The Trinity, the Creeds, the Conclusion
At the beginning of this journey I posited the idea that one of my objectives was to be able to understand the Trinity from the evidence of Scripture. As I continue to ponder this concept of the Trinity and Jesus as God, there are three things that persist whether right or wrong: 1) Understanding the Trinity is really not possible at every level, it is simply too big a “mystery.” 2) The creedal formulas developed by the early church were not crafted on a whim. They were sculpted by men inspired by the Holy Spirit over many years and thus – since they’ve done the haggling – there is no need for me or anyone else to dissect the issue. They have deemed it orthodox and orthodox it shall be. 3) Only those students of church history, theology, and the early church fathers can appreciate and understand the depth and language of the Trinity. Even though the ancients or the contemporaries may not fully understand the mystery of the Trinity, they can speak volumes about it and use nuances of language to explain it. Then of course, when their explanation does not seem rational or consistent with the biblical text, they fall back on the mystery motif.
I don’t mean to be flippant or disqualify those who have spent decades with the topic. I simply think we should pause and give consideration to the ramifications of how we adopt things as orthodox. And how that orthodoxy dictates our belief systems.
Recently I followed a discussion on a blog which, even though its main purpose was not the Trinity, it slid into that discussion. An author and sociologist was very quick to point out, to one of the blog commentators who had some questions about the Trinity, the fallacy of his thinking. The original comment on the blog which involved Biblicism stemmed from a comment made by Scot McKnight who posed the question: “How do you square, for instance, with the necessity of belief in the Trinity with its explicit absence in the Bible and yet its centrality in Christian Theology?” What follows is a series of posts addressing that question.
Jon G wrote:
This has been a major struggle for me, personally.
Indeed, I would go even further than saying it’s “absent” to say that it is negated…or at the very least inconsistent.
For instance 1 Timothy 1:1 and 2:5 blatantly differentiates between “God” and “Christ Jesus” so that we see there is SOME sort of distinction there, but in 3:15-16 we see Paul say that “God” was manifest in the flesh…not Jesus. In the first two instances, Paul is using “God” to represent YHWH and Jesus to represent a go-between for God and Man, and so, in context, we see that God was the one manifest(sp)…not a Son.
IMHO this is one instance where “Trinity” as explained by church doctrine fails miserably. And yet, why should I think that I know more than all the millions of Christians who went before me?! Still, I can’t believe something just because the church says so for two reasons:
1. I can’t control my beliefs. I must be CONVINCED of them.
2. The church disagrees on so much (church history has as much pluralism in it as the Biblicist does) that I can’t rely upon it to be correct all the time.
As a result of no longer having complete confidence in either tack(sp), I’ve been left wondering what I can have confidence in…
I should add that I’m not basing my anti-Trinity stance on just 1 Timothy. That’s just an easy one to illustrate with.
An author and prominent sociologist replies:
Jon, Trinity and Nicaean(sp) Christology are non-negotiables for Christianity of any stripe. The Church spent centuries working through these doctrines and ended up with excellent dogmatic definitions on them. That is how we know they are true, and that heretical proposal which also had scripture to back them up are not true. There was/is a theological coherence most atuned(sp) to scripture as a whole that required those dogmatic definitions. The bishops and fathers of the church rightly ultimately realized that the gospel makes no sense if Arius was right, for example, and solemny(sp) pronounced that as a defining truth. We all have Athanatius to thank for that. And that is why anti-creedal Christianity simply does not work. It is either *parasitical* on the tradition of the church (i.e., feeding on its life while undermining its health), or else it falls off into heresy (e.g., Unitarianism). We trust leaders of the Church (under the guidance of the H.S.) to have worked out certain issues as simply now settled, or we do not. If we do not, then we place ourself(sp) outside the bounds of orthodoxy. I don’t see any other way around it.
· Jon, I don’t mean this to be condescending or evasive, but I think you just need to learn a lot more about Trinitarian(sp) theology. All these things have been sorted out already, reinventing the wheel isn’t a good idea (though modern, American evangelicals love to try it). Non-negotiable does not mean we cannot talk about it, but it means that if one doesn’t buy it, they put themselves outside the bounds of historical orthodoxy. That’s all (!). Also, all of this must always remember that we are talking about mysteries far beyond our rational capacity to understand. We can formulate languages that best capture our best account of the mystery. But we should never think we’ve not(got) it. Theological language about God is analogical, not univocal (or equivocal). It was a late-medieval theological development, the nominalism of Duns Scotus and William of Occam, who screwed us up, convincing the world that the language of “being” could make our talk of God univocally meaningful. (I recommend Placher’s Domestication of Transcendence on this.) So, I hear your questions and doubts. But to sort them out you need to learn more church history and theology. Meanwhile, it’s a very safe bet to confess the teachings of the historic church, at least those formulated in the first 4-5 Ecumenical Councils.*****
Others offered comments, explanations and resources for Jon G to use in order to ground himself in orthodoxy. Much like some have suggested to me. If I just read enough of the right resources I’ll come to the right conclusion – the Trinity is not only orthodox it is biblical. Which may be true and I greatly appreciate the suggestions. I’ve been following up on those suggestions I’ve just not found myself there yet.
Is it good for sources outside of scripture to shape our major theological positions? I expect to some degree it is. If it were not those who have come before us to shed light over our shoulders, truth would be hard to discover. However, if God intended to expand our understanding of Himself, His beloved Son and the Holy Spirit, is there some reasonable explanation why He would not clearly do so within the scope of OT Scriptures and the NT writings? Why is it a “safe bet to confess the teachings of the historic church, at least those formulated in the first 4-5 Ecumenical Councils?” Do the Creeds lead to proper conclusions or even reflect proper conclusions? When was the last time you read one of the ancient creeds or your church read a creed in worship?
Now I’m not discounting the value of theology, church history, the languages or the creeds. We can embrace the all with enthusiasm. However, should they be our primary backdrop for building or even measuring the truth of Scripture?
*****Source for all quotes: http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/08/12/the-problem-of-biblicism-8/#more-19069