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dianoigo blog

Monday, 27 August 2018

Why the Trinity Just Doesn’t Make Sense to Christadelphians

Guest Article by Matthew J. Farrar

Introduction

The denial of the Trinity doctrine is arguably one of the strongest identity markers of Christadelphians.1   Christadelphian arguments against the Trinity typically follow one of three lines:2
  1. Jesus is not the Father and is therefore not God.
  2. Jesus is a man and is therefore not God.
  3. The Trinity is inconsistent with the Scriptures' absolute insistence on monotheism.
The first objection is actually based on an erroneous conflation of Modalism3—a doctrine holding that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of operation of a single divine person—with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that there are three distinct, eternal persons who share a Divine nature. The second objection similarly conflates the doctrine of Christ’s Divinity with a denial of His humanity, whereas orthodox Christology emphatically affirms Christ’s humanity.4

However, in conversations with Christadelphians—and indeed my own experience as a former Christadelphian—by far the most compelling arguments against the Trinity are based on the third issue of monotheism. Undoubtedly, the Scriptures insist on an uncompromising monotheism.5 It therefore appears that the Trinity doctrine is a violation of basic common sense: if God is one, then God cannot be three, and if He is three, He cannot be one. An answer in The Christadelphian Advocate's Question Box feature succinctly exemplifies this objection:
The Bible is so clear on this matter it is a puzzle as to how anyone can conclude anything about a godhead consisting of three beings, acting independently of each other yet still together, as one single being. The idea that the three were co-existent as well as co-equal and each a part of the Supreme Being destroys the beauty of the Father/Son relationship that is so emphatically detailed in the Scriptures.
The objection is clear enough: to say that three beings are actually one being is a contradiction, and a rather obvious one at that. So why is it that orthodox Christians hold to this doctrine when it seems to be at odds with basic common sense?

An Important Assumption

What is tacitly assumed but not acknowledged in the Christadelphian line of reasoning is that the God of the Bible is rightly understood to be a being. That is to say, there are many beings (e.g. angels, humans, animals), and God is regarded as another being, albeit a unique and supreme Being who exceeds all other beings in power, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, etc. It is precisely under this assumption that the Christadelphian argument against the Trinity are so compelling: 
  1. A "being" is the broadest classification possible.
  2. Therefore, distinct persons are beings.
  3. "God" is a being.
  4. Therefore "God" is either one person and one being or three persons and three beings. He cannot be three persons but one being.
  5. Since the Scriptures affirm that God is One (being), the Trinity is false.
So how is it that the Church came to affirm the Trinity doctrine despite this glaring problem? The answer lies in that the Church does not consider God to be a being, but rather, being itself.

Nominalism: The Roots of a Theological Revolution

Believe it or not, the roots of this issue go back to the 14th century, a time prior to but very influential on the Reformation. This era ushered in a new philosophical position known as nominalism, a philosophy that is widely held—though seldom explicitly recognized—today. At its core, nominalism denies the real existence of universals. To understand what a universal is, consider the drawing below.


We would all quickly identify this drawing as a triangle, but on what basis? There are two basic answers to this question. The first is that there is a universal triangle, of which this particular triangle is a manifestation or instantiation. In other words, something is a triangle in the measure that it conforms to the universal triangle. The second answer—that of nominalism—is that there are simply a collection of objects which we call “triangles”, and this happens to be one of them. However, nominalists would claim that this classification is more or less one of convenience and therefore there is no such thing as the essential nature of a triangle.

To see the impact of this thinking in our own day, consider two hot-button issues: marriage and gender. Those who believe that universals are real—called realists—hold that heterosexual marriage and gender (male and female) are real universals. As such, a particular marriage is an actual marriage in the measure that it conforms to this universal and is a particular instantiation of it. Similarly, realists hold that a man is a man on the basis that he is an instantiation of a particular universal, namely, a male nature (and similarly for a woman).

