My Aversion to Trinitarian Disputes: A Follow-up to Christian Humanist Podcast 36

If you’re a regular listener to the podcast (and if you’re not, you should be), you might have noticed that, when the subject of the Trinity comes up, I get nervous. I can talk about Roman history and Greek philosophy, about the Italian Renaissance and the Scottish Enlightenment without much of a pause, but when someone says perichoresis, I keep my hand on the handle of my knife in case something goes wrong. (Being a pacifist, I always feel guilty later about carrying a knife about.)

Examining the actual contexts in which the language of Trinity is important, this strikes even me as odd. After all, I sing hymns about three persons without a hiccup, and when I’m in congregations that recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, I neither stammer nor mumble when I recite. Whenever a group of people speak, sing, write, or otherwise utter “Trinitarian” to signify “who we are,” I’m right there in the mix.

But there’s the problem: there’s a difference between Trinitarian doctrine and Trinitarian dispute, between saying Trinitarian defines who we are and saying this or that variety of Trinitarian defines who you’re not. As long as we stick to the actual Greek text of the Nicene Creed (with or without the filioque—my tradition doesn’t even recite creeds on Sunday mornings, so I don’t have a horse in that race), I’m still doing alright. But when someone asks to make sure I oppose Modalism, I freeze. I don’t want to answer. After all, I know that opposing Modalism is how Arius got his start, and he ended up with a heresy. And when I try to be the staunch enemy of Arianism, I know that I’m just one misformed phrase away from Docetism. And when I condemn Docetism as Gnostic hogwash, I’m probably underplaying perichoresis to the extent that I’m wandering into Sabellianism. And when I shove Sabellius, there’s an equal and opposite reaction that’s shoving me back into Social Trinitarianism, which in some books is the same as Tritheism. And when I say that I’m not sure about any of them, I’m an agnostic! And so on.

I’m not saying that such disputes are unimportant. I genuinely hope that folks like David Hart and Fred Sanders and Jurgen Moltmann and the whole lot of ’em keep doing their work. It’s important work. I plan to keep reading such work for the whole span of my reading life. But I’m not there yet. To be honest, when a flurry of exclusion-terms starts flying about, when people are trying to narrow down the positions that are faithful and those which lead astray, I’m inclined to let them fight it out and keep out of the whole exchange. Unfortunately, sometimes I stick around too long (I like to watch a good train wreck as much as the next guy), and I start to think that they’re simply batting about trivialities, sparring with one another in a contest certainly more important than partisans of this or that NCAA athletic organization but perhaps less so than people disputing the binding terms of the infield fly rule. What faith still claims me knows that such resignation is a function of my small patience and inadequate attention to theological detail, but I won’t pretend that I don’t think thus.

But I know that such thinking is a temptation, not a triumph. To pretend that Trinitarian disputes are trivia because they frustrate me would be not unlike declaring Stephen Hawking a hack because I still can’t understand the later chapters of A Brief History of Time. It would be to call automotive mechanics charlatans because I don’t understand the inner workings of a combustion engine more complex than a push lawn-mower’s. It would be to call mathematics sophistry because my mind breaks down trying to do non-Euclidean geometry. (I really don’t understand any of these, by the way.)

I write this not because I have an answer to the gulf between real theologians and the rest of us but perhaps to lend comfort to those among our readers who don’t feel adequate to this or that arena of theological, philosophical, scientific, or other intellectual inquiry. Rabbinic legend holds that some rabbis would not let a man read the prophet Ezekiel until he turned fifty, and Plato’s Republic recommends that nobody learn the tools of philosophical dialectic until she or he turns thirty. Myself, I couldn’t understand Hegel until I was twenty-seven and Heidegger until I was thirty-one. Perhaps the disputes about the Trinity wait for me over a horizon that I can’t see yet. Maybe I’ll learn to fix a car some day. Perhaps not. But that’s where I stand right now.

