Trinitarianism: Modified Tritheism
People often confuse the "plain" statements of Scripture with a particular theology that has been developed from those statements. While each theological system is derived from and supported by references to various Scriptures, it does not mean that the theological system developed from those Scriptures is the teaching of the same. Even heretics appeal to Scripture in support of their teachings. As Richard Rice said, "The Scriptures contain such vast and varied material that it is not difficult to surround an idea with biblical quotations. The crucial question is whether the idea is faithful to the overall biblical portrait of God." To judge any theological system, then, we must question whether or not it accurately reflects the Biblical teaching as a whole, or if it has merely found Biblical statements to support an unbiblical theology.
It is often the case that the Bible makes statements that are difficult to understand, difficult to fit together into one unified picture, or statements that seem to contradict one another. What we do in such cases is attempt to construct a theological system which can best account for all relevant data.
Too many times, however, after having developed a particular theological construct through which to understand the data, one will go back and read that construct into the Biblical passages believing that the passages themselves are teaching the already developed construct, rather than understanding that it is the construct which is informing their understanding of the passage. It is the mistake of seeing what we believe we are going to see.
Therefore it is imperative that a distinction be made between the theological construct we have developed/been taught to assist our understanding of Scripture, and the teachings of Scripture itself. We ought to hold our theological constructs (systematic theology) as tentative, able to be altered in light of other evidence that may arise to the contrary which can better explain the Biblical data. We cannot pass off our systematic understanding of the Biblical statements as the absolute teaching of Scripture, when indeed such may not be the case. Our systematic understanding of Scripture, or even our exegesis of a particular text is conditioned by our historical context, and thus may not have permanent validity.
Implications for the Trinitarian Doctrine
The doctrine of the Trinity is no exception to the above. Trinitarianism is not the teaching of Scripture, but is a theological construct developed from Scriptural references to help explain the Biblical doctrine of God.1 While there are Scriptures that seem to teach Trinitarian dogma, in reality, there is not a single verse that does so. At best it could be said that there are verses, or a combination of several verses which seem to support the Trinitarian dogma, but even this affirmation does not mean Trinitarianism is the best way to understand these verses, let alone the only way. There could be other constructs that would better explain them, and indeed, I believe there is.
While many Trinitarians would object to the idea that the Trinity is not taught in Scripture-claiming they find the Trinity on virtually every page of the New Testament-upon further examination any honest Trinitarian must agree that, indeed, the Trinitarian doctrine is not taught/found in Scripture. Few Trinitarian scholars would argue this point. Most recognize that the doctrine developed over time as the church refined its understanding of God's nature, and the relationship of Jesus and the Spirit to the Father. This development involved the coining and specialization of key terms such as Trinity, ousia, and hypostasis (some of which were not Biblical words2) which in turn further defined the church fathersí conception of God into a certain construct (which is true of most all language/ knowledge interaction).
While Trinitarians freely admit that the dogma is not taught in Scripture, they will contend that it is found in Scripture, although not expressed in the same categories. Rather than being an explicit teaching of Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity is seen to be an implicit teaching, formulated from the inferences and exegesis of the Biblical data, although not directly stated by the same. It is viewed as the only viable explanation of all the Biblical data concerning Godís identity, all the while the formulation itself is only a Bible-based, Biblically-informed construct through which we understand the raw Biblical data.
The Biblical Data and the Theological Constructs Developed to Account for It
As explained in my article, "Oneness vs. TrinityóA Reason for the Different Theologies," the problem facing both Trinitarians and Oneness believers is how to reconcile three seemingly contradictory teachings of Scripture: 1. there is only one God; 2. The Father is referred to as (that one) God, the Son is referred to as (that one) God, and the Holy Spirit is referred to as (that one) God; 3. distinctions are made between Father, Son, and Spirit. The task of all Christians is to develop a doctrine of God that can incorporate all three of these truths without contradiction. Trinitarianism as well as Oneness theology are theological constructs that attempt to do just that. They do so, however, from different starting points, and thus end up with two different conclusions. Oneness theology starts with the OT teaching that God is one, and then proceeds to incorporate the NT distinctions in light of this foundation. Trinitarians start with the NT distinctions, and then proceed to fit such diversity within the OT teaching of monotheism. What is the outcome? Oneness theologians understand the NT distinctions as temporal and incarnational in nature, while Trinitarians understand the distinctions as eternal and personal in nature.
