Kimel’s review of What is the Trinity – Part 2
Kimel lampoons the biblical unitarian historical narrative, and urges that Irenaeus is a big problem for it.
Kimel lampoons the biblical unitarian historical narrative, and urges that Irenaeus is a big problem for it.
In part two of his review Fr. Kimel says “Once upon a time … there was a unitarian God,” by which he means: suppose that at first only the Father existed, as biblical unitarian Christians think. He then gives a thumbnail sketch of how a unitarian Christian looks at the whole sweep of Scripture. This is all well and good. But then things get silly:
And for three centuries the Church was faithful to its mission and the revelation of the one God. But then the it abandoned the truth, embraced the heretical doctrine of tri-personal divinity, and began to violently persecute the followers of the one God.
This is not my view, and I don’t think this narrative should commend itself to biblical unitarians.
For one thing, any biblical unitarian is going to think that in certain ways mainstream Christianity began to veer away from the apostolic path even before 381. In those years we have the evolution of the one bishop system, the system then progressively getting in bed with the government of the Roman empire, increasing cults of Mary and the saints, the triumph of logos theory and the integration of various Greek philosophical views into Christian theology, the valorization of virginity and the denigration of sex, bishops taking on the roles of secular judges, simony, creeping anti-semitism, the idea that Christians must escape to some nonphysical life and occasional denunciations of belief in resurrection as wrongly “Jewish,” various speculations about the saving power of baptism and how there can be no forgiveness for post baptism sins, ideas about eternal conscious torment, the idea that bishops of big cities should be more powerful than other bishops, and the idea that there can be no salvation outside of this bishop-run network or organization. So there is a lot going on in these years, and it’s not like the transition from unitarian to trinitarian theology just strikes like lightning, out of the blue on a sunny day. A lot of these things are now rejected by most Christians. Others have long been objected to by many or most Protestants.
What’s worse, on a traditional catholic understanding of heresy it is impossible that the Church should go into heresy! (Perhaps this is part of his point?) Heresy is what is taught by a heretic. A heretic is a baptized catholic who persists in teaching something even after the hierarchy tells him to knock it off. By definition, what the hierarchical church decides to teach cannot be heresy, on this traditional understanding of heresy. But perhaps he means to use the term “heresy” in a modern Protestant sense, where means something like a teaching that contradicts an essential teaching of the faith (or something which is so important that its denial results in damnation).
It is not my view that most trinitarians are guilty of heresy in this sense. As I explain in this talk, I think what is essential to the gospel is very minimal. And as far as I know, Fr. Kimel, the Baptists down the street, the Catholics down the other street, and I all agree on, say, what Peter preaches in Acts 2. If you add to these beliefs other speculations that don’t necessarily fit well with them, that may cause various problems, but nonetheless you still have those saving beliefs. In my view, you thus have saving faith.
Perhaps the reviewer is assuming that just as a traditional trinitarian thinks any unitarian theology is heresy, so a unitarian must think that any Trinity doctrine is heresy. But this is not so. Some of us are more reticent about declaring minority theories to be “heresy.”
Our reviewer ends his lampooning of the unitarian narrative as follows:
The knowledge of the one God was lost to the Church for 1400 years, but in his grace God eventually raised up the erudite scholar and Anglican priest Samuel Clarke. Clarke read the Scriptures with fresh and unbiased eyes and rediscovered the biblical truth of the divine unicity. In 1712 he published the fruits of his scholarship, one of the great works of Christian theology: The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. Sadly, this important work has been ignored by trinitarian Christians, such is the Satanic power of tradition and dogma. But a new day is dawning. God is restoring the Church to its original unitarian foundation.
The thing about Trinity theories is that no matter how elaborate they become, people still pick up the Bible and end up thinking along unitarian lines. So no, the revelation that the Father is the one true God never has really been lost. It’s more like an official marginalization. But the texts are what they are, and so unitarian theology keeps popping back over and over again. I assume Fr. Kimel knows that Clarke was very far from being the first in modern times to discover unitarian theology in the NT. A large number of such people in the 16th and 17th centuries made this discovery, perhaps most famously the Socinians, originally the Minor Reformed church in Poland. Our knowledge about unitarians in medieval times is practically non-existent, but most likely there were fewer (consistent) unitarian Christians then, as there were fewer people reading the Bible, as we say, “for themselves.”
As recent trinitarian theologians have often lamented, in everyday life and even in much of their devotional life and worship, the majority of Christians in trinitarian churches are in fact unitarian in their thinking, or nearly so. For a great many people all the metaphysical fireworks pretty much boil down to this: sometimes they think that Jesus just is God himself, and sometimes they think God is someone and Jesus is someone else, that is, that they are two different beings. When pressed on this serial inconsistency, they will then jump around between different speculations, such as that Jesus and his Father are two of the three parts of God, or that they are two of the three aspects or personalities of God. Or, the favorite: it’s a mystery!
