then it must be nothing less than blasphemy to deny them.

This record begins with the speech of the Angel to Hagar, His promise to multiply Ishmael into a great nation and to give him a countless offspring. She listens, and by her confession reveals that He is Lord and God. The story begins with His appearance as the Angel of God; at its termination He stands confessed as God Himself. Thus He Who, while He executes the ministry of declaring the great counsel is God’s Angel, is Himself in name and nature God. The name corresponds to the nature; the nature is not falsified to make it conform to the name.

Again, God speaks to Abraham of this same matter; he is told that Ishmael has already received a blessing, and shall be increased into a nation; I have blessed him, God says. This is no change from the Person indicated before; He shews that it was He Who had already given the blessing. The Scripture has obviously been consistent throughout in its progress from mystery to clear revelation; it began with the Angel of God, and proceeds to reveal that it was God Himself Who had spoken in this same matter.

Book 4, sections 29-32

And now there falls on Sodom and Gomorrah the vengeance of a righteous judgment. What can we learn from it for the purposes of our enquiry? The Lord rained brimstone and fire from the Lord. It is The Lord from the Lord; Scripture makes no distinction, by difference of name, between Their natures, but discriminates between Themselves. For we read in the Gospel, The Father judgeth no man, but hath given all judgment to the Son. Thus what the Lord gave, the Lord had received from the Lord.

You have now had evidence of God the Judge as Lord and Lord; learn next that there is the same joint ownership of name in the case of God and God. Jacob, when he fled through fear of his brother, saw in his dream a ladder resting upon the earth and reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, and the Lord resting above it, Who gave him all the blessings which He had bestowed upon Abraham and Isaac.

At a later time God spoke to him thus: And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to the place Bethel, and dwell there, and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of thy brother[Gen. 35:1]. God demands honour for God, and makes it clear that demand is on behalf of Another than Himself. He who appeared to thee when thou fleddest are His words: He guards carefully against any confusion of the Persons. It is God Who speaks, and God of Whom He speaks. Their majesty is asserted by the combination of Both under Their true Name of God, while the words plainly declare Their several existence.

Here again there occur to me considerations which must be taken into account in a complete treatment of the subject. But the order of defence must adapt itself to the order of attack, and I reserve these outstanding questions for discussion in the next book. For the present, in regard to God Who demanded honour for God, it will suffice for me to point out that He Who was the Angel of God, when He spoke with Hagar, was God and Lord when He spoke of the same matter with Abraham; that the Man Who spoke with Abraham was also God and Lord, while the two angels, who were seen with the Lord and whom He sent to Lot, are described by the prophet as angels, and nothing more.

Nor was it to Abraham only that God appeared in human guise; He appeared as Man to Jacob also. And not only did He appear, but, so we are told, He wrestled; and not only did He wrestle, but He was vanquished by His adversary. Neither the time at my disposal, nor the subject, will allow me to discuss the typical meaning of this wrestling. It was certainly God Who wrestled, for Jacob prevailed against God, and Israel saw God.

And now let us enquire whether elsewhere than in the case of Hagar the Angel of God has been discovered to be God Himself. He has been so discovered, and found to be not only God, but the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob. For the Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses from the bush; and Whose voice, think you, are we to suppose was heard? The voice of Him Who was seen, or of Another?

There is no room for deception; the words of Scripture are clear: And the Angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire from a bush, and again, The Lord called unto him from the bush, Moses, Moses, and he answered, What is it? And the Lord said, Draw not nigh hither, put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And He said unto him, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob [Exodus 3:2-6].

He who appeared in the bush speaks from the bush; the place of the vision and of the voice is one; He Who speaks is none other than He Who was seen. He Who is the Angel of God when the eye beholds Him is the Lord when the ear hears Him, and the Lord Whose voice is heard is recognised as the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. When He is styled the Angel of God, the fact is revealed that He is no self-contained and solitary Being: for He is the Angel of God. When He is designated Lord and God, He receives the full title which is due to His nature and His name. You have, then, in the Angel Who appeared from the bush, Him Who is Lord and God.

Book 5, section 11

Thus the Law, or rather God through the Law, wishing to indicate God the Son as a Person, yet as bearing the same name with the Father, calls Him the Angel, that is, the Messenger, of God. The title Messenger proves that He has an office of His own; that His nature is truly Divine is proved when He is called God. But this sequence, first Angel, then God, is in the order of revelation, not in Himself. For we confess Them Father and Son in the strictest sense, in such equality that the Only-begotten Son, by virtue of His birth, possesses true Divinity from the Unbegotten Father. This revelation of Them as Sender and as Sent is but another expression for Father and Son.


Anonymous said...


The Trinity is the great truth under attack from different places today. If you live in a big city in the UK, and interact with the people who live there, you will find a three pronged attack -

i) from one side the muslims (often those who have converted from a Christian background)

ii) non trinitarian penteostals of various stripes (oneness / apostolic etc)- and some big names have this in their background

iii) the Jehovahs Witnesses.

Much much more work needs to be done on this for today, drawing on what has been done already.


Anonymous said...

oh dear, the spokesmen of the fourth/fifth century apostasy are being held up as defenders of orthodoxy (at least on those points at which they do not differ from reformed protestantism - how very consistent). Don't forget Gregory Nazianzus - the one who said that the deity of the Spirit wasn't made known in the NT, but is now being made known by some progressive revelation. Nice crowd of people you mix with. Don't consult them on works/sacraments/bishops however.

Anonymous said...

I think you're having trouble with the concept of discernment. Just because you quote someone in a particular area doesn't neccessarily mean you agree with that person in every area. For instance I happen to find Augustine's soteriology for the most part biblical but I certainly don't agree with most of his views on the sacrements or ecclesiology. Does that mean I discard everything he had to say just because some of it's objectionable. That's kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Did Gregory Nazianzus have nothing good to say?

1Th 5:21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.

In Christian love