Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Needs A Trinity Anyway?

For the purposes of this post at least, I am going to argue that the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is not necessary to Christian faith and practice. It is far from the only logical conclusion one might draw from a reading of the Old and New Testaments. As an aside, I want to say that most Trinitarian theology is hardly Trinitarian at all. We have a bit about God, a tremendous amount about Jesus, and then the appendage of the Holy Spirit which has a kind of vague function.

Now, the Trinity has been necessary for hundreds of years as an article of faith in order to avoid being excommunicated, hunted down, burned at the stake, and so on. Of course, this was not always the case, but has been the case for the vast majority of Christian history. Very very early, the formula of Father Son and Holy Spirit seems to have been adopted. It's universality had to be enforced with violence on a regular basis, but still: what has Christianity not enforced with violence on a regular basis when it comes to doctrine?

The Holy Spirit and the Trinity in the Early Creeds
The Apostle's Creed does no more than mention the existence of the Holy Spirit as part of it's trinitarian structure. It says basically nothing about it. It is implied by the Creed that the HS has something to do with the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, etc., but there is nothing definitive said about the Holy Spirit whatsoever.

At this point, we do not have the modern doctrine of the Trinity. We just have God in three main forms, the third of which is almost completely undefined.

Next is the Nicene Creed, which has more to say about the Holy Spirit. We hear that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, that the HS proceeds from the Father [and the son], and with the Father and the Son is to be worshipped and glorified. Oh, also, the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets.

This is still pretty vague, but with the name Lord we get the sense that the HS is a person of some kind, a character in this story at least. Lord of Life, Giver of Life, and speaking through the prophets gives us a vague sense of what this person might be doing. If we glance back, we also find that the Holy Spirit was involved in Jesus' incarnation in the virgin Mary.

Jump ahead to the Athanasian Creed, and suddenly we have 25 lines defining the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. This is followed by the remainder of the Creed, which is dedicated to the incarnation, suffering and resurrection of Jesus. Even in the Athanasian Creed, we can see a difference between the three persons of the Trinity. God is unbegotten. Jesus is not made but begotten of God. The Holy Spirit proceeds from both God and Jesus.

Now, in the Jesus part, we get a little bit about God, since it is important in the Creed to determine exactly what Jesus' incarnation was like. Once that is nailed down, however, we have death, resurrection and judgement. Bang. Done.

Once again, we have nothing whatsoever on the activity, or person-hood of the Holy Spirit. We know more than we'll ever need to know about the Holy Spirit's supposed metaphysics and essence, but nothing at all about the Holy Spirit's character, or story, or activity, or importance.

The point of the Athanasian Creed is clear: quibbling about the metaphysics of the Trinity is a matter of life-and-death. What the third person of the Trinity actually is and does is of no importance whatsoever. Unlike the 25 lines of what I inelegantly call quibbling, it is not saving knowledge. You could theoretically memorize the Creed, ape it on a regular basis, and no one would be the wiser to the fact that you thought the Holy Spirit was in fact a magical canteloupe, or a literal ghost, or that the Holy Spirit was primarily concerned with listening to you argue about homo-ousias. At least as far as this Creed goes.

The Holy Spirit and the Trinity in the Bible
There is sparse evidence pointing to the Trinity in the Bible, and there is no discussion of it as such anywhere to be found. A "full" Trinitarian theology is never articulated in the Bible.

Certainly, the OT talks about the spirit of God, and how that spirit acts as God acts in some circumstances. It doesn't seem clear, to me at least, however that the spirit of God is a different person from God. The spirit of God seems to be what I called in my statement of faith "the manifest presence of God" in the world.

The NT has Jesus describing the Holy Spirit with the person-term Paraclete, clearly referring to the Holy Spirit as a person in that case, rather than exclusively an impersonal force. In other parts of the NT, such as at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as an energy manifesting itself as flame, wind, insight, etc. At Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as an impersonal force manifesting as something like a dove, and we have God's voice speaking in the same moment.

We also have the baptismal formula of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Clearly, the three terms are important, but we have nothing whatsoever of the dense language of the Creeds, which is an invention after-the-fact, dealing with concerns that do not seem to have been the concerns of either Jesus or the first Christians.

