by Douglas V. Morton
"In other words, I am saying that Jesus Christ is not God, but the Son of God. They are not 'co-eternal, without beginning or end, and co-equal.' Jesus Christ was not literally with God in the beginning; neither does he have all the assets of God" (1).
The above denial of the deity of Jesus Christ is made by the late Victor Paul Wierwille, founder and First President of The Way International, a group that denies the Trinity, the personality of the Holy Spirit and the deity of Jesus Christ. Wierwille made the above statement in 1975 in the first edition of his book Jesus Christ Is Not God.
Just a few pages before, Wierwille wrote:
"If 42 years ago or 30 or maybe even 20 years ago someone had postulated to me that Jesus Christ was not God, I too would have been taken back. But for me it has been a gradual learning and, therefore, an unlearning process as I've progressively gained a knowledge of God and His Son" (2).
It is a fact that 20 years before, in 1955, Wierwille believed and taught the deity of Jesus Christ. His first book, called Victory Through Christ, written in 1945, speaks of Jesus as "Eternal Son of God," "the All Wise One," "The Almighty in human form" and "the Eternal One" (3). Wierwille even offered prayer to Jesus in the book (4).
As late as 1957, Wierwille still spoke in Trinitarian terms and used words that referred to Jesus' deity. He noted that the word "spirit" is used "in combination with divine names" and then gave one of these combinations as "pneuma Kristou, 'Christ's Spirit', ..."(5). He wrote that the word 'Spirit' is "used of all the Godhead. Pneuma, 'Spirit,' is used of God, John 4:24; Christ, II Corinthians 3:17; Holy Spirit, Acts 5:3" (6).
By the early 1960s, Wierwille had made his break with biblical teaching on Jesus. He rejected both the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ. In a 1964 article in The Way Magazine, Wierwille declared his own war on the deity of Christ. In this article, Wierwille stated:
The Bible teaches that there is only one God and that God was in Christ. (II Corinthians 5:19) The Word also teaches that God was from the beginning. (Genesis 1:1). If God was from the beginning, and if God is what the Bible says He is, Spirit, (John 4:24), then God cannot be born. God cannot be born because God is Eternal" (7).
Wierwille now considered the teaching of Christ's deity as a heretical doctrine with roots dating from the third and fourth century A.D. (8).
Wierwille's Contact With George Lamsa
What really caused Wierwille to break with the teaching of Jesus' deity? Wierwille, who died in 1985, isn't here to tell us. However, there is good evidence to show that it was not so much
"what" as "who" caused Wierwille to reject the biblical teaching on Christ's deity. It was during this critical time in the development of Wierwille's thinking (1957-64) that he came in contact with a man by the name of George M. Lamsa. Lamsa was a Nestorian Christian, born in 1893 in Kurdistan, Turkey (9). Wierwille's association with Lamsa began in 1957. In May 1958,
Wierwille resigned as a minister in the Evangelical and Reformed denomination. Lamsa and Wierwille appear to have worked closely together during this time, with Lamsa finishing his English translation work on the Syriac Peshitta text of the Bible in Wierwille's home (10). Wierwille also claimed that he and Lamsa "together produced the first American grammar in 1960 for the study of biblical manuscripts with the ancient Estrangelo letters" (11). Lamsa also taught a class at The Way Summer School in 1962 (12).
Lamsa and Nestorianism
Any two such people who worked closely together could be expected to have discussed various beliefs with one another. Since Lamsa was a Nestorian Christian, it is likely that he discussed with Wierwille the beliefs of this group. Wierwille's rejection of the deity of Christ would have easily followed if he accepted Lamsa's radical Nestorianism.
Nestorianism is a heresy condemned by the Church at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 (13). This heresy accepts the two natures in Christ, the divine and the human, but defines these two natures so that they have no communication between each other. Instead of two natures in one Christ, they end up with what amounts to two persons in Christ. Nestorianism "so emphasized the duality of natures, and the continued distinction between the human and the divine in Christ, as to lose sight of the unity of person, and to Christ, as to lose sight of the unity of person, and to substitute for a real Incarnation a mere conjunction ( ), a moral union or intimate friendship between the Divine Logos and the man Jesus" (14). In Nestorianism, the Word does not actually "become flesh," as John writes in John 1:14. The divine does not participate with the human nature or vice versa. The scriptural teaching concerning the union of the two natures in Christ "permits neither confusion nor separation of the natures" (15). Nestorianism has a difficult time with this orthodox concept of union.
