The Trinitarian Problem

One of the lesser known arguments for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is that it is the solution to a theological problem found in the New Testament. The problem is there is one God yet Jesus and the Spirit, who are distinct from God and one another, are also considered to be divine. The most influential proponent of this argument is theologian Arthur Wainwright in his 1952 book The Trinity in the New Testament. In it he called it the “problem of the Trinity” which he argues was later clearly articulated and fully resolved as “the doctrine of the Trinity”, that is, in the formal creeds. As such it is a version of the developmental argument for the Trinity and the most popular version of it. The Trinitarian problem approach is the most popular argument for the Trinity among the theologically educated. Even though I think it is the best argument for the Trinity there is a serious problem with the Trinitarian problem thesis.

It is taken for granted in theological discourse but there is little evidence to suggest that the New Testament has such a “problem.” I was always uncomfortable with the notion because how the New Testament talks about God, Jesus and the Spirit it never gives the impression on face value that it was struggling to articulate the relationship between them. (I must credit Christian philosopher Dale Tuggy for clearly pointing out this lack of contention in an interesting discusion.) It is unquestionable later generations of Christians did struggle with how to philosophically reconcile the relation between them however, that is a problem they had with the New Testament and not necessarily a problem the New Testament authors themselves expressed in their writings. This is an important distinction to be made since having questions about something is not the same as demonstrating that thing does indeed have difficulties. This recognition leads to four possibilities.

The first possibility is that there is a problem and the New Testament writers in some form noticed it. If that were the case then later generations were justified to look for a resolution, paying careful attention to what the NT says for hints to the right answer. The second and third possibilities is that there is a problem but the New Testament authors either did not really notice it or did not anticipate it becoming an issue. Either way that means developing a solution is still warranted but it does raise some questions. If they did not notice it then such a significant oversight has to be explained. While less egregious their lack of foresight also has to be explained. Most people who adopt the problem thesis tend to take to go with the first or third possibilities. The fourth option, which completely undermines the thesis, is that they did not overtly indicate a problem because there was none and we have failed to understand them. If that is true then as much as possible we have to understand them on their own terms.

The first possibility is something Wainwright argues in his book. (You can find an excerpt of his book which summaries the main arguments here.) He asserts that “the problem of the Trinity was in the minds of certain New Testament writers, and that they made an attempt to answer it” but then admits that “[n]one of their writings, however, was written specifically to deal with it” and “most of the signs that a writer had tackled the problem are incidental.” (p. 4) The paucity of evidence seriously undermines his assertion. How could they have had a problem which they considered serious enough to address yet made little to no effort to do so? It becomes even more unlikely when you consider there are plenty of clear examples in the New Testament of problems they did have and how they went about addressing them. The inclusion of the Gentiles and the nature of the end time were all important problems that were clearly outlined in the New Testament and were clearly addressed. The Trinitarian problem would be even more crucial yet we supposedly have to squint to see it. This seems to rather indicate there wasn’t a Trinitarian problem.

Now the consensus is that the Gospel of John provides the strongest evidence of the Trinitarian problem and an early attempt to resolve it. (We must note it was an “attempt” and not a full resolution.) It is undeniable that John most pointedly raises and responds to issues regarding monotheism in the early Church. For example, John 1:1, 18 and 20:28 are one of the few places in the New Testament where Jesus is explicitly called “God”. Also in John 5:18 the question of how Jesus can be equal to God is explicitly raised. John characterises the relationship between the triad of Father, Son and the Spirit in the most particular and distinctive manner in the entire New Testament. Take John 14-17 for example. However, when we look at what the Gospel of John says about the triad, even if we grant that there was a “problem” it is hard to say it is “the problem of the Trinity.” I say this because it does have a “solution” to the “problem” of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it is certainly not Trinitarian. It is what Wainwright calls a “threefold pattern of thought about God” (p. 248).

New Testament scholars have studied this “triadic conception of God” and have found that there is a consistent internal logic to it. It was considered so foundational, it had already taken its fundamental shape by the time the New Testament started to be written. This pattern of speech remained stable over several decades as different New Testament authors expressed it in their own different ways. Even John, which has its own characteristic manner of talking about the triad, still falls in line with the overall New Testament pattern which is itself part of the larger milieu of first century Jewish beliefs about God.

It is very important to note that it was the mainstream Christian “variant” of a first century Jewish conception of God. (Remember Christianity has an explicitly Jewish foundation and began as a sect in Judaism.) This means the modes of thought of later generations could not have been an issue. (Dr. Larry Hurtado explains how scholars know this here.) So even if you grant there was a “problem”, judging by the answers they conceived, they formulated the “problem” in a very different way. This is why noted Trinitarian theologian Fred Sanders in this article recognises that calling it “the problem of the Trinity” which demands “the doctrine of the Trinity” is “in part a rhetorical decision.” In other words it is not how the New Testament describes the issue. While it may not have been formally defined the New Testament had already developed an “orthodox” conception of God which manifested in a clear triadic pattern of God-talk. It was an understanding of God that stood robustly apart from later Trinitarian developments and formulations.

The presumption that New Testament writers understood what they were saying and so did their audiences seems obvious. The Trinitarian problem thesis completely ignores this and rather adopts the odd idea that later generations are the ones we must depend on or otherwise what the New Testament says does not make complete sense. The simplest explanation for why New Testament Christians did not seem to have a problem with the triad is that it was not a problem. This is not to say that there were no difficult questions and issues they had to address but rather the evidence shows us that they had already resolved them to a point of reasonable satisfaction in the nascent church. It was already settled orthodoxy, which is why they were not trying to formulate anything new. The problem truly is later generations had a tough time understanding what the New Testament says about God, Jesus and the Spirit.



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