Sunday, February 16, 2020

Refuting an Argument for “the Deity of Jesus Christ” (Part Two)

“I say you are gods”

Having considered the primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek terms translated “God,” we’re now in a better position to consider the secondary meaning of these terms. For, in addition to being used as the primary title for Yahweh, the Creator of all, we also find the Hebrew title el/elohim (and its Greek equivalent, theós) being applied to beings that are distinct from (and who were created by) Yahweh. In fact, Christ himself appealed to one notable example of this secondary usage of the title “God” when defending the legitimacy of the appellation “Son of God” being applied to him. In John 10:31-36, we read the following:

Again, then, the Jews bear stones that they should be stoning Him. Jesus answered them, “Many ideal acts I show you from My Father. Because of what act of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For an ideal act we are not stoning you, but for blasphemy, and that you, being a man, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, that ‘I say you are gods’? If He said those were gods, to whom the word of God came (and the scripture cannot be annulled), are you saying to Him Whom the Father hallows and dispatches into the world that ‘You are blaspheming,’ seeing that I said, ‘Son of God am I’?”

Let’s first consider the words of Jesus in verses 27-30 (which led to the unbelieving Jews attempting to kill him, and are often appealed to by Christians in support of the doctrine of the deity of Christ). After stating that he was giving “life eonian” to believers (his “sheep”) – and that no one would be “snatching them out of [his] hand” or out of his “Father’s hand” – Jesus declared, “I and the Father, We are one” (v. 30). The previous three verses (cf. John 5:19, 14:10 and 17:8) make it clear as to what sort of “oneness” Christ had in view here. Jesus and his Father were “one” in the sense that they were working together, and were united in purpose concerning the preservation and eonian destiny of believers (cf. 1 Cor. 3:8, where Paul also used the same word “one” to express the idea of two or more people having a shared purpose and working together toward a common goal).

That the “oneness” Christ had in mind in v. 30 is not a oneness of “shared divine essence” (as is affirmed by Trinitarians and required by their doctrinal position) is further evident from what Christ later declared in his prayer to the Father concerning his disciples: “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are oneThe glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Since Christ was obviously not praying that his disciples would become “one in essence” – or that they would become “one being” – we can conclude that the oneness in view in John 10:30 was not a “oneness of essence.”

 But what about the response of the unbelieving Jews in verses 31-33? Some claim that the only way to make sense of their charge that Jesus was guilty of “blasphemy” is that Jesus was claiming to be identical with (i.e., the same person/being as) Yahweh, the God of Israel. However, it’s simply not the case that, in order to be guilty of “blasphemy,” a Jew had to claim to be the same person/being as Yahweh. In 1 Tim. 1:13, for example, we read that Paul considered himself to have been guilty of blasphemy before his conversion. But Paul was not, of course, guilty of having claimed to be Yahweh (in fact, it’s unlikely that any sane Jew who was charged with blasphemy in first-century Israel was ever guilty of this). For other examples of “blasphemy” that have nothing to do with anyone claiming to be the same person/being as Yahweh, see Matt. 12:28, Acts 18:6, Acts 26:11, Rom. 2:23-24 and 1 Tim. 1:20.

It was not a supposed claim to be the same person/being as Yahweh that was considered blasphemous to the unbelieving Jews, and of which they thought Jesus was guilty. Rather, it was because of Jesus’ (usually implied) claim to be “the Christ, the Son of God” that the unbelieving Jewish leaders thought Jesus was deserving of death (see, for example, Matthew 26:63-66 and Mark 14:60-64). As the Son of God, Jesus had been given God’s authority and prerogatives (which was implied in the statements made in John 10:27-29). However, since the unbelieving Jews didn’t believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be, Jesus’ claims to have such authority and prerogatives were seen as blasphemous. They viewed Jesus as someone who, by claiming to do what they believed only God had the authority/prerogative to do (e.g., give people eonian life, and prevent them from losing it), was illegitimately putting himself in God’s place. It was in this sense that they accused Jesus of being a man who was “making [himself] God.”

