Examining a frequent argument for the Trinity

T-knotRecently a friend of mine, while debating my objections to Western Christianity’s doctrine of the Trinity, referred me to Greg Boyd’s post Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter?  I respect Greg Boyd greatly, as anyone who’s followed me for some time will undoubtedly know. But that post is illustrative of precisely my objection to the usual arguments for the Trinity … the evidence presented, upon close scrutiny, does not say what Greg (or others) claim it does. Let’s examine his references:

  • 2 Cor 13:14 lists Jesus Christ as “Lord,” mentions “God our father” and “the Holy Spirit” but makes no claim at all as to their ontology or relationship to each other.  It’s actually a blessing, perhaps from early liturgy, certainly poetically beautiful.  But a declaration of theology it’s not.
  • Matt 28:19 is the command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, & Spirit. Again, no claim of ontology or relationship is offered, we have only the listing of the names and the obvious inference that somehow they matter.
  • 1 Cor 12:4-6  once again, lists all three names and refers to their work, but says nothing ABOUT them.  The context is Paul’s argument to the Corinthians that we should recognize and celebrate that the diversity of gifts within the church is thanks to the same God working in a variety of ways.  But whether “God the Holy Spirit is at work,” or instead “God is at work through his Spirit” is not something we can derive from the text … either sense would be equally faithful.

The mere occurrence of the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in juxtaposed verses does not in any way require that, as Greg says later in the article, “God is an eternal, loving, divine community.” Nor does the often-seen, but rarely-examined argument hold that “It’s impossible to believe that ‘God is love’ unless you conceive of God as an eternal community, for love is only possible between personal beings.” It’s in fact quite possible (I do so believe), for the following reasons at least:

  1. “God is love,” that statement from 1 John 4, is not primarily a declaration of ontology, but rather an argument throughout the chapter that if we claim to know and honor God and yet do not love others, our “faith” is baloney. This is one of many examples of Christians taking a passage that is about one thing–how we as believers should conduct ourselves–and making it about something entirely other–how we should think about God’s nature.
  2. Notwithstanding (1) above, let’s just go ahead and grant that 1 John 4:8 is intended also to be a statement of divine ontology. Even so, it does not necessarily follow that God had to have someone to love throughout eternity. Except for those who feel they have to assert that God has no need of us, it’s quite easy to consider that the whole reason God created humans was to have someone TO love. In fact, God’s continued pursuit of humans to redeem us to himself suggests strongly that this could be the case.
  3. Even if God the Father, throughout eternity past, DID have his son/word to love, it does not therefore follow that the Father and Son must be co-equal.
  4.  Greg says “For Judaism and Islam, love can only be something God does, not the essence of who he eternally is.”  The implication is that somehow, it’s impossible for God to BE love without having someone TO love.  I’m not well enough armed in philosophy to be able to refute this fully, but it is my sense is that whether “to be is to do” or “to do is to be” are true, is an old and quite-unresolved philosophical argument.  But even if it’s true, in this argument Greg allows himself to be caught in a trap he has in other places argued against … the statement “God is love” in 1 John could be ontologically true now without in any way being a statement of who God ETERNALLY is/has been. Greg points out the extrabiblical and unbiblical nature of the doctrine of divine immutability, among other places, in his blog post Is God Immutable?  Nothing but a doctrine of divine immutability requires that “God is love” be true, not only when John wrote it (and up till now), but also in eternity past.  To put it another way, each of the following statements are equally-possible interpretations (or perhaps, extrapolations) of the truth “God is love.”
    • God is love, and therefore God created people in order to have an object for that love.
    • God created people to love, and as he bestowed his love upon them (us), the statement “God is love” achieved its fullest realization.
    • God is love, has always shown that love toward his Son, his Word.
    • God is love, and has eternally exhibited that love in Triune fellowship.

None of these statements is mutually exclusive–more than one of them may be true.  Any one or more of them might be, and none of them are incompatible with scripture (that is, they cannot be disproven by scripture).  But neither is any of them supported solidly enough by scripture, that it can or should be held as dogmatic truth.

The doctrine of Trinity is, I think, ultimately an attempt to reconcile two logically-unreconcilable, but biblical truths:  the first, that there is only one God, and second, that Jesus claimed to be divine himself even as he acknowledged the one God his Father.  Neither of these truths can be dismissed without denying important claims made by Jesus himself as recorded in our gospels (see my older post Reexamining the Trinity – Jesus for more on this).  But I believe that Trinitarianism, in its laudable attempt to maintain a high perspective on Jesus, falls short in that it elevates Jesus to a position (equality with the Father) that he never claimed for himself … in fact, a position that the Apostle Paul teaches us (Phil. 2:5-7) Jesus explicitly rejected.  Going beyond what is written, even for noble reasons, is unwise.

9 thoughts on “Examining a frequent argument for the Trinity”

  1. Paul

    I have a little time on my hands today that is devoted to answering my emails and following up on blog comments, including my comments on your blog. I thought I’d better get caught up on your blog rather than commenting further on an old blog.

