The Trinity, Truth and Logic (Part II)

There are things thing we rather easily accept as true even though we find them confusing or irrational. The Trinity, proponents argue, is the greatest example of such paradoxical truths. This really resonates with believers for whom the creator is by definition beyond the creature’s comprehension. Even if you are not a Christian, you have to admit it is a reasonable argument to say you are simply describing reality even if it seems counterintuitive. When presented in this sort of manner, I think the Trinity is far more rationally formidable. With that said, there are still serious problems with logical arguments for the Trinity.

First of all, I initially explained that correspondence theories of truth are not always consistent with coherence theories. However, the reality is logic is almost always consistent with the facts. That is why with the help of logical reasoning we are able to uncover new facts. If something is illogical, it is strong evidence that it is not factual as well. Usually, the only scenarios where the “facts” take precedence over “logic” is when the factual evidence is incontrovertible. This is the case with quantum theory for example but, as we shall see, the doctrine of the Trinity does not enjoy the same level of evidentiary support.

For Christians, the Bible provides real “data” on the divine nature since we believe it reveals who God is. Proponents of the doctrine argue that the Trinity is the best interpretation of the biblical data, that is, it is the only theory that successfully represents and articulates what the Bible says about the nature of God. For believers this is undoubtedly a potent argument. The fatal flaw with that argument is that there is no clear exegetical evidence for the Trinity in the Bible. That is it is impossible to derive the doctrine of the Trinity solely from scripture understood within its historical setting.

I recognise this is a very strong claim but as I have explained in articles like The Missing Trinity, what makes the Trinity special is not that it talks about the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Other competing doctrines also talked about the three and extensively drew on biblical texts to make their case. What is unique is the distinctive way it talks about what the three are and how they are related to one another. On this point, it is crucial to recognise the distinction Trinitarians make between two major facets of the doctrine: the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity (see Burke on Rahner’s Rule for more information.)

The economic Trinity is how they describe the unified action of God, Jesus and the Spirit in salvation history. This is not really a source of contention with critics because even they broadly accept it as a matter of clear biblical theology. The God of Israel sent his Son, through whom he created the world, to save the world. God through his Son Jesus gives his Spirit as a guarantee of salvation to those who believe the message of salvation. The real source of contention is with the immanent (or ontological) Trinity. As the name suggests, it is about the life of the inner being of God. According to the historic creeds, the Holy Trinity is the monotheistic belief that God is one being that essentially exists as three distinct co-eternal yet co-equal Persons known as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This classic definition, which is quite philosophical, describes the immanent Trinity.

According to the late Dr. Hurtado, New Testament (NT) researchers do not find any compelling evidence in the NT texts of the distinctive philosophical language of the immanent Trinity that was abundantly characteristic of later debates. It just does not use distinctively Trinitarian language or philosophy. It is worth noting that even among believing NT scholars, who tend to argue for the very early emergence of important orthodox positions, they seem to be largely resolute that reading the ontological language of the Trinity in the NT is historically anachronistic (see Fletcher-Louis and Wright on Hill’s Paul and the Trinity.)

What scholars do find about how the NT talks about the triad of God, Jesus and the Spirit suggests something rather different was going on that was specific to the first century Church. There is some debate among scholars as to how to best model what Hurtado calls the “triadic shape of God-talk” in the NT. What is becoming increasingly clear though is that it is thoroughly characterised by late second Temple Jewish categories and patterns of thought, as adapted by the early Jesus movement, and not the Hellenistic philosophies that later strongly influenced the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

A good example of the “triadic grammar” of the NT versus Trinitarian “logic” is how each relates Christ’s pre-existence. The NT describes pre-incarnate Jesus as the one who was “with God” and the one “through whom God created the world.” It reasons that God’s exaltation of Jesus to his “right hand” as “Lord” is actually him regaining the status he had “with God before the foundation of the world.” Trinitarian doctrine uniquely describes Christ’s pre-existence in terms of the “eternal generation” of the Son from the “substance” of the Father. This comparison demonstrates that who God is in the NT was mainly conveyed through narrative, that is in terms of character, relationships and actions, as opposed to metaphysics.

While Trinitarians find some evidence for a triune God in the Old Testament (OT), and in fact some OT passages were crucial in the debates that spurred the doctrine’s formulation, it is fair to say it largely depends on the NT for quite obvious reasons. They would say God’s triunity was prefigured in the OT but revealed in the NT. Now modern Trinitarian theologians are very aware of the historical difficulties I briefly outlined with locating the doctrine in the NT. Therefore, they are quite careful to say the Trinity is not explicitly mentioned but rather implicit in some sense in the text. They propose that it took later theologians to fully develop the Trinitarian implications that they consider are setup in the text. I have addressed elsewhere the problems with this “developmental” view but even if we grant it, we are still left with a paucity of evidence for the Trinity in the Bible. It is far from being an obvious conclusion that is unambiguously demanded by the biblical data.

I earlier said the only circumstances under which we take a correspondence model of truth over a coherence model is when things do not seem logical yet the facts incontrovertibly indicate that is the truth. In other words, it may be illogical but the facts are the facts so we accept it as true. This is what we find with quantum theory for example, which is radically counterintuitive, but it has been experimentally confirmed over and over again. The brief survey of the historical evidence for the Trinity in the Bible I just covered reveals the data is at best highly contested or at worst completely lacking. Since the doctrine lacks overwhelming factual support from biblical data, it does not get the same logical pass that quantum theory for instance justly deserves. The Trinity does not undeniably warrant a factual exception in the face of its undeniable logical difficulties. The facts in this case do not allow us to ignore the logic.

The logical hurdle of the doctrine cannot be cleared by simply saying it literally represents what the Bible actually says about God, Jesus and the Spirit. Even if we were to say that the doctrine is somehow implicit in the text and we have to adopt certain interpretive moves to uncover it, the internal logic of the Trinity simply does not match the patterns of “God-talk” that we actually find in the NT. The NT Church did not talk about God in characteristically Trinitarian terms or categories but rather on its own historically conditioned terms. The NT suggests something other than Trinitarian or any other similarly philosophical scheme.

If Trinitarian doctrine does not simply correspond to the biblical facts about God then the questions regarding its logical coherence are firmly back on the table. It is not a mystery, at least not in a biblical sense, since the biblical evidence on its own terms does not clearly indicate, let alone strongly demand, a Trinitarian rationale. Once the argument that the Trinity is an inherently biblical mystery is addressed and firmly countered, I think the traditional logical arguments against the Trinity are strengthened.

⇐Part I

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