Friday, February 10, 2006

Scriptural Evidence for the Trinity?

Thanks to my friend Amy, my former classmate at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (she's still there, thank God, but I left seminary when I decided to leave professional ministry. Yes, for those of you tempted to give me too much credit, I am a seminary drop out!) I've been participating in a debate on the Trinity here and here.

It may seem strange for me, with my BA in Philosophy, to say this, but I don't like speculating on the nature of God. I know, I've spent most of my life doing it, but it doesn't get you anywhere. If there is a God (or, to sound more like Paul Tillich, if there is God, because there can't be a God, since that would imply that God is a being rather than pure Being, the Ground of Being) then the nature of God - like most other things - is a total mystery to us. But Christianity, which ought by nature to be the religion of mystery has long been instead the religion of certainty. We treat our dogmatic formulations as divinely revealed certainties, often overlooking the fact that if God has revealed anything, then that revelation was given to us, arrogant and imperfect bumbling idiots who are certain to have screw up the message.

I don't say this intending to offend anyone who has participated in these great debates on the Trinity. Rather I say it to say that such debates, while they are fine academically, are without much value spiritually or religiously. This is because (as I've argued before) if anyone says anything accurate about the divine nature (or the nature of the divine) then they did so totally on accident. God is a complete mystery, beyond the bounds of knowledge.

That doesn't mean that talking about God is without religious or spiritual value. It just means that getting bogged down with metaphysical details distracts from the main point, which is having an experience of the mysterious personal presence of God, which informs our lives with meaning.

But we are very attached to our dogmatic formulations, and often wield them as weapons against those who have different ideas about God than our own. The problem is that we do not often understand the historical roots of the dogmas to which we are so attached.

Take, for example, the Trinity. It is often taken for granted that a certain understanding of the Triune nature of God is essential to Christianity. But the dogma of the Trinity has its roots in history. It developed at a particular point in time, and that point was after some people were calling themselves something like Christians, followers of Jesus the Christ (Greek) or Messiah (Hebrew); the Chosen One of God.

If you want to follow that historical trail, then click on the links in the opening paragraph (particularly the second one) and read my contributions to the debate. My concern here is less historical, and more scriptural. The question burning in my brain is: Is there scriptural evidence for the kind of Trinitarian formulations which we use today? The short answer to this question is no. The medium length answer is: that depends on what you mean by scriptural. If by scriptural you mean that which now appears in English Bibles, then there may be some scriptural evidence for our now orthodox Trinitarian formulas. But if by scriptural you mean that which was probably written by the authors and earliest editors of the scriptures (though, of course, particularly the authors did not know they were working on something which would be elevated to the status of scripture) then the answer must be no

What, you may ask, about the long answer? Well, I'm glad you asked, but I'm not qualified to write the long answer. (To which you may exclaim THANK GOD! We're saved from his long-windedness!) Alas, I've never let a lack of qualifications keep me from pontificating!

I've been reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman, the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill [note: those of you who know me know the soft place in my heart for UNC Chapel Hill, where my maternal grandfather still teaches] In it Ehrman explains how a number of puzzling passages made their way into the text of the Bible. Sometimes simple human error is to blame, as the earliest Christian "scribes" were simply the few people in any congregation who could read or write. As such it fell to these literate few to read letters (such as the Pauline epistles now found in the Bible) to the congregation, and to write out copies of them by hand for circulation.

Sometimes, however - particularly as Christianity grew and developed, leading to the formation of a profession clerical/scribal class - a theological agenda has been imposed on a particular text. It is for this reason, for instance, that the author of the Apocalyse of John, which we have as the Biblical book of Revelation, threatens with eternal damnation anyone who would add or subtract to the text of his book. [note: I use "his" here because, although authoriship of the text is by no means certain, it is probable that the text was written by a man.]

I John 5:7-8 is the only section of the Bible which explicitly lays out a Trinitarian formula (though not in all translations, as some newer ones have corrected the error which I will discuss). In the familiar King James version it reads:

7. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

8. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood: and these three are one.


