THE EVOLUTION OF MY VIEWS ON THE TRINITY – PART 8

Last time I talked about Dallas Willard. This time, another great Christian thinker, who I discovered some time around 1998, and am still wrestling with today.

Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) was one of the all-time great philosophical theologians. He was a greatly respected Anglican minister, and probably would have become archbishop of Canterbury if he hadn’t published on the Trinity. He was a younger friend of the famous scientist Isaac Newton, and became the main expositor of Newton’s science and the metaphysics and theology underlying it. He was also a wily metaphysician and an impressively learned scholar, capable of wielding a thousand textual facts to mount an argument.

In 1705 Clarke became famous for his still studied classic, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. This is a big, developed presentation of a cosmological argument for the existence of exactly one “necessary” and moreover perfect being. In my view, it is not entirely successful, but it is impressive, and the most developed cosmological argument ever.

For whatever reasons, though probably in part, his interactions with his friends Newton and William Whiston, Clarke plunged into the Bible and patristics, and came up with finely honed views on the Trinity, along the lines of the early (c. 150-350) “fathers.”  This he published in his Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, the first edition of which was in 1712. This is his other, neglected, lost classic. It created quite a stir in early 18th c. England. Clarke narrowly avoided losing his job over the controversy. But here I’ll stick to its effect on my thinking.

In the first 35 pages, Clarke lays out some 441 passages in the NT, in which the Father either “is stiled the one or only God” (1), or “wherein he is stiled ‘God’ absolutely, by way of eminence and supremacy” (6), or “wherein he is stiled ‘God’ with some peculiar high titles, epithets, or attributes; which… are (generally, if not) always by way of supreme eminence, ascribed to the person of the Father only” (24). (In this post I’ve modernized Clarke’s words, omitting his early 18th c. use of italics and capitalization.)

After examining all passages concerning the Son and Spirit, and how they related to the Father, as well as all mentions of Father, Son, and Spirit together, Clarke gets theological. There’s a lot I could say about this, but in brief,

There is one supreme cause… of all things [i.e. the Father]; one simple, uncompounded, undivided, intelligent agent, or person; who is the alone author of all being, and the fountain of all power. (122)

And, appealing to some 45 NT texts, he asserts that

The Father alone, is, absolutely speaking, the God of the universe; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Israel; of Moses, of the Prophets and Apostles; and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He defends all these claims by quoting (in the original language, then translating) numerous church fathers, especially Athanasius, Novation, Origen, Justin, and Tertullian. In short, he believes in 3 divine persons, but only one, the Father is autotheos – divine through or because of himself. This one, is the one God of whom the OT speaks, i.e. Yahweh. In a most manly fashion, without yielding an inch, and yet without ungodly nastiness, he defends these ideas against all comers – people I would call mysterians, tritheists (aka Social Trinitarians), modalists, “Latin” trinitarians, and humanitarian unitarians (“Socinians”) – who, interestingly, he takes to be basically modalists. He does this in nine thick follow up pieces, responses to those few of his many critics Clarke thought worthy of an answer.

This is all a lot to digest. But the main effect all this had on me was to drive me back to the New Testament, to see if what Clarke says about it is true. I found that all the New Testament authors very clearly distinguish between God, a.k.a. the Father, and Jesus. With a few exceptions, “God” refers to the Father, and generally in Paul, “the Lord” is Jesus. (This last can be confusing to us.) But what could hardly be clearer is that Father and Son there are different selves. Clarke also shows that for just about any favorite proof text supposedly showing that Jesus “is God,” in the immediate context, we find that the author seems to assume them to be two.

Now the standard answer to Clarke’s point that Father and Son are different selves is this: Sure, they are two persons, but that’s compatible with their being one God. But Clarke explodes this defense numerous times. A “god” in the Bible is always a self – not a substance, nature, or whatnot. Thus, if Father and Son were the same god, they’d also be the same self, which Clarke would explain, is unacceptable modalism, and just makes nonsense of the New Testament. Just to take one point, the Son can’t be the same person he mediates for – if he’s the mediator between God and man (which the NT says he is), then that precludes his being the same self as God.Further, if you think that “sharing a substance” (whatever that amounts to) makes them one god, you need to say why it is that two gods couldn’t share one substance – and Clarke bets that you can’t show this. Keep in mind that he agrees with the claim of Nicea (325) that Father and Son are homoousios – but he argues that we should accept just the original meaning, which is, essentially, that the two are similar, i.e. both divine. Indeed, that very document plainly assumes them to differ, and so to not be numerically identical. (So, not one self, and not one god – for in either case, they would have to be numerically identical.)

