In John 20:28, upon beholding the risen Christ, Thomas said to Him, “My Lord and my God.” In a paper
written by unitarian Kermit Zarley (aka “Servetus the Evangelical”), he rightly points out that the prima facie
reading of this passage as a declaration of the deity of Christ is held by scholars across the board, both conservative and critical. Nevertheless, Zarley believes there are good reasons to conclude that this consensus is wrong. The following is my evaluation of Zarley’s arguments.
First, Zarley argues that because Jesus called the Father “My God” in John 20:17, the apostle John could not have meant that Thomas, later in the context, was calling Jesus “My God” (v. 28). However, it is presumptuous to tell an author what he could have meant. This is not the job of a responsible exegete. Moreover, saying that John could not have meant this is all the more egregious since we have clear evidence that John could, in fact, do this very thing. At the beginning of his gospel, in the space of a single sentence, John wrote that the Word was “with God” and also that the word “was God” (1:1). If Zarley’s reasoning were valid, John could not have said this about the Word. But there it is. Moreover, John also wrote, once again in the space of a single verse, that no man has seen God (“the Father”) and also that God (“the one and only”) has been seen (1:18). According to Zarley’s reasoning, John could not have said this. But there it is again. Since John, in the space of a single verse, twice did what Zarley said he couldn’t, there is no reason to believe he couldn’t do the same thing in the space of several verses in John 20.
Second, Zarley argues that the thesis statement in 20:31 (“Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”), which concludes the narrative proper, would be anticlimactic if Thomas, immediately prior to this, is quoted by John in order to affirm that Jesus is God. This is so, according to Zarley, because “calling Jesus ‘the Son of God’ does not mean that he is God.” But this assumes a reductionistic and patently non-Johannine understanding of Christ’s Sonship. Contrary to Zarley’s assertion, and according to what John actually wrote, Christ’s Sonship is unique (1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18), entails His equality with the Father (5:17-18), and was regarded as blasphemous claim to deity by the Jews (John 19:37). Since this is the case, then calling Jesus the Son of God is not even a hairs breadth below Thomas’s confession of Christ’s deity. In addition, in light of the fact that John’s Gospel begins on the high note that the Word who became flesh (1:14) is the very Word and Son who has always been God (1:1, 1:18), what would be anti-climactic is if Thomas’ confession (20:28) and John’s thesis statement (20:31) mean something less than that.
Third, according to Zarley, the “key” to understanding Thomas’ confession is tucked away in John 14. As Zarley would have it, when Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” he “was acknowledging what Jesus had taught him,” namely that “the Father is in me” (14:10), a concept that Zarley, quite ironically in light of its classically Trinitarian origins and implications, refers to as “mutual indwelling.” On the basis of this, Zarley goes on to appeal to a concept of agency whereby one person can be called by the name of the person who sent him: “This indwelling of God in Christ, and God sending Christ, reflects the concept of agency.” In other words, as the agent of God, Thomas was calling Jesus “God” in a representative sense or was referring to the Father in Him as God. But Zarley’s argument here suffers from a fatal inconsistency. Even though Zarley refers to this as a mutual indwelling, his argument completely glosses over the fact that the “key” verse (John 14:10) on mutual indwelling is about, well, a mutual indwelling. Not only did Jesus say, “the Father is in Me,” but He also said, “I am in the Father.” But if the Father being in Jesus reflects the concept of agency, and if this is the basis for Jesus being called God, then, mutatis mutandis, it would also establish that the Father is the agent of Jesus and can be called God or Lord because of Jesus dwelling in Him. Surely this isn’t a conclusion that Zarley wants to maintain as a unitarian and accounts for why he ignored it.
At the conclusion of his article Zarley says his treatment of John 20:28 is the pinnacle of his research and contribution to the unitarian case against the deity of Christ, something he has laid out more fully elsewhere. Unless Zarley, in distilling his larger case down, chose to use his weakest rather than his strongest arguments, which strikes me as unlikely, then the pinnacle of his contribution rises no higher than an anthill. In any case, with respect to the article herein reviewed, a good case against the prima facie reading of the text has not been offered by Mr. Zarley.
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