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Did Moses Literally See the Face of God?

Mon, 06/24/2019 - 02:02

Moses speaks with God – Gerard Hoet (1728)

Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke “face to face” with Moses, but Exodus 33:20 says that Moses could not see the Lord’s face. Is this a contradiction?

Two preliminary observations may be helpful. First, we should notice that Exodus says that the Lord “spoke” with Moses “face to face” (Exod. 33:11), not that Moses saw God face to face. There may be a difference, and as we shall discover there is indeed a difference. Second, it is significant that the two allegedly contradictory statements appear in the same passage. Exodus 33:11 says that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”[1]  Exodus 33:20 says that the LORD told Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” It does not seem likely that the author of Exodus 33 contradicted himself in the space of just ten verses. Such contradiction in close proximity within the same passage is possible yet would be extremely surprising, as compared, say, to statements appearing in different books written by different authors. If it seems that these statements in Exodus 33 are contradictory, perhaps we are misunderstanding one of them.

Reading Exodus 33 in Context

The expression “face to face” can, of course, be used literally of two human beings seeing each other’s faces at the same time. However, in Exodus 33 that is not the case. Just before saying that the Lord spoke to Moses “face to face,” Exodus states, “When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses” (33:9). Here we see that the Lord’s presence was manifested visibly not in an anthropomorphic form but in a pillar of cloud. Old Testament scholar Douglas Stuart makes the following comment on this passage:

The expression “face to face” (pānîm ’el-pānîm) is an idiom. It does not mean “looking at each other” or the like as if Moses actually saw God when Moses stood in the “tent of meeting” and Yahweh stood in front of it in the form of the glory cloud.[2]

Despite these close encounters with God’s manifested presence, Moses asked for something more. He asked the Lord, “Please show me your glory” (33:18). In response, the Lord told Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (33:19a). This does not seem to be referring to a simple matter of the Lord appearing in bodily, human form. The Lord then told Moses, “But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (33:20). He then said, “while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (33:22-23). This language about seeing God’s “back” but not his “face” (i.e., his “front”[3] [pānîm] in contrast to his “back”) in context does not seem to be meant to refer to an anthropomorphic body, since what is said to pass by Moses is also called the Lord’s “glory” and “goodness.” There is also the odd imagery of the Lord covering Moses with his “hand” while he “passed by,” after which he said he would “take away” his hand. If the references to God’s “face” and “back” are to be interpreted literally as referring to God’s anthropomorphic body parts, then presumably “hand” must be as well. Yet the imagery, if taken literally, seems to require some bodily contortion seems to be required for the Lord to cover Moses with his “hand” so as to prevent Moses from seeing his “face” while allowing him to see his “back.”

When we continue into chapter 34 (an unfortunate chapter division), we find that the “glory” that is actually revealed to Moses is the glory of the Lord’s character. After taking two stone tablets up Mount Sinai as the Lord had instructed (34:1-4), Moses receives a revelation of the Lord’s glorious goodness in a new way:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. (Exod. 34:5-8)

Clearly, Exodus 33–34 is not informing us that Moses had a glimpse of God’s literal body but only saw his back. Rather, it is telling us that the Lord revealed to Moses that his glory was his holy character by which he is both merciful and just, gracious and good. The only thing we know about the visible manifestation of God’s presence is that it was “in the cloud,” just as it was earlier in the passage.

Since Exodus 33:20-23 tell us explicitly that Moses did not, and could not, see God’s face—that is, Moses could not look at God directly—we should take this fact into account when considering other passages that might seem to suggest that he could. The most interesting of these comes earlier in Exodus, where we are told that “Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel…. They beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exod. 24:9-11). Even without Exodus 33, we can be reasonably certain this passage does not mean that Moses and the other 74 men (which the passage indicates also included Joshua) saw God in a specific anthropomorphic, embodied form. At the beginning of Exodus 24, the Lord commanded Moses that he and that group of men should go up to him “and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the LORD, but the others shall not come near” (Exod. 24:1-2). Immediately after the passage just quoted, Exodus tells us:

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there….” So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you” (24:12-14).

In context, then, it is made clear that Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders only went part of the way up, staying far away from where Moses later went to be “near to the LORD.” That being the case, whatever they saw when they “saw God,” they did not see a human face, since they would have been too far away to see it. Evidently, they saw something that they realized was a manifestation of God, but not a clear or distinct image of an embodied individual with a literal face. This interpretation, which has support in the immediate context, accounts for the later statement in Exodus 33 that Moses could not and did not see God’s face.

