Am I a trinitarian or a unitarian? Not if I can help it…

Generative AI summary:

Liam, your concern about studying theology is understandable given the dilemma between traditional trinitarian views and historical readings of the New Testament. This dilemma questions the credibility of Christianity itself. Traditional labels like “Trinitarian” and “Unitarian” are post-biblical constructs that constrain modern understanding. The New Testament presents a dynamic, historical view of Jesus’ role and God’s interaction with humanity, differing from static theological constructs. The Greek Fathers’ rationalization of these biblical narratives created trinitarian orthodoxy, which now seems inadequate. Reinterpreting divine relations in light of historical developments, especially the shift from Christendom to a global-creation paradigm, could offer fresh insights. Thus, your theological studies are timely and necessary for navigating these evolving perspectives.

Read time: 10 minutes

I am writing this in hope of offering some encouragement to Liam, who is planning to go to university in September to study theology but is worried that he may be wasting his time.

Liam is caught on the horns of a classic dilemma and at risk of falling torn and bruised between them. One horn is the traditional trinitarian understanding of the relation of Jesus to the Father; the other is a historical reading of the New Testament that constructs its christology in quite different terms.

What’s at stake is not just a view of Jesus, it’s the credibility of the faith altogether: “If I came to the conclusion the Bible teaches Unitarianism…, I think I’d have to conclude Christianity is false because of this huge error that’s swept through Christianity.”

I’m not going to pretend that I can back up every statement here, or even that I’m in every respect right. It’s an incomplete and not very well organised summary of how I have been thinking about the problem.

I am confident about the interpretation of most of the New Testament material with the exception of John’s Gospel. In any case, the more important question is whether the undeniable discrepancy between theology and historical interpretation must count as evidence for the falsity of “Christianity.” Liam was surprised to read that I am a Christian and even more surprised to learn that I deny being a Unitarian. Well, I surprise myself sometimes. But this is as much about the why and how of belief as about the what.

So let’s give it a go…

1. “Trinitarian” and “Unitarian” are not biblical categories. They both presuppose post-biblical contexts of theological development and debate. I don’t want to be labelled a “Unitarian” anymore than a “Trinitarian”—or in relation to another debate, a “Preterist”—because the terminology and associated mindsets keep us stuck in the past, forever reworking tired and outdated controversies.

2. There is no “incarnation” in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus is identified with Israel and with suffering Israel in particular, not with YHWH. His conception by the Holy Spirit was a sign that something big was happening on the stage of Israel’s history. He performs miracles because he has been given the authority to do so.

3. John tells us that the creative word or wisdom of God became flesh at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, when things really got moving. This must be understood in dynamic, not ontological terms, but we can see how it facilitated the development of a classical christology.

4. John seems at times to be mining some rather esoteric Jewish-apocalyptic seams in order to shape a divergent christology in response to fierce mainstream Jewish opposition. I doubt he foresaw trinitarian orthodoxy, but he came up with a perspective on Jesus that proved highly suggestive for the Greek Fathers, whether or not they actually understood him correctly. You have to wonder how Christian theology would have developed—if at all—without John’s Gospel to begin to shift the focus from the relation of Jesus to the future to the relation of Jesus to the Father.

5. I do not think that Paul believed in the heavenly pre-existence of Jesus, but I do think he held the view, with others, that the wisdom of God found unique eschatological traction, under the extreme historical conditions of first century Judaism, in the paradoxical career of Jesus.

6. If Old Testament YHWH language, etc., is applied to Jesus, it is not because he is identified with YHWH. The biblical God, known to Israel as YHWH, operates in two spheres—the creational and the political. He entirely reserves the right to act in the creational sphere for himself, but he may choose to delegate the authority to judge and rule in the political sphere to Israel’s king, who is the Son of God. The central confession of the New Testament is that God has raised Jesus from the dead, seated him at his right hand in accordance with royal ideology, and has given him an unparalleled and unrivalled authority to rule over his people and over the surrounding nations throughout the coming ages.