It was in response to this accusation by the unbelieving Jews that Jesus went on to appeal to the words of Psalm 82 (where we read of God addressing an assembly of beings he referred to as “gods”). The word translated “gods” in this passage is the plural form of the noun theós. But who, exactly, are the beings who were being referred to as “gods” in this passage? Psalm 82 begins as follows: “Elohim is stationed in the congregation of El [or “in the divine council”]; among the elohim is He judging.” And in v. 6, we read that Yahweh (the one referred to as “Elohim” and “He” in v. 1) went on to declare the following to the members of the “congregation of El” (or “divine council”): “I Myself have said: You are elohim, and sons of the Supreme are all of you.”

That the “elohim” and “sons of the Supreme” being addressed by Yahweh in this passage are non-human, celestial beings (rather than Israelites, as is commonly supposed) is supported by what we read in Ps. 89:5-7. In these verses, those comprising the assembly referred to in Ps. 82 – the “sons of Elohim” – are implied to be in “the heavens” and “in the skies” (see also Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7, where Satan is said to be among the “sons of Elohim” who are assembled before Yahweh). Moreover, the elohim who were being addressed by Yahweh in Psalm 82 were being accused of abusing the authority they’d been given over the nations (vv. 2-5). But this is not something of which either the people of Israel, collectively, or the leaders within Israel could’ve been guilty. For they had not been given such authority over the nations (and indeed won’t have such great authority until after Christ has returned to earth and restored the kingdom to Israel).

In accord with this understanding of Psalm 82, A.E. Knoch commented on Christ’s words in John 10:34-36 as follows:

The term "gods" is translated "judges" in Ex.21:6, 22:8-9, where it refers to men. But our Lord does not appeal to this, but to Psalm 82:6 where the context clearly excludes men. The mighty spiritual powers of the past who overrule the affairs of mankind are called sons by God Himself. Even Satan is called a son of God (Job1:6). He is called the god of this eon (2Co.4:4). Now if God said to these subjectors, "Gods are you," notwithstanding the fact that they failed to right the wrongs of earth, how much rather shall He have called Him God Who shall dispossess them?”

Although a remarkable passage of Scripture to be sure, Psalm 82 is not the only passage in which the title el/elohim is used for certain created beings. Consider, for example, the following (as translated in the more literal Concordant Version of the Old Testament):

“Who is like You among the elim, O Yahweh?” (Ex. 15:11)

“For what el is in the heavens, or on the earth who could do according to Your deeds and according to Your mastery?” (Deut. 3:24)

“For Yahweh your Elohim, He is the Elohim of elohim and the Lord of lords, the El, the great, the masterful and the fear inspiring One…” (Deut. 10:17; concerning the expression “Elohim of elohim” or “God of gods,” see also Daniel 2:47 and 11:36)

“O Yahweh Elohim of Israel, there is no elohim like You in the heavens above and on the earth beneath…” (1 Kings 8:23)

“There are none like You among the elohim, O Yahweh, and there are no deeds like Yours.” (Ps. 86:8)

“For Yahweh is the great El, and the great King over all the elohim…Let us kneel before Yahweh, our Maker. For He is our Elohim.” (Ps. 95:3, 6-7)

“For great is Yahweh, and praised exceedingly; fear inspiring is He over all elohim (Ps. 96:4)[1]

“For You, O Yahweh, are Supreme over all the earth; You are exceedingly ascendant over all elohim (Ps. 97:9)

“For I myself know that Yahweh is great, and our Lord is greater than all elohim (Ps. 135:5)

“Give acclamation to the Elohim of elohim, for His benignity is eonian.” (Ps. 136:2)

“I shall give it into the hand of the subjector (Heb: ‘el) of nations to do what he shall do with it.” (Eze. 31:11)

“The masterful subjectors (Heb: ‘ele) shall speak to him from the midst of the unseen.” (Eze. 32:21)

The God of Gods

But how are we to understand the meaning of the title el/elohim when it’s applied to beings other than Yahweh? Answer: in the above verses, the title el/elohim was simply being used in a non-absolute sense to refer to certain created beings who have an exceptional degree of power and influence over others. Although the term el/elohim retains its meaning of “subjector” when used as a title for these beings, it doesn't have the same absolute, unqualified sense that it has when used as a title for Yahweh (who is “the Elohim of elohim,” and “greater than all elohim”). That is, when applied to certain created beings, the title el/elohim expresses the idea that those to whom it’s applied are “subjectors” in a relative or comparative sense.

