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Inerrancy and the Trinity

Last July I laid out my view of inerrancy.  It’s all the hot topic right now, and Nick thinks that if I talk write about it, it will make me more popular.  Well I don’t know about that, but I actually do want to revisit the topic, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity.

My view of the Bible is that it is a covenantal document, not a metaphysical or scientific sourcebook.  I don’t care how well you do your exegesis, the Bible isn’t going to tell you what shape the earth is.  What it will do is provide the terms of the covenant that God offers through Jesus and give you the resources needed to live it out (e.g. psalms, wisdom, prophetic rebuke, examples, etc.).

Yesterday I decided to click Nick’s link to an online debate he had a few years ago with a non-Trinitarian.  Since I have a class studying the Ancient Church (AD 90-600), I thought it would be interesting to read how Nick used the sources.  This period in church history is mostly new to me since I have had the standard protestant view that after the Biblical period, nothing really mattered until Luther.  Of course the doctrine of the Trinity and the canon of scripture got figured out in the first period and of course I knew they got it right, even though I knew almost nothing about the period.  So as I’m reading J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, I sense that I am just now becoming familiar with territory that is well worn for Nick.  I am bothered at how politically motivated many of the decisions were.  But I don’t accept their judgments (i.e. the creeds) because the process was correct, but because they are biblical.

Nick’s opponent (known to us only by the screen name Searchinggone1033) was a Christadelphian, a heretical group that denies the divinity of Christ.  The problem I have is that, based on my view of scripture, I’m tracking more with Nick’s opponent than with Nick.  I found myself thinking that if the Bible is covenantal and not intended to give us metaphysical data, then I have no foundation on which to build a doctrine of the trinity.

Now I’m not prepared to jettison the Trinity.  In my mind, the doctrine of the Trinity is a boundary line between Christian and not-Christian.  The doctrine of the Trinity (or a precursor to it) has been believed by all Christians, everywhere, at all times.  Instead it is causing me to go back to my presuppositions about scripture.  If it’s not Trinitarian (or if it leads to non-Trinitarianism), it’s not Christian.

But then here’s my question for all you non-inerrancy guys.  If you reject the idea of inerrancy, are you on any better grounds than I to construct a doctrine of the Trinity?  Most of you affirm something very close to my view of scripture, just choosing a different word, like trustworthy (Bryan).  Maybe we want to haggle over what constitutes an error – fine.  Choose whatever word you want to.  What I’m wondering is, if the Bible is not correct in things like a flat-earth cosmology (which has become testable), then why would you think it must be correct in its statements that lead us to trinitarian theology (which is not testable, at least not in the same sense as flat-earth cosmology is)?

Update: It seemed that I was arguing against the doctrine of the Trinity in this post. My intent was to explore the underlying reasons why Christians should believe in the Trinity, and especially to drill down into one of my own causes for doubt.

Categories: Scripture, Theology
  1. January 16, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Nick, I am especially interested in how your views have changed since the debate.

    Fundamentally, regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, they haven’t. I’m still unabashadly Trinitarian. I still think that the fathers of the early Church were correct in their formulations (yes, even the metaphysical/ontological ones).

    I have a hunch that you had more of a fundamentalist view of the scriptures when you did that debate.

    If your hunch translated into numbers, I’d tell you to play the lottery with it. Yes, I was an inerrantist at the time of the debate. I said in my summary statement:

    “So now I am forced to approach the scriptures with the supposition that because of their divine authorship they cannot lie and by consequence cannot contradict themselves, because God who is their source cannot lie (Heb. 6:18).” (Par. 11)

    So in respect to inerrancy, my view has changed quite substantially. I’ve done a 180. I do believe that there are contradictions and errors in Scripture, but I do not believe that these in any way impugn the character or trustworthiness of Scripture. Errors of science or history or contradicting accounts in the Gospels don’t mean that we have to throw the baby out with the bath-water.

    Would you argue the same way now?

    It would depend on who I was arguing with. In a recent dialogue with a JW (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2) I went the way of Bauckham and Hurtado and chose to emphasize Jesus’ inclusion in the “divine identity” and how this translated into his being reverenced in the same manner as Yahweh. (Although I did touch on similar points in my debate with Searchingone).

    How does errancy relate to Trinity?

