Home > Scripture, Theology > No Good Reason to Believe in the Trinity

No Good Reason to Believe in the Trinity

I think I have a serious beer deficiency.  I have been writing and thinking theology, but I haven’t had any beer for probably several months.  No beer makes for bad theology.  So I’m sitting here drinking a Leinenkugel’s Red as I type this post.  It’s making me feel a lot better about theology, and life in general for that matter.  Old Ben Franklin once said that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.  Amen to that.

So I am coming at this whole Trinity subject one more time.  Please understand that I’m not really prepared to defend anything I’m writing here.  This is not an article in an academic journal.  Imagine we’re sitting around a table drinking beer and talking about God.  That’s the kind of vibe I’m looking for right now.

So the main thing I’m trying to do here is work through the various theological issues that bother me.  In general, most of my doubts about my evangelical theology have not come because I think there are good reasons for doubting this or that doctrine.  Those are all the kinds of questions the apologetic books handle.  My doubts tend to come because I haven’t found a good reason to hold the doctrine in the first place.

This all started with scripture.  Several years ago, I started asking why we believe the Bible is scripture at all.  I searched my personal library pretty much in vain for an answer.  Or the answers given were not satisfying.  But that’s not where the battle is.  The battle is in people saying, “You can’t believe the Bible because it’s a translation of a translation of a translation,” or some other such garbage.  It was Peter Jenson’s The Revelation of God that got me to start thinking covenantally.  I don’t agree with Jenson on everything, e.g. his rejection of modern day prophecy, but I basically like the way he put the doctrine of scripture together from a covenantal perspective.  In this way, I can do justice to the experiences I and others have had with God through or on the basis of scripture.  One way to say it is that it seems that God honors the covenant offered through the Bible even if the Bible is not actually revelation.

Right now, I guess I am thinking that, based on this understanding of scripture, I do not have a good reason to hold the doctrine of the Trinity.  So again, it’s not that I think the doctrine of the Trinity is incoherent or something.  I actually think it’s very coherent, and I’m somewhat amazed at the various ways that the doctrine of the trinity comes into play in relation to other doctrines.  It’s a pretty amazing doctrine.  I’m just trying to figure out what grounds we have to know it’s true.  As it stands, it seems that the doctrine of the Trinity requires me either to find a stronger doctrine of scripture or to find stronger reasons to hold to a high Christology.

I’m sure at some point I’ll finally have a chance to dig into Barth and he will revolutionize my whole world.  But in the meantime, I’m just plugging away, drinking my Leinies and thinking about God.

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Categories: Scripture, Theology
  1. January 17, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Hi there. Interesting post. I admire your personal determination to nail down your theological beliefs. I started that journey about 4 years ago and it has been both rewarding and challenging.

    I’m just curious as to why you find no good reason to believe in the Trinity. Is it due to a silence on the subject that you perceive in Scripture? Or is it due to other theological matters?

    Thanks!

  2. January 17, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Start by asking yourself what exactly the Trinity is. Then ask yourself if the Scriptures testify to what the Trinity is. Then ask yourself if your experience with God testifies to what the Trinity is. I think those are good questions to help you work through it…

  3. January 17, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Josh, thanks for your response. Check out my post on Lessing’s ugly ditch for my reason why I think the doctrine of the Trinity is not justified.

    Nick, I’m pretty sure I have a good grasp of the Trinity, what with one ousia and three hypostases and all that. And I am certain that scripture testifies to it. I am going to have to sit down and hammer out the details, especially for a discussion with someone that accepts the Bible but not the Trinity. But all in all, it is pretty clear that scripture testifies to God’s trinitarian nature.

    As for my experience with God, well I’m not sure what even could count as evidence for the Trinity. My experience has been with God in general. It wouldn’t be that hard to recast my entire experience in light of modalism or unitarianism.

    Put it this way: I’m a Christian. Therefore I believe the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, I believe that the implications of the New Testament lead us to no other possible conclusion than a trinitarian doctrine. But I’m stuck because I realized that my current view of scripture sets up artificial limitations against those sorts of truth claims. Yet I have no other doctrine of scripture that I find compelling. This is my sticking point.

