The Bible and the Development of the Trinity (Pt. II)

In the first part I began to look at problems with how developmental language is sometimes used with regard to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and its relation to the New Testament (NT). In this post I I examine what’s wrong with characterizing what the NT has to say about the relationship between God, Jesus and the Spirit as “undeveloped”. Often “undeveloped” means it was not adequately thought out and articulated, that is, it is rudimentary, unsophisticated or immature.

The reason why Trinitarian theologians often evaluate the NT as primitive is that it does not say things in a clearly organized, systematic manner, neither does it have the interest in doing so. Because of this, they argue, the authors had not rigorously resolved the challenges and tensions in their beliefs about the triad. They then point out that these “problems” were picked up on and laboriously tackled by later generations. The historical and theological challenges that emerged over time, particularly “heresies”, are what motivated, even necessitated, later theologians to more fully “develop” it.

We live in a complex world. Things are not usually “simple”. How complex something is often determined by two things: they type of analysis and the level of analysis. First of all, regardless of what type of analysis you apply to it, I find it truly baffling how any one can suggest what the NT says about God is simplistic. If the amount of professional scholarship that has gone into the NT over the last century and a half is any indication, the NT is far from simplistic. In fact, what scholarship currently shows us is that among other things, the NT participated in a sprawling, multifaceted, intra-Jewish discussion about who God is. The fact that the movement that eventually became known as Christianity had its own discernible voice in this complex debate tells us what it had to say about God was sufficiently developed to be distinctive.

Now the NT rests on what Christians call the “Old Testament” and ancient Jewish tradition. The portrait of God found in the ancient Jewish scriptures is to say the least complex. Most of the early Jesus movement were Jewish but they were not simply adopting traditional Jewish ideas about God. Within the Jewish social and political milieu, reflecting on Israel’s scriptures and Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation in the light of one another caused them to entirely rethink who they thought God was. They refashioned their ideas about God around their experiences of Jesus and the Spirit of God, who they now understood to be the Spirit of Jesus as well, into a familiar yet new, complex portrait of God.

This triadic shape of God-talk consisting of God, Jesus and the Spirit is certainly sophisticated. Those who argue that the NT had an under-developed vision of God often point to the fact that the New Testament does not have its theology neatly organized. They were not systematic theologians so we should not expect that. However, this does not mean their “theology” totally lacked any structure. When you read the NT we do not find each author pushing speculative or unrestrained idiosyncratic views about God. Each NT book is different but across all of them they talk in a consistent manner about God. This discernible pattern of God-talk has a distinctively triadic shape. While their “theology” was not systematically presented we can discern from the NT patterns of discourse that it was organized and had a well-defined structure underlying it.

The early Christians, like most Jews of that time, believed in one God. However, there was an unprecedented 1mutation” in this belief, that is the early Christians worshipped Jesus along side God because they believed God himself demanded it. Even though Jesus enjoys the same status and authority as God, the early believers consistently distinguished him from God, thereby maintaining their monotheism. For them belief in this exalted Jesus gives you the Spirit of God. Compared to the Judaism of that era, the Spirit gained unprecedented prominence among followers of Jesus because of his expanded identity and role, so much so that he featured integrally to their understanding and discourse about who God is. Interestingly though, in the NT the Spirit is never worshipped. The inclusion of Jesus in God’s identity, to use Bauckham’s language, and the new prominence of the Spirit in God’s identity resulted in the distinctively triadic structure of their theology. So the first Christians were “Jewish” monotheists, who offered dyadic worship to God and Jesus and had a triadic theology constructed around God, Jesus and the Spirit. These and other distinctions and nuances show the sophistication of those early traditions.

Since we are discussing how developed NT God-talk is, the timeline of how these traditions developed matters. The most distinctive thing about early Christian God-talk is its Christology. NT scholar Larry Hurtado describes it as there was a 2“veritable explosion” of Christological beliefs which might have happened as a quickly as within the first few months to a couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion in AD 30. (The worship of Jesus alongside God is a radical change in Jewish monotheism so it is very remarkable that it happened that quickly.) About 5 years after Jesus’ execution already in the Jerusalem Church where Christianity began, there was a 3“fairly high degree of development in doctrinal tradition, teaching, cultic practice, common life and internal organization.” By the time of Paul’s Gentile mission in the 40s, less than a decade after the cross, these developed Christological beliefs had already become mainstream. By the early 50s, that is when the earliest NT books were written which are Paul’s letters, these beliefs had become widespread and were often taken for granted. There were important developments in the Church’s organization, teachings and practices such as the inclusion of the Gentiles but 4“the fundamental pattern remained the same” throughout the first generation i.e. up to c. AD 60-70.