Coming “Face to Face” with God in the Old Testament

Another example of the idiomatic usage of “face to face” comes in the book of Numbers, when Moses interceded with the Lord pleading for him not to punish Israel for their threatened rebellion. Moses says to God, “For you, O LORD, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night” (Num. 14:14). Israel saw the LORD “face to face” but the way in which they saw the LORD, as in Exodus 33–34, was in the manifestation of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, not in an anthropomorphic form.

Earlier in Numbers, Aaron and his sons are instructed to speak the following priestly benediction:

“The LORD bless you and keep you,
The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you,
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”
(Num. 6:24-26).

The point of this benediction is not that Israel should hope for the Lord’s face to emit a literal light that would “shine” on them. This is clearly figurative language meaning that the priests are to ask for God to be kindly disposed toward Israel.

There is another passage in Numbers that is sometimes thought to mean that Moses saw God in a human or bodily appearance. In that passage the Lord said to Moses’ brother Aaron and sister Miriam:

“If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD” (Num. 12:8).

Here speaking “mouth to mouth” is another expression with a meaning similar to “face to face,” though one emphasizing verbal communication. It means, in contrast to the usual visions or dreams that could be highly symbolic and even enigmatic, that the Lord spoke directly and plainly to Moses and that Moses could speak directly back to him, in a conversation.

What about the statement that Moses “beholds the form of the LORD” (ESV)? The Hebrew word here, temûnah, does not refer to something’s actual form or body, but instead refers to some kind of visual representation. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the word usually refers to idols (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:16, 23, 25; 5:8). In Job, Eliphaz talks about a spirit he saw in a dream that frightened him: “It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form [temûnah] was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice” (Job 4:16). Here Eliphaz explicitly distinguishes between the spirit’s “appearance,” which he says he could not discern, and its “form” or “image,” evidently some vague or indistinct representation of the spirit. David used the term figuratively to express his hope that when he woke up, he would “see” the Lord coming to his rescue (Ps. 17:15, see 17:1-14 for the context).

There is one place in the Pentateuch where temûnah does not refer to an idolatrous image, but he reinforces the point in another way. Moses reminded the Israelites that when they were at the foot of Horeb, they had seen no “form” (temûnah) at all, but only heard a voice emanating from the mountain (Deut. 4:12, 15). In the next chapter, Moses told the entire nation of Israel, “The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain” (Deut. 5:4-5). So here the people of Israel are told that the Lord spoke to them “face to face,” even though they were waiting at the foot of the mountain and the Lord was far up the mountain manifesting his presence in a blazing fire. Here again, God speaking to them “face to face” clearly does not mean that they saw a literal, anthropomorphic being with a literal human or human-like face.

Returning to our main text, Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” That clause “as a man speaks to his friend” appears to offer an explanation of the significance of the phrase “face to face” in this context. The Lord and Moses were relationally close, and the Lord manifested his presence directly in front of Moses and spoke to him right there. This connotation of relational closeness is seen again in the comment at the end of the Pentateuch that Israel never again had a prophet “like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10).

Moses Did Not See an Embodied God

Two conclusions seem in order here.

First, there is no inconsistency in these statements. We simply need to read them in context.

Second, statements such as Exodus 33:11 do not teach that God is a literal man or anthropomorphic being who literally appeared to Moses in an embodied form. To the contrary, in every passage referring to Moses—or Israel—coming “face to face” with the Lord, his divine presence is seen in a cloud or fire, not in a human body. Such was the case, in a somewhat different form, in Moses’ first encounter with the Lord, who “appeared to him in a flame of fire in the midst of a bush” (Exod. 3:2). Religions such as Mormonism that appeal to these texts to support their doctrine that God is by nature an anthropomorphic being are misunderstanding them.[4]


[1] All biblical quotations are taken from the ESV.

[2] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 2:698 n. 111. Other exegetical commentators have made the same observation, e.g., Noel Dwight Osborn and Howard A. Hatton, A Handbook on Exodus (New York: United Bible Societies, 1999), 786.

[3] The Hebrew word pānîm has quite a range of meanings and usages, most of which are related to the general concept of “front.” That meaning works specifically in Exodus 33:23 quite well, since it is contrasted with “back.”

[4] Note the popular portrait by LDS artist Joseph Brickey of Moses seeing Jehovah literally face to face as a glorious man, found, for example, on the LDS Church’s official website here.

