Trinity, Eucharist, Tradition and the Challenge of Sola Scriptura

In his article “The Evolution of My Views on the Trinity,” philosopher Dale Tuggy briefly describes how the writings of the 18th century philosopher Samuel Clarke impelled him to re-read the New Testament with the aim of learning whether the New Testament authoritatively supports the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity. At the conclusion of his study he was forced to conclude that it does not:

In the end, it is the Bible vs. catholic tradition. For me, the Bible had to win. So, reading Clarke led me to see the unitarianism (again, just the thesis that the Father is one and the same as the one God) in the Bible, and this made me a unitarian, though I had no desire to be one, and many reasons to not want either that label or that belief.

In a previous post I noted the oddity of someone invoking the Bible to argue against one of the core beliefs of the very community that canonized the writings of the Bible. In this article I wish to note the impossibility of doing so.

As we have seen, the inclusion of a specific writing into the canon of Holy Scripture effects a change of literary, social, and cultural context. The meaning of a given text changes when it is incorporated into a wider collection of texts that is intended to be read as one book. It’s not enough, in other words, to determine the historical-critical meaning of a specific passage. Every book, ever chapter, every verse must now be interpreted within the context of the whole. This means that even if St. Paul could come back and explain to us precisely what he meant when he wrote his Epistle to the Romans, he would not be able to determine for us the canonical and spiritual significance of his words. It is the entire canon that the Church proclaims as Scripture, not just individual texts. The Bible is one book; God is its ultimate author; and its audience is the Church—not just the Church of the first century but the Church of every century, until the Lord Christ returns in glory.

That the Bible is one inspired book has been historically confessed by Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism. The unity of the Scriptures is encapsulated in the Protestant principle of the analogy of faith and its corollary “Scripture interprets Scripture.” But Protestantism has also eschewed the catholic notion that a biblical text may actually have multiple meanings and has thus tended to restrict its meaning to its plain meaning, typically identified today as historical-grammatical meaning. But as Richard Swinburne observes, this is all quite impossible:

The slogan of Protestant confessions, ‘the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself,’ is quite hopeless. The Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books. We must have a preface. And if not a preface in the same volume, a short guide by the same author issued in the same way as the Bible, providing disambiguation and publicly seen by the intended audience to do so. Such a guide would be an extension of the original work. And that said, there is of course such a guide. It is the Church’s creeds and other tradition of public teaching of items treated as central to the Gospel message. While the Church did not use the phrase of God that he was the author of the tradition of teaching in the Church deriving from Christ by which Scripture was to be interpreted, and that much of that was encapsulated in short and rigorous form in the creeds and other official Church documents. Allegiance to creeds was regarded as far more important at a far earlier stage of the Church’s history than acknowledgement of the authority of Scripture. The Bible as promulgated by the Church must therefore be interpreted in the light of the Church’s central teaching as a Christian document. …

The idea that the Bible could be interpreted naked, without a tradition of interpretation which clarified its meaning, is not intrinsically plausible and would not have appealed to many before the fifteenth century. Theology from without always dictated which sentences of the Bible were benchmarks by which other sentences were interpreted. (Revelation, pp. 177-178)

To insist that Scripture must be interpreted through creed is to insist that the community of faith is, in Stanley Hauerwas’s words, “more determinative than text.”

In his book Scripture in Tradition, John Breck argues that the Bible must be situated within the Holy Tradition of the Church, if it is to be rightly heard as God’s revelation to his people and experienced as source of the new life of the Kingdom. The Scriptures are themselves the product of Holy Tradition. “Tradition is the matrix,” he writes, “in which the Scriptures are conceived and from which they are brought forth” (p. 9). This is most clearly seen in the relationship between the New Testament and the apostolic Church: before a single epistle or gospel had been composed, there was the community and the apostolic preaching that had brought her into being. It was in this living community, indwelt and inspired by the Holy Spirit, tutored by the apostolic memory, sustained, formed, and recreated by baptism and Eucharist, that apostles and evangelists put quill to parchment and brought forth the texts that came to be received as the New Testament. “Scripture as written text is born of Tradition,” writes Breck.

Holy Scripture is God’s Word to his Church for salvation and thus functions as canon by which all traditions are judged and authentic Tradition is determined. Scripture is birthed within the Church and thus constitutes but one element, albeit the normative written element, of the Holy Tradition. Tradition thus determines the canonical limits of Scripture and provides the dogmatic teaching and hermeneutical rules by which Scripture may be rightly read.

