Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In What Sense Are Jesus and the Father One? Part I: One in Person?

By Rob Bowman @ http://www.reclaimingthemind.org

One of the many, many New Testament texts that orthodox Christians historically have regarded as testifying to the deity of Jesus Christ is John 10:30, in which Jesus famously says, “I and the Father are one” (Greek, ego kai ho pater hen esmen). But in what sense does Jesus mean that he and the Father are “one”? We may identify at least three main views:

One in person: Jesus is the very same person as the Father. This is the view held by Oneness Pentecostals. This view agrees that John 10:30 identifies Jesus as God, and concludes that it also identifies Jesus as the Father.
One in power: Jesus is one in divine nature, essence, or power with the Father yet personally distinct from him. This is the view usually favored by Trinitarians (orthodox Christians).
One in purpose: Jesus is united with the Father in purpose; that is, he is in full agreement with the Father, always acting in line with what the Father wants. This is the explanation typically given by those who deny the deity of Christ, including Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is also the answer that Mormons typically give, although they also usually claim to affirm that Jesus is God.

As you can see, orthodox Christians think the two anti-Trinitarian interpretations both get something right and both miss something. Oneness Pentecostals rightly see John 10:30 as attesting to Christ’s deity, but miss the distinction between Christ and the Father. Other anti-Trinitarians see this distinction between Christ and the Father but not the divine unity of nature, essence, or power that they share.

So, who’s right? I propose to make a case for concluding that the Trinitarian interpretation does justice to the text in context better than the other two interpretations. In this post, I will discuss the Oneness Pentecostal interpretation.

Not One in Person

The least plausible way to understand John 10:30 is that it means that Jesus is the Father. Such an interpretation is clearly wrong, for several reasons.

First, Jesus here differentiates himself from the Father by speaking additively of himself and the Father in the plural (“I and the Father,” not “I am the Father”; “we are,” esmen, first person plural). This wording is most naturally understood as denoting two persons. If I said, “Father and I are named Robert,” you would of course understand that even though we both have the same name, we are two different persons. The very semantic structure of saying “Father and I” denotes two persons. Interpreting it as a circumlocution for “I am the Father” is highly implausible and exegetically unjustifiable. Likewise, if I were to say, “My wife and I are one,” you would know that I was not saying that I am my wife, simply because one’s wife is never oneself! You would therefore know that the oneness that characterizes my wife and me—whatever it might be—is something other than oneness of person.

Second, neither here nor anywhere else in the New Testament does anyone ever actually refer to Jesus as the Father. Had Jesus wanted to say that he was the Father, he certainly could have; but in fact he never said this. The lack of any such statement, taken by itself, is not decisive, but this lack considered in conjunction with the many statements differentiating the two personally is quite decisive.

Third, we have such statements in the immediate context. Jesus refers several times in this passage to the Father in the third person, as someone distinct from himself (“in my Father’s name,” v. 25; “my Father,” “has given to me,” v. 29; “the works of my Father,” v. 37). In this context, “I and the Father” is obviously a reference to two distinct persons, the speaker (“I”) and someone else (called “the Father”).

Fourth, had Jesus wished to affirm that he was the one person of the Father, the appropriate way for John, in reporting this statement, to express this in Greek would have been to use the masculine form of the Greek word for “one,” heis, rather than the neuter form, hen. We must be careful not to overstate or misstate the point here. It is not true that the masculine heis in any and every context means one person. It is not true that the masculine gender somehow in and of itself conveys singularity of personhood. Typically, the masculine form is used because the noun that the word “one” modifies happens to be masculine. For example, earlier in the passage Jesus refers to himself as “one shepherd” (10:16); the Greek text uses the masculine form heis because it modifies the masculine noun poimen (“shepherd”).

In verse 30, the word “one” modifies, or is a further description of, the compound subject “I and the Father.” The pronoun “I” (ego) has no gender, but “the Father” (ho pater) does—it is, of course, masculine. The neuter hen in this grammatical context treats these two referents, ego and ho pater, as referring to two distinct persons who share some sort of unity (however profound). The type of unity intended must always be inferred from the context, not from the gender of the word for “one” treated independently of the context.

The use of heis, in this context, would have been at least more consistent with an affirmation of identity of person than the neuter hen. Had John written ego kai ho pater heis esmen, such a statement would simply have been confusing, or ambiguous, since “I and the Father” is still most naturally understood as referring to two persons. But the use of the neuter hen in the same sentence as “I and the Father are” really shuts the door on the “one in person” interpretation. It is the way these verbal elements combine—their synergy in the formation of the whole statement—that precludes such an interpretation, not the use of the neuter hen in isolation or in the abstract.

Thus, a consideration of these four factors combined—the wording “I and the Father” together with the plural verb “we are,” the utter lack of precedent for identifying Jesus as the Father, the distinction made repeatedly in the immediate context between Jesus and the Father, and the use of the neuter “one” (hen)—lead to the conclusion that Jesus is not here claiming to be the Father.

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