The Great Trinity Debate has now officially concluded over at Parchment & Pen. The sixth installment of Bowman, the Trinitarian, can be read here and Burke’s, the Unitarian, can be found here. Or, if you would like to find all articles at once, you can visit this link.
It was by no means the smoothest of debates, in that both Bowman and Burke found it hard to keep the continued interaction going on a regular and consistent basis. Burke had given many rebuttals in the allotted comments section of Bowman’s earlier articles and he is presently catching up on the final two rounds. Bowman stopped after round 2, but has now also provided rebuttals in each of the comment sections of Burke’s six articles.
I will say that, from the Trinitarian perspective, Rob Bowman’s final article was his best, giving a concise yet thorough case for biblical Trinitarianism. There are still a few points I wish he had addressed in his articles, mainly the reality of the development of doctrine in the early centuries of church history.
Dave Burke commences his final presentation with 10 points that undergird biblical Unitarianism. They are as follows:
- Is the original, first-century Christology
- Enjoys greater compatibility with the Biblical evidence
- Allows a more natural reading of the text
- Eliminates alleged “paradoxes” and “contradictions”
- Maintains the essential connection between the OT, Second Temple Judaism, and first-century Christianity
- Preserves the cultural and ideological context of original Christian beliefs
- Is logically and rationally superior to Trinitarianism
- Commands the earliest historical support
- Offers a coherent high Christology, grounded in OT typology and comprising a consistent doctrinal arc stretching from Genesis to Revelation
- Provides the basis for a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God and Christ
I thought I might address these 10 specific points in this final article if mine, though, when I approach some of the successive points, I might simply refer back to statements on previous points while also adding a few more thoughts.
1. Biblical Unitarianism is the original, first-century Christology
One major contention from Burke that is also connected to this bolded statement above is this – Trinitarianism is not the original, first-century Christology.
In theology, we are not only called to present a positive case for our particular standpoint, but also show the opposing standpoint is not biblically viable. As has been argued from Bowman, and every other studied Trinitarian, such language as Trinity, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, hypostatic union, etc, are not found in Scripture. From the start, this could seem a defeating point. But the overly unnecessary and stringent view of biblical literalism – where every single theological word and phrasing must be literally founded in Scripture – has already been established as lacking.
Taken to its extreme, none of our theology and doctrine would be biblical, since it was written in completely different languages from our own English. But, we don’t need to be extreme here.
What we recognise is that, within the context of the revelation of Scripture, to help us understand certain things, we provide systems of theology on particular topics. Thus, in the discipline of systematics, we formulate our Christology, pneumatology, eschatology, soteriology, etc, from a full survey and collection of the biblical data on a particular topic.
A lot of words within eschatological discussions are not employed in Scripture – i.e. rapture, dispensationalism, postmillenialism, amillenilaism, premillenialism, etc. But such words are acceptable within our English linguistic framework in helping to describe and understand particular eschatological developments across Scripture. It is acceptable.
So, we do not and will not find such words-phrases as Trinity, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. But, what Trinitarians are convinced of is that we find solid Scriptural evidence that allows us to develop particular words and phrases within the systematic framework to help sum up what is taught across the full tenor of Scripture about Christ, about the Holy Spirit, about the nature of God, etc.
But why were these particular theological terms (or their Greek or Latin counterparts) employed a few centuries after the Scripture was written. I believe Burke even identifies something about this within his own article:
Historically, doctrine always develops from the minimal to the complex, evolving as it is exposed to new influences and adapting in response to perceived heresies.
Burke’s comment was not made as an endorsement of what I am about to propose, but it gets us thinking about the concept of doctrinal development. I mentioned the point of the development of doctrine in church history in my comments, part 5. For some to consider such a development notion of doctrine, this is an anathema. They will remind us that we are called to utilise Scripture and Scripture alone. Well, even the motto sola scriptura sees Scripture as the starting point and measuring stick for our doctrine, but not the only source. Interesting how Burke turns to reason and church history himself, which I believe is fine and acceptable.
So why did these doctrines of the Triune God, hypostatic union and personality of the Holy Spirit come forth much later? Well, as even Burke seems to recognise above, these were unnecessary to work through and consider until there was actual questions and discussion that began to arise. You don’t usually address a problem in any area of life until you are aware of that problem. You don’t address sin in your own life until the revelation comes forth that something needs to be dealt with.
Thus, after a few centuries of varying fathers of the church putting forth some varying teachings on the nature of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, etc, there was a sense, a providential sense, that certain issues needed addressing. Such was the time. Hence, the major councils of the first few centuries were an opportunity to work through the Scripture, consider all points at hand, and faithfully conclude what was the underlying teaching of Scripture. The particular terms and words were not specifically found within the Scripture. But the conclusions were not found to be non-Scriptural nor anti-biblical.
This is a major point that Burke does not seem willing to concede. He quotes many a church fathers in the second and third centuries to show varying doctrines on the nature of God and Christ and the Spirit, and such is worth noting. But what makes Burke think that the fathers of the third, fourth and fifth centuries were not able to faithfully consider the Scripture and come to faithful conclusions about its teaching?
