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.