Now, in each of the verses above, some form of the title el/elohim was used to refer to certain created beings who are clearly not Yahweh. In most of these examples, those referred to as “el” or “elohim” are, evidently, non-human beings who reside in the heavenly/celestial realm. However, in Ezekiel 31:11, the title ‘el was being applied to the (human) king of Babylon. And in Ezekiel 32:21, the plural form of the expression “el gibbor” (which is translated “masterful subjectors” in the CVOT) was used to refer to certain deceased (and formerly powerful) human rulers among the nations. So we know for a fact that the title el could be used in its secondary sense to refer to exceptionally powerful human rulers.

Significantly, the singular form of the expression “el gibbor” occurs in Isaiah 9:6 (which is a prophecy that most students of Scripture would agree is about Jesus Christ). In most English translations of this verse, we’re told that the Son who is in view shall be called “Mighty God” (el gibbor). However, there is no good reason to assume that the “Son” being referred to in this verse would be (or is) the same divine person/being as Yahweh himself. That is, there is no good reason to assume that the title “el” was being used in accord with its primary meaning (i.e., as a reference to Yahweh). Instead, it’s more reasonable to believe that, as in Ezekiel 31:11 and 32:21, the expression “el gibbor” was being used to communicate the fact that the prophesied Son in view would be an exceptionally powerful human ruler.

But how can we know for sure whether the Hebrew title El/Elohim – and its Greek equivalent, Theós – was being used in accord with its primary sense (i.e., as a reference to Yahweh) or in its secondary sense (as a reference to someone who, although exceptionally powerful, was created by – and is thus inferior to – Yahweh)? Well, we know that Yahweh is greater than all other beings/persons (including every created person who is, or could be, referred to as “God” in the secondary sense of the term), and that Yahweh has no God over him. From this simple fact it follows that, if any person has a God, this person necessarily cannot be Yahweh, the Most High God. And this means that, when the title “God” is being applied to someone whose God is Yahweh, the term is necessarily being used in accord with its secondary meaning.

Remarkably, this is precisely what we find to be the case in one of the main “proof-texts” for the doctrine of the deity of Christ (i.e., Psalm 45:6-7). In v. 7 of this prophecy, Yahweh is clearly referred to as the Elohim (or God) of Jesus Christ (“…therefore Elohim, Your Elohim, has anointed You…”). We can therefore conclude that, when applied to Jesus in this prophecy, the title “Elohim” (or “God”) was being used in the secondary sense of the term.

Consider the following argument:

1. Jesus is referred to by the title “Elohim” (or “God”) in Psalm 45:6.
2. According to Psalm 45:7, Yahweh is the Elohim/God of (and is thus greater than) Jesus.
3. The title “Elohim”/“God” is being used in its secondary sense when applied to Jesus.

Conclusion

Here, again, is the argument that some Christians believe supports the doctrine of the deity of Christ:

1. The term “God” is applied to Jesus in certain verses of Scripture (e.g., Isaiah 9:6; Heb. 1:8).
2. Jesus is either a false god or the only true God.
3. Jesus is not a false god.
4. Therefore, Jesus is also the only true God.

In light of the points made in this article, we can more easily see how and why the above argument fails to establish its conclusion. Although the first premise of the argument is valid, the rest of the argument relies on equivocation and a false dilemma. The problem begins with the second premise. The assumption inherent in this premise is that there is only one sense in which the Hebrew and Greek terms translated “God” were used by the inspired writers of Scripture. However, as I’ve argued in this article, there are actually two different senses in which the title “God” is used: (1) a primary and absolute sense, and (2) a secondary/relative sense. These two meanings could be summarized as follows:

1. According to its original and primary meaning, the title “God” denotes the Subjector, Disposer or Placer (i.e., the One by whom everything is subjected, disposed or placed). It is in accord with this primary meaning of the title “God” that we can say that “there is one God,” and that “there is no other God besides Yahweh.”

