Unitarianism and the Bible of the Holy Trinity

I do not know if it’s happening throughout worldwide evangelicalism or is restricted to the more intellectually inclined; but I have noticed a curious phenomenon on the internet—a movement amongst evangelicals from trinitarian to unitarian faith. This movement does not necessarily entail the rejection of the teaching of Jesus nor even rejection of the confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is a unitarianism that can accommodate the kind of subordinationism characteristic of some of the second and third century Church Fathers: Jesus and the Spirit are “divine” (in some sense), but only the Father is the one God. Consider, for example, a recent blog article by Kermit Zarley: “Can Genuine Christians Be Trinitarian or Non-Trinitarian?

Zarley begins his article with the announcement that through scripture God has enlightened him “that being a Christian has nothing to do with being Trinitarian. Contrary to church dogma, you don’t have to be a Trinitarian to be a Christian. And being a Trinitarian doesn’t disqualify you from being a Christian. I can prove these things from the Bible.”

This really is hard to resist. Since starting Eclectic Orthodoxy a year ago, I have tried to avoid the usual Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox debates. The apologetics wars are soul-killers. I discovered that back in my days when I strode the internet world as THE PONTIFICATOR. Okay, that does sound a bit over-dramatic. I was nothing more than a minor player; but for a couple of years I did actually have a real audience for my now-defunct Pontifications (the original blog site, alas, long ago disappeared into the black hole of the cyber-universe). Pontifications even received a couple of awards. Perhaps most illustriously, I was inducted as protomember of the Order of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch! My children formally presented the Holy Hand Grenade to me on Christmas Day 2005, and it still sits proudly on my bookshelf.

Subsequent inductees into the OHHGA include Neil Dhingra, Shawn Tribe, Michael Liccione, Gabriel Syme, and Keith Kenney. I appear to be the only member of the OHHGA still actively blogging. Even the high priest of the order, Bernard Brandt, has retired from the fray.

I thought the Pontificator had died some seven years ago; but when philosopher Dale Tuggy chimed in with his enthusiastic thumbs-up of the Zarley article, I felt a tingling up and down my spine. “No, no!” my soul cried out. “Stay dead, stay dead!” I tried to push the silver stake back in with my right hand but the left hand was too powerful. Years of battle with the passions were undone in a single moment—the Pontificator is reborn!

Oops. I’m falling back into melodrama. Internet apologists can take themselves so seriously. Back to the topic at hand.

Zarley tells us that God has revealed to him the falsity of Trinitarianism. Apparently it’s not enough simply to offer arguments. We need to preface them with a claim to divine inspiration. Well, I refuse to be intimidated. No one plays the divine inspiration card better than we Eastern Orthodox. Catholics may have a Pope whom the Holy Spirit protects from grievous error under specific, limited conditions, and charismatics may have a Holy Spirit who helps them to find parking spaces; but we Eastern Orthodox not only have the Great and Holy Ecumenical Council of Nicaea to undergird our faith in the Holy Trinity, but we also have godly theologians who have been filled with the uncreated energies of the Creator—all of whom, without exception, confess the Deity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But what about Zarley’s claim that God has taught him his unitarianism through the Bible? Yawn. People have been “proving” all sorts of things from the Bible for two millennia. But this does bring us to an important question: Why should the witness of these texts matter? Why should this collection enjoy more authority for Christians than, say, the orations of St Gregory of Nazianzus, the commentaries of St Cyril of Alexandria, or even the pontifications of the Pontificator? Presumably, I would think, because these writings are the inspired Word of God. And how do we know this? Because, and only because, this is what the community that has preserved, read, prayed, and preached these texts says about them. The Bible didn’t fall from heaven. It wasn’t given to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni. It wasn’t originally sold as a book by Barnes & Noble. It is a product of the Church for the Church. And it just so happens that this same Church interprets these texts as teaching the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

There is something very odd about someone invoking the authority of the Scriptures of the Church to reject an understanding of God that the identical Church has dogmatically affirmed for the past 1700 years. If the Church is wrong about its central teaching about God, isn’t it also quite likely wrong about its confession of the inspiration and authority of its Scriptures? How can it be possible to divorce the Bible from the very society that brought these texts together as canon and acknowledged them as Scripture? Or as St Augustine of Hippo famously put the matter: “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”

Yet apparently it is important to Zarley and Tuggy to authoritatively ground their rejection of Trinitarianism in the Scriptures of the Trinitarian Church.

