In two previous articles on whether the apostle Paul was actually an ‘apostate’ rather than an apostle (part 1 – and part 2), I pointed out that Paul’s insistence that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and keep the ritual laws of Moses did not make Paul a ‘heretic’ or ‘apostate’. He was completely in harmony with the decision of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, based on the evident work of God and His prophet Jesus Christ (who was with the believers “until the end of the age”) among the Gentiles.
However, there are some people within Christianity and Islam who insist that it was Paul who introduced the concepts of the Deity of Jesus Christ (peace be with him), the Trinity, and vicarious/substitutionary atonement – in contrast to the teachings of Jesus Christ himself and the other apostles; and thus he founded a ‘heretical Church’ which has little or nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Is this accusation true?
Well, it should be pointed out that Trinitarian Christianity defends its teachings at least as much from the four ‘Gospels’ as it does from the writings of Paul. I believe their arguments from both the ‘Gospels’ and from Paul are based on distortions of the meaning of those writers; but nevertheless they use all of the ‘New Testament’ to support their claims.
For instance, they will point out that people ‘worshiped’ Jesus (peace be with him), and Jesus did not rebuke them for doing so (see my article, Worship of Jesus?). Or they’ll point out that Jesus was called “lord” (Greek: “kurios”), which they correctly point out is the word used for the Hebrew name for God: YHWH (or Yahweh). (They tend not to point out, though, that “lord”/“kurios” was also commonly used for human authorities, and that Jesus’ lordship was given to him, as a man, by God. Peter, in Acts 2:22 said that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, of whom God showed His approval; and in verse 36 he said that God had made this Jesus – the man approved of God – both lord and Christ).
And of course the Gospel of John is a favorite for quotations supporting the Deity of Jesus Christ (PBUH). This Gospel begins with the famous statement that Jesus is the Word which was in the beginning, was with God, and “was God”. It calls Jesus “the only begotten son” of God (or “only” or “unique” son); and records such statements of Jesus as I and my Father are one” and he who has seen me has seen the Father. Then again, there is the famous statement of Jesus: before Abraham was, I am.
So it is clearly misleading to pretend that the Trinitarian churches based their teaching on Paul rather than on Jesus Christ (PBUH). Sure there are a few passages in the letters of Paul which may sound as if he was attributing Deity to Jesus – such as Philippians 2:6 which the King James Version renders as: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; and the New International Version translates as: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. (But see my article Bible Verses That Seem To Teach That Jesus Is The One True God, Part 3 -). But those verses are certainly not more favorable to the Trinitarian cause than are the recorded statements of Jesus and the Gospel writers.
All of those statements – of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles – are quite capable of being understood in a way that does not flatly contradict the many other clear statements that Jesus was a man whom God approved because he was always voluntarily subject to the will of God his Father. One either accepts or denies those alternate explanations. Either all of the New Testament writers taught the Deity of Jesus (and consequently the idea of a “Godhead” containing multiple “Persons”) or none of them did.
The same is true for the teaching of the “atonement”. Matthew (20:28) and Mark (10:45) record Jesus saying that he, the “son of man”, came to give his life a ransom for many. Matthew 26:28 has Jesus saying: For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins (and Mark 14:24 records the same statement, but leaving off the phrase for the remission of sins). The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the “good shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep (10:11, 15, and 17). So again, it is very misleading to pretend that Paul was the author of the concept of atonement, supposedly in opposition to the teaching of Jesus.
As with the teaching of the Deity of Jesus, there are legitimate alternative ways of understanding those passages, which would for instance see Jesus’ “sacrifice of himself” as an example to follow (metaphorically, or course, not literally) – and by doing so being delivered (ransomed/redeemed) from one’s sins – rather than being a sacrifice offered to God as a substitute for men in order to deflect God’s wrath from them. One either accepts or rejects the alternative understanding. Whichever explanation one follows, is applicable to the teaching both of Jesus and of Paul.
I, of course, follow understandings of the statements of Jesus and Paul which are quite different from the Trinitarian beliefs. Since I have written a number of articles on the question of the Deity of Christ (for instance, a series beginning with Is It Necessary To Believe That Jesus Is The One True God In Order To Be A Christian?), I won’t attempt to deal with all of the passages (either in Paul, or the ‘Gospels’) which appear to teach the Trinitarian dogma.
But recently a Muslim, commenting on the Loonwatch site, brought up a couple of passages from Paul which seemed to contradict my assertion that Paul never departed from the strict unitarianism of Judaism; and I’ll give brief explanations of those 2 passages as examples of how such statements can be understood.
