There’s this self proclaimed “Biblical Unitarian,” Dale Tuggy, who is also a professor of philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, in Fredonia, NY, and whose “Trinities” podcast has gained a bit of notoriety in evangelical circles. His influence online and in academic circles is growing as well, and rightfully so. His podcast is excellent, albeit dry, and a bit loud on the bass and gate, but excellent none the less. I would love to spend this little piece arguing he is the most important, and soon to be influential, Unitarian thinker since Socinus (the famed theologian who is accredited with fathering Socinianism), but today we need to push back a bit, and call out some misleading he is doing (albeit unintentionally because he thinks he’s right so let’s put it in perspective).
Before I criticize Tuggy’s attempt at rehashing Unitarianism with 21st century intellectual tech, let me be clear. I don’t think he’s anything but a sincere, intelligent man, a hard working man, who is trying to make sense of the God he wants to worship. In a sense, he’s a Christian brother. I doubt we serve the same God, at least conceptually, but I have no ill regard for him. There’s plenty of grace and success in the world for everyone, he deserves no less, even if he is wrong on an important point.
Today we talk about a premise by which some of his work rests. As a Unitarian, he believes in an absolute and numerically 1 God. This is to say, and following 19th Century Unitarians, he believes the 1 God just IS the Father. (I will assume you know your bible in this piece.) Tuggy argues forcefully and concisely that the first Christians were in fact Unitarian for all intents and purposes, based on this premise (God just is the Father). Well, to be fair there’s more to his arguments and his best one is here: http://trinities.org/blog/podcast-189-the-unfinished-business-of-the-reformation/
The stand out premise of his argument which that link takes you to is this, “A Central New Testament Teaching is the identity of the one true God with the Father (only).” Of course this premise is patently false, in the sense Tuggy aims to make normal.
But Robert what about 1 Corinthians 8:6, or John 14:1-3, and so on? On the surface and naively read verses like these support his claim, especially in the English. And frankly they’re uncontroversial to pair with saying the father is God. All Christians say, God is the Father, it’s built into the creeds for goodness sake. But trinitarian Christianity makes an ambiguous, politically charged commitment that Jesus Christ is no less God than the Father is: a la the first big 5 councils all work this out and spell it out explicitly. And to be a trinitarian Christian you’re committed to this historical claim and development. But when Tuggy uses the words to this premise he smuggles all of modernism’s bite to identity commitments which are much later than the trinity.
If you’ve done your basic philosophy classes in college you’ll remember the logic of identity and its basic history. The latter has a narrative that follows Leibniz, who is accredited with developing the explicit formulation of the identity of indiscernibles; and if you were taught well you should end up somewhere with either Quine or Peter Geach. (We can get into more recent discussions on the subject in future posts if need be.) And the former should have been taught in your intro to logic course. Sadly, I didn’t pay too much attention in these classes (I audited one, in full disclosure), so I am woefully ill equipped to meet Tuggy on this field. However, it should be noted the notion of numerical identity developed into a positive form and is pretty much in the water of our reasoning today.
In brief, and to simplify Leibnizian-like developments to identity theory we need to only acknowledge the basic positive statement and intuition that, “if x is identical with y then everything true of x is true of y.” (See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity/#2). There you have it. And if you know your bible it wouldn’t take much to see there’s an incredible leverage opportunity here to wedge between the language in it that has any difference on what many may assume to be the same thing. This is most prevalent for our purposes with the New Testaments use of “Father” and “Son” language (and as it relates to the word God). They’re two different words after all; so, there is huge differences to wedge in between these two words’ meanings. And this is what Dr. Tuggy has done time and time again through his podcast (currently over 200 episodes).
Let’s cover 3 reasons why “the Father” is NOT God in the sense Tuggy implies and argues for. And to be clear, Tuggy is saying by the simple rules of logic (like the one bit of logic covered above) the Father can’t be equivalent with the Son on the basis of their differences, not least of which they are two different words and meanings. So, Tuggy argues, it makes most sense to associate “Father” 1:1 with whomever God is, and this means the Son is outside that 1:1 relationship. The Son could be a lot of things, but he can’t be God if this is the case. Furthermore, if Tuggy is right, we would need to change the Greek lexicon to explicitly state this premise because it’s so foundational on the surface. This is the main reason Tuggy has the burden, he’s implying the definition of the word God needs to add this, and/or change to meet this claim explicitly; or he’s implying it’s already in there if it’s a good definition of the word. Both of which are not in the average Greek lexicon so it needs to be changed; or, as I will point out, Tuggy needs to change.
1. The Bible may have many modern intuitions in it, but this identity claim by Tuggy for the use of “Father” and “God” (God=1:1=Father) is NOT one of them, and we know this because the ancient genres the New Testament contains create too much ambiguity to accredit their use of these terms as implying this specific claim of identity.