Understanding the different starting points of each theological system is important because one's starting point for theological understanding often determines how they will interpret the Biblical data; i.e. the paradigm through which they filter it to create their theological construct. Because Trinitarians start with diversity, when they try to fit monotheism into the equation they necessarily end up understanding God's oneness to be a mere unity, not a numerical oneness as is most often meant by the term, and as I believe is indicated in the OT.
Why Conclude that God is a Trinity?
While I am do not believe the doctrine of the Trinity is the best construct through which to understand the Biblical data, any honest reader of Scripture must admit that certain verses are difficult to understand if God is only one person. The Father and Son are regularly spoken of as if they are two persons, and yet both are spoken of as being God. Such distinctions are perplexing in light of the Bible's monotheistic emphasis. I am sympathetic with the attempt Trinitarianism has made to preserve monotheism, all the while giving serious weight to the many passages indicating a distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit.3
To demonstrate the dilemma any monotheistic believer is faced with when reading the NT, I will cite but two passages that make a distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus told His disciples He would pray to the Father to send the Spirit to the disciples. The Spirit is said to proceed from the Father, speaking not of Himself, but speaking that which He will hear (from whom?). The Spirit is even said to glorify Jesus (John 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:13-14).
On another occasion Jesus said that if we would love Him, then His Father will love us, and they will come to us and make their abode with us (John 14:23). With statements like these it is no wonder that Trinitarians believe the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons. But I think it is important to note that, taken by themselves, these passages would not lead one to believe God is three persons in one essence (Trinitarianism), but rather that God is three essences (Tritheism). Scripture often seems to portray Father, Son, and Spirit as three separate beings without any hint of a unity of essence as is taught by Trinitarianism. Reading the "distinction passages" by themselves would naturally lead one to believe Father, Son, and Spirit are three separate Gods (Tritheism), connected by will or general essence (just like three men all share the same essence of humanity, yet are separate from one another), not three persons who are all equally divine in their own right, and yet mutually dependent on the other two in order to be God. It is only the presence of those passages stressing God's oneness that prevents Trinitarians from confessing three separate Gods.4 Without them, de facto, our natural understanding of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit would be that they are three separate beings, all of whom are gods; but by no means would we deduce the Trinitarian doctrine from these texts.
Because Trinitarianism starts with distinction rather than oneness, it tends to float into the waters of Tritheism. In my estimation, Trinitarianism is little more than a Tritheistic understanding of God that compensates for its own error through its invention of the "three person in one essence" doctrine. I say "invention" because such a concept and terminology is absolutely foreign to Scripture. But it is only by conceiving of God in this way that this Tritheistic God of theirs can still be spoken of as one.
Trying to Avoid Tritheism
Trinitarians must find some way to understand the Scriptural distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit without confessing three different Gods, because Scripture is adamant that God is one. To do so, they constructed the notion of God having only one essence, but within that one essence existing as three distinct persons. Their emphasis on God's threeness is prevented from becoming a confession of three separate Gods only by qualifying it to say God's threeness subsists in one essence. Only by such a qualification can they preserve some form of God's oneness. Insisting on seeing the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit as distinctions of divine persons within one essence, in turn necessitated the redefining of "one" to mean unity, rather than a numerical oneness. When all is said and done, we end up with a view of God that seems contradictory at points, is said to be incomprehensible, and tends toward Tritheism. Trinitarianism seems to do justice to the meaning of a few passages, yet all the while violating the meaning of the majority.
Trinitarians love to emphasize the many passages in the NT which distinguish between the Father and Son (and less frequently the Spirit) in order to prove to Oneness believers that God is a Trinity. Somehow it is believed that by pointing out the many distinction passages they are proving that God is Trinity, and disproving the Oneness position. Such is a hasty and false conclusion. First, before using these distinction passages as ammunition against Oneness theology, the Trinitarian believer needs to first consider why he/she understands the distinction passages to teach a Trinity rather than to teach three separate Gods as such passages would naturally be understood apart from the Trinitarian construct.
I find it amazing that so many Trinitarians fail to realize that the distinction passages do not demonstrate any sort of a Trinity. Even when Father, Son, and Spirit are all mentioned in the same verse, it still does not demonstrate that God is a Trinity. The only way these passages could teach a Trinity is if they attempted to explain the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. Unfortunately, not one passage explains this. No passage spells out the Trinitarian dogma that Father, Son, and Spirit are three persons in the one essence of God. That understanding is supplied by the Trinitarian who reads the passages, not by the text itself.
Secondly, pointing out the distinction passages is futile because Oneness theology fully acknowledges these passages, but understands the reason for their existence in a different manner than do Trinitarians. To point out such passages thinking they prove God to be a Trinity and disprove Oneness theology demonstrates that such an individual does not understand Oneness theology, and has confused Trinitarian theology with the Scripture itself.
Solving the Problem: Oneness Theology
While the Trinitarian doctrine alludes to Biblical verses, the doctrine itself is nowhere taught in Scripture. It is a theological construct used to understand the Scripture, attempting to answer the three Biblical teachings. Trinitarianism, however, is not the only answer possible. There are other possible theological constructs through which we can better understand the Biblical teaching. I believe that Oneness theology is a much better construct, doing a much better job at answering the three Biblical teachings without having to invent all sorts of unbiblical concepts and terminology to do so, and without violating any of the three teachings.
Oneness theology explains the three Biblical teachings starting with the OT emphasis on God's absolute oneness and understands the distinction passages in light of this fact, not vice-versa (as does Trinitarianism). Understanding the NT in light of the OT is necessary if we wish to pay full respect to God's progressive revelation of Himself to man, for the nature of progressive revelation will not permit newer revelation (NT) to essentially alter the foundational understanding given us from the old revelation (OT). The old revelation was given as a foundation upon which to understand the new, and was not intended to be radically altered by subsequent revelation. The new revelation was not given to redefine the meaning of the old, but rather to add to it. Trinitarianism errs in that it does theology backwards, reading later revelation into prior revelation, redefining the latter rather than adding to and complimenting it. To do theology properly, then, we must begin with the Old Testament's insistence on monotheism, understanding such as it is clearly portrayed and most naturally understood (as a numerical oneness) and interpret the distinction passages in the NT in light of that understanding.
A cursory examination of the Scripture will reveal that the distinction passages are not found in Scripture until after the incarnation (new revelation), and that most distinctions occur only between Father and Son (often to the exclusion of the Spirit). In light of such an observation, and in consistency with the progressive nature of revelation, Oneness theology concludes it best to understand these distinctions as arising because of the incarnation. Only such an approach can adequately deal with all the evidence, do justice to the progressive nature of revelation, preserve the foundational understanding of God's identity as set forth in the OT, and fully account for the distinction passages in the NT.
When one fails to understand the distinctions in light of the incarnation the results are disastrous. Origen is a perfect example. Because Origen understood the distinctions between Father and Son as eternal distinctions between the Father and an eternal Son, he ended up with a subordinistic theology that made the Son inferior to the Father. He could not avoid treating the Son as eternally subordinate to the Father (rather than coequal as modern Trinitarianism teaches) because the NT statements often make Jesus not only distinct from the Father, but also subordinate to the Father. Jesus had to pray. Equals do not pray to one another. One only prays to a superior. Jesus even confessed that the Father was greater than He. If this phenomena is not understood in light of Christ's limited human existence one could only conclude that the subordination of the Son to the Father is an eternal subordination of being.
Modern Trinitarianism does not fall into the same error as did Origen. Rather than understanding this phenomenon to refer to a subordination of the eternal Son to the Father, modern Trinitarianism understands the NT statements about Jesusí inferiority to the Father as arising because of the Sonís human existence; i.e. the incarnation. What I find so amazing about this is that Oneness theology has always understood the reason for the inferiority of the Son to the Father in this way. If Trinitarians can recognize that the inferiority of the Son to the Father is due to the incarnation, why can they not see that the distinction between the Father and the Son is also due to the incarnation? This is especially telling when it becomes apparent that the Father-Son distinction is not seen until the NT. If the Son was an eternally distinct person of the Godhead, why was it not until the NT that He is ever revealed? And why does the Trinitarian not question why we do not find God as being identified as Father (in the NT sense of the word) until after the incarnation if He is eternally Father? God is only called "Father" or likened to a father when referring to Him as creator, as suzerain over the Davidic kings, or when referring to His covenant relationship with Israel, but never to refer to His relationship to another person in the Godhead! Does it not make more sense to understand the sudden emergence of the Father-Son terminology in the NT as arising due to the incarnation, when God actually fathered a son, and to contrast God's existence apart from the incarnation and Godís existence in the incarnation? I believe it does, and the failure to acknowledge such is the weakness of the Trinitarian doctrine. (See my article titled "Eternal Father, Eternal Son?" for further reading)
Oneness theology naturally accounts for the distinction passages while Trinitarianism has to go into elaborate explanations of Godís nature which are not found in the Scripture, propagate a construct of Godís nature which tends toward Tritheism, and purport a teaching that is said to be so incomprehensible that no one can ever understand it. Maybe we cannot understand it because it does not make sense, because it does not fit the Biblical data. Maybe we cannot understand it because Trinitarian theology has started from the wrong place, and thus ended up at the wrong place. While Trinitarianism can account for some of the puzzling data contained in the NT, there is much it cannot account for, and much that is inconsistent or contradictory to both the Biblical data and reason.