Ehrman translates the Latin Vulgate for this passage as saying something very similar:

There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.

In verse 7 we have the only explicit reference to God being understood as three co-equal persons, "the Father, the Word (understood as the Son, Jesus) and the Spirit." With this verse, it seems (in the King James and the Latin Vulgate, at least) that scripture clearly outlines a concept of the Trinity in which God exists as three co-equal persons. But should this verse be in the Bible?

In 1514 Desiderius Erasmus set out to work on the first published Greek New Testament in the Western world. While the New Testament, the Christian Bible, was originally written in Greek, the Greek had long been lost in the West, for a number of historical reasons. By the 16th Century, while Greek was still considered in the West to be the language of heresy, and while the Latin Vulgate was still considered to be the Bible, efforts to reclaim the Greek text began. Erasmus' work is best seen in the context of these efforts.

His Greek New Testament, however, had a number of problems. First, it was rushed, because another publication, the Complutensian Polygot, which would eventually be released in 1522, was on the way. Coupled with this, because of the loss of Greek in the West, Erasmus had a hard time getting his hands on Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Crunched for time he often based his translation on only one or two manuscripts. (Ehrman outlines why, from a technical perspective, this would be a major problem. The short version is that each manuscript contains a few copying errors, so the more manuscripts you consult the better chance you have of noticing small errors.) In fact the single Greek manuscript he had for Revelation had a page missing. Instead of wasting time seeking out a new manuscript (which may have been a fruitless search, anyway) he retranslated the Latin Vulgate into Greek, creating, as Ehrman puts it, "some textual readings found today in no surviving Greek manuscript." In other words, in at least one place, rather than recapturing the Greek reading of the New Testament Erasmus inadvertently created an entirely new reading of the text.

But, for all its problems, Erasmus did attempt to be faithful to the Greek, which created some controversy, as it deviated from the Latin reading which had been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as the reading of the Bible.

What we now have as I John 5:7, which explicitly outlines the Triune nature of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit, 3 = 1), is not found in any Greek manuscript. Or, I should say, in any early Greek manuscript. So Erasmus left it out of his Greek New Testament. This caused more than a few critics to attack him for removing words from the Bible. Here is how Ehrman tells the story:

More than anything else, it was this [the absence of the Trinitarian formulation] that outraged the theologians of his day, who accused Erasmus of tampering with the text in an attempt to eliminate the doctrine of the Trinity and to devalue its corollary, the doctrine of the full divinity of Christ. In particular, Stunica, one of the chief editors of the Complutensian Polygot, went public with his defamation of Erasmus and insisted that in future editions he return the verse to its rightful place.

As the story goes, Erasmus - quite possibly in an unguarded moment - agreed that he would inser the verse in a future edition of his Greek New Testament on one condition: that his opponents produce a Greek manuscript in which the verse could be found (finding it in Latin manuscripts was not enough). And so a Greek manuscript was produced. In fact, it was produced for the occasion. It appears that someone copied out the Greek text of the Epistles, and when he came to the passage in question, he translated the Latin text into Greek, giving the Johannine Comma [I John 5:7] in its familiar, theologically useful form. The manuscript provided to Erasmus, in other words, was a sixteenth-century production, made to order.


The King James Bible was produced in 1611, and was based largely on Erasmus' Greek New Testament. This was because Erasmus' publication of the New Testament into Greek was the first such publication, and as such was considered to be the "gold standard,"
despite its now obvious flaws. Because Erasmus, true to his word, added the overtly Trinitarian formula to his version of I John, it was now considered to be part of the "original" Greek even though it had been added to the Latin Vulgate for theological reasons, and as such is not found in any early Greek manuscript.

The King James Bible has often been considered the Bible in the Protestant/Evangelical context in America, just as the Latin Vulgate was the Bible in the Roman Catholic Europe of Erasmus' day. As such that reading of I John 5:7-8 (containing verse 7) has dominated our understanding of the New Testament approach to the Trinity.

