Some Thoughts on this Debate between Tovia Singer and William Lane Craig

In high school I bought a case of cassettes of Rabbi Tovia Singer, who leads Outreach Judaism, a Jewish “counter-missionary” organization. On the cassettes, Singer gives lectures arguing that Jesus cannot be the Messiah, criticizing the New Testament, and responding to Christian interpretations of Old Testament “messianic” texts such as Psalm 110, Isaiah 9, Isaiah 53, Daniel 9, etc. I learned a lot from listening to the lectures and thinking about how to respond. Singer is a very articulate advocate of the Orthodox Jewish viewpoint, although there are times I have to exercise great patience in response to what strikes me as a caricaturing of certain Christian views, and at other times as a smugness of tone. (But of course, Christians can be smug, too!)

Sometimes when I am listening to a pastor or theologian being interviewed, I like to pause the interview after each question and think through how I’d answer each question. Its a humbling exercise which reminds me of how challenging doing effective Q and A is. But it also helps me grow in my knowledge, ability to think on my feet, and communication skills. This debate between Singer and William Lane Craig is fascinating. I like it more than the similar Larry King debate because there is less interrupting in this one, although its great to watch David Brickner and Al Mohler in that one. As I listened to this one, I thought of how I would respond to the Rabbi’s points. I thought William Lane Craig did fine on his own, but after thinking about this all day yesterday, here is the response I would give to one of Singer’s major points, made several times throughout this interview.

Singer says:

“Why don’t we have any clear text anywhere in the Hebrew Bible that gives us the Nicene Creed, the very clear statement of a Triune doctrine? Its found nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. Our salvation depends on worshiping God in truth.” [from 2:45-3:00] And later: [Craig’s position] means that for 2,000 years, the Jews (you concede) knew nothing about a Trinity, God warned the Jews throughout all these centuries, “worship me in truth,” you admit that they would have no knowledge of what that truth is … how was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David saved, without the Trinity?” [from 4:00-4:40]

My response:

First of all, the Nicene Creed was formulated in response to the witness of Christ and the New Testament. To expect that degree of clarity in Trinitarian understanding in the Hebrew Bible flattens the progressive, incremental nature of biblical revelation, which all Jews and Christians must acknowledge. That is like expecting Abraham to have a full knowledge of the Torah (law). God does not dump the knowledge of Himself wholesale onto humanity at one point in history, but reveals his nature and work incrementally throughout the course of history. One might as well ask, “how was Abraham saved, when he didn’t have the Torah?” Or: “how was Moses saved, when he didn’t know about the Davidic covenant?” Or: “how was David saved, when he didn’t know what the post-exilic prophets knew?” As Craig points out, people are saved as they respond to what is revealed to them at that time in history.

Furthermore, the Trinity is not a contradiction of prior revelation about God’s nature, as Singer portrays it, but a clarification and expansion and elucidation of what came before. The Trinitarian can happily affirm the unity of God, as taught in passages such as Deuteronomy 6:4. The word echad (one) does not entail strict unity – it is used, for example, to describe how a man and woman become “one flesh” in marriage (Genesis 2:23). The tri-personal nature of the Christian God does not contradict his unity any more than a married couple cannot be “one flesh” while remaining two distinct people. Since Christian theology is so unswervingly monotheistic, the Christian may even be puzzled by the Rabbi’s appeal to such a passage.

Moreover, within the Old Testament (and here I differ in my approach from Craig), the seeds of Trinitarianism are already evident. Its not clear enough that you could derive the Trinity from the Hebrew Bible, but its clear enough that once you have the Trinity, the Hebrew Bible makes much more sense. For example, in Psalm 110 David appeals to “(his) lord” (adonai) who receives communication and authority from “the Lord” (YHWH). In Isaiah 9:6, the Davidic King is said to be El Gibbur (“Mighty God”). In Zechariah 12:10, the Lord says, “you will look upon me (the Lord), the one you have pierced.” In Micah 7:9 the prophet says he will bear the Lord’s indignation until “He (the Lord) pleads my case for me.” (To whom would the Lord plead, in Jewish monotheism?) In Psalm 45:6-7 God is said to have an eternal throne, and then is said to be annointed by … God. (How does God annoint God?) And on we could go – all of this is leaving aside the plural pronouns in Genesis 1 and 11, the enigmatic figure of “the angel of the Lord” throughout the Old Testament (who is frequently worshiped), Abram’s 3 visitors in Genesis 18 (addressed as “Lord”), and other passages which make the Old Testament very difficult to understand apart from the revelation of God’s triune nature.

5 Comments

  1. How would you answer the traditional Jewish response that echad means simply one unit.

    The examples Christians use to show that it does not entail strict unity (i.e. Genesis 2:23) is explained away by the fact that it is only a number,,,the number one…that there may be ONE flesh, ONE combination, but it is just as if there may be ONE pair of apples as opposed to ONE single apple. The issue is not the amount of the subject within the qualified amount, but that there is only ONE qualified amount… which reveals that there is only one subject in mind, whether in a grouping or single…that is the simple point of the syntax usage of the word. Otherwise one is reading into it more than actually exists.

    Yachid is not a number (as is echad), but either an adverb or adjective. It means “only”.

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  2. Hi YS, off the top of my head, I’m not sure how Christian monotheism is incompatible with what you’re saying about echad referring to ONE grouping or pair … but feel free to take another crack at it if you can explain what you are saying more clearly.

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  3. james jordan

    The obvious question I would bring on the Trinity is why do Christians even care so much about it? I was raised in a church that early in my life didn’t use the term “Trinity” because they had this hang-up of “Calling Bible things by Bible names.” But the concept was there — they just used the word “Godhead” for it. But our “Trinity” was a subordinationist Trinity. Jesus was subordinate to the Father — “My Father is greater than I.” And so, as a result, in a way, the Trinity wasn’t so important: If the Father is greater, Jesus might as well not be God. Later in life, of course, I was exposed to the Greek Orthodox concept that Christ was thrice-begotten, and to the Calvinist concept of Eternal Sonship. I began to buy into some of these concepts and become somewhat of a Zealot for the Trinity, claiming along with all the Evangelicals that Christians who don’t believe in the Trinity are going to hell. But eventually I figured out how moronic this is. The Trinity is not important. If you believe in a subordinationist view, even one that doesn’t allow Jesus to be God, so what? Paul says that Jesus was highly exalted after death — if he was God, how could he go any higher? The Trinity is so clearly false — and even if it were true, what the hell does it gain us? Its more confusing and offensive than useful or helpful in any way.

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  4. james jordan

    Another major problem with the Trinity is the number 3 is arbitrary. If you go to the Old Testament ignoring that it explicitly says “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE” then you can certainly end up with more persons that 3 in your pantheon of persons. There are passages about the seven spirits of God. There’s the mention in Exodus of God passing over on Passover, and another that the Destroyer is the one to pass over. So in addition to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, do we add in the Destroyer, and 7 more spirits into the Godhead? And so on. The thing is, of course, these are not persons but manifestations; but using Christian logic they’ll all become persons. So if you don’t take “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE” literally as referring to the number of persons, you can end up arbitrarily putting a LOT of persons in God.

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  5. Anonymous

    Interesting

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