God, Jesus, and the Tuggy Trilemma

Dr Dale Tuggy has recently published a two-part blog article addressing the divinity of Christ: “Do the Gospels disagree about Jesus and God.” He proposes that a reflective reader must deny one of these three statements:


1) The New Testament gospels agree in their core claims about Jesus and God.

2) Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t teach that Jesus is God.

3) John teaches that Jesus is God.


If after having read these, you are feeling that our unitarian philosopher has stacked the deck, I suspect you may be right. What exactly, for example, does he mean when he says “Jesus is God”? He tells us right off the bat: “Jesus is numerically identical to the one God, YHWH, or Jesus fully possesses the divine nature of the one God, or Jesus is one ‘divine person’ within the one God.” Dale gives us three possible construals of “Jesus is God.” They are not synonymous. If I affirm “Jesus is God,” does that mean that I am affirming all three? If I deny one, am I denying the other two? What kind of game is Dale inviting me to play? And what does one do if one is convinced that New Testament christology does not neatly fit into Dale’s categories?

Dale surveys each choice in reverse order in part 2 of his article. A few brief comments on this lazy Sunday afternoon:

3) Dale expresses his disappointment that post-Christian Bart Ehrman still follows the two-millennia view that the author of the Gospel of John presents Jesus as a divine figure, as “qualitatively equal to God.” Given Ehrman’s critical stance toward orthodox Christianity, I suppose it might appear puzzling that he missed such an obvious opportunity to demonstrate that the divinity of Jesus is no where taught in the New Testament; yet to his credit Ehrman is unwilling to deny the obvious.

Dr Tuggy, on the other hand, believes that the Johannine proof texts dissolve under careful examination, as argued by the post-Reformation unitarian minority report. All I can do is express my extreme skepticism. I am not a biblical scholar and have not been following recent scholarship; but I doubt that the majority judgment can be so easily dismissed. I have yet to see compelling reasons why we should not stick with Raymond Brown’s magisterial Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel According to John. Brown certainly believes that John presents Jesus as divine but notes the difficulty of directly asserting this divinity within a Jewish context:

The Prologue’s “The Word was God” offers a difficulty because there is no article before theos. Does this imply that “God” means less when predicated of the Word than it does when used as a name for the Father? Once again the reader must divest himself of a post-Nicene understanding of the vocabulary involved …

The New Testament does not predicate “God” of Jesus with any frequency. … The reluctance to apply this designation to Jesus is understandable as part of the New Testament heritage from Judaism. For the Jews “God” meant the heavenly Father; and until a wider understanding of the term was reached, it could not be readily applied to Jesus. This is reflected in Mark x 18 where Jesus refuses to be called good because only God is good; in John xx 17 where Jesus calls the Father “my God”; and in Eph iv 5-6 where Jesus is spoken of as “one Lord,” but the Father is “one God.” (The way that the New Testament approached the question of the divinity of Jesus was not through the title “God” but by describing his activities in the same way as it described the Father’s activities; see John v 17, 21, x 28-29.) In vs 1c the Johannine hymn is bordering on the usage of “God” for the Son, but by omitting the article it avoids any suggestion of personal identification of the Word with the Father. And for Gentile readers the line also avoids any suggestion that the Word was a second God in any Hellenistic sense. (I:24)

Commenting on the Apostle Thomas’s confession in John 20:28, “My Lord and my God,” Brown writes: “It is Thomas who makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh” (II:1047).

Dale comes close, I respectfully submit, to special pleading. Even if a handful of guys in the Society of Biblical Literature are vigorously pushing the thesis that the Johannine Christ is nondivine, that doesn’t mean that it should be taken seriously. The Bible guild thrives on exotic hypotheses. Get back to me in fifty years.

2) The synoptic Gospels do not explicitly declare that “Jesus is God.” Yes. But why would we expect them to? The Gospels are not theological treatises. They come to us in the form of historical narratives. The synoptic evangelists do not present us with extended theological reflections on Jesus—they simply tell his story. And within this story, the God who sent Jesus is clearly distinguished from Jesus: God declares Jesus to be his beloved Son, and Jesus prays to God as his Father.  It would have made no sense whatsoever for Jesus to have said “I am God” or for the evangelists to have said “Jesus is God.” If “God” equals “the Father of Jesus,” then Jesus cannot be “God.” The synoptic evangelists rightly refrain from making such a contradictory and confusing identification. Jesus is not the “self” that the Father is. It would take several centuries before the Church would find the appropriate conceptuality by which it could confess “Jesus is God” without conflating the Father and the Son, compromising the humanity of Jesus, or falling into polytheism. In the first century that conceptuality was not available to the evangelists (see the judicious discussion by Raymond E. Brown, “Does the New Testament Call Jesus God?“).