But more recent English translations of the Bible have removed Erasmus' mistaken addition, restoring the ambiguity with which the Bible approaches the Trinity. (This ambiguity is due to the fact that there was no concept of a Triune God at the earliest stages of Christianity. Texts, particularly from the Gospel of John, which equate Jesus with God and in doing so create a divine Trinity, are held by many scholars to be later additions.) For instance, this is how I John 5:7-8 reads in the NRSV, perhaps the best English translation:

7. There are three that testify: 8. the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.

There is no reference here to a co-equal Triune God, no reference to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The New American Standard version - a very literal translation which is faithful to the Greek, reads:

7. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth.

8. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood; and all three are in agreement.


Again no Triune God. The three that are in agreement, the Spirit, the water and the blood, are certainly not held up as being God, but rather evidence of the work of God, evidence which testifies in one accord. Their equality is found in their agreement, not in their fundamental nature.

I can't say whether or not God is found in the three co-equal persons of the Trinity (though I can say that such a statement does not seem to be monotheistic), nor can I say whether or not Christ is equal to God. I can say that such notions are historical developments which do not represent the views of the earliest Christians, and so are not essential to Christianity. I can also say that the only place in which they even seem to appear in the Bible was a later edition to the text placed there by those who would impose their orthodox theology on the ones who they labeled "heretics."

9 comments:

Brian Cubbage said...

I agree that there's little direct Biblical support for the doctrine of the Trinity. But at the end of your post, you say (and I quote) "I can say that such notions [i.e., the main elements at issue in the subsequent Trinitarian debates] are historical developments which do not represent the views of the earliest Christians, and so are not essential to Christianity." But did "the earliest Christians" themselves believe that their views were definitive of what is "essential to Christianity"? Indeed, to what extent did "the earliest Christians" agree on any very strong normative statement of what was "essential to Christianity"? I suspect that there was very little consensus of that kind; Bart Ehrman, who you quote, implies as much in his book _Lost Christianities_.

Your principle suggests that the closer we are to the "source" of a belief (i.e., the closer we are historically to Jesus and his followers), the closer we are to the "essential" teaching. However, to what extent is this principle itself among the beliefs held by those at or near the "source," and hence a belief that is essential to Christianity? I don't know of any unambiguous biblical support, at least in the New Testament, for this way of thinking; a major reason for that is that all (or virtually all) of the authors of the NT believed that they were living at the end of history and that Jesus' return was imminent, probably within the lifetime of most of those doing the writing. So of course they didn't think to offer presumably "canonical" advice on how to adjudicate matters of relative authority in matters of interpretation meant to hold 2000 years later.

So either we impute your principle to them with slim biblical support (the same sort of support one might give to the doctrine of the Trinity), or we justify the principle on extrabiblical grounds (i.e, logical, philosophical, or theological-speculative ones). Neither way, it seems, lets us determine what is essential to Christianity and what is not in any way that is relatively immune from potential interpretative controversies.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

My point is not that a lack of belief in the Trinity is essential to Christianity, it is that a belief in the Trinity is not essential for being Christian, as a group whom all accept as Christians (Jesus' disciples) did not have it.

You should not take my negative claim (that a belief in the Trinity is not essential for Christianity) and try to draw a positive claim out of it (that since the earliest Christians believe that we are living in the end times a belief that we are living in the end times must be essential to Christianity).

I am not saying that the beliefs of the earliest Christians are normative, I am simply saying that if one holds a belief in common with the earliest Christians they should not be condemned as a heretic for it.

This is one of the reasons why I lament the emphasis on orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy: orthodoxy seeks to impose a particular dogmatic doctrinal position on everyone. I'm doing just the opposite.

If you believe in the Trinity you are within the Christian tradition, because a great many Christians have held Trinitarian positions similar to yours. But if for you the Trinity seems a bit of a stretch (and it does for me), historically speaking there are also a whole host of Christians on your side, and some of those Christians probably predate the ones who believe in the Trinity. Either way you are part of the body of Christ.

