Tim Warner vs. ‘The God of Jesus’: An exercise in historical malpractice

Recently I was made aware of some criticisms by pastor Tim Warner.  Mr. Warner operates Oasis Christian Church, and he is none-too-happy about my book, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma.  In fact, he thinks it’s a misrepresentation of Church history, thinks I’m denying Jesus, and even charges me with teaching a Gnostic Christology (!).  But are these accusations true?

First, I should say that I can appreciate a lot of Warner’s opinions on conditional immortality, freewill, the innocence of infants, and a few other areas of importance; there’s actually quite a lot we have in common.  But Warner’s Oasis ministries also proposes a unique Logos Christology which, though similar in many ways, contravenes with a good deal of the conclusions I reached in my book.  At the end of this post I will speak to a few of the theological problems facing Warner and his interesting Christology, but first I will be confronting several of his pointed and voluminous attacks against me and my work.

TGOJ Book Front cover

Reading through the pages of material he’s posted on his website, it’s evident that Mr. Warner has failed to read me carefully.  On top of that, Mr. Warner seems seriously misinformed about the historical matters at hand, and unfortunately his “critiques” amount to some of the worst examples of historical revisionism and failures in basic reading comprehension I’ve ever seen for a teacher of his reputation.

Though this will be a lengthy post, I simply won’t have time to deal with every single one of Warner’s voluminous misreadings, misunderstandings, and cherry-picked strawmen arguments he’s attempted to toss my way.  But I do think that it’s important, at least for the sake of his readership, that they be given at least a glimpse into the many problematic positions Warner is taking.

Part I – Warner Struggles with Nicaea and the history of Christian theology

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA

Nicaea, 325 CE

We’ll start with Nicaea.  Warner claims my book misrepresents the Council of Nicaea (325 CE), and that I am wrong in saying that Nicaea’s creed affirmed the tradition of the “eternal generation” of the Son, which had been envisioned earlier by Origen in the third century CE, and possibly by Novation.  I must admit, I was pretty surprised Mr. Warner would try to argue this way; Why would Warner want to challenge this widely understood historical point, that Nicene theology insists on the eternality of the Son?  This is a strange and problematic attack, but a closer look at Warner’s personal theology reveals why Warner is so defensive here; it also reveals that Warner is, at best, woefully ignorant of the history he is accusing me of misrepresenting.

First, let’s try to understand a little bit of Warner’s unique theology: He evidently believes in both the literal “pre-existence” and “deity of Christ” (whatever that means), but he denies the orthodox Trinity doctrine.  He apparently wants to affirm Nicaea, but wants to reject the later developments of Constantinople, Chalcedon, etc., as speculative innovations.  The problem is, Warner wants to do all of this and at the same time deny the eternality of the Son.  Warner would like to say that the Son of God existed before his birth in Mary, but that he came into existence a finite time ago, before the physical creation of our world, thus, for Warner, Jesus is “full deity” (?) and was truly “pre-existent”, but there was a time when the Son did not exist.  The question then arises: can one believe as Warner does and really affirm Nicaea?

Warner writes:

“The fact is, the Nicene Creed did NOT mention anything about ‘eternal generation’… The ONLY question settled by the creed was whether the PREEXISTENT Son was full deity (begotten not made, God of God, etc), or whether He was created out of nothing as God’s first creative act as the Arians claimed.”

This is, unfortunately, a fantastic example of what it looks like when we distort and abuse Church history to make it say what we want and need it to say.  Warner personally likes the idea that the Son was pre-existent, that he was “deity” (what is this?), and that he wasn’t created out of nothing… but Warner doesn’t like the idea that the Son is eternal.  And that’s just too bad, because the eternal generation of the Son is exactly what Nicaea teaches.

In the last section of the original Nicene creed, we read the following anathema:

“The catholic and apostolic church condemns those who say concerning the Son of God that ‘there was a time when he was not’ or ‘he did not exist before he was begotten’…” (Nicene Creed, 325 CE).

Arius[10]In other words, the creed condemned those who denied the eternality of the Son.  This is exactly what Arius had taught leading up to the council: “There was a time when the Son was not.”  This is also what Latin theologian Tertullian had said in the previous century: “[God] has not always been Father and Judge… There was a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son” (Against Hermogenes, 3). A major difference between Arius and Tertullian, however, is that the former would say he was made out of nothing, while the latter wouldn’t.  It’s possible that Warner’s theology is aimed along a similar path as Tertullian’s (?).  Regardless, the rejection of those who deny the eternality of the Son was unambiguously stated at Nicaea.  If the Son has always existed, as Nicaea teaches, then he can only have existed as Son to the Father, otherwise he is a second ingenerate principle alongside the Father.  Thus the Nicene Son was eternally generated.

For Warner to so loudly claim otherwise is just incredible.  Warner has evidently been seeking to discredit me as someone who is misrepresenting history, but I hope his readers will take notice of this massive problem for not only his critique of me, but for his own belief (and teachings) regarding his theology’s place in Church history.

After claiming Nicaea had NOTHING to do with eternal generation, Warner writes:

“Even its revision at the Council of Constantinople (381) did not add “eternal generation,” but rather “begotten before all ages” (which is a FINITE point in time — day one of creation week, since “ages” are finite periods of time FROM creation).”

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Constantinople, 381 CE

So, not only did Nicaea not teach eternal generation, according to Warner, he even implies that Constantinople did not mean to teach that the Son was eternally generated either (!).  I actually hope he doesn’t mean what it looks like he means, here; again, I’m trying to read him as charitably as possible.  Regardless, Warner seems to take issue with the phrase “eternally begotten” (that’s because it’s the point of orthodox theology he doesn’t like).  However, the idea that Constantinople’s language “begotten before all ages” (and Nicaea’s creed, for that matter) represents the tradition of eternal begetting, is not an invention of mine.  In fact, the translation “eternally begotten” is found in most renderings of the 381 revision, including: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the International Consultation on English texts translation, The Lutheran Book of Worship, The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal), English Language Liturgical Commission translation, and more.  That’s because it is widely understood that this creed teaches eternal generation.

Next, if I’m being generous, Warner has a serious terminological problem.  That, or he has very little sense of the theological and organizational development of Christianity in the first few centuries.  Either way, his peppering of his analysis with anachronistic categories, when paired with his tendency to set up straw-men, doesn’t help his already confusing case.  Warner writes:

“The Nicene Council did NOT overthrow Unitarianism (which did not even exist in Christian churches at the time), but rather sought to overthrow Arianism… Chandler seems to be revising history to make it appear that at Nicaea, Unitarianism was overthrown in favor of Trinitarianism.”