Is this “Arianism“? No. For Clarke, Son and Spirit are uncreated and eternally dependent on God.

Is it Social Trinitarianism? No. It has a number of similarities to it, but the one God isn’t any group, but rather the Father. It was Clarke who cured me of “social” Trinity confusions.

Is it monotheism? Clarke argues that it is. Still, it is not obvious that it is. This is a tortured question, and I’m going to dodge it here – I’ll just say that he and his interlocutors had quite an argument about this.

Is this theory orthodox (i.e. consistent with the creeds, or at least, the creeds which truly summarize the Bible)? Clarke thinks so, and enlists a large number of ancient catholic theologians on his side, such as the great Origen. This too is a tortured question – I’ll only say that it depends on just what traditions you take as normative.

Is it trinitarianism? I would say not, although Clarke urges that this is the best and only biblical way to understand the mainstream catholic tradition on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. It isn’t trinitarian because the Trinity is not the one God, or any sort of god at all. Rather, the one god is (numerically identical to) the Father, and this is the characteristic, defining thesis of unitarianism, be it ancient, early modern, or present day. So, while Clarke has no intention of being “anti-trinitarian,” and while he has no love at all of Socinus and later unitarians, he is in fact one of the most important unitarian Christian thinkers of all time. I call Clarke a subordinationist unitarian, because for him the Son and Spirit are divine but ontologically subordinate to, eternally dependent for their existence and perfections on the Father. They are not, that is, absolutely co-equal, and that is another reason why, arguably, Clarke is not a trinitarian. Of course, for these same reasons, neither are all the other ancient “fathers” mentioned in this post!

 

 

 

 

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Most importantly, is his the best reading of the Bible, and is it true? In my view, not quite – more on that in future posts.

But his key points are true, and are the key to a non-confused reading of the Bible. The one God of both testaments is none other than (i.e. same self, same god, same being as) the Father. And this Father is supposed to be someone other than Jesus. You can take that to the bank.

The price is that you must reject any theory inconsistent with those two points. But any Trinity theory which is self-consistent is not compatible with them. In the end, it is the Bible vs. catholic tradition. For me, the Bible had to win. So, reading Clarke led me to see the unitarianism (again, just the thesis that the Father is one and the same as the one God) in the Bible, and this  made me a unitarian, though I had no desire to be one, and many reasons to not want either that label or that belief. Without going into details, I’ve had some painful life experiences with cranks and conspiracy theorists, and I have no desire whatever to become one, or even to be thought one. That unitarianism is, at least post 4th c. , a minority report is a strike against it, in my view, a barrier it must overcome.

I was fully aware that my evangelical brethren would consider me a traitor and a non-Christian. I knew I’d be accused of arrogance, of thinking I was smarter than so many Great Christians, while in fact being about as smart as that goldfish in the picture above.

I get a sick feeling reading the ancient “fathers” viciously verbally attacking the so-called “Arians” in furious contempt, accusing them of blasphemy, assaulting Jesus, being sub-human, being closet Jews, and so on. (Not because I’m an Arian, although they are unitarians too – another species of subordinationists.) These words are, to be blunt, a disgrace and an offense against the Lord they claimed to be defending; it’s not to strong to say that many of them hated their subordinationist opponents. This is all about theories, mind you – well, about that plus politics – those “fathers” I’m referring to were catholic Bishops desperate to maintain control over their churches, and to enlist the Empire to help them smash their rivals.

Today, while the rhetoric is somewhat less brutal, many Christian thinkers are quite proud of their various Trinity theories, and many hold “the” Trinity doctrine to be the pride of Christianity, its shining jewel and most distinctive and central thesis. And many react harshly to those who would, as it were, show their theories to be theories, and multiple (and mutually incompatible). That is really what most of my published work has been so far, and I’ve been less than clear about my own views. (This because those views were (1) not strictly relevant to the task at hand and (2) still in the process of being formed, and (3) honestly, I was not eager to start taking fire, as it were. Call this last prudence or cowardice – you be the judge.)

But I have decided in recent months that to be ashamed of these truths would be disloyalty to Jesus, whose disciple I endeavor to be. He too taught that the one God, who is both his God and my God, was the one he called “Father.” (John 17:3, 20:17) So did Paul, John, and Peter. So, kick me in the shins and call me a heretic, but I know to whom I must answer. For the record, no, I don’t think I’m smarter than everyone else, and yes, I admit that it’s possible that I’m mistaken. And no, I’m not a “rationalist.” It is the texts which drive me to unitarianism.

