Defending the Trinity: Does it Really Matter?

Admittedly, the Trinity can be a very difficult concept to fully grasp – particularly when those describing it do not properly understand it themselves. This sometimes leads some to question whether it really matters in the long run? Shouldn’t we just love God and leave it at that? The temptation to eschew difficult doctrinal matters can be quite strong, but it is ultimately wrongheaded.

If we are dedicated to spreading the message of Jesus as revealed in Holy Scripture, that should be the entire message and not just the parts we find immediately acceptable. Indeed, if we love God, we would want to know everything he has revealed about himself to the best of our finite abilities – including those portions that may require some work on our part.

We live in an age that expects instant gratification. In past centuries, Christians did not shy away from difficult things but wanted to understand the whole council of God. If God has revealed himself to be Triune in nature, this should be something we want to comprehend, however imperfectly, because it helps us to understand God better. The nature of God is foundational to all Christian doctrine for all other doctrine is built upon the actions of God in creation. We cannot understand the purpose of God if we know nothing of the nature of God.

The call to just love God without understanding God rings empty even when given Christian claims. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons also claim to love God and Jesus but theirs is an entirely different God and Jesus. How can one insist the Mormons are not orthodox when they meet the supposed test of loving God and Jesus? One might reply that theirs is a different God and Jesus because their beliefs contradict the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. While this is true, how would you know if you do not understand that doctrine in any depth yourself?

Those who follow God should not shy away from the difficult things. We should not expect a being who is infinite to be fully comprehended by our finite beings. Indeed, if your doctrine fully understands God, that is a sign that it is deficient. However, what is revealed to us by God we should understand to the best of our abilities. This is the motivation for what will follow.

Mythicist Milwaukee Redux

Some days ago, I mentioned Nick Peters’ post about some silly claims by a group called Mythicist Milwaukee that has since generated comments from a couple of mythicsts – including someone with a rather silly website titled the “Jesus Birther Movement.” Given both MM and JBM consider Acharya S a Bible scholar, that should give you some indication of the level of interaction one might expect. I did note, however, that MM made a post about the Nick Peters article that stated “They are champions of misdirection, deflection and mischaracterization. The first blogger completely misconstrued the Celsus picture.”

Since Peters had only mentioned an interaction but didn’t provide a link, I did not know the context of their discussion. So I went to MM’s website to verify the graphic about Celsus was as bad as Peters had claimed. Well, it was. Below is the graphic:

Celsus from MM

MM titled it “Celsus Jesus is a Myth” so it certainly looks as though they are asserting that Celsus claimed Jesus was a myth. However, as anyone who bothered to read the extant text from Celsus’ work criticizing Christianity would know, he never once claimed Jesus never existed. As Peters noted, Celsus believed Jesus had performed miracles but that he did it through sorcery and trickery. Thus that claim by Peters was spot on. As for MM claiming Celsus was a church father, as mentioned I have not been able to locate the forum where their exchange occurred so I cannot comment apart from stating that, if it is true, then MM has exposed themselves as completely incompetent. However, given the incompetence on display at their website and Facebook page (most recently displaying a graphic heralding a fake Pope Paul III quote), it would not be much of a surprise.

Then there is the matter of their claiming it came from a work by Celsus titled Against Origen. Of course, in reality, the work was by Origen and was titled Against Celsus. When you cannot correctly list either the title or author of your source correctly, one would not expect much in the way of expertise. The quote originally came from Celsus’ The True Word, a work which is not extant except for the quotes of it from Origen’s response to it. From this misattribution, it is fairly clear that MM has never read the quote in context but merely copied it from another source.

In fairness, one might argue that MM did not intend “against Origen” to be the title of a work but rather was just stating Celsus wrote it in response to Origen. However, this does not get MM off the hook as it displays an equal level of incompetence. For Celsus not only was not responding to Origen, but he wrote the work about a decade before Origen was born. Apparently, MM never bothers doing anything resembling research before blindly reproducing their quotemined sources.

Defending the Trinity: Terminology

A major problem in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is expressed in philosophical terminology that was well understood by educated people of the fourth century AD but is rarely understood today. Making the matter even more complicated is that these terms are often translated into English using words that have an entirely different meaning in common use. Thus, the doctrinal assertions are wide open to confusion among its supporters and caricature among its detractors.

In this post, I will try to give some basic understanding of the terminological definitions so that a proper meaning can be given to the doctrine. At this point, I will not be giving a Biblical defense of the doctrine – that will come in later posts. For now, I think it is important to first explain what is being defended and then moving on to deriving the doctrine from the pages of Holy Scripture.

As already mentioned the doctrine is expressed in philosophical terminology common to its time but some of the terms are translated using common words with misunderstandings as to what meaning is being conveyed. For example, terms that arise such as “substance” and “person” have technical meanings within the philosophical expression of the doctrine that are confused by their everyday use. When expressions of the doctrine speak of God being “three persons within one substance”, it does not mean what you would normally think of as a person or a substance.

