A while back I posted on a short, popular piece by Biola theologian Fred Sanders. He’s now responded. I’m going to continue the conversation, I hope shedding light on the differing assumptions and methods of present-day academic theologians and philosophers. I agree with Fred that responses-to-responses are usually boring. Here’s a greater crime: a (long) response to a response to a response. 😛
I guess what set me in motion was his claim, which struck me as unreasonable, that it’s a good thing that there’s no “Trinity verse” in the Bible – i.e. one which explicitly and clearly states the doctrine.
In fact, up until I think some time in the late 19th c., trinitarians thought they had something pretty close: 1 John 5:7. (Compare the KJV with any modern translation.) This was shown by Isaac Newton and a number of others to be a late corruption. Needless to say, this verse was much appealed to – none of the trinitarians were wishing it gone, so they could instead appeal to the whole Bible.
Surely, I argue, it’d be better if there were such a verse (assuming there is a true Trinity theory), because then Christians wouldn’t spend so much time puzzling and fighting about the matter, as we fairly frequently have through church history.
Now to Sanders’s response:
Tuggy the analytic philosopher working on trinitarianism was interesting to me… Tuggy the analytic philosopher working on anti-trinitarianism drops several notches on my scale of interestingness. Arguments are still arguments, and need to be dealt with on their own merits, of course. But research programs are motivated, and knowing the motivation helps me decide where to invest my study time.
The assumption here, it seems to me, is that all this unitarian-trinitarian stuff was settled long ago, and so anything Tuggy says will only be a tiresome rehash of crummy arguments. I used to assume this, but then I went back and looked at the arguments, the arguments, that is, on both sides. On some core points, the unitarians come out better, as I see it. And I found out that their arguments were not so much answered as smugly forgotten by the mainstream. Don’t take my word for it, by all means; weigh the arguments for yourself.
As to motivations, Fred seems to suggest that my motive all along has been to promote my present views. Not true. I started thoroughly confused (like most evangelicals). Then I was a social trinitarian. Then, a subordinationist unitarian (but sort of thinking this was really trinitarian). Finally, my present view. I’ve been motivated all along to make some orthodox theory or other fly! This is why I set off trying to find a workable version of the doctrine – which is what most evangelical philosophers do. (I’m referring to the theories in the main body of my SEP entry.) Frankly, it was an embarrassment to me that the mainstream did not seem to have a coherent, believable view in mind, in asserting those famous formulas.
I think we disagree already: I think trinitarianism is a spiritual reality, owned by the people of God since the Father sent the Son and the Spirit, and confessed rightly by those without special training. Philosophers and theologians are allowed to work at the task of clarifying and refining it, but they didn’t invent it.
So from the beginning, Christian have “owned” (interacted with?) the Trinity – sure – if there is such a thing. But Fred here seems to assume that they also (imprecisely) believed it all along, i.e. since biblical days. But this is demonstrably not so – by the standards of 500 CE, there were no “orthodox” trinitarians in 170 CE. What there were (in the catholic mainstream) were unitarians of various sorts! Pretty clearly for many of them, not even that vague picture was there.
Tuggy thinks there is no such thing as “the” doctrine of the Trinity, and that there couldn’t even be one until thought rises above a certain threshold of analytic clarity and terminological precision. I’m all for clarity and precision, and I need collegial help attaining it in my doctrinal thinking. But when I say Trinity, I am not pointing to a successful thought project or mental model. I’m pointing to something real, something given by God, something that Christian devotion and orthodox categories pick out, but sub-trinitarian theologies fail to.
If I understand Fred here, the “something real” is sort of like a mental image or a vague way of thinking, expressed by the standard formulas. I think there is something to this – roughly, that God is somewhat like three selves but those are somehow unified – which often does accompany use of the traditional words. But it is not the sort of thing that can be true or false, or for which one could seek evidence in any form. I think – and please correct me if I’m wrong – Sanders is in the Negative Mysterian camp, which it comes to interpreting the traditional formulas. Yes, to me, this is just one way to read them, a way which must be weighed against the others, others which have been suggested by smart, sincere, and faithful men.
