Does the Bible present Jesus as eternally equal with the Father?

Two Views among Evangelicals

Ted Peters says that if anything, contemporary mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic trinitarian thinking is “antisubordinationist.” (God as Trinity (Louisville: Westminster, 1993), p. 45.) But Kevin Giles, in an article in The Academic Journal of CBE International, stated:

“Paradoxically … many evangelical theologians have been moving in the opposite direction. Since the 1980s, evangelicals wishing to uphold the idea male headship … have been arguing that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father.”

“Conservative evangelicals who speak of the eternal subordination of the Son quote in support Paul’s assertion that God the Father is the “head of Christ” just as “man is the head of woman” (1 Cor 11:3), and the texts that speak of the Son being “sent” by the Father (John 4:34, 5:30, etc.), and obeying the Father (Rom 5:18-19; Heb 5:8).

Giles, on the other hand, claims that the Bible writers present the Son as equal with the Father:

“They frequently associated the Father, Son, and Spirit together, implying their equality (cf. Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 12:4-6; 2 Cor 13:13; Eph 4:4-6; etc.), and on occasions spoke of Jesus as Theos (John 1:1, 20:28; Rom 9:5; Heb 1:8), calling him “the Lord” (the title for Yahweh used in the Greek OT) some two hundred times.”

Can the Bible answer this question?

However, Giles implies that this debate, whether the Son is subordinate to the Father or not, cannot be resolved from the Bible alone and that we must rely on “tradition:”

“If there were no way to settle this debate over the interpretation of the Bible we would have a stalemate. Each side could simply go on quoting their proof texts and no resolution would be possible. But this is not the case. Evangelicals … are in complete agreement that “tradition”—understood as how the scriptures have been understood by the best of theologians across the centuries—is a good guide to the proper interpretation of scripture: it is a secondary authority.”

Gotquestions, another conservative protestant site, claims that the Bible is able to provide the answer. Using language that is reminiscent of the Athanasian Creed, it states:

The Bible teaches that the Father is God, that Jesus is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God. The Bible also teaches that there is only one God.

For this reason, this question is not about the “tradition.” The question is, what are the main texts and principles in the New Testament for both the views that the Son is equal with the Father and that the Son is subordinate to the Father, and what are the main counterarguments for each of these points?

Eternal Subordination

As Giles indicated:

“All accept that the Son was for a limited period (temporally) subordinated in the incarnation. What is in dispute is whether or not the Son is subordinated in the eternal or immanent Trinity in his being/nature/person and/or work/operation/function.”

So, I am particularly interested in indications that the Son was equal or subordinate to the Father before He “became flesh” and after His ascension.

Role vs being Subordination

Giles distinguishes between “eternal subordination in role/function” and “subordination in person or being,” but also states that, if the Son, in “eternity” is subordinate in His “role/function,” then He is also subordinate in His “being:”

“Most speak only of an eternal subordination in role/function for the Son. However some evangelicals honestly admit that eternal role subordination by necessity implies subordination in person or being.”

In note 4 of his article, Giles states that this distinction ”is entirely novel. It has no historical antecedents. Previously the argument has been eternal subordination in being/nature/essence and work/operation/function are two sides of one coin.”

Furthermore, since this question is about the Bible alone, and since the Bible does not explain the relationship between the Father and Son in terms of substance or being, I do not expect an answer that will rely on the distinction between role and being.

Catholic Christians

I assume this is not a question that will interest Catholic Christians, since they rely on tradition to a great extent. But I hope that Protestant Christians will be more interested to provide an answer.

Explanation

This is a copy of a question I placed on Stackexchange. That site is regulated by individuals with high standing in the academic world, but most are traditionalists and are irritated by me questioning long-standing views. Whether they will accept my question remains to be seen. I do intend to answer the question myself, but that would require some substantial research and I will now be able to do that right away.

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John consistently distinguishes between God and Jesus.

Purpose

Gospel of JohnThe purpose of this article, and the ones following after it, is to determine whether Jesus is God according to John’s gospel, or whether only the Father is God.  The ultimate purpose is particularly to determine what John meant when he wrote that “the Word was theos (god)” in John 1:1c.  As discussed in the article theos, the word Greek theos has various different meanings.  John 1:1c may, for instance, be translated as:

“The Word was God” (definite) or
“The Word was a god” (indefinite) or
“The Word was like God” (qualitative).

Which of these is the intended meaning should also be the picture of Jesus we find by reading the entire gospel.  To prepare these articles, the gospel was read carefully and all relevant statements were selected and categorized.

Summary

Is Jesus called God in John’s gospel?

The title theos (usually translated “God” or “god”) appears more than 100 times in John’s gospel:

In most instances it is not clear whether it refers to the Father or to the Son, for instance: “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (1:6).