1) Do the Gospels agree in their core claims about Jesus and God? Before we can answer this question, we need to ask this counter-question: do narratives make claims and how do they do so? Reading a story is different from reading a three-volume systematic theology. Take, for example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The characters in the story do not mention Ilúvatar (God) and rarely speak of the Valar, nor does Tolkien intrude himself into the story to tell us about them. Does this mean that within the narrative world of Middle Earth that Ilúvatar and the Valar are non-existent or irrelevant to the story? Of course not. But if you want to find out about them, you have to read the Silmarillion and JRRT’s letters.

I think we need to be careful talking about the core claims of the Gospels, as if the Gospels ever stood by themselves, each being considered a self-sufficient and complete statement of the beliefs of the apostolic Church. The early Church certainly did not treat them as such—hence four Gospels not one. And we can be quite sure that early preachers and catechists supplemented the Gospel narratives with theological interpretation not explicitly found in the narratives, as evidenced by the rest of the New Testament.

In the synoptics Jesus doesn’t speak a great deal about “who” he is or about his relationship with God—his focus is on the Kingdom now breaking into history in his preaching, miracles, and table-fellowship—nor do the synoptic evangelists often intrude themselves directly into the text to express their own christological views, as John does in his Prologue. I am not in any way suggesting that the synoptic evangelists are presenting us “straight” history—of course they aren’t. But I am suggesting that we need to be cautious about pressing the differences between the Gospels, as if we knew, for example, that Matthew would have vigorously disagreed with the high christology of the Fourth Gospel.  The Johannine thunderbolt, anyone? “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27).

Christians have long recognized the differences between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the Gospel of John; yet they have insisted that the four must be read and interpreted together. As the great Origen wrote: “Now the Gospels are four. These four are, as it were, the elements of the faith of the Church, out of which elements the whole world which is reconciled to God in Christ is put together” (Comm. Jo. I.6).

Hence I must refuse the Tuggy Trilemma.

P.S. Yes, I know it’s not a true trilemma … but I like the the ring of “the Tuggy Trilemma.” 🙂

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16 Responses to God, Jesus, and the Tuggy Trilemma

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Seems to me to be a real lack of understanding the nuance in the divnity-claims of Christ, if they can even be called that. Christ never said, ‘hey, I’m the second member of the trinity’, and the Scriptures never really say that either.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I am reminded of N. T. Wright’s statement: “I do not think Jesus ‘knew he was God’ in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself ‘Well I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!'”


      • whitefrozen says:

        Yeah, that’s what I was thinking as well. Considering that Trinitarian dogma took quite a while to develop, Tuggy may be doing himself a disservice by looking for complex Trinitarian formulations in the Gospels.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Joshua, check out Dustin Smith’s blog. He has put up a multi-article review of Ehrman’s book. He appears to be a unitarian or an Arian. Let me know what you think of his review.


          • whitefrozen says:

            I quickly skimmed a few of the Ehrman posts (don’t have a ton of time at the moment) but it seems that Ehrman doesn’t have a ton of room for nuance, either – not to take away from his prestige as a historian. I have several of his historical lectures on CD and they’re great.


  2. Steven says:

    Tuggy’s three propositions do not form a true trilemma, since there is no contradiction entailed in their mutual affirmation.

    It is one thing for the Synoptics not to teach that Jesus is God, and it is another for them to teach that Jesus is not God. If (2) had been worded more strongly, like say that the Synoptics teach that he is not God, and that is a part of the core, essential message of the Synoptics, then there would be a contradiction in affirming (1), (2), and (3). As it stands, however, there is no contradiction and no trilemma.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You are quite right, Steven. It’s not a true trilemma. But I liked the sound of it—“the Tuggy Trilemma”! 🙂


      • Steven says:

        It’s certainly catchy, yes. 🙂


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          We bloggers are allowed to push the rhetorical envelope in ways that real philosophers and theologians can’t. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          • Steven says:

            Well, truth be told, I meant more to argue against Tuggy than against you, Fr Kimel, in pointing out that there was not a true trilemma. If there’s no trilemma, we don’t have to reject any of the propositions and Tuggy’s argument fails. I take it that Tuggy intended to argue against the traditional position by attempting to draw a contradiction from (1), (2), and (3) above.

            Maybe you should call it Tuggy’s “Trilemma.” 🙂


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Dr Tuggy doesn’t, of course, identify his three propositions as a trilemma. He’s much too sharp to do that.

          Perhaps we should call it “Tuggy’s pseudo-trilemma.” Hmmm. I still like the original better, even if it leaves me vulnerable to the appearance of having made a blunder.


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have revised the article just a tad, adding a little more material from Raymond Brown.


