dianoigo blog

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Dale Tuggy and the Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

Prof. Dale Tuggy, a philosopher of religion and unitarian apologist, released a podcast episode a couple of months ago entitled, The Stages of Trinitarian Commitment, based on a talk he had given at a Restoration Fellowship theological conference (available on YouTube).1 I am familiar with Tuggy's Trinities podcast, but not a regular listener; this episode came to my attention when he posted it in a Christadelphian Facebook group to which I belong.

In the talk, Tuggy describes six stages through which one might progress from an ignorant Trinitarian to an enlightened unitarian.2 While he draws extensively on his own personal experience, Tuggy does not regard his six stages as merely a personal journey. His talk is sociological in nature, and the six stages are implied to be a normative trajectory of Christian intellectual experience. Tuggy allows that not everyone follows the path exactly as he did. Some hunker down along the way and do not progress, some skip stages; occasionally someone regresses.

What then are the six stages? They are: 
1. paper “trinitarian” 
2. defender of “the Trinity” 
3. interpreter of “the Trinity” 
4. Berean trinitarian 
5. “trinitarian” ex-trinitarian 
6. unitarian Christian
To summarise briefly, a paper trinitarian is what most professing Christians in the world are. They are Trinitarians because they belong to a religious group with a Trinitarian confessional stance, but are both uninformed and bewildered about what the doctrine actually means. A trinitarian defender is one who has learned just enough about the Trinity to defend it, and does so aggressively and uncharitably, enjoying the status that comes with being a self-appointed apologist. A trinitarian interpreter is one who has delved more deeply into the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine, and attached him/herself to one of the different models used to rationalise the doctrine's intrinsic paradox (social Trinity, psychological Trinity, etc.) One becomes a Berean trinitarian when, frustrated with the pitfalls of the philosophical models, one resolves to honestly investigate whether the Trinity is biblical. A 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian is one who is now convinced that the Trinity is false, but resists exiting his/her trinitarian denomination to embrace unitarian Christianity, due to the attractiveness of being accepted within the "Trinity club," which keeps hold of its members with the help of a "culture of fear." Finally, when the theological traveler musters up the courage to openly accept what s/he already knew to be true, s/he becomes a unitarian Christian and has arrived at the summit of the climb.


Below are a few comments on the particular stages followed by an evaluation of the model as a whole. Firstly, just because a Trinitarian Christian is neither an apologist nor a philosopher does not mean s/he is a mere paper trinitarian. One who has been catechised in orthodox Christian doctrine and accepts the teaching in good faith is not a mere dupe for being unable to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in philosophical language. The same is true of other doctrines. Would we consider a fellow Christian to be a 'paper theist' because s/he is unable to give a philosophically sound account of the classical arguments for God's existence? A 'paper eschatologist' because s/he cannot offer a compelling account of what eternity means in terms of philosophy of time? Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity is not necessarily esoteric or irrelevant for Christians of the non-apologist, non-philosopher variety. Anyone can intuitively appreciate the significance of the notion that loving communion characterises God's own inner life, a loving communion that we have been created to share in and extend to others. The doctrine of the Trinity leads immediately to a purpose and mission for the believer's life.

Concerning the trinitarian defender stage, there surely are Trinitarian apologists more notable for their arrogance and aggression than the substance of their arguments. However, any apologist or polemicist is susceptible to arrogance, aggression, and substandard argumentation; this human weakness has nothing to do with Trinitarianism. I can attest that there are unitarian apologists out there whose arrogance matches their ignorance, for I used to be one! Similarly, an aversion to philosophically rigorous description of doctrines is not a Trinitarian disease. I grew up in a unitarian community where 'philosophy' was often used as a byword (e.g., with recourse to Colossians 2:8); some members considered philosophy per se to be bad. (On early Christian use of Greek philosophy, see here.) Bottom line: Trinitarians certainly have no monopoly on low-quality apologetics. The personal shortcomings that all too often compromise the work of amateur apologists is a result of their human weakness, not their Trinitarian ideology.

Concerning the trinitarian interpreter stage, all of the examples Tuggy mentions here (including himself) are of professional philosophers or philosophical theologians. This is hardly a normative phase of Christian intellectual development! There are relatively few Christians who obtain formal qualifications in philosophy, but of those who do, many remain Trinitarian. Is it charitable to assume that such Trinitarians have merely 'hunkered down' with their unsatisfactory ideas while the eventual unitarian progresses further?

Concerning the Berean trinitarian stage, Tuggy explicitly characterises it in terms of being a 'true Protestant,' living out the sola Scriptura ideal. In so doing, he completely ignores Catholic and Orthodox approaches to doctrine. His sociological model has no room for epistemologies other than his own Protestant one.

As with the trinitarian defender stage, Tuggy's comments on the 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian stage characterise phenomena that are common in many areas of religious experience as specific to Trinitarianism. One in the midst of any crisis of religious belief is likely to experience psychological stress (e.g., cognitive dissonance) as one grapples with the disconnect between one's own inner convictions and those of one's peers. There is a temptation to suppress one's convictions in order to preserve the stability of one's social and religious life. This is as true for a person contemplating a unitarian-to-Trinitarian shift as for the reverse, as I can personally attest.

