If the preceding three books are supportive of a high Christology, the next three are sharply critical of it. Two of the three books (the ones by Dunn and McGrath) take issue with “early high Christology” (EHC) as advanced by Bauckham and Hurtado, taking instead a more Unitarian approach to the New Testament without being explicitly anti-Trinitarian. The other (by Buzzard and Hunting) does not interact with EHC scholarship, but nevertheless makes a direct assault on the preexistence and deity of Christ from an explicitly anti-Trinitarian standpoint.
Anthony Buzzard and his followers are part of a movement that they call “biblical Unitarianism” or “Christian monotheism.” They use this term to distinguish themselves from Universalist Unitarians who have little regard for the authority of Scripture and who have moved way beyond liberal Christianity to embrace a vague post-Christian spirituality. “Biblical Unitarians” still want to maintain that Jesus is God’s Messiah and that the Scriptures are authoritative for followers of Jesus. However, they are staunchly anti-Trinitarian in their theology. They trace their roots to the 17th century Polish Anabaptists, to Faustus Socinus, the Racovian Catechism, and to early English Unitarians such as John Biddle.
Here are a few of the main websites where this viewpoint is promoted:
Buzzard and Hunting’s book has a spicy title, calling the doctrine of the Trinity “Christianity’s self-inflicted wound.” In this volume, they argue that the primitive Christian message was rooted in “Hebrew thought” and that the first Christians believed that Jesus was a merely human Messiah. The later belief in his preexistence and deity was the product of the church’s unfortunate infection with Greek philosophy beginning with Justin Martyr and culminating in the Nicene Creed (as Harnack argued). The authors call upon the church to abandon this long-standing theological mistake and to return to the original creed of Christianity, which is the creed of Jesus himself, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29 quoting the Shema). They appeal to John 17:3, where Jesus distinguishes himself from the one true God: “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Essentially, the authors charge Trinitarians with being polytheists at the end of the day.
The weaknesses of the book are many. The authors have fallen into the simplistic dichotomy between “Hebrew thought” and “Greek thought” that James Barr and Martin Hengel showed the inadequacy of. Related to this, Buzzard and Hunting rely heavily on the discredited Harnack thesis. Their attempts to explain away the numerous passages in John’s Gospel and in Paul (esp. Phil 2:5-7) that affirm the preexistence of Christ are exceedingly weak. I could go on. The main thing is to be aware that this “biblical Unitarian” movement is gaining ground and to reflect on how to respond winsomely and exegetically. It seems to be gaining credibility in certain quarters of the “Jewish roots” movements as well. For example, see this video where a non-Trinitarian named Joseph Good teamed up with Buzzard. Some who call themselves “Messianic Jews” are attracted to biblical Unitarianism because it seems to comport better with Judaism. They are convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is a Gentile “Hellenistic” distortion of primitive Christianity which was thoroughly “Hebraic.”
If Buzzard and Hunting are strongly anti-Trinitarian, James McGrath takes a more scholarly, detached, and historical approach. His thesis is that early Christianity was monotheistic (read Unitarian) and that even the passages in the New Testament that seem to move in the direction of a high Christology can be read in a manner that is consistent with monotheism (read Unitarianism, i.e., with Jesus not included within the identity or being of God). McGrath argues that our modern conception of monotheism must not be read back into first century Judaism, which was characterized by a much more flexible monotheism, allowing for all sorts of intermediate figures (whether personified divine attributes, angels, or human beings) to be spoken of as “divine” or as “agents of God” in such a way that they were granted divine honors, titles, and even worship – all without compromising monotheism. He appeals to the rabbinic principle of agency that “The one sent is like the one who sent him” (Mekilta Exodus 12:3, 6; m. Ber. 5:5). This means that such created beings, when granted the authority to function as an agent of God, can be said to carry out divine functions, to sit on God’s throne, and to be depicted in language that we would normally associate with God alone (e.g., the term “God”). All of this is documented from early Jewish writings. McGrath’s point is that this principle of agency must be applied to Jesus. It explains why he is granted the power to perform divine functions, to sit on God’s throne, to be called “God,” and to receive worship. All of this is permissible within the more flexible understanding of monotheism of first century Judaism, and therefore none of the New Testament passages that describe Jesus in these exalted terms proves that he is ontologically divine in the sense of falling on the Creator side of the Creator-creature distinction.
McGrath’s work is one of the strongest responses to the EHC of Bauckham and Hurtado and must be answered. I think it can be answered. I have tried to do so in the three-views book I mentioned earlier in which I interact with two non-Trinitarian scholars who are influenced by this “agency” argument, one following the Socinian tradition represented by Buzzard and the other following a neo-Arian position.
McGrath and Dunn hold similar but not identical views. Dunn was McGrath’s doctoral supervisor at the University of Durham. Ever since his Christology in the Making (1980), Dunn has long been famous for his denial of preexistence Christology in Paul, admitting it only in the most advanced portions of the NT (e.g., John’s prologue). Here in this book he continues to move further away from orthodox Christology to a view that is virtually indistinguishable from Unitarianism. Like McGrath, Dunn’s book is written in response to the EHC of Bauckham, but especially of Hurtado, who makes the worship of Jesus his central argument. Like McGrath, he advocates the “agency” argument to explain how Jesus could represent God and be called “God” in a “transferred sense” (p. 136) without infringing on monotheism. Even when Jesus was the object of reverence “he was not to be worshipped as wholly God, or fully identified with God,” but was rather regarded as “the means and the way by which God has come most effectively to humankind” (p. 146).
For Dunn, Jesus is not ontologically divine; he merely embodies God’s imminence: “He was as full an expression of God’s creative and redemptive concern and action as was possible in flesh” (p. 143). I can only say in response: That’s certainly not how the New Testament speaks of Jesus! Paul says that in him “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). The author of Hebrews says that he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). I can’t imagine the apostles saying that Jesus is “the clearest self-revelation of the one God ever given to humankind” (p. 129) and that “there was much more to God than could be seen in and through Jesus” (p. 145). I’ll conclude by linking to a review by his student McGrath.