Warner starts by setting up a nice straw-man argument to knock down… But in no way have I argued that “Nicaea overthrew Unitarianism in favor of Trinitarianism.”  That’s shallow and inaccurate analysis.  In fact, I acknowledge there were even “unitarians” who signed the Nicene creed!  Warner is neither careful nor fair with my arguments.  But what, exactly, does Warner mean by “Unitarianism”?  Just WHAT is he claiming “did not even exist in Christian churches at the time”?  Well, by “unitarianism”, Warner could be referring to any theology which identifies the one God as the Father.  Or, by “unitarianism” he could mean any theology which identifies the one God as the Father AND which says that Jesus did not personally pre-exist his birth in the virgin Mary.  But in either case, Warner is completely wrong: in both senses, “unitarianism” was current in the fourth century CE, and had been for centuries prior.  Indeed, “unitarian” Christians both were present at Nicaea, signed Nicaea, and some were even forced to be re-baptized by the canons of Nicaea.  Whatever Warner’s definition of unitarianism, it is evident that he has not studied any material of substance regarding the matters he is looking to speak so authoritatively on.  I hope it’s already becoming clear just who is “misrepresenting history” here.

Over and over again Warner beats his drum:

“The Nicene Council had NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with defining whether or not the Son preexisted before His birth.”

I’ve never argued that it did.  Strawman.  He continues:

“It was absolutely assumed that He did [pre-exist], as ALL SIDES agreed at the time (as did ALL of the earlier writers, including Justin, Irenaeus, etc.).”

These are just wild statements.  By “ALL SIDES at the time” does he mean all sides at the Nicene debate?  Or all sides of the Christological discussion happening in fourth century Christianity?  If the latter, he is completely wrong.  And what about his claim that “ALL of the earlier writers” agreed about pre-existence, including “Justin, Irenaeus, etc.”?  It sure sounds like he is extending a universal belief in Christ’s pre-existence to not only the competing members of the Nicene debate, but to “ALL” Christians at the time, even before Nicaea.  Is that why he says that “Unitarianism” (which he might take to mean a theology which lacks pre-existence Christology) “didn’t exist in Christian churches at that time?”  Regardless, it’s all so terribly wrong.  Christians (both Jewish and Gentile) who didn’t believe in Christ’s personal pre-existence were around both at the time of Justin and Irenaeus, as I’ve demonstrated in my book, and also in the fourth century CE.  Warner either hasn’t read my book carefully (or any serious study of these matters), or he just doesn’t like certain facts that impugn his position.  He really owes his readers a retraction on these wild, inaccurate statements.  But unfortunately, as we’ll soon see, the worst is yet to come.

 

Part II – Warner Struggles with the history of Jewish-Christianity

Warner writes:

“In the first half of his book, The God of Jesus, etc., Chandler seeks to link his Unitarianism back to the earliest Jewish “Christians,” which he attempts to do by linking it with the Nazarenes / Ebionites.”

Jerusalem-Mount

Jerusalem, Israel

First, notice Warner’s pejorative use of quotations around the word “Christians” above.  Does Warner not want to recognize the early Jewish believers in Messiah who inherited their church from the first Christians headquartered in Jerusalem as legitimate Christians?  That’s unfortunate, but it’s easy to see why he wouldn’t want to acknowledge them: they had unitarian theology.

Warner then criticizes my citation of James Dunn, who identifies the faith of the “Nazarenes and Ebionites” as “not so very different from the faith of the first Jewish believers.” (Dunn quoted in Chandler, p. 129).  Warner comments,

“This was his [Chandler’s] attempt to normalize this 2nd cent. Jewish-Christian sect BECAUSE they were Unitarians.”

Warner’s first mistake here is that he refers to “this” sect, conflating the Nazarenes and the Ebionites.  This is the same mistake of ancient heresiology, which Warner nicely perpetuates.  Theodoret (d. 458 CE) for example, confused them.  But as modern scholars confirm, “The Nazarenes were distinct from the Ebionites and prior to them.”[1]  I cite Pritz, Bauckham, and Ephiphanius in no. 461 on p. 128 of my book regarding this distinction.  But it seems Warner didn’t read that.  For those interested, much of the confusion arrives on the one hand thanks to the biased and incautious accounts of the heresiologists, and on the other thanks to the double application of the word “Ebionite” which later could be used to refer to “Jewish-Christianity” or to sub-groups within it. Confusion may also arise due to the existence of some controversy over whether or not we should really consider the Nazarenes a well-defined “sect” springing from the NT community, or simply as the NT community itself.

Pritz

Warner’s second mistake, is that he labels these Jewish Christians as a “2nd century sect”.  But he is wrong once again: both ancient church historians and modern scholars recognize the Nazarenes as originating in the first century CE.  By some accounts, there was a split sometime around the late first century which produced the Ebionite splinter group.  Ray Pritz from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose critical treatment of the sources I’ve consulted at length, confirms that “we have found it is possible that there was a split in Nazarene ranks around the turn of the first century… Out of this split came the Ebionites.”[2]  As we will see, Warner’s failure to understand any of this history will lead him to make several serious mistakes which will further confuse his already confused portrait of Christian past, and deflate his claims.

Warner writes:

“The 2nd century Nazarenes / Ebionites were indeed “unitarian” in their belief that Jesus was just a man who was chosen by God to be the Messiah.”

We should pause here for a moment and note that in his earlier post Warner had claimed that “Unitarianism” didn’t even exist at the time of Nicaea (fourth century).  But now he says these early Jewish Christians were, in fact, unitarian?  This is puzzling.

After admitting they were unitarian, he continues with another large helping of uncritical and fallacious analysis:

“However, what he failed to disclose is that this sect was extremely anti-Paul, viewing him as an apostate. They used only Matthew’s Gospel, rejecting the other three, and all of Paul’s writings. They were fanatically “Torah observant” and claimed that Joseph was Jesus’ real father (denying the virgin birth BECAUSE of their Gnostic dualism). Information on this sect can be found in Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk, 1, ch. 26:2; Bk. 3, ch. 11:7; Bk 3, ch. 15:21; Bk. 5, ch. 1:3.”

First, Warner has proffered some nice misdirection and poisoning of the well in order to cloud the issue at hand.  What does a particular early Christian group’s view of “Paul” or “Torah observance” have to do with the matter under review, which is the tracing of unitarian theology and non-prexistence Christology back to early Jewish Christians in the first century CE?  I hope it is obvious to everyone that these are red-herrings which Warner believes will help distract his readers from the fact that, as he has just revealed, it is completely right to locate unitarian theology in the earlier period of Jewish Christian history.  But his above analysis proves not only misguided, it’s also seriously flawed.

broadheadIndeed, Warner’s conflation of the Nazarenes and the Ebionites creates major problems for his analysis.  First, there is no real evidence that the Nazarenes rejected Paul.  Scholars of early Jewish Christianity like E. Broadhead have recognized in Jerome’s analysis that the Nazarenes in fact “accept the ministry of Paul, and they welcome a mission to the Gentiles.”[3]  Yes, both the Jewish Nazarenes and Ebionites maintained an observance of the Mosaic laws… they were Jews.  But they did not approach Torah observance the same way.  As Broadhead explains, for the Nazarenes, “No mention is made of imposing Jewish traditions upon Gentile converts.”[4]  Indeed, one of the major distinctions that could be made between them is that the Nazarenes did not require Gentile Christians to be circumcised and to observe Torah, while the Ebionites did.

