I use the term Heretic here in a tongue in cheek way. I don’t think either Dustin Smith or David Barron are Heretics in the actual meaning of the term, I use it because that is how many more orthodox theologians would label them (falsely). Recently both David Barron and Dustin Smith had a debate about Christology, in particular, whether or not Jesus existed prior to his being conceived in Mary’s womb. What makes this debate interesting is that both Dustin Smith and David Barron are Unitarians (thus the tongue in cheek use of the term “Heretic”). Dustin Smith coming from what would be called a Socinian position (Jesus came into existence at his conception), David Barron coming from what would be called an Arian Position (Jesus existed as a spiritual being prior to his conception, but cannot be identified with Yahweh). Both debaters did a wonderful job and, I honestly wish more theological debates were done like this, carefully, honestly and in depth. Even if you’re a Trinitarian, or think the Socinian and Arian Christologies are Heresies, watch the debate, you’ll definitely find it interesting.
David Barron’s basic argument starts with this logic: There are various Jewish inter-testamental and later texts convey the idea of an individual who exists as a spiritual being prior to his earthly existence as a human being, and thus we have contextual warrant for the idea of a pre-existent being. Then he goes over to John 3:31 and specifically the part that says:
Ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν the one who comes from above is above all
ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν· the one who comes from heaven is above all.
And he argues that since John the Baptist was also pre-ordained by God (along with Jesus), according to his own claim that he was prophesied by Micah/Isaiah as the one who will clear the way, this “coming from above” or “coming from heaven” cannot refer to being pre-ordained by God. Rather, it must refer to actual pre-existence. The same argument applies to the next verse of Jesus “seeing and hearing” referring to Jesus’ seeing and hearing what he experienced in heaven, which John did not experience.
Then David Barron goes to the prologue, where he basically makes an argument from the word being with God, and god. As well as the world being created through him (καὶ ὁ κόσμος δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο), yet that world rejecting him (καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω), showing that the term “world” is being used the normal sense of the word. Then he goes on to verse 15 where it says John was testifying about the one who “was before him” πρῶτός μου ἦν.
He goes on to John 3:13,where it says that no one ascended into heaven (οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν) except the one who descended from heaven (ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς), the Son of man. He then argues that the ascending and descending should be taken literally from the context, about Jesus understanding heavenly things, from John 1:51. Next is John 6:62, about ascending to where he was before (ὅπου ἦν τὸ πρότερον) in the context of verse 38 claiming he came down from heaven.
He continues his arguments with John 17:5, some Pauline verses and some passages in Hebrews. David Barron’s arguments are all exegetical, and, I believe, all argue strongly for his point, if his exegesis is correct. Now on to Dustin Smiths main arguments.
Dustin Smith first cites various Old Testament passages where Yahweh says insists that he is the only God, there is none like him, he created everything by himself. Then he moves on to Hebrews 1:1,2 where it says that God spoke through prophets before, but only in these last days did he speak through his Son (thus Jesus cannot be the angel of the Lord or something like that). His second argument is that messiah is clearly prophesied to be a literal descendant of David, and Israelite, a real human being, and Jesus affirming he was a decedent in David as well as that being affirmed in Hebrews. His third argument is that Jesus is brought into existence in the New Testament, based on the consistent use of γεννάω in reference to Jesus being born, coming into existence, just like all his forefathers before him, in both Matthew and Luke. He also cites, in defence of his third argument John 18:37 and Paul in Romans 1:1.3, as well as other verses talking about Jesus being a descendant of David and born of a woman (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός).
His forth argument is that pre-existence in the bible is notional, akin to pre-ordination, citing various scriptures such as 1 Peter 1:20 saying that Jesus was foreknown (προεγνωσμένου) before the foundation of the world, and Revelation 13:8 where it says that the lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. This scripture would shows that the bible sometimes talks as for-ordained events as actually being actual before it happens, due to the fact that it talks about Jesus being killed before the foundation of the world, which obviously didn’t happen, but rather in the first century. He then cites some rabbinic literature supporting messianic pre-existence being a notional rather than literal pre-existence.
The fifth argument gets to John. He claims the prologue is about Jesus being the fulfilment of God’s personified word. He cites various scriptures where God’s “word” or “wisdom” is personified, and then other places in the New Testament where Jesus is clearly pictured as the personification of a trait or concept. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:30, Jesus is said to have become (for us) God’s Wisdom. Then he cites the Deuterocanonical Wisdom literature, where wisdom is personified (Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach).
I would say that Dustin Smiths first argument would be exegetical, which depends on how literal are we to take those texts insisting on the Uniqueness of Yahweh, what point they try to make (are they talking metaphysics or rather arguing against idolatry). His second and third arguments are mostly going to end up being just semantic problems. What does it mean to be a human being? Does being a decedent of David discount pre-existence? Does γεννάω necessarily being absolute coming into being ruling out pre-existence? And so on. The Fourth argument is not really problematic; it’s just a question of whether the fact that pre-existence is often notional means that it is always notional. The fifth argument is where, I believe, the meat is, does John teach that the word is personal, or just personified.
I’m not going to go over all the arguments, or present the rebuttals for all the arguments since that would turn this post into a small book, only two arguments which I feel are very important to flush out. David Barron, in both his introduction, and in his rebuttal (when looking at different interpretations of what γεννάω can actually mean, or how being a descendant of someone doesn’t exclude pre-existing in another form) cites non-biblical material, such as first Enoch, the Testament of Solomon and the Prayer of Joseph for his case. Dustin Smith criticizes this, saying:
I need to remind the audience that this debate is on what the bible teaches, not what first Enoch Teaches, not what the prayer of Joseph teaches.