We have enough language to talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there doesn't seem to be much justification for making any kind of Athanasian formulation a necessary belief.

The Holy Spirit and just plain Holy Spirit
In the NT, what is translated as "the Holy Spirit" is sometimes literally "the Holy Spirit", that is, using the definite article. In other situations, it is simply "Holy Spirit" - no definite article, in a construction that seems similar to "lively spirit" in English. This happens 52 times in the NT. Basically, "pneuma hagion" and "to pneuma to hagion" are translated in exactly in the same way, as "the Holy Spirit", even though in 52 cases this seems incorrect.

What the Greek might imply, though, is that Holy Spirit refers both to a kind of person or divine personality or divine agent, as well as to an experience or, yes, an energy.

What is consistent is that the Giver is consistently "the Holy Spirit" and the Gift is "Holy Spirit". What is implied is that Holy Spirit is more complicated than simply a person. No one would say "the Christ gives the gift of Christ", but we might say "the Holy Spirit gives the gift of Holy Spirit."

-->Actually, I like the idea that "the Christ gives the gift of Christhood", but that's a whole other conversation.

The Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity does not account for this difference in my view.

A bit on Jesus
The Holy Spirit is my entry-point for talking about the trinity because I think there is plenty of justification for using God-language to describe Jesus. There is less justification, however, for using Athanasian language. There are instances in the Gospels when Jesus talks about God being greater; about God being his Father as well as his disciples' Father. There are other instances where Jesus uses the same language of himself and of God. The situation seems to be less clearly symmetrical than the Athanasian Creed describes.

Conclusion for now
This is all a work-in-progress in my own thinking, but at the moment I think that what bothers me most about the Trinity is the symmetry. It seems like a complicated, lived-in, contextual reality in scripture is replaced with a sanitized philosophical structure.

What instead?
Instead of the Trinity, why not just go with bare description of what we read? God is the creator. Jesus is God's only begotten son as well as God's anointed one. The Holy Spirit is a divine presence as well as an experience or an energy which comes from God and from Jesus as well.

This leaves us open for more reflection as well on our experiences of God. We can talk about Wisdom as she appears - present with God from before the beginning of creation. We can talk about Wisdom, as an example, without worrying whether the doctrine-police are going to get us in trouble for horning in on the Trinity's territory.

We can also, as has been brought up in the comment thread on Aric's post on the Trinity, perhaps take more seriously Jesus's call to be like him. We don't have to be concerned with the problems inherent in trying to be like "the Godhead" (which I've always hated as a term). We can just follow Jesus in being Jesus-like, rather than putting faith in Jesus apart from the belief that we are called to be like him.

I'm still thinking about all of this, and this is more of a mess than I'd like, but there you have it.


Aric Clark said...

It seems like there might be some steam under the lid on this subject, so I'm glad you've fired the next salvo.

A few responses.

#1 Inconsistent criticisms. On the one hand you say that Trinitarian theology is hardly trinitarian because we barely touch on the Spirit and then you say that it is too symmetrical. Constantly the trinity is criticized for being too complex and fuzzy and then you say that it replaces a complicated contextual reality with a sanitized philosophical structure. Which is it?

#2 History of the Creeds. I'll just flat out agree that the creeds are not exactly the pinnacle of Christian theology. They are sort of the lowest common denominator that people could agree on and then authoritarian types could enforce. The ugly history of orthodoxy is just that - ugly. Totally agreed. Given that I think taking any particular doctrine to task primarily for how it is expressed in the creeds is tackling the idea at its worst.

#3 The Bible. The Bible is not systematic theology. It does not express almost any doctrine in a perfect distilled form without contradiction. In that sense, the trinity is not found in scripture. I think the test of good theology is not whether it can be pulled whole-cloth out of scripture, but whether it is a good lens to read scripture through. I think the trinity as a lens for reading scripture wildly improves the reading and makes sense of many things that are otherwise confusing or bad.

Doug Hagler said...

#1 Inconsistent criticisms.

I think you're comparing my criticisms to other people's criticisms. I'm just speaking for myself here, not undefined third parties. I'd say that the reality of the Bible is complicated. I'd say the doctrine of the Trinity is *convoluted*, which is like complicated/complex, but not the same. Did I say it was complicated, or was that someone else?