Two things are right in Fr. Kimel’s statement above. Clarke’s work is a neglected masterwork that repays careful study, whether you agree with it or not. Also, I think that a new day is dawning. There are quite a few people out there who have discovered that New Testament clarity on these topics is much preferable to tradition-based confusion. The steady drip of whistleblowers is becoming a thin stream.
Why did St Athanasius and the Cappadocians concoct the unprecedented and theologically revolutionary homoousion, and how could they have believed they were faithfully continuing the apostolic tradition, when even their great teacher Origen, according to Dale Tuggy’s reading, appears to have taught otherwise?
Well, let’s get the basic history right. Those gents did not of course “concoct” the newfangled language in question. Rather, that language was adopted for a practical reason, and then strangely some catholic leaders decided to rally around the new language and claim that it was all important. It’s an interesting question why this happened, but it’s a question that presses on everyone, not simply on the unitarian.
As to Origen, he was widely idolized, if I can put it that way, in the fourth century, although not universally. He had big fans on both sides of the Nicene controversy. On the Nicene side, the Cappadocians. On the other side, the famous church historian Eusebius and quite a few others. He was demonstrably a subordinationist unitarian, though, though some persist in spinning him as proto-Nicene, or nearly so.
Fr. Kimel, after noting my basic account of how this controversy was forcibly ended by Theodosius I, asks,
How does one prove the assertion that the Trinitarian faith triumphed across the Empire, century after century, because—and principally because—of state coercion? Tuggy offers no substantiation.
There’s quite a lot of complex history here I did not get into. This extinction of so-called “Arian” Christianity took a long time in some places, and happened by fits and starts. At first, the proverbial feces hit the fan, and Theodosius in 383 invited the “heretics” back to another synod try to work things out in a more peaceful manner. But this didn’t work out. It is not in dispute that considerable force was applied. Bishops were deposed, churches were seized, the non-Nicenes were forced to worship in the open air outside the city of Constantinople, where they had been before the majority. Granted, a longer and more detailed historical account is desirable. But not in a blog post or in a short, popular book.
Is it not at least possible, nay probable, that the Nicene faith ultimately triumphed because it provided a superior theological explanation for the eucharistic life of the Church and the soteriological claims of the gospel? …Emperors do not always win.
Quite true. Emperors did not always get their way. Imperial declarations about doctrine or official religious policy were far easier to write than to enforce, and many pronouncements against the traditional pagan religion went unenforced, according to historians. Still, in this case, though it took a while, and longer in some places than in others, the non-Nicene voices were silenced. Moreover, after Augustine, there was in place an ideology that justified coercion in religious matters by the state. The tradition chose persecution over religious tolerance, and this took quite a long time to be undone.
Now if you want to come along after all this and say that surely it was really the power of their arguments that led to the triumph of trinitarian theology, I’m not sure what to say. Had they been so confident in the power of their arguments, they could have been patient, and hoped that “Arian” theologies would just naturally fade away, as I take it the gnostics largely had by that time. But the Nicene side was glad to have imperial power smash their enemies and install them in power, and when they went along with these developments, they closed off the possibility of any demonstration of the amazing powers of their arguments or explanations.
And for the rest of history, trinitarian institutions have as a rule used their power to prevent rival views from being discussed or openly advocated for. This tradition is very alive at present. I know learned and godly unitarian Christians who were excluded from graduate school, or who could not find a publisher for their (excellent, learned) book, because of their minority viewpoint on the Trinity. (And no, I’m not talking about me.) Part of the way the mainstream traditions survive, in my view, is to close ranks and sort of de-legitimize any dissenting questions. It’s a rough way of operating, yes, and it is not the way of those confident in the obvious superiority of their explanations or arguments.
Perhaps we can agree on this, though. Despite all of this bad behavior, if there is some convincing argument from the Bible or Christian experience or reason (etc.) for “the Trinity,” then so be it. Let’s hear it then. Pointing out intolerance and power-plays would not be any kind of refutation of such an argument. Fr. Kimel keeps alluding to such an argument, but I don’t know what he thinks it is, really, other than it’s something to the effect that only “the Trinity” can explain (Orthodox?) church practice (and experience?). That’s going to need some filling out, if it is going to go beyond mere assertion.
Still, pointing out the power-plays is not irrelevant. It does not seem to be the way of Jesus and the apostles. They dealt with false teachings by public refutation, by persuation.
I also find it odd that Tuggy would cite Philoponus and Abelard, neither of whom were condemned for teaching unitarianism but rather tritheism. At this point one might be excused for thinking that for Tuggy just about any stick is good enough to beat catholic Christianity with. I kept waiting to hear about Galileo’s house arrest.
This last comment is completely unfair. I’m not beating anyone with a stick, but am sticking strictly to demonstrable historical facts. What is the Trinity does not have a lot of rough polemical edges, unlike this review. About Philoponus and Abelard what I had said was:
From time to time, in the centuries that followed, some thoughtful trinitarian would venture to clarify what the statements must mean. [The footnote cites John Philoponus and Peter Abelard as examples], but was typically denounced and condemned as a heretic by his fellow trinitarians.
