Kimel’s review of What is the Trinity – Part 1
Synopsis: I’m not Eastern Orthodox, so am incompetent to discuss the Trinity, and I’m somehow missing the whole point.
Synopsis: I’m not Eastern Orthodox, so am incompetent to discuss the Trinity, and I’m somehow missing the whole point.
At his blog Eclectic Orthodoxy, Fr. Al Kimel has undertaken a multi-part review of my book. He’s a smart and interesting person, and I appreciate a review which is honest and does not pull its punches. It’s a hostile review, to be sure, but I think it may be useful to interact with it. I want to respond to the first installment in this post, as I think this dialogue will bring out some interesting differences between his Orthodox assumptions and my Protestant ones.
This first installment engages very little with the content of the book. Rather it is about me, my alleged shortcomings, and how really I’m not qualified to write on this subject!
…if, on the basis of the title, one is hoping to learn why the Church of Jesus Christ formulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, what it means and how it functions in its corporate life, then one is going to be disappointed. This is not to say that the book does not contain helpful information and analysis; but it is to suggest that Dr Tuggy simply misses the evangelical import of the trinitarian dogma. As the proverb goes, can’t see the forest for the trees.
My book is about the origin of the traditional trinitarian formulas, and what we are supposed to think those mean. Obviously, one reason why “the Church,” i.e. the victors in the fourth century struggle, came up with these formulas, is that they thought they were thereby best expressing the theology of the Bible, or least of traditional Christian teaching. I guess Fr. Kimel also wanted to hear about its practical and spiritual values, about how this doctrine functions incorporate spiritual life.
But for me the prior question is: What is it? First we need to get clear about what it is, and then we can inquire about all of the wonderful things that it supposedly accomplishes.
The reason is easily identified. Tuggy is an analytic philosopher, and he reads the relevant literature through the eyes of an analytic philosopher. But the first-millennium theologians who contributed to the formulation and development of the doctrine of the Trinity did not understand themselves as philosophers… Their writings are marked by a terminological fluidity and imprecision that can be more than a little frustrating, as evidenced, for example, by their failure to clearly define words like ousia and hypostasis.
This diagnosis overlooks that almost all Christian analytic philosophers are trinitarians! So whatever my shortcomings are, don’t think they’re going to be explained by my being an analytic philosopher. It seems to me that he is more comfortable with traditional obfuscation than with attempts to clarify, but if truth is our aim, it looks like we need clarity. We must know what is being said, before we know why it is important, and why we should think it’s true. In his view did these ancient bishops find “appropriate conceptuality”? I’m waiting to find out what he thinks that is…
While reading through What is the Trinity? I was reminded of the fourth-century theologian Eunomius. He might be described as the Dale Tuggy of his day. He prized philosophical clarity, logical precision, and syllogistic reasoning. Like Tuggy he was convinced that biblical monotheism excludes the kind of Trinitarian theology then being developed … The Pro-Nicenes accused him of being a logic-chopper, dialectician, technologue. In their eyes Eunomius had sacrificed God’s self-revelation in Christ to the idol of bare reason.
I don’t see the point of such traditional denunciations and dismissals. Seems like the poisoning the well fallacy to essentially just mock Eunomius (or me) as Philosophy Boy. This, while taking pride in the ancient bishops’ philosophical distinctions, as applied to theology. Better to just deal with the biblical issues.
What we see here is not just two conflicting theological positions but the collision of two incompatible religious visions. The Eunomian vision is epistemologically optimistic and deductive; the patristic vision, confessional, apophatic, synthetic. Tuggy is, of course, a very different kind of philosopher than Eunomius, yet perhaps the comparison is neither completely inapt nor uncurious. The Pro-Nicene Fathers would have found Tuggy’s presentation and critique as unconvincing, rationalistic, and offensive as they found the arguments of Eunomius.
As someone who has taught philosophers like Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, it pains me to be described as “rationalistic” or even is especially optimistic. My epistemic stance is more derived from Thomas Reid, and in my view is fairly skeptical. But I think just making use of logic is enough to draw this charge. But it’s just a slur, I think. As to the claim that I adhere to some “religious vision” which clashes with Christianity, of course I deny that. Perhaps the reviewer would like there to be some weird, alien epistemic or religious dogmatism on my part, but this has not been shown. I suspect that he’s just reverse engineering what he thinks my methodology must have been, given my views.
What is the Trinity? Tuggy states that he hopes that his book will equip folks to figure out what they “think about” the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity (p. 3). This is a curious way of putting the matter. What “I” think about the doctrine is of little consequence.
To the contrary, what you think those words mean will determine the contents of your beliefs, your actual theology. And this directly affect your actions, prayers, and so on.
What is important is what the doctrine means to those ecclesial communities that teach it as a dogma that must be respected and believed.
