Frustrated Trinitarian

I am a frustrated Trinitarian. Let me explain.


As you may know, the mantra “know what you believe and why you believe it” is a staple of thinking evangelical culture. I agree with it. It’s a needed corrective to a whole host of shortcomings.


Unfortunately, the mantra has its problems. It ultimately perpetuates some of the shortcomings it sets out to combat. The reason – it doesn’t go far enough.


The “what you believe”, it turns out, is typically the body of knowledge that informs a particular tradition’s beliefs. And it’s not actually questioned. It’s assumed.


This means the call to know “why you believe it” is not an invitation to critically engage with a tradition’s beliefs. It’s a call to acquaint oneself with the historical content of a tradition’s beliefs. Big difference.


For some of us…this is not enough.


We realize that to critically engage with our beliefs – to truly know why we believe them – requires us to go behind them. Examine their assumptions. Find their origin. Understand their development. But which ones?


Some are captivated by the paradox of the incarnation, provoked by the implications of atonement theories, enthralled by new ideas about Paul, or invigorated by ancient Near Eastern readings of creation. Me? I was frustrated by a myriad of issues surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity.


“Frustrated by the Trinity?”, one might ask. “It’s foundational to orthodox Christian belief. All one has to do is read the New Testament. The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit show up everywhere. How can one be frustrated by the Trinity? There would be no Gospel without it!”


“Oh. Wait. Is the Trinity an ‘it’ or a ‘him’? The Father, Son and Spirit are ‘hims’…that’s right…so the Trinity has to be an ‘it’? Wait…that doesn’t sound right. God’s not a thing. God’s a person…uh…three persons. This stuff is confusing!”


Let me help. The Trinity is not an “it”. The Trinity is a “him”. Specifically, The-one-simple-God-in-three-eternal-modalities-that-are-the-hypostatic-acts-Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit-whose-only-distinction-are-their-internal-relations.


This is doctrinal language. It is a way we can speak of our tri-personal God with technical precision. A language and precision absent from the Bible. A language that reveals a disconnect between bible and doctrine.


Given this disconnect, scholar Scott Swain has no choice but to concede, “The Trinity does not present himself to us in the Holy Scripture in the form of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.” Same goes for scholar Fred Sanders when he admits, the doctrine is a “less revealed doctrine” requiring “some assembly.”


To be fair, they both argue the Trinity is a biblically revealed doctrine. Sanders will speak of the “biblical pressure” or “raw material” for the doctrine. Sometimes He’ll spit-and-shine the disconnect with a distinction between a “Primary Trinitarianism” and “Secondary Trinitarianism.”


But in their academically aimed writings, they release the reigns a bit on the problems presented by the disconnect issue.


In Sanders’ book The Triune God, he makes the following refreshingly frank admission: “Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity stands today at a point of crisis with regard to its ability to demonstrate its exegetical foundation. Theologians once approached this doctrine with a host of biblical proofs, but one by one, many of those venerable old arguments have been removed from the realm of plausibility.”


This disconnect between Bible and doctrine is where my frustration takes root. A frustration fomented by a significant amount of current Trinitarian scholarship.


My frustrations can be summarized around the following doctrinal issues (a partial list):

  • Development Issues
  • Exegetical Issues
  • Coherence Issues
  • Historical Issues
  • Doctrinal Content Issues
  • Trinitarian Glossing Syndrome


It might be helpful to briefly comment on one – development issues. For the average Christian – the kind I teach – much of this will likely be new.


Orthodoxy’s first full blown Trinitarian creed was in 381. The years that led up to that were crammed with political, theological, philosophical, and polemical discourse on God the Father and his relationship to the Son.


During these years there were many brilliant Christians who were not Trinitarians (there still are). Many simply believed that the one God was the Father. Debate often centered around how the Son was “related” to the Father.


Christian bishops and thinkers argued over whether the Son was: from the will of the Father; from the “ousia” of the Father; “in” the Father; or the “likeness” of the Father. As late as the 350’s Basil of Ancyra argued that the Son is “like” the Father not of the “same essence” (being). This is not a Trinitarian friendly view.


During these years, we have Greek philosophical influences exerting pressure on how Christianity wrestled with concepts like “God”, “Logos”, “divine simplicity”, “nature”, “being”, and “person.”