Then there is the matter of the technical terminology itself. First of all, the Greek philosophical term “ouisa” (“essence” or “substance”) is the defining nature of that which is under discussion. That is, it is what makes something what it is. When we speak of the Triune God, it must be emphasized that there is only ONE essence. Hence there is only ONE God. If each of the three divine persons had their own essence, then that would be tritheism. That is definitely not the case here and those who claim the doctrine of the Trinity is a form of polytheism are hence either ignorant of the doctrine or are willfully dishonest.

Next we turn to the three persons. Part of the difficulty here is that there are two philosophical terms in Greek, both playing a role in the definition, and both are often translated into English as “person”: the first is “prosopon” and the second is “hypostasis.” The precise technical defintion of each must be properly understood as well as its role in setting the limits of the doctrine.

The term “prosopon” was derived from the Greek theatre where masks were used to identify the character and their emotional state. In philosophy, it can be considered the manifestation under which the essence is revealed. The term “hypostasis” refers to an underlying property of something. Both can be used in to describe aspects of the Trinity but either can be confusing when not understood properly in the context of the doctrine. It is the flexibility of these terms that makes it important to emphasize the contextual restrictions.

Problems occur when the terms are not understood within the context of the discussion. Prosopon is insufficient on its own because it does not rule out the manifestations being used and shed according to the situation. That is, God could be the Father in one situation and the Son in another and the Spirit in yet another but these are roles God plays and do not correspond to something within the essence of God. Such a description is the early Christian heresy of Sabellianism (also called modalism) wherein the three persons are seen as modes of God’s existence in differing contexts. The problem with hypostasis is that it could be used to refer to an underlying reality in the general sense and hence could be confused with essence or it could describe an underlying reality of a specific essence which in the case under discussion would be the three divine persons.

In the early Ecumenical Councils, they resolved the difficulty by using hypostasis but specfying in was three hypostases of one essence and hence ruled out the problemmatic interpretation of hypostasis. Thus the three persons are three hypostases that may be thought of as manifestations of God but cannot be thought of as merely contextual manifestations. The Three persons, rather than being modes in which God is manifested, are of the very nature of the divine essence. There is one divine essence which by its nature has three hypostases which each are manifested to us as individual prosopon.

The next question deals the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine speaks of the Son as eternally begotten of the Father while the Holy Spirit eternally procedes from the Father. The term “begotten” and “precession” are to be understood in terms of eternal relations between the persons of the Trinity and not as events occurring in a specific temporal frame. That is, all three persons are coeternal and coequal with the Father as the source relationally and with respect to authority. There has been a split on the precession of the Holy Spirit between East and West, with the latter adding the Holy Spirit proceeeds from both the Father and the Son, but the defenses by both Protestant and Catholic apologists make clear they have a different concept of precession in mind than that discussed at the Councils.

It should be noted that while the three divine persons are all coeternal and coequal with respect to their divinity, there still exists a relational hierarchy in which the Father is in some sense the “source” of the Trinity. The full understanding of this and other divine properties are reserved to the Council of God and we may not fully understand them this side of eternity. Often those criticizing the doctrine deride this limitation as they assume we should be able to comepletely comprehend the divine nature. It never occurs to them that such a comprehension only illustrates that what they have in mind cannot be God but only the preference of the corrupt human will.

The battles over Trinitarian theology in the first two Ecumenical Councils would also result in battles over Christology in later councils. The question then became when the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, became incarnate, what was the nature of the union between His divinity and humanity. One position stated that the union was at the level of prosopon, as a human manifestation, but at the level of hypostasis, the divine and human remained distinct. This would imply that Christ was in fact two persons, one divine and one human, manifested in a single human form. Others went in the other direction and insisted there was one divine person whose human nature was subsumed into his divine nature. The Church took a middle view condmening both the first idea, called Nestorianism, and the second, called Monophysitism, for the view that the person of Christ was one at the level of hypostasis where He remained both fully divine and fully human. This definition, called the “hypostatic union”, remains the orthodox definition of the nature of Christ.

This latter point leads to some critics of the doctrine claiming it is contradictory as the term hypostasis appears to have two different uses in the orthodox Trinitarian and Christological defnintions. Here they claim Christ is one hypostais in the first and two in the second. However, those making such claims fail to grasp that the term “hypostasis” is always relative to a context. In the first definition, the context is the persons of the Godhead and that the triune nature is of the underlying reality of the nature of God. In the second definition, we are not speaking of the person of Christ but of his incarnation and the union of two natures. Here we are not describing the underlying reality of the Godhead but of the incarnate Son of God.

The above gives an outline of the doctrine of the Trinity with its terms defined correctly. Having properly defined the doctrine, we can later discuss whether or not it is found in the Bible. I happen to believe it most definitely is found there and all the arguments against it have either misinterpreted the passage, used faulty understandings of the New Testament Greek, or were using “strawman” definitions of the Trinity. We can now turn to how the doctrine was derived and defended.