30 Days, 30 Books: The History of Christian Apologetics in One Month

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 14:45

In the Apologetics Book Club on Facebook this month, I am doing a series entitled “30 Days, 30 Books: The History of Christian Apologetics in One Month.” So far we have highlighted six key books in ancient and medieval church history. The series will feature 15 books from the first through the nineteenth centuries and 15 books from the twentieth century.

If you’re not a member of the ABC group, you can join any time and catch up on the series. Please also spread the word. The group started at the beginning of the year and so far we have 376 members. Here is a link to the group:



Joseph Smith and the Many Wives of David and Solomon: Authorized or Abominable?

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 23:15

Giovanni Venanzi, Solomon’s Wives (1668)

In all of the debate over Joseph Smith’s teachings and practices regarding polygamy, little attention seems to have been given to an explicit contradiction in his scriptural revelations. This contradiction concerns what the Lord thought of David and Solomon having many wives. These statements appear in the Book of Mormon and in the Doctrine & Covenants, two of the scriptural volumes considered “standard works” in the LDS Church. I quote the two passages with sufficient context to allay any concerns that the contradictory statements are being taken out of context.

2:23 But the word of God burthens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This People begins to wax in iniquity; they understand not the Scriptures: for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which are written concerning David, and Solomon his Son. 2:24 Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. 2:25 Wherefore, thus saith the Lord: I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch, from the fruit of the loins of Joseph. 2:26 Wherefore, I, the Lord God, will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old. 2:27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: for there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none: 2:28 For I, the Lord God, delighteth in the chastity of women. And whoredoms is abomination before me: thus saith the Lord of Hosts. 2:29 Wherefore, this peeple shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. 2:30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people: otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things. (Jacob 2:23-30, emphasis added)[1]

132:1 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines…. 132:38 David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. 132:39 David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord (D&C 132:1, 38-39).

The standard Mormon perspective on these two passages is that God sometimes permits polygamy while otherwise prohibiting it. This is how Mormons typically understand Jacob 2:30. They argue that monogamy is the norm, but when God chooses, he commands some people to practice polygamy (or “plural marriage”). In my estimation, this view regarding polygamy has some problems, but for my purposes here I will not be challenging it. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Lord sometimes commands some people to practice polygamy and at other times prohibits it, there remains a direct contradiction between these two passages. That contradiction concerns whether the Lord approved specifically of David and Solomon taking many wives. The two passages could hardly be more directly contradictory on this question:

David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. (Jacob 2:24)

I, the Lord, justified…David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines. (D&C 132:1)

David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon…and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me…and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife. (D&C 132:38-39)

Let’s look at these texts closely. In Jacob 2:24, the clause “which thing was abominable before me” is grammatically dependent on the main clause “David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines.” The words “which thing” refer grammatically back to “had many wives and concubines.” Thus, this sentence asserts that David and Solomon having many wives was abominable before the Lord. What was “abominable” was simply their having many wives and concubines. Thus, Jacob 2:24 explicitly states that God disapproved strongly of David and Solomon having many wives.

In Doctrine & Covenants 132, on the other hand, three times Joseph claims that the Lord said that he approved of David and Solomon having many wives. The first two of these statements refer to both David and Solomon. First, “the Lord” says that he “justified…David and Solomon” regarding “their having many wives and concubines” (D&C 132:1). Second, “the Lord” (who is supposedly speaking throughout the passage) says that David and Solomon “received many wives and concubines,” and that they committed no sin “save in those things which they received not of me” (132:38). It is possible to understand verse 39 to specify what “those things” were (David’s taking Bathsheba and having Uriah killed). On the other hand, it is possible to understand the words “those things which they received not of me” to leave unstated what those things were that the Lord had not authorized or given to David and Solomon. Either way, the fact that they had “many wives and concubines” is expressly said not to have been sin and indeed to have been something authorized and facilitated by the Lord himself. Verse 39 explicitly states that the only sin David committed regarding his many “wives and concubines” was his sin “in the case of Uriah and his wife,” that is, that David had arranged for Uriah to be killed so he could take his wife Bathsheba. Thus, this third statement again makes it explicit that the Lord approved of David having “many wives and concubines.”

When we compare what the two passages say on this point, then, we find they are in direct, explicit contradiction of each other:

  • The Lord considered David and Solomon having “many wives and concubines” to be abominable (Jacob 2:24).
  • The Lord justified David and Solomon in having “many wives and concubines” (D&C 132:1, 38-39).

