The Doctrine of the Trinity and Christianity

Ok, I’ll play on your turf, but I will have to study a bit. We can take scholars to mean your lofty and arrogant “people with intellectual gifts” that “understand the subtleties of the trinity”…I will use Augustine and Lactantius as you have suggested.

My education is of no importance, I have no theology degree if that’s what you mean. However, I am not naive, nor intimidated by those that lean on Academia to assign worth. I seek truth and I don’t take the Word of God lightly.

I object when it is not scripture.

So you don’t think that Scripture represents God as performing “mighty works” to liberate Israel from Egypt? That it represents God as feeding Israel in the desert? That it represents Jesus as calming storms, performing instantaneous healings, etc.? Yet these are things that the YEC and ID people you deplore all accept from Scripture. So where is your disagreement with them? You seem to be offended that they have an “interventionist” idea of God as acting upon and within the created world, yet that’s the idea of God I see in the Bible.

I don’t say you should be intimidated by academics. I challenge the consensus of academics all the time. But it’s important to be clear what it is that you are challenging. If you are saying that the doctrine of the Trinity, as understood in Nicene times, is not found explicitly in Scripture, no one will disagree with you. But it doesn’t follow that it couldn’t be implied in Scripture, or at least compatible with Scripture. It’s not impossible that God would have given only a sketchy outline in the Bible, knowing that human beings with their intellects would later systematize those indications. It’s not impossible that God willed this to happen – that he wanted his Church to do just that, to work out the implications of Biblical statements systematically.

If you’re saying that a Christian doesn’t have to assent to “three persons in one substance” to be “saved”, I will gladly agree with you. I don’t think God judges souls on what theoretical constructs they hold. I think it’s possible to be skeptical of some of the formulations of Trinitarian doctrine (and many other doctrines) while still being a faithful Christian. But it still might be the case that the Bible implies some sort of “threeness” regarding God – even if no theologian or Council has yet adequately worked out the full nature of that “threeness.”

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Deplore is a strong word, I don’t deplore anyone. I don’t agree that God is a task master, nor do I agree that man can know God’s motives apart from what we are told in scripture. I don’t agree with a literal interpretation of time in regard to God operating within the limits of time (or space). I think that Jesus is the only “person” (however defined) of the trinity we can know fully as humans. We can respond to the Holy Spirit and recognize God’s will in a situation, but we will never know the full scope of His plan, nor will we know the fullness of God’s “person”. YEC and ID camps both like to claim that God does this or that for this or that purpose. I find that in error, as they cannot possibly know God’s intent (unless it is scripture, where God gives clear direction).

Ecclesiastes 8:17 - then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it.

I am challenging the wisdom of describing God the Father and the Holy Spirit in finite human terms as persons separately and one together. Jesus clearly can be described that way, and I believe that is why He was sent (to know Him), but I don’t believe we can know God the Father or the Holy Spirit in that manner. (not that I have a better way, I just think its enough to revere their awesomeness and be OK with faith in their glory beyond our comprehension.) I do not challenge the concept of the trinity, I challenge the way man defines God in three persons.

Yes, I am saying this, and I am saying that the trinity as explained by Nicene scholars is inconsistent with what I receive from God through the Holy Spirit in terms of the scope of their being. I do not claim that it is impossible for me to be wrong, it is totally possible that I am incorrect.

The trinity is clearly implied, my argument is that scholars have over simplified God the Father and the Holy Spirit to be humanized as “persons” and represented as a finite being with clear separation and non-omnipresence. This is in my opinion misleading and allows believers to package the glory of God into a bite-sized chunk of misunderstanding. You don’t have to tell me again that I don’t know what they mean by “person”…I do, and I find it to be a unique/individual/finite/limiting term for an infinite and omnipresent being beyond simple understanding.

I think the apostles did a lot of this with their epistles, but that work was also written and canonized as scripture, recognized as inspired by God through the Holy Spirit and confirmed by the Holy Spirit in others. The apostles allude to the concept of the trinity, but focus more on oneness than individuality. It is the individuality and “personhood” that I find in contrast with scripture.

Acts 2:32-32 - 32 This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. 33 Therefore being exalted [j]to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.

Even Peter had a hard time describing the presence of the Holy Spirit (but mentions all three in one verse). It seems also that he views the Spirit more as a verb, an action of communication emanating from the Father and Son than a noun with separate being.

Agreed. I would say that the bible more implies oneness, and that oneness includes us. (don’t worry, I don’t mean we are gods, I mean that once Jesus approves us, we will receive the crown of life and be one in heaven with God (referring to James 1:12)). I suppose we have the opportunity to commune with them now, and are called to, the kingdom of God is accessible to us all on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus speaking:
John 15:26 - 26 “But when the [c]Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.