Compare: the claim that God is provident. The Calvinists, Arminians, open theists, Molinists, Thomists, process theists – they’re all understanding divine providence in incompatible ways. I think one can be a mysterian too here, either positive or negative… and perhaps that’s a fairly popular way of interpreting “providence.” Yes, I think that for many purposes, just sticking with the vague idea that “God is in charge” is enough. But some of us are compelled to get more precise.
About “logic,” no I got the point; like a lot of philosophers, I get a bit grumpy with logic-rhetoric. I didn’t meant to offend, or to suggest that Sanders knows no logic. By “logic” here, I think he just means something like structure, not what he says – “principles of demonstration that are appropriate to a subject” – but maybe a point of structure could be a source/principle from which to argue, i.e. the grounds for some premise.
Here’s the pattern, the flow of thought, the drift, of my little article: I wasn’t just “quoting a few passages in which the three are mentioned.” Instead, I was building a pattern of expanding scope. From 3 verses, to 5 verses, to 12 verses, to 6 chapters, to 16 chapters, to a whole gospel, to the whole Bible.
Right – in Sanders’s view, the whole Bible shows a pattern of the members of the Trinity at work together. I don’t think this is true, and if we’re careful with what we mean by “members of the Trinity” here, many through church history would also demur.
In any case, I criticized Sanders is “spinning” an obviously bad thing as a good thing – this lack of any clear statement in the Bible about the Trinity, as opposed to it being (supposedly) discernible diffused through the whole Book.
But I think that in Scripture, God succeeded in revealing the Trinity the way he wanted to. I understand why that seems like “merely spin” to Tuggy, but I mean it in earnest.
Now, I wasn’t accusing him of being insincere. But I think if there was a secure verse like 1 John 5:7, or more specific, Fred would gladly use it as a lead proof-text, and never lament its presence. The key point here is “the way he wanted to.” Because it is this way, and because God is all-provident, Sanders holds this to be the best way. This, in my view, is a serious intellectual vice in present-day theology. Assuming, in theology, that things are as they are because they’re supposed to be that way. This is in practice an all-purpose reason to stay mentally “in the box.”
To be clear: I believe wholeheartedly in divine providence. I’m an open theist, so for me the mechanics of providence will be different, but I think nothing occurs without God’s permission, and that he constantly guides the course of events, above all, those involving the followers of Jesus. But I think lots of things happen that go against his will. For whatever reason, he seems to govern, on a grand scale, with a loose hand.
Think about how this sort of providential conservatism would’ve hurt you in the past:
- What? Who’s this Jesus guy, teaching all this new stuff. WE KNOW Judaism, buddy. God himself has evolved us Pharisees just how he likes us. This Jesus is a PUNK!
- What? Who’s this off-the-reservation clown trying to interpret scripture apart from the magisterium of the one holy, catholic church? Why, all Christians are catholic (i.e. Catholic or Orthodox), or, nearly so. Who does he think he is? We have no tradition of reasoning on one’s own – and this is plainly how God intended it.
- What? This fellow thinks churches should be autonomous? That’s crazy-talk. God himself ordained the system of bishops. If you are not under a catholic bishop, you are not under the headship of Christ, and you are out of God’s will. Opposing the bishop is opposing God.
God is who he is. He’s the same God in charge c. 30 or 1520 CE, and this is but a later stage in the same cosmos. So, we have to leave a mental door open to the possibility that mainstream theology has gotten fairly off track, even on core things. To a Protestant, this should be a trivial point. And yet, this safe, assuring assumption that one’s theories are guaranteed by divine providence is rampant among conservative, Protestant theologians.
Now, this is accompanied by the idea that their own ideas, e.g. about providence, church structure and government, or the Trinity are just sitting right there, obviously in the texts. We thinking Christians should maybe get this verse tattooed on our bodies somewhere, preferably not the face.