In a recent discussion of this matter with me on Facebook, some Mormons attempted to resolve this contradiction with several points. Let’s look at these responses.

  1. In Jacob 2, the Nephites were wrongly appealing to David and Solomon as precedent for them to practice polygamy. Their error was in assuming that if David and Solomon had many wives then they could do so as well.

This explanation will not work because it is contrary to what Jacob 2:24 says. Jacob 2:24 does not say that God approved of David and Solomon having many wives but did not approve of the Nephites doing so. Rather, Jacob 2:24 says that God considered David and Solomon having many wives to be abominable.

  1. The alleged contradiction overlooks Jacob 2:30, where Jacob says that the Lord sometimes does permit polygamy while prohibiting it at other times.

As I have explained, Jacob 2:30 has no bearing on the specific issue here, which is whether the Lord authorized David and Solomon’s polygamy. The issue here is not whether there is a contradiction between God approving of polygamy for some people while disapproving of it for others. The issue here is whether there is a contradiction between God approving of David and Solomon’s polygamy in Doctrine and Covenants while disapproving of David and Solomon’s polygamy in the Book of Mormon.

  1. The Lord approved of David and Solomon having many wives, but he disapproved of some aspects of their having many wives, such as David stealing Uriah’s wife and Solomon taking foreign, pagan wives, or perhaps Solomon taking such an extremely high number of wives (he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, 1 Kings 11:3).

Again, this explanation is contrary to Jacob 2:24, which states simply that David and Solomon having “many wives and concubines” was “abominable” to the Lord. Moreover, interpreting Jacob’s statement as implicitly referring to David and Solomon’s excesses or sins would severely weaken Jacob’s argument, since the Nephites could plausibly respond, “We’re not seeking the right to kill men to steal their wives, nor are we planning to marry pagan women. We just want to have more than one wife.” But Jacob is quoted as telling them in no uncertain terms that they were permitted only one wife each and no concubines at all (Jacob 2:27). Thus, it will not work in context to claim that Jacob was only condemning the excesses or specific sins that David and Solomon committed but not condemning their having “many wives and concubines.” That is explicitly what Jacob 2:24 criticizes David and Solomon for doing.

In short, there seems to be no plausible resolution to the contradiction between Jacob 2:24 and Doctrine and Covenants 132:1, 38-39. We should not stop, however, at noting the contradiction. Rather, we should ask how this contradiction arose in these texts. Joseph Smith dictated both books. He claimed that God inspired both books. The LDS Church considers both books to be scripture. The answer is to be found in the probable origins of the two texts.

Jacob 2 was supposedly written during the Old Testament era, about five centuries before Christ, when polygamy was still a fairly common practice at least for kings and other powerful men. It therefore seems at least somewhat surprising that the Book of Jacob would contain such a vehement denunciation of polygamy, something unparalleled in the Old Testament (or even in the New Testament). However, it would not be surprising at all in a text originating in a modern Anglo-American, predominantly Christian culture. Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon in 1829, when he was part of that culture and still adhered to its views on such matters as monogamy. Moreover, it is typical of the Book of Mormon to contain “plainer” statements on a wide range of issues as compared to statements in the Bible—a feature Mormons tend to celebrate. Yet in this case (as in many others) the Book of Mormon’s plainness is anachronistic.

Joseph produced the text of Doctrine and Covenants 132 on July 12, 1843. By that date, Joseph had already entered into numerous clandestine polygamous unions. From 1841 through 1843 Joseph took some 33 “plural wives,” and by July 1843 most of these unions had already been formalized.[2] His one legal wife, Emma, had found out about his “plural marriages” and was very unhappy about it. Word of Joseph’s polygamy was circulating among the Mormons, naturally arousing a great deal of consternation and even opposition. In this context, Joseph produced a revelation that “justified” his polygamy by claiming that the Lord had also “justified” the polygamy of various Old Testament figures, including David and Solomon (D&C 132:1). Toward the end of this rather lengthy revelation, Joseph quotes the Lord admonishing Emma (referring to her by name three times) to accept Joseph’s plural wives (132:51-56).