The Bible doesn’t have this claim presupposed in its implied intuitions, because the genres predate expressing this intuition explicitly. Here’s what you have to understand about Leibniz and subsequent developments on his offerings. The developments post Leibniz are logical notions developed to be applied explicitly for our (or later generations) application of logical reasoning, and do not necessitate a hermeneutic on genres of literature before these ideas were developed. But this implies I’m only saying something about anachronisms here and I’m not. Let’s consider a spefic genres class to get at what is being pointed to here.
If the main reasoning being used in the biography books of the New Testament is employing allegory and figural interpretations, which are characteristic of this New Testament genre (AND unique to the time period), then any explicit identity claims may hold true to identity theory, and may be implied, but it is by coincidence and too ambiguous to say with any certainty because the characteristics of this genre is done in a contrarian mode to the precision identity reasoning explicitly demands. It’s kind of like telling a Dr. Sues story it has to follow the rules of logic at the expense of making up unique rhymes. That’s not fair, and misses the point of the story. The words Father and Son are used in the NT as new words, MORE like made up rhymes in Dr Suess, whose relationship is beautifully ambiguis on purpose. (Be charitable with that last line it’s a scaffold to help you think about the point.)
The ambiguity of the set of words in question here, by the nature of their genre, require us to consider and accept an ambiguity in relation to later identity analysis. But the beauty of this use of language is that it can also challenge us to at least try. It’s why Tuggy can use identity theory as a form of analysis and Chalcedon can use Christianized Platonism to see revelation in specific, albeit different ways. In other words, the problem of forcing a text whose genre, philosophical milieu, and chief characteristics are explicitly different than those developed in later times means forcing clarity out of a basic ambiguity the texts demands its readers to make. (Yes, I’m stearing away from trinitarianism proper so we can focus on Tuggy. Please don’t pretend that I need to be able to explain God in detail in order to prove a premise of Tuggy’s wrong.)
To go back to a specific and unique genre of the NT era for a bit. Sure, John could have intended to think there was two (numerically) different things with the use of the Father and the Son language, but John’s point is wrapped in other forms of reasoning that don’t make it logically necessary that John’s language be forced to conform to our standards of reasoning. The gospel of John is wonderful in expressing its unique genre well beyond the precision identity theory could demand; the author of the gospel writes about this logos of his, “the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” Here he sounds like aiming to sound much more like Dr. Suess than Leibniz. Tuggy misses this nuance.
Beyond ignoring the explicit ambiguity biblical texts genres demand Tuggy emphasizes a reading that is ethnocentric, and chronocentric. It’s just too convenient that his western, and modern reasoning finds modern western examples of developments he specializes in. This is a minor point however and would leads us down a rabbit trail, but I want us to remember if Tuggy is wrong this would be entailed. But, to be clear it’s not the main point of #1 here in this section. The emphasis in this section is not speaking to straight species of anachronisms, but to the nature of the literarature we’re trying to make sense of. Unfortunately, explicit post Leibnizian identity claims are too explicit to force on a genre like the ones in the Bible, and these genres use of language demand we do otherwise. We know this because every NT text throws the kitchen sink at us of who Jesis is and uses words the same way. In John, for example, Jesus was what God was to simply some messiah type figure and everything in between (he’s even alegorical bread at one point in John which is important to text critical history and entertaining to me).
The NT treats the words God, Father, and Jesus like Dr Sues treats rhymes (held together in ambiguity for the sake of sounding like revelation, because they are!), more so than Leibniz treats individual words like brittle Math which the NT words are not. Whether they’re positive and specific identity claims though, at this point of this piece I am saying be aware they’re probably not. There’s two more reasons to explore though so stick with me.
2. And related to 1. Tuggy’s premise presupposes a naive reading of the text.
Tuggy sees technical identity claims being made left and right because of the simple language use the texts of the Bible can seem to have. But again this is bad hermeneutics dressed in the garb of logic. And since he’s wrong he’s really appealing to ones’personal psychology rather than to the truth of the matter. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read ancient literature and immediately think it just means what it says in the language I’m familiar in. I, as a mature reader of these ancient texts (not saying Tuggy isn’t), know they have their own context, and a reader should treat the texts on, and here’s the key, by their own standards. We already established Leibniz is a historical development and later standard, so any relation is at best a coincidence and not an explicit intent of the Biblical texts. Naively pulling out words because their used in the New Testament and applying them flippantly as examples of this latter logical principle requires one reads the New Testament in the language we’re familiar with (even at the expense of being foreign to the biblical genre, texts, and words).
Before we appropriate the biblical texts to say what we want to communicate we have to treat these texts as they are. This is no delicate matter because we have no modern equivalents. For goodness sakes it’s not like John wrote his gospel with a laptop and an English dictionary. A pen and a pad weren’t even invented yet, let alone using language the way we do. These texts come with an incredible layer of nuance missed by the modern mind, and to associate the 1:1 translation of text to mean complex identity claims is just bad; we need to hear these texts on their own terms, and on the terms the communities these texts developed out of, which weren’t Unitarian ones mind you.