Paul opened his letter to the Galatians (1:1, English Standard Version) with this phrase: Paul, an apostle–not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. This would, at first blush, seem to be a clear statement that Jesus is God along with the Father, since Paul said his calling to apostleship was not from men but from Jesus Christ and God the Father. Reading Paul’s statement with that understanding, though, proves too much – because that makes Paul state that Jesus is not a man; and that’s more than any Trinitarian would be willing to say. As all acknowledge, Paul clearly taught that Jesus was and is a man who was and is subject to his Father, God. He said in 1 Timothy 2:5 that it is the man Christ Jesus who is mediator between God and men – just as Peter had said in Acts 2:22 and 36 that Jesus was a man approved by God, and had been made lord and Christ.
I would compare Paul’s statement here with statements in the Qur’an such as 33:36 (Yusuf Ali version): It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys God and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path. No one will pretend, I’m sure, that Muslims believe that Muhammad (peace be to him and his family) is a “Person” in a “Godhead” because of such juxtapositions of Muhammad and God, and calls for men to obey “God and His Messenger”. Islam clearly teaches that Muhammad was just a man whom God had honored to be His Prophet and Messenger to men. When Muhammad spoke (at least in giving the Qur’an) it was God speaking through him; but that did not mean that Muhammad was a “God-man”. So when Muhammad recited the Qur’an, it was not “just a man” speaking; it carried the authority of God Himself even though Muhammad was personally “just a man”.
So it was with Paul’s apostleship: his apostleship did not derive simply from human authority. It was God Himself, speaking through His Prophet and Messenger Jesus Christ (PBUH) who had appointed him for that service and authority. As John 5:19 and 30 says, Jesus did nothing on his own; he did only what his Father showed him to do, and his judgment was simply what the Father had willed. Perhaps Paul could have expressed himself in a better way so that he wouldn’t run the risk of being misunderstood; but it is clear in his writings that he considered Jesus to be a man, despite how Gal. 1:1 may sound, and did not consider Jesus to be God.
The other objection came from Colossians 1:19 and 2:9, in which it is said that “all the fullness of the Godhead” (or of Deity) dwelled in Jesus. It is usually assumed that the meaning of the fullness of Deity dwelling in Jesus is that Jesus is Deity. It is easily shown, though, that such an understanding is incorrect. Immediately after saying, in 2:9, that all the “fullness” (Greek: pleiroma – the underlined letters indicate that the two together represent one Greek letter) of deity was dwelling in Christ, Paul said in verse 10 that the believers were “complete” (Greek: pepleiromenoi); or as the New Revised Standard Version says, the believers have “come to fullness” in him.
The meaning is fairly clearly that the believers also come to have the fullness of deity dwelling in them, just as was the case with Jesus Christ. This is made explicit, though, in the letter to the Ephesian believers (3:19) in which Paul said he prayed that the believers may be filled [pleirotheite] with all the fullness [pleiroma] of God. The fullness of deity which Paul said dwells in Christ is also given to believers, according to Paul. Yet who will say that all believers become “Persons” in the “Godhead”? The Bible speaks frequently of people being “filled” with the holy spirit; but who will assert that this means that people become the Holy Spirit?
My contention concerning the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is that, Biblically speaking, it was meant not as a “substitutionary sacrifice”, but as an example to be followed in a spiritual sense. Jesus said in Luke 9:23, for instance: And he said to all, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me; and the apostle Peter said in 1 Peter 2:21 – For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. This meaning comes out clearly in the letters of Paul. In particular, Paul developed this idea in Romans 6. For instance: Rom 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Rom 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life…Rom 6:11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. By “taking up our cross daily”, and considering ourselves to be crucified with Christ and dead to sins, we turn from our old sinful way of life in repentance, receive God’s forgiveness and blessing, and come to “walk in newness of life”. Therefore Paul said in Gal 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Paul considered that Jesus had given himself for him, as an example; Paul had followed that example; and now he no longer lived (his old way of life) but the life of Christ was manifest in him. In this way, Jesus Christ by his example had redeemed him from his old way of life, and the punishment that would have resulted.
One can either accept or reject this type of alternative explanation of the Biblical passages; but whichever way one goes, he should be consistent in applying his understanding to the statements of both Jesus and Paul.
Since I follow a non-Trinitarian manner of understanding the Bible, I believe that the modern Trinitarian church is neither Christian nor Pauline. It has departed from the teachings of both the Christ and his apostles (including Paul). It was not Paul who apostatized from the teachings of Jesus Christ, but the “Christian” church which apostatized from the teaching of Jesus and his apostles.