There is a small number of texts in the New Testament that have been taken as evidence that in the earliest period Jesus was directly called “God”. John Tancock lists John 1:1; 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1. I’ve discussed the two John passages and Romans 9:5 in other posts, though they go back a few years, and I can’t say for certain that I still agree with myself:
- The Word became flesh: John and the historical Jesus
- “My Lord and my God”
- Does Paul say that Jesus is God in Romans 9:5?
Here I want to look at the Titus passage:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11–14 ESV)
So that people don’t jump to the wrong conclusion, let me say that my intention here and in similar posts is not to contradict Trinitarian orthodoxy. It is, in the first place, to clarify and defend the core apocalyptic narrative about the kingdom of God; and secondly, it is to appeal to the theologically minded to rethink Trinitarianism in a way that does not require the suppression or distortion of the narrative-historical shape of New Testament thought.
We’ll start with the context. I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Paul wrote the three Pastoral Epistles.
Paul urges Titus to “teach what accords with sound instruction”—I don’t like the ESV’s “doctrine” (Tit. 2:1). We then have practical exhortations aimed at various groups of believers, concluding with a statement of Paul’s overarching purpose: “so that in everything they may adorn the instruction of God our Saviour” (Tit. 2:10). Notice that phrase “God our Saviour”.
He goes on to explain what he means by “sound instruction”. The grace of God has appeared (epephanē), training people to renounce ungodliness, etc. (2:11-12)—that is, to do the things that older men and women, younger men and women, and servants were exhorted to do in the preceding paragraph. These things are to be done “in the present age” while they wait for their “blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of…”.
So in the period between the original appearing (epiphaneia) of grace (cf. 2 Tim. 9-10) and the eventual appearing (epiphaneia) of the glory of God certain standards of behaviour are required of the churches. This is the eschatological argument of the New Testament in a nutshell. It explains how YHWH conquered the empire.
In Titus 2:13 the “glory” that will appear is further said to be that of “the great God and Saviour of us Jesus Christ” (tēs doxēs tou megalou theou kai sōtēros hēmōn Iēsou Christou). The translation is awkward but it represents the syntax of the Greek text.
There are three main ways in which this long phrase can be read.
1. Jesus is God and Saviour Because there is no definite article (“the”) before “Saviour”, it is argued that “God and Saviour” refers to a single person, who is then identified with “Jesus Christ”: the great God and Saviour of us (who is) Jesus Christ.
A similar argument—-and similar counter-arguments—can be made in the case of 2 Peter 1:1: “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1).
2. God is God, Jesus is Saviour It could be argued that the absence of the article before Saviour is not significant because “Saviour” is treated as a proper noun—a name or title.
In this case, God and Jesus remain two distinct persons; the glory of God appears, and the glory of Jesus Christ appears. Quinn notes that this sense ‘would be certain if “savior” had the Greek definite article; it remains possible because popular Greek at this time did not demand the repetition of the article to distinguish between paired substantives’.1
3. Jesus is the glory of God A third option is to suppose that “Jesus Christ” is in apposition not to “great God and Saviour” but to “glory”: they are waiting for the revealing (epiphaneian) of the glory of our great God and Saviour, and that glory is, or is found in, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the glory of their God and Saviour and they are waiting for him (and therefore it) to be revealed.
Towner, in my view, makes a good case for this reading, concluding:
the reference to “the epiphany of the glory of the great God” in Titus 2:13 could well be the equivalent way of describing the personal “epiphany of Jesus Christ” (= the glory of God). That is, it is possible that “glory” (or actually the whole of “the glory of the great God and Savior”) and Jesus Christ are in apposition.2
It is backed by several further considerations.
1. God has already been identified as “Saviour” in verse 10, as I highlighted, in the phrase “the doctrine of God our Saviour” without reference to Jesus. This makes an alternative version of the third option less likely: “the revealing of the glory of God, which is our Saviour Jesus Christ”. Also Quinn notes that “in secular and Jewish Greek theos kai sōtēr is a formulaic bound phrase that applies to one divine person; it was never parceled out between two”.3
2. Jesus’ future appearing as the glory of God corresponds to his past appearing as a demonstration of the “grace of God” (Tit. 2:11). Towner comments: “In the letters to Timothy this language is reserved for reflections on the parousia (1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1, 8) or incarnation (2 Tim 1:10) of Christ.”4 Setting aside Towner’s use of the theologically loaded term “incarnation”, in both cases something about God is revealed in Jesus.
3. The relative clause in verse 14 (“who gave himself for us to redeem us…”) now properly applies to Jesus alone and not to Jesus as God. It is never said in the New Testament that God “gave himself” (edōken heauton) to redeem a people. When Paul says that Jesus “gave himself (ho dous heauton) as a ransom for all” in 1 Timothy 2:6, it is clearly not as God but as the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”. This must weigh heavily against thinking that Paul identifies Jesus as God in Titus 2:13.
4. Elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles it is not God but Jesus who willappear at the parousia, with a clear distinction between the two persons. Paul charges Timothy “in the presence of God” to keep the commandment unstained “until the appearing (epiphaneias) of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:13-14). Likewise, in 2 Timothy 4:1 he charges Timothy in the presence of both God and Jesus as two distinct persons, but it is Jesus who will “judge the living and the dead, by his appearing (epiphaneian) and his kingdom”. It is a major strength of the third option that it keeps the verse firmly in line with the dominant apocalyptic expectation.
Towner concludes his excellent discussion of the verse by allowing that the possibility that Paul is calling Jesus theos cannot be entirely ruled out. But he thinks that:
the weight of the grammatical, syntactical and lexical evidence tips the scales in the other direction. Jesus Christ is equated not with God but rather with “the glory of the great God and Savior.” And the eschatological epiphany, “the blessed hope,” is thus depicted here as the personal appearance of Jesus Christ who is the embodiment and full expression of God’s glory. 5