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Justin Martyr (100-165 CE)

In the second century, Justin Martyr may have also taken note of this distinction when described Jewish Christians who observed Torah but did not require it of Gentiles, and others who did require it of Gentiles (Dia. 47).  Justin Martyr also believed that Christians in the second century (both Jewish and Gentile Christians) were able to keep the Law of Moses and be saved, that is, be counted as legitimate Christians (Dia. 46-47).  Though Justin strongly disagrees with them about the keeping of the Law, he ultimately says, “I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such [persons], and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren” (Dia., 48).  As Broadhead concludes, “It is clear, then, that Justin knows and even honors some forms of Jewish Christianity.”[5]  So if Warner thinks he is personally carrying on the tradition of second century Christianity as expressed by the likes of Justin (whom Warner has elsewhere approvingly labeled “orthodox”), Warner should not, at least on the point of “Torah-observance”, write these Jewish-Christians off as devious Christian pretenders.  And depending on how one reads Paul, of course, (and the Jerusalem council of Acts 15), the Nazarenes were in keeping with the practice of both Paul and the earliest NT Jewish community in Jerusalem.  There is certainly no “failure to disclose” anything about early Jewish-Christian Torah observance, as it seems Warner accuses me doing—I talk about the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem maintaining Torah on p. 127 and p. 131 of my book, though it’s not a focus of discussion, because the issue at hand is their view of God and Jesus.  And as Warner has already so succinctly put it for us, both the Nazarenes and the Ebionites (whose roots trace back as far as Christian history goes), were “unitarian.”  Good!  If the “Ebionites” rejected Paul, and if the earlier “Nazarenes” accepted Paul (there is no hard evidence that the Nazarenes rejected Paul, and scholars today say they accepted him, as their practice of not requiring circumcision of Gentiles shows!), it has no bearing on the fact that they were all unitarian and held to purely human Christologies with no pre-existence.

Regarding the actual Christology of the early Jewish Christians, Warner is even more confused: Now he has not only confused the Nazarenes with the Ebionites, but has confused them both even further with yet another movement, the so-called “Gnostic Ebionites”, perhaps better identified (as they are by some) with the Elkesaites.  What a mess.

VBBLet’s set some things straight: First, the Nazarenes believed in the virgin birth.  This is widely attested by both ancients and moderns, so Warner already owes his readers a retraction for his misrepresentation that “this sect” denied the virgin birth, etc.  Second, a regular analysis by scholars is that something like “half” of the original Ebionite splinter group came to deny the virgin birth, moving towards an adoptionist perspective, which saw Jesus as the natural son of Mary and Joseph.  Both Eusebius and Origen say that there were some of the Ebionites who did not deny the virgin birth, however.  Eusebius says, “There were others, however, besides them, that were of the same name… [who] did not deny that the Lord was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. But nevertheless… they also refused to acknowledge that he pre-existed” (Eusebius, Church History, 3.27:3); and Origen explains: “these are the twofold sect of Ebionites, who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like other human beings” (Against Celsus, 5.61).  Were these simply the earlier Nazarenes?  Regardless, there were Jewish Christians operating in first century CE Jerusalem who believed in the virgin birth but denied Christ’s pre-existence.  This was my contention in the book, and it remains untouched by Warner’s uninformed and misguided attempts at refutation.

irenaeusbook

Regarding the gnosticizing Ebionites to which Warner’s disparaging comments actually refer, I am well-aware of this movement, and I am equally aware of Irenaeus’ treatise Against Heresies and what it says about them (I’ve written on AH in my book and on this blog).  For those unaware, Irenaeus’ work is a polemical review of various shades of Gnosticism—the “Ebionites” referred to by him are the so-called “Gnostic Ebionites”, yet another movement emerging in the second century CE.  Epiphanius indeed says that a group of Ebionites came to adopt Gnostic ideas (like those associated with Elkesai), but were still identified by the same name of Ebionites (see Panarion, 30.17:5).

The bottom line is that the earliest of the Jewish Christians who could be called Nazarenes were not Gnostics, but some later Jewish Christians did begin to move along these lines (so did the Gentile Christians).  The error of the heresiologists in conflating all of the Jewish Christians and their beliefs together is only perpetuated by Warner in a rather uncritical way.  In the end, none of Warner’s complaints damage in the slightest any of the evidence I have put forth that there were Jewish Christians in the first century who were unitarians and who did not believe in Christ’s pre-existence.  Warner’s efforts here amount to only misdirection, poisoning the well, misrepresentation, and ultimately confusion.

 

Part III – Warner struggles with Justin’s report

For our next act, Warner will provide us with one of his most incredible misreadings to date, and another nice strawman.  Sadly, misunderstandings are becoming par for the course, here.

Warner writes:

“Furthermore, when dealing with the writings of Justin, the author tries again to import his unitarianism into orthodox Christianity quoting Justin. He takes one comment by Justin in his Dialogue with Trypho, — that “there are some of our RACE, who admit that he is Christ, while holding him to be man of men…” (p. 146). The author then concludes, “… Justin says there were those, even among his own, who did not believe in Christ’s preexistence…” (p. 147). The impression the author gives is that Justin’s “race” referred to genuine Christians. However, Justin had to clarify to Trypho that not all who call themselves “Christians” are indeed so. In ch. 35, we see this clearly, as well as other places… Secondly, Justin frequently referred to the term “race” in reference to ethnicity, rather than in a spiritual sense. So by no means does that particular quote prove that there were Unitarians considered among the “orthodox” and not of the Gnostic sects which Trypho lumped together with “Christians” in general.”

This is truly bizarre commentary.  Warner appears to be setting up straw-man arguments again: he says I am trying to “import [my] unitarianism into orthodox Christianity [by] quoting Justin.”  Several problems here: first, that’s a shallow portrait of my arguments in this chapter; the reason I am quoting Justin is clearly to demonstrate that there were Christians living in Justin’s day who did not believe in the literal pre-existence of the Messiah and who agreed with Jewish messianic expectation(s) regarding origins.  Second, Warner is tossing about anachronisms again: there was no such thing as “orthodox Christianity” in Justin’s day—this is why modern scholars use terms like “proto-orthodox” or at most (and cautiously) “catholic” (small ‘c’), when dealing with this period.  Also, it’s still not clear what Warner means by ‘unitarianism.’  If by Unitarianism he means a theology that identifies the one God as the Father, then he has identified Justin’s theology.  Warner is so terribly confused here: he even appears to lump “unitarian Christians” in with “Gnostic Christians.”  Confused and confusing.

Warner then goes on and on about Justin’s use of the word “race”, implying that I was somehow taking the word “race” to mean something other than race, like “orthodox Christians.”  But I obviously take “race” to mean ethnicity!  I clearly write that Justin’s quote “reveals that in early non-Gnostic GENTILE Christianity not all had accepted the burgeoning Logos-Christology which Justin and his philosophical movement had adapted…” (Chandler, p. 147).  At this point I wonder if Warner was even reading me at all?