2. According to its secondary meaning, the title “God” (or “god”) denotes a subjector/disposer/placer (i.e., one who, in a relative or comparative sense, has an exceptional degree of power and influence over others). It is in accord with this secondary meaning of the term that Jesus can be (and, in some verses, is) referred to as “God.”

Thus, we are under no logical obligation to accept the claim of the second premise (which, again, presents us with a false dilemma). When the Father (Yahweh) is referred to as “the only true God” in John 17:3, the title “God” was being used by Christ in accord with its original, primary sense, and thus expresses something different than it does when other beings are referred to by the use of the title. Because the title “God” is not, in Scripture, being applied to Jesus in the same absolute, unqualified sense that it’s applied to the Father, it’s not the case that Jesus must either be a “false god” or the “only true God.” Rather, Jesus can be considered a true God in the secondary sense of the term “God” without also being considered the “only true God.”

Although Jesus can be referred to as “God” by virtue of the fact that he is an exceptionally powerful being (the most powerful created being in the universe, in fact), Jesus is, nevertheless, not the Subjector or Placer. Jesus does not, in other words, share the same uncreated, divine essence or nature as Yahweh. Rather, Jesus is the only-begotten Son of Yahweh, his God and Father. Jesus, the Son of God, began to exist at a certain time. Yahweh – the God and Father of his Son, Jesus Christ – didn’t begin to exist any time. He has always existed as “the living God,” and will always be “the only true God.”

Note: For those who are interested in a more in-depth look at those verses of Scripture to which Christians commonly appeal in support of the doctrine of the “deity of Christ,” I highly recommend The Trinity Delusion website. Below are links to six articles from this website that I believe convincingly demonstrate why the verses to which Christians most commonly appeal in support of the doctrine of the “deity of Christ” do not, in fact, support this doctrine:   

John 1:18 (“…the only-begotten God…”)

John 20:28 (“My Lord and my God”)

Titus 2:13 (“…the glory of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ”)

2 Peter 1:1 (“…the righteousness of our God, and the Savior, Jesus Christ”)

1 John 5:20 (“This is the true God…”)

Revelation 22:13 (“I am the Alpha and the Omega…”)

Although I don’t agree with everything taught on this website (just as I’m sure the readers of my blog don’t agree with everything written in my articles), I still consider the website to be, for the most part, a terrific resource for students of Scripture and truth-seekers.



[1] In many Bibles, the next verse (Psalm 96:5) says that all the elohim of the nations “are idols.” Based on this translation, some have argued that the elohim of the nations must not be real beings. However, the term sometimes translated “idols” in Psalm 96:5 (אלילים) literally means “useless things” or “insufficient things.” To translate this term as “idols” obscures the rhetorical force of the verse. The Psalmist is making a play on words here; the term looks and sounds very similar to the Hebrew word אלהים (elohim or “gods”), but the elohim of the nations are powerless compared to Yahweh (who, in contrast with the “useless” elohim of the nations, “made the heavens”).

That these “elohim” were not merely imagined, non-existent beings is evident from Deut. 32:17, where we read the following: “They sacrificed to demons, not Eloah, to elohim–they had not known them before–to new ones that came from nearby…” Compare this verse with 1 Cor. 10:19-20, where Paul identified the elohim referred to in Deut. 32:17 (and which were commonly represented by idols) as demons. In light of this connection, the elohim of the nations should be understood as belonging to that category of wicked spiritual beings among the celestials referred to by Paul in Eph. 6:12.

