I am a few days behind in posting some comments in regards to Part 5 of The Great Trinity Debate over at Parchment & Pen. For Rob Bowman’s fifth installment, click here. For David Burke’s fifth installment, click here.
I must say that this debate has not developed as I had hoped. What I mean is that, after the first two weeks, there has not been much interaction following their main articles posted. No rebuttal and/or counter-rebuttals as of late. Burke went back in round 3 and posted a whopping 14,500 words of rebuttal to Bowman (which I have yet been able to read). But that’s been it for the past few weeks. I know these guys are busy and have other things to focus on than just a debate about the Trinity. But I had hoped for more interaction.
We will see what the final week brings. Hopefully there can be a lot of tying up loose ends and even some interaction via the posts of the final round.
I want to also say that Dave Burke has presented his case exceptionally well. I have had some personal interaction with him over these weeks, and it has been quite pleasant (I only hope he can say the same from me). And I am thankful for such respectful interaction from Burke.
By no means am I the expert on Trinitarian theology. By no means! At first it wasn’t my intention to interact with the debate. But I left some comments over at Theologica about the debate and, then, I thought, ‘This comment is so long, it could just become a blog post.’ So, lo and behold, I decided to stay up on the debate and interact with each round.
But I wanted to give credit where credit is due. Dave Burke has been a great person to read from the Unitarian-Christadelphian view. There are lots of challenges he presents that must be thought through. I still believe God has revealed Himself as three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I have come to respect the more Unitarian position and Burke’s approach to Scripture.
So now the interaction with round 5, mainly, as usual, with thoughts on Burke’s installment.
From the section: The Divine Hierarchy: Father, Son & Angels
From the beginning, Burke lays out the divine hierarchy that he believes is shown within the pages of Scripture:
- God the Father
- Jesus Christ
- The angels
Burke goes on to state:
Thus we see that the Father is utterly supreme. He is the source of everything that exists; He is above the Son and the angels in every conceivable way, whether functional or ontological. The Son is subject to and dependent upon the Father for his very existence, while the angels are subject to the Father and Son.
What I have noticed now is that the words divine and deity are different words in the vocabulary of Burke. I believe he would argue that, Jesus, post-resurrection, had attained divinity, but Jesus is not deity (which is synonymous with God). Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on that.
Burke has thrown out the challenge that Trinitarians misuse the two words being and person, in that we state that God is one being (or essence) but is manifested, or exists, as three eternal persons. I guess certain words will take on certain meanings within the context of each individual’s (or group’s) language.
I’d love to hear Burke flesh out the difference between divinity and deity. Of course, I am not sure I would agree. But he definitely doesn’t agree with the philosophical differentiations between being and person amongst Trinitarians. To each his own, right?……
But let me go back to one statement in the quote above from Burke’s opening section: He [God the Father] is above the Son and the angels in every conceivable way, whether functional or ontological.
Of course, for the Trinitarian, there is no ontological difference between the three persons of the Triune God. This simply means that we believe there is no difference in being (or essence) between the Father and Son (or the Holy Spirit). They are all of one being, or essence, and that essence is that they are God.
As Burke would let us all know, there is no book, chapter and verse to quote to prove such an exact statement. Rather, this comes forth as Trinitarians consider the whole tenor of Scripture’s teaching on Jesus Christ. We are convinced He is the divine, eternal Messiah and Son of God. Thus, because there is only one God, the conclusion is that Christ is of the same ontological being as the Father. Yet, this is also why we differentiate between the personhood of the two, as it is quite obvious they are two distinct persons.
Yes, this is all quite philosophically heady. But, whereas Scripture is clear that there is one God and one God alone, Scripture is also clear that Jesus is eternal, worshiped, prayed to, creator, first and last, Lord of lords, King of kings, honoured by the heavenly hosts, etc. Thus, we conclude He is God. And, therefore, we differentiate between the one God in being-essence and the three persons of the Triune God.
If you want more to chew on, at least from a philosophical standpoint, I would encourage you to read these thoughts I posted from C.S. Lewis on the Trinity, which come from his Mere Christianity.
