The Great Trinity Debate (Comments Part 1)

Yesterday, I mentioned about The Great Trinity Debate over at the Parchment & Pen blog. The first 2 articles (and comments) were very good from both parties. I appreciate the respect that both Bowman and Burke are showing. It doesn’t seem false and simply pretense. This is a breath of fresh air between strongly opposed viewpoints, as my usual observance of interaction on this topic is not so benevolent amongst the debaters.

I thought I might bring up some statements from David Burke’s article and comments that I would like to share my own thoughts about. There are five specific statements I would like to consider and share my own thoughts on:

1) From the section: God: Definition and Identity

Before entering any discussion about Who and what God is, it is important for us to keep in mind an essential point: the Christian God is the Jewish God and everything that we know about Him through the Christian message was already known to the Jews through Judaism. Christianity added nothing to the nature or identity of God, but took for granted the definitions and principles already present in Judaism. Biblical Unitarianism stands firmly within the context of Old Testament Judaism and first-century Christianity; our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Peter, John and Paul.

Bowman already addressed this (and Burke commented back), but I would say that the new covenant (of which the New Testament testifies to) absolutely sheds much greater light on the nature and identity of God. Not just in the sense that a Trinitarian would look to argue for the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit from the New Testament, but the lights is shed better simply on God’s nature and His identity in and of Himself. Scripture presents the progressive revelation of God, meaning that God unveiled more and more about Himself and His purposes as Scripture was written. God’s people knew more about God in the time of David than they did in the time of Abraham. And God’s people knew much more about Him after the New Testament was written than in the time of Abraham or David. There are many doctrines that could never be argued from simply an Old Testament perspective – the substitutionary atonement, eschatology, heaven/hell, etc, etc.

So, Jesus could state in John 14:8-9 states: 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

I don’t think it’s necessary to even try and argue Trinitarian theology from this passage. I simply point out that Philip is asking a question to know more about God. I don’t think Philip is asking that Jesus physically show the Father to them. Vs7 shows that Philip wants to know more about the Father. So the Son arrives  in flesh to help us know more about the Father. Jesus even tells us that He is the only way to the Father, which had not yet been known outside of the new covenant revelation in Christ.

So to say that ‘everything that we know about Him through the Christian message was already known to the Jews through Judaism’, as Burke argued, is not a reality. We know so much more about God, and a plethora of other things, because of the New Testament.

2) From the section: Attributes of God: Identity

As the debate progresses we will see that Trinitarians have found it necessary to construct an increasingly complex system of “solutions” and “work-arounds” by which they attempt to “explain away” the many Bible passages which contain this strictly Unitarian language. By contrast, Biblical Unitarians can take all of these verses at face value without resorting to lengthy “explanations” of statements which do not require any explanation at all.

Not everything in the Scripture comes down to reading a verse, or verses, at ‘face value’. Some things are quite clear (as theologians will argue for the perspecuity-clarity of Scripture, especially with regards to understanding salvation). But there are many varying beliefs within the faith because the Scripture isn’t always so clear, at least to us, mainly because we are removed by thousands of years of history, culture, and other things.

A Trinitiarian’s desire is (or should be) not to ‘explain away’ things, but to take the collective data and form conclusions. That is what systematic theology is all about. I could quote a few of my favourite passages all day long to back up a particular doctrine I believe, but I still have to think through the seemingly contradictory passages. This is true of both Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians with regards to all passages that talk about God.

So, we would hopefully collect all verses that speak about A (God), all verses that speak about B (the Father), all verses that speak about C (the Son) and all verses that speak about D (Holy Spirit) and come to a faithful conclusion in formulating E (the holistic theology). You still have Scripture passages in tension with one another, as such cannot be denied. But it isn’t explaining away. It’s considering A through D in arriving at position E.

