Rauser’s review of What is the Trinity?
A few responses and minor corrections.
A few responses and minor corrections.
As Dale sees it, in the early church Christians regularly referred to the Father as “God” in an absolute sense. However this began to change as early as 385 when Gregory of Nyssa referred to the Trinity as God (p. 44).
To clarify, I do think that the creed of 381 is implicitly trinitarian. I see the Cappadocian “fathers” moving towards belief in the Trinity, but I’m not sure what the earliest extant clear singular referring term use of “Trinity” actually is. I think I’ve found only ambiguous cases before 381, but I still want to look more. This point about “Trinity” as a singular referring term vs. as a plural referring term is very important, which is why I spend chapter 3 on it. Without this point, one will mistakenly project a lot of trinitarianism into the theologies of the 100s and the 200s.
In short, while one may end in mystery, one should not allow an appeal to mystery to preempt a legitimate inquiry.
I agree with that statement. But my own hostility to mysterian approaches runs deeper. As I explained in my paper “On Positive Mysterianism,” I think that there is typically something unreasonable about accepting apparent contradictions in this area. In brief, your evidence that the two clashing claims can’t both be true generally will outweigh your evidence for holding the pair. And as I explain the book chapter here, as a practical strategy, mysterianism does not work. It is a recipe for continual vacillation, entrenched confusion, and even hypocrisy (claiming to steadfastly believe what you in fact do not believe most of the time). Finally, the apostles simply do not do this (defend unintelligible or seemingly incoherent claims), and the practice seems obviously suspect in non-Christian contexts, where we are not invested in a pet theological theory.
As to the chapters on “substance,” “Person,” and “God” I would add that they are an invitation for the trinitarian, or for any Christian for that matter, to actually accept some views and reject others, going beyond mere acceptance of uninterpreted formulas. My own view is that the God of the Bible is a unique god, and so is a self, the self the NT calls “Father.” Jesus is obviously a different self, and a human one. To me, these two are not going to be “one substance” on most interpretations of that phrase; but you’ll have to see the chapter for what those are.
About Theodosius I and his part in what was retrospectively pronounced to be “the second ecumenical council” (381), it’s not that I’m scandalized that various sorts of politics entered in to this deliberative process of the bishops and their many councils. It’s rather the fact that Theodosius forcibly squashed off a thriving, multi-sided argument prematurely. The non-Nicenes did not think they were losing! Moreover, in the 4th c. the class of bishops had seized the right of even deliberating about these matters, taking the issues away from scholars and the church as a whole. This is not how we do well at theology, and we are all still suffering from the bad effects of this power grab. Mr. or Mrs. Protestant – I would ask you: If all the Catholic and Orthodox and Anglican bishops got together next year and decreed that Mary was ever-virgin – would you accept this decision as binding on all Christians? If not, then why do you accept the decisions of 4th c. bishop synods? Only because these latter, but not the former, are basing everything on the Bible? If only that were so! We must look carefully at actual history, and at what the NT says and doesn’t say. In particular, look at their exegesis and their arguments.
The problem with the Ehrmanesque suggestion that many “lost Christianities” were stamped out in the first 300 years or so, is that the stamping was only just starting to be invented through the course of the 300s. That is, there did not exist the institutions, the infrastructure, and the traditions to persecute minority opinions out of existence until the time of Theodosius, and even then it was not always terribly effective! But over time, minority opinions were strangled out of existence or forced into small pockets of resistance. And the theological justifications for real coertion, sadly, entered into mainstream tradition, where they stayed until early modern times. So, I’m against conspiracy theories in general, and do not endorse any knee-jerk rejection of a sort of proto-orthodoxy in the 100s and 200s. I think there was a loosely defined mainstream, and there were various movements which were out of it or on the edges of it to various degrees. But I do see the one-bishop system as a problem even prior to the 300s.
…if one concedes that the divine voice could come through the use of politics and power at an earlier period, why not in the late fourth century as well?
There can be no a priori rejection of God working through the most base of politicians and the dirtiest of processes. But as concerns the Trinity, look at the facts. When God reveals something, such as the messiahship, miracles, or bodily resurrection of Jesus, then that thing is actually believed, and widely believed! The status quo on the Trinity is widespread confusion, with multiple, core disagreements among the experts, papered over by the acceptance of creedal language, or the Protestant simplifications thereof. If the people cannot repeat back what was said, then the divine voice was not heard! And God is no bungler, although he certainly does, for whatever reason, allow his people to distort and otherwise mess up what he is told them, over time. We need to honestly consider here that this 4th c. development was not providential – just as with so many other “catholic” developments of practice and doctrine, going back even to the 2nd c. I think Trinity and Incarnation issues really go back to the 2nd c. “logos theories” – but I don’t get into those much in this book. See here for some of the confusions I see at work in the mainstream c. 150-451.
My second concern is that Dale’s method seems at times to be rather individualistic and rationalistic… [He advises that] “You must read the sources for yourself, with mind and spirit open. You must ask the one God to clarify his revelation to you…”
My point, of course, is not that you can understand the Scriptures on your own, so long as you are sufficiently prayerful and humble or spiritual. My point was rather that it seems important to me that you actually have a thought through theology, and not just some vague ideas, slogans, and half-baked speculations. Or the excuse that “it’s just a mystery!” Of course, one must get all the help one can. The God who gave you that mind expects you to use it, when it comes to thinking about him and his Son. I do think that scripture is sufficiently clear on the one God being the Father. What’s made this unclear are the speculations and selective foci that our traditions hand us as obvious. Most people have only ever heard one side of the case.