  4. January 18, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    In some sense I agree. I think people over do the doctrine and try to give it more detail than it may or may not deserve. On the other hand, I find it useful in the sense that I am thankful for the conclusions reached by the early church fathers up and against the other options. Whether “persons” or “Trinity” are necessary words can be and will be debated, but the lines that it draws have kept Christology on a straight path that might not have existed if other competing sects in church history would have had their way.

  5. January 19, 2008 at 7:41 am

    “As it stands, it seems that the doctrine of the Trinity requires me either to find a stronger doctrine of scripture or to find stronger reasons to hold to a high Christology.”

    I don’t think you necessarily need a higher view of scripture but maybe a higher view of the Spirit’s work in the church and of God’s providence and continual interaction with the church, speaking to it and guiding it throughout history (even though the road was often bumpy). Unfortunatley a super high view of scripture often makes it self sufficient and self interpreting and almost disconnected from God (there are some early rabbinic views of scripture that are like this, specifically Torah).

    Because of this we then have this view that the Bible should be our only source for formulating doctrine and theology. I don’t think that’s the case (although I think it should be the starting point and the foundation). I think there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration when interpreting the Bible and using it to form doctrine. I think the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is good for that. It seems to take more serious God’s interaction with us and the world instead of having a sort of Deistic view about God’s word (he created it and now stands back and lets it do its thing).

    BTW have you read Paul Achtemeier’s Inspiration and Authority? I highly recommend it.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  6. January 19, 2008 at 9:38 am

    The thing about the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is the result of special revelation. Had there been no incarnation and subsequent sending of the Spirit then there would have been no recording of it in Scripture. If these things weren’t recorded in Scripture then people probably wouldn’t have come to these conclusions on their own. And while I believe that there’s a latent Trinitarianism in the Hebrew Bible, I only believe this because I have the NT to inform my reading of it.

  7. January 20, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Brian, I agree that we shouldn’t get too bogged down in the language of the Trinity, but I think we must defend the judgments that stand behind the language. But I’m trying to figure out exactly why I believe these judgments, and so far I’m coming up short.

    Bryan, I think you are giving a bigger role to tradition than Wesley would have. Tradition can have a ministerial role, but I don’t think we can formulate doctrine on the basis of tradition. As Roger Olson says, tradition gets a vote but not a veto. If you take too high a view of the Spirt’s work in the church I think you are left affirming that God is behind whatever happens in the church. I’m just not sure where to draw the line, especially when churches split over doctrine.

    Nick, I think I mostly agree with you. Except for the times that I start thinking the whole thing is BS and I try to remember why I even think the Bible is special revelation in the first place. That’s when I break down.

  8. January 20, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Ryan,

    I guess I had more in mind the church taking the next step and picking up where scripture leaves off or pulling together the various pieces from scripture into a theological system. I think we have to depend on church tradition and believe in God’s guidance in some form as the starting place in theology. After all that is the issue with the canon. It is a recognition that the church got it right and there was indeed supposed to be a canon and that it should be closed. Sure some like to say that the church didn’t make a book canonical they just recognized it, but we still depend on their authoritative decision as to what should be considered canonical.

    Sometimes we look back and see how the church got to the conclusions that they did and it doesn’t seem exactly right compared to today’s standards. I mean think of how much the early church debate of the nature of Christ was tied to view of God being impassible (or immutable, I can’t remember), which many in the church would probably reject today as an accurate description of God. But I have to believe that God was working even through that misunderstanding of him. If I look in the NT and see Paul or the author of Hebrews making conclusions from scripture that don’t seem warranted or using exegetical methods that wouldn’t pass by today’s historical critical standards I still believe that God was involved in the conclusions and implications that they came to.
    It’s like when someone answers a question right but got to that answer through the wrong way. I’m just glad they got to the answer. I hate to say this but I trust that God was working with what he had (in terms of culture and learning and worldview and presuppositions and humanity in general) to get to the results that he wanted to get to.
    As Tony Jones mentioned, all of the church councils could be deconstructed in various ways to reveal political power moves going on and other things but ultimately we need a high view of the Spirit’s work in the church to believe that God was still involved in these very human processes. I always have to remind myself of the treasure contained in jars of clay.