In ten instances it is clear that theos refers to the Father exclusively, for instance, “the Word (Jesus) was with God” (1:1b).  God has never been seen (1:18), while Jesus was seen.  The Father is even called “the one and only God” (5:44; 17:3) and Jesus referred to Him as “My God and your God” (20:17).

Three verses are sometimes used to argue that Jesus is called “God:”

John 1:1c

John 1:1c does not use theos in a definite sense, and therefore may not be translated “the Word was God.”  It is used in a qualitative sense, and therefore may be translated, “the Word was like God.”  Or, using the phraseology from Philippians 2, the Word “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil. 2:6).  But, as also argued in the article Jesus in Philippians 2, if Jesus “existed in the form of God” and if He had “equality with God,” then He is still distinct from God.

John 1:18

John 1:18 calls Jesus “the only begotten theos,” but only in some of the ancient manuscripts.  In the manuscript tradition with the widest geographical distribution, He is called “the only begotten huios” (son).  Therefore, the KJV translates this phrase as “the only begotten Son.”  John originally wrote either theos (god) or huios (son), but somebody corrupted the text either on purpose or by accident, and textual critics are not sure what John actually originally wrote.

John 20:28

John 20:28 records Thomas, when he saw the resurrected Jesus for the first time, as saying “my Lord and my God.”  This happened just after Jesus completed his work on earth and just before the apostle took the work forward in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Thomas could not have referred to Jesus as “God,” for the following reasons:

1. Jesus never taught the disciples that He is God.  Jesus consistently made a distinction between Himself and God.

2. When Thomas said these words, the apostles did not believe that Jesus is God.  For example, the two disciples walking to Emmaus spoke of Him as “a prophet” and said “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).

3. Afterwards, as recorded in the book of Acts, the disciples did not teach that Jesus is God.

Therefore, if Thomas did apply the title theos to Jesus, it could have been in the sense of God’s representative.  The Bible does use theos sometimes in that sense.  But Thomas actually said ho theos.  This title is used for the Father only, and implies that when Thomas said “my God,” he actually referred to the Father.

Conclusion

The evidence is clear that Jesus is not called God in John’s gospel.  Only the Father is God.  However, the view that Jesus is God does not rely on the argument that He is called God.  It is based on other facts, such as that He is worshiped equal to God.  These matters are discussed in the articles that will follow after this one.

John’s Gospel

Critical scholars believe that John’s gospel was written by a number of writers over a period of time.  But the gospel expresses a coherent and consistent view of God and Jesus.  It does not seem to be written by more than one person.

John’s gospel was written much later than the other (synoptic) gospels.  It was written in the eighties or nineties, and has a much higher Christology (view of Christ) than the other gospels.  Some interpreters understand John’s gospel as saying that Jesus existed before His conception in Mary’s womb, and even that Jesus is God Himself.  The other gospels do not have such a high view of Jesus.  In the other gospels Jesus seems to be just a man; an anointed and sanctified man, but still only a man.  Competing views are therefore expressed, namely:

1.  John contradicts the first three gospels. OR

2.  John does not contradict the other gospels, for Jesus is God the Son also in Matthew, Mark and Luke; as divine as the Father is. OR

3. John does not contradict the other gospels, for John’s gospel is generally misunderstood, and even in John’s gospel Jesus is merely a man; God’s Messiah; and not God.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from the NASB of John’s gospel.

Jesus is distinct from God.

Rather than referring to Jesus as God, John’s gospel reserves the title “God” for the Father.  The following phrases make a distinction between Jesus and God:

The Word (Jesus) was with God” (1:1b).

No one has seen God at any time” (1:18).  (Jesus was seen.)

God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (3:16-17)

You do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God” (5:44).

This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (6:29).

You are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God” (8:40).

I proceeded forth and have come from God“ (8:42).

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me” (14:1-2).

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (17:3).

John 17:3

Most of these quote Jesus’ words, making a distinction between Himself and God.  Two of these quotes refer to “the only true God” (17:3; cf. 5:44).  God is invisible (1:18), sent His Son (3:16-17; 6:29; 8:42; 17:3) and taught Jesus the truth (8:40).  His disciples, listening to these words, would not get the idea that Jesus is God.  To the contrary, in 8:40 Jesus refers to himself as “a man.”  Therefore, why would Thomas refer to Jesus as “my God” in John 20:28?  Where did he get the idea that Jesus is God?

The Father is God.

Jesus refers most often to “God” as the “Father.” It is important to understand that in John’s gospel, and in the entire New Testament, the title “God” is a synonym for “the Father,” for instance:

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places” (14:1-2).

Jesus said to Mary, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (20:17).

If only the Father is God, then it obviously follows that the Son is not called God.  But there are some Trinitarians that view the Father and Son to be a single self, and in Modalism the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are simply three modes of the same single divine Being.  Contrary to these views, the following shows that Jesus is distinct from the Father:

Thinking about His approaching death, Jesus said, “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (12:27).
(In Gethsemane He similarly prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Mt. 26:39).  This shows that the Father and Jesus two separate wills.)