I go through life believing things because trusted authorities told me so. And that kind of deference to authority is fully rational and indeed necessary. So I trust my medical doctor, I trust my meteorologist, I trust my architect, and so on.
Me too. Well said.
When it comes to matters of doctrine, isn’t there also a place to trust the theologian and historian, the priest and pastor?
If it pertains to the deposits of divine revelation, then yes. But not when it comes to matters of theory! If your pastor is an enthusiastic reader of William Lane Craig, and tells you that the theory of middle knowledge is both important and obviously true, then I think you need a second opinion, and that you also need to critically evaluate the highly speculative theory of middle knowledge when you can get around to it. With Trinity theories, we are firmly in the realm of theory.
To be sure, I’m not saying one must simply accede to ancient and venerable traditions because they’re old and venerable: “Ecclesia semper reformanda est!” Rather, the issue is a matter of balance. There is a time to seek to critique our beliefs and traditions, but there is also a time to yield to them. And I see nothing wrong with a Christian deferring to the wisdom of a tradition on such a central matter, even when many problems undoubtedly remain.
This was indeed my starting point on the Trinity, and I fought hard to maintain it, trying to find what I now call a rational reconstruction of the doctrine – a coherent interpretation of the formulas – that made sense, and fit well with the Bible. But that didn’t work. The Bible surprised me, as did the weakness of apologists’ arguments from the Bible to the Trinity. I was also surprised to learn of the never-ending drip of Protestant whistle-blowers on this topic since the Reformation.
As to the “wisdom” of catholic traditions on the Trinity, consider the inability of catholic tradition to speak with one voice on the meaning of the sentences in question, and also the dubious nature of their arguments from the Bible to the Trinity, which I discussed all too briefly in chapter 10. Those are two big warning signs. But the biggest problem is when you perceive that any Trinity theory contradicts the clear New Testament teaching that the Father is the one true God, whereas Jesus is the unique human Son of God.* And more study reveals that the New Testament in many ways is not at all how we would expect if its writers held to any trinitarian theology. Eventually, you start to see trinitarian speculations as not stacking up against plain facts of the texts. So something has to give.
I appreciate that Dr. Rauser’s approach is conservative, and I think he is right to set the bar high for any allegedly needed reformation. I think one has to start with what one takes to be a majority view. It turns out though that there is not really a single view here. And to the extent that there is a view (God just is the Trinity, not the Father), again, it conflicts with pervasive, clear, consistent, and even sometimes explicit New Testament teaching. (e.g. John 17:1-3, 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; John 20:17) My view, I think, is actually more conservative, in being willing to peel back catholic developments when they contradict apostolic teaching – or even just acknowledging these clashes in the first place.
Throughout the history of the church, there have been professing Christians who adopt a modalistic interpretation of the Trinity. The most significant expression of modalism today is the Oneness Pentecostal movement.
Early “modalism” (monarchianism) is a very difficult historical subject in my view. I think some very different sorts of views are getting lumped together under that label; they are basically reactions against logos theories. I don’t really say anything about historical modalism in this book. I do point out that any Trinity theory which implies the numerical identity of Father and Son can’t be correct, because the New Testament implies that they have actually differed from one another, and necessarily nothing can (at one time) differ from itself.
This leads me to wonder how Dale draws the lines of orthodoxy and heresy and why.
My view could be characterized as Lockean or minimalist. I explained the approach in podcast 85 – Heretic! Four Approaches to Dropping H-Bombs.
In short, I believe that probably most oneness Pentecostals have believed in the good news as presented in the New Testament, and so are saved, even though their thinking and exegesis are extremely confused. I have known a few former Oneness Pentecostals, and by all accounts they seem to have been Christians all along, even before they jettisoned the traditional collapse of Father and Son into one being and one self. (Many trinitarians in fact do this too!) I think that most Catholic and Protestant traditions have erred on the side of requiring too much, as if they had a right of determining what the essential claims are that one must accept. In my view, those were set by the apostles, and can be very roughly summarized as that Jesus is God’s Messiah, with all that entails, given the apostolic views about the job description of a Messiah. My approach is “generous” in the sense that I think a lot of people, even many “cultists,” can be saved. We don’t get to add to the belief (or acceptance) terms of the new covenant, although we must police ourselves morally, as a community.
Finally, a correction. Dr. Rauser says,
For Dale… there is one absolute God, the Father, while the Son and Spirit are lesser beings not equal to the Father.
The first part is correct; I hold that the New Testament clearly teaches that Yahweh is none other than the Father himself. And I do think that Jesus is a lesser being, because I think that he is a real human self, who came into existence at or after his miraculous conception. I hold that his literal pre-existence is only projected by readers (and translators) into the NT. (No, I haven’t really written on this, though I hope to in 2018.) But I am inclined to think that in the New Testament, all things considered, “the holy spirit” is not supposed to be an additional self, although it is vividly personified in a few places. In brief, I think that NT spirit-talk reduces to points about God, God’s power in us, and in a few cases the man Jesus. See podcasts 25 and 26 for my friend Pastor Sean Finnegan on all of this. I think my views are pretty much the same as his. I haven’t really written anything about this, although I have discussed Samuel Clarke’s views on the triad, which are like what Dr. Rauser says (and this is probably why he attributes that view to me). Honestly, this issue does not matter as much to me, although I think the view I just stated also better fits Christian experience of the spirit. But in my view, the trinitarian – unitarian issue, and the New Testament doctrine of Jesus as an actual human self, are far more important.