He then goes on to list things that these extra biblical works claim which a Christian wouldn’t believe and would be contradicted by the New Testament. This is similar to the objection that James white raised against David Barron, and it’s just as fallacious then as it is now. It is literally impossible to exegete the New Testament without going outside the New Testament. In fact without going outside the bible, we cannot know what the word “centurion” means, we cannot know what the traditions of the Pharisees were without going outside the Bible; we can’t even know what the word actually Cesar means without going outside the bible.
The reason someone goes to First Enoch, for example, in trying to understand parts of the New Testament, is not that First Enoch is inspired or true, everything written in the work could be completely false, that’s not the point. Sometimes you need to go to extra biblical writings in order to understand how people in that context understood certain words, phrases, concepts, how they thought, what the issues were that people debated, what the usual positions were on certain questions and so on.
So let’s take David Barron’s argument using the Prayer of Joseph, the argument is that although Jacob was clearly born of a woman, using the γεννάω term, he could still be described in that work as being a heavenly being who had a pre-human existence, the argument same work with Enoch in first Enoch. The fact that Jacob and Enoch were not, in reality, heavenly beings with a pre-human life isn’t the point, the point is that in the minds of those writers there was no conflict between those figures having a pre-human existence and being normal human beings born of a woman. Thus, when we get to the question of Jesus, saying he was “Born of a Woman” and he was γενόμενον doesn’t support the “Socinian” position, unless being “Born of a Woman or being γενόμενον is inconsistent with the “Arian” position. David Barron points out, using those texts, that, given the historical context, clearly it was not inconsistent. That argument in no way depends on the accuracy, spiritual value, or truth of any of those texts.
The next thing I want to get into is the back and forth about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 during David Barron’s cross-examination. The arguments were a little hard to follow. Nevertheless, for this question of Christology this passage is vital, so I’ll try to break down the arguments into bite-sized bits. The argument works backwards from John 3:13 to 3:11 building on the context.
David Barron believes that John 3:13 where it says:
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
has to be taken as a literal ascension and descension into heaven. Dustin Smith believes the descending from Heaven is to be taken metaphorically meaning that Jesus reveals the Father, taking things from heaven, and revealing them to people. Part of Dustin Smith’s explanation of his reasoning comes from the verse 12:
If I have told you about earthly things (τὰ ἐπίγεια) and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things (τὰ ἐπουράνια)?
He claims that descending from heaven in verse 13 refers to Jesus revealing the heavenly things in verse 12. Then David Barron follows that line of thought, asking what those earthy things are, with the following thought: If Jesus had already told Nicodemus earthly things, and not yet heavenly things then verse 11 comes in where it says:
Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
The idea being that Jesus had told him earthly things, i.e. About being born again/from above (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) and being born from spirit and so in, in other words things that happen on earth (which Nicodemus had seen), but yet not told him heavenly things, in other words things that happen in heaven (which Jesus had seen, but Nicodemus had not). Baptism again/from above and being born from spirit, is clearly not earthly in the sense of being “of this fallen world,” so it should be interpreted as earthly in the literal sense as taking place on earth. Therefore, when we get to verse 13 the descending from heaven and ascending is speaking of different realms, in which one can exist, not just a metaphor for things that are of this world and things that are from God.
To summarize, David Barron is saying that if the descending and ascending is not literal, then what Jesus says makes no sense. Jesus just tells Nicodemus about being baptized from above, and in spirit, then says that because Nicodemus cannot understand the earthly things that are what Jesus just told him, he cannot understand the heavenly things, and people only understand what they see, then Jesus talks about ascending and descending from heaven. That would not prove anything if all that means is ascending in the sense of knowing the things of God. If it’s merely metaphorical then in what way would it have anything to do with understanding things which one has seen? Also if it’s metaphorical how is being baptized in spirit and from above something which is “earthly” or of this world?
Then we go a little further down in verse 31 where John the Baptist says:
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all.
David Barron claims that the one who is “of the earth” is John the Baptist himself, given that the context is John explaining how he is not the messiah but Jesus is, and doing so using the language of things which have been “Given from heaven” (δεδομένον αὐτῷ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ). The idea being, John is saying Jesus is the messiah, he’s more important than I am, I am from the earth, but he is from heaven and above all.
If it is true that John is speaking of himself as the one who is «of the earth» compared to Jesus who is «from heaven» then the distinction is more likely literal. I cannot mean that Jesus was in the mind of God before their births, or has the message from God, given that both John and Jesus fit those descriptions, but rather “from heaven” actually means from the heavenly realm.
Dustin Smith, in my opinion, doesn’t adequately answer the question, he re-iterates that the “of heaven”, and “of earth” language is about identification, not location. He references how earlier, John is spoken about being sent “from God,” (identification not location), and that of the earth is not location, its identification. When asked what it actually means that John would be “of the world,” he just continues to speak about the distinction between identification and location.
The problem with Dustin Smith’s response is that, although it is a fact that distinctions between identification and location cannot be determined from the genitive case alone, (saying “from heaven,” could mean both), one can’t assume the identification interpretation just because it’s possible, you have to argue for it. Even if the identification interpretation works other places, (such as for John the Baptist being sent from God, John 1:6), when we get to John 3, we can’t start from an identification interpretation, we have to look at which interpretation fully explains the entire text in the best way. It’s not enough to say it’s possible, one has to show why it’s better.
I say all of this with the understanding that interpreting John 3, and the passages about being “from heaven” descending” and so on are very difficult, and good cases can be made for both positions. All in all, however, I feel David Barron had the better case. Don’t take my word for it though, watch the debate, it’s worth your time.