It’s similar to one who holds to the doctrine of eternal security, meaning the true believer is securely saved in Christ. You still have to deal with passages like Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31 (and a few others). But you also have to deal with them in light of the massive amounts of passages that support the eternal security of the sons and daughters of God. Yes, an vice versa. But the conclusion is a holistic deduction from the available information in God’s revelation of Scripture.

3) Also from the section: Attributes of God: Identity

Ignoring this Biblical pattern, Trinitarian doctrine developed new definitions for the words “being” and “person.” In Trinitarian parlance, a “being” can consist of more than one “person”, while a “person” is not necessarily a “being.” Thus, while “God the Son” (Jesus) is one “person”, he is not an individual “being”; instead he exists as one “person” within a tri-personal “being” known as the “Trinity.” To date, the use and acceptance of these definitions remain unique to Trinitarianism, since they contradict the use of “being” and “person” in regular human communication. Inconsistent use of language and the need for careful qualifications when employing even a simple term like “God”, are common features of Trinitarian exegesis.

Specifically, I wanted to address the last 2 sentences of this comment. In one sense, all human communication fails in explaining the divine. Not only that, but we are translating into a language (for me, English) far removed form the original writings in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Now, I still do believe God can be comprehended (at least in some sense that finite beings can comprehend the infinite), but it still does not fully allow us to get our minds around all of God. I can speak about the eternality and uniqueness and omnipresence of God all day long, because I find such in Scripture. But I still believe our words (in English or in Hebrew) fail at fully understanding this reality. But I believe, as a gracious act of God, these words can still help us comprehend what is necessary in knowing God in this present, fallen age.

So, with distinguishing the terms person and being for the Trinitarian, it is simply taking the available language we have and utilising such words to help understand what is going on in Scripture with the nature of God. Granted, the use of these two specific  words are not employed in a specific, outright Trinitarian way in Scripture. But, when a Trinitarian sees the God-like, divine characteristics and attributes being assigned to the Son and Holy Spirit, we are employing our own language to help define this, given the holistic available data. Thus, the distinction that is employed by the Trinitarian with using the two words being (or maybe ‘essence’) and person.

To the non-Trinitarian, we can accused of ‘working around things’ and ‘contradicting’ ourselves. That’s easy to say in accusing a Trinitarian. But there is no contradiction as terms are qualified and defined, at least in the best way we can as humans with language that pales in comparison to the reality of all of who God is as God.

4) In Burke’s comment to Bowman’s comment:

But Trinitarianism teaches that Jesus was both God and man (hence the use of the Trinitarian term “God-man”). This teaching necessarily requires Jesus to be simultaneously “God” and “not-God” unless you believe that “man” is equivalent to “God.” Attempting to circumvent this difficulty by an appeal to the hypostatic union (the incarnation of two natures in the person of Jesus Christ) merely restates the problem without actually solving it, and introduces an unBiblical concept in lieu of Biblical evidence.

I thought Bowman addressed this well in his own comment. What seems like the normal argument from non-Trinitarians against a Trinitarian Christology we are argument fails and contradicts, for we are really arguing that Jesus is both God and not-God. But, of course, this is not what Trinitarians argue. Trinitarians argue that God became man, became flesh. And, in doing so, the divine, eternal, pre-existent Logos/Word was willing to completely function as a human being in the incarnation. In doing so, many Trinitarians will argue that Jesus laid aside His ability to right to function in and of Himself as the divine Son and rather depended on the words of the Father and work of the Spirit. But, this was a willingness to lay aside right, or claim, on being divine. This was important for the eternal Son to fully identify with humanity, for He can now sympathise with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).

So to speak of Jesus as both God and man, or the God-man, or God became man, is not a contradiction of terms saying that He was both God and not-God. Rather God became man in Jesus Christ.

Here is another example, though I’m sure there are holes. But the point is hopefully sufficient. Jesus is talked of as both King/Ruler and Servant in Scripture. It’s very easy to see, at least in Isaiah (if not in other prophecies of the Old Testament) and in the New Testament (both by direct statements and via indirect statements and observations). But how in the world can one be a King/Ruler and also a lowly servant? I’m sure we could point out examples, as I said there are holes here.

