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 It’s a call to acquaint oneself with the historical content of a tradition’s beliefs.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.