I take it the purpose of the debate is whether or not “the” doctrine of the Trinity is derivable from the Bible. What is this doctrine, exactly? The burden falls on Bowman to be clear about just what doctrine is in view; he’s making the positive case. Here’s what he says:
1. There is one (true, living) God, identified as the Creator.
2. This one God is the one divine being called YHWH (or Jehovah, the LORD) in the Old Testament.
3. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is God, the LORD.
4. The Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is God, the LORD.
5. The Holy Spirit is God, the LORD.
6. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each someone other than the other two.
When a philosopher sees this, he quotes that great thinker, Bill Clinton: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” 1 is clear – that is the “is” of existence. 2 is clear – that is the “is” of identity (aka absolute, Leibnizian, or numerical identity). But 3-6 are mushy.
- One option would be to read the “is”s is 3-5 and the “are” as involving identity (affirmed in 3-5, denied in 6). This would be straight up inconsistent. From f = g, s = g, and h = g, it logically follows that f = s = h – but on this reading, this last thing is denied in 6.
- Another option, which I doubt Bowman has in mind, would be to read 3-6 as involving only relative identity. 3-5 would say that the various persons are the same being as God, but 6 would say that no two of them are the same person as each other. This might sound like just what the doctor ordered, but one has to be an uber-sophisticate in logic and metaphysics to pull this off. 2 still seems to involve non-relative identity (numerical sameness, not relativized to a kind). Normally, we understand relative identity talk as really involving absolute identity. “Dubya is the same person and George W. Bush.” This implies that Dubya is a person, Bush is a person, and Dubya = Bush. So if the Father and Son are the same god, this would mean that the Father is a god, the Son is a god, and the Father = the Son. D’oh! A relative identity theorist either has to argue that there’s no such thing as absolute identity (=) or specify how it relates to relative identity relations.
- If I had to guess what he’s thinking, I would guess, based on some things he says about the term “person”: as follows. 2 does involve the concept of identity. 3-6 involve modes of this thing mentioned in 1 & 2. Bowman thinks the Father is a mode of God, a way God is. And so on for the Son and Spirit. And these are three different modes (6). In short, the Trinity doctrine is that a perfect self, God, exists eternally in three different modes, perhaps personalities, or something like personalities.
- Flies the evangelical flag – inerrancy, sola scriptura.
- Denies not “hyper-Biblicism” (no doctrine is authoritative unless explicitly spelled out in the Bible).
- Heads off the lame-o anti-trinitarian argument that we ought not use any non-biblical language. (Flag – surely this is a straw man in this debate, as is the previous claim above.)
- Argues that the Shema is consistent with unitarian and trinitarian theology. The latter, I think, is unclear. And I don’t think he takes a stand on precisely how he thinks that passage should be understood.
Then, a crucial point:
I could discuss other proof texts that Biblical Unitarians and other non-Trinitarians cite as proof that God is a unipersonal being, but the result will be the same in each case: such texts typically prove that God is a single being but do not address the specific Trinitarian claim that God is a unipersonal being. Non-Trinitarians typically argue, for example, that it is obvious from the pervasive use of singular pronouns for God (I, he, him, his, you [sing.]) throughout the Bible that God is only one person. This argument would be sound if by “person” we meant an individual being. However, in Trinitarian theology, a divine “person” is not an individual being, because God is one being, not three. The doctrine of the Trinity cannot be refuted by assuming that it is false; and this is what non-Trinitarians do when they assume that a person can only be an individual being.
Flag – no, two flags.
- First, Bowman still doesn’t clarify what he means by “person”. Hence, it is not clear what claims he will be arguing is implied by the Bible.
- Second, how is the trinitarian definition of “person” relevant to interpretation of the Hebrew word for “him”, “his” etc. as used by an ancient Jew? I don’t see any fallacious question-begging here by the other side. Suppose you were trying to figure out the views of some local Jedis – what they think this “Force” thingee is. Do they call it “it”, or “him”, or “her”. If one of the latter two, they are assuming it is a self. As Ricky Ricardo would say, Bowman has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. (This, by the way, was not a problem for early catholic theologians, as like NT writers, they identified the one God with the Father of Jesus – which I assume Bowman does not.)
Finally, Bowman beats the mysterian drum. He argues that because God can’t be completely understood, we’ll run into apparent contradictions in thinking about him.
Flag – that doesn’t obviously follow – apparent non sequitur fallacy here. And his examples not having to do with the Trinity don’t seem apt.
He confesses, then, that there are “logical difficulties” in his view – that is, apparent contradictions. If so, then my guess above must be wrong, for it is apparently consistent. But Bowman doesn’t tell us what these are.
Flag – if you admit that your view is apparently contradictory, please say where exactly – this will help us to understand your view! He darkly hints that in 6 above “person” has “a somewhat different connotation as compared to its use for human beings”. I don’t think he means to say “connotation”… but in any case, how do these meanings of “person” differ? I the mundane realm, a person is a self, a thinking thing, a substance with intelligence and will, roughly speaking. What, in contrast, is a divine “person”?
He then inveighs against “approaches to Scripture that a priori disallow all mystery, paradox, or incomprehensibility”. Flag – isn’t this a red herring (an irrelevance, mere distraction)? Is there some reason to think that Burke does this? I assume that Bowman and Burke both agree that apparent inconsistency and unclarity and not good things in a theory, but bad things, and that they should not be lightly allowed.
I am concerned here only to plead that non-Trinitarians not dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity, or any other doctrine, merely because it is difficult to understand. In the context of this debate, I am anticipating and arguing against a priori objections that amount to saying that the Trinity cannot be true regardless of what the Bible may say.
Flag – Straw man? Red herring? Even poisoning the well? He pins all of the above of on unitarian author Donald Snedeker. Well, never mind that – you’re debating Burke here, and Snedecker ain’t Burke.
Of course, if what is meant by “the Trinity doctrine” really is contradictory, then no, it can’t be true, no matter what any person or book says. But, is it? That is, is the trinitarian doctrine under debate here consistent or not? If I really knew what Bowman had in mind, I could venture a firm opinion.
I thought the point here was to expound his positive views and background assumptions. Instead, he’s fired off a lot of rounds, it seems to me, prematurely and haphazardly. Settle that happy trigger finger down, Cowboy! 🙂