Analytic philosopher Dale Tuggy has written a curious (but affordable!) book: What is the Trinity? Curious … because if, on the basis of the title, one is hoping to learn why the Church of Jesus Christ formulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, what it means and how it functions in its corporate life, then one is going to be disappointed. This is not to say that the book does not contain helpful information and analysis; but it is to suggest that Dr Tuggy simply misses the evangelical import of the trinitarian dogma. As the proverb goes, can’t see the forest for the trees. The reason is easily identified. Tuggy is an analytic philosopher, and he reads the relevant literature through the eyes of an analytic philosopher. But the first-millennium theologians who contributed to the formulation and development of the doctrine of the Trinity did not understand themselves as philosophers, at least not in the way we understand the term today; and they certainly did not think of themselves as formulating a construal of divinity that would pass the critical muster of trained logicians. Their writings are marked by a terminological fluidity and imprecision that can be more than a little frustrating, as evidenced, for example, by their failure to clearly define words like ousia and hypostasis. What exactly did the Nicene Fathers mean by their confession that Jesus Christ is homoousios with the Father? Pope Alexander of Alexandria and Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea appear to have left the council with different understandings. Perhaps the only thing they agreed upon was that the term excluded Arius from the Church. Patristic theologians were well aware of the obstacles to reconciling the trinitarian confession with biblical monotheism. Tuggy identifies several of them. Consider how much easier it would have been, both for evangelism and catechesis, if the Church Fathers had simply embraced a consistent, easy-to-explain unitarianism. So many headaches would have been avoided. Yet they chose the harder road. Divine revelation constrained them. Their challenge was to find an appropriate conceptuality by which to express their trinitarian apprehension of deity.
While reading through What is the Trinity? I was reminded of the fourth-century theologian Eunomius. He might be described as the Dale Tuggy of his day. He prized philosophical clarity, logical precision, and syllogistic reasoning. Like Tuggy he was convinced that biblical monotheism excludes the kind of Trinitarian theology then being developed by bishops like Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Eunomius accused the Pro-Nicenes of violating the divine simplicity (a philosophical given for Eunomius but not for Tuggy) by introducing composition and passion into the Godhead. He confesses his faith in “one God, the Father Almighty, from whom are all things” (Tuggy speaks of “one divine self”), and therefore concludes that the Son and Spirit must be created beings (Apology). Eunomius’s formidable arguments generated substantive response from the orthodox bishops, as well as vigorous polemic and invective. The Pro-Nicenes accused him of being a logic-chopper, dialectician, technologue. In their eyes Eunomius had sacrificed God’s self-revelation in Christ to the idol of bare reason. Thus St Gregory the Theologian:
This is the answer we make perforce to these posers of puzzles. Perforce—because Christian people find long-winded controversy disagreeable and one Adversary enough for them. Yet our attackers made it essential, since remedies too must be made for diseases, if they are to learn that their wisdom is not complete and that they are not invincible in their vain attempts to nullify the Gospel. For when we abandon faith to take the power of reason as our shield, when we use philosophical enquiry to destroy the credibility of the Spirit, then reason gives way in the face of the vastness of the realities. Give way it must, set going, as it is, by the frail organ of human understanding. The frailty of our reasoning looks like a frailty in our creed. Thus it is that, as Paul too judges, smartness of argument is revealed as a nullifying of the Cross. Faith, in fact, is what gives fullness to our reasoning. (Or 29.21; see “St Gregory Nazianzen as Confessional Theologian“)
What we see here is not just two conflicting theological positions but the collision of two incompatible religious visions. The Eunomian vision is epistemologically optimistic and deductive; the patristic vision, confessional, apophatic, synthetic. Tuggy is, of course, a very different kind of philosopher than Eunomius, yet perhaps the comparison is neither completely inapt nor uncurious. The Pro-Nicene Fathers would have found Tuggy’s presentation and critique as unconvincing, rationalistic, and offensive as they found the arguments of Eunomius.
