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Reading through St. Paul's letters, I come away with the impression St. Paul would have been comfortable as a contemporary Biblical Unitarian. For one example among many, consider Romans 8:34.

"For Christ Jesus, who died, and more than that was raised to life, is at the right hand of God—and He is interceding for us."

Here you have God, Jesus to the right hand of God, and Jesus interceding between humans and God.

Counter to these sorts of passages are a few opaque passages where some argue St. Paul is claiming Jesus was God.

Are there any major orthodox (main branch Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) Christian theologians or denominations who hold that St. Paul was closer to a Biblical Unitarian than a Trinitarian?

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    @NigelJ By lower-case 'o' orthodox I just mean Catholic, main branch Protestant, or Orthodox. So, this would not include JWs, Mormons, Christian Science followers, Unitarians, and various other groups I'm sure I could list if desired. Jan 3, 2022 at 19:22
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    It certainly is unlikely that any mainstream trinitarian denomination would assert that Paul or any other Bible writer was ever anything less than 100% trinitarian.
    – Kris
    Jan 3, 2022 at 22:28
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    Not necessarily. We recognise that the theology was developed over time, so the Biblical authors may not have fully understood all the implications of what they wrote. But to be closer to a Unitarian than a Trinitarian would mean being closer to Jesus being non divine than divine, and that's pretty untenable.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 4, 2022 at 0:04
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    By saying, " I come away with the impression St. Paul would have been comfortable as a contemporary Biblical Unitarian. For one example..." you are using your personal opinion / interpretation as the basis of your question. Also shown by you saying there "are a few opaque passages where some argue St. Paul is claiming Jesus is God". This will lead answerers to respond with their opinions / interpretations.
    – Anne
    Jan 4, 2022 at 12:38
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    @Anne ... except that I'm treading on Trinitarian toes. :) Jan 5, 2022 at 18:51

2 Answers 2

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Do any major orthodox Trinitarian theologians or denominations hold that St. Paul was closer to a Biblical Unitarian than a Trinitarian?

If any theologian thought this then who would consider them to be a major orthodox Trinitarian theologian? Surely not Trinitarians.

You say the passages arguing that Jesus is God are opaque:-

"Counter to these sorts of passages are a few opaque passages where some argue St. Paul is claiming Jesus was God."

You want to restrict the subject to only Paul's beliefs. Let me ask you how opaque do you consider these few passages to be:-

  1. The Bible says "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen 1:1).

The Apostle Paul says of our Lord Christ: "All things were created by him" (Col 1:16).

  1. Paul himself wrote of God: "For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things, to whom be glory for ever" (Romans 11:36).

But of Christ he writes: "Christ loved the church and gave himself for it, ... that he might present it to himself a glorious church" (Ephesians 5:25, 27).

  1. The Psalmist says of God: "Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth I desire besides thee" (Psalm 73:25)

The Apostle Paul says: "For me to live is Christ" (Phil 1:21). (What desire then is left for God, if Christ is not God?)

  1. God says in the OT: "My son, give me your heart" (Prov 23:26)

But the Apostle Paul says: "I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Cor 12:2). (Again, what love is left for God, if Christ is not God?)

  1. God says in the OT: "Cursed be the man that trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the LORD" (Jeremiah 17:5).

The Apostle Paul writes: "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have entrusted unto him against that day" (2 Tim 1:12).

  1. Paul himself says: "God only wise" (Romans 16:27) i.e. only God is wise.

But Paul also writes of our Lord Jesus: "In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3).

I suspect that inadequate views of the altogether "otherness" of God himself - his glory, his holiness, his purity, his power, his eternity, and all his other characteristics in all their holiness - lie at the root of doubts about the divine nature of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As Charles Brown writes:

"When the Scriptures teach that there is one only God, the meaning will be found to be, not anything of this kind, that there is one Being immeasurably greater, wiser, better, than all others, but that there is one Being, besides whom there is in a sense none else at all, a Being of such a sole, unapproachable excellence, and glory in all things, in being and in all perfection, that if you would bring any creature into comparison with him - it is a matter of indifference whether it be an archangel or a worm - He stands quite alone, in respect of both the one and the other alike." (Charles Brown, "The Divine Glory of Christ", 1982, p25; first published 1868).

I believe this is the God of the Bible. And therefore I believe that where the Scriptures anywhere mention God and our Lord Jesus in the same breathe, as it were, then in such passages there is a clear declaration of the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. I mean in passages, of which the Scriptures are extremely full including the writings of the Apostle Paul, such as:-

"Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:3).

This sort of mentioning of our Lord Jesus Christ in the same breathe as God the Father is really blasphemy, unless it is that Christ himself is truly God, the glorious Second Person of the Triune Godhead, sharing in that divine "otherness" which sets the Godhead entirely alone from every creature, both worm and archangel alike.

And so it is that whereas God has said in the Old Testament "I will not give my glory to another" (Isaiah 42:8) yet in the New Testament, Revelation 5:13, we read:

"Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sits upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever." Amen.

