Oh, goodie: the Evangelicals talk about the doctrine of God

Bobby Grow is weighing in on whether or not the doctrine of the trinity is negotiable for the gospel, among Evangelicals. And there's a whole mess of discussion ahead of him, to which my first reaction is shaking my head. But I love a good argument, and I respect Bobby, so I set out to comment. Only I can't write something that fits neatly in the margin, because I find myself coming at the problem from outside the conversation. Too much to explain. So I'll contribute from here, where I can start to do it justice.

First, let's look at what's really going on here.

There's honestly very little novel in the discussion. Good points on many sides, weak points and overstatements likewise. The most basic problem is that what this seems to be about, at the level of ground truth, is community boundaries. Nobody should be surprised -- this is simply the nature of orthodoxy/heresy disputes. The Carson/Keller article on the Gospel Coalition site relies on a fairly classic "rule of faith" use of the fides quae creditur. It's a classic product of the 17th-century Protestant orthodoxy: refusal of a "lowest-common-denominator" faith in favor of a "robust" account. In reductive form: person P may be said to believe iff P believes x, y, z, q and r. Else the status of P is questionable with respect to "belief," and therefore community alignment. The community is a community of common belief, measured in terms of the substantial fides quae creditur rather than the essential fides qua creditur. Salvation is at stake, and it is at stake if what is believed is not "the whole counsel of God."

Marc Cortez gets this, talks about center-definition and border-definition, and brings out of Carson and Keller the point that conversation about doctrine is conversation about the structure, substance, and content of the gospel. Cortez restates the point in terms of the doctrines (specifically trinity and incarnation) providing "essential shape and structure to the gospel." The absence of the doctrines "undermines" the gospel, though Cortez allows that one might understand the gospel without them, but with "some real weak spots." While understanding doctrine is important, Cortez allows that it is not the standard of salvation -- implicit, that understanding the gospel is, and these may be distinguished even if not ideally separated.

Nick Norelli begs to differ. In so doing, he asserts a logic generally used for knowledge of God to refer to the difference between ignorance of a doctrine and willful rejection of it. (Which you know I think is a category error.) Norelli makes woefully few distinctions between the doctrines and their referents. One might reject the Trinity, but in so doing one rejects the particular God whose actions are described, and any right to His benefits. And if one rejects the Incarnation, one has rejected the central message of the gospel. In other words, to understand the doctrine and reject it is to renounce the sole description of the persons and events described by the doctrine.

Kevin Brown wonders whether Norelli has it right. The doctrines are not of ultimate importance; they are not what is revealed by the apostles and evangelists -- and even if they were, Brown rightly notes that in Acts, the resurrection is the heart of the gospel. In the end, Brown returns us to the question of "cognitive salvation," and the autonomy of God to save whom God wills.

Brian LePort, attempting to get at the whole conversation much as I'm doing, raises some very good questions. But on the way, he asserts also that the Spirit is the motivating force of the development of doctrine, driving the church through a historical process to find the best representative language for the truth witnessed by scripture. Which makes the question a matter of revealed doctrines as guides to human understanding of revealed truth.

And at this point we are so, so far from where I live. And as Bobby notes, the comments on Brian's post are so much farther away -- though considering their quality I wasn't as inclined as Bobby to dive in and attempt salvage. But rather than reproducing that on his blog, he reposts something fairly good. For Bobby, the question seems to be whether the doctrine of the trinity is better than the alternatives:
There are certain “Christian” belief systems that assert that the Trinity is a man-made distortion of who God is. They assert that Jesus is either: a creation of God, an exalted Angel, a demiurge, a mode or expression of the one God. They assert much more, and there are many more views of who Jesus is, that are under or beyond who Jesus really is as disclosed in Scripture. Conversely, it is those who make such assertions about who Jesus is, who preach a different gospel — since Jesus is the gospel. And if we get who Jesus is, wrong, then we get the Gospel wrong.
And that, finally, is worth responding to.

The clear anti-trinitarian heresies, which make of Jesus something opposed to the scriptural witness, are clearly non-negotiable. Not an angel, not another deity, not a mere human. But useful as it is, the "proper" trinitarian expression we have come to find as both orthodox and catholic is not a necessity for the gospel. It is subordinate to the gospel -- because if we get the gospel wrong, we get who Jesus is, wrong. The horse must pull the cart, and not vice versa. We cannot get who Jesus is, apart from who Jesus has been proclaimed to be. Faith need not understand doctrine -- doctrine is the attempt to understand the faith.

You see, the apostles and the evangelists were not trinitarians in the sense in which we have come to be. This point has been hinted at, but not made. And yet, to take our earliest source, Paul articulates very clearly that Jesus is the son of the Father, and that the holy spirit of God is the presence of God in continuity with the life of Jesus and the actions of the Father toward him. And it's the participation of these three in the key events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, and the ongoing sense in which the community lives out of those events as an extension of the Judean life of the people of their one God -- it's all of this together that provides the problem that good trinitarian logic solves, and to which bad Christological logic fails to do justice. But Paul doesn't have to be a "good" trinitarian -- because he's got the gospel correct. He knows who the persons are, and so do his communities, because they know who this God is.

Honestly, it's not until we have non-Judean Christians that we have problems so bad that we misunderstand this God, and require rigorously good trinitarian balance to remind us that this God is God, having done these things and continuing to be God for us. Were anyone to ask me, I'd say it's when the logic of pagan Hellenism becomes the driving theo-logic, and not the apologetic lingua franca for Judean theo-logic, that we begin to confuse what's going on at a deep level. This is when we start getting controversies, and it's the language of those controversies.

So rejection of the doctrine of the trinity is nothing more or less than rejection of one theological schema for keeping our balance here. It happens, in fact, to be the dominant schema for keeping our balance, but one need not adhere to it as long as one understands the balance that needs to be kept. One may, in fact, justly reach behind it for the data it attempts to organize. The question is whether and how one affirms the God who acts in and with and for Jesus Christ, and therefore extends faithfulness beyond the boundaries of Judea and her diaspora into the whole world -- this God whose continuing presence we affirm.

Further, at this point we ought to be well aware that "the" doctrine of the trinity is really a high-level abstraction, naming an entire locus of theology that deals in the basic balancing act of talking about God in these terms. We need its heuristics as a map to the territory, but it is only a map, which we have made and maintain. It is about as good as can be expected, but it is only good for what maps are good for. At the same time, one should not presume that one can simply blunder through the doctrine of God with no need for guidance. We have marked off this, that, and the other dangerous areas for the sake of safe passage through the territory, and noted reasonably safe paths to popular destinations. Understand the map and what it has to tell you before you go exploring the territory, but know that God is the territory, and not the map.

But if you don't have room for the whole map, at least take the gospel with you. Because the gospel is sufficient for the faith that the entire trinitarian edifice attempts to understand. (Ah, but what's the gospel -- there's the real question for which the doctrinal discussion is only an attempted shortcut.)


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