In Defense of the Holy Trinity

Original art by Scott Erickson (www.scottericksonart.com)

By Justus H. Hunter –

In the week leading up to Trinity Sunday, the Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant of North Carolina published an argument raising several criticisms of the doctrine of the Trinity.

“There is no such thing as the Holy Trinity,” he provocatively begins. “Trinity Sunday, far from being something to be celebrated, looks to me to me to be a day for caution and prayer,” he later concludes. The rest of Bryant’s piece maintains this inflammatory tone: “This is what happens when we make up our own doctrines and start selling a fake news story to the church that God created a rigid hierarchy which really started on our own whiteboard. The truth is: God was nowhere to be found when we made up the Trinity and turned it into a tool to isolate, annoy, and explain God’s expansive love in terms of a dysfunctional family.”

As one might expect, the article flourished on social media. Several of my students sent me the article, knowing the central place the doctrine of the Trinity holds in the courses I teach at United Theological Seminary.

Bryant’s arguments can be summed up in three assertions. First, he claims that we don’t know that God is Triune. As I point out in the open letter to Bryant below, this is simply false. Second, we cannot be certain of what we know about God. At best we can only formulate guesses. This is again false, though perhaps less simply. We must be precise about the kind of knowledge we have of doctrines like the Trinity. Thankfully, Christians have expended remarkable efforts to clarify this for two millenia. Third, Bryant’s understanding of theological language undermines all Christian doctrine. He thinks the church’s setting down of authorized teaching takes control of God. Such control of God, in Bryant’s view, contributes to the oppression of other human beings.

Taken together, these three claims render a coherent position. (1) We don’t know God is Triune because (2) our minds cannot be certain of what we know about God. Hence we cannot, and ought not, set down authorized teaching (i.e. doctrines). To set down and authorize teaching is (3) to seek control of God by our concepts, and by extension to seek control and oppression of others.

But Christians, United Methodist or otherwise, must reject such a position for two reasons. First, the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian answer to the question “Who is God?” Second, the doctrine of the Trinity preserves the very mystery whereby God frees us from our corrupt desires to control God and one another. Paul says we are united to the Son in one body under one Father together in one Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4). Our union to the Triune God is our only hope for true peace with God and one another. It is the only kind of unity that finally matters. To weaken our bonds with the God who gifted us this holy teaching is to weaken our path to freedom from ourselves and peace with one another.

What follows is the open letter I addressed to the Rev. Bryant shortly after the publication of his article.

Dear Mr. Bryant,

I was, to say the least, troubled to read your argument that “there is no such thing as the Holy Trinity.” Allow me to make a few points which I hope will encourage you to reconsider your stance.

First, a brief point of clarification: what Christians refer to when they say “Holy Trinity” is not merely the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Relations are involved, specifically the relations which the persons of the Trinity are. But the Trinity is both the claim of distinction (the Father is not the Son and the like) and union (the Father is God and the like). The term “Holy Trinity,” then, refers to the entire set of claims, one of which is the assertion that there are relations between these three persons.

Second, we actually do know that God is Triune, because one of those persons assumed a human nature and spoke in ways which led us to preserve the teaching in the doctrine of the Trinity. We do have a message from God about this. This is especially true if you think, as I do, that the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople were directed by the Holy Spirit. Christians everywhere have generally confirmed this belief, as does the UMC when it includes the doctrinal deliverances of those councils in her articles and confession.

Third, I fear yours is too violent a way of thinking about theological language. The marvel is the Christian claim that God has given language to us. That language allows us to worship and to pray to the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. To deny this is to deny the incarnation. The Son, wonder of wonders, comes to us and gives us divine wisdom clothed in human words. The Son makes possible utterances like, “Jesus is God with us.” That is the marvel of the incarnation, and to refuse the gift of God in speech uttered in fidelity to the teaching of Christ is to refuse the gift of God the Son to humanity and the world.