In contrast, the nominalist perspective asserts that there are merely a collection of relationships called “marriages.” Therefore, to redefine marriage beyond monogamous heterosexual marriage is simply to broaden the usage of the word “marriage”. Similarly, “man” and “woman” are mere labels applied to groups of persons, and so the labels can be applied differently or new labels may be created as needed.

Now since nominalists deny the existence of universals, and natures are universals, it follows that nominalists deny the existence of natures. Thus, under this rubric there is no universal human nature (i.e. humanity) of which all human beings are instantiations; there are simply a collection of beings that we call “humans” just as there are three-sided objects that we call triangles. More to the point, if there is no such real thing as a nature, then there is also no such thing as a real divine nature: only a being we call “God,”6 and the phrase “the divine nature” simply becomes a shorthand for His personal attributes. Consequently, to acknowledge three divine persons is necessarily to acknowledge three divine beings, since “divine” and “persons” are again merely labels and “being” is simply the least restrictive classification possible.

Since Christadelphians—like most of the Western World—tend to be involuntary nominalists with respect to their conception of God,7 8 the Trinity doctrine appears to present an insurmountable contradiction. Nominalist Trinitarians attempt to circumvent a contradiction by false appeals to the mystery of the doctrine,9 while Christadelphians deny the mystery of the doctrine by appeals to the contradiction.

But what if we reject nominalism in the first place?

God is Being itself, not one being among many

Since nominalism was an innovation of the 14th century, it follows that the formulators of the Trinity doctrine in the first five centuries of the Church were not and could not have been nominalists. For example, the Nicene Creed states that Jesus is “one in substance/essence/nature with the Father.” Of course, this formulation necessarily assumes that natures are real! Even the Arians of the 4th Century—those opposing the divinity of Christ at the First Council of Nicea—did not dispute the real existence of natures, but instead argued that Christ was of a different, inferior nature from that of the Father. Semi-Arianism, a subsequent attempt at a compromise position, declared the Son to be of “like nature” (homoiousios) to the Father rather than of the same nature (homoousios) as the Nicene Creed affirmed.10 Thus, opponents of Christ's true divinity in the fourth century were not raising the so-called “common sense” objections outlined above.

Moreover, if nominalism is rejected, then we may also reasonably deny that God is one being among other beings.11 Instead, following the revelation of the divine name, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), the Church teaches that God is "the act of to be" itself.12 Thus, while I am a being, God is being itself. If this sounds unfathomable, perhaps we have not taken God’s transcendence seriously enough. God is not merely greater than us by degree but is utterly beyond us, of a different order. If the notion that “God is being itself” seems too abstract to grasp, consider by analogy the assertion that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The Biblical claim is not merely that “God is extremely loving” or “God has a lot of love”; love is not merely an abstract attribute that exists apart from God and that God has more of than anyone else. Love is essential to God’s nature, and does not exist apart from God. We are capable of love only because God has shared his love with us (1 John 4:19). The same is true of being, of existence. God is not merely a supreme being, i.e. one who has the attribute of existence (and other dependent attributes such as power, wisdom and love) in greater quality or quantity than others. Rather, God is existence; nothing exists except from him and through him and for him (Rom. 11:36; Heb. 2:10).

Given this understanding of God, the “common sense” rejection of the Trinity no longer holds for the following reasons. 

First, monotheism is actually a consequence of this understanding, not a condition imposed upon it. While we cannot truly comprehend what it means for God to be “to be itself”, it’s simply impossible to have more than one sheer act of being itself. Thus, it is rigorously consistent with Scriptural affirmations of monotheism.

Second, the key tenets of the Trinity doctrine—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal in nature—also follow directly from this understanding of God. It would be a contradiction in terms to say, for example, that the Son is the sheer act of being but not co-eternal with the Father, who is also the sheer act of being. Nor would it be possible to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father but not the sheer act of being, since that would mean that a being exists always with being itself, which is also a contradiction. Thus, the doctrine that God is “to be itself” and the joint doctrines of consubstantiality (i.e. the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same nature) and co-eternality are logical consequences, not additionally imposed doctrines.