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    You pointed out that the OP wants "to restrict the subject to only Paul's beliefs." I would just add that Peter said "our beloved brother Paul" wrote "according to the wisdom given unto him" some things "hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:15-16). Perhaps lack of response to this Q is not due to Trinitarians feeling "their toes have been trodden on" [OPs comment], but to knowing the dangers inherent in this Q but, thankfully, you have answered it appropriately.
    – Anne
    Jan 16, 2022 at 15:04
  • +1 for putting an answer forth, but it doesn't seem to be directed at the question, rather another question about Unitarian beliefs more generally. Of course all those passages quoted have responses from a BU viewpoint. "If any theologian thought this then who would consider them to be a major orthodox Trinitarian theologian? Surely not Trinitarians." Why not? Jan 17, 2022 at 23:38
  • @OneGodtheFather - Hi. As you know, there is no where in the world a definitive list containing all the "major orthodox Trinitarian theologians". And I think I did answer the question by saying if some theologian somewhere did think Paul was closer to a Biblical Unitarian than a trinitarian then he certainly would not figure on any such list as far as Trinitarians today are concerned. The closest person I can think of is not a major theologian but a major hymn writer, arguably the biggest of them all, Isaac Watts, who managed somehow to upset both Unitarians & Trinitarians alike. Jan 18, 2022 at 11:43
  • "Paul was closer to a Biblical Unitarian than a trinitarian then he certainly would not figure on any such list as far as Trinitarians today are concerned." OK, but that's what I asked about. Why do you think this? Jan 18, 2022 at 17:26
  • Everyone who is Trinitarian sees the deity of Christ virtually everywhere in the writings of Paul and all the other writings of the NT. It isn't just the "proof texts" such as "God was manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim 3:16) it is everywhere, as I tried to show in my answer. If Jesus is not God then he is just a worm, a slightly longer, thicker or whiter worm, but in comparison to God just a worm.. yet he is praised and honoured and mentioned in the same breathe as God.. archangels would shrink from allowing themselves to be praised in such a way, yet Christ receives such praise willingly. Jan 18, 2022 at 18:51
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Are there any major orthodox (main branch Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) Christian theologians or denominations who hold that St. Paul was closer to a Biblical Unitarian? As Andrew Shanks notes, "If any theologian thought this then who would consider them to be a major orthodox Trinitarian theologian? Surely not Trinitarians."

However, if this question is approached from a broader religious perspective, then it is accurate to say Paul was once a Biblical Unitarian, insofar as that term might be applied at the time. This is a certainty, since Paul stated he was Jewish:

“I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. (Acts 22:3 NKJV)

Since Paul was Jewish, he should hold to the belief there is one one God, the Father.

If this is true why would he make any reference, "opaque" or otherwise, to the deity of Jesus? In fact, if this question arose, why would someone who believed there was only one God, the Father, not settle the matter by making an explicit statement of the singular deity in which they believed? The logical answer is Paul's Christian experience convinced him Jewish monotheism failed to accurately understand the nature of God. In other words, "One God the Father" did not correctly describe the God in which he came to believe in.

This is evidenced in the events in Athens as reported in Acts:

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.
(Acts 17)

Regardless of the exact nature of what the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers understood about Paul's message, it was not one of monotheism. Rather, as the text states, they understood Paul's message about Jesus and the resurrection as one which proclaimed foreign "gods" (plural).

Nor could Paul have proclaimed the God of Israel to them:

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing. 22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: (Acts 17)

The Athenians knew about the God of Israel, so it would be wrong to understand Paul explained the God of Israel was "THE UNKOWN GOD."

The events in Athens show Paul's message there was incompatible with monotheism as it was understood in Second Temple Judaism.

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  • +1 for putting forth an answer. "it is accurate to say Paul was once a Biblical Unitarian. This is a certainty, since Paul was Jewish" This seems to suggest a misunderstanding of what Biblical Unitarianism is. It is not Judaism. Nor is it pre-Christ 1st C Judaism, of whatever variant you'd like. It fully engages with the New Testament, agrees Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God, and King ruling at the right hand of the Father, and agrees there is a New Covenant to replace the Old. It is emphatically not what Saul was. Jan 17, 2022 at 23:41
  • @OneGodtheFather Thank you. I was addressing the central issue of your question which is the difference between one God, the Father, and that of the Trinity. There is no way to reconcile what Paul proclaimed in Athens with the idea he held to the belief there is but one God, the Father, who, in Biblical terms, is the God of Israel. Jan 18, 2022 at 6:29
  • "There is no way to reconcile what Paul proclaimed in Athens with the idea he held to the belief there is but one God, the Father, who, in Biblical terms, is the God of Israel." I have gone back and read Acts 17:24-34. St. Paul is describing a God who a conventional Jew would have no problem with except when Paul talks about Jesus being the Messiah! Indeed, he describes Jesus as "the man [God] has appointed"! Jan 18, 2022 at 6:56
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    You're trying to infer a psychological state in anonymous 'Greek philosophers' in order to say St. Paul definitely believed Jesus was God? Seems dubious. But the more straightforward reading of what Paul is doing to me is quite different. These Greeks already worshipped (had a shrine to) the unknown God. He is then tying that sentiment to the Jewish God. Turns out, the unknown God they already worship is the Jewish God. He is not saying that God is Jesus! This is obvious from the passage immediately following in Acts. God - the unknown God - ... Jan 18, 2022 at 17:19
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    ... is distinguished from Jesus, who is a man appointed by God. But you do have a point. The Greeks already had many gods, and they might indeed have thought of Jesus as a god, which Jesus himself does when comparing himself to the judges who were 'gods' in Psalm 82. The judges in Psalm 82 aren't God, though. Paul wouldn't have made that mistake either, IMO. Jan 18, 2022 at 17:23

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