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Jesus was not a TrinitarianJesus Was

Not a

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by Anthony Buzzard

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Professor Wendt on John 8:58 and 17:5

(Excerpt from Anthony Buzzard’s Book: Jesus was not a Trinitarian)

Hans WendtHans Wendt, D.D., was Professor of Theology at the University of Jena when he wrote The System of Christian Teaching (1907). He argued that the Jesus of John’s Gospel did not preexist literally as the Son of God. Texts which might show otherwise can be explained by the Jewish concept that everything of importance in God’s Plan “exists” in His mind. Professor Wendt wrote of John 8:58 (“Before Abraham was, I am he”) and John 17:5 (“Glorify me with the glory which I had before the world was”).

 

There has been a steady protest against reading John in opposition to the other gospels and making him produce an essentially non-human Jesus. It is a false method which promotes one only of the four Gospels in support of a Jesus unknown to the synoptics or the preparation for the Messiah in the promises of the Hebrew Bible. What John has not done is to alter the unitarian creed of Jesus. John 17:3 is quite clear on this point. John 8:58 and 17:5 must be read in the light of John 17:3 and the rest of the Bible. Professor Wendt was writing in the late 1800s:

It is clear that John 8:58 and 17:5 do not speak of a real preexistence of Christ. We must not treat these verses in isolation, but understand them in their context. The saying in John 8:58, “Before Abraham came to be, I am” was prompted by the fact that Jesus’ opponents had countered his remark in verse 51 by saying that Jesus was not greater than Abraham or the prophets (v. 53). As the Messiah commissioned by God Jesus is conscious of being in fact superior to Abraham and the prophets. For this reason he replies (according to the intervening words, v. 54ff) that Abraham had “seen his day,” i.e. the entrance of Jesus on his historical ministry, and “had rejoiced to see” that day. And Jesus strengthens his argument by adding the statement, which sounded strange to the Jews, that he had even been “before Abraham” (v. 58).

This last saying must be understood in connection with verse 56. Jesus speaks in verses 55, 56 and 58 as if his present ministry on earth stretches back to the time of Abraham and even before. His sayings were perceived by the Jews in this sense and rejected as nonsense. But Jesus obviously did not (in v. 56) mean that Abraham had actually experienced Jesus’ appearance on earth and seen it literally. Jesus was referring to Abraham’s spiritual vision of his appearance on earth, by which Abraham, at the birth of Isaac, had foreseen at the same time the promised Messiah, and had rejoiced at the future prospect of the greater one (the Messiah) who would be Israel’s descendant. Jesus’ reference to his existence before Abraham’s birth must be understood in the same sense. There is no sudden heavenly preexistence of the Messiah here: the reference is again obviously to his earthly existence. And this earthly existence is precisely the existence of the Messiah. As such, it was not only present in Abraham’s mind, but even before his time, as the subject of God’s foreordination and foresight. The sort of preexistence Jesus has in mind is “ideal” [in the world of ideas and plans]. In accordance with this consciousness of being the Messiah preordained from the beginning, Jesus can indeed make the claim to be greater than Abraham and the prophets (John 8:58).

In John 17:5 Wendt caught the Hebrew flavor of Jesus’ and John’s words:

Jesus asks the Father to give him now the heavenly glory which he had with the Father before the world was. The conclusion that because Jesus possessed a preexistent glory in heaven he must also have preexisted personally in heaven is taken too hastily. This is proven by Matthew 6:20  (“Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven”), 25:34  (“Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”), Colossians 1:5  (“the hope which is laid up for you in heaven about which you heard in the word of Truth, the Gospel”), and 1 Peter 1:4  (“an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, which does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you”). Thus a reward can also be thought of as preexistent in heaven. Such a reward is destined for human beings and already held in store, to be awarded to them at the end of their life. So it is with heavenly glory which Jesus requests. He is not asking for a return[1] to an earlier heavenly condition. Rather he asks God to give him now, at the end of his work as Messiah on earth (v. 4 ), the heavenly reward which God had appointed from eternity for him, as Messiah. As the Messiah and Son he knows he has been loved and foreordained by the Father from eternity (v. 24 ). Both John 8:58 and 17:5 are concerned with God’s predetermination of the Messiah.[2]

The claim of Jesus is in all four of the gospels to be the Messiah of Israel and this claim is fully endorsed in John’s specific purpose statement that his gospel is designed to bring about belief in Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God (20:31), certainly not in a second one who is God in an expanded Shema. The Messianic claim “I am he,” “I am the one” runs like a golden thread throughout the narrative of John’s gospel. Its basis is laid in the conversation with the woman at the well. “‘I know that the Messiah is coming’...‘I who speak to you am he’” (“I am he, namely the one speaking to you,” 4:25, 26).
As Messiah, Jesus is the one we must not fail to believe in, lest we die in our sins (8:24), and in 8:56, the Messiahship of Jesus was foreseen by Abraham who looked forward to Jesus’ day. Indeed even before Abraham was born, “I am he” (8:58).[3] The Greek here is identical with the phrase in 4:26 and 8:24 and is parallel to Jesus’ grand statements, “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6). He is the only way to the Father (14:6).

Excerpted from: Anthony Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, Restoration Fellowship, 2007, 289-291.


[1]Did Jesus ever say he was going to return to the Father? Or did he just say he was going to the Father? There is a big difference between going and returning! John 13:3, 16:28 and 20:17 should be carefully examined in the King James or RSV as well as in the NIV. You will find a startling difference of translation. Which is correct? You can look in a Greek-English interlinear or check the meaning of the words in Strong’s. It is very illuminating. But remember that this is a rare case of poor translation in the NIV, to push an idea which is not there!

[2]H.H. Wendt, System der Christlichen Lehre, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1906, Part 2, 348, 349, translation mine. Cf. Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, 2:151-182.

[3]The Greek “I am he” is not the same as the declaration of God’s name in Exodus 3:14, where God says “I am the one who exists” (ego eimi ‘o ohn). This title is referred to the Father, never to the Son. It designates the Father not the Son in Rev. 1:8 (‘o ohn).

 

 

 





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