Now we can understand how the contradiction arose. In 1829, Joseph was a monogamist. In 1843, he was a secret polygamist, under fire from his wife and from some members of his own church for engaging in that practice. This change in Joseph Smith’s lifestyle very simply accounts for the difference between the two texts. This means that the contradiction cannot legitimately be waived aside as simply a “mistake,” as though we were criticizing the LDS scriptures for failing to be inerrant. Rather, the contradiction is evidence for the uninspired, all too human origin of these supposedly inspired texts. It shows that in both texts it was Joseph Smith, not the Lord, and not a true prophet of the Lord, who was speaking.



[1] Quoting from the Book of Mormon Study Text (2018), online at

[2] I am excluding Fanny Alger, a maid with whom Joseph had an affair in the early 1830s. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger” (2014), online at For 1841 as the date of Joseph’s first plural marriage in Nauvoo, see Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 1:58–67. There is some debate about the exact number of plural wives, but all scholars agree it was over 30.

EASTER: The Evidence

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 22:35

Rembrandt, Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene

How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? Several years back I put together a simple outline of the main lines of evidence using the word EASTER. Each point is tied to Paul’s important defense of the hope of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. At the end is a list of six books for those wishing to pursue the evidence for each of the six points in detail.

Empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15:4)

One important evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is the fact that he was buried in a rock tomb and then a couple of days later that tomb was found empty. The Gospels accurately describe the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid, matching the many limestone rock tombs that had been carved around Jerusalem in the first century. The Gospels all report that women, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to discover the empty tomb—not something men were likely to make up. The author of the Gospel of John claims that he personally went to the tomb and saw that the body was gone and that the grave clothes had been left behind (John 20:2-9). Jewish critics of Christianity claimed that the disciples had stolen the body from the tomb. That claim is not credible (the disciples were disheartened and scared), but these critics implicitly conceded the empty tomb as fact.

Appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-7)

An empty tomb by itself is just a mystery: the case of the missing body. But Jesus’ body wasn’t missing—it was living. It wasn’t removed; it was raised. We know this because Jesus appeared to numerous individuals after the tomb was discovered empty. He appeared to women, again including Mary Magdalene. He appeared to individuals, notably the apostle Peter, and to groups, especially the apostles. He also appeared to his brother James, who had not been one of his disciples before the crucifixion. In the Gospel of John, we again have the firsthand written account of one of the disciples who had seen the risen Jesus (John 21:24-25). Paul gives a list of those who had seen Jesus that overlaps with the appearances mentioned in the Gospels, yet it is clear that Paul and the Gospels are independent of one another (for example, Paul calls Peter “Cephas,” the Aramaic form of the name Peter, never found in the Gospels). Thus, we have very strong evidence that multiple people on multiple occasions did see Jesus alive after the tomb was found to be empty. The Resurrection is both the obvious and the only credible position that accounts for both the empty tomb and the appearances.

Saul’s conversion (1 Corinthians 15:8)

Saul of Tarsus was an educated Jew trained as a Pharisee around the same time that Jesus was teaching his disciples. Within a couple of years at most after Jesus’ death, Saul, also known as Paul, began actively persecuting Christians in the zealous belief that he was defending the truth of the Jewish faith. We have Paul’s firsthand testimony that Jesus appeared to him, turning him around 180 degrees from a persecutor of Christians to a Christian apostle (see especially Galatians 1; Philippians 3:3-12). Paul eventually met with the original apostles, and they affirmed his call to be an apostle (Galatians 2:1-10). It is extremely difficult to explain Paul’s conversion from persecutor to apostle as anything but the result of his sincere, certain belief that Jesus Christ had appeared to him.

Transformed lives (1 Corinthians 15:9-19)

Those who saw the risen Jesus changed remarkably for the better as a result. The disciples, whom the Gospels admit had been cowardly, became courageous, fearless witnesses for Christ. Paul went from being a zealous Pharisee protecting the exclusive claims of Judaism to a passionate Christian inviting Gentiles to become members of the people of God alongside Jewish Christians. The apostles and other early Christians frequently experienced harsh persecution—beatings, imprisonment, and so on—for nothing other than their proclamation that Jesus had been vindicated as the Jewish Messiah and Lord by his resurrection from the dead. We have firsthand testimony about such persecution from Paul in his epistles: he confesses that he himself had persecuted Christians before he became one, and he reports intense, repeated persecutions that he experienced as an apostle (see especially 2 Corinthians 11:23-33). The apostle James the son of Zebedee was martyred in AD 44 (Acts 12:1-2). James the Lord’s brother was martyred in Jerusalem in AD 62, as reported by the Jewish historian Josephus. The apostles Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome about 64-66. There is good evidence to show that several of the other apostles, notably Andrew and Thomas, were also martyred for their work in proclaiming the risen Jesus. Of course, faith in Christ has continued to transform people’s lives for the better for the past two thousand years, inspiring sacrificial love, humanitarian aid, reconciliation of enemies, and more.