(Go to “Reading Scripture as non-Scripture“)

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36 Responses to Unitarianism and the Bible of the Holy Trinity

  1. Three shall be the counting!

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha!

      …And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, “O LORD, bless this Thy hand grenade that with it Thou mayest blow Thine enemies to tiny bits, in Thy mercy.” And the LORD did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats and large chu… [At this point, the friar is urged by Brother Maynard to "skip a bit, brother"]… And the LORD spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.”

  2. tgbelt says:

    “Why should this collection [Scripture] enjoy more authority for Christians than, say, the orations of St Gregory of Nazianzus, the commentaries of St Cyril of Alexandria, or even the pontifications of the Pontificator? Presumably, I would think, because these writings are the inspired Word of God. And how do we know this? Because, and only because, this is what the community that has preserved, read, prayed, and preached these texts says about them.”

    As an evangelical, I’m happy to concede the logic of this. It’s difficult to defeat! And I share your concern for what seems to be a rise of Unitarianism and, if not Unitarianism, at least an increasing lack of conviction in Trinitarianism and its place in our understanding of salvation.

  3. CJ says:

    I’m looking forward to your continuation. The difficulties of the doctrine of the Trinity have bubbled for me since my 6 year old son has tried to understand how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can all be God, and there’s only one God.

    The best way I could explain it to him is that all three have always been, that nobody else created them, and that they created the universe. So they are all God, and since no one else can claim those things, nobody else is God.

    • Jason says:

      Perhaps try St. Patrick’s technique if you haven’t already – that of using the 3-leaf clover as an illustration of the Trinity.

  4. john burnett says:

    I have been noticing for some years that pentecostals and evangelicals of the ‘lower’ churches have taken to praying exclusively to the Father, and not to Jesus. I have wondered what the roots of this shift are, and what’s the idea behind it. Surely, though, this example of lex orandi/credendi is driving what you’re writing about here. Would appreciate any insights into how this came about.

    Is Zarley claiming that Jesus is *not* God??

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question, John. As you no doubt observed, Zarley is not clear in his article about the divinity of Christ. I have not searched his blog for other articles on the Trinity and divinity of Christ, so I do not know where he stands. Tuggy has written extensively on these subjects on his blog. I think he believes in some kind of Origenist-style subordinationism, but I may be wrong on that.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, you might want to peruse through Zarley’s postings on the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. I think the answer to your question is: no.

  5. CJ says:

    john burnett,

    I think it’s just a function of sola scriptura. I think we can honestly say that the Trinity is not crystal clear from Scripture alone (I say this as a trinitarian). So when one doesn’t have recourse to tradition, what do you do with verses like “my Father is greater than I” or “I return to my Father and your Father, your God and my God?”

    There are other reasons that may particular to an individual. For example, libertarian blogger Vox Day is ok with the Nicene Creed, but takes issue with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (with the expanded section on the Holy Spirity) because he perceives it to be the result of imperial meddling. Here’s a link to a discussion of the Trinity on his blog: http://voxday.blogspot.com/2013/10/mailvox-25-reasons-for-trinitarian.html

  6. Agni Ashwin says:

    Do the Holy Hand Grenades of Antioch have any power over the Alexandrian School?

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hmmm, excellent question. But since I have such a high regard for Athanasius and Cyril, I’m certainly not going to try it out against Alexandria. :)

  7. PJ says:

    “I have been noticing for some years that pentecostals and evangelicals of the ‘lower’ churches have taken to praying exclusively to the Father, and not to Jesus.”