John 16:13-15 - 13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He [c]will take of Mine and declare it to you.

It feels to me that when Jesus speaks of the Father and the Holy Spirit, He tries to convey that they are in concert with Him more than separate from Him. Also that the Spirit is more of an action of communication from the Father and Son than a unique and separate being. Though the descriptions Jesus gives are of different purposes in their oneness, they still (to me) retain an element of mystery that is beyond definition. So, I suppose that I consider that human need for definition to be what is in error and in my humble opinion has the potential to lead people astray.

With all that said, I would guess that we see the trinity in very much the same light of truth, just quibbling over definitions. I also understand that I am probably alone in my views and disagreement and I’m ok with that.

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Mark: I will make two points here, one about the Trinity, and one about the proper interpretation of the Bible:

The point is that, in Greek, they did not speak of “person”, but of hypostasis. Does hypostasis imply all the things that the English word “person” does? Even supposing you to be completely correct about the implications of the term “person” in modern English, does that mean the term hypostasis was incorrect?

In the West theologians adopted the term persona as a translation of hypostasis. But did persona, at that time, and in that technical theological context, have the meaning of the modern English word “person”? And even if it did, it wouldn’t follow that the Greek term hypostasis was an inappropriate one. It’s quite possible that Latin theology introduced misconceptions that were absent from Greek theology. It might be that your battle is with Western, Latin theology, rather than with the Nicene formulation itself.

Thus, this is a discussion that requires lengthy historical and philosophical analysis of theological terminology. It has to be a scholarly discussion, in other words. And I’m not sure that a blog site is the best place for a lengthy scholarly discussion.

Understand that I’m not saying the Nicene formulation is beyond challenge or is completely compatible with Biblical language. My point is that it is not automatically incompatible with Biblical language, merely because it uses some terms that are not found in the Bible. I don’t find the movement from “X is not found directly in Scripture, therefore X is not Christian” to be convincing. I guess this shows that I am out of sympathy with much of free-church, sectarian Protestantism.

I note that you two or three times now have not answered my other question, about whether the Bible depicts God as choosing, planning, “intervening” (or if you don’t like that term, “acting directly within the created world” or “doing works which demonstrate his presence”), etc. Do you think the Bible denies that God ever acts directly on nature, or directly on his creation? Are you affirming that God works only through intermediaries such as natural laws or a natural evolutionary process? If so, then I understand your aversion to YEC and to many ID proponents, who do believe that God has sometimes acted directly. But that would then put you at odds with the plainest sense of many passages in the Bible – and you say that you hold the Bible to be authoritative and true. So some clarification is in order: what exactly do you think the Bible teaches about direct divine action?

We humans cannot even fix the momentum and location of sub-atomic particles precisely, what makes us think we are sufficient to contain and comprehend the qualities of an infinite and all-the-omnis God?


Mark McGowan:

In agreement with your suggestion that we keep the discussion to one thread rather than two, I’m continuing the discussion from “ID and Christian Theology” here, so that we can return to the original themes of the Trinity, and the depiction of God in the Bible and Christianity.

I am suggesting that at this point you focus your response on two posts: first, the one just above that of “ProfBravus”, which ends with my question about the Bible and divine action; second, the post I’m copying (at least in part) from the other thread, here:

"How do you explain the clearly personal language used by the Biblical writers about God? I don’t mean that they use the word “personal” itself; I mean they describe God and his actions in personal terms. I quote myself:

"He also creates, makes, divides, forms, produces serpents out of staves, feeds Israel in the desert, remembers, etc.

“This is not language one would use about some impersonal “Ground of Being.” How do you explain this language? I do not know of any Christian theologian who does not admit that God is in some sense personal. Can you name me any? Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant? Over the entire history of Christian thought? Why are you determined to eliminate the personal aspects of God – without which devotional religion makes no sense at all?”

thank you for this…not sure why I keep fighting this battle with my fellow Christians. Seems like a no-brainer.

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No, I don’t deny this, but I also wouldn’t presume to know His intent.

No, God is God, who am I to critique His methods.

I think the bible teaches that God IS, and is beyond my comprehension. Yet I believe that He is a living God who is light and love and is righteous and eternal. He saved me when I finally repented and called out to Him, that was pretty direct, but I co1uldn’t tell you how or why He did…

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I agree. But also – and here I recall to your memory your remarks about YEC and ID proponents – I don’t know of a single ID or YEC proponent who would disagree. Do you know of any ID or YEC proponents who think that the human mind can grasp God? So it’s unclear to me who your target is. It appears to be a non-existent type of Christian.

