the evolution of my views on the Trinity – part 9

March 21, 2015

Samuel Clarke by John Faber JrLast time I explained Samuel Clarke’s approach to the Trinity, which pushed me to re-examine my beliefs, and to really dig into the New Testament. This time, some questions that may occur to you about Clarke’s views on the Trinity.

  • Is all of this “Arianism“? No, though many a lazy critic lobbed that brick in Clarke’s general direction. For Clarke, Son and Spirit are uncreated and eternally dependent on God. He hold to the traditional, Origen-and-later speculations about eternal generation and procession. Like Origen, he denies that there was a time when the Son was not. There is no real historical or causal connection between Clarke’s views and the fourth century catholics we call, following Athanasius, “Arians” – except that both owe a debt to the logos-theorists around the time of Origen and before.
  • Is it Social (three self) Trinitarianism? No. While it has a number of similarities to it, for Clarke, the one God isn’t any group or compound being with divine selves as parts, but rather the Father, the one uniquely divine self. It was Clarke who cured me of “social” Trinity confusions.
  • Is it monotheism? Clarke argues that it is. Still, it is not obvious that it is. You might ask why this isn’t just tritheism, with one god who is greater than the other two gods. But I argue that Clarke’s views are monotheistic in this recent paper of mine.
  • Is this theory orthodox (i.e. consistent with the catholic creeds, or at least, the creeds which truly summarize the Bible)? Clarke thinks so, and as an Anglican minister, he had every intention of remaining orthodox. He enlists a large number of ancient catholic theologians on his side, such as the great Origen. I would say that it is creed-compliant up through the 325 creed, but would not conform to the creeds of 381 and 451. Clarke’s attitude was that any Protestant is going to get off the catholic train at some point, and he thought it should be right around the time of Nicea that, as he says, in a doozy of a sentence,

But in process of time, as men grew less pious, and more contentious, so in the several churches they enlarged their creeds and confessions of faith, and grew more minute, in determining unnecessary controversies, and made more and more things explicitly necessary to be understood, and (under pretense of explaining authoritatively) imposed things much harder to be understood than scripture itself, and became more uncharitable in their censures, and the farther they departed from the fountain of catholic unity, the apostolical form of sound words, the more uncertain and unintelligible their definition grew, and good men found nowhere to rest the sole of their foot, but in having recourse to the original words of Christ himself and of the Spirit of truth, in which the wisdom of God has thought fit to express itself.  (Clarke, Scripture Doctrine, Introduction, p. iii, modernized)

  • Is it trinitarianism? I would say not, although Clarke urges that this is the best and only biblical way to understand the mainstream catholic tradition on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. It isn’t trinitarian because the Trinity is not the one God, or any sort of god at all. Rather, the one god is (numerically identical to) the Father, and this is the characteristic, defining thesis of unitarianism, be it ancient, early modern, or present day. So, while Clarke has no intention of being “anti-trinitarian,” and while he has no love at all of Socinus and later unitarians, he is in fact one of the most important unitarian Christian thinkers of all time. I call Clarke a subordinationist unitarian, because for him the Son and Spirit are divine but ontologically subordinate to, eternally dependent for their existence and perfections on the Father. They are not, that is, absolutely co-equal, and that is another reason why, arguably, Clarke is not a trinitarian. Of course, for these same reasons, neither are all the other ancient “fathers” mentioned in this post!

Most importantly, is his the best reading of the Bible, and is it true? In my view, not quite – more on that in future posts. But his key points, I think, are true, and are the key to a non-confused reading of the Bible. The one God of both testaments is none other than (i.e. same self, same god, same being as) the Father. And this Father is supposed to be someone other than Jesus. You can take that to the bank.

The price is that you must reject any theory inconsistent with those two points. But any Trinity theory which is self-consistent is not compatible with them. In the end, it is the Bible vs. later catholic tradition.

Dale Tuggy is Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

5 thoughts on “the evolution of my views on the Trinity – part 9”

  1. You say that Clarke’s view would be compliant with the 325 creed but wouldn’t conform to the 381 creed. Why do you think so? Could you elaborate?

    There’s no concept of a “tri-personnal God” in the 381 formulation, the Father is still the “one God”. Which of the newly added clauses would “exclude” Clarke’s view?

    1. Excellent question. A unitarian might be forgiven for thinking that the 381 creed too is consistent with unitarian theology, as it seems (like many earlier creeds) to identify the Father and the one God. In my view, what changed is the interpretation assumed for the key innovation: “homoousios”. In 325, this was understood to assert the qualitative similarity of Father and Son, so that each can be called “God” and even “true God.” In truth, this is very ambiguous, as following events made clear, but any unitarian signer had a good argument that the document expressed their view. In 381 this language was extended, by implication, to the Spirit, AND it was now understood to imply that Father and Son were the same god. I see this assumption coming in in the 370’s – I’m not sure precisely where or why. In any case, this new assumption is why very shortly after 381 you see people like Augustine clearly asserting that Trinity to be the one God, the triune God. Each “is” a god, but it’s the same god each time. So they must each mysteriously be “in” God, so that God is tripersonal – whatever that means!

      1. This is really helpful, thanks a lot for your reply Dale.

        Is there a book you could recommend on this shift of understanding of “homoousios” between 325 and 381?

        Also, I was trying to locate your critique of Clarke’s subordinationist view – you say in this post that you dealt with it in a subsequent blog post but I couldn’t find it.

  2. You talk about ‘other ancient “fathers” in this post’ but I don’t seem to notice a link to prove that more thoroughly? 🙂

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