#2 History of the Creeds.

You and I agree on that. The only problem is that people have been tortured and killed for lacking Creedal faith, and are called out as heretics now. So what I'm doing is dealing with theology, perhaps at it's worst, but as it exists now. Ask someone who feels orthodox belief is important and they will tell you something that sounds Athanasian.

#3 The Bible.

For example? What is improved with an Athanasian Trinity as a lens to read through? I brought up things that the Trinity actually muddies.

Aric Clark said...

#1 Inconsistent Criticisms I think I am conflating your critiques with other people's on the complexity front, but I definitely pulled straight from your own words the contradiction that trinitarian theology is lopsided/inconsistent for leaving out the HS, but then you later say it is too symmetrical. This seems like a contradiction to me.

#2 History of the Creeds Theology is broad and it probably isn't best to do it by taking a poll of what most people think. Sure creedal slogans and such are very influential, but there always have been and always probably will be theologians doing really interesting work that is both "orthodox" and much better than anything in the creeds. James Alison and Daniel Hart are examples of theologians doing interesting stuff with the trinity in my opinion, right now.

#3 The Bible This is something I want to write a post about, but here are a few of my thoughts of things in the Bible that the Trinity improves:

Basically, the whole of the Gospels, but especially Jesus' Baptism (which with a trinitarian lens is not just a guy getting wet and having miraculous signs confirm his prophetic ministry, but the initiation of the interplay between Jesus, God and the HS which bookends the gospel), Death (Jesus gives up the HS back to God), Resurrection (God restores the HS to Jesus).

Genesis 1 - with a trinitarian lens it is not just a disembodied voice in the darkness speaking things into existence. It is a cooperative effort, through Breath and Word God gives birth to the world.

The various promises to pour God's spirit on the people (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Joel etc...) These are bolstered by the realization that the "one who is coming in the name of the Lord" and who gives people a new heart/new spirit is Jesus/Emmanuel and the spirit he gives is his own spirit. In fact all the language of the OT that talks about God "sending" himself in a variety of ways makes more sense in a trinitarian frame.

All the personified Wisdom passages are richer with the background of the Logos.

All the stuff in the epistles about Jesus/God dwelling inside Christian hearts, or us dwelling in God, ingrafting etc... it all makes more sense with the Holy Spirit as the agent of that connection paralleling Jesus own relationship to God the Father.

Nick.Larson said...

In terms of the Inconsistent Criticisms things I think Aric is on target. I heard in what you were writing Doug as being about both not enough HS and too symmetrical. I also know that is not demonstrated just by you and is more your commentary on the trinity in general rather than a specific belief you hold. So I ask: Does it provide you with a symmetrical sense? For me I think the trinity doesn't help a whole lot on that front. The symmetrical issue for me doesn't help because how do 3 give between 1? I think the Rublev image of the 3 around the table help more with that but I wouldn't call it symmetrical. For me 2 is symmetry, 3 is not. I would also argue that Rublev's image is less monotheistic that most people ascribe to the doctrine.

As far as the creeds things go (the disciples of Christ guy over here) I think they hurt more than help. I don't think what is or is not in the creeds helps that much. I think the creeds reflect more about what the Christians of those particular days were arguing about rather than describing the reality of whom God is. Actually I think most theology is local and contextual. Are there good modern versions of the trinity? (thinking there needs to be a technology one but I'm blanking)

Then there is the Bible. I would agree with you both that I think the trinity is not something that is fundamentally IN scripture. Although I like your use of it as a lens in which to view scripture, Aric. I would hasten to say that always works because it doesn't help me interpret particularly the Hebrew scriptures because it basically tosses out the rabbinical tradition that has been interpreting those texts for thousands of years. I think this actually might be my biggest draw back to the trinity as a doctrine. I don't like that it has to retroactively help and change the meaning of the text rather than emerge out of it. But I guess we do that with lots of theology huh.

Jodie said...

Late comment here...

The place I am at is asking three questions. Why do >I< need a doctrine, (in this case the Trinity), why did the authors of the doctrine need it, and how did they enforce it.

