For the past six months or so I’ve been following with great interest Ben Nasmith’s ruminations on the Holy Trinity over at his blog “Cognitive Resonance.” Ben is trying to figure if the trinitarian doctrine is both biblical and philosophically coherent. I gather that he belongs to the evangelical stream of Christianity. Hence he is doing what all thoughtful evangelicals like to do—assess theological claims in light of the plain reading of the Bible.
Ben appears to be on the cusp of jettisoning the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (“Trinitarian Trilemma“). He is finding Dale Tuggy’s arguments on behalf of unitarianism compelling. Dale abandoned his belief in the trinitarian doctrine several years ago, after a long period of research and reflection. As he explains in an interview with J. Dan Gill:
Not all versions of Trinity doctrines are contradictory. The more important question is, are they well founded in the Scriptures? When I went back to that I came to see, I mean, I read about the stories of the creeds coming to be, and that was pretty disturbing. But I came to see that these schemes have just been imposed upon the text. … I would accept the doctrine of the Trinity if it was the best explanation of the text. If it was really needed to properly understand the text then I would believe it even though it’s not there in the text. But it’s not the best explanation.
I find all of this fascinating, as I find Dale and Ben’s approach to the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity completely wrong-headed. If I were to approach question of God as they do, I would not only reject the Trinity but Christianity and church altogether. The gospel was not born in the classrooms of analytic philosophers.
Six months ago, in a series of articles on hermeneutics and Scripture, I observed the oddity of someone invoking the Bible to argue against one of the core beliefs of the very community that canonized the Bible. I won’t repeat here the arguments I advanced in that series, except to reiterate that there is only one reason to believe that the biblical writings are divinely inspired—because they are confessed to be Holy Scripture by the Church, by the same Church that proclaims and teaches that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided; and only this Church can teach us how to read the Bible as Scripture. The fact that we often find the patristic exegesis “different” from our own interpretations of the biblical texts should alert us that reading the Bible as Scripture is different from how we read any other document. First-century believers did not restrict themselves to a plain reading of the Old Testament. They read it as if it were all about Jesus of Nazareth. Who today would guess that the rock Moses struck with his rod (Ex 17:6) typologically refers to the risen Christ, yet to the Apostle Paul the reference was obvious (1 Cor 10:4), or that Proverbs 8 reveals to us something about Jesus’ relationship to the Father, yet Athanasius and Arius both took the connection for granted. We inhabit today a very different worldview. Whether we read the Bible plainly or critically—as Stanley Hauerwas never tires of saying, fundamentalism is but the flip-side of the historical-critical method—we are not reading it as the apostolic and patristic Christians did. How then can we hope to penetrate to that theological and spiritual meaning that God intends for his Church? Hence when Dale Tuggy set for himself the project of reading the Bible through his evangelical and philosophical spectacles to determine whether he could find confirmation of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, the conclusion of his quest was virtually preordained.
In this post I wish to comment upon the incredible hermeneutical disadvantage in which all sola Scriptura Protestants find themselves when they consider catholic doctrines like the Holy Trinity or the two natures of Christ. Not only are they not reading the Scriptures according to the hermeneutical rules of the community that canonized the Scriptures (though this is probably true for most Western Christians); but even more decisively, they are not indwelling the sacramental, liturgical, and ascetical practices that formed the hearts and minds of patristic Christians and eventually led them to the Nicene confession of the Trinity. This is huge. At the end of the second century, St Irenaeus of Lyons declared: “Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn, confirms our teaching.” But where is the Eucharist in evangelical Christianity? Where are the sacraments? Where are the rites and sacramentals? Where are the prayers for the departed and the invocation of the saints? Where are the prostrations and the sign of the cross? Where is the chant? the icons? the bishops? the ascetics? Where is the Theotokos? The list could be multiplied almost endlessly. Orthodoxy speaks of this matrix of ecclesial life under the locus Holy Tradition and insists that the Scriptures can only be rightly interpreted and understood by those who are immersed in and spiritually blessed by this Tradition. Hence while most Orthodox theologians, I think, would agree that the Bible is materially sufficient as an authority of faith, they would all affirm that it is formally insufficient. The Scriptures do not stand on their own but belong to the complex web of revelatory sources and spiritual practices that constitute Church in Tradition. Ultimately, as Vladimir Lossky states, Holy Tradition is nothing less than “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”
I do not intend the above as a polemic against evangelical Christianity—Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism suffer their own terrible impoverishments—but the kind of sacramental and ecclesial life that characterized patristic Christianity and that engendered belief in God the Holy Trinity simply does not exist in modern evangelicalism. There is the Bible and sometimes some very good preaching, perhaps also a praise band and enthusiastic singing. If a sola scriptura believer assigns himself the task of reading the Bible to determine which, if any, of the catholic dogmas or practices accord with its plain teaching, he will never come up with anything that resembles historic Christianity.
Lex orandi, lex credendi. Long before the Church dogmatically confessed that Jesus Christ is homoousios with the Father, she was preaching a trinitarian gospel. Long before there was a St Athanasius, she was worshipping Jesus Christ and praying to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Long before the Council of Nicaea, she was living the Nicene faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a philosophical construct grounded in neutral exegesis of the Bible. It is confession of the apostolic faith celebrated every Sunday and every day in the Divine Liturgy and Divine Offices. As Christos Yannaras incisively observes, “We will not come to know the triunity of God by reading the Scripture or synodal decrees, but we will come to know it by participating (perhaps over a long time) in the mode of existence that constitutes the Church.”
Can we read our way into the Trinity? I do not think so. But perhaps we can read our way out of the Trinity.