    The Catholic liturgy is largely directed to the Father “through our Lord Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit.” This dynamic has influenced my private prayer as well. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It is both scriptural and traditional, emphasizing Christ’s role as mediator and priest. I know many evangelicals who pray directly to Jesus, and frankly, I find it somewhat off-putting, perhaps because of the formulations of the Catholic liturgy, which are not only more solemn, but also oriented — generally speaking — to the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Spirit.

  8. tgbelt says:

    I’m an ordained evangelical minister and formerly (for 20+ years) a missionary. Truth be told, coming back to minister within the American evangelical church, I still feel like I’m a missionary. Maybe I am.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Can sola scriptura churches ultimately hold on to the orthodox faith in the confrontation with modernity? I’m skeptical, which is one reason why I am no longer an Episcopalian.

      N. T. Wright is a good example of someone who says he believes in sola scriptura while at the same time affirming orthodox beliefs in God and Christ. I do not believe that he truly appreciates how dependent he is on the dogmatic decisions of the early Church.

      • PJ says:

        N.T. Wright’s vast erudition of history and theology obviously buoys and informs his commitment to sola scriptura. The average pewsitter doesn’t have that luxury.

      • Fr. Kimel,
        In my six decade long journey from Missouri Synod Lutheranism, through 4 decades as an Episcopalian, to my reception in the Catholic Church, I had one (literally) mentally overwhelming epiphany, which I was unable to verbalize for about six months. The words came from Newman (if I am not mistaken they are from his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and, IMHO they confirm your skepticism. I found the passage in question quoted in the March 17, 2009 On the Square article in First Things, written by Fr. Edward T. Oakes SJ.:

        The most obvious answer, then, to the question, why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given. . . . If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of Revelation.

        _______________
        Pax et bonum,
        Keith Töpfer

  9. Nicole says:

    I don’t claim to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, but I do believe in it. I think I do for two reasons. In the bible Jesus is God, yet he calls the Father God and says the holy spirit is another. Yet there is only one God. But also, it just makes sense that if God is love, love is not love by itself. God the father, the son, and the holy spirit then exist forever in a triune of love. This is just my laywoman’s reasoning, I guess.

  10. Dear Fr. Kimel,

    Thank you for your kind words as regards my languishing weblog. Your example of returning is inspiring me to consider following suit.

    As regards Unitarianism, I will content myself by remarking that our Lord said of prophets, “by their fruits shall ye know them.” Those who proclaim the faith that there is but one God, and no persons, from Arius to the American Transcendentalists, if they were to return to the fray a century or so later, will find that their followers have indulged in all manner of follies, from Islam to Political Correctness. If Christian fundamentalists are among the most recent iteration of such fools, then to paraphrase the cowboy song, “It’s their misfortune and none of my own.”

    Welcome back, Fr. Kimel.

    P.S. Are you still in the habit of having Eggs Benedict with a slice of beef tongue instead of the usual canadian bacon/ham/etc?

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, beef tongue is simply the only and best way to enjoy Eggs Benedict! Good to hear from you!

  11. Adam DeVille says:

    You’re definitely on to something. I’ve been seeing the same kind of crypto-unitarianism in my students for many years now–especially, but not exclusively, the so-called non-denominational ones. When we discuss the Trinity, “God” always and only = Father. They have no coherent Christology, usually, under questioning, saying vaguely that Jesus is divine, but distinctly unsure how he relates to the Father. And then the Spirit is almost entirely overlooked. As a result of this, I’ve often said that 75% of my students are unconscious semi-Arian crypto-Modalists. Of course you add to this incoherence a thinly veiled hostility about dogmatic debates and conciliar conflicts: e.g., when we discuss Chalcedon many of them are openly scornful that Christians fought and divided over this stuff. To them it’s pointless and irrelevant: after all, doesn’t everyone have their own ideas about God, and who’s to say they aren’t all good enough to get everyone to heaven, so who cares?

  12. PJ says:

    “When we discuss the Trinity, “God” always and only = Father. ”

    To be fair, this is rather Scriptural. The New Testament rarely calls Christ “God” directly. When it does, it lacks the article, right? I can’t read koine, but I recall reading that in one of Fr. Behr’s books.

    • Adam DeVille says:

      This is true, but my students, alas, do not derive it from Scripture (would that they did!), which almost none of them have read, and certainly not in Greek.

  13. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Germane to our present theme: “What did it mean to call Jesus ‘God’? NT Wright

    • PJ says:

      I recommend Larry Hurtado’s work on this subject, especially “One God, One Lord.” Also, Martin Hengel.

  14. Jaco van Zyl says:

    A few I could recommend: JAT Robinson’s “The Human Face of God,” James McGrath’s “The Only True God,” Karl-Heinz Ohlig’s “One or Three?”, James Dunn’s “Christology in the Making,” and “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?”

  15. Drew says:

    I would be interested in hearing some brief thoughts from you in response.Thanks.http://randalrauser.com/2013/11/are-the-orthodox-better-off-than-the-heretical/

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Drew, I found Rauser’s article somewhat curious. I think the real problem here, though, is the absence of trinitarian liturgy within evangelicalism. Given this absence, the doctrine of the Trinity simply becomes a puzzle to be solved, with everyone wondering why it matters.

      • Drew says:

        Thank you father for your response. I respect both you and randal as teachers and have learned much from reading both blogs. I actually Randal this piece and here was his response. “It’s an interesting argument, but also one that seems to me is deeply flawed. The argument seems to be this: Dale can’t go back to the Bible and find Unitarianism because we only accept these texts as inspired through the church and the church reads them as Trinitarian. (I hope that is not too crude a rehash.)That seems obviously false to me. For one thing, it is a non sequitur. Whether or not one comes to believe the Bible is inspired through the witness of the church is quite a different matter from whether one, reading the New Testament itself, comes to believe the texts are Unitarian or Trinitarian.Moreover, the argument papers over the profound disagreement as to how trinitarianism is to be understood. Trinitarians widely believe that their form of trinitarianism is also the biblical one. But since the Church writ large never baptized one or another theory of trinitarianism, it would follow that all these claims are illegitimate.Finally, by this kind of argument the 17th century church could have silenced Galileo by saying that the church has always believed geocentrism is to be found in the Bible. Clearly this would have been a mistaken path, and that’s not simply because geocentrism turned out to be false. It is mistaken because the church must reserve the right (as individuals or groups) to dissent from consensus positions held at an earlier time in the church.And of course I say all this as a Trinitarian who simply finds the critique of Dale’s position wanting.”

      • I am curious to know in what way trinitarianism is lacking in evangelicalism. I’d imagine it could be what I call the Heavenly Daddy Complex, where Almighty God, the Father, is pushed into the background, Jesus is worshipped and adored as the better Hero and the Holy Ghost as the One making the magic happen. Jimmy Dunn calls it Jesus-olatry. As an unorthodox Christian myself, I prefer worship and liturgy rendered to Almighty Father as God and to Jesus-as-human the depiction of that God. Worshiping God in perfect humanity is a gradual shift we’re introducing into our congregation of 1 800 – a congregation which has traditionally been Reformed. Many Christians wake up to the fact that the catholic Trinity doctrine is an evolved concept. Many see no need to try and reconcile what is irreconcilible for the sake of clinging to a doctrine that does not speak to their spiritual needs. Abandonment of the Trinity has never been at as high a rate in the history of Christianity. It’s never been part of first-century Christianity anyway…

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Drew, I’ll be finishing up this series soon. When read as a whole, I think my argument may be less vulnerable to Randal’s criticism. We shall see. :)

        I do not deny that someone can read the NT texts, as texts, and conclude that the writers did not explicitly believe in a doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But is that person reading the Bible as Scripture? Randal and Dale would say yes, but I think there are good reasons to say that he is not. But I’m not finished with my series. I’d be interested in Randal’s thoughts on the completed series.

        Randal writes: “the church must reserve the right (as individuals or groups) to dissent from consensus positions held at an earlier time in the church.” This is a good Protestant thing to say; but it’s neither an Orthodoxy nor Roman Catholic thing to say. Orthodoxy is so structured by a trinitarian vision of God that if it were to abandon the trinitarian doctrine it’s entire liturgical and ascetical life would collapse. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity, as defined by the ecumenical councils, is dogma.

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “I am curious to know in what way trinitarianism is lacking in evangelicalism.”

        Jaco, I suspect that as a religious movement evangelicalism would work just fine without either the catholic doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Tuggy and Zarley have rightly seen this, which is why they believe that it is possible to be “biblical unitarians” and describe their theology as Christian.

        From an Orthodox perspective, this is nonsense. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a philosophical formulation imposed upon the Church by either Emperor or nasty bishops. Rather, it expresses who God must be if Orthodox worship and prayer is to be sustained. In other words, for Orthodoxy (as for Roman Catholicism) the doctrine of the Trinity is dogma. The idea that a Christian could adopt a neutral attitude and examine the Scriptures to determine whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true is to automatically set oneself outside the Church and thus outside faith.

      • Thanks, Fr. Kimel

        I agree with Zarley and Tuggy that Christianity can be adequately (if not more meaningfully) practiced without the Trinity, hypostatic union or the incarnation. But “evangelical” is in my opinion synonymous to candy-floss theology, emotionally charged oration and running into Jesus around every corner. But it could be my negative sentiments toward what Evangelicalism has become, mostly due to American influences.

        Anyway, I do not think that the possibility (if not superiority) of humanitarian unitarian Christianity is “nonsense.” At my church Biblical and universal symbolism, and meaningful tradition such as silence and communion are used in liturgy while preaching an utterly human Jesus, the reflection of God’s glory, with God as nobody else but Father Yahweh and the holy spirit as a means of God’s self-revelation. Sustaining worship and prayer is most certainly not contingent upon upholding the Catholic Trinity. In February a group from our church went on silent retreat for 4 days at a retreat site owned and run by a Roman Catholic priest and 3 other RC congregants. In all the prayer services Father Mike preached an utterly human Christ and a singular, supreme God. Again, using universal symbolism, especially from nature, rich spiritual tradition has been established which has proven to be immensely transformative.

        You sound like a Presuppositionalist – and by that a Trinitarian one – which is in my opinion merely a glorified circular arguer. Truth can stand on its own and should prove sovereign under all scrutiny. If trinitarianism cannot stand an objective test against Scripture, history and logic, I’m afraid it’s nothing else but hopelessly inferior to every other form of objectively provable truth. It is also one of the reasons why history has shown it to be forcibly imposed upon Christians with the risk of persecution, torture and death if questioned.

        It is for these reasons that Dutch theologians such as the Reformed theologian Hendrikus Berkhof, Roman Catholic Ellen Flesseman-Van Leer, Eduard Schillebeeckx and others, as well as JAT Robinson, Raymond E Brown and John Hick have been so influential in circles where traditional understanding of God has lost significance and appeal.

  16. Even the liberal and more conspiratorial interpreters of Christian history admit it was the Trinitarians who gave us the Bible. There’s hardly a “safe place” for anti-Trinitarians to run from tradition and they largely have to convince us the Trinity isn’t there in the text or in history. I’m an ex-anti-Trinitarian by the way and I don’t think anti-Trinitarians get as to why non-belief in it is heretical.

  17. Jaco van Zyl says:

    Well, if the only texts the Trinitarians could choose from to canonise the Christian Bible were non-trinitarian texts…well… then us unitarians wouldn’t care, would we? ;-)

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