Long ago, as a result of my up-bringing under church supported right wing military dictatorship, I came to the conclusion that not only does the end not justify the means, but that the means corrupts (or sanctifies) the ends.

In this case, the means of enforcement of the doctrine of the Trinity by those who invented it has corrupted it beyond repair.

As happened to "state religion". Certainly for Christianity and Judaism before it.

Christianity does not exist outside of the community context in which it lives. It stopped making sense when people started killing in the name of Christ and the community context supported that point of view.

So, in my own search for where Christianity last made sense, I go back to before Constantine. And I challenge all the compromises that were made in order to form the union of Empire and Church. I charge that the Doctrine of the Trinity is such a compromise. I charge that "orthodoxy" itself is such a compromise.

I don't deny there have been good thinkers since then. The fact that I am capable of making such a charge 1500 year later says that enough Christianity was preserved that I can dare claim to tell the difference. Many schools exist and all of them are profitable for teaching and learning.


Christianity in not really about what I believe but about what I do. I charge that orthodoxy and the doctrines that make it up came into existence in order to suppress orthopraxis. And I believe that now that Christianity and State are no longer mutually dependent it is time to return to the orthopraxis roots of our faith.

And so the doctrine of the Trinity is of no real interest or value in our times.

Doug Hagler said...

@ Jodie: I agree and then disagree, and it will take a little parsing.

First, means and ends. I think that separating means and ends is a fallacy - I'm drawing on Gandhi and MLK for this among many others. The means *are* the ends. Means and ends are usually separated in the pursuit of evil.

Every villain, every monster, apart from a true sociopath, does what they do because they believe in the ends they are seeking.

My disagreement comes in what I think you are doing in confusing means and ends and *ideas*.

The Trinity is neither a means nor an end. It is an idea. An idea is not necessarily corrupted by means or ends.

The Trinity is not encapsulated by how it was enforced or even conceived in the past. The idea can be evaluated on it's own merit. Then we can evaluate the means and ends of it's enforcement in the past.

I agree that becoming an imperial religion was the worst thing that ever happened to the gospel of Jesus, and that perhaps the biggest task for Christians and theologians today is to wrench the gospel from the clutches of empire. That does not mean, though, that everything that came out of Christianity from the 300s onward needs to be tossed.

Jodie said...


Just a quick reply...

Ideas aren't typically born ex-nihilo. They are almost always born out of necessity as a means to an end.

I agree that ideas should be judged on their own merit. But not naively. To properly judge an idea, its entire context needs to be laid out on the table. Only then can we really understand its proper formulation. And you can trace that context in the passionate arguments about where to put a comma, or an accent, in a long seemingly complex thought.

Sometimes ideas get stolen for other contexts, and sometimes they are so good they stand alone outside of context, all true.

I think the Trinity needs its context.

Aric Clark said...


As someone who is bi-cultural I know you know how difficult it is to translate cultural contexts. Explaining to someone who has never left America what it is like to live in Brasil, or China, or anywhere else is nearly impossible. There is a gestalt switch involved that you simply have to experience first-hand.

Imagine then how difficult it would be to attempt to reconstruct Christianity from 17 centuries ago with fragments of documents and historical records all filtered through layer after layer of the cultures that have come after. I would say, impossible.

You admit that not everything post-constantine is bad, suggesting that enough of "core" christianity has been retained to make the task possible, but I think the situation is starker than you let on. The distance is so vast between here and there, culturally, linguistically, temporally... that the only way we can possibly have access to it at all is if it is still extant, not in fragments, but whole.

Either the Church is still the Church and the gospel we have is still the gospel or neither ever really existed. If the gospel can be lost, it is not the gospel. If the church can be completely corrupted it is not Christ's body. As much as I agree that imperial christianity has been a bad thing, I just can't buy a strict pre-constantinian / post-constantinian look at church history. For one, it is too simplistic, but more importantly it completely undermines the basis of Christianity - that we have received this faith from those who came before us. If the gospel they handed us is a false one, then the whole thing collapses.

Jesus and the Holy Spirit haven't been sitting around doing nothing these past 1700 years waiting for some clever historians to get us back to the true church.