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."
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