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.

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