TheophanesTheCretan_StJustinMartyr

Justin Martyr (100-165 CE)

Lastly, there is good evidence that Justin considered these unnamed Gentile Christians he referred to as fellow Christians, albeit Christians he strongly disagreed with.  For one, he explicitly calls them “my friends” (Dia. 48).  Secondly, Justin doesn’t say they are not really Christians (Warner’s attempt to connect his later statements about other so-called Christians is unconvincing and groundless).  In fact, Justin clearly wants Trypho to become a Christian, and his tactic for accomplishing this here is to persuade Trypho to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, even if Justin cannot prove to him that Jesus pre-existed.  And Justin’s reason for mentioning the Gentile Christians who believe Jesus is the Messiah without pre-existence can only be to encourage Trypho to join them in that basic belief.  I’ll lay this out in full for everyone:

First, Trypho says: “We Jews all expect that Christ will be a man of merely human origin… If this man appears to be the Christ, he must be considered to be a man of solely human birth.”  At this, Justin provides some encouragement:

“Now assuredly, Trypho, [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that he existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God [or “god”], and was born a man by the Virgin.  But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever he be, even if I do not prove that he pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father’s will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that he is the Christ, though it should appear that he was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that he has become Christ by election.  For there are some, my friends, of our race, who admit that he is Christ, while holding him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even [if] most of those who have the same opinions as myself should say so” (Dia. 48).

Again, Justin’s point in even mentioning the other Gentile Christians who don’t believe in pre-existence is because, in his quest to persuade Trypho to become a Christian, he is looking to at least get Trypho to join them in their belief.  Indeed, in the context of Trypho’s argument that “we Jews all believe” that the Messiah will not pre-exist, Justin’s informing him that there are indeed some Gentile believers (even Justin’s “friends”) who agree with Trypho, can hardly be taken as Justin’s rejection of these Christians as total pretenders who aren’t even Christians.

Warner:

“In attempting to link Unitarianism with pre-trinitarian ORTHODOX Christianity (apart from Gnosticism), Chandler has misrepresented BOTH the Nazarenes/Ebionites AND IMO Justin as well.”

Again, just terribly shallow here.  My argument is not that “unitarianism” (esp. Unitarianism with no pre-existence Christology) just was “ORTHODOX Christianity” in the second century (again I stress the diversity within early Christianity over and over), rather that there have existed “unitarians” as far back as Church history goes.  I haven’t misrepresented anyone.  On the other hand, Warner has repeatedly failed to understand both Church history and myself on a massive scale.

Warner:

“Chandler also suggests that Justin may have invented the whole idea of “preexistence of the Son” himself. Yet he fails to acknowledge that the preexistence of the Son was taught clearly long before Justin.”

peJCNo, another strawman.  I haven’t argued that.  I don’t believe that pre-existence of the Son first originated with Justin at all.  And elsewhere I have clearly expressed that pre-existence Christology began to develop before Justin, at least by the late first century.  What Warner’s first comment is likely referring to was actually no quote of mine, but rather a quote I provided from another scholar, William Christie, whose speculations I clearly labeled among “possible inferences.”  Christie wrote: “The doctrine of Christ’s divinity and pre-existence had at this period gained little footing among Christians, if it was not the invention of Justin himself, for we do not find him appealing to former writers on the subject, or even to the general opinion of Christians in his time… [these] are all indications that the doctrine of the Divinity and Pre-existence of the Messiah, was at that time accounted a novel and very precarious opinion” (Christie quoted in Chandler, p. 147).  But it’s not surprising at this point that Warner continues to handle the material with such carelessness.

 

Part IV – Warner argues into the wind about pre-existence Christology before Justin

Warner next points to the so-called letters of Ignatius of Antioch as an example of pre-existence Christology.  He then writes:

“How conveniently Chandler bypasses Ignatius (disciple of John) due to the fact that his works have been embellished by later writers. Yet, most scholars agree that the longer version contains the embellishments, but the shorter version is Ignatius’ words.”

I addressed the letters attributed to Ignatius on pp. 158-159, devoting about seven paragraphs to the issue.  But ultimately I concluded that they were not very useful for my inquiry (which was not the presence of pre-existence Christology, but the existence of the orthodox Trinity doctrine before the fourth century).  In the book I suggest that even if the references to pre-existence or the use of the word “theos” of Jesus in these letters were genuine, they shouldn’t be used to definitively prove the existence of the orthodox Trinity at the time of the historical Ignatius.  In no way do I argue, however, in my conclusion about the usefulness of the letters, that “Ignatius” doesn’t believe in pre-existence.  Furthermore, I make it clear elsewhere that I believe the “pre-existence of Christ” trend was already developing by the time of the historical Ignatius, so Warner pointing this out means absolutely nothing.

On a side note about the letters, Warner wants to cite scholarly opinion that some of the Ignatian letters are thought to be genuine.  Well, I can cite scholarly opinion as well, that even the so-called ‘genuine’ epistles are fraught with problems that reveal they are themselves corrupt.  In fact, I already did so in the book on p. 159:

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Ignatius among the lions

“The Catholic Encyclopedia warns that of all the letters attributed to Ignatius, there are believed to be “seven genuine and six spurious letters.”  However, “even the genuine epistles were greatly interpolated to lend weight to the personal views of its [reviser].  For this reason they are incapable of bearing witness to the original form.”  Protestant historian Phillip Schaff likewise confirms that: “the seven genuine also have not wholly escaped the hand of the forger.”  All of this forces us to agree with historians of the following opinion:  “We pass over the Epistles ascribed to Ignatius with slight notice, regarding them as of too uncertain authorship, and too hopelessly corrupt to justify the use of them in connection with our present inquiry.  As to the bearing of the Epistles… on the question of the belief of the old Christians on the subject of the Trinity, we shall not attempt to argue the question on the genuineness of the Ignatian letters… What is called the “testimony of antiquity” in their favor is too meagre, too loose, and not sufficiently early, and one of the pieces referred to of too suspicious a character to prove anything…” (Chandler, p. 159, citing the C.E., Schaff, and Lamson & Abbott).

If anyone is interested in an introduction to the problems with the so-called genuine letters, you may want to check out: http://historical-jesus.info/ignatius.html.  Ultimately, the authenticity of the “shorter version” which Warner says “most scholars” agree on, has been challenged by a variety of other good scholars from the turn of the century to our present day.  Schaff even decided to just let people decide for themselves what was a forgery and what wasn’t!  This is indeed a complicated, controversial, and unsettled issue, and I am more than justified in acknowledging the Ignatian letters, and then setting them to one side in my quest to discover whether or not the orthodox Trinity doctrine existed before the fourth century.  And again, Warner argues with no one when he so emphatically points to these letters in order to substantiate the existence of pre-existence Christology before Justin Martyr.

