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)
Went down the rabbit hole on this one. With a few clicks, I stumbled across this:
From the web page:
Kermit Zarley has been an Evangelical Christian all of his adult life and more. He believed in the doctrine of the Trinity for twenty-two years until reading himself out of it in the Bible.
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Yep, it seems to be happening not infrequently nowadays.
I understand that we Protestants have a problem with sacraments and such, some more than others (Evangelicalism is not all there is to protestantism after all). But I don’t think the problem is Sola scriptura, Rather it’s *Solo Scriptura*. Sola scriptura means Scripture as regulating principle, not lone or private interpretation of scripture, a lot of Protestants have forgotten that. The Fathers used Christ as their regulating principle for interpreting scripture and that knowledge as their regulating principle of life, the tradition grew with the regulations of sound biblical interpretation, that is what we mean. The Best of protestantism doesn’t reject tradition, rather it puts it in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ, to test and understand, we can’t do it perfectly, we emerged from a very troubled Catholicism after all, but that’s what we’ve been given, and to abandon our mission of reform would be quite unwise
As a former Protestant I found Sola ultimately just as untenable as Solo Scripture because I came to realise Scripture is not and can never be the regulatory principle. This is because the books that become Scripture cannot and don’t interpret or explain themselves, it is always the hermeneutics and the interpretive lens we bring that determines what we think Scripture reveals (and for instance whether something would be accepted from pre-Reformation tradition). But this just means it isn’t Scripture but the hermeneutic we use to approach it, found on, informed and conditioned by the Christian tradition that we are a member of that is the governing and regulatory principle that determines what is understood, accepted, rejected and practiced and believed (and so on) not Scripture at all.
The documents that make up Scripture can never be the regulatory principle I realized that Protestantism (or Protestantisms given the very diverse traditions and their equally diverse heremeutics) believed it to be.
Scripture can only become anything in a tradition which gives some key and heremeutic in how to approach and read the documents as Scripture, and it is inseparable from it. The question then became clear to me of which was communion gave the genuine tradition in which we read this as Scripture. In that journey I came to agree with the reasons Father Aiden gave above as well as finding presentations by Father John Behr and David Bentley Hart on the subject very illuminating. But I believe outside and away from the ancient Churches, the Eucharist, the full sacramental life that informs and develops the Christians in them, one increasingly does not always or even often in many ways, fully read these documents as Scripture.
There’s no argument presented here — except a most dubious and superficial argument from authority — to counter Dr Tuggy’s critique which you cite:
” 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.”
Btw, I’m an Eastern Orthodox and I find the doctrine intellectually incoherent (we can put that down to my intellectual limitations, if you like) and possibly even heretical in the eyes of Christ. But then, as his attitude to the Samaritans reveals he was never a stickler for doctrinal and liturgical orthodoxy.
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If I’m understanding Fr Kimel’s response to Dr Tuggy correctly he’s actually saying that while the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t contradicted by the Bible, and you can arguably see hints of it there, Dr Tuggy’s critique is in fact as far as it goes entirely accurate: the doctrine of the Trinity is not derived from the Bible at all.
If I understand it correctly, Fr Kimel’s problem with Dr Tuggy’s analysis is more fundamental: Dr Tuggy assumes, along with a lot of -particularly evangelical – Protestants (declaration of interest: I’m Anglican) that the Christian faith is a product of and derives its origin from the Bible as its foundational document, and it is this assumption Fr Kimel takes issue with. Fr Kimel points out that the Bible itself is a product of the Christian tradition, and it was that same Christian tradition that also produced the Christian understanding of the Eucharist, the incarnation and the Trinity, and it is this Christian tradition as passed down from Jesus to the disciples that is foundational to Christianity, not the Bible. I agree with Fr Kimel with qualifications here: as a Protesant I would maintain the Bible is the ultimate expression of that tradition, and the most, perhaps only, completely reliable one. Extra-Biblical traditions, doctrines and beliefs that contradicted the Bible would have to be ruled out out of hand, and, I would maintain, it would be quite legitimate to argue (if backed up with solid reasons for thinkning so) that even quite venerable Christian traditions and understandings are or were later and misguided accretions and wrong turns that need to be abandoned (the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment being to my mind one example). What isn’t to my mind a valid argument is saying that purely because a particular Christian doctrine is not found or derived from the Bible, but rather derived from extra-Biblical tradition, it is for that reason alone not to be believed.
(That being said, if you thought the doctrine of the Trinity was intellectually incoherent and a mistaken later addition unnecessary to or indeed positively antithetical to a proper understanding of core Christian beliefs, that would be a decent argument for ditching it, but Dr Tully does not, at least from the above, make that argument.)
Vaska, given that doctrine of the Trinity is considered by Christians to be a truth of divine revelation, why are you surprised by my appeal to authority (in this case, the liturgical and mystical experience of the Orthodox Church)? How could it be otherwise?