Brian Cubbage said...

As often happens, it sounds like we are agreeing less about theological substance than about the interpretive principles one uses in order to obtain said substance. (I do, however, think that the doctrine of the Trinity is theologically and philosophically motivated, but it turns out that those reasons are not especially unique to Christianity; other religious traditions espouse Trinity-like positions on basically the same grounds. So I also resist the claim that Trinitarian belief is essential to Christianity, if being essential means that anyone who entertains the belief is eo ipso Christian.)

I think part of what divides us is that I don't think you can have negative essentialism (i.e., "This isn't essential to Christianity, this isn't, and this isn't either) without at least some kind of positive essentialism (i.e. "Here's how we would know what IS essential to Christianity, even if it turns out that nothing we know of fits the bill").

Maybe I'm getting hung up on the word "essential"; for me, that word carries a lot of freight. Maybe speaking of necessary and sufficient conditions would be better? I.e. belief in the Trinity is sufficient for having Christian beliefs (or at least one Christian belief), but it isn't necessary? But then this raises the question whether there are any beliefs which are necessary (even if they are not sufficient). Do you think that any particular beliefs are necessary?

As for lamenting the emphasis on "orthodoxy": Well and good, but this lament doesn't make theological questions simply disappear. Enforced orthodoxy is a problem, especially when pursued at the expense of doing the right thing by other people and by the rest of creation; but surely tipping the scales just as far in the other direction, towards orthopraxy at the expense of orthodoxy, is no better. Doesn't our sense of what is right to do, generally speaking, have something to do with our beliefs about who God is (if God is!) and about what the world is? One might say that a big reason to speculate about these things is precisely because one's beliefs about these things shape our sense of what is important to do.

For example, I'm convinced that "just me and Jesus" theology is not only bad because it blinds the one who holds it to the existence and causes of widespread human misery. I think it's also bad because it's just bad theology: it tends to rely on assumptions about God, and about our warrant for belief in God, that are so implausible. I'm prepared to say that a big part of why it has such problematic ethical consequences is because of its theological problems, not vice versa.

My lament goes beyond theology to intellectual culture more generally: I lament that few people seem to appreciate the need to balance what we believe about the world, generally speaking, and how we should behave in the world. It's not that good-hearted people don't intuitively sense the need for such balance; it's that for whatever reason it's difficult to come up with an account of what such balance looks like that would allow those good-hearted people to convince others that their point of view has some good reasons on its side, not just privileged intuitions or wooly-headed sentimentality.

Sandalstraps said...

I'm using "essential" the same way that Hans Kung does, which is roughly the same as saying that something is a necessary condition. I don't believe that a belief in a Triune God is either necessary or sufficient for one to be a Christian.

But a good follow up question is: What, then, is essential for Christianity? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for Christianity?

Some of them are doctrinal, but perhaps not all. It is easier to talk about doctrine, or belief, orthodoxy, than it is to talk about practice, orthopraxy. This is particularly true when we factor in grace. It is far too easy to say that so and so must not be a Christian because if they were then they would not have done such and such. And I've heard that sort of argument made a great many times against almost everyone who has ever done anything morally questionable. This, of course, not only overlooks the fact that we do not always agree about what constitutes moral behavior, but it also overlooks something which is essential to Christianity, an understanding of grace.

What are some doctrinal beliefs which are necessary (if not quite sufficient) for one to be considered a Christian?

Clearly one must believe in God. One must also believe that God is in some way revealed through te actions and teachings of Jesus the Christ. One must have some sort of christology, some sort of understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ.

There are details to be worked out here. There should be some limits set on what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ. One does not have a christology if one says that because the Ichthus symbol is a fish, then to say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that Jesus is a fish! I haven't heard anyone make that argument, but I'm sure someone would if I set absolutely no limits on chistological statements.

The limits I usually set are historical, because they are easier to deal with. If one holds a view which is consistent with a group about whom all (or almost all) agree are Christians, then one is, at least in that respect, a Christian. (This gets tricky if it, a positive statement, is turned into a negative statement, since Christians have not always been in agreement.) It is important for me to recover the beliefs of Jewish Christians for ecumenical reasons, as well as for the above mentioned reason.