The first person to speak in court always seems right until his opponent begins to question him. (Pr. 18:17)
You’ve got to read all sides (or better, the best representatives of what seem the most plausible, well-motivated sides), if you want to really think through any issue: free will, universals, justice, arguments for God’s existence. This is the only way to seriously pursue the truth.
But I don’t see this drive in a lot of theologians. Instead, I see a complacent assurance that they’ve got the truth (about, e.g. the Trinity) and many of them just want to sort of play with it – to celebrate it, talk it up, apply its insights, allegedly, to new fields, such as politics or marriage. All the while, we’re none the clearer about what “it” is – it’s just whatever those traditional creeds were getting at. The text- and history- focused theologians, generally, are more clear-headed about what the Bible does and doesn’t say, and are alive to at least some disputes. And they “play” a lot less.
He really does think there’s never been such thing as coherent trinitarianism, just “trinities” all the way back, and none of them doing justice to the New Testament as Tuggy (and Samuel Clarke) interpret it.
Sorry – this isn’t quite fair. I’m no Ehrman. I think there were humanitarians who more or less got it right, from NT times up through the 2nd c. And I think the unitarian subordinationists still got it right on what’s most important (who the one true God is), from about the 130s up past 325. For a lot of this time, there weren’t nearly as many “trinities” (Trinity theories) as there are now. In sophisticated catholic circles c. 200, as best I can tell, it was basically subordinationist unitarians vs. “monarchians,” at least some of whom where humanitarian unitarians. (In the polemical lingo of the day – “psilanthropists” – mere-man-ers, who thought Jesus had only a human nature.)
There a little hint of sarcasm here – how can this silly Clarke and Tuggy think that only in these latter days, in the early 18th or early 21st c., the truth about the Trinity first came to light? What’s the chance of that? Of course, neither of us thinks that for a moment. Both our views, Clarke’s and mine (which again, are not the same, though both unitarian) are represented in the 2nd c., and by various later folk.
…philosophy can be used for doubting and dissolving as much as for clarifying (which of course philosophers already knew), that chasing definition can be an exercise in chasing the horizon. Once you turn a word plural to indicate that its content is essentially disputed, you’re on the roads to irresolutions. After exploring theologies of the trinities, Tuggys will have to move on to doctrines of the incarnations, and to atonements, by which gods accomplished salvations for humanities from sinses. That’s not a good way forward for theology that answers to God’s self-revelation in Scripture.
I’m not sure what to make of this… Part of the worry seems to be the idea that philosophy, something about its procedure or methodology, is inherently destructive, or leads inexorably to doubt, or to unbelief. I don’t think that is so. It does tend to breed epistemic humility, perhaps. But philosophers, I think, passionately commit to all sorts of things, just as I am passionately committed to being a disciple of Christ. To me, adopting unitarian views has opened up the New Testament, to where I suddenly see what’s going on there. They authors are not, as so many read them, constantly throwing out hints that Jesus is the same self as God, even while treating them as two selves; they are two, and are importantly related. They are not the same god, or parts of the same god, or personalities, etc. They are a man, the most important man, and his God, who is also his Father. This is hard to a explain, but there’s a whole texture to the NT which is obscured by traditional catholic theorizing.
Honestly, I picked “trinities” because it was easy to remember, the domain was available, and it seemed a decent short hand to refer to the various competing theories. But I did not thereby signal that the dispute was irresolvable. Indeed, I don’t think it is! I can see why Sanders might read more into it, though, based on how terms like “Christianities” get used by some.
There’s also a concern, I think, that somehow philosophy must involve not properly submitting to what God has revealed. But that is indeed my aim. Nothing about philosophy traps me in a hopeless plurality of incompatible viewpoints. Just as I have firm views on, say, free will, so I have them here – at least, I have them now, after a lot of painful thinking and mind-changing.