Warner painfully goes on for several paragraphs to portray the Epistle of Barnabas and Mathetes as representative of pre-existence Christology before Justin… But again I just don’t understand why he is doing this—Very clearly I argue in the book that “several decades backwards from Justin’s birth” Christians were already beginning to view Christ as pre-existent and in some sense more than human (Chandler, p. 81), and that pre-existence Christology was already present in “the first two centuries of the Church” (Chandler, p. 83); in Chapter 3 I even discuss various pre-existence Christologies current or earlier than Justin at great and painstaking length.  And later, on p. 374, I even plainly say that in the “first century” Hellenistic pre-existence ideas were being transferred onto Jesus.  Can I be any clearer on my opinions on this?  But Warner evidently doesn’t really care about dealing with my book, or the facts of history, but instead just likes to knock down strawmen of his own design.

 

Part V – Warner fails to understand unitarian worship

Warner continues:

“The few writers that are believed to be earlier than Barnabas (contemporary to Ignatius), Clement of Rome and Polycarp, while not mentioning this specifically [pre-existence], said nothing contrary to it, and indicated that the WORSHIP of the Son was commonplace. (This appears to conflict with Unitariaism, since Jesus Himself, when tempted of the devil, said, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.”

With this comment, Warner finally reveals that he has not, in fact, really read my book.  If he had, he would know 1) that he has nothing whatsoever to gain by pointing out that early Christians worshipped the Son, and 2) that this exposes him as frightfully ignorant of the very book (and theological position) he has taken to public forum to criticize.

First, Warner brings us neither revelation nor useful critique when he triumphantly points out that the early Gentile Fathers worshipped the Son, since I already point that out myself many, many times in the book (see for example my analysis of Justin’s worship of the Son on p. 143ff, as well as the earlier worship of Jesus current in the circles of the NT writers on pp. 459-461, 467-468).

Second, let’s consider the obvious implication of Warner’s comment, that the early Gentile Father’s worship of the Son was thought to be worship of “the Lord your God.”  Again, Warner believes these Fathers were not “unitarian” (which I am forced in this case to assume that Warner means they did not identify the one God as the Father?), thus they must have thought they were worshiping the one God when they were worshiping the Son, otherwise, as his citation of Matt 4:10 indicates, Warner thinks they would be disobeying Jesus.  But this is just not so:

Justin, for example, worships the Son alongside the one God, and worships him explicitly as a distinct and subordinate being.  Justin writes, “We worship the maker of this universe… Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ… we reasonably worship him, having learned that he is the son of the true God himself, and holding him in the second place… a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, creator of all” (First Apology, 13, 1).  Justin worships “God, the Father of righteousness… but we worship and adore BOTH him and the son who came from him… and the army of the other good angels who follow him and are made like him…” (Ibid., 6).  Indeed, as Justin says, the Son is “another god and lord under the Creator of all things who is also called an angel… and is called god, and is distinct from God, the Creator…” (Dia., 56).  It is obvious here that though Justin uses the title ‘god’ (theos) for Jesus (as do other unitarian writers in the early centuries), the Son is worshipped as a distinct and subordinate entity alongside the one God (the Father and Creator of all).  Justin has no problem worshiping the Son because it is assumed that the one true God is the Father and that the Son, though highly exalted, is still subordinate to God the Father.  Irenaeus has a similar theology as I amply demonstrate in the book.  Ultimately, Warner again falls flat—his line of argumentation here is at worst ignorant and at best incoherent.

jesusandgodThird, let’s consider his argument that the worship of Jesus simply “conflicts with Unitarianism”.  I actually devote an entire chapter, pp. 446-468 (22 pages), to the worship of Jesus from the standpoint of unitarian theology.  I guess Warner didn’t see those 22 pages, or the sections which I specifically devoted to Matt 4:10, with which Warner assumes he can single-handedly damage both my book and my position by simply quoting it.  In the end, Warner is just not familiar enough with unitarian Christian theology or with Church history in general to properly deal with eitherBut that hasn’t prevented him from masquerading as an authority on both.  It is these kinds of misfires that make it difficult to go on taking Warner seriously, since he evidently hasn’t done the same for me.  If anyone is actually interested in a biblical unitarian view of the worship of Jesus, I invite you to read my chapter on it for yourself.

 

Part VI – Mystical Hellenistic Judaism, pre-existence, “divine figures”, etc.

Next, he writes:

“In attempting to portray the doctrine of the preexistence of the Son as a Platonic corruption of Apostolic Christianity, Chandler indicates that Judaism had absolutely no basis from the OT or theological precedent for supposing a second divine figure.”

A lot of problems packed in a small space, as usual.  Yes, I do believe the preexistence of the Son is a Hellenistic philosophical development and I provide a good deal of evidence throughout the 540 pages to support that idea.  What I don’t do is argue “that Judaism had ABSOLUTELY NO BASIS” for “supposing a second divine figure.”

First, “second divine figure” is fog-language.  What is a “divine” figure, exactly?  The OT and Second Temple writings are full of examples of other figures we could call “divine” apart from Yahweh: angels, angels who bear God’s name, holy prophets, demons, etc.  Warner will need to be more clear.  I should also point out that I clearly discuss, on pp. 375-378, overtly Hellenistic strains of Judaism which had adopted notions of pre-existence and incarnation.  Would this be “basis” enough for whatever Warner is suggesting first-century Jews believed?  Warner misrepresents me once again…

And now for some assumptions:

“Apparently, he is not familiar with the “Two Powers” doctrine among the Jews, which was only denounced by the rabbis AFTER Christianity came on the scene in order to counter Christianity’s pressure on post-AD70 rabbinic Judaism. “

I am familiar with the “Two powers” controversy among the Jews.  This is one of many colorful topics I did not have space to flesh out in my already 543-page book (my limit was 545 pp.—and it was difficult to shave everything down to fit, let me tell you), and I had already dealt with the underlying issues that motivate most of the acutely Trinitarian interest in this controversy in other sections of the book.  But I am obviously aware of the “Two powers” ideas, as evidenced by my book’s repeated citation from Two Powers-focused works like Alan Segal’s “Two Powers in Heaven” (2002) and McGrath’s “Two Powers and Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism” (2004).

imagesUltimately, it is a complicated issue, and sorting through the claims and evidence takes a lot of time (which I didn’t have in the book), and again, I had already dealt with the underlying issues at play there, namely, the presence of heavenly or angelic mediators who are imbued with God’s name, God’s authority, and are treated as if they were God or equivalent to God (for example, see pp. 455-458 in my book on heavenly figures alongside God, and pp. 435-436 on biblical angels who have God’s name and are treated as God, and pp. 323-325 on the law of agency which treats God’s agents as equivalent to God).