At the heart of this circularity of Scripture and Tradition is the person of the Holy Spirit. Breck writes:

To the patristic mind, what makes this seemingly circular approach not only possible but necessary is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who guides the Church and her inspired authors both to preserve and transmit the essential elements of Tradition, and to produce the canonical or normative writings which Tradition spawns and shapes in terms of their content. Without this inspirational work of the Spirit, both Scripture and Tradition would be purely human products, devoid of any claim to ultimate truth or authority. It is the work of the Spirit that enables the Church both to generate and to interpret her own canon or rule of truth, and thereby to preserve intact, as she must, the true hermeneutic circle constituted by Scripture in Tradition. (pp. 11-12; also see Vladimir Lossky, “Tradition and Traditions“)

Perhaps we can now begin to understand the impossibility of the task that Dr Tuggy undertook. He wanted to know whether the catholic dogma of the Holy Trinity was taught and authorized by Holy Scripture, and so he committed himself to the project of studying the relevant texts. Sounds perfectly reasonable. I’m sure that his study of the Scriptures was accomplished with great sophistication, erudition, and care; but the result was virtually pre-ordained, particularly for someone, anyone, who is not a member of a sacramental-eucharistic-catholic community. The evangelical believer is at a terrible hermeneutical disadvantage. Catholic Christians read the Scripture through the lens of the Holy Eucharist. Our faith is shaped by the trinitarian structure and spiritual dynamism of the Divine Liturgy and the sacramental life of the Church. In the words of St Irenaeus: “Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn, confirms our teaching” (Adv. haer. 4.18.5). Ultimately, I believe that it was the deep trinitarian faith as embodied and lived in the Eucharist that led the Church to reject all forms of Arianism and subordinationism in the fourth century. The Church knows the Trinity because it prays to the Father, with and through the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit; the Church knows the Trinity because it receives from the Father the gift of the Body and Blood of the Son, by which it is filled and transformed by the Spirit.

It is certainly possible for a person to treat the biblical texts as purely historical artifacts and ask, “Did the authors of the New Testament documents teach the trinitarian doctrine of the Church?” I imagine one would get mixed results. Clearly we cannot expect these documents to explicitly state a doctrine of deity employing (and exploding) the categories of Hellenistic philosophy, nor can we expect them to address the kinds of questions that would only be posed three and four centuries later. Hence it’s difficult to see how historical criticism could either confirm or disconfirm the trinitarian dogma, even at the level of narrative. Tuggy believes that the Bible, critically read, argues against trinitarianism, because it clearly presents the Father and Son as “different selves.” I’ll respond to this objection in a future posting. All that needs to be said at this point is that the Church has never restricted itself to a historico-grammatical reading of its Scripture, nor has it looked to the Scripture as the sole authority by which its life is constituted. As we have seen, only when the biblical texts are read through the creeds within the liturgical and ascetical life of the ecclesial community do they in fact become Scripture. The faith of the Church cannot be exhaustively captured in a handful of literary artifacts.

(Return to first article)

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23 Responses to Trinity, Eucharist, Tradition and the Challenge of Sola Scriptura

  1. Naturally, the Eastern Orthodox are left out in his article and the blame is always on us Catholics but only of the Roman Rite. Even though it was us EASTERN Christians and not the Western Christians who were the ones that breathed the life into tradition itself!

    I’m an unofficial convert to the Greek Catholic Church which in America is called the Byzantine Catholic Church, by the way.

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  2. Jason says:

    It’s heartbreaking that apparently there simply must be this “Bible vs. Tradition” competition, as if they are somehow at odds and always warring in a neverending cage match. The fantasy is attractive enough to suck in intelligent people like Tuggy, whose statement “For me, the Bible had to win,” is downright ridiculous. What did the Bible win, a trophy? Who were the spectators? With its victory, is there no longer any reason for the battered and bruised Tradition to exist? Do Tradition’s adherents then face ostracism or worse? This type of manufactured fantasy has run its course, and thankfully your post here does a good job exposing it as farce.

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  3. PJ says:

    “This is all about theories, mind you – well, about that plus politics – those “fathers” I’m referring to were catholic Bishops desperate to maintain control over their churches, and to enlist the Empire to help them smash their rivals.”