ID people think we can detect design in nature, but being able to detect design in this or that biological feature is not the same as being able to know the full set of God’s purposes for nature and human history! It’s a long way from inferring that a bacterial flagellum was designed, i.e., did not come into existence by a series of unplanned genetic accidents, to claiming to know God’s purposes. ID makes no claim, for example, to explain why God created some bacteria with flagella. It does not claim to detect “ultimate purpose” – which I think is your fear. It claims to detect “design” – which has to do only with proximate purpose.

But these objections really pertain to the other thread, which we left to return to this one, so let’s leave aside your criticism of ID and YEC – unless you think that criticism relates to the doctrine of the Trinity – and come back to questions about God and Trinity that don’t necessarily have anything to do with ID.

You’ve said you don’t like language that represents God as a “person” in the sense that you and I are persons. I’ve responded that the Creed doesn’t use the word “person” but the word hypostasis. In Latin that became the word persona. I understand that you think the word “persona” set things on the wrong track. I’ve answered that, by suggesting that the meaning of the word in its original theological context might not be the modern meaning that you object to. But even if it is, it would seem that you could in theory accept the Trinity as it is understood by the Eastern Orthodox – without that annoying word “person.” Or would you object to “hypostasis” as a word that is not found in the Bible and hence somehow illegitimate?

In any case, I think that focusing on the word “person” is not getting us very far. I’m trying to refocus on the actual Biblical descriptions of God. I gave you a long list of characterizations of God and statements about God’s actions that come not from Patristic theology, but from the Bible. I noted that God is said to remember, repent, love, be angry, forgive, and so on. I noted that God is said to create, make, form, divide, and perform various miraculous deeds. God is said to give laws in the form of words that Israel can understand. God makes “covenants” (which in the ancient world were agreements between two persons). God classifies some actions as “abominations,” suggesting revulsion. God warns, threatens, chastises, comforts, etc. Now, even if the Bible never calls God a “person,” it clearly gives him a whole host of characteristics which we associate with personal agents (not with rocks, magnetism, electricity, lakes, mountains, etc.). It represents God as “personal,” even if that term is never used. God is not some undifferentiated One, some abstract “Ground of Being.” In light of this, whether or not the Bible ever directly calls God a “person” seems unimportant.

Evangelical Christians like to stress that they have a “personal relationship with God.” But we don’t speak of “personal relationships with boulders” or “personal relationships with ultraviolet light.” When we are in a “personal relationship” with someone, that someone is himself or herself a “person”; personal relationships are two-way streets. So if one can have a “personal relationship” with God, then God must be in some sense a personal being. (On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine having a “personal relationship” with a God conceived of as a propertyless “One,” as in some systems of ancient and Eastern theology.)

I freely grant that God is not a human person. But if he is not in some sense personal (whether the word “person” is used or not), then neither Judaism nor Christianity makes any sense at all. The kind of effusive religious language that Jews and Christians use in their prayers and hymns is not the kind of language that one addresses to rocks, magnetic fields, volcanoes, etc. It’s the language one addresses to a person.

Your position seems to ignore a massive amount of Biblical data, plus the practice and language of devotional, theistic religions. This is why I’m having trouble understanding you. Whether the Nicene Creed got the Trinity right is relatively unimportant, compared with this larger issue. I could say, sure, the Creeds went beyond Biblical language and should not be binding on Christians, but are merely human interpretations, but that wouldn’t leave us in agreement. You have to convince me that the Bible and genuine Christianity regard God as non-personal, in light of the massive evidence I’ve cited.

My issue is not that they believe in the word, my issue is in the lowering of the sovereignty and omnipotence of God to a human type personified existence.

Agreed. To restate the other thread, the personal relationship I have with God is according to my person, not God’s person.

Augustine said what I feel in his first chapter of On the Trinity:CHURCH FATHERS: On the Trinity, Book I (St. Augustine)

Others, again, frame whatever sentiments they may have concerning God according to the nature or affections of the human mind; and through this error they govern their discourse, in disputing concerning God, by distorted and fallacious rules. While yet a third class strive indeed to transcend the whole creation, which doubtless is changeable, in order to raise their thought to the unchangeable substance, which is God; but being weighed down by the burden of mortality, while they both would seem to know what they do not, and cannot know what they would, preclude themselves from entering the very path of understanding, by an over-bold affirmation of their own presumptuous judgments,

Again, you mistake the “personal relationship” as a two person engagement, when I believe it is my person engaging with a God that is beyond human characteristics. The bible is written for human understanding, the descriptions of what God is like are human terms and in fact if you were to take all of the descriptions of God into one statement, that statement is that “God is everything”.