The biggest problem with Tuggy's six-stage model, however, is not that he has inadequately described particular stages, but that he has apparently neglected to consider that some people follow completely different trajectories in their Trinitarian commitment. Below, I describe the trajectory that I have followed—by way of illustration and not to suggest that my experience is normative or objectively better than others'.

My Own Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

I would characterise my own stages of Trinitarian commitment thus:
1. Naïve unitarian
2. unitarian apologist
3. Doubt and apathy
4. Investigation and indecision
5. catholic Trinitarian
I was raised as a Christadelphian, and it was a central feature of communal religious life not only to be a unitarian but to be an anti-Trinitarian. That the doctrine of the Trinity was not merely false but nonsensical was mentioned frequently and emphatically. The doctrine was regularly misrepresented in public talks as affirming polytheism, denying Jesus' humanity, or maintaining that Jesus prayed to himself. My assumption was that the idea of the Trinity simply did not deserve serious thought, and so the notion that it might be true never crossed my mind. I was a naïve unitarian.

Although the Trinity was an obviously ridiculous idea, many Trinitarians evidently did not know this, and so it was a noble undertaking to dispel their ignorance and show them the truth. Thus, in my middle teens I became an online Christadelphian apologist, wrangling away the hours on Internet forums and starting my own apologetics website. My apologetics modus operandi consisted largely of proof-texting and lacked serious engagement with opposing arguments. I was a unitarian apologist.

Gradually, having encountered some coherent Trinitarian arguments (both online and in books), I came to appreciate that the case for unitarianism wasn't open-and-shut. I felt my first real pangs of doubt about the position I had always assumed to be the obvious truth. This was part of a larger crisis of conviction about Christianity itself, and for awhile I lost interest in Christian doctrine, while still outwardly practicing the Christadelphian religion. I had fallen into doubt and apathy.

In time, my faith in the basic truth of Christianity (e.g., the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus) returned, and with it a zeal for studying the Scriptures and thinking about Christian doctrine. I became firmly convinced on biblical grounds that Christ personally pre-existed and was in some sense divine, and it was clear that I could no longer uphold the dogmatic unitarianism of Christadelphians. I gradually withdrew from the Christadelphian community while exploring other, mainly Evangelical, religious communities. Yet I could not wholeheartedly embrace Trinitarian dogma either; I just did not see the doctrine laid out clearly in Scripture. I conceived of the Trinity as a plausible but ultimately man-made attempt to make sense of biblical revelation. I thought I could address my indecision through further study, so I undertook a formal degree programme in theology. This was a period of indecision and investigation.

Today, I am a dogmatic Trinitarian (for a fuller account of my journey to orthodoxy, see here). However, I did not reach this stage primarily through study of the biblical testimony about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, I experienced a paradigm shift in ecclesiology and epistemology. My ecclesiological presuppositions had always been that it is the prerogative and duty of each individual to figure out doctrinal truth for oneself by studying the Bible; what the Church had decided in ecumenical councils carried no weight whatsoever as these councils were just deliberations of flawed humans. However, I have since come to take more seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in preserving the true faith in the Church, despite the flaws of its human members. That the doctrine of the Trinity was promulgated by the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople and has stood as the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy ever since cannot merely be waved aside. If I am critical of the judgment of flawed humans, why in the world should I trust in my own judgment to arrive at doctrinal truth?

Together with my ecclesiological paradigm shift, my epistemological assumptions also changed. I found sola Scriptura to be biblically and historically untenable, and concluded that God must have provided a living voice to authoritatively interpret his revelation. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church had the most credible claim to be the successor of the apostles in this respect. Finally, John Henry Cardinal Newman's ideas on the development of Christian doctrine—that doctrine is not static and dead but dynamic and living, that the Church matures in its understanding of the deposit of faith—provided me with a framework for understanding how the doctrine of the Trinity might be central to the Christian faith despite appearing in Scripture only embryonically.

Concluding Thoughts

Dale Tuggy has described his stages of Trinitarian commitment, and I have now described mine, which have proceeded in opposite directions in relation to the doctrine itself. There is, however, some common ground: both trajectories began with a naïve position, followed by an overstated dogmatism, then a crisis of conviction, and ultimately settling on a new position. Perhaps this suggests a more general sociological model than that proposed by Tuggy. Of course, the stages of commitment that one follows are subjective and independent of the objective truth of one's original or final commitments. Hopefully, whatever position one ultimately takes on the doctrine of the Trinity, one takes it with some nuance and with great respect for those who, in good faith, arrive at a different position. All of us, indeed, "know partially" (1 Cor. 13:9), and depend on the mercy of God for our shortcomings, both moral and intellectual.

  • 1 Tuggy recommends that podcast listeners check out the YouTube version to benefit from the slides. I listened to the audio while at the gym, and just checked out a couple of slides on YouTube to make sure I had correctly identified the six stages.
  • 2 I use the small-u unitarian to distinguish the theological position from Unitarian denominations.