While Patristic exegesis is important, I would be careful of going too far in the other direction and claiming that the reason we accept the Trinity is because the church fathers said so. The Trinity is not something man invented; it is a matter of revelation, revelation which is recorded in scripture. Hence the church fathers always defended the doctrine using scripture and it is important for modern Christians to do so as well.
Personally I think that Evangelicals who “read themselves” out of the Trinity suffer from bad or superficial theology. Even in Protestant lines of thought, the Trinity is a starting block for other doctrines, not something you can casually throw away while preserving the rest of the system. In Reformed theology, salvation (creation, justification, and sanctification) comes from the Godhead alone. If Jesus is not God in that system, that implies that something other than God is responsible for our salvation, and so the whole system must be reworked. And in Orthodox thought, to throw out the Trinity would be to also throw out theosis, and the belief that God is Love. But many Evangelicals teach a superficial theology which amounts to “belief in Jesus, get saved”, which gives them a poor understanding of the deeper system.
David, I agree with you, at least in the following respect. I am absolutely convinced that the Church’s confession of the Trinity is grounded on her life of prayer and praise, enshrined in the baptismal and eucharistic liturgies. The Church baptizes in the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit; and she prays to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. The catholic dogma seeks to protect these grammatical “facts.”
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Fr Aidan Kimel, can you please refresh my memory? Where is the Trinity to be found in the eucharistic liturgy?
How about this:
Deacon: Let us love one another, that with oneness of mind we may confess:
People: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Trinity, one in essence and undivided.
Am I correct in saying that what you quote is part of the Liturgy of John Chrysostom (349 – 407)? Is this the oldest piece of liturgy with the confession of the Trinity?
I do not know whether this belongs to the original composition of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or was added at a later date.
As a nominal Presbyterian growing up, I would later enter the fold of a Oneness Pentecostal Church. It sounded so simple at first. Father, Son and Spirit are ‘manifestations’ and “Jesus” (the KJV) is the literal name of God. Without everything done ‘in the name of Jesus’ it was all for naught and God forbid if you didn’t speak in tongues and questioned your salvation or, worse, your sanity.
It was here I discovered the Strong’s Concordance and it was here that my journey really began.I began to realize that they had to dance to make the Scriptures fit or veer off into mysticism which was dependent upon the preacher to draw out. In an attempt to lay out the literal truth of Scripture, they had to get mystical.
I ventured into Islam for a number of years as an observer and semi-participant but there was something missing there as well. I understood the faith and find it to be beautiful in so many ways but one of the main reasons for not converting was the lack of a clear understanding and multiple interpretations or traditions of Surah 4:157ff which references to belief by Christians/Jews about the Cross. If the passage said he died like all the other Prophets I could have accepted that as even Muhammad died. But when it talks of him being taken up to heaven, Judas dying in his place and him returning on the last day to break the cross and kill the swine I knew it was not to be.Christian influence radiates through that interpretation and it is a defensive posture, and a weak one at that.
Non-denominational Christianity provided a nice place to land as the people were and remain quite loving. But here too chinks in the armor would soon appear. As expressed through so many worship songs, it often borders on Jesusolatry or Modalism. Some catch phrases are thrown around – to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit or even a passing reference to the Trinity or ‘the Godhead three in on’ – but after a while these became more like slogans assumed rather than expressing anything deeper and the theology is at best muddied, tapping into emotion and assumptions we hold rather than taking us deeper into the mystery where transformation occurs.
I would stumble across Olivier Clement’s “The Roots Of Christian Mysticism” and thus began the dive back into the early Fathers of the Church. A combination of Henry Corbin and Vladimir Lossky led me inevitable to Orthodoxy. It is stunning to me that as one who is as logical and fact-based as can be, I find said mysticism to be intellectually rich and it adds not escape but depth and, ultimately, a reverent silence. Evangelical churches can be quite loud and there is very little room for silence.
There is a reason someone such as Hank Hanegraaf converted to Orthodoxy. Biblical literalism is ultimately stifling and, truthfully, tautologous and in the end will feed on itself which leads to the mess we see in modern day evangelicalism where everyone is free to start up their own church and denomination based on their own interpretation, er the Holy Spirit’s revelation, of Scripture.
Either this version of the Church will someday congeal and unify into something resembling the Catholic Church (interesting that some of the Megachurches are huge landholders with a lot of wealth and wield and yield to political influence) or it’s possible they will discover, as did I, that what they are seeking may be found in Orthodoxy and that this Orthodoxy has been viewed through their own biases and their own (mis)understanding of Sola Scriptura.
Long story short. This:
“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.”
“Not knowledge you learn, but knowledge you suffer. That’s Orthodox spirituality.” – Mother Gavrilia
The “trinity” is the wrong answer to the right question: the divinity of Jesus. Jesus is god because he is the incarnation of God’s eternal Word (John 1:1-2,14). The disastrous misunderstanding that ultimately led to the fullly fledged “trinity” started probably with Justin martyr with his “another God and Lord” (Dialogue With Trypho, ch. LVI), holding the “second place” (First Apology, ch. XIII – see also ch. LX).