For those interested in the “Two Powers” controversy, I suggest you read James McGrath’s critique, “Two Powers and Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism” (2004).  McGrath ably demonstrates the many shortcomings of Segal’s proposal(s).  And ultimately, I agree with McGrath, who has recognized the following:

  • Belief in heavenly agents or vice-regents was not problematic for the Jewish monotheism of first century because these figures were subordinate to the one God.
  • The Mishnah and the Tosefta do not explicitly associate a “two powers” heresy with the Christians, but they do refer to Jews who believed in “many powers”, probably a multitude of beings who they may have believed had created them.
  • Even if the Tosefta passage deals with the “two powers” heresy, it still dates to around the beginning of the third century. Later rabbinic writings date the controversy to the early second century.  But ultimately, even the argument that it dates to the second century is hypothetical.
  • The earliest references to “two powers” appear to be references to Gnosticism, and the controversy probably resulted from the development of Gnostic ideas and a retrospective condemnation by the rabbis. Essentially, when the rabbis got the power, they condemned earlier Gnosticizing speculation.
  • Any rejection of a belief in heavenly mediators probably did not take place until demiurgic speculations began to be promoted by Gnosticizing movements, and/or until later Christians eventually began to identify the “second person” as equal with God in some sense.

In the end, what is not clear is that there was ever a truly “binitarian,” poly-personal theology among the Jews.  Sure, there were other divine beings, angels, and hypostatic manifestations of God’s powers—but a true, plural monotheism like binitarianism or Trinitarianism?  That’s a stretch.  What we do know is that there were Gnostic tendencies rising among both Jews and Christians from the first to the third centuries, in which speculations about essential emanations of God abounded (in much of second and third century Christian Logos theology, the Son is essentially a repackaged emanation from the Father, and is even cast in much of the same “Gnostic” philosophical language; see pp. 121-122 in my book).

Moving right along, Warner reveals his motives:

“Prior to [70 CE], [The “two powers heresy”] was one of several views among the Jews concerning the Messiah, and it involved His preexistence. The Christian teaching of the preexistence of the Son of God (in both Paul and John) was already anticipated by at least SOME of the Jews.”

Here we discover that Warner’s referencing of the “Two Powers” heresy is ultimately unnecessary; what he wanted to do is to prove that “SOME” of the Jews had speculated about ideas like the soul’s (or even the Messiah’s) ontological pre-existence in heaven, and he could have simply said so.  Warner wants to portray me as either ignorant or misleading on this point, but again, not true.  I spend many pages in the book discussing Jews who believed in ideas like personal pre-existence (see for example, pp. 69-71, 375-378).  Warner continues to triumphantly announce points that I’ve already made in the book as if they are somehow damaging critiques!  For example, I already wrote very clearly:

“… in the first century CE there was indeed a segment of Hellenizing Jews who had appropriated Greek notions of literal pre-existence and applied them to biblical stories, and there is no doubt that this was not the common Judaism of first-century Judea… As scholars have confirmed, these interpretations of the Bible ‘were undreamt of by the average Jew.’  In regard to pre-existence, the prevailing Judaism of the first century maintained that the scriptural portrait of the Messiah described not an ontological pre-birth reality, but a foreknowledge of the Messiah in God’s mind.  This model of Jewish pre-existence was antecedent to the literal, Platonic system of the Hellenizers.  As Harnack reveals, this “old Jewish model of pre-existence… [is] the earliest view.’ ” (Chandler, pp. 376-378).

It’s a shame that I keep having to dismantle Warner’s mischaracterizations; despite his accusations, I’ve indeed acknowledged that ontological pre-existence ideas, even ontological pre-existence ideas related to the Messiah, were in existence within the Jewish world at the time of Christ.  But as even Warner seems to agree, these speculations were entertained on the fringe of Judaism, and evidently largely within what we would describe as Mystical Hellenistic Judaism (in other words, Judaism which had been overtly synthesized with Hellenistic philosophy and mythology).  And this is, of course, my larger point in the book, that the fundamental “pre-existence of Jesus” is at its core essentially Hellenistic philosophy.

It’s important to keep in mind that our job, when considering the background of the NT writings, is to ask ourselves which historical expression of Judaism they are best representative of, and also to responsibly trace the developmental lines in the history of religion.  It’s not enough to simply point out that “Jews” or “SOME Jews” in Jesus’ day believed certain things; we have to provide evidence that the NT writers believed those things.

Warner concludes with this:

“The version of “monotheism” promoted by this author is the later developed form, which was a reaction against Christianity. It is not a “monotheism” that was monolithic for all of Judaism prior to Christ.”

First, the “version of monotheism” I am promoting, that is, the idea that the one God just is the Father, that God is one person, or a single self, is manifest in the biblical documents.  The word “God” does not mean “the triune God” or the “binitarian God” in the NT, and singular personal pronouns are used thousands of times to present this God to the reader.  It would be nice if Warner could show us where a truly poly-personal God existed within Judaism, esp. since the philosophical substrates which enable the metaphysical distinction between being and personhood were not available at the time of the NT’s composition.

Warner finally adds that SOME Jews were interpreting certain OT passages,

“to imply some kind of deity for the Son of God, albeit necessarily SUBORDINATE to the eternal One… The “Two Powers” doctrine accounts for this. Unitarianism does not.”

Again with the fog-language“some kind of deity”—right, and many unitarians would agree that the Son is “some kind of deity”, albeit a necessarily subordinate deity, exactly as Warner says.  The Messiah is certainly “divine” in some sense; I could agree with this statement.  But I don’t think the biblical data is inarguably sufficient for concluding that the Messiah is divine in the same way that the Father is divine (or that the Son just is the one God himself, or that the one God is a poly-personal being).

So… unitarian theology “does not account” for what, exactly?  I’m trying to be charitable here, but if Warner thinks that unitarianism cannot account for the Son having “some kind of subordinate ‘deity’ ”, then Warner doesn’t understand what unitarianism is, despite his wish to speak so authoritatively on it.   If by “unitarianism” he intends to refer to a theology which lacks an ontological pre-existence Christology, he is still off-the-mark: this interpretation of the biblical data accounts very well for the idea of “pre-existence” within both historical Judaism and within the evidence provided by the NT writers.  As I make clear in the book, Jews of all stripes could say that the Messiah existed first with God in heaven before he was born.  But we have to take time to understand the nature of this so-called pre-existence, then to determine the likelihood that we can locate it within the NT writings about the Messiah.  To say that “Unitarianism” (however Warner is defining it) simply “does not account” for either “subordinate divinity” or “pre-existence” of the Messiah is ridiculous.  Warner’s continuous betrayal of his ignorance of the topics at hand make it progressively difficult to interact with his criticisms.  With this in mind, we will consider just one more string of misunderstanding below.

 

Part VII – Warner struggles with Gnostic Christology

In the final comments we will review, we will see more evidence of Warner’s perpetual confusion and ignorance of a variety of Early Christian topics.  We’ll also continue to witness Warner’s unfortunate habit of misinforming his readers and misrepresenting the positions of people he disagrees with.