Finally, on this topic, though I’ve just spent a little time addressing the ontological question of God in three persons, I think it might be worth addressing the functional question. Again, Burke states: He [God the Father] is above the Son and the angels in every conceivable way, whether functional or ontological.
Trinitarians differ on some aspects of the functional nature between the three persons of the Triune God. Some would argue that, in their being as the Triune God, there is no functional difference. All three are intimately committed to honouring the others of the Trinity. Yet, some Trinitarians would argue for the functional difference between the Father and Son (and Spirit), at least from the incarnational perspective of the eternal Son becoming human. In that act, He laid aside his rights as the divine, eternal Son (i.e. Philippians 2:6-7). Christ became fully man and, in such, He had chosen to be completely reliant on the Father and the Holy Spirit as He walked out His Messianic call.
For me, I would definitely recognise the functional subordination in the incarnation of the Son becoming human. It’s quite obvious He relied completely on the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit in His life. I find it hard to dance around that teaching in the text. But, it is also highly plausible that the Son has a functional subordination even now as the reigning King of heaven and earth:
20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)
Passages like these are real and have to be dealt with. As do passages post-resurrection where we read:
Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” (John 20:17)
Similar statements are also made in Paul’s writings, such as:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3)
There are three other examples like this in Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 11:31; and Ephesians 1:3.
These words challenge Trinitarian thinking. For Burke, this is proof that the Son is subject not only functionally, but also ontologically. But, again, for the Trinitarian who is convinced of Scripture’s teaching on the eternal nature of the Son, His divinity-deity, creator, worshiped, prayed to, etc, there can be no doubt He is God. But not a second god or less-than god, since Scripture also testifies to there only being one God.
Therefore, Trinitarians are usually not too bothered with recognising the subordination of the Son to the Father – in the incarnation, and possibly post-resurrection. But the argument could then arise is: In choosing to become human, did the Son also choose to become functionally subordinate to the Father for the rest of eternity? I’m sure such questions are silly and extreme to the Unitarian, but suffice it to say, these questions cannot really be answered. We can only produce conjecture. And that’s not a problem for me.
Of course, there is no desire to take on full subordinationist theology that says the Son (and Spirit) are fully subordinate to the Father in both being and function. Rather, it is more from the functional perspective. And, normally, this would be seen as a choice from the Son and Holy Spirit, rather than a dictated commanded from the Father.
I expect sneers from some. But, I hope, at least, as I am willing to respect Burke’s theology, those who disagree with someone like myself would be willing to respect where the Trinitarian is coming from. Scripture is clear that there is one God. One and one alone!! But we are clear that Scripture lays out the eternal existence, the creative power, the worthiness of worship before and after His resurrection, and the great honour of all heaven and earth for the Son. No one can receive such honour, glory, worship and respect than God Himself. No one!!
Later on in the same section, Burke states:
Note that Scripture never includes the Holy Spirit in this hierarchy (further evidence that the Holy Spirit is not a person). Even the book of Revelation contains no vision of the Holy Spirit, despite portraying God, Jesus, the heavenly court, and the redeemed saints in multiple instances.
Two points: 1) I would say this ‘divine hierarchy’ is more established by Burke than the full tenor of Scripture. Even if we recongise the functional subordination of the Son and Holy Spirit to the Father, this is by no means hierarchical. There is joy and love in the submission of the Son and Spirit. 2) Of course the Holy Spirit is referred to in Revelation. The Holy Spirit speaks to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. There are other passages as well (i.e. 14:13), not too mention that some theologians argue that the ‘seven spirits of God’ are a reference to the Holy Spirit.
But maybe I am misunderstanding this statement of Burke: Even the book of Revelation contains no vision of the Holy Spirit.
From the section: Father, Son & Holy Spirit: in the Bible’s Own Words
Burke brings forth this argument once again:
Galatians 4:4 reinforces this picture, telling us that Jesus was “made of a woman.” The Greek word for “made” here is ginomai as in John 1:3. Both occurrences refer to something which was brought into existence. Thus, Jesus’ existence has a commencement in time.