“It.” What is it? That’s the main issue discussed in my book: the actual content of these required sentences in the creeds.
If I am considering initiation into, say, the Orthodox Church, I will want to know what Orthodoxy means by its confession of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Note the assumption here: that some one thing, some one set of claims, is meant. It’s not clear to me that there is some one content. Hence, all of the attempts by trinitarians to establish what that is.
What exactly am I expected to believe? If I then pose this question to the local Orthodox priest, he will provide me with a succinct summary of the doctrine, referencing creedal, conciliar, and catechetical pronouncements, as well as liturgical hymnody and the consensual teaching of Orthodox theologians, past and present. He will seek to describe the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, as he has received it, as he knows and lives it. This is how doctrine is faithfully handed on.
Here I think were getting closer to the crux of our disagreement.
Who do I think I am, anyway, to be discussing such things? My answer is: just one of these. In the fourth century, the hierarchy of bishops took for itself the privilege of arguing about the content of Christian teachings. This had never happened before. Back in the days of Justin and Origen, scholars and laypeople would engage in conversation an argument with one another, and of course the Bishop was a part of that. As a Protestant, I do not accept the one bishop system as God’s ordained system of church leadership. But even if I did, I would think they had gone too far in making themselves the Supreme Court of doctrinal disputes.
So, I don’t think much of myself, but I do think I have the right to ask what this traditional language means. If you ask an adult to publicly affirm some words, you should expect that he will ask you what they mean, if he does not understand. And here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that if I just went to the local Orthodox priest and asked him their meaning, I would leave as puzzled as I came. And if that were to happen, I don’t think it would be my duty to just accept that I’m never going to understand these sentences that I have been told to profess.
But this is not Tuggy’s position. He writes as a philosophical and historical critic, as one who has rejected the trinitarian faith as incoherent and unbiblical and hopes to persuade his readers to his point of view.
In this book, no I am not trying to make that case, a case for unitarianism. I’m just laying out the options, ones actually proposed and other conceptual possibilities. Honestly, I think that this does help me side. But in this book I don’t, for example, get into any of this.
To be clear, I am not and have never been “a philosophical and historical critic” of Christianity. I am just a Protestant and have been a born again Christian since 1978. I am a biblical unitarian because after a long and hard investigation, I now see this as a clash between the NT and later traditions. It is now clear to me that the NT teaches that the one God just is the Father (and so, not the Trinity). The Trinity is merely inferred from the Bible, and no one actually made the inference until the fourth century, as I explain in the book. Thus, in my view, the need for Reformation. But I do not and have not ever claimed that all interpretations of trinitarian language are incoherent. Some are and some aren’t; the theories are many. You tell me what your theory is, and then we can discuss its coherence. If you just repeat the creedal formulas to me, we haven’t even started conversing about your actual theological views – we’ve only located them in a rough region, and established your loyalty to catholic authorities.
For the non-believer, as well as most Protestants, there is no Church that infallibly teaches today the faith once delivered; there are only churches and individuals existing in different parts of the world in different epochs of history. All we can do is engage in historical reconstruction.
I agree that there is no infallible church. Just look at all the churches, taking the NT as your standard, and that is where you end up. But in my view, the New Testament is meant for the Christian masses. These books were written to be read out loud to groups of people, young and old, educated and uneducated. And in some sense, they are sufficient for instruction. So no, the Christian does not need to wait around for the historians do their work, he can just get right to it with books that were designed for a person like him. Of course he needs the help of scholars to even read them, and the problem is that the scholars bring their theories with them. So it gets complicated nowadays. And yet, God’s spirit does work to bring people to faith and to new birth.
I do not believe that the diversity of interpretations poses as dire a situation as Tuggy here implies. He overlooks the regulative and grammatical function of Christian dogma. I will address this in a subsequent article in this series. At this point I simply want to point out the level of abstraction of Tuggy’s argumentation: the doctrine of the Trinity is reduced to a set of truth-claims divorced from the proclamatory, liturgical, and spiritual experience that the doctrine is intended to express and form.
“The doctrine” – again: what doctrine? I know the words, but until we nail down an interpretation of them, we cannot discuss the spiritual and practical values of that teaching. I am, yes, interested in truth claims, but I don’t see how this interest divorces theology from corporate Christian life.
Perhaps Fr. Kimel is thinking that the traditional trinitarian language actually can’t be justified by appeal to the Bible, but must be justified on some practical grounds. I’ll see if he goes there in a further installment… In any case, I don’t see how I am in any way “reducing” biblical teaching about God, his son, and his spirit to truth claims. Revealed doctrines have to involve truth claims, of course, but I believe in corporate and individual experiences relating to these matters. And I don’t think such experiences, on the whole, support belief in a triune God! But I don’t really discuss the epistemic value of religious experiences in this little book.
