Dr. Michael Brown on the Thessalonian Wish-Prayers

Last Friday Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Dale Tuggy had a debate on the question, “Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?” Tuggy is a biblical unitarian, and so affirmed the debate question, while Brown denied it.

I really don’t know if I’ll get around to blogging through the central arguments and claims of the debate. Regardless, in this post I’m going to address an argument that Brown made from the Thessalonian wish-prayers. In short, I’m going to show that his argument is a bad one.

Two Subjects, Singular Verb

Here are the relevant portions of Thessalonians that Brown referred to, which are sometimes called the “wish-prayers” in Thessalonians:

1 Thessalonians 3:11
Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ ἡμῶν καὶ ὁ κύριος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦς κατευθύναι τὴν ὁδὸν ἡμῶν πρὸς ὑμᾶς·

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, guide our way to you.

2 Thessalonians 2:16-17
[16] Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ κύριος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς καὶ [ὁ] θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ ἡμῶν ὁ ἀγαπήσας ἡμᾶς δοὺς παράκλησιν αἰωνίαν καὶ ἐλπίδα ἀγαθὴν ἐν χάριτι, [17] παρακαλέσαι ὑμῶν τὰς καρδίας καὶ στηρίξαι ἐν παντὶ ἔργῳ καὶ λόγῳ ἀγαθῷ.

[16] And may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father—who loves us and gave eternal comfort and good hope in grace—[17] encourage and strengthen your hearts in every good deed and word.

In the Greek text, all three of the verbs in bold are (1) in the optative mood, (2) are singular, and (3) apply to both of the subjects—in this case the Father and the Lord Jesus (Christ).

It seems to me that Brown’s point about these verses was this: Since there are singular verbs used of both the Father and the Lord Jesus (Christ) in these verses, this shows that Paul did not consider them as separate beings. The fact that he uses singular verbs in the Thessalonian wish-prayers shows that, although the Father and the Lord Jesus are distinct, they are nevertheless both “God.” Otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have used singular verbs in these verses. Typically, when there are two separate subjects in view, one uses a plural verb of those subjects. (I won’t go into all the details, but there’s a good reason I say “typically.”) The way that Brown speaks makes it sound like he thinks the grammar alone provides a deductively valid reason to conclude that Jesus and the Father are distinct, yet both “God.” This is far too ambitious.

A Crucial Counter-example

If I recall, Brown said something to the effect that one could “go as deep as you want” in the Greek and you’ll find that this argument holds water. The fact is that it simply, and unfortunately, doesn’t. In fact, I’ve read the commentaries and there simply isn’t agreement about what’s going on here. Here’s one eminent voice who comments on 1 Thess. 3:11:

This close association of Christ with God the Father (cf. 1:1)—here, in his sharing the divine prerogative of directing the ways of men and women (cf. Pss 32:8; 37:23; Prov 3:6b; 16:9)—is theologically significant. The singular verb κατευθύναι is probably not theologically significant: in such a construction with two subjects the verb commonly agrees with the nearer of the two.
—F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Word Biblical Commentary, volume 45)

That is, if there’s a theologically-significant point to make here, it isn’t from the grammar itself. Rather, it has to do with how Jesus is included in that “divine prerogative” Bruce mentions.

So why would F. F. Bruce say that the singular verb in 1 Thess. 3:11 is probably not theologically significant? Well, because he’s a careful scholar.

As it turns out, if one wants to argue from the grammar alone that the Father and Jesus are both “God,” there is a crucial counter-example:

Luke 20:30-31
καὶ ὁ δεύτερος καὶ ὁ τρίτος ἔλαβεν αὐτήν

And the second [brother] and the third [brother] took her

This verse uses the very same syntax and subject-verb agreement as the Thessalonian wish-prayers. This is the section of Luke where the Sadducees try to tie Jesus up about who will be married to a woman at the resurrection if each of seven successive brothers marries her. The “second” and “third” referred to above are brothers, and therefore refer to animate subjects. (Note: “Father” and “Lord Jesus (Christ)” are also animate subjects.) Notice that these subjects both precede the singular, aorist verb (“took”) as well.

If Brown wants to argue that the Father and Jesus are both “God” because Paul uses singular verbs in his wish-prayers, he’s hard-pressed to give a reason why the second and third brother in Luke 20:30-31 are not likewise identified with each other. Obviously, from the context of the latter, it cannot be the case that the second and third brother are one and the same. That would be contrary to the Sadducees’ point.

So I agree with F. F. Bruce: If there’s a theological point to be made here, it has to do with the divine prerogative that Jesus takes part in. There simply isn’t a theological point to make from the singular verbs in the Thessalonian wish-prayers.

If you want to become further disenchanted about the idea that one should nearly always expect a plural verb when two subjects are coordinated with “and” (καί) in Greek, I encourage you to read Francesco Mambrini and Marco Passarotti’s paper called “Subject-Verb Agreement with Coordinated Subjects in Ancient Greek,” Journal of Greek Linguistics 16 (2016): 87-116.

The Irony of the Argument

Some other time I will have much more to say about Mambrini and Passarotti’s results. That’s because, as it turns out, Oneness Pentecostals sometimes turn to the Thessalonian wish-prayers to “prove” that Jesus just is the Father. I really have no idea how much Brown has interacted with Oneness folks, but in his debate with Tuggy he seems completely unaware that they use the very same argument that Brown does, but for a different conclusion.

This once again raises a problem: If Brown wants to make the grammatical argument from the singular verbs in the sort of deductive way he seems to want to, why doesn’t he go ahead and say that Jesus and the Father are numerically identical? It’s got to be for some other grammatical or contextual reason. The grammar alone isn’t going to give Brown his point, because the Oneness Pentecostal will use the same argument for a conclusion Brown rejects.

When it comes right down to it, Brown’s argument from the Thessalonian wish-prayers is a bad one, for all the reasons I have discussed. I should add, however, that I simply don’t know if the points I’ve made above are relevant to Hebrew grammar, for Brown uses this same argument from the subject-verb agreement in Genesis 48:15-16. That point could still turn out to be a good one, for all I know. I’ll save that for some later project, perhaps.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s