Christian theologian John Theodore Mueller observes that Nestorianism leads "to Unitarianism (Modernism), or to the error that Christ was a mere man" (16). It seems almost certain that Lamsa's Nestorianism led Wierwille to the denial of Christ's deity.
By 1949, Lamsa's Nestorianism had led him to make some erroneous remarks about Jesus and Christianity. Lamsa considered the Nestorian churches to be the true churches of the East. He praised the Nestorian Christians for their rejection of the early Church's teaching that Mary was the Theotokos, the God-bearer, or the Mother of God (17). He rejected the idea that "God was born from the virgin Mary and died on the cross" (18). He stated that "Jesus was a man, but Christ in him was God" (19). Immediately after this, he wrote that "The human and the divine in them were united" (20). But the reader should remember that the unity Lamsa spoke of is not a true unity of two natures in one person. Christ, for Lamsa, was the divine nature, separate from the man Jesus and this Christ was "in him" (21), "manifested in him" (22).
Lamsa, Nestorians and the Trinity
Lamsa wrote that Nestorians teach that "... God, being the Eternal Spirit, life, and truth, cannot be born from a woman whom He had created, nor is He subject to death, nor can he be divided into three persons" (23). He considered the term "three persons in God" as implying "three gods" to the average Semitic mind (24). He wanted rather to use the phrases "there is one God with three Kenomey attributes, instead of three persons" (25). Lamsa then explained that the word "'Kenomey' is an Aramaic word, the nearest English equivalent for which is 'substance'" (26).
An examination of William Jennings' Lexicon to the Syriac New Testament, shows that the word "Kenomey" means "solid existence, substance, Hebrews XI (as distinct from the shadow); person, so the self, -self" (27). The word is used in the Syriac (Lamsa's Aramaic) translation of John 5:26. Here John writes that the Father has life "in himself." He also states that the Father grants to the Son to have life "in himself." Thus, it would seem that "kenomey" could be used not just as "substance", but as "person," as Jennings indicates. It's also important to realize the fluidity and interchangeability of words used for the three persons of the Trinity by the early Church. Various words such as the Greek words "hypokeimenon", "hypostasis", "prosopon" and even "ousia", as well as Latin words such as "persona" and "substantia" were used to designate the three members of the Trinity (28).
Lamsa was not known for his consistency, He could speak disparagingly of the Greek concept of the Trinity as has been shown above. He could say that "The doctrine of the Trinity, three persons in one, was a new concept - a Greek concept of God" (29) and that "The Eastern Christians believe in one God with three attributes, instead of three persons" (30). Yet, he could speak approvingly of a Nestorian prayer that says "there are three Persons in one Deity" (31).
Not only was Lamsa inconsistent, he was unable to understand the aspect of Church history that relates to the refining of the terms in the doctrine of the Trinity. One wonders what Lamsa meant by "one God with three Kenomey attributes." The word "attributes" might lead one to speculate that Lamsa was a modalist, one who held to one God in one person. It is important
to note that Nestorianism in itself does not reject the Trinity. Mar Abd Yeshua, 13th century Nestorian Metropolitan of Nisibis and Armenia, spoke in favor of the Trinity. For him, "The 'Holy' thrice repeated in the seraphic hymn, as mentioned by Isaiah, joined with one 'LORD,' attests Three Persons in One Essence" (32). Those who railed "at the truth of the Catholic Church, on account of her faith in the Trinity", he wished to "be confounded and put to shame" (33).
Lamsa's inconsistency is probably best understood in light of the Nestorian idea of the Trinity. Nestorianism does not reject the Trinity. It does, however, use different terminology to describe the doctrine. Lamsa appears to be unique in his dislike for the term "Trinity." Nestorians in general do not appear to share Lamsa's dislike. Lamsa's dislike for the term probably resulted from his dislike of anything Greek (34).
Lamsa probably was a Trinitarian, even though he disliked the word "Trinity." To dislike a word does not mean that one disagrees with the concept behind the word. St. Augustine disliked the word "persons" when speaking of the Trinity. He thought it was too easy to misunderstand the word and think of it as meaning separate individuals, therefore destroying the divine unity of the Godhead. However, he adopted the word "because of the necessity of affirming the distinction of the Three against Modalism" (35). When asked what three were within the divine unity, Augustine would answer that "human language labors altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer however, is given three 'persons,' not that it might be (completely) spoken, but that it might not be left (wholly) unspoken" (36).
Nestorian writers often distinguished the three in the Trinity not by the Persons but by the characteristics or attributes that made each person unique. Thus the characteristic that made the Father unique was the fact that He is the begetter and not the begotten. What made the Son unique was the fact that He is begotten and not the begetter. What sets the Holy Spirit off from the other two Persons is that He proceeds (37). Nestorians, in saying this, are not denying the persons. They even use the word Person in describing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, it is the special characteristics or attributes that set the persons off from one another. This is possibly what Lamsa meant when he described God as "one God with three attributes, instead of three persons" (38). However, even if Lamsa was within the fold of Trinitarianism, his explanation of God would be easily misunderstood by Western Christians and mistaken for modalism. This may have been the case with Wierwille.
Lamsa Misinterprets Church History
Be that as it may, Lamsa believed the Byzantine Church had tampered with the biblical theology and come up with new doctrines, not just the "new doctrine" concerning Christ, but also the "new doctrine" concerning the Byzantine concept of the Trinity. He believed these "new" doctrines were forced upon the Church by the "emperors and their representatives" (39). It is interesting to note that Wierwille taught something similar to Lamsa's view, suggesting that he may have borrowed this belief from Lamsa. Wierwille wrote:
"The doctrine that Jesus Christ the Son of God was God the Son was decreed by worldly and ecclesiastical powers. Men were forced to accept it at the point of sword or else. Thus, the error of the trinity was propounded to the end that ultimately people believed it to be the truth." (40)
Lamsa's dislike of the Byzantine Christian Church's teaching on the Trinity and the two natures in the one Christ caused him to praise Mohammed as a prophet of God and defender of biblical monotheism (41). He held that new methods of missionary work among the Islamic people would be necessary. What were these new methods? They were "to look on the Mohammedans as a Christian sect and to seek their full co-operation in both communal and ethical endeavor" (42). He wrote, almost with a sense of approval, that, "Thousands of Syrian and Assyrian and Palestinian
Christians chose Islam rather than the corrupt Byzantine Christian Church (the Monophysite Sect)" (43). To imply that the Byzantine Christian Church was Monophysite is a false accusation on Lamsa's part. The Byzantine Church did not teach the heresy called Monophysitism. This heresy said that Christ had "a composite nature ... but not two natures" (44). This made Christ a kind of superman. The Byzantine Church said there were two natures in the one Christ. This was reinforced at the council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The Council declared:
"This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son (of God) must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably (united), and that without distinction of natures being taken away by such union ..." (45).
For the Byzantine Church, Monophysitism was just as much a heresy as Nestorianism. It is interesting to note that many of the Syrian monks who rejected the Council of Chalcedon saw it as "a rehabilitation of Nestorius" (46). Those who rejected Chalcedon in favor of Monophysitism were greater in number than those who accepted Nestorianism. To this day there are large numbers of Monophysites in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Middle East. However, it must be emphasized that their teaching is considered heresy by both Western and Eastern churches.
Lamsa's account of the early Church is certainly one-sided. He misunderstood the beliefs of the early orthodox Church. The early Church, in asserting that God was one God in three persons (Latin: persona; Greek: Prosopon), by no means meant that there were three separate Gods. The Athanasian Creed, while a product of the Western Church, expresses the early Church's abhorrence of the idea that there could be more than one God:
"15. Thus the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Spirit God; 16. and yet there are not three Gods, but there is one god. 17. Thus the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, the Holy Spirit Lord; 18. and yet there is one Lord. 19. Because just as we are obliged by Christian truth to acknowledge each person separately both God and Lord, 20. so we are forbidden by the Catholic religion to speak of three Gods or Lords." <47>
In the East, St. Gregory Nazianzen could write:
"When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Ghost; for Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to introduce a multitude of gods, nor yet bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity, either Judaizing to save the monarchy, or falling into Hellenism by the multitude of our gods" (48).
John of Damascus (died ca. A.D. 780), known as the greatest of the Eastern theologians, stated emphatically in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith "that God is one and not many is no matter of doubt to those who believe in the Holy Scriptures" (49). Neither the Eastern Byzantine Church, nor the Western Church confessed more than one God. The early Christian Church was monotheistic in belief. God was One, yet in another sense He was three. This was doing justice to the biblical texts that spoke of the oneness of God, and at the same time to the texts that spoke of the Father as God, the Son as God and the Holy Spirit as God.
Mary, the THEOTOKOS
The reason the early Church declared that Mary was the Mother of God (Greek: Theotokos; Latin: Mater Dei) was to safeguard the biblical teaching that "the Word was made flesh" (John 1:14) and that in Christ "all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). The question for the early church was:
"Did the second person of the Holy Trinity assume into Himself a human nature and truly live among us, or was it that he simply adopted a man in whom He dwelt in a special way?" If the answer was the second, then God did not truly become man in Christ and John 1:14 is wrong. However, Scripture certainly teaches that God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. While God cannot be born, the divine nature was so united with the human nature in Christ that one could truly say that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, who is both God and man together. He who cannot be born assumed into unity with Himself a human nature even in Mary's womb.