Refuting an Argument for “the Deity of Jesus Christ” (Part One)

The only true God

In a prayer addressed to his God and Father shortly before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, we read that Christ declared the following in John 17:1-3:

Father, come has the hour. Glorify your Son, that your Son should be glorifying you, according as you gave him authority over all flesh, that everything which you have given to him, he should be giving it to them, even life eonian. Now it is eonian life that they may know you, the only true God, and him whom you commission, Jesus Christ.[1]

Notice what Christ didn’t say in verse 3. He didn’t say, “Now it is eonian life that they may know us, the only true God.” No, our Lord instead declared, “Now it is eonian life that they may know you, the only true God, AND him whom you commission, Jesus Christ. Christ clearly distinguished himself from (and understood himself to be distinct from) “the only true God” to whom he was praying. And since Christ was addressing the Father alone in these verses, it’s clear that the Father alone is “the only true God.”

In support of this truth, consider the following scripturally-informed argument:

1. The God whom Christ referred to as “my God and your God” when speaking to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17) is the God before whom Israel was commanded to have no other gods, and is the only true God.
2. The God whom Christ referred to as “my God and your God” in John 20:17 is the Father alone.
3. The Father alone is the God before whom Israel was commanded to have no other gods, and is the only true God.

Since the Father alone is the only true God, it follows that Christ isn’t the only true God. Rather, Jesus is the Son of the only true God. That is, Yahweh – the only true God – is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Concerning Jesus’ being the Son of God, we find this truth explicitly affirmed on several occasions during Christ’s earthly ministry. Consider, for example, the declaration of the disciples after Christ walked on water: “Truly, you are God’s Son!”(Matt. 14:33) We also have Peter’s well-known confession in Matthew 16:16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And the most important testimony concerning Jesus’ identity was undoubtedly provided by God himself: “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I delight” (Matt. 3:17).

In Luke 1:31-32 (cf. Mark 5:7), we read the following concerning Jesus Christ’s identity: And lo! you shall be conceiving and be pregnant and be bringing forth a Son, and you shall be calling His name Jesus. He shall be great, and Son of the Most High shall He be called. And the Lord God shall be giving Him the throne of David.” The “Lord God” and “Most High” being referred to in these verses is, of course, Yahweh. And insofar as Jesus is the Son of the Most High, he cannot be identified with the Most High himself. Rather, he must be distinguished from the Most High. And since Jesus is not the Lord God/Most High, he is necessarily subordinate to the Lord God/Most High.

Consider, for example, the following two arguments:

1. No one can be “the Most High” and “the only true God” without being greater than all and thus worthy of the worship of all.
2. The Father alone is greater than all and thus worthy of the worship of all (John 10:29; 14:28; cf. John 4:21-24).
3. The Father alone (and not his Son, Jesus Christ) is the Most High and the only true God.

1. He who is referred to as the “Lord God” and “Most High” in Luke 1:32 (Yahweh) was never made Lord, and has never been given all authority in heaven and on earth (he’s always been Lord, and has always had all authority).
2. Following his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ was made Lord of all (Acts 2:36; Rom. 14:9) and was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18).
3. Jesus Christ is not the Lord God/Most High (and is thus not “the only true God”).


Now, most Christians are very much opposed to the truth that the Father alone is the one and only true God. Instead of affirming this truth, they hold to the doctrine of the “Trinity” (and the inseparably related doctrine of the “deity of Christ”). By the doctrine of the Trinity I mean the Christian teaching that the one God whose existence is affirmed in Scripture is identical with three distinct “eternal persons” (i.e., “God the Father,” “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit”) who are each thought to share the same divine “substance,” “essence” or “nature.” And by the doctrine of the “deity of Christ,” I mean the Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is an uncreated person who has eternally shared the same divine “essence” or “nature” as his God and Father, and that the title “God” can thus be applied to Jesus in the same absolute, unqualified sense that it applies to the Father. It is this idea that most Christians have in mind when they affirm that “Jesus is God.”  

By identifying the three supposed members of this “triune God” with the only true God referred to by Christ in John 17:3, Trinitarian Christians believe they’re able to avoid the conclusion that the Father alone is the only true God to whom Christ was praying. However, as I’ve argued in greater depth elsewhere, the only possible referent for the words “only true God” in John 17:3 is the Father alone (and not a “tri-personal” being). But why does it matter whether one affirms or denies that the Father alone (and not a “tri-personal” being, or Jesus Christ) is the only true God?

