Illeism – A Response To A Stock Trinitarian Apologetic Move

In a recent online debate between a Roman Catholic apologist and a biblical unitarian apologist on the question “Is Jesus Yahweh God”, the Catholic brought up Hosea 1:7 during the section of the debate where they asked each other questions. Hosea 1:7 reads: “[Then Yahweh said] . . . But I will have pity on the nation of Judah. I will deliver them by the LORD their God; I will not deliver them by the warrior’s bow, by sword, by military victory, by chariot horses, or by chariots.” He queried the unitarian as to how many persons are in view in this passage, confidently declaring that it is “irrefutable” that two distinct persons are in view. Because the text tells us that Yahweh is the one speaking and so appropriately uses the 1st person pronoun ‘I’, but then speaks in the 3rd person of saving Israel “by Yahweh their God”, the Catholic regards this as irrefutable proof that there is more than one person who is called Yahweh. He imagines that in this text one Yahweh (God the Father) is making reference to another Yahweh (God the Son). In this brief article I will give a very simple reponse to this assertion.

It must first be noted that Hosea 1:7 is not the only passage in the Hebrew Bible in which this phenomenon is found. Other similar passages include Ex. 19:10-11, 20-22, 24; 30:11-12; 31:12, 15-17; 33:19; 34:5-7; Lev. 23:26-28; Num. 12:5-8; Josh. 24:5-7; Is. 3:16-17; Amos 4:11. There are, in fact, dozens of such passages.

So the question is: “Does this phenomenon of Yahweh or God referring to Yahweh or God in the 3rd person provide irrefutable proof that Yahweh consists of more then one person?” The question itself reveals a desperation among trintarians that is born out of a complete lack of any explicit attestation in the Hebrew Bible that God is comprised of more than one person. Their desperation reveals itself in the fact that these apologists do not even stop to consider whether there might be an alternative explanation for this phenomenon, but simply assume their own explanation based on their theological presuppositions.

A Simple Solution

The simplest explanation of this phenomenon is that it is a common and rational form of speech known as illeism. Illeism is defined as the act of referring to oneself in the third person rather than in the first person. I offer here two scholarly papers on this subject, one, a 20 page article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society from September 2009 by Andrew S. Malone titled GOD THE ILLEIST: THIRD-PERSON SELF-REFERENCES AND TRINITARIAN HINTS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT; the other a 247 page 2015 dissertation by Ervin Roderick Elledge titled THE ILLEISM OF JESUS AND YAHWEH: A STUDY OF THE USE OF THE THIRD-PERSON SELF-REFERENCE IN THE BIBLE AND ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN TEXTS AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTOLOGY. Elledge’s dissertation is, of course, a much more thorough treatment of the subject. In it he shows how illeism is a common form of speech found not only of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible but also of other individuals in the OT such as David, Solomon, Jacob, Lamech, and Samuel. He shows how it is even more common in the speech of kings in the OT and documents it’s use in the speech of kings and gods in ANE literature. He also shows the different contexts in which illeism appears and the various purposes it’s use may be fulfilling.

Malone’s approach is not as detailed as Elledge’s and his purpose is to present an alternative to the “two Gods” interpretation of the phenomenon. At the outset of his paper he clearly lays out his purpose:

Since the first generations of NT believers [this phenomenon] has been employed as a significant tool for divining OT hints of the trinitarian plurality of God. It continues to be promulgated by contemporary evangelical systematicians, particularly in the influential textbooks of the last hundred years. Given the theological weight attributed by theologians to this syntactic phenomenon, coupled with renewed interest in it in the contemporary media, it is appropriate for us to critique how illeism has been used—and misused—in identifying the Trinity in OT texts. I propose that the various rhetorical uses identified by biblical and secular commentators offer a more responsible hermeneutic than do the revelatory claims made by many Christian apologists and theologians.

Malone reasons that this kind of 3rd person self-reference by Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures is a valid and common form of speech and that “such texts can indeed be better understood as divine self-references, rather than as one God or divine Person referring to another.” While Elledge’s purpose was more research oriented he does note his agreement with Malones conclusion. This is significant in that both Elledge and Malone are orthodox trintarians and so are not biased against the idea of multiple persons in God. Malone concludes his article saying:

There are a number of questions left open. In particular, I have not offered much insight into “two Gods” texts that are not formally illeistic. Nor have I surveyed the use that the NT itself has made of such “two Gods” texts . . . Nor does a recognition of the prevalence of illeism deny either the existence of the Trinity in the OT nor the possibility of direct or indirect revelations of it there. I am simply challenging whether this particular syntactic phenomenon can bear the weight which some continue to place upon it . . . I hope to have demonstrated that the illeistic texts of Scripture may well be open to responsible and evangelical interpretations other than those often promulgated by the early Church Fathers and contemporary systematic theologians.

It is clear that Malone has a trinitarian bias, yet, as regards the phenomenon of God’s use of 3rd person self-references in the OT, he has let the evidence lead him to his conclusion, and for this he must be respected.

Jesus And Illeism

There are also examples of illeism in the NT, with Jesus’ use being the chief example (113x), predominantly in his ‘son of man’ sayings. Elledge devotes about thirty pages to Jesus’ use of illeism while Malone just a short paragraph. Elledge acknowledges the validity of Malone’s observation that:

such self-references have never been used to distinguish Jesus from another “Jesus Christ” or from another “Son of Man.” If anything, some scholars are happy to pursue a less-than-divine interpretation of the title by insisting that such a third-person phrase need be only an acceptable form of self-reference.

Some of Jesus’ use of illeism matches Yahweh’s use in the OT in that Jesus will speak of himself in a 1st person reference and then switch to speaking of himself with a 3rd person reference. For example:

Luke 22:21-22 – “But look, the hand of the one who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man is to go just as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” NET

Can anyone seriously conclude from this statement that Jesus is referring to some person other than himself in v. 22? We would be hard pressed to find any of the promoters of the “two Gods” interpretation of the comparable OT texts who would draw such a conclusion. It is simply taken for granted that, for whatever reason, Jesus is referring to himself in the 3rd person. So why isn’t the same reasoning applied to the same phenomenon when found in the speech of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible? Could it be that desperation noted earlier that is behind this kind of inconsistent exegesis?

Conclusion

Two facts make the assertion by the Catholic apologist – that this phenomenon of 3rd person self-references of Yahweh is irrefutable proof of more than one person in Yahweh – manifestly indefensible. First, the common and recognized form of speech called illeism provides a reasonable explanation of the phenomenon. Second, there are scholars, who are themselves biased in favor of the belief in a multiplicity of persons in God, who deny that this phenomenon can be used to support such a claim, based on the illeism.



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Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

One thought on “Illeism – A Response To A Stock Trinitarian Apologetic Move”

  1. Well said. And as you mentioned, “The question itself reveals a desperation among Trintarians that is born out of a complete lack of any explicit attestation in the Hebrew Bible that God is comprised of more than one person.”

    They are always looking for hints and clues, as if none of the prophets, Jesus, or the apostles were good enough teachers to tell us that “God is a compound unity, three persons in one being”.

    It appears the Trinitarian scholars you mention recognize that “two Yahwehs” does not mean “two persons in one Yahweh”. It means “two Yahwehs”.

    Like

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