While each NT book is different, when it comes to Christology specifically, the NT was to a large degree 5“unified in its basic structure.” Same can be said about beliefs about God and the Spirit. The NT was written from c. AD 50-100 which means the explosive early developments that happened in the first two decades became widespread and remained relatively stable and uncontroversial for the next 50 years, that is across at least the first two generations of believers. It was what the first generation confidently passed on to the next generation as the standard for all believers thereafter. This indicates the triadic discourse about God in the NT, as far as they were concerned, was fully developed.

Those who take the “developmental” view of the Trinity see it as the pinnacle of Christian theology. They argue what the NT says may have been sufficient for its time but in the long run it proved not to be enough because of the serious debates that arose. From a theological stand point I think such a view is odd since they consider the NT to be the authoritative to word of God and not the Nicene creed. The formulators of the doctrine of the Trinity considered themselves to be only clarifying, re-articulating and ultimately defending apostolic beliefs about God. So they themselves looked back to the NT as did those who they were debating with. As I just explained, the NT considers what it has to say about God the standard of Christian orthodoxy. So calling the NT undeveloped is really a curious theological commitment and not a fact of the actual NT conception of God.

I said complexity can be determined by either the level of analysis, which is what I just explored, or by the type of analysis, which is what I am about to examine. So the question is by what type of analysis do many Trinitarian theologians consider the New Testament’s God-talk primitive. As I spoke about in The Missing Trinity, the defining features of Trinitarian doctrine are its ontological language. I am aware that the original formulators of the doctrine were careful not to reduce what they considered divine revelation to mere philosophical abstractions however, the philosophical tone of their discourse is unmistakable. So it is apparent that the formulators and many of its proponents are among other things examining the Bible’s God-talk on a metaphysical level, the Bible providing the theological data which they are trying to explain in a manifestly metaphysical framework.

If you analyse NT God-talk systematically on a metaphysical level then it certainly appears rudimentary and unsophisticated, especially when you compare it to what later theologians came up with. There is nothing that resembles the highly technical discourse that characterised the 4th century debates out of which the Trinity was formulated. However, the question is whether the relationship between God, Jesus and the Spirit should be analysed metaphysically, particularly if you want to determine how robust the text’s discourse about them is.

The NT shows virtually no interest in doing metaphysics. 6NT God-talk was developed in a thoroughly Jewish paradigm, it therefore did not draw on any of the popular Greek philosophies that in following centuries would exert great influence on Christian theology. The doctrine of the Trinity in particular is clearly influenced by 7Neoplatonic and 8Aristotelian philosophies. The NT shows no indication that it warrants being examined in a philosophical framework, particularly those that shaped the Trinity, so it should not be. I find it particularly odd that we would want to judge the NT by concerns it could not possibly have had an interest in answering. If, as we just did, assess the NT by its own content in its own Jewish cultural and historical context, what we find is that it is actually far from rudimentary. We rather see distinctive, sophisticated and fully developed discourse about God.

 

1Larry Hurtado, Observations on the “Monotheism” Affirmed in the New Testament, p. 53, The Bible and Early Trinitarian Theology, eds. Christopher A. Beeley and Mark E. Weedman, Catholic University of America Press, 2018..

2Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, p. 136, Eerdmans, 2003.

3Bengt Holmberg, Paul and Power, p. 180, Fortress, 1978.

4Ibid. p. 181.

5Martin Hengel, Studies in Early Christology, p. 383, T&T Clark, 2004.

6Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 7. Eerdmans, 2008.

7Thomas Gaston, The Influence of Platonism on the Early Apologists, p. 578, The Heythrop Journal, July, 2009.

8Nathan Jacobs, On “not three Gods” – Again: Can a primary-secondary substance reading of ousia and hypostasis avoid tritheism?, p. 337, Modern Theology, May, 2008.

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