Early confession (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

Skeptics commonly suggest that belief in Jesus’ resurrection arose later as a legend or myth. That suggestion could not be more wrong. Our earliest Christian writings, the early epistles of Paul, date from less than twenty years after Jesus’ death. They attest to the fact that belief in Jesus’ resurrection was the hallmark of the Christian movement from its very beginning. Scholars have identified at least verses 3-5 (possibly most or all of verses 3-7) in 1 Corinthians 15 as an early Christian confession or creed that Paul had “delivered” to the Corinthians when he first preached the gospel to them. Paul also says that he had “received” this creedal statement, meaning it originated from the other apostles. From Galatians 1:18-19, we know that Paul would have received this tradition within four years or so after Jesus’ death. That means that the confession dates from within just a few years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Resurrection is not a later legend.

Religious devotion to Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:57-58)

The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews. In their religious worldview, only the Lord, the God of Israel, was the proper recipient of spiritual worship, prayer, and devotion. Yet those earliest Christians worshiped and prayed to Jesus as Lord, even composing confessions (like the one in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5) and songs about him (Eph. 5:19). According to the New Testament, it was Jesus’ resurrection that convinced his disciples to revere Jesus in this way (Matt. 28:16-20; John 20:28; Acts 2:32-36).

Use the word EASTER to remind you of these six lines of evidence for the resurrection of the Lord Jesus:

Empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15:4)
Appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-7)
Saul’s conversion (1 Corinthians 15:8)
Transformed lives (1 Corinthians 15:9-19)
Early confession (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
Religious devotion to Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:57-58)

Happy Easter!



Empty tomb:

Evans, Craig A. “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right.” In How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—a Response to Bart Ehrman, gen. ed. Michael F. Bird, 71–93. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. This chapter on the evidence for Jesus’ burial in a rock tomb is worth the price of the whole book.


Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. This academic defense of the Resurrection is especially strong in dealing with the evidence of Jesus’ appearances.

Saul’s conversion:

Fuller, Daniel P. Easter Faith and History. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965. Older but still penetrating analysis of the evidence from the conversion of Saul the Pharisee to Paul the apostle to the Gentiles.

Transformed lives:

McDowell, Sean. The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. New York: Routledge, 2015. A detailed, rigorous historical analysis of the evidence as to the martyrdom of the twelve apostles and Paul.

Early confession:

Craig, William Lane. Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 16. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989. Landmark academic study that begins with 115 pages on 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

Religious devotion:

Bowman, Robert M. Jr., and J. Ed Komoszewski. Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007. See especially the first section, on the honors that the New Testament teaches are to be accorded to Jesus Christ.


Dale Tuggy and the Biblical Basis of the Trinity, Part 2: Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Incoherent?

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 00:36

In Part 1, I responded to Unitarian philosopher Dale Tuggy’s claim in a recent conference address that my biblical argument for the doctrine of the Trinity omitted essential elements of the doctrine. Here I will respond to his objection that my statement of the doctrine is incoherent. In Part VII of my outline study “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” I concluded by reviewing the propositions that constitute the essential elements of the doctrine, including these four:

  1. The Father is God (see Part III).
  2. The Son is God (see Part IV).
  3. The Holy Spirit is God (see Part V).
  4. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons, i.e., they are not each other, nor are they impersonal; they relate to one another personally (see Part VI).

As he has been doing with Trinitarian theology in general for many years, Tuggy finds fault with my argument by complaining about the logical difficulty of affirming that each person “is God” and yet that the persons are distinct from one another. “Things that are identical to the same thing are identical to one another.” With this analytical knife Tuggy thinks he can cut any presentation or defense of Trinitarian belief to ribbons without so much as opening a Bible. His point is that my argument is incoherent because (as he sees it) the affirmations that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God logically contradict the affirmation that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other. To this objection, I have three responses.

First, if there is a logical difficulty here, it arises from the teachings of the Bible, since we find all of these elements of the doctrine of the Trinity taught in Scripture.