    BTW I in no way mean to suggest that there shouldn’t be room for the church to reform and reconsider the conclusions it has come to. And after some times some of the conclusions have stood although we use a different path now for getting there. In other cases we abandon the conclusions the early church had come to. But I don’t think that is necessarily a decision for individual Christians to make alone, but something that should be decided by the witness of the larger church.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  9. January 21, 2008 at 8:46 am

    Bryan, I agree with almost all of what you’ve said. We submit to the councils and the creeds to the extent that they are scriptural, i.e. they spell out positions that are logically entailed by the New Testament. Their theological judgments were correct even if their political judgments were not.

    You say, “After all that is the issue with the canon. It is a recognition that the church got it right and there was indeed supposed to be a canon and that it should be closed.” I am not sure what you mean by “got it right” and “supposed to be a canon.” This is the area that I want to press you in. Whatdid they get right? That the books chosen do in fact constitute special revelation? Why?

    My model of scripture bypasses the whole idea idea of special revelation, (or at least it only arrives at the concept through the back door). I have more to say, but I’m going to turn it into a new post.

  10. January 21, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    By got it right I mean there was supposed to be a canon and the books that were supposed to be in the canon and which have a higher authority than other books (like the didache, or the shepherd of hermas, etc.) got in.

    As Lee Martin MacDonald has argued in “The Biblical Canon” what set particular books out from the others was their continued ability to speak fresh to the community of believers. They were books that the spirit was able to continue to use and speak through whereas the other books were not. Thus even though Thomas was widely used in various geographical locations in the church it was recognized that something was different about it and among the community of believers where the Spirit was present they did not continue to hear the voice of God in it. Eventually over time it just fell out of use.

    Now this works in an interesting way with something like the Song of Songs. The only way it was able to continue speaking to the church was through allegory by seeing a picture of Christ and the church in it. Today that view has fallen out of favor but now it provides a helpful corrective to the church downgrading the role of sexual relations in marriage and between man and wife, and instead seeing the romantic and sexual love between a husband and a wife as beautiful and designed by God. So although it kind of got in the canon through the backdoor upon further examination is has been welcomed back through the front.

    Again this is part of what I spoke about as God’s continual interaction with the church and the Spirit’s role in the church and in it’s history. I have to believe that God didn’t stop interacting with and speaking to the church after the book of Revelation was finished but was still involved even after that although often it is hard to see what he was doing (and sometimes his voce seemed particularly faint just like in Israel’s history).

    Hope that clarified a bit what I was talking about.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  11. January 21, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Bryan, thanks for your comment. It seems to me that you are essentially arguing that the Bible is inspired because it is inspirational. Or have I missed you? If this is what you are arguing, then this is not a doctrine of scripture from which I can construct a doctrine of the Trinity. When I read in Hebrew 1 that Jesus is God, I may feel like this scripture is ‘speaking fresh’ me (or my church community), but I have no reason to believe it is ontologically true.

    But also, as a good charismatic, I am troubled when you say that the Holy Spirit could not speak through the other books. Why couldn’t He speak to me through the Didache? He could theoretically speak through Hermas (but I don’t know… it’s a bizarre book). He can speak through The Brothers Karamazov or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He can speak through Amy Grant, Bono, or 2-Pac. He could even speak through Jim West from time to time. Why not? After all, he spoke through Balaam’s ass. 😀

    Seriously, though. I can’t imagine that you mean what I think you’re saying here. This is a much lower view of scripture than I would expect from you, not even deserving to be called Trustworthy. At least not on the grounds you provided.

    I’m looking foreward to more interaction on this topic if you don’t mind putting up with me harassing you like this. 🙂

  12. January 21, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    No I am saying that I believe that the nature of the Bible is tied up with its role and purpose for the church. Sure you can “hear” God speak to you through the Didache or some music or movie or whatever (this is a particularly individualistic view of God speaking). But I think God has chosen to speak to the church as a whole through a particular set of writings. I believe these writings were intended to be a foundation and a rule to keep the church from going any which direction they felt like (especially considering how the church would grow and split apart and how long it would be ‘til the 2nd coming). If they ever moved too far to the right or the left the canon was there to reel the church back in.

    I’m saying that the Bible is inspired and we know that it is inspired because of the witness of the Spirit to us the church from the very beginning to 2,000 years later. Sure some here and there found Thomas to be inspired in the first few centuries and some today find Bono to be inspired. But that is not the same s the Spirit’s witness to the whole church. As the books of the Bible have always been written to the people of God and used corporately by the people of God I believe the Spirit is able to show the church which books are his.