    The fact that Tuggy thinks that this struggle is “all about theories” is very telling. I don’t know what tradition he hails from, but for me the Trinity is not “theory,” but life itself. Once the Trinity is relegated to “theory,” unitarianism is not far away.

    That said, I find the catholic-orthodox reliance on the unbiblical (and sometimes antibiblical) language of Greek metaphysics and Latin scholasticism to be unfortunate. I pray for those scholars and churchmen who are working to construct a trinitarian grammar that is genuinely scriptural — that is, a trinitarian theology in the apostolic idiom. This grammar, this idiom, is found in the fathers to greater or lesser degrees. It is still apparent as late as St. John Damascene. It will make some traditionalists uncomfortable, because it may require rethinking conventional trinitarian terminology in light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For instance, in light of the economy of salvation, must we assert — as would a classical Greek or Roman — that being subject to another necessarily and ineluctably implies inferiority? For instance, can the Son be subject to the Father without sacrificing his equality with the Father?

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  4. PJ says:

    And if we’re being frank, aspects of traditional trinitarian theology, at least in the Latin west, lend themselves to unitarianism. One might be surprised to find St. Thomas affirming, with St. Augustine, that “when we say the person of the Father we mean nothing else but the substance of the Father,” and furthermore that “the divine simplicity requires that in God essence is the same as “suppositum,” which in intellectual substances is nothing else than person.” St. Thomas concludes that, in a real sense, the distinction between the divine persons, and the divine persons and the divine nature, is merely a function of the human mind: “In God essence is not really distinct from person; and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. For person … signifies relation as subsisting in the divine nature. But relation as referred to the essence does not differ therefrom really, but only in our way of thinking.” I know that men more intelligent and erudite than I can explain this apparent elimination of distinction within the Godhead, but honestly it baffles me …

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Could you say where, exactly, in St. Thomas these quotations are to be found?
      My impression (which may be quite wrong) from what you quote is that he is avoiding a false ‘hypostasization’ of the Ousia, as if ‘oneness’ is distinct from, and prior to, ‘threeness’. “In God essence is not really distinct from person” sounds to me like ‘there is no unenhypsotasized “essence”, no “essence” that is not fully enhypostasized by Each of the Three Persons’, but “the persons are really distinguished from each other”, which sounds like, ‘Each is not some merely “apparent” Sabellian function of “the essence” ‘. It sounds to me like strenuously avoiding any possibility of ‘lending itself to unitarianism’.

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  5. Dale says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. For my part, I’m struggling to see what the argument is, despite conversing with various Orthodox and Catholic friends about this. I am committed to thinking more about it.

    The downfall of texts is that they are ambiguous, and can’t argue back, so there are always easy ways to misunderstand them. Their glory is that they remain (basically) unchanged. So it is always possible to peel away the later traditions that are obscuring their meaning. This has proven important to do, in my view.

    Is your argument, like Swinburne on the OT, that when the Church accepted them, at that point they came to had the meaning as then understood by the Church? That they are scripture only with this new set of meanings?

    I will post on this when I get clearer about what the argument is. How can one interpret the Bible without reliance on catholic, creedal tradition? Well, I was studying with constant reference to it. It’s just that if the text says (using simple grammar and common sense) P, and the tradition says not-P, I have to go with P. The texts are a better guide to what Jesus, my Lord, thought (via his immediate apostles and Paul). For me it’s an issue of discipleship. I see Jesus doing that same thing, btw, with the OT, sometimes daring to set aside majority interpretations, which were based on a mythical “oral law” that Moses received. At the same time, it’s clear that Jesus was aware of exegetical debates, and sometimes sided with one or the other.

    BTW, I was not holding out for any explicit statement, or even a very clear teaching of the Trinity. I would have gladly accepted implication, that the true meaning of the texts only implied the Trinity. And short of that, I would have gladly accepted that (some version of) trinitarian theology best explained what the texts say and do not say. But that is not at all what I found.