Well, the interesting thing is that I believe a King (in the God, biblical sense) is to be a servant. So that’s how I can confirm that Christ is both King/Rule and Servant. But, first of all, specifically, Scripture says He is both simultaneously, though at times each aspect might be highlighted in greater detail. But He is still both King/Ruler and Servant. And I would even argue He shall be both of these for all eternity, since God’s nature is to serve His children, but not in some worm-servant sense.

So, with regards to Trinitarian Christology, we are not arguing contradictions. We are not arguing that Christ is both God and not-God. We are arguing that Christ is the God-man, or God became man in Jesus Christ. Christ can be both divine and human, as He can be both King/Ruler and Servant. It’s not that He ceases to be God and become not-God, or that after 33 or so years of time on earth, He ceases to not be not-God and becomes God again. It’s that the divine eternal Logos/Son became man, existing as both divine and human. This makes good for the all-sufficient, perfect sacrifice as the eternal God-man.

5) In Burke’s comment to Bowman’s comment:

Thus far you have been arguing consistently in one direction: that the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. But this is not enough to prove Trinitarianism. You also need to prove that the reverse is true: ie. that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I’d say that proving Trinitarianism is enough, right? Now, philosophically, others might be able to walk this path better than I, but if one were to show that Scripture teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God, then we can holistically conclude from the information that God is then Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I suppose that is working from my own premise, my own playground, if you will. Thus, it could be argued that just because a man is a son, it does not make him a father as well. Just because water is H2O, it does not also mean that the present form of H2O in my freezer is water. It’s actually ice.

As Bowman said, I don’t want to walk down the path of trying to utilise all of these possible examples to explain the Trinity (though they might be helpful to the common, non-theological believer). But they all do fail. But I would say all examples of anything trying to explain the divine will fail. So do we just give up all our examples? We don’t have to, if we define and qualify. But enough with that…

Burke says: You also need to prove that the reverse is true: ie. that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

And I believe this is what the Trinitarian does, but not in the way that I suppose a non-Trinitarian would like us to. A Trinitarian dives into the Scripture and sees not only that passages say that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, but we also see the Scripture teaching that God is Father, God is Son, God is Holy Spirit. Yes, some is deduction from a holistic examination of Scripture’s revelation. So, therefore, I suppose this fails in meeting the expectations of the non-Trinitarian and how they would like us to approach this.

But, my question would be (and this is where the philosopher could help better), if we see the Bible teaching the the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, would not the reverse be true? What else could these statements help us conclude?

I guess a non-Trinitarian might say that these statements could teach that there are three Gods, a polytheistic belief, which Trinitarians are accused of many times by Islam and certain cults. But, we would never argue for polytheism in the sense of three distinct Gods. Such is out of bounds from Scripture. But we do see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit presented as divine in Scripture. Thus, because we know polytheism is out of bounds, we collect the data of Scripture that underlines the divinity of all three persons and conclude that, in the full revelation of Scripture, God is presenting Himself as a Triune God.

Ok, I will try and stay up on things. I’m glad Bowman and Burke are only posting one article per week (though comments might continue through the week). It might be too overwhelming if there were more being posted.

The Great Trinity Debate

Over at Parchment & Pen, a blog I visit quite regularly, there will be a six-week focus on the doctrine of the Trinity, mainly being debated by two theologians – one a Trinitarian and the other a Biblical Unitarian. This has been in preparation for a couple of months now, so it should be a very stimulating read for all interested.

The Trinitarian is Rob Bowman, an evangelical author and apologist. The Biblical Unitarian is David Burke, a Christadelphian heading up the Christadelphian forums.

So far, there have been four major posts, as noted below:

Again, you can keep up with new and upcoming articles by checking back at Parchment & Pen each week. I hope good, solid theological discussion takes place and that a Christ-like attitude is displayed by all.