Are there difficult texts for this view? A few, yes. But far fewer than for the common evangelical view that Jesus is numerically the same as God (and, of course, also: he’s someone else). This view makes every NT book self-contradictory.

While Clarke convinced me that the one God is the Father, I wasn’t sure that I was a subordinationist unitarian, as described above. There are another class of Christian unitarians, what I call “humanitarian” unitarians. That’s where I find myself. More on that next time.

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

163 Responses to THE EVOLUTION OF MY VIEWS ON THE TRINITY – PART 8

  1. Greg says:

    Hi all, I’m glad my thoughts resonate with some of you. I think part of the problem with this whole issue is simply the dichotomy between the Hebraic mindset, and the Greek mindset, and the fact that the historic Christian church’s mode of thinking is formed primarily by the latter thanks to the influx of a lot of Greek-minded gentile philosophers/thinkers into the church in the early centuries. The Hebrew mind just isn’t interested in the ontological reality of God like the Greek mind is. That’s not to say automatically that the Greek influence is wrong or invalid, but it simply is a matter of how certain issues are stressed. The Greeks wanted to know the nature of everything….Jews were more content to let God’s being remain a mystery. That’s my take at least. And I think the fruits of this approach which the church has taken can be seen in the great division in Christendom between those who hold different views, to the point that everyone else is a heretic, not truly saved, etc. And it’s all so silly when you step back and think about it. We are ants on an ant hill dissecting the nature of the One who is beyond all things, declaring this or that jargon to correctly correspond to the transcendent reality that is the Almighty. How pretentious of us!

    The Bible places so much emphasis upon the humanity of Christ, that the one thing we should all make sure we get right is that Yeshua was a true flesh and blood human being like the rest of us. Unitarians and Trinitarians alike say that they believe this, so they should be able to unite on this point. All talk of divine natures and hypostatic unions and such is just diversion, in my opinion. Yeshua is divine because he is the unique Son of God, a human being who God raised to be the Messiah, who had God’s Spirit rest upon him in an unprecedented manner. But there is only one true God, and that God is identified as the Father throughout the Old and New Testaments. This is the God Yeshua worshipped and pointed us all to, the one who has no equal. It’s really such a beautiful, profound picture when you look at the course of history and God’s working with Israel and the final culmination that came about with the advent of the Messiah. It truly makes you want to bow down in honor of the One True God, YHWH, and his only-begotten Son, Yeshua of Nazareth. Glory be to the great and merciful God and his Son Yeshua the Messiah!

  2. villanovanus says:

    @ Dale

    Marg mentioned this blog in her comment of November 20, 2012 at 7:09 pm appended to “God and his Son: the Logic of the New Testament – conference presentation (Dale)”.
    Here are a few (belated) comments, in expectation for a new blog dedicated to the question, “is the pre-existent Logos” a “what” or a “who”?

    In short, he [Samuel Clarke] believes in 3 divine persons, but only one, the Father is autotheos– divine through or because of himself. This one, is the one God of whom the OT speaks, i.e. Yahweh. In a most manly fashion, without yielding an inch, and yet without ungodly nastiness, he defends these ideas against all comers – people I would call mysterians, tritheists (aka Social Trinitarians), modalists, “Latin” trinitarians, and humanitarian unitarians (“Socinians”) – who, interestingly, he takes to be basically modalists.

    I don’t know if the Greek word autotheos was ever used by Greek authors, or if it was made up by European scholars. As for Samuel Clarke, he certainly used it here …

    “Mat xix, 17. There is none good, but One, [Heis, one 'Person',] that is God†…The meaning is; that the Father, as he alone is [Autotheos] God of Himself, and underived; so He only is [Autoauthon] the original absolute underived GOOD… [inserted quotations from Origen, Bp. Bull, Athanasius, Novatian] … And yet it is not improbable, but our Saviour by this manner of expression might intend to insinuate, that the young man who thus addrest to him, had given him a title, which was really due to him in such a sense, as the person that gave it him was not then at all aware of.” (The Scripture doctrine of the Trinity, pp. 50-52, see @ archive.org/stream/scripturedoctrin00clar#page/50/mode/2up)

    … whereby it is far from obvious that Clarke excluded that the appellative “autotheos” was not also due to Jesus Christ inasmuch as Son of God.
    If this comes as a surprise to you (and it certainly should, if Samuel Clarke is to be counted as a genuine Subordinationist), it becomes even more puzzling, considering that the appellative “autotheos” had already been used by no other than John Calvin in his radically egalitarian doctrine of the “trinity”.