    One last point. On “Trinity” in your second to last paragraph, there’s a rather serious equivocation – triad (plural referring term) vs. truine deity (singular referring term). In the 2rd and 3rd c., they believed, we can say, in a trinity / triad but not in a Trinity. http://trinities.org/blog/archives/4650 Only in the plural referring term sense can we say that mainstream Christianity was “always trinitarian.” This of course masks that it was long unitarian.

    http://trinities.org/blog/?s=trinitarian+or+unitarian%3F&searchsubmit=

    God bless,
    Dale

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dale, thank you for sharing your thoughts here on EO. You are most welcome.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      In the post you link, you quote from Book II, chapter xv of Theophilus to Autolycus. Then, later, you say, “Writing this letter to his learned friend, Theophilus tells him who his God is in book I – the Father. (See book I, chapters 4 and 14.)” When I see those chapters in the same translation you quote (by Marcus Dods), I see nothing that tells that “the Father” is exclusively Who Theophilus tells Autolycus his God is. Could you say in more detail what exactly you were thinking of in those chapters and why you so understand it?

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  7. PJ says:

    Dale,

    What do you think of this statement: There is one God, the Father, who dwells eternally with his Word and his Spirit; his Word was incarnate in the fullness of time as Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah; his Spirit abides in believers, sanctifying them and conforming them to the image of his Son.

    In conjunction with that, how would you describe your brand of Christian unitarianism?

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  8. jrj1701 says:

    Father bless;
    In my limited knowledge of Scripture, I have always had this personal twist on 2 Peter 1:20-21 that always reaffirmed my faith in Tradition, although it mentions prophecy and not Scripture, in my mind it said that I should not depend on personal understanding but the collective understanding of the Church. I am wondering if my twisted belief is incorrect or may shed light on this debate. Also how does Matt.28:19 fit in to this. Please be patient with this confused seeker.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      jrj, I am probably the last priest you should ask about these good questions, given my own Western captivity. x:-/

      I do not believe that Orthodox confidence in Holy Tradition rests on any single biblical text. It’s just the way we live and think and do our life in the Church. Orthodoxy simply makes no sense if sola scriptura is true.

      Regarding Matt 28:19, see if my next posting helps.

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      • jrj1701 says:

        Father bless;
        Thank you for your reply and I disagree that you are the last priest I should ask because although you claim Western captivity, you have not just slammed me with “The Church doesn’t care how you see it, OBEY!” or totally ignored this sinner who seeks the truth about the Truth. We travel a similar path and I perceive that maybe you know of a pitfall that I am getting ready to fall into.

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  9. PJ says:

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/the_holy_trinity

    So when I said to my professor, in any case, “You know, Professor, I don’t find the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament,” and as I said, I think the problem I was having with the Bible generally, and the New Testament in particular, was that I had been taught all these strange doctrines—foreignly strange doctrines; the doctrine of the Trinity is called “strange” in the service of Pentecost: strange teaching, strange mystery, but you have strange ones that are true, and then you have strange ones that are false—in any case, what my professor told me was this. He said to me, “You don’t think that the doctrine of the Trinity is in the Scriptures?” I said, “No.”

    He said to me, “Have you read the Scriptures? How familiar are you with the Scriptures?” I said, “Well, not too.” Of course, I was like 18 years old, 19 years old. Then he said to me, “Here’s what I would ask you to do. Before we have any conversation, this is what I would ask you to do. Get a notebook and make three columns in your notebook. Under one column, write, ‘God’ or ‘the Father.’ Under another column, write, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ or ‘the Son of God’ or ‘the Word of God.’ Then in a third column, write, ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of God’ or ‘Spirit of Christ’ or ‘the Spirit,’ anything that refers to the one who is the Holy Spirit. In the second column, anything that refers to him who is the Son and Word of God, who is Jesus. In the first column, anything that refers to one God who is the Source.” In later theology, they would even say the Cause or the Principle or the Fountain of the Son and the Spirit.

    “So get a notebook, make three columns, and begin with the New Testament. Then you can go to the Old, because when you go to the Old, you will see that there is also in the Old Testament, there is also the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, who is not God, but is of God, but is divine with the same divinity as God. And you will come to the Spirit of God, the Breath of God, who inspires the prophets. You’ll read texts like, ‘The heavens were made by the Word of the Lord, and all the earth by the breath of his lips,’ and so on.” Those are Old Testament sentences. Then you’ll find sentences about the Son of Man who’s presented to the Father, the royal King who sits at the right hand, and so on. “But we’ll leave the Old Testament aside for now,” he said. Start with the New Testament. That’s the Scripture for Christians, and that’s the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.”