Consequently, Mary gave birth to Jesus, who at birth is fully God and fully human. This is the divine mystery (I Timothy 3:16) and the sense in which the early church spoke of Mary as the "Mother of God." Certainly the word "Theotokos", Mother of God, can be misunderstood. However the early Church was correct in using it. Martin Chemnitz, a 16th century theologian, reminds Christians how important this teaching is concerning Mary giving birth to Jesus, the God-man:
"This teaching is not idle sophistry, for it is an article of faith that Mary did not beget a man in whom God dwelt in the way that Elizabeth bore John the Baptist, in whom the Spirit of God dwelt. Rather she bore the only Son of God by receiving his flesh, as Augustine says, 'He was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary who for this reason and in this sense is correctly called the God-bearer (OEOTOKOS).'" (50).
The Logical Conclusion to Lamsa's Brand of Nestorianism
Lamsa's radical rejection of this biblical teaching logically leads to a denial of the deity of Christ (51). Christ thus becomes a man -- even though he may be a perfect man -- in whom God dwelt. Wierwille was a theological pack rat and borrowed heavily from other writers such as J.E. Stiles, E.W. Bullinger, and Glen Clark. His borrowing from Lamsa would fit in well with what we know of his habits. If so Wierwille did not have very far to travel to reach the logical conclusion to Lamsa's radical Nestorianism. This we see happening sometime in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Wierwille borrowed other ideas from Lamsa such as his belief that the original manuscripts of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) were written in Aramaic.
Lamsa's Nestorianism was based upon man's reason taking preeminence over the Word of God. Reason said God could not become man. Reason said God could not be born, suffer or die. Thus, when Scripture tells us that "the Word became flesh," a new explanation had to be invented that goes against Scripture. When Scripture tells us that the rulers of this age "crucified the Lord of glory (I Corinthians 2:8), human reason once again reared its head and said that it was "only the man Jesus who suffered and died." However, Scripture does not say that only the man died. It says Jesus suffered and died. Who is Jesus? He is the God-man. Certainly God cannot die, but somehow God participated in the suffering and death through the union of the two natures in the one Christ.
At the beginning of this article it was said that Lamsa's influence on Wierwille and Wierwille's final denial of the deity of Christ was speculation. It will only become firmly established if evidence, such as letters between the two, can be discovered. However, the available evidence does make it highly probable that Wierwille's association with Lamsa helped produce his heresy. It
is for this reason that we are urged by the Apostle Paul to "watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep
away from them." (Romans 16:17) Wierwille would have been wise to take this warning to heart.
(1) Victor Paul Wierwille, Jesus Christ Is Not God, first edition. New Knoxville, Ohio: American Christian Press, 1975, pg. 5. The statement can also be found in the second edition of the book printed in 1981. (2) ibid, pg. 3.
(3) Wierwille, Victory Through Christ, Van Wert, Ohio: The Wilkinson Press, 1945, pp. 21, 47, 136, 29. (4) ibid, pg. 47.
(5) Wierwille, Receiving the Holy Spirit Today, third, revised and enlarged Edition. Van Wert, Ohio: The Way, Inc. 1957, pg. 144. (6) ibid.
(7) Wierwille, "The Word Speaks!: One God," The Way Magazine, October 1964, pg. 4.
(9) Christine Nasso, Editor, Contemporary Authors, Permanent Series, Volume II. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978, pg. 302.
(10) Wierwille, in the Preface to The Aramaic New Testament: Estrangelo Script, New Knoxville, Ohio: American Christian Press, 1983, pg. vii. Lamsa had completed his translation of the four
Gospels in 1933. He completed Psalms in 1939. In 1940, the finished translation the New Testament was ready, and the Old Testament was ready in 1955. The Holy Bible from the Peshitta, published by A.J. Holman, was printed in 1957. The fifth edition was released in 1961. (Nasso, Contemporary Authors, pg. 303) (11) ibid.
(12) Elena S. Whiteside, The Way: Living In Love, second edition, New Knoxville, Ohio: American Christian Press, 1972, pg. 220.
(13) For a full account of Nestorianism as it is related to Nestorius, see J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition, San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1978, pp.