Augustine agrees:

For he who thinks, for instance, that God is white or red, is in error; and yet these things are found in the body. Again, he who thinks of God as now forgetting and now remembering, or anything of the same kind, is none the less in error; and yet these things are found in the mind.

In order, therefore, that the human mind might be purged from falsities of this kind, Holy Scripture, which suits itself to babes has not avoided words drawn from any class of things really existing, through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent. For, in speaking of God, it has both used words taken from things corporeal, as when it says, Hide me under the shadow of Your wings; and it has borrowed many things from the spiritual creature, whereby to signify that which indeed is not so, but must needs so be said: as, for instance, I the Lord your God am a jealous God; and, It repents me that I have made man.

But the same Scripture rarely employs those things which are spoken properly of God, and are not found in any creature; as, for instance, that which was said to Moses, I am that I am; and, I Am has sent me to you.

Further, it is difficult to contemplate and fully know the substance of God; who fashions things changeable, yet without any change in Himself, and creates things temporal, yet without any temporal movement in Himself. And it is necessary, therefore, to purge our minds, in order to be able to see ineffably that which is ineffable; whereto not having yet attained, we are to be nourished by faith, and led by such ways as are more suited to our capacity, that we may be rendered apt and able to comprehend it.

Augustine apparently agrees with my disdain for the term “person”…

Wherefore, our Lord God helping, we will undertake to render, as far as we are able, that very account which they so importunately demand: viz ., that the Trinity is the one and only and true God, and also how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are rightly said, believed, understood, to be of one and the same substance or essence; in such wise that they may not fancy themselves mocked by excuses on our part, but may find by actual trial, both that the highest good is that which is discerned by the most purified minds, and that for this reason it cannot be discerned or understood by themselves, because the eye of the human mind, being weak, is dazzled in that so transcendent light, unless it be invigorated by the nourishment of the righteousness of faith.

So, it appears that Augustine and I are in agreement, not sure where to go from here.

That is not the impression I have received from over 50 years of engaging with hundreds of evangelical Christians. Most of them speak as if God is a person that they talk to, and sometimes literally hear back from, whether in words or “signs.” They speak of God’s personal presence in a room, that they can literally “feel” his warmth and personal love, like a caring hand on their shoulder (and sometimes not even “like” – sometimes they actually claim to feel his hand), and so on. Their language is heavily personalistic, and they apply the personal language to God just as much as to themselves. You are an outlier among the evangelicals I have known. I don’t think you are representative of the evangelical mindset overall. That doesn’t make you wrong, but it makes you puzzling. Your way of describing God and your relationship to him seems to be neither that of classical Christianity nor that of modern evangelical faith, but something else.

No Biblical author claims that God is white or red, so Augustine’s example is fatuous. And I thought you were more concerned about the Bible than the Fathers, anyway. Why don’t you want to discuss my Biblical examples?

Such expressions were understood as figurative even by the Biblical authors. But that God created, made, gave laws, parted the Red Sea, turned rods into snakes, made covenants, was angry, etc., were not regarded as figurative by them. I’m asking you to comment on those things, not on the obvious metaphors.

I find it interesting that you say you want to put the Bible above all human speculation, yet appeal to Augustine, who at least in these passages you have quoted is at his most “Greek” and least “Biblical.” Why don’t you read his account of the Biblical history in On the City of God instead? He offers a much more concrete “Lord of Nature and History” reading of the Bible there – much more in line with traditional Protestant notions of a hands-on, active God.

Then why did he write this:

“… let us believe that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, maker and ruler of the whole creation: that Father is not Son, nor Holy Spirit Father or Son; but a Trinity of mutually related Persons, and a unity of equal essence.” (De Trinitate, IX, 1.)

You see the word “Persons” in there?

But again, I’m less interested in what Augustine says than in what the Bible says. Augustine fluctuates between a Greek and a Hebraic mentality; if you want the pure Hebraic mentality, you need to go to the Bible. The portrayal of God, especially in the Old Testament, is heavily couched in personalistic language.