Fourth, I might agree that “our most complex Trinitarian theology and ideas are guesses,” so long as we recognize they are grounded in God’s own manner of speaking delivered to us in Christ. So, while we know that our future knowledge will transcend what we presently think when we speak, it will not destroy it. Our future knowledge will be an elevated knowledge that does not violate, but confirms our present patterns of speaking in fidelity to the words of the Son who made his way to us.

Note that this doesn’t weaken our conviction in the doctrine of the Trinity. It strengthens it. The doctrine of the Trinity aims to preserve the difference between what we have by faith in the apostolic witness to Christ’s teaching and the way we will know in the life to come. That future knowledge does not dissolve our faith, but perfects it. We should not violate this consonance by either (1) the reduction of final knowledge to present faith (claiming that faith will not flower into deeper knowledge; we “will know fully, knowing even as we are known”) or (2) by the complete dissociation of final knowledge from present faith. Your argument does the latter.

Fifth, the doctrine of the Trinity does not “put God in a box.” We are not idolators. That’s the very reason we have and preserve the doctrine of the Trinity. It preserves the teaching of Christ to the apostles, and does so in a manner that resists our grasps. It is true, then, that “we really have no idea how any of this works.” To be more precise, we have no idea what it is to exist as three persons in one substance, as we are all one person in one substance. God is sui generis. But that only reinforces our need to preserve the teaching Christ gave us regarding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not liberate us to make up anything we like.

Sixth, it is true “flawed and fallible (humans) want to understand something no one really understands.” God made us this way, and inspired our thirst to know the Triune God. We have a desire to understand God, who we don’t understand at present so much as we will. But of course, someone does understand God perfectly: God, who came to us in Christ and shared this teaching. We now receive it through the tradition and hold it in faith, even while we desire to understand it. In fact, that desire for understanding, the desire for wisdom (sapientia is wisdom which draws homo sapiens) is the very desire which drew out the refinement of the doctrine of the Trinity in the early Christian period. The gap between our faith and understanding propelled the doctrine.

Seventh, it is simply wrong to say “God, Jesus, nor the silent Holy Spirit refers to themselves as a Trinity.” This is true only if the Spirit has remained silent. But the Spirit has been active in guiding the church into all truth, as Jesus promised the Spirit would do in John 16. And the doctrine of the Trinity is such a truth.

Finally, if I were to render your concluding argument in the most charitable and coherent way possible, it would go something like this:

We should not think anything about God. This, of course, causes a certain problem for a claim like “Jesus wouldn’t let go of love.” If Jesus isn’t God, then that might help. Some guy 2,000 years ago held on to love. Of course, one will also need to construct a concept of “love” that is utterly independent of any concept of God, which most Christians would find peculiar. But perhaps there is a kernel of something there, which, by the way, must be something “you can prove.” Whatever it might be, it would be odd to call it the Christian faith. And we should add that, to be perfectly consistent, we should simply dismiss the claim that “the Trinity works best when we remember it’s really a theory.” False. For your argument, things go best when we get rid of the theory.

Alternatively, and I would commend this course of action, we should accept another interpretation of your final claim that “Love is a doctrine.” The church preserves the doctrine (doctrina means teaching) of John the Apostle that God is Love (1 John 4). Moreover, the church has clarified that the God who is Love is none other than the Triune God. The persons themselves are bonded in Love, and that very Love of God is shed abroad into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, uniting us to the Triune God and to one another in a union more intimate than our intellects can fathom. That Love unites us into one body with Christ our head, and reconciles us to the Father through our union with the sacrifice of the Son. Love is a doctrine. Love is a teaching. It is a mystery, the very mystery of God present with us, the same God who in the Son taught the apostles and by the Spirit preserved that teaching, imprints that teaching upon our souls in faith, and deepens our understanding of that teaching over time. Love is a doctrine. Thanks be to the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

In the mercy of the most blessed Trinity.

Justus H. Hunter (justushunter.com) is assistant professor of Church History at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

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