Well, insofar as God is the Supreme Being (and is thus of supreme importance), it follows that what we believe or disbelieve concerning his identity matters, and that we should do our best to seek the truth concerning who, exactly, God is (while, at the same time, rejecting anything that is false concerning his nature and identity). In addition to this more general point, I think there are two additional reasons why it matters.

The first reason most directly concerns God’s covenant people, Israel. I don’t think anyone could deny that God’s identity is something that matters greatly (or ought to matter greatly) to Israel. This is, perhaps, most clearly evident from the fact that the very first of the “Ten Commandments” given by God to Israel is, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:1-3). Given the great importance of this precept, there can be no question that what Israelites believe or disbelieve concerning the identity of the God before whom Israel was commanded to have no other gods is something that matters a great deal.[2] For an Israelite to believe that some person or being other than the God before whom Israel is commanded to have no other gods (i.e., the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ) would make him or her guilty of breaking this first commandment. And apart from repentance and the receiving of forgiveness for this grave sin, having a false god before the only true God would result in an Israelite failing to receive eonian life. In other words, for an Israelite to reject the Father alone as his or her God – and to worship in his place the “triune God” of Christianity (or some other being besides the “only true God”) – would disqualify an Israelite from living and reigning with Christ during the eon to come.

The second reason why one’s beliefs concerning the identity of the only true God matter has to do with the gospel that was entrusted to the apostle Paul to herald among the nations (and through which one is called by God to become a member of that company of saints that Paul referred to in his letters as “the body of Christ”). As I argued in my article “Paul’s Gospel and the Death-Denying Doctrines that Contradict It” (click here for the article), the Christian belief that Jesus Christ is God in the same absolute, unqualified sense as the Father is not compatible with the belief that Jesus – in an act of perfect obedience to God – died on the cross for our sins. They are mutually-exclusive beliefs. The one true God (i.e., Yahweh, the God before whom Israel is to have no other gods) – has always existed as “the living God.” And insofar as Yahweh has always been – and will always be – the living God, he necessarily cannot die. Thus, if Jesus Christ were the same, eternally-existent being as the God whom Paul referred to as “the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9), then Jesus couldn’t have really died on the cross (only his body would’ve died). But this would contradict the fact that Jesus “died for our sins” (which, again, is the first essential element of Paul’s gospel).

Thus, in regard to believing Paul’s gospel and becoming a member of the body of Christ, it matters greatly whether one affirms or denies that Jesus is God in the same absolute, unqualified sense as the Father. If (in accord with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity) one believes that both Jesus and the Father are “the only true God,” then it’s going to be very difficult – if not impossible – to believe that Christ died (became lifeless) and was subsequently restored to a living existence by God. And this, in turn, means that a belief in the Trinity and the deity of Christ is an obstacle to believing the gospel through which people may be saved during this current administration.

The meaning of the title “God”

As noted earlier, most Christians are very much opposed to the truth that the Father alone is the one and only true God. In accord with this fact, I recently read an article by a certain Christian teacher that attempts to prove that Jesus Christ is not “merely” the Son of the living God (as he’s correctly identified by the apostle Peter in Matthew 16:16), but also the living God himself. The argument being defended in the article basically went as follows:

1. The term “God” is applied to Jesus in certain verses of Scripture (e.g., Isaiah 9:6; Heb. 1:8).
2. Jesus is either a false god or the only true God.
3. Jesus is not a false god.
4. Therefore, Jesus is also the only true God.

In order to demonstrate what, exactly, is wrong with this argument (and why it fails to establish its conclusion), we need to first consider the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words translated “God” in Scripture. The term translated “God” in the Greek Scriptures is the noun Theós (θεός), and may have been derived from the verb tithemi (to place, arrange or dispose of things, events and persons). Understood in this way, Theós would mean, “placer,” “arranger” or “disposer.” In Dr. Spiros Zodhiates’ Lexicon to the New Testament, we read the following concerning this term: “The most probable deriv. is from the verb theo, to place (see tithemi, Str. 5087). The heathen thought the gods were disposers (theteres, placers) and formers of all things.” 

