Most Christians are (at least in theory, according to creeds and statements of faith promulgated by denominations) trinitarians, believers in a triune or tri-personal God, which they call the Trinity. But some have always been unitarians, believers in one God who is one perfect self, who does not in any way contain three selves or “persons.” Nowadays, these are a minority (again, going by official statements and membership rolls – I think the facts about Christians’ actual beliefs are more complicated than the official documents suggest).
In my view, before around fifth century, unitarians were always a majority. Of course, they didn’t call themselves “unitarians” – that term is of late 17th c. coinage – but arguably most of them were unitarians - for some arguments read this. (Update: or this series.)
In any case, one can’t determine what is true by taking a vote. Truth may be unpopular. But also, it can be popular. So, who is right?
I propose that the following clear arguments provide a way forward. Which should we accept?
T1 The Father is not the Trinity
T2 The Trinity is God.
T3 Therefore, the Father is not God.
T1 The Father is not the Trinity.
U2 The Father is God.
U3 Therefore, The Trinity is not God.
“Is” here means numerical identity throughout. If x in this sense “is” y (in logic we write x=y) then x and y are one and the same, numerically one thing, numerically identical, and so x and y can’t ever differ in any way. The order doesn’t matter: it will be true that x=y just in case it is also true that y=x. And if it is false that x=y, then x and y are truly two – those terms name different things. To repeat: every “is” in these arguments is the “is” of identity. This is why we’re dealing with clear arguments. We’re not talking about some less close relation or association.
“God” here names Yahweh, the one true God asserted in the Hebrew scriptures.
Each argument is valid; in each case, if both premises were to be true, then the conclusion would also be true.
But we can’t consistently accept both arguments as sound. T2 conflicts with U3, and T3 conflicts with U2 (in both cases the pairs are contradictories – pairs such that one must be true and the other false).
So what to do?
Let us start on common ground. All sides should agree to T1. The reason is that if there is a Trinity - however you understand it – it differs from the Father. And so, it (or: he, they) can’t be one and the same thing as the Father, can’t be numerically identical to him. For example, no one thinks that the Father contains three persons (or “persons”), but on any understanding of the Trinity it (he, they) somehow contains or is composed of three persons (“persons”). So trinitarians should agree with T1. Whatever the relation between the Father and the Trinity it is, however close, however mysterious, we know that it can’t be identity, for it is self-evident that one and the same thing can’t differ from itself at one time (or in eternity).
- Do you think that the Father “is God” in some other sense? (e.g. is wholly composed of the divine nature, possesses the divine essence, is a part of the triune God, is a member of the group of divine persons who collectively are “God”) Fine. Still, you should agree with T1; T1 is consistent with such theories.
- For their part, unitarian Christians also agree with T1, because they think that the triune God is a hypothesized entity that does not actually exist. But if it did exist, it would differ from the Father, and so couldn’t just be the Father.
But having agreed on premise 1, we’re still stuck.
- If we accept T2, we’ll conclude that the first argument is sound. (So, we’ll take it as a reason to believe T3.)
- But if we accept U2, we’ll think the second argument is sound, and so gives us a reason to believe U3 (which, of course, conflicts with T2).
So far, this has all been easy – just logic, combined with a self-evident truth which everyone knows.
But now things get a little harder. You must ask: which do I have more reason to believe – T2 or U2?
I suggest that a good Christian should ask: WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?). And our best information about that is in the New Testament. Does it explicitly teach either T2 or U2?
Surely not T2, for the simple reason that the writers of the NT have no concept of a triune or tripersonal God. If they had such a concept, it’d be easy for them to assign a term, a word or phrase, to express it, like “the Trinity” or “the triune God.” But they have no such term. At most, they speak in ways which are consistent with the existence of a triune God, and they occasionally speak in ways which kind of suggest such (at least, to some readers). (e.g. Matthew 28:19) If such a doctrine were explicitly taught, then we could just quote the verse. But we can’t. (For a long time, some considered 1 John 5:7 to be the needed verse, but no more; basically all have abandoned it, and rightly so.)