Of course I am not holding them up as unitarian martyrs, because neither one was a unitarian! My point, which was clear enough, was that the trinitarian mainstream is not only intolerant of dissent, but is also intolerant of sympathetic and careful attempts at clarification by trinitarians! Those two, in their respective days, were leading philosophers, who were theorizing about the Trinity in the attempt to show how it is coherent. This continues in the present day, although the consequences are far less dire for the theorists, thanks to modern religious tolerance. Nowadays they usually get nothing worse than mild mockery and being ignored.
Fr. Kimel then, happily, agrees with what I say in the book about pre-Nicene catholics who hold to a two-stage logos theory. I make the point that outside of monarchian catholic circles, the two-stage view seems to have been standard before Origen.
Against this, he objects with the case of Irenaeus.
Yet Tuggy fails to mention that many scholars contest the claim that Irenaeus is accurately described as a two-stage logos theorist. Tuggy notes the dispute on his blog but not in his book. I judge this to be a misleading and tendentious omission.
Well, that’s pretty harsh isn’t it? If there is an exception to the general rule, then so what? In fact, I find Irenaeus to be unclear on this issue. That’s about all I have to say about it for now. He goes on to assert that Irenaeus is not, in contrast to Justin Martyr and others, motivated by the platonic concern to as it were protect God from direct interaction with the material creation, which necessitates an intermediary, in the form of this second divine being, the Logos. I’m not sure that’s right…
Kimel suggests that Irenaeus posits no subordination of Son and Spirit to the Father.
As Anthony Briggman plausibly notes, Irenaeus must likely believed that the Word and Spirit were ontologically equal to the Father, “else a gradation of divine being would exist within the Godhead. Irenaeus’ conception of divinity has no room for such a subordinationist understanding of the Godhead, for it would bring his position uncomfortably close to the celestial chain of being advocated by some of his opponents” (Irenaeus of Lyons and the Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 122).
Kimel then quotes a long passage from Irenaeus that I don’t think is to the point. The thing is, there are clear passages that show that for Irenaeus the Son is less great than the one God, who is the Father. Saith Irenaeus,
… ye presumptuously maintain that ye are acquainted with the unspeakable mysteries of God; while even the Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment, when he plainly declares, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, neither the Son, but the Father only.” [Mark 13:32] if, then, the Son was not ashamed to ascribe the knowledge of that day to the Father only, but declared what was true regarding the matter, neither let us be ashamed to reserve for God those greater questions which may occupy which may occur to us. (Against Heresies II.28.6)
For if anyone should inquire the reason why the Father, who has fellowship with the Son in all things, has been declared by the Lord alone to know that hour and the day, he will find at present no more suitable, or becoming, or safe reason than this (since, indeed, the Lord is the only true Master), that we may learn through Him that the Father is above all things. For “the Father,” says he “is greater than I.” [John 14:28] The Father, therefore, has been declared by our Lord to excel with respect to knowledge; for this reason, that we, too, as long as we are connected with the scheme of things in this world, should leave perfect knowledge, and such questions, to God, and should not by any chance, but we seek to investigate the sublime nature of the Father, fall into the danger of starting the question whether there is another God above God. (Against Heresies II.28.8, ANF I p.402)
As with any author, we interpret the obscure by the clear. It is clear here that Irenaeus thinks that the Father knows more than the Son. So this is what present-day theologians would call “ontological subordination.” Notice that there is no two-natures caveat (i.e. the Son is ignorant “in his human nature” but knows all “in his divine nature”).
And notice at the end of the second passage that he assumes the identity of the Father and the one God; he’s a unitarian.
In sum, the reviewer wants to take issue with my historical narrative. He reasonably asks for more of the relevant history, specifically immediately following the initial crackdown in 380-381. He suggests that the case of Irenaeus is a big problem for the story, but it is not. What stands unrefuted is my point that there simply are no known trinitarians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (to leave aside the first half of the 4th c.) that is to say, no believers in a tripersonal God, where the “Persons” are equally divine and somehow together amount to the one true God.
It is a real historical problem to explain how mainstream Christian theology went from unitarian to trinitarian. I describe some steps in this progression in this little book, but do not give a full account. There are still some (later) steps (c. 360-380) in the process that I need to get clearer about before attempting to tell that whole story.
But I dare say that this fact of historical change is more of a problem for the trinitarian. I can tell a story about how things slowly got more and more off-track, due to human speculations and other systemic problems. The trinitarian, so long as he thinks that the Bible obviously implies the Trinity, is stuck with a terrible problem, which is that as best we can tell, no one made this deduction for about three centuries. Clear implications are more or less immediately grasped by competent readers. In contrast, foreign schemes that are imposed upon a text are all the more likely to occur after a significant delay, and after some sort of intermediate steps.