I’m not saying that personalistic language for God is necessarily right; I’m saying that’s what the Bible gives us. Yes, he is beyond our understanding, he is shrouded in mystery, he cannot be fully seen by any man, even Moses (who sees only his “hinder parts”), and his deepest plans are not known to us; yet he is not completely alien to us; he talks to Adam and Cain and Abraham and Jacob and Moses; he and Abraham seem to come to a common understanding of justice in the Sodom story; he promises, he covenants, he gives instructions to Israel in matters secular as well as sacred, he is angered, he loves. One can reject all of this in favor of the “philosopher’s God” who is an object of our intellectual contemplation and reverence, but who is admired like a beautiful statue more than loved like a father or a bride; at points Augustine seems to lean that way (until his devotional side gets the better of him and he returns to the personal language); but one certainly has to choose, in the end, the kind of Christian one wants to be, one who follows the God of the philosophers or one who follows the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am not sure where you sit on this choice; you seem to be trying to split the difference. You seem to want God to be utterly remote and alien to human nature, yet yourself to have a “personal relationship” with this remote and alien being. I cannot grasp this. Possibly my mind is too rigid in its categories. Anyhow, I must do some real-world work now, and so I may not respond for a while. If you want to add something, go ahead, and I will get to it when I can.

I can’t explain any differently than I already have. I am not interested in arguing for arguments sake. I am not dodging anything. You asked me to look at Augustine, I did, and I agree with his opening statements on the Trinity and provided you with excerpts from his writing that states exactly my point. If he says it differently somewhere else, then your example (your choice of whom to engage with as an example) is not genuine in his belief. Go ahead and view God as a person, see where that leads. I choose to view God in a different light and am confident that what I receive from the Holy Spirit (who is not a person in any form) shows me the truth. I don’t have time now to engage any further either, I have answered all your questions (by using your reference), you just don’t like the answers. We can agree to disagree. I appreciate the conversation, I learned a great deal, which has helped me solidify my position.

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I too have appreciated the conversation. Your tone and attitude are a good deal gentler and more civilized than what is often seen around here. You have kept our disagreements polite and constructive. My main disagreement with you is not over the original point (I don’t absolutely insist on the Nicene formulation, and I agree that its language goes beyond the language of the Bible, which while not necessarily bad, is not necessarily good either), but over your apparent way of reading the Bible’s statements about God. It appears to be quite selective and to skate over dozens of important Biblical passages describing God or his actions, which is odd given that you say that the Bible is your ultimate foundation. I would think you would give much more weight to quite explicit Biblical statements than you do. I wonder if you are not giving too much importance to what you believe the Holy Spirit is telling you, and not enough importance to the words of the Biblical text. If you would take away a parting thought from this discussion, this is the one I would have you reflect upon.

Did Mark provide you with any thoughts worthy of your reflection?

I don’t know what I have said to give you this idea. I put a higher value on scripture than most. I also know that the Spirit confirms scripture and scripture confirms the Spirit, so they work together…neither is more important, but one without the other is useless.

If you would like to engage in a hermeneutics discussion on a specific passage, I will. I agree that I am a bit of an outsider in my beliefs, but so was Jesus, so I’m ok with that.

Yes. The give and take between us should be a sufficient indicator of that.

And did you find my remark and question – which you never responded to – worthy of your reflection? To remind you of what you said and my reply (on the other thread):

Then the Bible is filled with bad theology. Is that your view?

Are you going to duck the question, or answer it?

The bad theology is to humanize/personify God. So if you equate the bible with humanizing God, then yes, your bible is filled with bad theology.

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I referred to dozens of passages, not by chapter and verse number, but you know the Bible well, so you can easily find them by the contents (creation, Red Sea, God remembering Noah, God repenting of his creation, etc.). You can discuss as many of them as you like. Can you eliminate the idea of a personal God from all of those passages? No hurry – take a couple of weeks if you like. I’m busy anyway. I’ll keep an eye out here for future replies.

What’s really interesting to me about this conversation between @Mark10.45 and @Eddie is that on the one hand Eddie defends Nicene Trinitarianism, on the other hand he also defends a more “evangelical”, “biblical”, “personalist” understanding of God, in opposition to a “God of the philosophers”. In contrast, many classical theists (mostly Roman Catholics) I’ve encountered would say similar things as Mark has regarding God - that God is not a “person” in the English sense of the word and that the idea of a “personal relationship with God” is inaccurate, naive Protestant language. However such Christian classical theists would also strenuously defend the Trinity as revealed by faith! (Though their way of explicating the Trinity would be criticized as “modalist” by some others.)

So I find it disorienting to make sense of either participant’s position. I suppose Mark’s stance reminds me a little bit of a non-Christian strict classical monotheist, such as the Muslim understanding of God.

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My question was addressed to John Mercer, so you are exempt from answering it. Let’s see if he answers it.