Defending the Trinity: Alleged Predecessors

Among the ridiculous claims one finds concerning the Trinity is that it was copied from earlier pagan deities. Of course, when you press those making such claims what the doctrine of the Trinity entails and how it corresponds to some earlier concept, they will rattle off some supposed examples like the trained parrots they are and not make any actual connection to a prior example. In fact, when you ask them to define the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, they actually have no concept what it entails.

One common sort of example is to take three pagan gods who are associated with each other in their mythology and claim this parallels the Trinity. For example, the triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus in Egypt is a commonly cited supposed parallel to the Trinity. However, in reality, it has absolutely nothing in common. The Egyptians were polytheists and these were three of gods whose connection was that of a family (father, mother, child). One might perhaps make a parallel to the family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, but this is a rather weak one since the parallel exists in every family.

Another supposed parallel is given when different gods take on the role of the sun in Egyptian mythology during different points of the day (representing sunrise, noon, sunset) but this too has no connection to the concept of the Trinity in Christianity and illustrates some form of modalism. Another Egyptian concept is that of two gods being combined to form a third but this again is polytheistic and has no bearing on the concepts developed in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Finally, some will point to the Hindu concept of the Trimurti that has Brahama, Vishnu, and Shiva as creator, preserver, and destroyer but this also has little in common with the Christian concept of the Trinity aside from the number three. Furthermore, the idea of the Trimurti comes primarily from the Puranas whose texts underwent continued change well into the late medieval period. Thus we have no clear point at when this concept was a firm part of Hinduism. Even more telling is that the two concepts quite clearly developed from different ideas within Second Temple Judaism (with the Trinity) and Hinduism (with the Trimurti). In Judaism, there had been the giving of personal attributes to the Memra (Word) and Spirit of God during this time. This does not mean there was an understanding of the Trinity as it later developed in Christianity – there wasn’t – but the seeds of the idea were in place. Hinduism had a cyclical view of the universe and so the idea of cycles of creation, preservation, and destruction naturally flowed from its worldview. In other words, the concepts clearly derived from their respective religious contexts independently of each other.

So why do so many critics of Christianity seem so confused on this issue? The primary reason is that Christians have not done a very good job of teaching the Trinity to its followers. Thus the next subject we must deal with is to give an explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Defending the Trinity: Introduction

One of the most misunderstood questions in Christian theology is the doctrine of the Trinity. Most opponents of orthodox Christianity who dismiss it as contradictory or ridiculous, when pressed, have absolutely no concept of what the doctrine actually teaches. This becomes apparent by even a cursory examination of the criticisms of the doctrine by Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other theistic opponents and also by atheists. Unfortunately, it also is a problem when many Christians defending the doctrine have a substandard understanding of what it entails. They may recite terminological expressions such as “three persons in one essence” or “coequal and coeternal” but have no real understanding of what any of that means.

This article will attempt to give some clarity on these points. It is important to understand that the doctrine was derived by the early Christians from the text of the New Testament. At first the understanding of the doctrine was less exact than was later needed as the heresies that followed in later centuries created the need for a more rigorous definition. Anyone could take verses at certain points and isolate them to argue for a less than orthodox understanding of God but, when the full council of God is taken into account, the Trinity is the inevitable result.

Some arguments against the Trinity are ridiculous on the surface. For example, the statements that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible is so utterly foolish that it is hard to believe that anyone but the most logically hampered conspiracy theorists would use it. The question of course is not whether a term appears in the Bible but whether the understanding given to the term is supported by the Bible. For example, neither the term “monergistic” (God saves entirely through his own decree to give faith to an elect people) nor “synergistic” (salvation comes when individuals choose to cooperate with the grace of God by placing their faith in Christ) appears in the Bible but the understanding of salvation through faith in Christ muse inevitably be one or the other on logical grounds alone. Thus such arguments are based upon the rejection of theological terminology and ignore the concepts themselves.

Another problem arises because the doctrine was expressed in philosophical terminology. As the early Christians were addressing distortions of Biblical language caused by the isolation of passages from the overall context of the New Testament, they chose to add rigor to their definitions by using the more precise language of philosophy to illustrate the meaning of the theology of the New Testament. This prevented heretics from distorting the texts, usually written in colloquial language, by appealing to a more exact definition to exclude the heresy being dealt with at a given moment.

The problem is that while this was perfectly suited to the situation at the time, it can be rather confusing when it is read outside its historical context. Most Christians are today unfamiliar with this terminology. Moreover, some of the terms are used in different senses when discussing the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Finally, to add further confusion, some terms are translated with terms that have current colloquial meanings but Christian teachers are not always clear about the differences in understandings.

In some future posts, I will be discussing the philosophical understanding of the Trinity as well as the Biblical passages used to support it. Furthermore, I will examine the work of the early Christians and others in defending the doctrine. But while I will tackle what the Trinity is, I must also examine what the Trinity is not. The first thing to be considered is the various allegations that the Trinity was stolen from paganism.