    This post hits an area of extreme interest for me. I wrote a book called Decoding Nicea. Not being a great marketer, it’s only sold so-so, but it has very high praise by a couple notable people and praise from a couple others. The book focuses on the Council of Nicea, obviously, but it extensively deals with the relationship between the Father and the Son since that was the primary subject of the council.

    You may be among the very few that may have noticed that the Nicene Creed (and even the Apostles Creed and the updated Nicene Creed in use in churches today) say that we believe in one God, the Father. The Creed does not say, “We believe in one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

    I argue in that book that everyone from the 2nd century until the Council of Nicea believed that the one God has a Son in eternity past, before he created the universe. Explaining how God can have a Son, they taught, is beyond what we can understand, but it is what happened.

    That Son was his Logos (Greek). The ideas they use to express the definition of Logos range from mind to reason, but the use of Logos leads them to suggest that whenever God spoke it was his Logos speaking. There are long expositions on God and his Son in Justin (c. 150), Tatian, (c. 165), Theophilus (c. 170), Athenagoras (c. 170), Tertullian (c. 210), Origen (c. 230), and shorter dissertations in other early writings.

    I argue in the book that all of these agree. There is one God. He has a Son that be birthed in eternity past. The Son is the same substance as the father, and the best illustration of this is a stream flowing from a spring. The one is the source. The other derives its existence from the source. They are two things, but one substance flows through both so that they are two things, but never separated the one from the other.

    All of the people I mention–until Origen–described the Father and Son like this, and all of them are careful to mention that they are of the same substance or essence.

    One of my best reviews came from an apologist in Wales named John Tancock. JT, as he is known, loved the book, but he was horrifed by my use of subordinationist. He strongly recommended that I remove it from later copies of the book. I refused. The reason that I use the word is because all those people I mention above are noted by some historian as being subordinationist in their theology. Rather than recognize what seems obvious to me–that the early churches were universally subordinationist–they suggest that the church “improved” on our understanding of the Trinity in the 4th and 5th centuries.

    I hate that. We discussed the apostles on your other thread. You are not as comfortable allowing only the apostles as authority as I am, but you understand the idea. As Irenaeus put it, it’s not okay to count oneself an improver of the apostles. What they said stands. You don’t make it better.

    That’s weird to people today, but up to and through Nicea, that would have been all church’s belief.

    The Scriptures they present for their belief (among many others) are especially Proverbs 8:22-31, Psalm 110:3 (in the LXX), Psalm 45:1 (again LXX), John 1:1-3.

    The argument at Nicea was whether the Son existed before his generation before the creation. The “orthodox” response was supposed to be “yes, he did. He was inside the Father because he was the Father’s Logos even before his birth.” The controversy at Nicea in the early fourth century is because Arius (the most well-known villain of that period) convinced Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia (not the historian who was a contemporary), that the Son did not exist, not even inside the Father, prior to his generation. Eusebius, the real villain of that time period, fought for that doctrine so vehemently (along with the elder-but-not-bishop Arius) that Constantine had to call a council to preserve unity in his empire.

    Origen made one change in that doctrine, and he had so much influence that all future doctrine leaned in that direction. Origen said that eternity past has no time. Therefore, if the Son was generated by God in eternity past, then he was always generated. Earlier writers had said there was a time when God was alone but not alone because he had his Logos inside him. Origen said that “time” never happened. God willed to birth/generate a Son, so that was eternally done.

    Anyway, the point of working through all that is that it explains the wording in the creeds that the one God is the Father, and there is also one Lord, the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. Tertullian has a great explanation for why he is also called God in the Scriptures as well as Lord:

    “I shall follow the apostle [Paul], so that if the Father and the Son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord.”
    But when Christ alone [is invoked], I shall be able to call him “God.” As the same apostle says, “Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever” [Rom. 9:5].
    For I should give the name of “sun” even to a sunbeam, considered by itself. But if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I would certainly withdraw the name of sun from the mere beam. For although I do not make two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things—and two forms of one undivided substance—as God and his Word, as the Father and the Son.” (Against Praxeas 13)

    I have quotes for everything I said above at http://www.christian-history.org/trinity-quotes.html

    One ironic/humorous addition to this argument. How did the Council of Nicea resolve the issue of the Holy Spirit? They did so by adding, “We also believe in the Holy Spirit.”

    I wrote a 460-page book on the Council of Nicea, and I found it completely unnecessary to address the Spirit because the council didn’t.

    That’s the part I thought you’d be interested in. You would probably enjoy the quotes on the page I linked.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I really appreciate your historical perspective here, Paul. You have obviously seen that I have come to a subordinationist position myself. I don’t take a position on the eternal generation question, in which I think the fathers erred in trying to resolve (for extrabiblical, philosophical reasons) a question for which scripture offers no evidence, and for which faithful discipleship has no need.

      As for Nicaea, have you gotten to my post contra the Nicene Creed yet, but I’ll be interested in your thoughts : http://nailtothedoor.com/why-i-dont-accept-the-nicene-creed/

  2. Paul

    Oh, and as to that other thread. Your last comment suggested that you think the increase of leadership authority starting soon after the apostles’ deaths was a problem. We would probably have a different picture of how that authority got … um … out of control, but I agree with you that it did.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *