Thursday, September 29, 2016

Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical or scriptural? Part 1

Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical or scriptural?  

Before I get into this, I wish to make known my intentions. I intend to look into God's Word and receive what He has chosen to reveal about Himself to us through the scriptures. I desire to approach this objectively in order to interpret the word by the word, as I believe God does not veil His truth from those who seek to find it. God's Word reveals His truth and attributes of His being in order to bring men to a saving knowledge of Himself. In humility, I concede that knowledge and insight do not begin and end with me, and I reserve the right to consult works of godly men when clarity is required (Prov. 25:2).

Let's look at the doctrine of the trinity. There are many conceptions of what "trinity" means, and because of this there has been much debate among those that earnestly seek to know God. The word "trinity" is not found in scripture, and this in itself causes many to pause. In thinking about this, I wondered what other words we use to succinctly describe complex ideas, and if they too are found in scripture. Immediately, I think of some terms we use to describe a few familiar attributes of God: omniscience and omnipotence. Respectfully, these encompass the concepts of His being all-knowing and all-powerful. These words are like an envelope in which we keep the many parts of their meanings. We unpack them to understand their meaning, and we keep them in there for quick reference. Perhaps "trinity" can be afforded the same consideration?

If so, then what is this concept of "trinity" exactly? Can it be defined positively? What does the word itself even mean?

Meaning of "trinity":  

  • from Old French trinite "Holy Trinity", 
    • from Late Latin trinitatem (trinitas) "triad"
      • from Latin trinus "threefold, triple," 
        • from Greek trias, "three"
It isn't a leap to see "tri" = three. I've seen other definitions that suggest the "tri" was mashed up with "unity", but I think it's clear enough that the evolution of the Latin trinitatem to tinite in Old French is sufficient.

If it were my purpose to proceed with the intent to create a "straw man", then I might choose to define the Trinity in a manner that would paint it as a poly-theistic creation, or any other insincere attempt. I feel it's only fair to appeal to trinitarian sources to understand the definition put forth by those that purport it as doctrine.

  • From Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem, we get this definition:
"God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God."
  • From M.G. Easton's Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1897):
The propositions involved in the doctrine are these: (1.) That God is one, and that there is but one God. (2.) That the Father is a distinct divine Person, distinct from the Son and the Holy Spirit. (3.) That Jesus Christ was truly God, and yet was a Person distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit. (4.) That the Holy Spirit is also a distinct divine Person.

I believe this outline reflects the concepts in those definitions:
  1. God is one, there is only One God (Monotheism)
    • Deut. 6:4
    • 1 Kings 8:60
    • Isaiah 44:6
    • John 10:30
    • James 2:19
  2. God exists as three distinct (but not divided) Persons in One Being
    • each person is equal
      • The Father is not the Son, 
      • the Son is not the Spirit, 
      • the Spirit is not the Father.
    • each person is eternal
      • The Father has always been, 
      • the Son has always been,
      • the Spirit has always been.
      • No person precedes the other, nor follows another.
  3. Full deity of each member
    • The Father is fully God,
    • the Son is fully God,
    • the Spirit is fully God.
Monotheism - There is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence (ousia, essentia).
  • Deuteronomy 6:4 - "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!"
  • 1 Kings 8:60 - "that all the peoples of the earth may know that Jehovah, he is God; there is none else."
  • Isaiah 44:6 - "Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God."
  • John 10:30 - "I and the Father are one."
  • James 2:19 - "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble."
This is the defining aspect of Judaism and Christianity, and separates them from any polytheistic religion.

Within Christian circles, the concept of Monotheism is rarely, if ever, disputed. 

If it was as simple as looking for a passage that says, "God is three persons in one Being", then it wouldn't be disputed. Therefore, what defines a "person"?

When reading a book, what elements from the text tell the reader that this is a person and not merely an inanimate object? Is the author relating an allegorical archetype meant to define a hypothetical character to prove a point, or an example for a moral to the story? Or rather, is this a relational being, with a soul, and an individual mind?

I posit the four (4) following criteria that we might employ to make this determination:
  1. Central, and primary, to the concept of the person is the idea of a will, even free will. A will signifies a capacity for making choices, and implies responsibility for the consequences of those choices. 
    • To clarify, this is not just instinctual reaction to stimuli, but reflective evaluation of desire, and the capacity to envision pursuit of those desires.
  2. Second, a person possesses the ability to act within and relates to concepts such as love, hate, and other emotions
  3. Third, a person is a conscious being and can think of "self", and knows it is a person distinct from other persons; otherwise described as self-awareness.  
    • A person says, "I..." and can likewise be the recipient of, "You...".
  4. Finally, communication or language is another core aspect of person-hood. When communicated to, a person can perceive that, and has the eligibility to respond, whether or not the function is available. They possess the capacity to formulate thoughts and convey those beyond themselves.
Based on these criteria, we read Scripture and can identify if we're reading about a person and their interactions. What would be the alternative? If it is not a person, what then is it? As I mentioned previously, one such alternative would be an allegorical archetype. An example might be, the sluggard in the book of Proverbs:
The sluggard says, "There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!" (Prov. 22:13)  
The sluggard is an archetype employed in several proverbs to illustrate a character trait, and to teach the reader moral lessons. The reader may relate to this sluggard, but should not presume that it is a distinct person being referred to at each instance in the text.

Another alternative would be a character or figure referred to as a person, but most obviously employed as a vehicle to teach a specific concept. An example of this would be Wisdom, also found in Proverbs:

Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown." (Prov. 4:5-9)
Notice how Wisdom is referred to by the personal pronoun "her/she" but obviously does not represent a distinct person. These kinds of literary tools are employed in many passages and books of scripture. 
These teaching passages are understood to be distinct from narrative or historical ones; the same applies to prophetic or poetical sections, and parables. All of this to say that we have to read scripture with a measure of wisdom, understanding that interpretation is not solely up to the reader's whims, but is subject to basic rules. For example, there are explicit teachings and there are implicit teachings. Without going to far down this road, I only want to make it clear that I am aware of the kinds of literature contained in the bible, and intend to apply the appropriate lens when required. 
In my studies of teachers that do not subscribe to the concept of the trinity, I haven't come across any that deny that The Father is a person (well, apart from Deists, that subscribe no personal nature to God at all). Typically, disputes around the trinity doctrine stem from the person-hood of Jesus as distinct from the Father, and/or that Jesus is not fully God. Extending from that point, they apply the same general argument to the Spirit, denying a distinct person-hood, but typically no argument as to the fullness of deity represented therein. 

Therefore, as it would seem to be more efficient to by-pass what appears to be an unnecessary investigation into the person-hood of the Father, next time we'll instead look for evidence related to the Son, Jesus Christ.