We have top down political pressure being exerted on the Church in order bring unity to the Byzantine empire. Alongside this we have political alliances being formed within the Church to help advance one position over another. The famous church Father Athanasius incited violence against the “opposition”. Some stocked creeds with specific language intended to stick it to the other side.


We have a variety of other factors that are often ignored. Scholar Sarah Coakley points out that the development of the doctrine is set, “within a constellation of considerations – spiritual, ascetical, sexual, social – which the dominant modern textbook tradition has tended either to ignore, or to sideline…”


And shockingly, we have very little discussion on the status of the Holy Spirit who, for a variety of reasons, was given a back seat. One reason, cited by Coakley, was that the Holy Spirit was seen as inciting sexual desires (I’m not making this stuff up).


My frustration arises in a number of ways within the quick sketch provided.


I’m frustrated that in popular level books on the Trinity there is no hint of the severity and breadth of disagreement, nor of the developmental complexity that attended the doctrine. I’m frustrated that some creeds are completely ignored, while others are spun as nirvana experiences of Trinitarian ecstasy. James White says of the Nicaea Creed of 325, “[its] words were the result of the greatest church council ever convened.”


Scholar Lewis Ayres provides a more realistic view of 325: There was a “temporary victory of one side in early fourth-century debate over ouisa language [how the Son is related to the Father], but it does not demonstrate any substantial advance towards a resolution of that debate.”


Even more telling (from Ayres): “The idea that the creed would serve as a universal and precise marker of Christian faith was unlikely to have occurred to anyone at Nicaea simply because the idea that any creed might so serve was yet unheard of. All the bishops at Nicaea would have understood their local ‘baptismal’ creed to be a sufficient definition of Christian belief…”


The creed was essentially ignored for the next 20+ years. And like John 1:1c, was just as easily deployed to support “non-Trinitarian” views as “Trinitarian” ones (I use quotes around these terms because even in the 320’s, a doctrinal view of the Trinity did not exist).


These are but a few of the frustrations that arise out of the issues surrounding the doctrine’s development. Shielding the average Christian from these issues is not a way to foster thinking Christians. It’s not a way to encourage a sincere embrace of the mantra, “know what you believe and why you believe it.” Quite the opposite. It’s a way to endorse ignorance as a virtue, foment frustrated Trinitarians…or worse.


9 thoughts on “Frustrated Trinitarian

  1. I think we are frustrated because we have lost the original doctrine of Trinity that was established by Athanasius and Cappadocian Fathers. As far as I can see the first “culprit” is Augustine and then later “Calvin”. For example, there is a difference between saying “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible” and saying “That we worship one God in Trinity….. Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God”. We need to recover the original doctrine of Trinity which matches with the Bible. We don’t need to exalt Jesus Christ or Holy Spirit any more than Bible exalts them because we can’t and the early Trinitarian Church Fathers didn’t.

  2. Corby Amos, you wrote: “James White says of the Nicaea Creed of 325, “[its] words were the result of the greatest church council ever convened.”

    [reply] I do think that James White’s declaration is in error. His statement does not take into account what recent scholars have said about Nicaea. He should survey the writings of patristic scholars, such as: Lewis Ayres, Rowan Williams, R.P.C Hanson and Maurice Wiles.

    I did check behind you to see if your quote of Ayres was accurate and it was, I quote:

    “Thus we can identify a broad range of possible meaning for each of Nicaea’s three uses of a technical terminology, and in each case, we can also demonstrate major issues that remain unresolved. This use of terminology demonstrates the (temporary) victory of one side in early fourth-century debate over ousia language, but it does not demonstrate any substantial advance towards a resolution of that debate”.-Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian[L. Ayres] pg 98

    I agree with you when you said “scholar Lewis Ayres provides a more realistic view of 325. One would think that James White, as a trinitarian apologist, would be more careful in what he states on record.

    I also wonder where this “technical terminology”(i.e. homoousios) was extracted from?

    Christopher Stead suggest that Valentinian Gnostics may have introduced the term into theology. (Divine Substance, pg 256)

    I also submit this quote:
    “The term “Trinity” is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Biblical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence (B. B. Warfield, ISBE “Trinity’)

    This is an amazing concession by a trinitarian and Warfield’s comments are more intellectually honest than James White.