What is the Trinity? Tuggy states that he hopes that his book will equip folks to figure out what they “think about” the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity (p. 3). This is a curious way of putting the matter. What “I” think about the doctrine is of little consequence. What is important is what the doctrine means to those ecclesial communities that teach it as a dogma that must be respected and believed. If I am considering initiation into, say, the Orthodox Church, I will want to know what Orthodoxy means by its confession of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What exactly am I expected to believe? If I then pose this question to the local Orthodox priest, he will provide me with a succinct summary of the doctrine, referencing creedal, conciliar, and catechetical pronouncements, as well as liturgical hymnody and the consensual teaching of Orthodox theologians, past and present. He will seek to describe the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, as he has received it, as he knows and lives it. This is how doctrine is faithfully handed on. But this is not Tuggy’s position. He writes as a philosophical and historical critic, as one who has rejected the trinitarian faith as incoherent and unbiblical and hopes to persuade his readers to his point of view. Those of us who read his blog Trinities know that Tuggy is a spirited advocate of “Christian unitarianism.” This apologetic advocacy informs What is the Trinity? at numerous points, perhaps at every point. “I neither parade nor hide my views here,” he comments (p. 3); but the question remains whether he has presented us with an understanding of the catholic doctrine of the Trinity which a catholic Christian would recognize as his own. I have my doubts. They will become clear, I hope, in the subsequent articles in this series.
For the non-believer, as well as most Protestants, there is no Church that infallibly teaches today the faith once delivered; there are only churches and individuals existing in different parts of the world in different epochs of history. All we can do is engage in historical reconstruction. Tuggy knows this, but the handicap remains. Whose and which doctrine of the Trinity are we talking about? Doctrines are dynamic realities confessed, taught, prayed and lived by communities of faith. They cannot be fully apprehended by the study of texts, like flies trapped in amber. But what other choice is there for one who stands outside the orthodox Christian tradition? I suppose none; but the limitation still needs to be acknowledged. Tuggy highlights the problem of diversity by distinguishing between trinitarian formulas and their interpretations:
While there have long been standard terms and sentences relating to the Trinity, there is not and has never been any clear and universal consensus about how to understand these. There is agreement about what the sentences did or don’t imply (Tritheism? No. Monotheism? Yes. Different levels or kinds or degrees of divinity among the three? No.) But there is not an interpretation of the sentences themselves which is held in common by all. Interpretations of formulas range from more to less traditional. (p. 14)
Until one admits there is a problem, it can’t be solved. Here, we must admit that we don’t have any clear, widely agreed on interpretation of official catholic language about the Trinity. If we’re going to talk about “the doctrine of the Trinity” we should keep in mind that there is, for most churches, a fairly standard set of formulas (sentences), but not any fairly standard set of claims (interpretations of those sentences). We should set aside the apologists’ habit of making confident assertions about “the” doctrine. (p. 20)
I do not believe that the diversity of interpretations poses as dire a situation as Tuggy here implies. He overlooks the regulative and grammatical function of Christian dogma. I will address this in a subsequent article in this series. At this point I simply want to point out the level of abstraction of Tuggy’s argumentation: the doctrine of the Trinity is reduced to a set of truth-claims divorced from the proclamatory, liturgical, and spiritual experience that the doctrine is intended to express and form. Nor is it possible to determine the truth or falsity of the trinitarian dogma by appeal to the “plain” meaning of the Bible, presumably read according to the criteria of the historical-critical method, for the early Christians did not read the Scriptures as historical-critical scholars. If they had, they never would have found the risen Jesus within our Old Testament. They read the Scriptures with and in the Church, employing typological and allegorical methods and hermeneutical strategies alien to the modern mindset (see “Reading the Bible Properly,” “When Scripture Becomes Scripture,” and “What Does Scripture Mean?“). Who today thinks that Proverbs 8:22-31 attests to the procession of the Son from the Father, yet this was old hat for the ante- and post-Nicene Fathers, as well as their opponents. Ecclesial meaning trumps plain meaning; or perhaps more accurately, ecclesial meaning enfolds, deepens, corrects, and transforms plain meaning.