310-317; and Aloys Grillmeier, S.J., Christ In Christian Tradition, Vol. I: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), second revised edition, translated by John Bowden, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975, pp. 443-472. Many Scholars are convinced that Nestorius did not believe the heresy that has been named after him. For Nestorius' defense of his teaching, see Nestorius, The Bazaar of Heracleides, translated and edited by G.R. Driver and Leonard Hodgson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925.
(14) Philip Schaff, The Creeds of the Greek and Latin Churches, Volume II in Creeds of Christendom, Harper and Brothers, 1977; reprint edition: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1977, pg. 65.
(15) Martin Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, translated by J.A.O. Preuss. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971, pg. 158.
(16) John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934, pg. 267.
(17) George M. Lamsa, The Shorter Koran, Chicago: Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., 1949, pp. 12-13.
(18) ibid, pg. 14. Roman Catholic writer Donald Attwater, writing in 1937, observed that "Presumably the Nestorians still profess the errors associated with that word ... , but is beyond doubt that none of them except a very few of the higher clergy understand or care anything about their heresy concerning the Incarnation; they believe that from the first moment of His conception our Lord was perfect man and perfect God, but they still refuse to call Our Lady 'Mother of God.'" The Dissiden Eastern Churches, Milwaukee, Wis.: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1937, pg. 228.
(19) Lamsa, New Testament Commentary, (A.J. Holman, 1945), pg. 177.
(20) ibid. (21) ibid, pg. 547. (22) ibid, pg. 546. (23) Lamsa, The Shorter Koran, pg. 15.
(24) ibid. (25) ibid. (26) ibid.
(27) William Jennings, Lexicon To The Syriac New Testament (Peshitta), Revised by Ulric Gantillon, Oxford University Press, 1926; Reprint Edition: New Knoxville, Ohio: American Christian Press, 1979, 195.
(28) Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, third revised edition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970, pp. 332-333.
(29) Lamsa, Old Testament Light, Philadelphia, A.J. Holman Co., 1964, pg. 39). (30) ibid.
(31) Lamsa and William Chauncey Emhardt, The Oldest Christian People, New York: The Macmillian Co., 1926, pg. 56.
(32) George Percy Badger, The Nestorians and Their Rituals, Volume II. London: Joseph Masters, 1852; Reprint Edition: Gregg International Publishers Ltd., 1969, pg. 387. (33) ibid.
(34) For example, see Lamsa, New Testament Origin, St. Petersburg, Fla.: Aramaic Bible Society, Inc., n.d.
(35) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised fifth edition (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), pg. 274.
(36) Augustine, On The Trinity 5.10, translated by Arthur West Hadden in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume III, edited by
Philip Schaff (reprint edition, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), pg. 92.
(37) Badger, The Nestorians and Their Rituals, Volume II, pp. 62-64. See also Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Spirit of Eastern Christendom" (600-1700), Volume II in The Christian Tradition: A
History of the Development of Doctrine, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974, pp. 44-45.
(38) Lamsa, Old Testament Light, pg. 39. (39) Lamsa, The Shorter Koran, pg. 14.
(40) Wierwille, "Forgers Of The Word", in bibliography: Jesus Christ Is Not God, second edition, New Knoxville, Ohio: American Christian Press, 1981, pp. 22-27.
(41) Lamsa, The Shorter Koran, pg. 16.
(42) Lamsa, The Secret of the Near East, Philadelphia: The Ideal Press, 1923, pg. 106.
(43) Lamsa, The Shorter Koran, pg. 17.
(44) Schaff, "Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity," Vol. III in History of the Christian Church. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910; Reprint Edition: Grand Rapids, Mich., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, pg. 763.
(45) "The Definition of Faith of The Council of Chalcedon," in The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, Volume XIV, translated by Henry R. Percival. In A Select Library Of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, reprint edition: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988, pp. 264-265.
(46) Alexander Schemann, The Historical Road Of Eastern Orthodoxy, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977, pg. 138.
(47) J.N.D. Kelly, The Athanasian Creed, London: Adam and Charles Black, 1964, pg. 18.
(48) Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology Of The Eastern Church, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976, pg. 47.
(49) John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Volume V, Chapter 5 in Volume 9 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, translated by the Rev. S.D. F. Salmond, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983, pg. 4.
(50) Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, pg. 102.
(51) For other exotic beliefs held by Lamsa see John P. Juedes and Douglas V. Morton's From "Vesper Chimes" to the Way International, (Milwaukee: C.A.R.I.S., 1983), pg. 69, n. 69. See also: John P. Juedes, "Looking At Lamsa," Personal Freedom Outreach Newsletter, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January-March 1987): pp. 1-2, 7.
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