    With a few exceptions, “God” refers to the Father, and generally in Paul, “the Lord” is Jesus. (This last can be confusing to us.)

    Well it should be (confusing to those who do not ascribe full deity to Jesus), because there is no evidence that Paul refers the appellative “Lord” to the resurrected Jesus, ascended and “seated at the right of the Power” (Rom 10:9; Phil 2:9-11 – see also Acts 2:36) in some sort of “diminutive” way, something like Buzzard’s , pièce de résistence, viz. adownai (strictly reserved for YHWH) vs adoni when commenting on Psalm 110:1.

    Clarke … agrees with the claim of Nicea (325) that Father and Son are homoousios– but he argues that we should accept just the original meaning, which is, essentially, that the two are similar, i.e. both divine. Indeed, that very document plainly assumes them to differ, and so to not be numerically identical.

    This is simply a laughable “explanation”: why would the uncompromising Nicene and the Subordinationists have remained stuck on just one letter, the iota that makes the difference between homoousios and homoiousios, if con-substantial meant just “of similar substance”?

    Is it [Clarke's theory] Social Trinitarianism? No. It has a number of similarities to it, but the one God isn’t any group, but rather the Father. It was Clarke who cured me of “social” Trinity confusions.

    Really? Um … So, what/who are “Son and Spirit … uncreated, and … eternally dependent on God”?

    Is it monotheism? (…) Is this theory orthodox (…)? Is it trinitarianism? I would say not, although Clarke urges that this is the best and only biblical way to understand the mainstream catholic tradition on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. It isn’t trinitarian because the Trinity is not the one God, or any sort of god at all. Rather, the one god is (numerically identical to) the Father, and this is the characteristic, defining thesis of unitarianism, be it ancient, early modern, or present day. So, while Clarke has no intention of being “anti-trinitarian,” and while he has no love at all of Socinus and later unitarians, he is in fact one of the most important unitarian Christian thinkers of all time. I call Clarke a subordinationist unitarian, because for him the Son and Spirit are divine but ontologically subordinate to, eternally dependent for their existence and perfections on the Father. They are not, that is, absolutely co-equal, and that is another reason why, arguably, Clarke is not a trinitarian. Of course, for these same reasons, neither are all the other ancient “fathers” mentioned in this post!

    See above: until and unless you clarify what/who are “Son and Spirit … uncreated, and … eternally dependent on God”, it is correct to say that ONLY the expression “subordinationist trinitarian” makes sense and is proper, whereas “subordinationist unitarian” is an oxymoron.

    Most importantly, is his the best reading of the Bible, and is it true? In my view, not quite – more on that in future posts.

    Apparently, that never came true …

    But his key points are true, and are the key to a non-confused reading of the Bible. The one God of both testaments is none other than (i.e. same self, same god, same being as) the Father. And this Father is supposed to be someone other than Jesus. You can take that to the bank.

    Really? So, what sort of “banknote” is “the Son”, in particular before the Incarnation? So, what sort of “banknote” is “the Spirit”, before and after the Pentecost?

    I get a sick feeling reading the ancient “fathers” viciously verbally attacking the so-called “Arians” in furious contempt, accusing them of blasphemy, assaulting Jesus, being sub-human, being closet Jews, and so on. (Not because I’m an Arian, although they are unitarians too – another species of subordinationists.)

    You make it appear as though trinitarianism, in all its possible variants, was a mere consequence of the Arian controversy, and not something already existing, which is a tad difficult to reconcile at least with Tertullian’s formula (una substantia tres personae, ‘Against Praxeas’, circa AD 213) …

    More, you make its origin incomprehensible, because, if the difference between Arians, unitarians and subordinationists is so slim as you make it, then it is hardly understandable why the Church and the Roman Empire were bitterly, viciously, ferociously torn by the Arian Controversy for at least 60 years, “from before the Council of Nicaea in 325 to after the Council of Constantinople in 381″.

    While Clarke convinced me that the one God is the Father, I wasn’t sure that I was a subordinationist unitarian, as described above. There are another class of Christian unitarians, what I call “humanitarian” unitarians. That’s where I find myself. More on that next time.

    For the “subordinationist unitarian” oxymoron see above.