No Trinitarian would disagree that the humanity of Jesus began, commenced, or was brought into existence at His conception-birth through Mary. But the divine, eternal Son had always existed with the Father ‘from the beginning’ (which is a statement of eternality).
Again, I’m aware this could be brushed away by non-Trinitarians as absolute foolishness – that somehow a divine soul inhabited a shell of a body. The description of how it all came together is not easily grasped. For the Unitarian, they might even say they have a better and much easier way to describe it all within the framework of their theology. But, as I repeat myself continually, I have failed to be convinced that Jesus is anything less than the eternal, divine, worshiped Son. And, thus, my (our) theology allows for this combination of the divine and human natures in Christ. The term normally used for this is the hypostatic union.
Moving on, Burke makes this comment, of which I take up just two words from it:
How does Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit? As the Father’s divine power and presence (occasionally personified), which guides, inspires and empowers.
Occasionally personified? Huh? I wish I had a count for how many times the Spirit is spoken of in personal terms. But let’s just start in John 14-16. How many times does the personal pronoun ‘he’ show up? Again, that isn’t THE proof of the Spirit’s personhood. But just count in those three chapters how many times Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in personal terms. The count I have in John 14-16 alone is that the Spirit is personally referred to 17 times.
Then move on to Acts. Then move on to Paul. Then move on to the other letters of the New Testament.
Whereas wisdom is personified a little in the Proverbs, the Holy Spirit is personified an outstanding number of times. The Proverbs are poetic and so wisdom will be personified, just as there was the adulteress who stood as if she was personally embodying adultery itself. In the prose narrative of John 14-16, you would not expect the literary feature of personification. You would expect a straight forward record. That’s what you get on Jesus’ teaching on the Holy Spirit.
So, the Spirit is not occasionally personified. He is referred to in personal terms on a very regular basis.
From the section: Jesus Christ: Son of God
Burke makes this comment about the church fathers views on the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
None of these early church fathers were Biblical Unitarians — but they weren’t Trinitarians either. In fact, even as late as the 4th Century AD, Christians were hopelessly confused about the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Similar words come forth in two other places:
Rob is vague about the point at which he believes the church embraced true Trinitarianism, but I receive a general sense that he perceives an implicit Trinitarian Christology within the NT which gave quickly rise to fully-fledged Trinitarianism. Precisely how long this took and what process was involved, Rob does not say. But the history of Trinitarianism — as admitted by its own theologians — reveals an excruciating mess of debate, controversy and confusion spanning several hundred years.
How can Trinitarianism be the doctrine once preached by the apostles, whom the Holy Spirit would “lead into all truth” (John 16:13)? It bears no resemblance to their preaching in the book of Acts, or the doctrinal statements in their epistles to fellow Christians. It is absent from the earliest extra-Biblical writings (e.g. the Didache) and the works of the first-century church fathers (e.g. Papias and Polycarp). It is contrary to reason, antagonistic to Scripture, and undermined by the record of history.
There is no doubt that there was not a uniform understanding of the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit until a few centuries following the writings of the New Testament. But let me say something that many might not like to hear – evangelicals and Unitarian-Christadelphians alike: We need to be willing to recognise and be open to a sense of the development of doctrine in the course of church history. It happened and it happens. Hence, why you had councils and creeds.
I know the arguments: Scripture first. Yes, I agree! When theological matters are discussed, we utilise Scripture as our starting point. That is very important. If we have developed a belief about the relationship between the Father and the Son, which was one of the first matters discussed, this has to line up with Scripture. And, so, a Trinitarian would recognise: 1) the Trinitarian beliefs are not always explicit in the New Testament, but 2) such beliefs are implicitly there and that which was developed a few centuries later is not in contradiction to the teaching of Scripture. They did test it against the tenor of Scripture.
To not allow for development of doctrine, if taken to the extreme, means we must take on the complete first century mindset and not shift from that. But such is impossible, and I am convinced God does not desire such. Well, He would only desire such if he were a static, concrete God, which He isn’t. Again, Scripture is our foundation. But it is a foundation for an ever living faith that is continually breathed out by our God who is still alive.