Second, there are other apparent instances of logical difficulties or apparent contradictions in other aspects of biblical doctrine that most professing Christians, including very many Unitarians, accept without reservation. For example, many if not most Biblical Unitarians (the biblically conservative movement that sometimes describes itself as such) accept both the omniscience of God and the freedom of God. That is, they believe both that God knows all things and that he acts freely, choosing freely what he will do. Present this claim to a group of skeptics and watch them get out their analytical knives. If God knows what he will do (they will argue) then he cannot do otherwise, i.e., he cannot do anything other than what he knows he will do; but if he cannot do otherwise then he is not free in doing it. Is this a genuine logical contradiction? It looks like one.

Can I resolve this apparent contradiction? Perhaps the argument makes some assumptions about what it means to act freely that do not apply to the transcendent, eternal Creator. There is a lot of potential ambiguity in the words can and cannot as well as the word free. Here’s the thing: Even if I am unsure exactly how to resolve the apparent logical difficulty, I am fully warranted in believing both that God knows all things and that God freely chooses what he does. Moreover, if my proposed explanation for how God can know all things and make free choices is shown to have some difficulties, this does not mean that those two theological concepts are not both true. It would just mean that I don’t fully understand how God can be what he is. Not only would this outcome not bother me, it’s what I would expect to be the case.

Third, in my opinion the apparent logical difficulty that Tuggy finds in the doctrine of the Trinity arises because he is applying analytical concepts of identity to the transcendent, infinite God. The premise of his critique, as I quoted it earlier, is this: “Things that are identical to the same thing are identical to one another.” This premise works fine with finite, discrete objects or “things” that cannot be identical to “the same thing” (i.e., the same finite object) without being identical to each other. A finite object’s “identity” is defined by its boundaries, its limitations—its separateness from other finite things in the matrix of the created world. I am a separate being from you because we occupy different bodies, began our existence separately, have had different locations and movements as well as different experiences (thoughts, feelings) throughout our lives, have differing abilities, opinions, and interests, and so on. What if the three Persons of the Trinity co-exist eternally, are incorporeal and omnipresent, are omniscient, are omnipotent, and are absolutely perfect in wisdom and goodness? Then each knows every thought of the other two; each is present at all times with the other two, not just proximately but interiorly; each has all of the same abilities as the other two; and each is certainly in agreement with the other two regarding all things. If three Persons share this eternal, incorporeal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent nature, then in some way that defies easy analysis (for us!) it would appear that they are ontologically one even though they are also relationally or personally distinct from one another. The rule that things identical to the same thing are identical to one another does not seem to apply to three divine Persons of this nature.

Again, as with the issue of divine omniscience and volition, I do not need to be able to explain perfectly how God can be one God and three Persons in order to be reasonably warranted in believing both are true. If I have reasons to believe that the Bible is a reliable source of doctrinal truth about God (and I do), then I am warranted in believing a state of affairs that I cannot fully analyze rationally if the Bible teaches it. That having been said, in my opinion we can offer at least some reasonable explanation why Tuggy’s rational objection to Trinitarianism falls short of being the decisive disproof he claims.


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Dale Tuggy and the Biblical Basis of the Trinity, Part 1: Are Essential Elements Missing?

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 00:35

First Council of Nicaea (325) – unknown Eastern Orthodox icon

In Part VII of my eight-part series of articles entitled “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” I offer the following concluding argument for the doctrine:

A. All the elements of the doctrine are taught in Scripture.

1. One God who is one divine being (see Part I and Part II).
2. The Father is God (see Part III).
3. The Son is God (see Part IV).
4. The Holy Spirit is God (see Part V).
5. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons, i.e., they are not each other, nor are they impersonal; they relate to one another personally (see Part VI).

B. The New Testament presents a consistent triad of Father, Son, Holy Spirit (God, Christ, Spirit)….
C. Therefore, the Bible does teach the Trinity.

On April 13th, at the 2019 Theological Conference, a Biblical Unitarian meeting in Hampton, Georgia (ironically held at the Calvin Center, owned by the liberal PCUSA), Dale Tuggy devoted part of his lecture, “How Not to Argue from the Bible to the Trinity,” to a critique of the above argument. Unlike the Unitarian-Universalist Association, which has drifted completely away from the Bible and Christianity, the advocates of Biblical Unitarianism generally take a fairly conservative view of the Bible and accept such basic Christian beliefs as the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, in this respect they are more conservative than many pastors and scholars in the PCUSA! Tuggy is a philosopher who blogs on the subject of the Trinity. His critique of the above argument begins just under 17 minutes into the video and ends about ten minutes later. In this post, I will respond to his claim that my argument for the Trinity is unsound. In a second post, I will respond to his claim that my argument is incoherent.