    I don’t know if I am speaking to what you are actually talking about. In fact I get the impression that we may actually be thinking the other is talking about something else. I am speaking about how we know the Bible is inspired and I think you may be questioning what the degree or level of that inspiration is.

    And I don’t mind the interaction and the harassing as long as you know that all though I do have opinions on this I am still working through it myself and that my views are subject to change. ; )

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  13. January 21, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Brian, your view sounds a lot like post-liberalism. I don’t know how familiar you are with that movement, but I am going to try to lay out my position in regards to George Lindbeck and post-liberalism in general in a day or two. But in general, I like post-liberalism in a lot of ways, except that if I yielded to it I could not be a Christian in good conscience.

    Also, I take your point about my hearing God being very individualistic. But I am a Western American whose context values individualism. I tend to contextualize my theology accordingly. I see myself as an individual on a regular basis, but I’ve never seen myself as a sociological group of people. 🙂

  14. January 21, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    I’ve only heard of it. I thought some of the postliberalist were Christians.

    Are you learning about all of this stuff at Trinity? I guess I’m a little suprised to see someone going to Trintiy and still having the same issues with the nature of the Bible. It’s interesting. Do they frown upon this type of questioning there or is it a pretty free open environment to work through things? BTW who are some that you have taken classes with?

    Looking forward to hearing about Post Liberalism.

  15. January 21, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    I’m much more liberal than anyone I know at Trinity. But then I’m also a charismatic with pietist leanings and I’ve open-air preached with Jed Smock. I’m pretty good at emphasizing what I have in common with people, so there are plenty of other ways I can sort of ‘prove I’m a good evangelical’.

    My advisor is Harold Netland who wrote probably the best evangelical response to theological pluralism, Encountering Religious Pluralism. I have talked through some of my issues with him. He has been very influential in encouraging me to work through my issues rather than ignoring them.

    I had Kevin Vanhoozer for my theology class dealing with all this stuff. He self-defines as a post-conservative. He brought me back to a belief in inerrancy, though he would certainly not take it in the directions I am taking it now. He interacts with the entire theological community rather than just evangelicals, and he has found resonance in post-liberalism with his own emphasis on our need to obey scripture, not just believe it.

    I had another theology course with Steve Roy, who had been on staff at John Piper’s church. He has been very generous with his time and grace in helping me to think through some of these issues. I have connected more with him on practical theology issues like preaching and doing pastoral ministry, both of which he does well.

    I have had a couple of New Testament classes with Eckhard Schnabel and Grant Osborne (who has written some good stuff supporting Arminian theology).

    One of my favorite classes was with anthropologist Robert Priest, called “Anthropology for ministry.” He helped me learn what sorts of deep-level differences exist between cultures, and how much my own culture influences the way I act and think about things.

    For the most part it is a free environment. I can’t say I bring up a lot of these questions, but when I do I generally get a similar response to the one you’ve given me: appreciation for my willingness to be open with these issues.

    But you have to understand that I left vocational ministry three years ago in order to go back to school to sort through this stuff. It is like a big jumbled mess that I have sort through. But see, if I don’t talk about it, if I don’t sort through it, I will die in my faith. And that’s basically why I have this blog.

  16. January 22, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    RT Jones,

    I like your approach to theology. It should be done with a beer in hand. I am enjoying my second Grolsch as I write this comment. You gotta love the pop cap on these high-quality lager beers.

    That having been said, you are way over my Southern Baptist Layman’s head in some of your comments. I have good reasons to believe that the Bible is an accurate description of either what Jesus said or the doctrine He promised that His disciples could remember and teach. I have to leave the trinity at that.

    You know from our mutual discussions with Al Haj that I think the trinity to be logical in and of itself. Logic and the Bible do not conflict. I like Jonathan Edwards’ reasoning to the trinity from the nature of God. The Son is the perfect idea God has of Himself. The Spirit is the emanation of the love God has for the perfect idea of His perfect Self. It’s okay for God to be enamored with Himself because He is the greatest and best of all beings. How could He not love Himself and still be good? How could He love us and not invite us into this love?

    But of course, I am just a simple Baptist Layman. I do not have all the answers. I don’t feel the need to.

    J. K.

  1. January 24, 2008 at 7:22 pm

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