8 thoughts on “My Aversion to Trinitarian Disputes: A Follow-up to Christian Humanist Podcast 36

  1. I’m pretty much a classic Trinitarian, by which I mean that I believe in the eternal Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). However, I’ve often wondered that if pressed, if I would say that I’m *only* a Trinitarian. What I mean is, are there more persons in the Godhead than who has been already revealed to us? In other words, why three? I have yet to have encountered any theologian who even seems to have asked this question, let alone try to answer it. I’ll admit that I haven’t looked incredibly deeply, though.

    I mean, if you think about it, before the incarnation there was little conception amongst Jews about any sort of division or distinctions in the Godhead (God was always and only One). So, when Christ came along, as you guys talked about in your latest podcast, this was a real shocker — a genuinely new revelation from God, that God Himself could be a Man. And then Jesus in turn started talking about this mysterious Counselor….

    So, my question is, is it possible, within the context of orthodox Christianity (and I certainly consider myself an orthodox Christian by most accepted meanings of the term), to even ask this question about the Godhead, and if so, what sorts of answers might we look for in the Scripture? Wisdom theology comes to mind here — I’ve often wondered what connections of Wisdom as a personification of God as it appears in the OT (can’t remember which book off the top of my head) has with the traditional conception of the Trinity.

    Any thoughts?

    (Note, this is speculation only, please don’t denounce me as a heretic! 😉 )

  2. I have never believed that the writers of the Gospels and the epistles pictured three separate beings or figures in their minds the way many modern Christians do. I read them seeing God revealing self, in different settings and needs, as divine parent, child and guide, or comforter.

    After all, God is love, and what deeper love is there on this earth as parent and child. This is what the people or children of God through the ages saw and proclaimed.

  3. @Dan: I’ve heard of at least one group that rejects the Trinity because three persons is too limited: namely, Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. As I understand it, Armstrong taught that three is too few, because believers also become persons in the godhead. The WCG has since repudiated that belief and affirmed orthodox Trinitarianism.

    Also, the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs has often been read as God the Son/the Word. There’s no widespread agreement on this point, though advocates point to 1 Cor 1:30 (“Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God”).

    As for the more basic question — “why just three?” — that’s because The Trinity project is, above all, an attempt to make sense of the God revealed in scripture, especially in light of the incarnation of the Word and the NT “Father-Son-Spirit” formula. This project assumes two axioms: 1) God desires to be known truly, and 2) God’s work of revelation is sufficient to accomplish God’s desire. Since the biblical revelation doesn’t continually hammer us with “Father-Son-Spirit-Wisdom” or “Father–Mother-Son-Spirit-Dog”, but instead “Father/Son/Spirit”, the church hasn’t historically spent much time wondering about persons in the godhead beside the Three.

    BTW, Thomas Aquinas DOES answer this question, but I must confess I had difficulty following it: http://newadvent.org/summa/1030.htm. (It sounds like that tough Trinity math Nate’s grousing about!)

  4. David,

    Thanks for the response. I was unaware of the church sect you mentioned — wow, I certainly don’t think that humans can become co-equal members of the Godhead, though I do believe that Scripture teaches that we can participate, albeit as finite creatures, in the relationships within the Godhead through the mediation of Christ (i.e., when Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”, and other similar statements).

    Your explanation for “why only three”, through an a posteriori argument based on the revelation of Scripture, certainly makes sense, and come to think of it, I do remember reading about the view that Christ is identified with the personification of Wisdom. As I said, I’m perfectly willing to affirm the Trinity as a core doctrine of orthodox Christianity.

    I also was unaware that Aquinas tackled this question: this only shows the depth of my ignorance on classic theology! I really need to read these guys! My knowledge of theology is spotty and I’m a rank amateur at best!

  5. I used to think there were no debates about the infield fly rule, until I met ignorant Little League umpires. By the way, a player does NOT need to make an effort to actually catch the ball for an infield fly to be called. But if such effort was required, having the ball go in the glove and pop out would seem to me to be such effort.

  6. I was recently embarrassed, Brad, when a student in a freshman comp class called on me to recite the infield fly rule and I failed to mention to the force play at third. It was a sad moment.

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