The mainstream of Christianity broke with the Jewish Christians in the late 4th century, though they had been leading to a break for a long time before that. They essentially broke over christology. The Jewish Christians, in rejecting the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, were deemed heretics. But if the beliefs of these heretics are very much like the beliefs of Jesus' disciples, and if Jesus' disciples - while they kept their Jewish heritage - are considered by Christians to be Christians (which they are), then how can we reject the Jewish Christians who were condemned of heresy for denying the divinty of Christ and the Trinity? These must not be essential for Christianity (per Kung's use of the word "essential").

As for the "just me and Jesus" theology, I agree, and would also add something to your critique. It is bad theology because it removes us from our community (in the case of Christianity, the Church); and community is essential to both our humanity and our Christianity. I think that being in some way idenitfied with and found within a community of fellow Christians is essential to being a Christian, because (for one) I buy into Aristotle's notion that we are social animals by nature, and (for two) because I agree with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin when he said this:

The organ made for seeing God is not (if you get to the bottom of the dogma) the isolated human soul; it is the human soul united to all other souls, under the humanity of Christ.

(quoted from the previously unpublished essay Note on the Physical Union Between the Humanity of Christ and the Faithful in the Course of Their Sanctification posthumously published in the book Christianity and Evolution)

In other words, if Teilhard is right, we need to be in community in order to perceive God with any degree of reliability. We need each other to serve as checks against our more selfish impulses, and against our more hairbrained ideas. But, of course, we need each other for a great deal more than that.

And I don't think that all speculation on the nature of God is bad, it just isn't always helpful. It can be particularly unhelpful when one thinks that because one's position was at one point deemed by an ecumenical council to be orthodox that it must be right, and that whoever opposes it must be wrong.

Kyle said...

The fact that you got out of seminary and professional ministry when you had the chance might be taken to indicate that you might deserve some credit for having a lot more sense than any of us at the Watchpost.

I might have a response to your post later. Tonight, alas, I'm hard[ly] at work on a sermon.

CQD said...

Sandalstraps,
I'm a visitor from the Watchpost... I appreciated your post, especially the research that went into it... a couple comments...
While I agree that speculation about God is ultimately just that, I think it would be an error to stop the speculation/debate. (I am not interpreting you as having advocated that either.) While I concur that the "point" is to experience God, it strikes me though, that if we have not, through meditation, prayer, and others means, reflected on our God, then our experience of that God will never fully permeate our being. Human beings are generally reflective creatures, they have an experience, but it is only later that that experience is complete, and the individual arrives at a substanitive understanding.
Theological debate/discussion is a manner of interacting with, and of understanding God. Historically, the conclusions arrived at have been brandished like clubs, but that is another matter. Speculation about, and public discussion of theological matters and God's characteristics form much of the foundation of spiritual and ethical praxis.
The trouble with Sola Scriptura approaches (Which I am interpreting your attempt at justifying trinitarian doctrine using the Bible as being an example of) is that they lock God into a particular time and place, and when strictly applied, prohibit
God from negotiating the unique context of contemporary life. I feel that such constructs as the Wesleyan Quadrillateral or the Anglican Three-legged Stool do a better job of permitting a person to access God and God's truth with the totality of his or her being (As does Catholicism with its Sacramental Imagination).
A good example of the struggle between sola scriptura and a wider view of the activities of God (and I'm only thinking of it because I'm taking a Reformation History class)is the debate between Ulrich Zwingli and Johan Faber. Faber argued that extra-scriptural Christian practices were legitimate because it represented the continuation of God's work through the Holy Spirit. Zwingli ended up winning the debate arguing sola scriptura and the consequences were the loss of mass, icons, and God's ability to work outside of illuminating the scripture.
Trinitarian doctrine provides answers to some very important metaphysical questions implicit in the claims the Bible makes about God, Christ, and Christianity in general. It is something analogous to road map that permits one to navigate their faith journey in a Christian context.
You are right to raise questions about the absolutist application of Trinitarian doctrine, but then again Jesus already indicated that the Church's treatment of "heretics" was wrong when he said "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Extra-Biblical thought and practice has long been an important part of Christianity- I think it's best to show extreme caution when making sola scriptura arguments- if you make them at all.