    I really don’t think it plays too large a role. Trinitarian theology is a way of explaining what the Bible already says about God. I would say that the errors in Scripture are factored into the explanation. But I really don’t see too much of a problem for Trinitarianism with the types of errors that we find in Scripture.

    Now my question to you is this: How does viewing the Bible as a covenantal document lead you to identifying more with the Christadelphian’s position in that debate?

  2. January 16, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Nick, thanks for your reply. I will have to think about your question. I just typed a lengthy reply, but WordPress decided to delete it. I don’t think it really answered your question. Basically, I am uncomfortable putting stock in what seem to be scientific or metaphysical claims in the Bible. It is a covenantal book, and thus historically contingent. Although this was not the line of reasoning used by your opponent, I think there was just a sort of resonating there. Beyond that, I will have to go back and look at specifics.

    But alas, that will have to wait until tomorrow. Right now I have to get back to homeschooling my kids.

  3. January 17, 2008 at 2:03 am

    Not really an answer to your question (plus, I remain an inerrantist, so I’ll let others answer from a different perspective), but I wonder why you define the Trinity as something metaphysical and outside the realm of covenant. For example, you say “What [the Bible] will do is provide the terms of the covenant that God offers through Jesus and give you the resources needed to live it out (e.g. psalms, wisdom, prophetic rebuke, examples, etc.).” Rather than say Trinitarian doctrine is something outside that covenant (in this case, the metaphysical), why not affirm that the Trinity is an important resource in living out the covenant, and therefore within what the Bible sufficiently provides?

  4. January 17, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Even in viewing Scripture in covenantal terms, we’re still led to Trinitarianism. The Father sends the Son into the world to die for sinners and save them. The Son ascends to the right hand of the Father and the Father and the Son then send the Spirit to indwell and empower believers for the work of the ministry. If you look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon, you’ll see that this is precisely the message he preached. There is no covenant apart from the Triune God (at least as far as I can see).

  5. January 17, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    One can be an inerrantist and not arrive at a doctrine of the Trinity of the classic sort. All one has to do is read the Gospel of John through the lens of the Synoptics rather than vice versa.

    One can also not be an inerrantist and still be a Trinitarian. Indeed, it is easier for those who accept the authority of the Church and its creeds, whatever their view of the Bible may be. And for those in Liberal traditions, the doctrine of the Trinity can still be embraced as a wonderful symbol of God being eternal love, which is hard to depict in connection with a monolithic person/essence.

  6. January 17, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    James is quite correct. I noted in a comment from a couple of months back that Jehovah’s Witnesses and certain Armstrongite groups hold to inerrancy while denying the Trinity.

  7. January 17, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    James, these are great points. In fact this is the kind of thing I was hoping to explore with my questions. It seems to me though that even if one chooses to “read the Gospel of John through the lens of the Synoptics,” you can’t get away from its Trinitarian consequences without simply resorting to declaring John to be in error.

    Also, it is not at all clear to me that Trinity means the same thing in liberalism (and post-liberalism) as in classic orthodoxy. The doctrine of the Trinity may have powerful symbolism, but it seems to me that the bulk of liberalism does not hold it to be ontologically true. It is not a symbol that I am particularly interested in keeping if it does not correspond to reality.

    Nick, you’re right that Covenant certainly does not exclude Trinitarianism, or many a Calvinist would have already followed this road. I’m not starting with a covenantal view of scripture – I’m ending there. I’m starting with a frustration over the view that says that if you just do your exegesis of scripture right, you can find out all there is to know about the world or God. It is historically reliable, but that is no reason to think it is metaphysically reliable any more than it is reason to think it’s cosmology is reliable. (It’s not.) With that said, I think a covenantal view can best explain how this historical text can in fact be treated as scripture. (And if scripture, and if you accept all my provisos and limitations, then it is also inerrant. But at this point I mean something very different than others do, and I’ve probably jumped out of the boundaries of the Chicago statement.)

    This then leads to my current dilemma, that it occurs to me that if I follow this through to its logical conclusions, I think I have to reject the Trinity. But since I’m not going to reject the Trinity, I have to resolve the contradiction some other way. If I did reject the Trinity I would no longer feel comfortable calling myself a Christian and the whole discussion about scripture would be a moot point. So one of my presuppositions must be wrong. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

    Thanks for your feedback everyone.

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