Tuesday, January 1, 2019

One God and Father of all: How the scriptural revelation of the one true God contradicts the doctrine of the Trinity (Part One)

Introduction

As is evident from the admittedly provocative title of this study, the position for which I’m going to be arguing is incompatible with what is (arguably) one of the most important and fundamental doctrines of Christianity (or at least the Christianity associated with the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and most Protestant churches). However, as the position defended in this study is being considered by the reader, I hope that this fact will be strongly impressed upon his or her mind: God has never said that we would know the truth by the number of sincere and intelligent people who have believed it. Nor has God said that we would know the truth by how long something has (or hasn’t) been believed. Truth is true - and falsehood false - irrespective of these factors. Truth is not determined by majority rule and consensus, by human authority, by tradition, or by time.

Part One: A critical look at Trinitarian terms and concepts

Before I begin demonstrating how the doctrine of the Trinity is contradicted by what scripture reveals concerning the identity of the one true God, I need to first explain what the doctrine of the Trinity is. On the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/), the entry on the Trinity begins with the following helpful introduction:

The traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity is commonly expressed as the statement that the one God exists as or in three equally divine “persons”, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every significant concept in this statement (God, exists, as or in, equally divine, person) has been variously understood. The guiding principle has been the creedal declaration that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the New Testament are consubstantial (i.e. the same in substance or essence, Greek: homoousios). Because this shared substance or essence is a divine one, this is understood to imply that all three named individuals are divine, and equally so. Yet the three in some sense “are” the one God of the Bible.

As the author makes clear in this opening paragraph, there are various ways in which the doctrine of the Trinity has been understood and explained. Some explanations are more nuanced and carefully worded than others, and some “models” of the Trinity are incompatible with others (in fact, the article goes on to consider more than ten different models of the Trinity to which various Trinitarian theologians have held). Unsurprisingly, the doctrinal explanations that seem to find the most widespread acceptance among Christians tend to be less precise (and more vague) in the terminology used, with little to no definitions of key terms/concepts provided in the explanation.

One early Trinitarian creed (the so-called “Athanasian Creed,” which was written sometime in the late 5th or early 6th century) begins as follows:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.”[1]

The Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, summarized the doctrine of the Trinity as follows: “We believe the divine majesty to be three distinct persons of one true essence.” Given the simplicity of Luther’s statement, I think most Trinitarians would agree with it. However, it’s when one starts to unpack what, exactly, is meant by the terms ‘divine majesty,’ ‘persons’ and ‘essence’ - and what, exactly, the relationship is between them - that we start to enter more complicated territory.

In an article on the Trinity found on “The Gospel Coalition” website,[2] Kevin DeYoung explains the meaning of the words “essence” and “person” as follows:

“The two key words here are essence and persons. When you read “essence”, think “Godness.” All three Persons of the Trinity share the same “Godness.” One is not more God than another. None is more essentially divine than the rest. When you read “persons”, think “a particular individual distinct from the others.”

Scripture actually has a word for what DeYoung refers to as the “Godness” of God: theiótēs. This term is used once by Paul in Romans 1:20, and is translated “divine nature” or “divinity” (cf. Acts 17:29, where Paul used the related adjective theíos or “divine” in reference to God). It should be noted that, in the context of Rom. 1:20 (as well as in that of Acts 17:29), it is the Father whom Paul was referring to as “God” (see Rom. 1:1-3, 7-9; also note Paul’s use of the singular personal pronoun “his” in v. 20). I think a great deal of confusion, speculation and theorizing concerning the nature and identity of God would be avoided if theologians were to simply choose to use terminology that is as close to that which is found in Scripture as possible.[3]

DeYoung went on to state in his article that, “The Persons are not three gods; rather, they dwell in communion with each other as they subsist in the divine nature without being compounded or confused.” The term “subsist” (from the Latin subsistere) seems to be a fairly common term used by Trinitarian apologists to explain the relationship that the persons of the Trinity have to the divine essence or nature. It is in the divine essence/nature that the persons of the Trinity are believed to “subsist,” and it is by virtue of their “subsistence” in this shared essence/nature that each person of the Trinity is understood to be “essentially divine.”

Another Trinitarian apologist (Matt Purman) has explained the relationship that the persons of the Trinity have to the divine essence by referring to the persons as “modes of existence” or “forms of existence” within the one divine essence.[4] Even according to this view, however, no individual person of the Trinity can be identified with the one divine essence (even if each person could not be said to exist separately from it). If there’s at least one thing that’s true of something that isn’t true of something else, then they’re not the same, and – according to Purman’s Trinitarian model – there is, in fact, at least one thing that’s true of the one divine essence that isn’t true of the individual persons who exist in relation to it: the divine essence is essentially triune (having three different “modes” or “forms of existence”), while each person within the essence is not essentially triune (i.e., they don’t have three different “modes” or “forms of existence”).[5]  Since being triune is true of the one divine essence but not true of any individual person existing “within” it, then no individual person of the Trinity can, according to Purman’s model, be identified with the one divine essence.