Let’s say 60% of the Biblical writers were strict Unitarians, to give Tuggy the benefit of the doubt; and let’s say they saw Christ as a separate thing than the father in the technical sense Tuggy wants to push (an explicit identity claim on the level of 1:1 is technical, mathematically speaking), this still doesn’t change the fact these texts are scriptures of communities with their own and much different intentions for their use. Hell, any official recognition by a church body of the cannon of scripture post dates the doctrine of the trinity. To appropriate any of these texts as authoritative enough to fundamentally speak of a Unitarian God over a trinitarian one is to abuse their history to say the least, precisely because a strict doctrine of God is not adopted universally in the Biblical texts. And it wasn’t even a concern for the Biblical texts, so how could they even chime in on our notions of Unitarianism and trinitarianism? How could these texts unequivocally chime into a modern issue before these issues were an issue? I even have heard one Jewish scholar argue strict monotheism was an invention partly in reaction to Christianity! The point is, not through this premise, whatever you think the answer is to those questions.
Anyways, Tuggy takes words and leverages their naive surface meanings into a naive and explicit identity claim intuitive to our usage of language, but anyone who as studied the history, texts, and original language knows these texts mean anything but the naive sense we want to apply to them in a surface translated form. This is just bad form. the Bible’s words are translated words, and must receive further translation with Tuggy’s premise in order to have any relation to modern logic; and to do this as Tuggy does it, after the fact they’re already translated into English forces the words to be lost to their translation rather than their usage. This leads us to our final point. What do these words mean?
3. The word “God” in the Bible doesn’t mean 1:1 alone with the word “Father.”
Here Tuggy ignores the text critical history and the lexical apparatuses’ content (perhaps he’s just unaware of them?). For example, did you know the NA28 apparatus (lexicon of the Greek text) takes into consideration Unitarian scholarship from a prior era? That’s right, the word God and Father as they’re used technically in the original language have been studied, and the Unitarian case has been considered and found insufficient to support a strict Unitarian claim! Rather what the NA28 does is say the Greek uses the word “Father” (pater in the Greek) WITH the word God (theos in the Greek). The problem here is, for Tuggy’s claim, the same is done with words that signify Christ as well. Admittedly, it’s in a much smaller set of cases than the Father, which carries the super majority relationship with the word God. But, whatever the case may be, if the Biblical writers intended a strict identity claim, in the numerical sense, as opposed to say a relative one, there would be strict usage associated with the word God. But the fact is, there isn’t a strict usage of the term. And that’s besides the point here: the way the Greek works in the New Testament, at best we get the word father used WITH the word God but not an explicit claim that would mean equivalent AND with, if this latter was the case the rules of the greek grammar would exclude any other thing from similar uses, but there are other uses so this can’t be the case.
This error that Tuggy unwittingly promotes gets worse. The oldest and most foundational Biblical texts we have received have no grammar! A little tidbit Tuggy has to dismiss for his whole premise to stand any muster. To pile on and make Tuggy’s case even worse, the Biblical texts we inherited via manuscript documents reflect an oral culture not a linguistic one! Again Tuggy’s use of identity theory usage as a hermeneutic commits an ambiguity fallacy (Or an equivocation, or is just misplaced and wrong, or all of the above. He’s the philosopher he can figure out how he’s wrong). This point destroys his whole premise.
As a bit of a tangent. My favorite example of this last point is the incredible ambiguous ending in 1 John 5:20. It appears John in the original manuscript just loses all reservations about Tuggy’s God and leaves us an oral tradition that can say just about whatever you want in a linguisticlay centered culture like our own. But, Tuggy ignores these facts and claims every writer in the New Testament wants to communicate some exact identity claim by language rules non-existent to 1 John (or any writer of the New Testament for that matter). If Dr. Tuggy is right the Biblical writers couldn’t even find the time to place punctuation marks, but they had the gall to spell out explicitly what they mean about the numerical identity relationship between two words placed next to each other in a language where word order doesn’t matter. For Tuggy, this means Father and God are to be interpreted as 1:1 in the greek because of this gall, and the the fact they ignore grammar is of no consequence to him. This leads me to wonder how prevalent math ratios are in the New Testament? I jest, Tuggy is just simply wrong. No biggy.
Dr. Tuggy has a bunch more arguments to support his claim. This little piece only debunks one premise. But if Tuggy has so over stepped his bounds on this simple case it draws this reader of Tuggy to suspect there may be other mistakes hidden within his work with witty appeals to ones personal psychology wrapped in the pious garb of logic…Time will tell. For today, I hope you see Tuggy is wrong to make this premise a premise of the New Testament, it’s not. It’s Tuggy’s, not the Bible’s.
(I am being facetious there at the end, please don’t take this personal.)