In the Greek Scriptures, Theós is used as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew title “el” (or “elohim,” which is the plural form of the word). This term is, evidently, the original title for Yahweh, the Creator of all (Genesis 1; cf. 2:4). In fact, given that Eve referred to Yahweh by the use of the title Elohim (Gen. 2:3; 4:25), we have good reason to believe that this title was originally used by human beings for Yahweh exclusively (it also remained the most commonly-used title for Yahweh in Scripture). But what, exactly, should we understand the title El/Elohim to mean? Although there are different theories among Hebrew scholars concerning what, exactly, this title should be understood to mean, I think the most likely view is that it expresses the fact that Yahweh is the all-powerful “Subjector,” “Disposer” or “Arbiter” of all things. And assuming that the Greek equivalent theós means something like “Placer,” “Arranger” or “Disposer,” it’s reasonable to understand the original Hebrew title as having a similar (if not identical) meaning.

When we understand the Hebrew and Greek terms translated “God” in accord with the original and primary meaning of these titles (i.e., when we understand them as a way of expressing the fact that Yahweh is, in an absolute and unqualified sense, the Subjector, Disposer or Placer), the implication is that there is no other God except Yahweh (since there is no other Disposer or Placer in the absolute and unqualified sense of the term). It is in accord with this original and most basic meaning of the title “God” that Jesus could address his Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). This is further confirmed by the meaning of the Greek term translated “true” here (alēthinos). This term is defined in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as follows: “That which has not only the name and semblance, but the real nature corresponding to the name, and in every respect corresponding to the idea signified by the name, real and true, genuine.” And in HELPS Word-studies, we read the following on the meaning of the term: “Alēthinós (“substantially true”) refers to what is essentially true – connecting (visible) fact to its underlying reality.” When used in reference to the Father’s status as God, it means that he is the only being who is God in the primary and fullest sense of the term. 

Before moving on to consider the secondary sense in which the terms translated “God” are used in Scripture, I want to first respond to a claim that some Trinitarian Christians make in support of their “tri-personal” view of God. The claim I have in mind involves appealing to the fact that the most commonly-used title for Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures (“Elohim”) is plural, and that the plurality of the term suggests that Yahweh is not one person but rather multiple persons. Although it’s true that elohim is a plural noun, the plural form of a noun can, in the Hebrew Scriptures, be used in two different ways: (1) it can denote numerical plurality (a “numerical plural”) or (2) it can be used for the purpose of emphasis, intensity and amplification (an “intensive plural”).[3]

The common characteristic of intensive plurals is that they have a plural suffix while denoting singular objects, and thus receive singular adjectives and verbs. These characteristics indicate that the plural form of the noun is not being used as a numerical plural. In contrast, a plural verb (as well as a plural suffix and plural adjective) is used to denote something that is numerically plural. The use of singular verbs and adjectives with the plural noun elohim is exactly what we would expect if the term were being used as an intensive plural and not a numerical plural. It indicates that the term elohim – when used as a title for Yahweh – should be understood as an intensive plural rather than as a numerical plural (which, again, is for emphasis or intensification). In fact, we can know for certain that, when applied to single individuals, the title elohim was not understood to denote a “plurality of persons.” In 1 Kings 11:15, 33, for example, the title elohim is applied to the goddess Ashtoreth (who was thought to be a single divine individual, like Artemis or Zeus).  