    For “humanitarian unitarians”, I wonder how it would differ from Socinians, or even “Unitarian Universalists” …

    For the “next time”, apparently there never was an “Evolution of my Views on the Trinity – Part 9 (Dale)” …

    MdS

  3. Michael Errington says:

    One of the few articles highlighting the works of an undervalued author that was a pleasure to read; it seems sincerity and refinement provides a substantial place for truth to operate on this blog. My first article read which is a referral from the Youtube video ‘The Lost Early History of Unitarian Christian Theology’ by Dr. Dale Tuggy. It may take a little time but I am looking forward to exploring the rest of this site:)

  4. Just received my copy of Samuel Clarke’s book. So far it is very good (once I got past reading “s” instead of “f”)! I can see what you mean in this post. It’s hard not to respect Clarke’s careful biblical scholarship here. Looking forward to seeing where this leads for my own views.

  5. Dale says:

    Yes, it really is a lost classic. It should be taught in seminaries. It influenced quite a few Christians in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It opened by eyes to how firmly and consistently the NT distinguishes between Jesus and God.

  6. For the time being, I’ll just teach it to myself (in seminary)! I’m hoping to possibly find a MA Theology thesis topic somewhere in this book. Perhaps there’s something to be said linking Clarke’s analysis of the oneness of God and Jesus as a oneness of authority and not persons and Bauckham’s ancient criteria for divinity. I read your criticism of Bauckham and I agree with you that he hasn’t solved the Trinity problem. But it would be interesting to take a fresh look at his divinity criteria (creator, ruler, worthy of worship, etc) in light of Clark’s recognition that God just is the Father in New Testament language. The Son is God insofar as the Son perfectly represents God with God’s full authority. For example, Clarke says clearly that the Father created through the Son. Is that enough for Bauckham to declare Christ divine by virtue of creatorship, even though the nature of that creatorship is different that that of the Father?

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  9. Marg says:

    What I appreciate most about Clarke is that he gives his readers all the EVIDENCE that the NT provides, and gives them a chance to judge for themselves what that evidence leads to. His conclusions (I think) fit the evidence.

    But I respect your views, as well. So I want to ask a question that has been asked before, and I hope I can ask it again without being a nag.

    You promised at the end of this post that there would be more later on the subject of why you do not entirely agree with Clarke’s view of the Trinity. I have been looking forward to this for what seems like a long time. Can I look forward to seeing it sometime soon?

  10. Dale says:

    Hi Marg,

    No, sorry – not soon. I’m overburdened with writing demands at the moment, and other things.

  11. Edwin Tait says:

    Calvin is the one who invented this business of the Son and Spirit being autotheos. The historic, orthodox, c/Catholic position (whatever you want to call it) is that the Son and Spirit derive their divinity from the Father. In that respect, at least, Clarke wasn’t heretical at all except by Reformed standards (themselves heretics insofar as they rejected historic Catholic orthodoxy on a number of points). The post has made me curious to figure out where exactly Clarke’s unorthodoxy lies. I’ve certainly always heard that he was unorthodox, but this point at least is an orthodox one (it sounds as if he thinks that the Son and the Spirit are “less divine” than the Father, which is _not_ the orthodox view).

    I just became aware of Dr. Tuggy’s work today. I regret the conclusions he’s come to and I’m afraid I regard them as the consequence of flawed premises (such as sola scriptura) held by Protestants as a whole. Anti-Trinitarianism keeps popping up in Protestantism, for good reason. For myself, I don’t understand why anyone would still be a Christian if they concluded that the historic Church was as wrong as all that. Which means, ironically, that Dr. Tuggy is a much more devoted follower of Jesus (albeit a much less orthodox one) than I am. i wish you all God’s blessings in your continued journey, Dr. Tuggy!

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  13. John says:

    Dale
    I have just read Ben Naismiths response to you and am still wondering if everyone is making the issue of ‘divinity’ more complicated than it really is?

    Most evangelicals tell me that because Jesus was ‘divine’ he must therefore be “God’.

    This view confuses ‘nature’ with ‘identity’

    Surely the divine nature can be viewed as follows –

    (i)God is divine since he is God Himself and is the source of the divine nature

    (ii)Christ has a divine nature which he has inherited from his Father

    (iii) Believers are partakers of the divine nature e.g. 2 Peter 1 v4

    Surely it is clear that God is SOURCE of the divine nature and that both Christ and believers ((ii) and (iii) have in some sense inherited it or shared in it.

    Ben Naismith has asserted that you see ‘see ‘divinity’ on a ‘gradient scale’ while he believes that Bauckhan sees divinity of an ‘absolute category’.

    The truth however, seems to be that The Father is the SOURCE of ALL divinity.

    I have always believed that to be divine means ‘ to be of God’ – but perhaps I am oversimplifying things?

    Every Blessing
    John

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