But the handicap in which Tuggy operates is even more severe. Not only does Tuggy stand outside the Christian faith (I know, I know, he will object to this statement, but as an Orthodox Christian I have to be honest about this), but his personal experience of the Christian faith is limited to an evangelical-Protestant form. He has not been shaped by the liturgical and sacramental life of the catholic Church; he has not been immersed in Eucharist nor formed by its symbolic language and graces. Forest and trees. Why is this important? Because the liturgy is the home and matrix of the Trinity. It was the liturgical and spiritual life of believers that ultimately drove the development of the trinitarian doctrine. The Trinity was never just a philosophical conundrum of one and three, which is too often how those in the scholastic and analytic traditions tend to think of the matter. It was always a matter of worship, praise and prayer. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Long before Christians formulated the doctrine of the Trinity, Christians prayed in the Trinity: to the Father, through and with Jesus the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Back in my seminary days in the late 70s, I read and reread Robert W. Jenson’s book The Triune Identity. After reviewing the kinds of trinitarian discourse found in the New Testament and the early tradition, grounded in the universal practice of baptism into the triadic Name, Jenson writes:
The kinds of trinitarian discourse developed in the New Testament and in the immediately subsequent period have continued through the history of the church. With use of the triune name they are the substance of living trinitarian apprehension of God. Christians bespeak God in a triune coordinate system; they speak to the Father, with the Son, in the Spirit, and only so bespeak God. Indeed, they live in a sort of temporal space defined by these coordinates, and just and only so live “in God.” And they represent the God with whom they have thus to do in iconography and metaphor which is functional in its attribution of deity. Where these modes lose some of their power to shape actual proclamation and prayer, as in the medieval and the modern Western church, an alienation of the church must be suspected.
Pastors often suppose the Trinity to be too complicated to explain to the laity. Nothing could be more misguided. Believers know how to pray to the Father, daring to call him “Father” because they pray with Jesus his Son, and so enter into the future these two have for them, that is, is praying in the Spirit. Those who know how to do this, and who realize that just in the space defined by these coordinates they have to do with God, do understand the Trinity. All the intellectual complexities we must shortly embark upon are a secondary phenomenon, whose proper location is the back of the teacher’s and preacher’s mind, determining the way he guides and, when necessary, explains, this relation to this God. (pp. 47-48; also see Josef Jungmann, The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer and Christian Prayer Through the Centuries, as well as the collection of scholarly essays reflecting on Jungmann’s work: The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer)
I have never forgotten this passage, which is why, unlike so many Western Rite pastors (whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran), I never dreaded preaching on Trinity Sunday. To “explain” the Trinity all I had to do was point to the eucharistic prayer, any extant eucharistic prayer. Almost universally (with an exception or two) they are addressed to God the Father and conclude with a trinitarian doxology. Thus the doxology of the 3rd century (if not earlier) anaphora of the Apostolic Tradition:
that we may praise and glorify you,
through your child Jesus Christ,
through whom be glory and honor to you,
Father and Son,
with the Holy Spirit,
in your Holy Church,
both now and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Who is the God who is here addressed? The Father … but not just any Father but the Father of Jesus, his only begotten Son. The Creator is mysteriously constituted by his relation to the Nazarene. “All things have been delivered to me by my Father,” Jesus declared; “and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27). Here the decisive theological questions are posed: Did God become Father when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin, at some later point, or has he always been Father? Would God still be Father if there were no Jesus or no world? And why must we pray through Jesus anyway? The Church has wrestled with these questions throughout its history. Various answers have been proposed and many discarded. In 381 the Church definitively settled on the homoousion, applied to both the Son and Spirit. In 553 it dogmatically pronounced that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, “is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity.” Theological reflection continues and will continue until our Lord returns in glory.
Underlying, shaping, and energizing the Church’s reflection on the Trinity is its foundational doxological praxis: the Church prays to the Father, through the Son, in and by the Spirit. Yet discussion of the trinitarian invocation is notably absent in What is the Trinity? How curious. This omission should warn us that something is askew. Forest and trees.