So a Trinity theory is going to be, in the best case, a doctrine of inference – one which is not stated by the sources, but which either logically follows from them, or doesn’t logically follow, but best explains them. Maybe the NT writers are committed to trinitarianism but don’t realize it. So, you can pick a Trinity theory, and see if it can either be derived from or best explain what is in the Bible. But while you’re doing that, back to our arguments.
Is U2 explicitly taught in the Bible? I think it is, at least once. But before I get to that, I don’t think any NT author thought it needed saying! Rather, it is constantly presupposed by every NT author, and according to all of them, by the Lord Jesus himself.
They all use “Father” (“our Father,” “my Father,” “our Father in Heaven”) as a term for the one God, Yahweh. Check all the gospels on this score. And in almost all cases, “God” (“our God,” “my God” etc.) is supposed to refer to this same one. Particularly striking are the greetings in Paul’s letters (all of them, with the possible exception of Colossians) – he sends them blessings from “God our Father” or “our God and Father”, as well as from Jesus. In all these cases, “God” (Greek: “the god”) refers to Yahweh, the one true God of the Old Testament. And that term is being used co-referentially along with “Father” (etc.). This shows that the authors assume that God and the Father are one and the same, numerically one.
But is this same one also also referred to by “Jesus,” “the Lord Jesus,” and such?
No – they all assume that this one who is our God and Father is also the God and Father of Jesus. Hence Peter,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Peter 1:3, ESV)
… our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3, ESV)
John isn’t being redundant here. (e.g. “I know Barak Obama! And also, I know the guy who was president of the USA in 2011!”) Rather, he’s asserting that Christian have personal relationships with God, and with the Son of God.
Back to U2, sometimes it very close to the surface; I mean, it is clearly asserted, though not explicitly so (it is clearly implied). Look, for example, at John 17:3 (ESV), in which Jesus is praying to God, that is, to the Father (see verse 1):
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
WWJD? According to John he’d affirm U2. And I think we may take the author of the gospel of John to be teaching, asserting that the Father is the one true God here, though he doesn’t assert it in his own voice here.
The one place I know where it’s explicitly taught that the Father is numerically identical to the one God is in Paul’s discussion of Christians eating food offered to idols. While the peoples of the world believe in various gods and lords,
…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor 8:6, ESV)
He Paul explicitly asserts that there is exactly one God, namely, the Father. To say this is, in part, to say that God and the Father are numerically one. What would Paul do? Affirm U2.
Take it from Jesus, John, and Paul (and the rest of the New Testament authors – check them yourself): U2 is true. And so given that T1 is true, we should accept the second argument as sound. To do this is to be a unitarian Christian. Some such also believe in a Trinity, in the sense that they believe Father, Son, and Spirit to be three cooperating selves, perhaps all in some sense divine – but they hold that the one true God is a member of the Trinity (the Father), not the whole Trinity. So they (e.g. Origen, Irenaeus, Justin, Clarke) believe in a Trinity but not in a triune God (so they are not trinitarians). Others, like me, would reject this sort of Trinity for various reasons, but in any case, we agree that that our second argument is sound, and that premise T2 is false (making the first argument unsound).
Unfortunately, when it comes to 1 Cor 8:6, some readers are confused by the fact that “the Lord” can be used to name the Father, and also Jesus. In Paul, when he’s not quoting the OT, it is normally the latter. (Nothing strange here; any name, term, or title can be equivocal – that is, can, in different contexts, refer to various beings.) But note that Paul here is presupposing here in this very sentence that the one God and the one Lord differ in some way. (“from… through whom”) So we can be sure that he’s not using the terms “God” and “Lord” co-referentially here; he’s rather assuming them to be non-identical, not numerically one.
As with all the other NT authors, for Paul Jesus and God are one (in will, purpose, and rule) but they’re not the same.