While I firmly believe that Godís nature is a mystery not totally comprehensible to us, we can have some comprehension as revealed to us in Scripture. I can label any number of nonsensical affirmations as "mystery," but this does not make it such. Is Trinitarian dogma truly a mystery, or is it a man-made construct that distorts the Biblical portrait of God? When it is all said and done Trinitarianism seems more contradictory to the Biblical teaching and basic reason than it does to be a mystery. If, when I get to heaven, there are three persons to greet me, I will gladly confess my error, but until then I must continue to embrace Oneness theology as the most adequate understanding of the Biblical data concerning God and His nature.
1. The same could be said of Oneness theology. The Oneness doctrine is not spelled out in any particular verse of the Bible. It is a construct, based on Scripture, to aid us in the interpretation of all the Bible has to say concerning Father, Son, and Spirit. While I believe that Oneness theology more accurately reflects the Biblical data that does Trinitarianism, it must be recognized to be a theological construct that attempts to explain the Biblical data, not being the explicit teaching of Scripture itself. I am merely focusing on the construct of Trinitarianism in this article because Trinitarians often assume that the Bible teaches that God is a Trinity, not realizing that the Trinitarian dogma is a systematic theology developed from the Biblical statements, but nowhere stated in Scripture.
2. Many Oneness believers have argued that the Trinity is false because the words employed in Trinitarian theology, such as "Trinity," "God the Son," and "eternal Son," are not found in Scripture. The fact that these terms are not found in Scripture does not in itself make the concept of a Trinity wrong. The underlying argument is that only Biblical words can express Biblical truth. But to say that one can only use Biblical terminology to describe their understanding of Scripture is to say that any interpretation of the Bible that is not composed strictly from Biblical words is in error. The vocabulary of the Bible, however, is not always adequate to express the meaning and interpretation of the Bible's teaching. If all one used were the Bible's terminology to explain the Bible, ultimately they would not explain the meaning of the Bible, but would merely quote its pages.
While it is best to use Biblical words to describe the meaning of the Bible, such is not always possible. To understand the Bible, other words will often need to be employed. Most Oneness believers use words such as "rapture," "innerancy," and "monad," and describe Christ as being "fully God and fully man," as having "two natures," and speak of the "hypostatic union" of those two natures, and think nothing of such language because the terms express Biblical teachings. While I do not believe that all the terms used in Trinitarian theology accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture, it would be wrong to condemn Trinitarianism simply because it uses non-biblical words to describe God. Oneness people have also employed non-biblical words and phrases in their description of God, including "mode," and "three manifestations of God." Whether such terms are acceptable is beyond the scope of my current comments. I mention these examples only to demonstrate that Oneness believers have also employed non-biblical terminology to describe God.
I am not advocating that we employ an abundance of non-biblical words in our doctrine. We ought to do our best to limit the vocabulary we employ to explicate our doctrinal positions to those of Scripture. When the Biblical vocabulary is not adequate to clarify or explain the meaning of the Scripture, however, other words can and should be employed. When it comes to Trinitarianism, the doctrine should not be rejected simply because it has utilized non-biblical terminology to explain its concept of God, but should be rejected because its concept of God is not faithful to the Biblical teaching (no doubt such false concepts are represented by the non-biblical words), and it has defined Biblical terms used in reference to God in unbiblical ways.
3. Historically speaking the Trinitarian doctrine was developed to preserve God's oneness, not to teach three Gods. On a practical level, however, the doctrine is often understood in a Tritheistic manner.
4. The only way one may be prohibited from concluding that God is three different beings is when a statement is made concerning the Father that is also made concerning the Son, when the nature of the statement demands that it not apply to more than one being. For example, God the Father is said to be our Savior, and then Jesus Christ is said to be our Savior (Titus 1:3-4), yet it is said that there is only one savior (Isaiah 43:11). Seeing that there cannot be two saviors, the Father and Jesus are concluded to be one God, not two. Coupled with this are the direct statements of Scripture teaching that there is only one God. Even after having established this fact, however, one is still not informed as to how the Father and Jesus are one. That is where Trinitarian theology steps in to offer an answer, even as does Oneness theology.
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