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the NAME OF THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT, and teaching them to OBEY everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20; NIV)
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3 – NIV)
“Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2 – NIV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1.
Are we baptized into the death of the Father and the Holy Spirit?
Jesus words have primacy over Paul’s words – simple!
We are not Muslims, we don’t believe that one part of Holy Scripture contradicts or supersedes another part. It ALL has to be read in a conciliatory manner.
Marc Blaydoe: mainstream Christianity endorsed the Nicene creed as a statement of faith. Non-Trinitarians are heretics. Case closed and no argument needed. Thank you
Basem, you seem a convinced advocate of Orthodoxy, so may be you don’t care about what I am going to disclose to you: are you vaguely aware that, on Cathollic ground, Pope Francesco (Francisco, Francis, Franòois, Ferenc) couldn’t care less about any doctrine, including the “trinity”?
Pope Francis is a holy man and believes in the supremacy of Love over theological accuracy! This ain’t a novel invention as some zealots claim. Many of the Saints hold similar views especially the Desert Fathers. Still, truth is truth and error is error. The Trinity is the Revelation of God to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Any other impression of God is heretical!
So you seem to be happy with Pope Francis’ ” supremacy of Love over theological accuracy”, yet you have no doubt that any “impression” of God other than the “trinity” is heretical! Good for you! Berhaps you should be made aware that the general gist of Fr Aidan Kimel’s post is that, as we cannot find the “trinity” anywere in scripture, we have to look for it in “tradition”, “liturgy” and Councils.
I certainly have never said that the Trinity is not to be found in Scripture. It is found everywhere in Scripture.
Guys, we are NOT going to get into a debate about Pope Francis. Please stop.
Of course with the proviso that “Only the Church of the Nicene Faith … can teach us how to read the Bible as Scripture”!
Of course. There’s a huge, decisive difference between interpreting a biblical text as historical artifact and interpreting it as Scripture. This is Orthodoxy 101.
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Yours is a total non sequitur to my words. Certainly the Jews consider the “biblical texts” (only the TaNaKh, actually) as Scripture, that is God’s Word, without being told by Christians, let alone by “the Church of the Nicene Faith”. In fact the obvious reason why Christians consider the “Old Testament” Scripture is because they adopted it from the Jews.
Interestingly, the Trinity is explicitly discussed (and endorsed) in the Ethiopian Bible. As I point out in my dissertation:
“Although I do not have access to a copy of the Ethiopian Book of the Covenant, included in the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church’s “broader” New Testament canon (I am not aware that there exists any English translation, and I do not know Ge’ez), I do know that section 61 is supposed to be quite similar to the Testamentum Domini (Testament of the Lord), which is well known for its anti-Arian theology, and in which we read such gems as:
Let the church be thus: let it have three entrances as a type of the Trinity. . .
We lay hands on the servant of God, who hath been chosen in the Spirit. . . for the delivering of true judgement and divine and holy revelations, and of divine gifts and faithful doctrines of the Trinity…
Let him offer on Saturday three loaves for a complete symbol of the Trinity. . .
[We confess] Him who is pre-existent, and was present, and is, and cometh; who suffered and was buried, and rose, and was glorified by the Father; . . . who is not only Man but therewith also God ; who … descended in the Godhead into Sheol… the indivisible Thought who is from the Father, and [is] of one will with Him. . .
And in the Sinodos is a section titled “The discourse of the Nicene Fathers on the Holy Trinity,” and another titled “On the Essence of the Holy Trinity.”
Thus, Unitarians are in the position of having to not only find a way to carve out the Bible from the creed, but one Bible from another (no ecumenical council has ever defined a single canon of scripture).
On top of that, the Ethiopian canon of scripture is some thousand years older than the Protestant.
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@ Beau Branson
Looking at your blog (webpage Beau Branson’s Research) You seem to be an advocate of the “Monarchy of the Father”. Far from being “neglected”, the MotF is at the center (centre for the British) of the Eastern Orthodox approach to the Trinity.
At the very end of the Final Conclusion of your Dissertation (The Logical Problem of the Trinity, 2014, p.308) you write:
You also say, though, that your “preferred methodology”, the “Historical Approach”, sees history as “essential to the debate”. Very well, then.
In your Dissertation you mention Justin Martyr (p. 146). Only a brief quotation. Nothing relevant to the (logical, scriptural, historical) problem of the Trinity, though.
I therefore invite you to confront the “” problem that I raised with my comment of 25 January 2019 at 4:30 am
I am sure you are familiar with – and anyway can easily check – my phrases in “quotation marks” from Justin Martyr. For a broader context, you may want to take a look at my blog, HERE.
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