Another great example is the development and realisation that the Sabbath rest of God is not a 24-hour period (Saturday or Sunday). Rather it is Jesus Christ Himself (I share more here). Is it explicit? No, not really. But it is there. The Trinitarian is convinced of the same with the Trinity. It’s there, but not necessarily fully fleshed out in that 30 verses can be quoted and we move on to the next topic. Matter of fact, this stands true for a large portion of the doctrine we all hold to.
From the section: Jesus Christ: Sacrificial Lamb
Burke lays out to important points for the atoning sacrifice that God would provide:
The sacrifice itself demands two essential qualities: mortality and moral perfection.
I would love for him to flesh out the first quality a little more – mortality. By that word, I believe he means human. Some Christians believe that all people are created immortal. Some believe, as with Christadelphians, that only God is immortal (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:11-16).
So I assume that Burke is saying the sacrifice must be mortally human and morally perfect. I am ok with this. Regardless of whether we believe in the immortality of the soul or that all humanity is mortal, Jesus fully took on human flesh. I might have more to say in the future, as I am currently reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope.
In the same section, we read:
But Biblical Unitarians do not believe in “original sin” or “total depravity.” We believe that human nature is capable of sin and prone to sin, but humans are not regarded as sinners until they sin. Thus Jesus’ human nature did not preclude the potential for sinlessness.
I would love to see Burke interact with Romans 5:12-21. But, if Jesus was just like us, and we are both capable and prone to sin, what in the world kept Jesus from sinning? Listen, I don’t want to walk the path that says Jesus could have never sinned. I believe He had to be able to sin to actually really suffer and experience and be tempted like we are. But if man is both capable and prone to, and we all actually end up sinning, what did keep Jesus from sinning? A good conscience? A strong and disciplined enough will?
These questions are not easy to interact with. But, I simply think Burke needs to be challenged in his theology that says all humans are prone to sin, which we all do end up sinning in the end, but somehow Jesus did not sin. If we are all the same, including Christ, how did he ‘pass the test’?
As Burke would later on say, is the answer this? His sinless life was made possible by his superior mental and intellectual qualities (Luke 2:46-47).
What? I don’t really understand this. Did He have an advantage above us? I thought He was fully like us? Or was it because the Messiah-Son of God actually enjoyed the right (maybe ‘perfect’) relationship with the Father and Holy Spirit?
I, by no means, say this is easy to answer, as how the functional subordination of the Son to the Father works itself fully out. But I do challenge Burke to rethink some of his points on this.
I look at one final statement:
Rob believes Jesus could be tempted, yet was incapable of sin (Putting Jesus In His Place, p.122)
Here, Burke is challenging Rob Bowman’s theology. I haven’t read Bowman’s book, so I don’t know the full context, but I do have something for consideration. When a Christian makes a statement like this, I think it could be either unacceptable and acceptable theology. Here is how it is unacceptable.
If one means that, unequivocally, Jesus could have never sinned, then I think it cuts away at the reality of Jesus being fully human and tempted. If one cannot possibly choose the ‘sin option’, then it is not really temptation. It’s like if a woman who decides to tempt an unmarried man to have sex with her, and he also happens to be a eunuch. Well, there really is no temptation there, since he has no organ for sexual intercourse. The ‘temptation’ kind of defeats the purpose, since the sin act could never actually take place.
I believe Jesus, in His humanity, could have chosen sin. He had to have been able to or the temptation is cancelled out.
To say Jesus was incapable of sin can make sense in retrospect as we note who He is. In Jesus’ time, very few were convinced of His identity. But, centuries later, all believers are convinced. And knowing who Jesus really was, we can remark that He would have never sinned, or at least He would have never chosen to sin. The divine Messiah who would be the sacrifice for all of mankind would never sin. He was tempted and could have chosen to sin. But we can be assured such an action would have never played out knowing who He was and His mission.
I hope that makes sense. I’m sure some might disagree. But I was at least trying to flesh out the statement that Burke challenged from Bowman’s book. It’s not a completely wrong statement if all the implications are considered.
Ok, that is enough from me. Much more than I originally thought I would post. The next round, whenever it is released, is the final round. We shall see how it all unfolds. I only hope for more interaction in the coming week between Bowman and Burke.