    Here is more evidence that Nicaea did not resolve all( or any of) the issues:

    “But since some or many persons were disturbed by questions concerning the substance, called in Greek ousia, that is, to make it understood more exactly, homoousion, or what is called homoiousion, there ought to be no mention of this at all. Nor ought anyone to preach it for the reason and consideration that it is not contained in the divine Scriptures”………Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church, AD 337-461 by J. Stevenson and W. H. C. Frend

    James White in his “The Forgotten Trinity” book failed to mention this point. So you have subsequent creeds that would contradict earlier ones. So there was no true denouement nor should one act as if these creeds were inspired.

  3. Thank you for writing. As a confused layman myself, it is refreshing to hear a frank airing-out of the overlooked development of trinity doctrine.

    You seem to have proved to me that such a doctrine is not necessary. Plenty of intelligent, God-loving men went their whole lives without it, especially those living during the first 300 years after Christ’s ascension. It doesn’t use biblical language and it isn’t useful in relating to God.

    May YHWH our God bless you and keep you!

  4. The very fact that the church-official doctrine of the Trinity underwent a development over a period of centuries, with unbiblical language, shows that it is a teaching of men and not of God according to the New Testament, especially Jude’s statement, “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3 NRSV). See the list of 100+ posts about this subject at my Kermit Zarley Blog on October 4, 2015:

  5. Your frustrations resonate with me.

    I think you have to ask if the Trinity can be named YHWH. If the Trinity is a self (i.e. an “I”) that can bear the personal proper name YHWH, what is the difference between a self and a person?

    To me, classic Trinitarianism is effectively modalism. The only difference between Father and Son is that the Son is not Father. So one self wears unique masks, but the same self is behind each one.

    1. Honest question and frustration at the frustration:
      Why would you think God is a self? I mean metaphysically. Obviously we talk and use language as such. Even the Bible uses such language. But whenever it, or even we moderns are precise, we all admit we don’t really mean God is another thing in the cosmos flying around like Superman. We and the Bible, when we’re honest admit our language is not transparent apart from an irrational trust in a revelation. The only consensus is there is some ultamite transmundane reality, rather than a reality necessarily in and of itself. But a model of that ultimate has no consensus or reasonable superior over the other. In other words the term God carries a necessary ambiguity, because there is no consensus on whether this thing is actually numerically one thing in the abstract sense we use identity. It could be the case God’s identity is in fact relative.

      Two points become clear here. And they present themselves as questions:
      How can one be sure they know what they’re talking about apart from revelation when they refer to the true God (presuming there is one superior truth to them all)? And how can one appropriate revelation without authority beyond an individuals’ judgment and reason?

      Here I think it’s very unwise to go agains the orthodox view. For me the church’s consensus on that revelation is superior, If for no other reason than what one has faith in, is established and committed to on the basis of a special authority. The other strength is The orthodox view gives one an admitted point to point to its irrationality, rather than pretend there’s a rational grounds to stand on when it comes to the ultimate transmundane reality. There isn’t. Here the universal orthodox church is better situated to deal with revelation and it’s appropriation to the understanding of the only object that matters to its existence (here I use object relativly).

      Just my two sense, which probably is easily refuted, but I’d love to hear what that would be.

  6. It would be interesting to see where you would locate “faith in God.” It seems ultimately every doctrine has an end in transcendence in some sense. And since the trinity is ultimately not an explanation but a political grounds for a faith group, perhaps it is then, ultimately, a litmus test of where one’s faith lies?

    Anyways, the way I see it, “God” is an empty concept where one’s model says more about themselves then the reality and actuality of “God” per se. Who is God?, what is God?, who is Christ?, what is Christ?. These are built on so many presuppositions and intuitions that no one person shares, it would be interesting if your frustration is because you want to trust in a tight, so called transparent concept, or you actually trust in something that is so basic it’s like trusting something that quite frankly is ultimate (whatever that may mean). It’s hard enough believing in the crazy idea of a dying and resurrecting Lord, let alone an abstract concept of God. The trinity seems to help and hurt depending where one places their faith.

    The strength of the trinity, for me at least, is that it holds those actualities close, and in some sense equal, to this craziest of all things (a risen Lord). Locating faith is always a fascinating topic for me, because it’s so mystical, existential, like catching the wind. I just trust the father, through the Son, by the Spirit…What a weird, and wild thought and so loaded. Christianity is weird though, in general, so what you gonna do? lol.

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