7. That the early believers did obeisance to and prayed to the heavenly Jesus does not mean that he was understood to be God. The early apostles had a lively and realistic sense of the presence of the recently crucified Lord in heaven, worthy of the sort of “worship” that would be accorded to any divine ruler, accessible to those who called on his name.

8. There are indications in the New Testament that the very early churches occasionally reached for divine categories in order to situate Jesus among—or above—divine rulers in the ancient world. This may be the case with Thomas’ declaration, “My lord and my god” (Jn. 20:28) and the attribution of a royal psalm to Jesus in which the Davidic king is acclaimed as “god” (Heb. 1:8). I would recommend Michael Bird’s Jesus Among the Gods: Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World in this connection, though we don’t see eye to eye on everything.

9. I do not think that Jesus is anywhere named as “God” in the New Testament.

10. New Testament christology is thoroughly apocalyptic, oriented towards certain critical future events—principally, the vindication of Jesus following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the confession of Jesus as Lord by the formerly pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world, his extended rule over those nations, and the final reversion of his delegated authority to the Father when kingdom has become superfluous (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

11. The inclusion of the Spirit is less problematic because “it” is always the Spirit of God. Still, the technical language of trinitarianism adds nothing of value to the overwhelmingly experiential account of the movement of the “breath of God” in the Bible.

12. The New Testament doctrine of the lordship of Jesus at the right hand of the Father is a dynamic belief that engages directly with historical experience. Trinitarianism is not and does not. Traditional theology is synchronic and analytical, the Bible is diachronic and historical—if that distinction makes sense to anyone. Today, we are having to deal with time, change, and history, and theology is ill-suited for the task.

13. The Jewish-Christian narrative lost its explanatory and motivating power rather quickly as the churches settled in the Greek world. The problem of eschatology with which the Jewish-Christian movement wrestled became a problem of rationalist metaphysics as the Greek Fathers went about the business of constructing a plausible hybrid biblical-philosophical worldview. Trinitarian orthodoxy was the best that they could come up with.

14. Trinitarianism is a simple or reductionist account of the relations between Father, Son, and Spirit, designed to transcend the contingencies and vicissitudes of history. Trinitarian relations are eternal, disrupted only by an intervention at an arbitrary moment in time to redeem humanity. Social trinitarianism is no better.

15. Scripture, on the other hand, presents us with a deeply engaged, responsive, dynamic, and narrative model of inner divine relations, best represented perhaps by the busy, dramatic throne scene in Revelation 4-5. Two points to make here. First, this is not a final event, it depicts a climactic but also pivotal moment in the history of YHWH and his people—the inauguration of judgment, first against Jerusalem, then against pagan Rome. Secondly, the Lamb is present only as the one who was slain and who has therefore earned the right to open the seals which will release the conditions for judgment.

16. The Greek Fathers could do nothing useful with this historical-apocalyptic paradigm, so the “Godhead” got rationalised—fair enough. But does the rationalisation still work for us? A lot of intellectual water has passed under the bridge since then. I’m not going to try and plot the shifts in thought here, but I take the view that history has brought us to a point where the Greek solution no longer does what it was originally designed to do.