Finally—and most importantly for the present discussion—the existence of distinct divine persons is no longer equated with the existence of distinct divine beings. Rather, within the divine nature (i.e. the sheer act of to be) we can discern three distinct persons, but at no point are there any beings involved, only the act of to be itself. Do we really comprehend what that means? No, and that is why the doctrine is truly and properly called a mystery. However, the contradiction suggested by the original argument is dissolved.

Concluding Remarks

The philosophical system of nominalism developed in the late Middle Ages, long after the creedal statements surrounding the Trinity doctrine were constructed, but its popularity—especially amongst the Reformers—was widespread. Not surprisingly then, Christadelphian objections to the Trinity doctrine on the basis of “common sense” appeals to Scriptural statements of absolute monotheism tacitly—if not unwittingly—assume an underlying nominalist philosophy, namely that God is one being amongst many other beings. This is an important observation since some Christadelphians (perhaps relying on Col. 2:8)13 view “philosophy” as a by-word, a distraction to be avoided. What this article has shown, however, is that all of us—Christadelphians included—engage in philosophy and what we may prefer to call “common sense” actually rests on our own philosophical presuppositions. My hope is that a greater awareness of this philosophical framework will open channels of future discourse.

Footnotes

  • 1 Though not entirely unique. Biblical Unitarians essentially agree entirely with Christadelphians on this point, while Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals share in the denial of the Trinity doctrine but do not share in Christadelphian theology and/or Christology. The Christadelphian doctrine of God underwent considerable evolution in the early period of the movement. The founder of the sect, Dr. John Thomas, held a somewhat ineffable doctrine of God that he thought was captured by the Greek word phanerōsis. While Dr. Thomas's ideas still have currency with some Christadelphians, the main stream of the movement has long since moved toward something closer to Socinianism or (biblical) Unitarianism—doctrines that Dr. Thomas emphatically repudiated!
  • 2 For example, see here.
  • 3 This view is also known as Sabellianism because it was taught by Sabellius, a 3rd-century priest. He was excommunicated for his teaching by Pope Callixtus I.
  • 4 Refer to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed defined at the fourth-century ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and the Christological Definition reached at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon.
  • 5 Historians of religion debate exactly when monotheism developed in Israelite religion; some earlier texts may suggest a belief closer to henotheism (allegiance to only one God, without necessarily denying the existence of others—see, e.g., Psalm 95:3). In any case, strong exclusive claims about “one God” that are synonymous with monotheism are present in Second Temple Jewish texts and in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 12:32).
  • 6 Granted, a very impressive being, even a Supreme Being. However, this being differs from us only in degree (e.g. we have limited power, while God has unlimited power) not by nature, since nominalists deny the existence of natures.
  • 7 As evidenced by the quotation above which starts from the use of the word “beings.”
  • 8 I wish to be clear that I do not mean this disparagingly. My point is merely that certain philosophical presuppositions are present in all arguments.
  • 9 This was blatantly the case in the writings of William of Ockham.
  • 10 Semi-Arianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., but by that time the three Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa) had succeeded through theological dialogue in persuading most of the Semi-Arians to return to the catholic faith.
  • 11 To be precise, while other beings have a real nature, we rightly say that God is His nature. In other words, I, as a human being, am a particular instantiation of a human nature. God, on the other hand, is not an instantiation of a divine nature, but rather, He is the divine nature.
  • 12 Ipsum esse subsistens, in the Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • 13 Of course, Paul does not here condemn philosophy itself, but only philosophy that is contrary to Christ and therefore false. Paul’s own willingness to enter into philosophical discourse is on vivid display in the account of his speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17). For a defense of the use of Greek philosophy by the early Church, see here.

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