Authoritatively critiquing someone else’s comment on his page (not me) regarding the alleged pre-existent nature of the Son, Warner makes the following observations:

“It seems to me that there is a latent undercurrent of Gnosticism here. Note that the questioner states that “the Son of God may have been in heaven in a preexistent state” (acknowledging the possibility), but then he asserts that “I just know baby Jesus wasn’t. It was the baby Jesus that became the fully grown Jesus who was doing the talking.” You could substitute the word “human” for “baby” (because that is what he meant) and this statement is absolutely consistent with Marcion’s Gnosticism — that the divine “Christ spirit” is a distinct entity from the human Jesus.”

Marcion_teaching

Marcion of Sinope teaching

Some issues here, namely with Warner’s confident assertion that his interlocutor’s statement is “absolutely consistent with Marcion’s Gnosticism.”  Once again, Warner’s lack of serious study in these topics is on display: Marcion did not have a separationist Christology.  By all accounts, Marcion’s Christology was a true Docetism, and probably a modalistic Docetism.  In other words, Marcion’s Jesus was not truly human and had no real human flesh; there was no “distinction” between Christ and the human Jesus, as Warner says—for Marcion there was no human JesusWarner is so eager to throw labels and poisonous names at people, but he’s not as eager to perform basic investigation before demonizing any interlocutor who has the misfortune of getting in his way.

Warner moves on to a passage from 1 John, by which he hopes to prove his own Christology of pre-existence and “full deity” (whatever that means) in the face of an alleged Gnostic Christology:

“1 John 4:2-3

2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,
3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.

Now if John believed that Jesus had no heavenly origin or preexistence, then this statement makes NO sense whatsoever. “

Not true.  If John did not believe that Jesus was a pre-existent spiritual being, then 1 John 4:2-3 not only makes perfect sense, but is even much more effective as an anti-Gnostic polemic (which Warner agrees this text certainly is).

First, I’ll just quote from my book on 1 John 4:2-3: “John argued that Jesus truly came to them ‘in sarx’ (flesh) or ‘in the compass of humanity’ or ‘as a human being’ (no. 271: “… Jesus does not employ an impersonal body as a vehicle, as an abstraction attached to a divine person.  Rather, the state in which the Jesus of history lived and operated was ‘in the flesh’, that is, as a real human being.  Real humanity presupposes not an abstract flesh or experience, but real human personhood and psychology).  In other words, John’s position is that the real Jesus had enjoyed material existence as a genuinely human entity and therefore was not the docetic emanation of the Gnostics.  For John, the person of Jesus belonged unequivocally to the sphere of humanity” (Chandler, pp. 87-88).

luther

Martin Luther

We must be careful to not commit the travesty of Martin Luther, who in this verse changed the Greek “en” to “eis”, that is, he changed “Jesus Christ has come IN the flesh” to “Jesus Christ has come INTO the flesh.”  If Luther had been right here, then Warner might be correct in saying that the verse demands John’s belief in an incarnational Christology.  But Luther was wrong, and so is Warner.  “en sarki” is the form in which Jesus Christ appeared—he was human.  And no more should be drawn than this.

We’ll let Warner go on a bit more before we discuss how my understanding of John’s Christological outlook actually makes for a much more effective anti-Gnostic polemic in 1 John 4:2-3.  He writes:

“Of course, anyone who actually encountered Him could see that the man Jesus Christ was flesh and blood. If they denied that Jesus Christ came “in the flesh,” then what exactly did they suppose that He was? Some forms of early Gnosticism claimed that Jesus was ONLY a divine being, appearing as a “phantom” which only appeared to be human. Other early forms of Gnosticism such as Marcionism separated the divine being (Christ spirit) from the human Jesus. But ALL forms of Gnosticism flatly denied that this divine Person BECAME FLESH, as John states in John 1:14.”

Of course, wrong again about Marcion, etc.  But Warner’s biggest problem here is his last statement, where he loudly claims that “ALL forms of Gnosticism” flatly denied the Son’s flesh!  Indeed, Warner never fails to reveal his scarce proficiency in this arena; in fact, this reckless claim could not be further from the truth, and serves to undermine everything else he says.  On pp. 87-101 of my book I discuss Gnostic Christological belief in Jesus’ real flesh extensively, which, again, Warner would have known if he’d read it.  For example, the two schools of Valentinian Gnosticism affirmed wholeheartedly the real flesh of the Savior.  Warner suggests that John 1:14 prevented Gnostic Christology, but he is probably not aware of the fact that the Gospel of John was a favorite among the Gnostics.  In fact, the very first commentary ever written on John, that we know of, was by the Valentinian teacher Heracleon.

So, if Gnostic Christologies featured diverse positions on Christ’s flesh, how could a simple and unqualified affirmation of Christ’s “flesh” in 1 John 4:2-3 ever be effective as a polemic against Gnostic Christology, which often equivocated on “flesh”?

As I wrote in my recent study on John, “We must ask: Did John believe that by affirming Christ’s real flesh, that is, his real humanity, that he could simultaneously refute all of his (Gnostic) opponents?  This possibility would be strengthened if there happened to be one unifying feature between the proposed antagonistic Gnostic Christologies which John’s statement could target and effectively crush in a single blow.  Of course, as Harnack pointed out, the feature which unifies each of the Gnostic Christologies is the thesis that the Savior is, in some sense, a spiritual being… [We could say that] by declaring the unqualified humanity and denying the deity of Christ in one (Gnostic) sense, John denies it in every sense.  Indeed, John calls those arguing for (some form of) Christ’s deity liars, false prophets, and antichrist.  It thus becomes more and more difficult to imagine that John was denying the deity of Christ in a Gnostic sense, but was affirming it in the orthodox sense” (Chandler, “Hermes & John”, p. 27).

Warner writes:

“Note that John [in 1 John 4:2-3] did NOT deny that He was of heavenly origin (originated as deity).”

Well he also did not deny that Jesus was a unicorn, either.  What we can agree that John DID do was affirm an unqualified humanity for Jesus.  But if 1 John 4:2-3 really is an anti-Gnostic polemic, which the vast majority of scholars (and Warner, and myself) agree that it is, it is probably only effective if John intends for it to refute any Christology which posits that Jesus is by nature a spiritual being (which would seem to imply any Christology of pre-existence or ontological deity).

Warner continues:

“John’s statement in 1 John 4:2-3 requires that we believe in His FULL HUMANITY without challenging His heavenly origin and deity.”

Really?  How does the statement in 1 John 4:2-3 require that we don’t challenge his alleged ‘heavenly origin and deity’?  The statement says nothing at all about any of that.  At the very least, all it requires us to do is to believe in Christ’s humanity.  At the most, one can easily be led to believe that John’s unqualified affirmation of Christ’s humanity implies a rejection of any other form of existence other than what was unequivocally proposed.  At any rate, Warner’s argument regarding 1 John 4:2-3, that “if John believed that Jesus had no heavenly origin or preexistence, then this statement makes NO sense whatsoever” falls flat on its face.