Sandalstraps said...

Sorry, no sola scriptura here. As a Methodist (and former United Methodist preacher) I agree with CQD about the merits of reason, experience and tradition in interpreting scripture. But, as we said in our UM Polity class, a quadralateral is not an equalateral.

That which is outside scripture may be useful, but it is not normative (binding on all Christians.) My point with this post was not to make disbelief in the Trinity (or, at least, in a particular concept of the Trinity as a Triune God) normative, but to declare that belief in the Trinity (or, again, a particular concept of the Trinity as a Triune God) should not be considered necessary for one to be a Christian in good standing with the church universal.

I do, however, have an agenda here, and one should look for that agenda when evaluating my argument. For extra-scriptural reasons I do not believe that God is three co-equal persons. While I don't think that it is necessary for all Christians to believe (or, in this case, perhaps disbelieve) as I do, I do wish to maintain my connection with my spiritual home (Christianity in general, Methodism in particular.)

As such I needed, for psychological and spiritual reasons, to connect my way of approaching the Trinity to a group whom all would consider to be Christians in good standing - the disciples of Jesus the Christ.

I don't think that agenda impacts the validity of my argument at all, since many good historians support my contention that Jesus' earliest followers did not see him as an enfleshed deity, nor did they see him as part of a divine Trinity of three co-equal persons.

As such, my argument is more a plea for tolerance (on historical and scriptural grounds) for a view which was obtained by reason, experience, and a study of:

a.) philosophic/theological (speculative) ideas about the unknown God, and

b.) the history of my own religious tradition, along with similar religious traditions.

Sandalstraps said...

Observations on sola scriptura:

CQD's comment got me thinking more about sola scriptura claims. I agree with CQD's assesment of them, and would like to add this:

Claims of sola scriptura are at best dangerous because ultimately any claim that scripture alone has authority is in every way impossible for at least these three reasons:

1. For one to know that scripture alone has authority one would have to look outside scripture, since scripture itself makes no such claim.

If the authority of the sola scriptura claim rests, as it must, outside scripture, then it is a self-defeating claim, since its [the claim that scripture alone has authority] authority is derived from something other than scripture.

2. The church (though not the whole church, since there was and is no uniform agreement) decided which Christian writings were considered scripture. As such, whatever authority the writings of scripture themselves have comes from their designation as scripture, a designation which lays outside of scripture.

Again, if the authority of scripture lies outside itself, then for scripture to have any authority it must not have sole authority.

3. When one reads scripture one of necessity interprets scripture, because reading necessarily involves interpretation, or else it is merely glancing at symbols on a page without comprehending them.

When one interprets (which is necessary for the act of reading scripture, and scripture must actually be read for any claim of scriptural authority to have any meaning) scripture, one necessarily uses a framework for interpretation which rests on things outside of scripture.

When one reads, one interprets. When one interprets, one brings a great many sources (life experience, previously read material, one's own ideas as well as the ideas of others, what one has heard at church, etc.) in from outside that which one is reading.

Because of this, since one can never interpret scripture solely in light of itself, even if the above two claims were not true, it would still be nonsensical to claim that scripture alone has authority, since one uses only one's interpretation of scripture, and one's assumptions about scripture rather than solely scripture.

In other words, for more than just historical reasons, sola scriptura, for all of its usefulness in reminding the Roman tradition that it had strayed from scripture, is bad news nonetheless.

nj1 said...

Hi there,

I'm a practicing Messianic Gentile originally from the Episcopal Church. Every day I say the "Shema" - "hear o Israel the Lord God is one..."

The trinity is really bothering me. Any suggested reading?