In regard to the above remarks, the take away is that, no matter how inseparably related one may believe the persons of the Trinity are to the one divine essence or nature, no person within the Trinity can be identified with the one divine essence without compromising the internal consistency and coherence of the doctrine of the Trinity. The divine essence or nature must be understood as something that belongs to (and is shared by) the three persons of the Trinity, and cannot be identified with any of the divine persons to whom it belongs. The persons of the Trinity can be said to be “of” the divine essence, to “subsist” in it, or to be “modes of existence” within it, but the relationship between the persons of the Trinity and the one divine essence/nature is not, strictly speaking, one of identity.

In the aforementioned article by DeYoung, he went on to write:

Sometimes it’s easier to understand what we believe by stating what we don’t believe.
  • Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects monarchianism which believes in only one person (mono) and maintains that the Son and the Spirit subsists in the divine essence as impersonal attributes not distinct and divine Persons.
  • Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects modalism which believes that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different names for the same God acting in different roles or manifestations (like the well-intentioned but misguided “water, vapor, ice” analogy).
  • Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects Arianism which denies the full deity of Christ.
  • And finally, orthodox Trinitarianism rejects all forms of tri-theism, which teach that the three members of the Godhead are, to quote a leading Mormon apologist, “three distinct Beings, three separate Gods.”
According to DeYoung's helpful summary of the views rejected by orthodox Trinitarians, the God of orthodox Trinitarian theology cannot be identified with a single divine person (e.g., the Father), even if the divine person is understood as relating to humanity in three different manifestations or roles (as is believed by those holding to the “Modalist” and “Oneness” positions). Rather, orthodox Trinitarians affirm that the one God is identical with three distinct persons who subsist in one divine essence/nature. This is an important point that needs to be emphasized. According to Trinitarianism, the one God is essentially triune. The God of Trinitarianism is not actually a “he” but a “they.”

Despite this fact, Trinitarians tend to refer to the triune God by using singular personal pronouns (e.g., “he” and “him”), even when it’s clear that they’re referring to all three persons of the Trinity, collectively. For example, in Purman’s article he writes,

“How is God one? He is one in essence. How is God three? He is three in Person. Essence and person are not the same thing. God is one in a certain way (essence) and three in a different way (person). Since God is one in a different way than he is three, the Trinity is not a contradiction. There would only be a contradiction if we said that God is three in the same way that he is one.”

Notice how Perman repeatedly refers to the one triune God as a “he” (“He is one in essence”; “He is three in Person”; “he is three”). A God that is “three in Person” cannot be a “he.” “He” is, of course, a singular personal pronoun, and refers to one person. A tri-personal God that consists of three distinct persons who are “one in essence” would necessarily be a “they,” not a “he.” Were the terminology of Trinitarians more consistent with their own theological position, they would always refer to the triune God using plural personal pronouns (e.g., “they” and “them”). 

Similarly, on the website of one of the largest and the fastest-growing Baptist churches in the United States (NewSpring Church), there are three paragraphs that sum up their doctrinal position concerning God.[6] Here’s the first one:

God is creator of the universe and author of life. God is spirit, and therefore, is timeless. Sovereignly possessing all power and all knowledge, He never tires, gains strength, or acquires new knowledge. He is all-present in the universe. God never changes.

This first paragraph contains what I believe to be a pretty scripturally-sound description of God; it’s when we get to the second paragraph that the confusion begins. Notice the use of the singular pronoun “he” in the above paragraph. If one was new to Christianity and didn’t really know what Christians believed, one would assume (and be justified in doing so) that by referring to God as ”he,” the author of this statement of faith was referring to one, individual divine person. But that, of course, isn’t the case at all. In the paragraph that immediately follows, we read the following (emphasis mine):

God is one. He exists eternally in three persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is of the same essence, co-equally God. He providentially sustains His creation by the word of His power. 

Trinitarians apologists are often quick to point out that the doctrine of the Trinity is not illogical, since (they argue) God is not one and three in the same sense. However, notice the use of the singular personal pronouns “He” and “His” in the above paragraph. These are the same sort of singular personal pronouns that Trinitarians use to refer to individual members of the Trinity. So who, exactly, is the “He” that we’re told “eternally exists in three persons?” Surely the author of this statement of faith doesn’t believe in a fourth person of the Trinity. And yet, if this “He” who we’re told “exists eternally in three persons” is also a person (and thus personally distinct from the three persons in whom “He” exists), then we would have four persons rather than three. And if this “He” isn't a separate person, then why even use the singular personal pronoun? Why not instead say, “God is one, and THEY exist eternally as three persons…” The fact that Trinitarians cannot seem to articulate their doctrinal position in a consistent and non-contradictory way suggests that the doctrine itself may be inherently logically contradictory.