In the end, the early fathers could not be moved away from the reality that the Scripture taught that the Son was eternal, divine, he created all things, he was worshiped and honoured above all, he was Saviour, he was Lord of all, he was King of kings, etc, etc. And the developments of early Christology would subsequently lead to developments in fully understanding the teaching of Scripture on the Holy Spirit.
But no one sat down one day on their own and said, ‘Oh, we need to make sure we understand the nature of Jesus Christ better.’ It came forth as differing views began arising, through major discussions and gathered councils who intricately discussed the nature of God and of Christ, and who came to conclusions that did not contradict the actual teachings of Scripture, but nonetheless did ‘flesh out’ that teaching more.
2. Biblical Unitarianism enjoys greater compatibility with the Biblical evidence
I don’t need to add much more to what I just said above, but, again I state that, from first glance, this bolded statement seems an easy one to accept. But, just as Trinitarians are left with difficult texts to deal with (i.e. John 20:17), so Biblical Unitarians are similarly left with difficult passages (i.e. Colossians 1:15-20).
Of course, Biblical Unitarians have an explanation for Colossians 1:15-20 and Trinitarians have an explanation for John 20:17. Neither group is left with an easy task at times. But to say Biblical Unitarianism enjoys greater compatibility with the Scripture is not really that helpful. I could say the same of Trinitarianism. But, we hit a place like John 20:17 and we must think it through. They hit a place like Colossians 1:15-20 and they must think it through. There are difficult points on both sides.
Let this not lead to us giving up our searching of Scripture and the God who has revealed Himself. But let us keep reading, studying, discussing, reading other authors, and even be ok with coming to conclusions that utilise words that aren’t found specifically in Scripture but are helpful in summing up the full biblical data.
3. Biblical Unitarianism allows a more natural reading of the text
This has been addressed in points 1 and 2, but I cannot help but note that, whereas Trinitarians are accused of butchering specific passages to fit their mould, I really believe the same is true of Biblical Unitarians. To say that Colossians 1:15-20 speaks of the new creation, as they claim, and not the original creation, is beyond comprehension. Am I reading the wrong passage? To say that passages like John 17:5, and similar passages, in no way speak of Christ’s pre-existence, I am baffled.
For the Trinitarian, the natural reading of those two passages is quite clear. In the end, both groups could easily be charged with creating their own readings different from the natural reading. Thus, we have to get into each of the texts individually, as well as consider them within the full scope of Scripture.
4. Biblical Unitarianism eliminates alleged “paradoxes” and “contradictions”
This is simply not true, which I point out in this recent article – Paradoxes of Our Faith. What Biblical Unitarians must admit is that the Bible presents a plethora of paradoxes and tensions that we can attempt to explain (which is fine), but, in the end, they are not fully resolvable. We have to leave the tensions. And Biblical Unitarians do this as well (at least if they want to stay faithful to Scripture).
Some examples of biblical paradoxes:
- The kingdom of God is both present and not fully present yet.
- Jesus Christ was both the presenter of the sacrifice for sin and the object that has been sacrificed.
- God is both transcendent (another word not in the Bible) and intimate (another word not in the Bible).
- Believers are told they are both secure in God’s hand and that they must persevere to the end.
And the tensions and apparent contradictions continue on and on. That is the nature of our faith that is foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
Let me take a moment to address a particular ‘contradiction’ that Burke might consider a fatal blow to Trinitarian Christology. He highlights what he believes are contradictions and inconsistencies about the Trinitarian theology on Christ. He claims:
Since the Trinitarian Jesus is believed to be God, everything in Scripture which applies to God must necessarily apply to him. But this results in many contradictions:
- Visible despite being invisible (Colossian 1:15)
- Seen but “never seen” (John 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:16)
- Tempted even though God cannot be tempted (Matthew 4:1-11; cp. James 1:13)
- “Made like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17), yet not really made like them at all, since he is God and does not possess “fallen nature”
- “Died” on the cross despite being eternal (1 Timothy 1:17)
- “Raised from the dead” (Matthew 28:7) and “released from the pains of death” by the Father (Acts 2:24), though he never truly died
- Omnipotent yet dependent upon the Father’s power for his miraculous works (John 14:10)
- Omniscient yet lacking knowledge (Matthew 24:36)
- Simultaneously “God” and “not-God”
Burke fails to truly try and understand the theology of the incarnation from a Trinitarian perspective. There are a few minute, varying differences amongst some explanations of the incarnation, but as a whole, we believe Jesus ’emptied himself’ and fully became like a man. He did not cease being the eternal God, but he did cease to grasp at that right and privilege as the eternal God, entrusting himself completely to the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the great thesis of Paul in Philippians 2:6-7.
If Burke would simply take time and not blow off incarnation theology as contradictory, irrational and inconsistent, I think he just might understand what is being laid out. But I have yet to find him willing to even graciously concede these words: You know, I don’t think Trinitarian Christology is fully faithful to the Bible, but I do understand where they are working from.
But, no doubt such is probably unacceptable.