    “Get this notebook, read the New Testament, and keep notes in the New Testament in these three different columns, and see what is said and how these three columns are connected to each other in the teaching of Scripture.” Well, I can tell you, I actually did that. I did it. And just the other day, I found the notebook. I was cleaning up all my notes and everything, planning to get rid of a lot of stuff in my old age, and I found the notebook. It’s a green spiral notebook, and I have my notes of the New Testament. For the sake of full disclosure, I have tell you the entire New Testament is not there in three columns, but a lot of it is. But after a while I just stopped doing it, because it became so clear. It just became so clear that you cannot read the New Testament without God, who is clearly God, who is not Jesus, and who is not the Holy Spirit; and you can’t read the New Testament without Jesus Christ, who is not God the Father and who is not the Holy Spirit; and you can’t read the Scripture without meeting at every page the Holy Spirit, who is not the Son and who is not the Father.

    But when you read the text, you see that the Son and the Spirit are of the Father, from the Father, belonging to the Father, yet they are divine. They present themselves, as St. Basil showed so well in his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, as fully divine; as being, as St. Irenaeus called them, the two hands of God. God is not without his hands, he said, and he never works with one hand. As John of Damascus will say, when God speaks his Word, he breathes, and when he breathes, he speaks, and his words are not dumb, and they’re not alogos. As St. Athanasius will answer, you cannot contemplate God as alogos, wordless, or without wisdom. You cannot even think of God without his Son.

    So then you come to the conclusion that the one, true, and living God, by nature, is the Father. The one, true, and living God, by nature, is not the Creator. God freely decides to create. God would be God without the world. God would be God without the hundred-billion galaxies and the hundred-thousand-billion stars. But God would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit, without the Devar Yahweh, the Word of God, and the Ruach Yahweh in the Old Testament terms, Hebrew, the Breath of God.

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    • Canadian says:

      Beautiful Hopko quote.

      I believe in one God……the Father Almighty.
      Yet His Son and Spirit are eternally begotten and proceeding and differ from the Father only in this.

      I think Lossky quotes Ps. Denys “one God, because one Father.”

      This is Trinitarian.

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    • I don’t know if anyone is still following this, but I would recommend you read Dr. Michael Heiser’s webpage on the Divine Council (thedivinecouncil.com) – which covers a lot of the ground as you mention about what he calls the “threeness” of God in the Old Testament. His Ph.D. thesis is also well done and is called “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature,” can be found online. Michael Heiser is an Evangelical – just to note – so he very much (and I’ve actually listened to a podcast where he lays this out) is against ecclesial Tradition – which, as a Catholic, I happen to disagree with him about – and in favor of the authorial intent being the only meaning of the Scriptures. But he is a professor on ancient Semitic languages and so is very competent in that field.

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  10. lotharson says:

    Hello, are you an Eastern orthodox?

    I just learned your existence on the blog of Randal Rauser and would be very glad to interact with you.

    I view the Bible as a product of the Church
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/
    .

    What do you think about my views?

    Please just delete the link after you read it if it bothers you.

    Cheers.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, lotharson, and welcome to EO.

      To your first question: yes, I am Eastern Orthodox.

      I read the article to which you link. I think there may be some important differences between us. For example, I definitely do not read the Scriptures as I read the rest of Christian literature.

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      • The Bible is kissed and highly venerated in your liturgical services, right? Yes, it certainly is not read as the rest of Christian literature. It is interpreted within a specific context but this is not the same as reading it like Joseph Ratzinger.

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  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have edited this article a bit. Hopefully my argument is a bit clearer.

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  13. Pingback: Unleashing the Scriptures?: is Stanley Hauerwas right when he says the American people have become so corrupt the only thing we can do is take the Bible away from them? | theology like a child

  14. This is so good! Thank you!
    My response is: It is BOTH a trinity and One! Yes there are many aspects, particulars, and personal qualities of the One Most High AND there is One Godhead that contains all of the relative and The Absolute. The One also became personal as its nature or essence is manifested into infinite variety on the visible physical realm of existence. It still remains the One and Only Source of all life. The pure in heart can understand the things of God. The heart understands where the head can never go!

    There are indeed many faces of the One Holy Living One!!!

    The Father or Invisible Presence that we come forth from, His Son, the visible presence of the Invisible One Source, and the Spirit that searches even the depths of God are all One! All Glory be to God in the Highest!!!!
    May you be blessed richly!
    Yvonne

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