17. This is an oversimplification, but here’s roughly how I see the development of the story of the people of God.

  • Israel existed in the land as a priestly people for the creator God in the midst of the nations. The exile demonstrated the inherent weakness and instability of the arrangement but also exposed the potential for transformation to come about through failure and suffering.
  • Through Jesus, YHWH resolved the crisis faced by first century Israel in the land and then went a step further by annexing the nations of the Greek-Roman world. This was marked by the acclamation of an improbable Jewish “messiah” as Lord and King, by which the living God worshipped by the Jews was glorified. The church became a new priestly “caste” for the empire, replacing the old pagan priesthoods. Orthodox theology provided the intellectual frame for a comprehensive new “Christian” worldview.
  • This kingdom or rule over the formerly hostile oikoumenē or “empire” took the historical form of European Christendom and lasted for fifteen hundred years, or so. It began to disintegrate in the eighteenth century, leaving a legacy of global Christianity. It has been progressively replaced by a rational humanism, and the relic of the Christendom church in the West is having to work hard to re-imagine its place in the world.
  • A new account of inner divine relations will depend, first, on the recovery of a robust sense of God as creator of the universe as we know it and of his interest in this planet at the dawn of the Anthropocene; and secondly, on the retelling of the story of the troubled relationship between God and his priestly people throughout history. Get those right and the inner relations may sort themselves out quite easily.
  • I wonder, for example, speculating idly, whether the public dethronement of Jesus with the end of Christendom could be construed positively as a sign of the eventual handing back of the kingdom to the Father, inasmuch as we are shifting from a nationalist-kingdom paradigm to a global-creation paradigm. Hmm….

18. Classical trinitarianism was a constructive accommodation of the apocalyptic narrative that undergirds the New Testament to the monotheisms of the Greek world. I do not regard it as a mistake but as a necessary historical development, and to the extent that we are still working through this, I might describe myself as a residual trinitarian. I have no reason to disown the tradition because it is our history. Perhaps “post-classical-trinitarian-wondering-what-comes-next” works better, I don’t know.

19. We are alerted to the fact, however, that the need to rationalise and accommodate has not gone away. We may feel alienated from the worldview and intellectual presuppositions of the patristic period, but it’s also not an option to reinstate the apocalyptic worldview of the early Jewish-Christian movement, with its core hope of overthrowing the dominant pagan culture.

20. The ascension-exaltation of Jesus, which is arguably the central tenet of New Testament teaching, places him in intimate proximity to the Father in heaven and makes him an agent of divine purpose (in certain respects—see #5 above) for the rest of time. How do we make sense of that in the epochal crisis that we are going through, as the intellectual ground shifts violently beneath our feet? To my way of thinking, we are in urgent need of a general “theology” that reconnects with history. Neither trinitarianism nor unitarianism, in their historic forms, has the capacity to do that. Preterism is not interested in history beyond the first century. The biblical narrative certainly models the dynamic engagement of the living God with his people over time, interpreted by the prophets, but it did not see the modern era coming; it does not tell our story for us.

So, Liam, I would say that this is a very good time for a believer to be studying theology. Just keep in mind that old things are passing away and new things are emerging.

What you have offered has always been a compelling storyline, both with Scripture and throughout history. Here are a few thoughts:

1) You didn’t commit to the idea of the dethronement of Jesus, but that can kind of sound like Jesus was defeated.

2) You stated: “but it’s also not an option to reinstate the apocalyptic worldview of the early Jewish-Christian movement, with its core hope of overthrowing the dominant pagan culture.” Perhaps we aren’t overthrowing a “pagan culture,” but we may at some point in the future overthrow the philosophies of the age will be superseded by the new creation and its honoring of YHWH.

3) Teaching the narrative-historical method to the average Christian and community is going to be a tough one, as I’m sure you know.


1. Well, in the public sphere he has been defeated, hasn’t he? The exalted, regnant Christ is no longer confessed as Lord by the nations of Europe and their colonies. We have other supreme values. But he is still seated at the right hand God for the sake of his body, which is the church—to govern us and ensure our security. In that respect “dethroned” is the wrong term, but it may helpfully signal a shift in the public aspect—in the claims that we make abut him—from kingdom-political to global-creational.

2. Quite possibly, but let’s not get too excited. It took more than 800 years for Isaiah’s vision of the salvation of the pagan nations (every knee shall bow, every tongue confess) to be fulfilled—300 years from the writing of Philippians.

3. I don’t think that the average church needs to be taught the narrative-historical method, it just needs to be told the whole story. Also, the average church is not what it used to be. Just trying to look on the bright side!

JT ( John Tancock) | Tue, 05/21/2024 - 23:38 | Permalink

Oh dear been here before Andrew.   I note your mistranslation of John 20v28 ‘god ‘.  The gk not only has the article but Lord and God ( yhwh and Elohim or kurios and Theos .   Thomas said the Lord of me and God of me.        

@JT ( John Tancock):

But uppercasing letters is just a choice afforded by the English alphabet, and has no bearing on the Greek. In these cases it’s a theological decision to do so, and I think such commitments are of no use here. And it’s not merely the use of the definite article here, it is used in the possessive (the Lord and God of ME). Not the same as ο Θεός. 

It’s still not clear to me why you “deny being a Unitarian.” Doesn’t Unitarian simply mean one who doesn’t believe Yahweh exists as a godhead (father, son, and holy spirit). If you don’t believe the divine spirit we call Yahweh has always existed as 3 persons, wouldn’t your view align with Unitarianism (or binitarianism)?


It’s partly to avoid being constrained by the long established debate that is inevitably invoked by the terminology. But also, we do have to reckon as Christians with a complex “godhead” that includes Father, Son, and Spirit, inasmuch as a significant part of divine action has been delegated to the exalted Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father.

Biblically, this is presented as a heavenly court, at its most elaborate in Revelation 4-5: YHWH Elohim enthroned, surrounded by elders and living creatures, and before the throne the “seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God,” and the Lamb. That is not the trinity in the classical sense, determined ontologically; but “unitarian” would also be reductive, I think: on the one hand, it loses the narrative dynamics—divine action is about to take place; on the other, it obscures the engagement of the early church with God as three centres of agency or experience.

We should at least ask what it would mean today to recover something of that dynamic narrative complexity.

@Andrew Perriman:

What do you think of the late John Meier’s work on the historical Jesus? I find it quite convincing which is why I think later books, like the Gospel of John, tell us more about the writer and their circumstances than they do about Jesus.

Similarly, I think Revelation, with it’s esoteric writing style, should be treated as an interesting outlier, so I don’t place a lot of stock in the unusual narrative elements such as the 7 spirits of God, the 1000 years between resurrections, etc. (I know that historically it was treated by many Christians as an outlier.)  

Finally, to address your point about “narrative dynamics”: I think trinitarian theology only muddies the water when discussing centers of agency. By that I mean it minimizes the significance of the human Jesus being exalted and given a name above all names as one center of agency, and it splits the second center of agency into two by defining God’s activity in the world as a separate person rather than a necessary attribute of God.


I can’t comment on Meier’s work off the top of my head, though I agree that John is doing something other than reporting what happened in the course of Jesus’ public ministry.

Yes, Revelation is an outlier, but I find its content remarkably consistent with the overall narrative of the New Testament, just rhetorically enhanced. I actually think it is quite a useful book. Even the throne vision is only a more elaborate version a divine council/tribunal motif running through much of scripture. My point is mainly that it much better captures the engagement of God with history than the trinitarian model for divine complexity.

I largely agree with your third paragraph.

@Andrew Perriman:

Are you familiar with Daniel McClellan? I just came across his website and thought this article—Cognitive Perspectives on Early Christology—was very good. It meshes the idea of the divine name (Co-regency in Ancient Israel’s Divine Council as the Conceptual Backdrop to Ancient Jewish Binitarian Monotheism) with the Dan. 7 “Son of man” Gospel referents and posits this as the precursor to the divine identity model.


McClellan’s general point about the “communicability of agency” makes sense to me on first reading, but I’m not sure about the focus on “name.” I’m not convinced that the name bestowed on Jesus in Philippians 2:9 is God’s name, and it is kyrios that most widely identifies the political agency transferred to Jesus. It is not as the Name of YHWH but as his appointed judge and ruler that Jesus is an agent of eschatological change.

@Andrew Perriman:

I see I threw out a few conjectures after your What was the name which is above every name? post, but now I’m wondering if it makes more sense to understand that passage in Philippians 2 to be saying God exalted Jesus and bestowed on him the name above every name so when people hear the name Jesus (i.e. whenever they hear of Jesus of Nazareth) they will worship him becomes he bears the name “Lord” (i.e. Yahweh).

It seems to me “name that is above every name” has to be “Lord,” used as synonymous with “Yahweh,” because no one would ever say the name “Jesus” is above the name “Yahweh.”

Also it appears the name that is above every name was bestowed on Jesus when he was exalted, not prior to his birth.

Lastly, I don’t think the phrase “in the name of Jesus” is the same as what we see in Name Theology where the name is in or on a person or object. Rather, the phrase “in the name of Jesus” seems to simply mean “in/by the authority of Jesus.”


It seems to me very unlikely that Gentile believers in Philippi would have heard the title “Lord” and thought of the nameYHWH.” If the connection were made somewhere explicit in the New Testament, we could go with it. But it just seems implausible that the apostles would argue at length that the risen Jesus is Lord, Christ, Son of God, priest after the order of Melchizedek and merely imply or leave readers to infer that he now bears the name YHWH—even if this is some sort of second YHWH.

If the name above every name is Jesus, the point would be that the name which he had as a first century Jew, executed by the Romans, etc., is now being recognised—by the gracious doing or favour (echarisato) of God—by the Gentiles as a name above all other names. It is a reference to the dramatic transformation of the reputation or status of Jesus in the ancient world.

I’m not sure that works grammatically, but another option would be that the name is “Jesus Christ” or “Lord Jesus Christ,” which combines the name and a component (Lord, Christ) that has been given.

@Andrew Perriman:

Jews certainly associated the title “Lord” (Adonai/Kyrios) with Yahweh since they believed their god’s name was too sacred to say, and because this practice had been going on for centuries, I’d be surprised if Gentiles weren’t familiar with this Jewish custom.

I think this post makes a good argument for viewing the title “Lord” as a way of recognizing Jesus’ highly-exalted status post-Easter: What does it mean that Jesus is Lord?


So this is where the Got Questions argument begins:

However, after the resurrection, the title “Lord,” as applied to Jesus, became much more than a title of honor or respect. Saying, “Jesus is Lord,” became a way of declaring Jesus’ deity. It began with Thomas’ exclamation when Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection: “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:28). From then on, the apostles’ message was that Jesus is Lord, meaning “Jesus is God.” Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost contained that theme: “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).

Why start with Thomas’ “My Lord and my God,” which has to be regarded as a later development? Why not start with Jesus?

And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ (Mark 12:35-36)

Psalm 110:1, which he quotes, differentiates between the Lord who is YHWH and the Lord who is ʾadon. Jesus identifies himself with the Lord who is ʾadon.

This has a much better claim for being seminal for christology, and Peter refers to it on the day of Pentecost. Peter likewise identifies Jesus with the ʾadon who is told by YHWH to sit at his right hand:

For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:34-36)

Whatever is going on by the time we get to John, we have here a much more plausible definition of the nature and scope of Jesus’ lordship, and it certainly does not entail an identification with YHWH.

@Andrew Perriman:

I agree that the references to David’s lord (and perhaps the lord of the sabbath references) appear to foreshadow the change we see after the resurrection regarding Jesus’ new status, which I realize is not as Yahweh. My contention is just that after the resurrection, Jesus’ followers are no longer using the definition of lord commonly used for highly respected humans. Instead, when the say “lord Jesus,” they are identifying Jesus as a deity. 

John certainly pushes the issue more than the other Gospels, but like you said, it’s a later development.

*I’m sure the folks at Got Questions are good trinitarians, but the post pretty much says what I believe, although I prefer to say Jesus was made a god/deity.