5. Biblical Unitarianism maintains the essential connection between the OT, Second Temple Judaism, and first-century Christianity
The thing is that the new covenant faith and the gospel is paradoxical itself. Let me explain: There is both continuity and discontinuity within the framework of the new covenant gospel and the old covenant faith.
It is true that the new covenant came forth from the old covenant faith and we must not forget it’s roots. The old covenant was a pointer to, a foreshadowing of what is the true substance. Thus, we must admit our faith has strong Jewish roots and we can find enrichment from learning about Old Testament and first century Judaism.
But, at the same time, there is also discontinuity. To deny such is to deny the gospel. There have been changes, there has been a progression. As always, I liken it to an acorn. Within the acorn, there is the potential of a full oak tree. But the acorn is not the full oak tree. And neither is the oak tree and acorn. But the full oak tree came out of the acorn.
That is a picture of our new covenant faith. Many things were set in motion to prepare and point to the full substance, that being Christ and the new covenant gospel. In a sense, we have moved forward from what was a more immature faith into a more mature faith. In a sense, we know more about God and His purposes than those of the old covenant. This is at the heart of passages like Colossians 2:16-17. The mystery of the gospel has been unveiled. The old covenant had not allowed for the full revelation of the gospel. But now it has come forth in the new covenant.
In all, my point is that, while we are rooted in the old covenant faith, the faith has developed. We must always recognise this. The New Testament lays out much more understanding on our salvation, the nature of God, the nature of the Messiah (the Christ), the workings of the Holy Spirit, new gifts are given by the Spirit, etc, etc.
So, yes, our faith is connected to the old covenant and first century Jewish understanding. But it has also surpassed it. It must have, for those who still hold to a purely old covenant or first century Jewish faith are, to this point, not included in Christ and his kingdom.
6. Biblical Unitarianism preserves the cultural and ideological context of original Christian beliefs
Lest I bore you, I refer you to my comments in point 1 above.
7. Biblical Unitarianism is logically and rationally superior to Trinitarianism
This idea is somewhat addressed in the section about paradoxes, but there are a few more words to add. Trintarianism is not necessarily illogical and irrational. Biblical Unitarianism might seem more rational on the nature of God as one divine being-essence. But, I must admit that I do not believe it is the most logical conclusion in regards to faithful, biblical Christology.
I believe there has been an enormous amount of explaining away from Biblical Unitarians on the Scriptures emphasis on the eternal, divine, creative, prayed to, worshiped and honoured nature of Jesus Christ. An extreme amount of hoops to jump through here. I cannot begin to imagine how this continues to be done. Jesus is not simply God’s agent. Oh, he is. But he is by no means merely God’s agent. He is Lord of heaven and earth, worshiped by all of heaven, all believers and will one day be worshiped by all humanity.
As to the irrationality of the Trinity, I point you to some words of C.S. Lewis, which I already had posted up in a previous article:
You know that in space you can move in three ways – to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three or a compromise between them. They are called the three Dimensions. Now notice this. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw only a straight line. If you are using two, you could draw a figure: say, a square. And a square is made up of four straight lines. Now a step further. If you have three dimensions, you can then build what we call a solid body: say, a cube – a thing like a dice or a lump of sugar. And a cube is made up of six squares.
Do you see the point? A world of one dimension would be a straight line. In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three-dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body. In other words, as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways – in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.
Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings – just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it. And when we do, we are then, for the first time in our lives, getting some positive idea, however faint, of something super-personal – something more than a person. It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits in so well with all the things we know already. (Harper Collins version, p161-162)
8. Biblical Unitarianism commands the earliest historical support
Again, for this point, I refer back to my comments in point
9. Biblical Unitarianism offers a coherent high Christology, grounded in OT typology and comprising a consistent doctrinal arc stretching from Genesis to Revelation
My points 2, 3 and 5 can be reviewed.
10. Biblical Unitarianism provides the basis for a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God and Christ
Burke also makes this comment near the end of his article:
The Biblical Unitarian Jesus is a Messiah you can relate to, because he can relate to you. Unlike the Trinitarian Jesus, he genuinely understands your pain and sympathises with your temptations, because he is truly human. He once experienced the very sufferings that you endure (and more!)
Trinitarians could not agree more with this statement. This is not privy to Biblical Unitarians. Of course, in practicality, some Trinitarians might struggle with seeing how Jesus could understand us if he were also God. I address this in my own article on Jesus’ humanity, which Burke also quoted from in his final post. I hope these words can help us think through more what this means. It does not present something nice and neatly packaged with a bow on top. But it still helps us understand beautiful statements like this in Hebrews:
14Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:13-15)
So the debate has ended. Well, kind of. A couple of more rebuttals are still to be posted by Burke in some comment sections, and comments are now open to the ‘general public’. So this might go on for a few more weeks.
In the end, as I believe I have mentioned before, I have come to respect Dave Burke and his Biblical Unitarian position. I am still a Trinitarian, worshiping the one true God who has manifested Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I have appreciate Burke’s articles and the personal interaction he has afforded me.
If anything, I hope that Biblical Unitarians can learn to interact with Trinitarians in a way like Burke. Who knows? It might just lead to sharing the same, biblical theology in the future. I don’t want to hear those words – Ah, that’s impossible. With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).