  4. Dale says:

    Hey Alvin and folks,

    I admit, this post is a bit frustrating. You start off with needless suspicion – surely Tuggy, the wily unitarian, must be tricking us here. No! It is frustrating when precise reasoning is mistaken for sneakiness. The “or”s are there for a reason. In effect, I’m saying: you tell me how you understand “Jesus is God.” I just listed three popular ones, ones I am confident are not taught in either the synoptics or in John. But by all means, you say what *you* mean by “Jesus is God,” and then we can discuss how you get out – not of the trilemma (one of the three must be true) but rather out of the inconsistent triad (they can’t all three be true). From any two of them being true, it follows that the remaining one is false.

    I’m afraid it won’t do, then, to just diss the messenger. Rejecting me may feel good, but that doesn’t entail rejecting one of our inconsistent triad.

    ” as argued by the post-Reformation unitarian minority report”
    And the pre-Nicene majority of catholic theologians.

    “And within this story, the God who sent Jesus is clearly distinguished from Jesus: ”

    ” the core claims of the Gospels, as if the Gospels ever stood by themselves, each being considered a self-sufficient and complete statement of the beliefs of the apostolic Church. ”
    That’s red herring. No one said each is self-sufficient. But, when interpreting them, we look at each as a unit (together with any other writings from that author). That’s just good listening.

    That they are making claims about God and Jesus is clear to all readers of the gospels. Not always but making straight up assertions, no. But plenty of times, yes. As in when John tells us the whole point of his book in the original ending (ch. 20).

    God bless,


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Dale. Welcome back to EO.

      First off, don’t you think you are being a bit too sensitive? The fact is, you framed your pseudo-trilemma precisely as an “inconsistent triad of claims.” You tell us that we have no choice but to deny one of them and that there are significant costs to be borne. Yet now you are suggesting that your intent was simply to invite us to tell you what God means to us. Hmmm. You’re the philosophy professor, Dale. Is that really what you said in your blog post? Was that really your intent? At the very least, haven’t you been argumentatively sloppy?

      May I respectfully suggest that you are being less than up-front about your own polemical stance. You are not just blogging as a disinterested philosophy professor. You too, just like me, approach these theological-christological questions from a position of faith, and by your blogging you hope to convince others to adopt your faith. That much is clear to me. The difference is that I am a trinitarian Christian and you are a biblical unitarian. My dogmas just happen to be different from yours.

      I’m sure, Dale, that if we were sitting down over a couple pints of beer, you and I would would have a grand time.

      Now back to my article. I of course have not denied that the gospels make theological claims; but I do suggest that these claims are more difficult to determine, given their literary genre than out-and-out theological treatises. One would be hard-pressed, e.g., to articulate a “doctrine of God” based on the gospels alone. And to support this claim, I simply point to the wide diversity of interpretations that exist in gospel scholarship. Not only do we see a wide diversity of historical reconstructions of the “real” Jesus, but we also see a wide diversity of interpretations of the canonical Jesuses (i.e., the Jesus of Mark, the Jesus of Matthew, the Jesus of Luke, the Jesus of John). On what basis do you choose between them? I intend this as a genuine question. You are a philosophy professor, not a biblical scholar. I am an Orthodox priest, not a biblical scholar. You obviously find some scholars more persuasive than others, just as I do; but I suspect that we both find ourselves drawn to scholars who happen to support our own theological positions. Well, I can cite as many, if not more, biblical scholars who support my views as you can can cite to support yours. Now what?



    • tgbelt says:

      I don’t see where Fr Aidan suspected any sneakiness on your part, Dale.

      Just looking at your three options for affirming the divinity of Christ (Jesus is numerically identical to the One God YHWH or Jesus possesses the divine nature of the one God or Jesus is one of three divine persons within the One God) I’d agree that:

      1) (1) is false if it’s claiming that YHWH is reduced to Jesus (or, said the other way, Jesus exhausts God or is all there is to God).
      2) (2) and (3) don’t seem contradictory to me. In fact, (3) is arguably implied in (2). On the assumption that ‘God-incarnate’ is not a self-contradictory notion in itself, then any incarnate form of God would be bear both natures. And (3) would simply be a further unpacking of that. By (2) I would assume the Orthodox just mean to say that the Son/Logos is homoousios with the Father.
      3) I’m uncomfortable with your (3)’s describing Jesus as a divine person “within the One God.” Sorry to be picky, but “within” makes it sound like you’re describing God as constructed or assembled.

      Dale, forgive me for not knowing, but I’m confused about what your view is. To use your terms, are you a “humanitiarian Unitarian” (Jesus was just a man uniquely anointed of God), or a “subordinationist Unitarian” (Jesus is the pre-existent but created Logos incarnate)?


  5. brian says:

    I don’t think anyone would deny that the Synoptics differ from John. Pretty sure the early Church was able to figure that one out as well. Nonetheless, for some reason they labored under the confusion that despite differences, the same God-Man was being narrated. Of course, we now have all kinds of clever historical-critical methods and superior reason, so I suppose one should just regard the patristics and later Christian tradition as a prolonged category error due to insufficient intellect. So glad that is all cleared up.


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