If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (14:28; cf. 10:29).

The Father and the Son are therefore distinct Beings.  And, in the way that the New Testament uses the title “God,” only the Father is God

The Father is God for Jesus.

The following verse even identifies the Father as Jesus’ God:

Jesus said to Mary, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (20:17).

John, who also wrote the Revelation, quotes Jesus saying, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God” (Rev. 3:12; cf. 3:13).

Conclusion

The title theos (usually translated God or god) appears more than 100 times in John:

In most instances it is not clear whether it refers to the Father or to the Son, for instance: “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (1:6).

Above ten instances are mentioned where theos refers to the Father only.

On the other hand, there are three instances (1:1, 18 and 20:28) where theos perhaps refers to Jesus.  Separate articles have been placed on this website for each of these verses.  Below these articles are summarized:

John 1:1c

John 1:1This is usually translated “the Word was God.”  A series of articles on this website addresses the translation of John 1:1c.  One article evaluates the translation “The Word was God” and another the translation “The Word was a god.”  In these articles it is shown that neither of these translations are appropriate because the word theos is used in a qualitative sense in that phrase, as grammarians agree.  It should rather be translated as “the Word was like God.”

Both John 1:1 and Philippians 2 describe Jesus before He became a human being.  The article Jesus in Philippians 2 proposed that “the Word was theos” can be understood as equivalent to the statements in Philippians 2 that Jesus “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” and “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow” (Phil. 2:6, 10).  But, as also argued in that article, if Jesus “existed in the form of God” and if He had “equality with God,” then He is still distinct from God.

John 1:18

This verse is discussed in the article: John 1:18. In the NASB, this verse reads,

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”

The word “God” appears twice in this verse.  The first “God” refers to the Father, who is described as invisible.  Since God is invisible, the conclusion can be that Jesus is distinct from God.

The second “God” in 1:18 refers to Jesus, but appears only in some translations.  Twelve of the 27 translation of this verse, as listed by BibleHub, describe Jesus as God in this verse.  The other (mostly older) translations, use a different source text, which actually has the widest geographical distribution, and which describes Jesus as “the only begotten Son.”  John originally wrote either theos (god) or huios (son), but somebody corrupted the text either on purpose or by accident.  It is the task of the textual critic to determine which was the original wording.  As discussed in the article Is Jesus God in John 1:18? neither the external or internal evidence is conclusive.  Because of this uncertainty, this verse should not be used as evidence that Jesus is called God.

John 20:28

This verse is discussed in the article on John 20:28.  Thomas would not believe the reports that Jesus was raised from death, but when He saw Jesus in person, a few days later, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (20:28)!  Jesus did not reprove Thomas.

For some this provides the best evidence that Jesus is God.  It is said that Jesus is here without doubt called “God.”  However, strong circumstantial evidence exists that Thomas could not have referred to Jesus as God:

1. Jesus did not teach the disciples that He is God.  Jesus never used the term θεός (theos = god) for Himself, but described Himself as the Christ and as the Son of God.  As discussed above, Jesus consistently made a distinction between Himself and God.  John summarized the main thesis of his book as follows:

These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

2. The events in the immediate context of John 20:28 show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.  The two disciples walking to Emmaus demonstrate the thoughts of Jesus’ followers at that time.  Speaking to the resurrected Christ, whom they mistook as just a traveler, they described Jesus as “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God…and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).

3. The events in the book of Acts began a few weeks after Jesus appeared to Thomas.  If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in Acts, but such a statement is never even once found in Acts.

4. Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic Christ-events and to teach the church through his letters.  He did not teach that Jesus is God, but wrote the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).   According to some translations of Romans 9:5, Paul referred to Jesus as God, but the article on Romans 9:5 shows that it is all a matter of punctuation, and all punctuation in the Bible is interpretation.

The article on John 20:28 analyses possible interpretations of Thomas’ exclamation.  Since the word theos has many different meanings, Thomas might have described Jesus as God-like or as mandated by God to speak for Him.  These are valid alternative meanings of the word theos.  See the article THEOS.  Another option is that Thomas did not address Jesus, but that He addressed the Father as “my God.”  Since Thomas did not merely say theos, but ho theos, this is quite possible.

But which of these is what Thomas actually meant is not important.  What is important is that the immediate and wider context prevents us from understanding John 20:28 as saying that Jesus is God.

Conclusion

The evidence is clear that Jesus is not called God in John’s gospel.  Only the Father is God.  However, the view that Jesus is God does not rely on the argument that He is called God.  It is based on other facts, such as:

He is worshiped equal to God.
The Jews thought that Jesus “was … making Himself equal with God” (5:18).
Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9).

These matters are discussed in the articles that will follow after this one.

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