On the other hand, when the plural elohim is being used as a numerical plural, it refers to multiple gods (and is usually translated to reflect this fact); see, for example, Genesis 31:34; 35:2, 4; Exodus 12:12; 18:11; 23:13; Deut. 6:14; 13:7; etc. Thus, if we were to understand elohim as a numerical plural in Genesis 1:1 (despite the singular verb that is used) it would mean that multiple gods created the heavens and the earth, and would therefore prove too much for the Trinitarian (who doesn’t believe that Yahweh is actually multiple “gods”). But the fact that, when referring to the one God of Israel, the term elohim is consistently translated “God” (rather than “gods”) means that the translator correctly understood that it was being used as an intensive plural rather than as a numerical plural.[4]

Psalm 45:6-7 is a helpful passage when it comes to determining whether or not the title Elohim should be understood as a numerical plural or an intensive plural when used as a title for Yahweh. In this Messianic prophecy (which is later quoted in Hebrews 1:8-9) we read the following:

“Your throne, O Elohim, is for the eon and further; a sceptre of equity is the sceptre of Your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore Elohim, Your Elohim, has anointed You with the oil of elation beyond Your partners.”

In verse 6 of this prophecy, we find the Messiah, Jesus, being referred to as “Elohim.” But Jesus Christ is, of course, a single individual (and not a “multi-personal being” or a “plurality of persons”). Thus, the title “Elohim” can’t be understood as a numerical plural here. Moreover, the same title is, in v. 7, applied to the God of Jesus (“…therefore Elohim, Your Elohim…”). Since we know that the God of Jesus (i.e., Yahweh) is also the Father of Jesus – and since we know that the Father of Jesus is not a “multi-personal being” (a fact which even Trinitarians must acknowledge) – we can conclude that, when applied to Jesus’ Father, Yahweh, the title “Elohim” should be understood as an intensive plural rather than as a numerical plural. For again, the God and Father of Jesus Christ is not a “plurality of persons” or “multi-personal being.”





[1] It’s commonly believed that, in v. 3, our Lord was defining “eonian life” by equating it with knowing God and his Son. However, as A.E. Knoch pointed out in his commentary (see page 167), Christ was instead revealing the ultimate purpose for which eonian life will be given to believers:

The knowledge of God is not given as the definition of eonian life, but eonian life is imparted that they may be knowing Him. Eonian life is life during the eons of Christ's reign and glory. Two methods are used by Him to acquaint His saints with Himself. First, they are left to taste the sorrows of sin at a distance from Him. Then, in the eons of the eons, in glorious fellowship with His Son, each high tide of bliss will mark some new discovery of His love, some fresh token of His affection.”

[2] It must be emphasized that we who are members of the body of Christ are not under the law given by God to Israel (for those in the body of Christ – whether circumcised or uncircumcised – aren’t members of God’s covenant people). Nevertheless, the precepts of the law are referred to by Paul as “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12), and if anyone among God’s covenant people were to become guilty of breaking this commandment, they would be justly deserving of death.

[3] Here are just a few examples of the use of the plural for emphasis and intensity: Gen 4:10 (“bloods”); Gen 19:11 (“blindnesses”); Gen 27:46 (“lives”) Psalm 45:15 (“gladnesses”); Ez. 25:15, 17 (“vengeances”), etc. For some examples of the intensive plural being used in reference to the one God (besides the title elohim), see Job 35:10; Psalm 149:2; Is 54:5 (literally, “Makers”) and Eccl. 12:1 (“Creators”). Again, the plurality of the word simply intensifies it.

[4] In the NET Bible notes for Genesis 1:1, we read the following remarks concerning the use of the plural noun Elohim (emphasis mine): This frequently used Hebrew name for God (אֱלֹהִים,’elohim ) is a plural form. When it refers to the one true God, the singular verb is normally used, as here. The plural form indicates majesty; the name stresses God’s sovereignty and incomparability – he is the “God of gods.”

Similarly, the NIV Study Bible has the following (emphasis mine): “The Hebrew noun Elohim is plural but the verb is singular, a normal usage in the OT when the reference is to the one true God. This use of the plural expresses intensification rather than number and has been called the plural of majesty, or of potentiality.” 

It should be noted that both the NET Bible and NIV Study Bible could be considered “mainstream” (and “pro-Trinitarian”) in regard to the doctrinal views they support in their notes. Given their clear support for the doctrine of the Trinity elsewhere, it’s significant that these Bibles do not attempt to argue that the use of the plural term elohim supports this doctrine.