Over the past several years, I have watched on social media evangelicals and Protestants vigorously contest the doctrine of the Trinity. Is it supported by the plain reading of Holy Scripture? Is it truly biblical? Analytic philosopher Dale Tuggy has persistently pushed these questions over at his Trinities blog, as well as disputing the coherence of the catholic doctrine in podcasts and scholarly pieces. In a 2012 interview Dr Tuggy shares that he abandoned his belief in the Trinitarian doctrine back in his graduate school days, after a long period of research and reflection:
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. They’re not really drawn from them. There’s a lot of weasily talk here by your average theologians. They say “We know these aren’t Trinitarian documents, the New testament.” They’re granting it’s not explicitly there … they suggest it’s implicitly there. No, it’s not. It’s not implicitly there either. They mean that it’s implied there but not said. But then they back off from that and say “Well, the seeds of the doctrine are there.”
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.
Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy will not be surprised to learn that I find Tuggy’s approach to the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity wrong-headed. The gospel was not born in the classrooms of either philosophers or modern biblical critics.
In a series of articles on hermeneutics and Scripture published five years ago, I observed the oddity of someone invoking the Bible to argue against the core beliefs of the very community that canonized and historically preserved the Bible. I won’t repeat the arguments, except to reiterate my opinion that there is only one reason to believe that the biblical writings are divinely inspired and therefore of theological interest to modern Christians—because they are confessed to be Holy Scripture by the same Church that proclaims and teaches that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided. Only the Church of the Nicene Faith, therefore, can teach us how to read the Bible as Scripture; and if this Church lacks that competence, then no other community, much less individual scholars, is in a position to teach us what the biblical writings authoritatively teach. The fact that we often find the patristic exegesis “different” from our own interpretations of the biblical texts should alert us that reading 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 every page were about Jesus of Nazareth (and of course it is). 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? When Tuggy set for himself the project of searching the Bible for the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, the conclusion of his quest was virtually preordained. The doctrine cannot be read off its surface meaning. A deeper kind of exegesis is needed.
Sola Scriptura believers find themselves at significant disadvantage when they consider Orthodox doctrines like the Holy Trinity, the two natures of the one Christ, or the eucharistic real presence. Not only are they not reading the Scriptures according to the hermeneutical rules set by the community that canonized the Scriptures, but even more decisively, they are not indwelling the sacramental, liturgical, and ascetical practices that formed the hearts and minds of patristic Christians. 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 prayers for the departed and the invocation of the saints? Where are the bowings, prostrations, and the signings of the cross? Where is the chant? the icons? the bishops? the monks and 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 by those who are immersed in and spiritually blessed by this Tradition. While most Orthodox theologians would agree that the Bible is materially sufficient as an authority of faith, they would all agree 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. They can only be properly read with and in the Orthodox Church. Holy Tradition, as Vladimir Lossky puts it, 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, invocation of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and sometimes some very good preaching, perhaps also a praise band and enthusiastic singing. But it is not the Church—or to put it more ecumenically, and courteously, it is not the Church in its objective and existential fullness. If a sola scriptura believer assigns himself the task of critically reading the Bible to determine which, if any, of the Orthodox dogmas accord with its plain teaching, he will never come up with anything that resembles historic Christianity. Christian faith doesn’t work that way. The Scriptures were never intended by God to function as a formally sufficient witness to divine revelation.
Lex orandi, lex credendi. Long before the Orthodox Church gathered in council at Nicaea, she was living the Orthodox faith. 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. 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 every day in the Divine Liturgy and Offices. As Christos Yannaras astutely 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 doubt it. But perhaps we can read our way out of it.
(9 June 2014; revised)