Nor is it possible to determine the truth or falsity of the trinitarian dogma by appeal to the “plain” meaning of the Bible, presumably read according to the criteria of the historical-critical method, for the early Christians did not read the Scriptures as historical-critical scholars. If they had, they never would have found the risen Jesus within our Old Testament. They read the Scriptures with and in the Church, employing typological and allegorical methods and hermeneutical strategies alien to the modern mindset (see “Reading the Bible Properly,” “When Scripture Becomes Scripture,” and “What Does Scripture Mean?“). Who today thinks that Proverbs 8:22-31 attests to the procession of the Son from the Father, yet this was old hat for the ante- and post-Nicene Fathers, as well as their opponents. Ecclesial meaning trumps plain meaning; or perhaps more accurately, ecclesial meaning enfolds, deepens, corrects, and transforms plain meaning.
Overall scriptural hermeneutics is a big subject which is outside the scope of this blog post and of my book. In my view, there is nothing mistaken, unreasonable, or arbitrary about Christians thinking that various Old Testament passages had more than one meaning, and that the christological meanings are only revealed in the first century. And I think it is a plausible view that while inspired apostles can do this, later imaginative people like Origen are doing a lot of mere eisegesis. To me, the New Testament is in a different boat. Apart from the last book, these books are pretty straightforward, and do not admit of esoteric interpretations. Did they read, say, Mark or Romans in a “plain” way? I think they did!
But the handicap in which Tuggy operates is even more severe. Not only does Tuggy stand outside the Christian faith (I know, I know, he will object to this statement, but as an Orthodox Christian I have to be honest about this), but his personal experience of the Christian faith is limited to an evangelical-Protestant form. He has not been shaped by the liturgical and sacramental life of the catholic Church; he has not been immersed in Eucharist nor formed by its symbolic language and graces. Forest and trees.
It is true that I have always been Protestant. The reader will have to judge if this has left me with some gaping epistemic deficiency.
Why is this important? Because the liturgy is the home and matrix of the Trinity. It was the liturgical and spiritual life of believers that ultimately drove the development of the trinitarian doctrine. The Trinity was never just a philosophical conundrum of one and three, which is too often how those in the scholastic and analytic traditions tend to think of the matter. It was always a matter of worship, praise and prayer. Lex orandi, lex credendi.
This sort of rhetoric is not to the point. Who thinks that the Trinity is just a fun little metaphysical puzzle to play around with? Honestly, I’ve met a few people with that attitude, but I have never had that attitude. To me all this stuff is deadly serious, and concerns spiritual matters of the highest importance. I don’t often pontificate about these concerns, you could call them pastoral concerns, but they’re an important motivation. Big topic, though – more than I’ll get into here.
Long before Christians formulated the doctrine of the Trinity, Christians prayed in the Trinity: to the Father, through and with Jesus the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
Yes, and in those days never, ever to a tripersonal God. Fr. Kimel here describes a unitarian-friendly practice of prayer.
Back in my seminary days in the late 70s, I read and reread Robert W. Jenson’s book The Triune Identity. After reviewing the kinds of trinitarian discourse found in the New Testament and the early tradition…
I omit his long quote from Jensen here, because it seems to me that it concerns not the Trinity, but only the triad, the trinity. This is generally what people switch to when they want to focus on the New Testament, because the New Testament never mentions or implies the Trinity. But God, his Son, and his spirit are of course all over the NT.
To “explain” the Trinity all I had to do was point to the eucharistic prayer, any extant eucharistic prayer.
I think that my reviewer here is just insisting on practical matters, and is determined to leave aside the theoretical, such as questions about the meaning and justification of trinitarian claims. “Explaining” trumps explaining (i.e. explicating or clearly conveying the meaning of traditional sentences).
Who is the God who is here addressed? The Father … but not just any Father but the Father of Jesus, his only begotten Son. The Creator is mysteriously constituted by his relation to the Nazarene.
Right! This is all unitarian compatible.
In 381 the Church definitively settled on the homoousion, applied to both the Son and Spirit.
As I explain in the book, actually emperor Theodosius I settled the dispute, and the portion of the Church which he favored (the pro-Nicene party), gladly accepted his legal strangling of the opposition through a serious of legal measures. The argument was forcibly ended.
Perhaps a book review ought to preach a little less and actually interact with historical information in the book.
Underlying, shaping, and energizing the Church’s reflection on the Trinity is its foundational doxological praxis: the Church prays to the Father, through the Son, in and by the Spirit.
I’m sorry, Fr. Kimel, but this is just rhetoric. “The Church” (i.e. mainstream Christians) did this before there was any theology of the Trinity. What you say here is what I, as a unitarian Christian do. We are talking about the Trinity (the triune God), right? Because you keep returning to the triad/trinity. The difference? It’s in the book.
Hoping for more book in part 2 of the book review. 🙂