Before he gets to his main criticisms of my argument, Tuggy asserts that I don’t need the second premise, regarding the consistent triad of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament (point B. above). He speculates that I threw it in there because I think only Trinitarianism can explain this premise and that Unitarianism can’t. Tuggy guessed incorrectly here (although I certainly think Trinitarianism explains this information better than Unitarianism). The middle “premise” is needed not because my argument would not work without it but because it anticipates and refutes a possible objection. Specifically, the point about the consistent triadic teaching of the New Testament shows that the doctrine of the Trinity is not cobbling together unrelated elements of biblical teaching. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are coordinated as divine persons in numerous passages throughout the NT in such a way as to confirm that the finding that the NT teaches the deity of each person (established in earlier parts of my outline) is not an accident or a misreading. These three persons—and only these three—are presented to us in the NT as true deity.

Tuggy concedes that my argument is logically valid (minus what he sees as an extraneous premise) but questions whether the argument is sound. His main objection is not that I failed to establish the six elements of the doctrine I stated were essential (note that point A.1. above summarized the first two elements) but that those elements do not mention “a tripersonal god,” or that the three persons “have the same ousia (essence, nature),” or the concepts of eternal generation and eternal procession. For example, he argues that it is a problem that there is no word for the “tripersonal god” in the Bible and that in order to defend the doctrine of the Trinity I needed to justify the use of such a term. In effect, Tuggy is here dictating that the essential elements of the doctrine include more information than the six elements I identified. His argument here fails to engage the basis on which I maintain that these six elements exhaust the category of essential elements of the doctrine. From the six propositions, the doctrine of the Trinity in some form follows. That is, if all six propositions are true, then the doctrine of the Trinity is necessarily true. If any one of the six propositions is false, then the doctrine of the Trinity is necessarily false. Therefore, each of the six propositions is essential, and only these propositions are essential, as elements of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I explain this briefly in the introduction to the article series. Mormons cannot affirm one divine being; Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians cannot affirm that the Son is God; Monarchians cannot affirm that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other. Trinitarians—and only Trinitarians—can affirm all six propositions. Therefore, these six affirmations are sufficient to define Trinitarianism, i.e., to distinguish it from other positions.

It is true that I did not include such concepts as eternal generation and eternal procession. These concepts are explanatory devices advanced in mainstream Trinitarianism to explain (at least somewhat) how the Son and the Holy Spirit are differentiated from the Father in eternity. However, one need not affirm these concepts in order to be Trinitarian. For example, one might maintain that the Second Person is eternally the Logos, who is truly God, and that the title “Son” applies to him by virtue of the Incarnation (as a Messianic title, for example). Some people consider this view heterodox, but the view is still a form of Trinitarianism. It clearly is not a form of Unitarianism, Monarchianism, or other non-Trinitarian theology.

Likewise, the expression ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί (“of the same essence as the Father”) found in the Nicene Creed is a way of expressing the deity of the Son that is very significant in the history of Trinitarian theology but is not itself an essential element of the doctrine of the Trinity per se. It was important in the context of the Creed as a way of distinguishing the mainstream Christian view from Arianism, which viewed the Son as a separate and subordinate deity.

Interestingly, the Nicene Creed does not do what Tuggy claims is surprising that the Bible does not do if the Trinity is true: it does not use a special term for the three persons such as “Trinity” or “tripersonal God” or “triune God.” Tuggy faults my argument for failing to include the use of such a term as one of the essentials of the doctrine of the Trinity, yet the Nicene Creed also fails to include the use of such a term. The longer form of the Nicene Creed produced by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 also neglected to use any such terminology. By Tuggy’s own reasoning, then, the Nicene Creed in both of its forms does not constitute an adequate statement of the doctrine of the Trinity! Nor does the Creed speak of the Holy Spirit’s “eternal procession” from the Father. It says that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” but does not specify that this procession is an eternal relation.

Tuggy’s objection that my argument for the doctrine of the Trinity is missing essential elements of the doctrine thus misses the mark. It takes important expressions used in Trinitarian theology to explicate or articulate the doctrine and mistakenly claims that these expressions in and of themselves are essential elements or propositional claims of the doctrine.


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