The Doctrine of the Trinity, and Scripture

I've been arguing quite a lot lately about the doctrine of the Trinity, whether here, in other fora, or just in the relative quiet to be had sitting at my kitchen table with books strewn across it. And, frankly, if there's a better thing to be arguing about, I don't have a handle on it! The basic question is, how do we speak about who God is in such a way that we adequately describe who God is? And how does our practice of answering that question relate to our practice of interpreting scripture?

Over the course of the Christian tradition, we have developed a very thick set of descriptions for God, along with rules regulating how we ought properly to mean what we say when we say it. The modern doctrine of the Trinity is the result of a whole long game of balancing what we may find in scripture about God, with what we have thought and reasoned across the tradition about God, and taking all of the pieces and building something that adequately respects both the truth as we have discerned it in the past, and the reality of God in the world as it may still be discerned today.

But, because this doctrine is built on a scriptural foundation, we also have a tendency, in every generation, to read the doctrine as it stands back into the texts on which we have built it. And there's a problem with that, namely: none of the authors of scripture, or their immediate communities, ever espoused anything like our doctrine of the Trinity. They all, in their own ways, wrestled with the relation of the Judean god YHWH, who is both Father and Spirit already in the Tanakh, to the man Jesus, the crucified and risen messiah. But the Christian orthodox notions of substance, personhood, and distinct but non-divisive triunity did not occur. And there's something to be said for the fact that, as Judeans (even if Gentile converts of various sorts), they knew who God was already, and had no need for the complicated mathematics that we have had to devise as though from scratch.

And there's a second problem, namely: we have better knowledge of the texts of scripture today than the Fathers ever did! There is definitely information that we have lost with our distance from their authorial contexts—but there is also information we are capable of recovering, even at this distance, that the Fathers, as non-Judean Christians belonging to other near-contemporary (but pagan) Hellenistic contexts, did not have. The earliest Christian Fathers speculated on the basis of poorer literacy, and even if they had access to earlier stages of the literary traditions of the New Testament, there's no reason to suppose that the Patristic writings we have speak to anything like originals or eyewitnesses. They did not know Paul. They did not know the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. They did not know what to make of the Apocalypse, and had no one to ask about it. They received stories in transmission, often in questionable translation among the Western Fathers, and they told stories from them and about them. They reasoned from what they had. They deserve our reverence, but not our obedience. They deserve to be questioned thoroughly even and especially while we reason along with them. Their arguments deserve to be heard, but only in the contexts and in terms of the concepts because of which which they arose. They have seen dangers that we must respect, but they have also defined and addressed them in ways that may well be inadequate to our tasks today.

So: do make yourself both deeply familiar and comfortable with the logic of the doctrine of the Trinity as we have it today, and participate in its development toward tomorrow. Do understand its grounding in the sources and arguments of the past. But do not mistake the doctrine for the arguments of those sources, even the most putatively orthodox among them. Understand that every source, and every argument in the tradition, has its own perspective.

And understand this especially with respect to pre-orthodox sources! The texts of scripture were not written to defend doctrines that we have developed by using them. They do not speak with our voices, and they do not think with our concepts. Do not read the concepts involved in the doctrine of the Trinity into the texts of scripture, as though John meant to say of the λόγος θεοῦ that it were a person "eternally begotten of the Father" "before all worlds." Suspend the doctrines you have been taught, and hear instead what John has to say about this logos in terms that belong to his context. Learn that context, because it is not your own, and without it you will not understand what the text means to say, for all that you hear what we mean when we say it. Let scripture, speaking with voices that never knew our orthodoxy, be the constant critic of our theologies. Never forget that we do not speak with its voice, but only using its words.

Comments

  1. I see no need for the doctrine of the trinity, in fact, I don't have it.
    In my opinion it's a pagan-christian relic only to be understood in its (hopefully expired)context.

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    1. How do you relate the messianic Son, the Spirit, and the Father to YHWH and one another?

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    2. In my understanding "the messianic Son, the Spirit and the Father" have always been part of biblical Judaism long before the trinitarian idea was developed or a need of it was thought.
      Like you said: "...none of the authors of scripture, or their immediate communities, ever espoused anything like our doctrine of the Trinity." Neither do I.

      In my opinion the trinitarian idea was born from a Christology that lacked an apappreciation of the "blasphemy" of calling yourself the son of YHWH. This lack, motivated those early "fathers" to develope a doctrine they thought might better suit the "blasphemy" they required and so... the trinity.

      "This was why the Jewish-leaders were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." Gospel of John
      So if, in this; Jesus calling Himself the Son of God, those Jewish leaders found ENOUGH ground to want to kill Him (they didn't need him to explain that he's part of a trinity), then it is also enough for me; Yeshua son of YHWH.

      Why don't we just let the idea of the trinity go?

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    3. There's a sizable difference between what I said, which is that the doctrine is scripturally grounded, even if it has developed over time, and what I hear you suggesting, which is that the doctrine is unscriptural and even antiscriptural.

      While it is definitely true that the authors of scripture do not espouse a modern understanding of the doctrine, it is equally true that they do in their own ways strike a balance in the description of these relationships—and that none of them do so in exactly the same ways. That is, each author comes up with functional ways to make the declaration that Jesus Christ is God and Lord, without by that claim either negating prior understandings of the being of God, or producing an understanding of the being of God that ends with the life of Jesus. The interrelationships between Father, Son, and Spirit that the authors of scripture do in fact negotiate are the basis for our modern (and all traditional) attempts to find our own balance in the same effort.

      Further, blasphemy is far from the only offense to a messianic claim. In fact, it's not even necessary to a messianic claim. There were plenty of messianic claimants in the period, each with their own following in their own time. This is the nature of the messianic language of sonship—which the gospels use with no sense that it is in fact blasphemous. The objection of the religious authorities, whose fates are bound to the will of the occupying state, has far more politics behind it than theological concern. Taking the claim of blasphemy as seriously as you do seems unwarranted.

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    4. Suggesting that the doctrine of the trinity is "unscriptural and even antiscriptural" would be too much, this I think, would desire some sort of an apologetic of me.
      Instead I merely reject the idea of the trinity, on the basis that it is not needed. (Of course I realise that this won't be accepted so easely, I might make a half-hearted attempt at some sort of an apologetic.)

      With regards to Jesus' claims; "My Father.."(when referring to God), here you can exchange my use of the word "blasphemy" with "profoundness" if you prefer.

      Furthermore, I think that extract I presented from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John bares quite some sense that Jesus' claim "My Father.." was regarded as blasphemous, because in so doing he "made himself equal with God".
      I would also like to defend the sovereignty of those Jewish leaders in- and with regards to their Religious decisions. I find it a grave insult to purport that consideration of Rome played a role in such immediate and important matters as concerned an awaited Messiah. It might be the case these days, but in reading Josephus it is clear that those A.D. 1 Hebrews had a fervent zeal for their God, which often showed itself in their disregard of the "occupying state" and "politics".

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