And now for Warner’s most incredible claim of all: that I am actually guilty of teaching a Gnostic Christology!  See below:

“Unitarians are actually proclaiming a form of Gnosticism, which does what ALL forms of Gnosticism have done, totally separate the DEITY from HUMANITY…”

Orthodox_icon_of_Jesus_Christ_Pantocrator_24_largeAgain, this is not accurate.  The fundamental thesis of Gnostic Christology is not that “the DEITY and the HUMANITY are separate,” but instead, as Harnack noted, that Christ is by nature a spiritual being.  This encompasses both docetic Gnostic Christologies and separationist visions of the Savior.  Warner’s definition is inaccurate because only “separationist” Christology would “separate the deity from the humanity.”  Docetic Christologies deny there is a real humanity at all, and some forms even unite the deity and humanity by way of a divinized or heavenly flesh.  So, if the fundamental Gnostic thesis is that Christ is by nature a pre-existing spiritual entity who became incarnate (in flesh that is either phantasmic or real), then only a Christology which LACKS spiritual pre-existence could ever escape completely from being associated with any so-called Gnostic ideas about Christ.  There is NO Gnostic Christology which affirms only the existence of the humanity of the Savior and denies any preceding spiritual existence or union with a spiritual Christ.  Biblical unitarian Christology is therefore as far away from Gnostic Christology as one could possibly get.  Warner’s accusations are preposterous and inflammatory.  And so are his other suggestions he has made on his forum that I am denying the Father and the Son, and that I may be condemned by God for disbelief, denial, and willful rejection.

Final Act: Warner’s unique theology

After Warner’s assault, I thought I would take a look at his statement(s) of faith, and a few of his articles, to help me better understand his theology.  Warner makes a few terminological and analogical shifts in these statements, and it sounds a bit obscure in some places, but here is what I have been able to derive as best as I can.  For Warner:

God first existed alone, then a finite time ago God produced a Son from his own essence—and suddenly there were two co-equal Persons sharing the same essence (a binitarian God).  I’m actually not sure if Warner’s falls in line with other two-stage Logos theologies which say that the Logos was first an impersonal attribute which was later expressed as the personal Son (I haven’t been able to locate his view on this yet).  Regardless, the Son later completely divested himself of his divine attributes (including his co-equality) and transformed himself into a human baby.  From that point on, the Son was completely and only human, subordinate to God, with no residual divine nature.

u5A5zTsIf I am understanding Warner correctly here… then it seems that before the Son was begotten, Warner’s God was just the Father (that is, Warner’s God was once unitarian, a single self).  Then God became binitarian (there was a newly produced co-equal Person who suddenly shared the same essence with the Father).  But once the Son completely emptied himself of his divine attributes, it looks like the Father goes back to being alone in the divine essence again.  Indeed, what happened to the divine essence of the Son after the incarnation?  I suppose it was just re-absorbed back into God, or it evaporated into the cosmos (was destroyed).  Regardless, after the Son sheds his divine attributes and becomes completely human, doesn’t that make Warner’s God now a unitarian God—a single self, the Father?  Warner talks a lot about the “full deity” of the Son—but it looks like the only time Warner can say that the Son was ever “full deity” was in the time period between Creation and the Incarnation.  After that, it looks like we’ve got a unitarian God and a completely human (non-deity) Jesus.  For so loudly declaring how wrong unitarian theology is, Warner’s theology often sounds very unitarian.

There are a few other concerning issues with Warner’s view as I have understood it.  He evidently wants to say that (at least at one point) the Son was co-equal with the Father and was “deity”—the Son shared in the divine attributes of the Father and was even “full deity.”  But the problem here becomes Warner’s insistence that the Son was not eternal.  Though Warner wants them to be co-equal, the Father is nevertheless and by necessity greater than the Son because he is the source of the Son, who is derived from and dependent on the Father for his existence.  This Son cannot be “full deity”—he cannot have all of the divine attributes that the Father has—because of the Father’s aseity.  “Aseity” describes a property which allows a being to exist in and of itself, or to exist as so-and-such of and from itself.  Again, according to Warner’s theology, the Father is unbegotten, while the Son is begotten.  Thus the Son has less of the divine attributes than the Father, is therefore less divine than the Father, and is unequal.

rembrandt4jpg-0567cbae0ade6308In the end, I wonder what sort of religious significance the alleged ‘pre-existence’ and former ‘co-equality’ and ‘full deity’ of Jesus actually has for Warner.  It looks like the “full deity” which Jesus purportedly emptied himself of did nothing for the man Jesus, and did nothing for us either: every single thing Jesus did in his ministry, including his sinless life, miracles, preaching, and atoning death, he evidently did as a man lacking any divine nature.  Why does Warner think it’s so important that we believe that at one point Jesus was “God” before he gave it up, and at one point God was a sort of binitarian God for a (relatively) short period of time before he gave that up, too?  Warner threatens condemnation by God for those who don’t believe in this, or at least for those who “willfully reject” it.  But I think that’s more than a bit overdrawn.

From what I can see, Warner has worked hard to abandon the “orthodox Trinity” and “eternal generation of the Son”, which he evidently did around 2015.  He has also realized the serious influence pagan philosophical traditions have had upon the development of orthodox dogma, as he writes in another article:

“Although there had been a somewhat gradual separation of the Christian churches from all things Jewish beginning in AD 70, the official “divorce” took place when the emperor Constantine embraced a Platonic version of Christianity… Since the marriage of Platonic Christianity with the Roman state, Mystery Babylon, the Mother of Harlots, has handed down to Christians pagan traditions cloaked in Christian garb…”[6]

It’s interesting that here Warner recognizes that Constantine embraced a Platonic version of Christianity, which he reveals has enabled the handing down of pagan traditions cloaked in Christian garb.  But earlier Warner appeared to defend Constantine’s council of Nicaea, whose creed was directly impacted by Constantine’s theological initiatives!  So was Constantine’s council a representation of the biblical faith once delivered to the saints?  Or was it an embrace of pagan philosophy?  Once Warner works through these issues, and reconciles with the facts of Church history, I think he’ll find himself standing on the more solid historical ground that he needs in order to take his next step theologically.  The next step for Warner looks like a complete repeal of the conciliar creeds, and an embrace of the truly human Jesus of the Gospels who did not literally pre-exist his birth in the virgin Mary.  Warner has come very far, and I wish him and the people in his group only the best.  God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.  And perhaps this glimpse I’ve offered into the many problematic positions Warner is now taking will provide both him and his readers with enough reason to wonder if Warner’s theological reformation is truly complete, or if there is still reforming yet to be done.

 

Peace and blessings,

K.C.

 

[1] Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Magnas, Jerusalem, 1988), p. 108.

[2] Pritz, p. 108.

[3] Edwin Keith Broadhead, Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), p. 274.

[4] Broadhead, p. 169.

[5] Broadhead, p. 274.

[6]  Tim Warner, “Passover controversy,” Oasis Christian Church, Web, p. 5.

 

 

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