Notice also that, in the above paragraph, the three persons in whom the one God (“He”) is said to “exist” are said to be “of the same essence, co-equally God.” This, too, is logically problematic. The God of Trinitarianism is essentially triune. Thus, no individual member of the triune God can properly be identified with the triune God, or be said to actualize and manifest all that the triune God is understood to be. And this means that when a Trinitarian refers to the persons of the Trinity as being “co-equally God,” they can’t mean that each divine person is, himself, the one triune God of their theology (for, again, the one God of Trinitarianism is essentially triune, consisting of three persons subsisting in one divine essence). Since none of the persons within the Trinity are, individually, the triune God, it is misleading, at best, for the Trinitarian apologist to refer to all three persons as being “co-equally God,” or to any individual member of the Trinity as being “fully God.”

To help make this point as clear as possible, consider the following argument:

1. Trinitarians believe that Jesus Christ is God.
2. Trinitarians believe that God is essentially triune, and is identical with three distinct persons subsisting in one divine essence.
3. Trinitarians believe that Jesus Christ is a tri-personal being, and that he’s identical with three distinct persons subsisting in one divine essence.

No Trinitarian would accept the conclusion of this argument, since Trinitarians don’t believe that Jesus Christ himself is a triune being consisting of three persons subsisting in one divine essence. So where does the above argument go wrong? The problem lies in the first premise. When Trinitarians refer to each individual member of the Trinity as “God” or as “fully God,” what they really mean (and ought to say) is that each person within the Trinity is essentially divine by virtue of subsisting in the one divine essence, and possesses all essential divine attributes.

Thus, for the sake of consistency, precision and clarity (and to avoid obfuscation and equivocation), Trinitarians ought to say that the three persons of the Trinity are “co-equally divine” - or that each person is equally “divine” (or “fully divine”) - rather than that each person within the Trinity is “God” (or “fully God”). Even DeYoung (apparently) thought it necessary to clarify his statement that no person within the Trinity is “more God than another” by adding, “None is more essentially divine than the rest.“ To even say that no person within the Trinity is “more God than another” is to use the noun “God” as an adjective, and to denote something other than the triune God. For if the term “God” were being used to denote the triune God, one would be implying that each person within the Trinity is the triune God (which, again, no Trinitarian affirms, or ought to affirm).

Trinitarians frequently deny that the individual members of the Trinity are merely a “part” of God (or that each member is merely “one third” of God). For example, in the article by Purman, we read that ”the doctrine of the Trinity does not divide God into three parts. The Bible is clear that all three Persons are each one-hundred-percent God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully God….We should not think of God as a “pie” cut into three pieces, each piece representing a Person. This would make each Person less than fully God and thus not God at all.” 

As already noted, Purman believes that the three persons of the Trinity are three distinct “modes” or “forms of existence” within the one divine essence. Thus, Purman can’t believe that any person within the Trinity is actually identical with (the same as) the one divine essence; if that were the case, he’d be forced to say that each person of the Trinity exists in three different “modes” or “forms.” What he must mean, then, is that all three persons within the Trinity are each fully (“one-hundred-percent”) divine. That is, when he writes that each person is “fully God,” he can only mean that each person is fully divine, and in full possession of divinity. Thus, when Trinitarians deny that the persons of the Trinity are each a “part” of God, what they’re actually denying is that any of the members of the Trinity lack essential divinity. For, when the term “God” is understood as a reference to the triune God of Trinitarianism, it would, in fact, be correct to say that each person of the triune God is part of (or “one third of”) the triune God. Consider the following argument:

1. The one God of Trinitarianism is essentially triune, being essentially constituted by three persons subsisting in one essence.
2. That which is essentially constituted by more than one of anything has essential parts.
3. The three divine persons constituting the one triune God of Trinitarianism are each an essential part of the one triune God.

Although each person within the Trinity is understood by Trinitarians as being just as essentially divine as the others (by virtue of sharing/subsisting in the same divine essence), no single member of the triune God can be understood as actualizing or manifesting all that the triune God is. For if a single divine person could be said to actualize and manifest all that God is, we’d no longer be talking about the triune God of Trinitarianism.

Now, for the sake of argument, I’m going to grant that the doctrine of the Trinity is logically compatible with monotheism, and that there is nothing logically incoherent or metaphysically problematic about the concept of a tri-personal God. For, in my view, the real problem facing the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much that it involves a possible (or actual) lack of internal consistency or logical coherence. Rather, it’s the fact that the doctrine is simply not consistent with what we find affirmed in scripture concerning the identity of the one God, and the nature of his “oneness.”





[3] I also think Scripture has terms which, in some contexts at least, could be understood to denote “a sentient entity” or “self” - i.e., the Hebrew and Greek terms usually translated “soul” (“nephesh” and “psuche”).

[5] To identify the Father, for example, with the one divine essence would be to affirm that the Father has three modes/forms of existence, and that the other two divine persons are simply different modes/forms of existence within the Father.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thank you, Aaron! Looking forward to the next installment.

    ReplyDelete