Christians, Monotheism, and the Trinity

Christians, Monotheism, and the Trinity May 21, 2013

As Trinity Sunday approaches, there is bound to be an increase in blogging about the Trinity and about Christian views of God more generally. Here are some items that have already come across my radar:

Allan Bevere suggests that the Trinity is not an appendix to Christian doctrine but something central. I find this a problematic assertion, even though I appreciate some of the things that he suggests that the Trinity can help to emphasize, such as God as inherently relational. The Trinity in its later metaphysical elaboration is simply not there in the New Testament, and so one has to ask in what sense something that was not there from the beginning, nor part of Jesus’ own teaching or viewpoint, can be considered central to Christian faith.

Andrew Perriman deals well with an important piece of New Testament evidence, 1 Corinthians 8:4. I’ll give his conclusion below – click through to see how he reaches it.

So when Paul says that “for us there is… one Lord, Jesus Christ”, he is not saying that Jesus is the “LORD” in the Shema, that Jesus is YHWH. He is saying that Jesus has been given an authority—or a name—above that of all the other “lords” that hold sway in the Greek-Roman world. He does not have this authority as YHWH. He has received it from YHWH.

Dan McClellan and Johnson Thomaskutty interacted with a recent post by Larry Hurtado, reviewing a book about the “one and only God.”

John Squires and Elizabeth Raine explore issues of Trinitarian theology through a fictional dialogue.

J. J. Goldberg briefly discusses possible influence of Christian Trinitarianism on Jewish mysticism.

And of course, for my own thoughts in detail, see my book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context.

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  • Rachel

    I’ve always said the Trinity isn’t so much something God is, as how we construct God to understand a complexity that the human brain just can’t fathom.

    God is without number. In the same way that we enlightened “post-modern” Christians understand that God transcends gender, God also transcends number. God is not a single being, nor is God many beings. Saying either is not right. I think the early Christian Fathers grokked this, but didn’t quite know how to explain it. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity was born.

    I still find it useful. I’m guessing you’ve read “She Who Is.” Good stuff. Nothing wrong with 3.

    Though I think when I start my own religion, it’ll be four. 😛

    • Rachel, I like what you wrote very much. I was raised in a conservative Protestant group, but since adulthood have always considered the concept of the Trinity to be Christianity’s weirdest doctrine. But what you say is very insightful and makes sense to me,

    • arcseconds

      I always thought it was because they were progressively influenced by and finally pretty much took over and did up the notion from the neoplatonic philosophy of the day…

    • Scott F

      “God is without number”

      How do we know this? Is this statement much superior to the formulation of the Trinity? Or is it just a logical construct required in order to sustain our pre-conceived notion of “what God is like”?

  • Cole J. Banning

    I would guess a lot of this depends on one’s ecclesiology. As a liberal Anglo-Catholic, the fact that the Trinity isn’t in scripture doesn’t bother me; it’s enough for me that it is in the creeds and through out Christian tradition.

    • How can we say that it is throughout Christian tradition? It is because it was challenged within Christian tradition that it is now in the creeds.

  • arcseconds

    Given that you believe that much of the material in the Gospels probably does not actually originate with Jesus, is there a principled distinction, in your view, between material added to the tradition 60-70 years after Jesus’s death, and material added maybe 70-100 years after that?

    • Not in principle, but in practice, it often seems that the further one gets in time from a person or event, the easier it is for things to be increasingly disconnected from the historical reality.

      • arcseconds

        OK, but isn’t it the case that very little about the historical reality can be determined with any degree of probability?

        The consensus seems that he probably preached an imminent apocalypse, no? No-one thinks the world is about to end in the 1st century A.D. any more, so Christians just ignore one of the very few probable historical facts.

        The other consensus point is that he was crucified, which of course is important to Christians, but it seems to be heavily reinterpreted from how it was likely viewed at the time.

        The attitude that what’s essential to Christianity are the historical realities of Jesus’s life, and nothing else, would make for a Christianity very different from any that’s been seen since the middle of the second century, if not earlier. It’s not just the Trinity that would be regarded as ‘inessential’, but virtually everything that every Christian has ever held to be the essentials, including loving thy enemies, the Sermon on the Mount, the resurrection, and everything about the crucifixion except for the fact that that’s how Jesus died.

        Whereas you’d also have to insist on believing that the world’s about to end in 100 A.D. as being essential.

        I’m not saying that you’re saying that. I’m just trying to get my head around as to what you think is essential for Christianity, and why.

        Also, please correct me if I’m wrong about the scholarly consensus. That’s what I’ve gathered from reading you and your colleagues’ blogs over the past few months, and I am capable of reading comprehension failure, especially when reading bits and pieces over a long period of time!

        • The form of the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew’s, but there is content in it that I think we can trace back to Jesus.

          No one, conservative or liberal, could or does think everything that Jesus happened to think. And so if we made that the definition of Christianity then there would have been no Christians.

          Christianity, of course, only comes to exist after the death of Jesus, if the label itself matters. And so I think one can make a case for a Christianity that is focused not only on a handful of things that are not merely probable but extremely likely. For instance, the very notion of embracing the identity of being a follower of a crucified messiah is itself something powerful and transformative. It involves choosing to eschew violence and hatred and pursue something radically different.

  • Rus Hooper

    It seems to me that you have misread Alan Bevere’s blog. For he is not the original author of those words, but rather is quoting from Alister McGrath’s textbook, as the italics and footline indicate. Further, he underlines Alister’s point of nuance, “This is not to say that Scripture contains a doctrine of the Trinity; rather, Scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner.” Rather, Alister’s point is that “The doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained and critical reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in Scripture, and continued in Christian experience.” He is not equating them, nor did he say that the doctrine of the Trinity is “central” as you claim. While God is central, and God can be understood through sustained, critical reflection on the pattern of Triune divine activity, you seem to be grinding an axe, at least to me.

    • Where does Allan say that he is quoting Alister McGrath? And how can one say that God demands to be understood by Christians in a manner that the evidence suggests that Jesus and the earliest Christians did not understand God?

      • Rus Hooper

        James, at first I wondered, too, for it seemed I had read those words somewhere before. I can see why you might have missed it. I looked at the “labels” at the bottom of his blog, where Alister McGrath’s name is tagged, and then I also pulled McGrath’s text off my shelf to confirm it was his words (p. 293f.) and not the composition of Allan Bevere (though the underlining is Allan’s emphasis). Then, I noticed the italics and figured it out as a quote.

        As to your second question, exegetically, the data is there in the NT for moving in the direction of a Triune understanding of God, and the earliest Christians are the ones giving us all this language for theological reflection (verbs, participles, prepositions, nouns, clauses and sentences).
        What language did the fourth century borrow? Fourth century meanings may have developed somewhat (I only know them in translation and from secondary sources), but the Hebrew writer in the NT appears to use the same root words, which St. Basil employs (hupostasis in 1:3 for “being”; and ousia as a reflective term that derives the “hos on” in that same verse). It is not a stretch to see that careful reflection on these and other Scriptures would lead St. Basil and others to embrace Jesus’ self-existence (as also YHWH can be understood, in relation to hayyah). As best as I can tell, the first century Christians did think in these terms. It is later scholarship that appears to drive a wedge between the 1st and 4th century. I suggest that wedge may not be historically necessary.

        • Are we talking about the same post? There is no tag with Alister McGrath at the bottom. There is a quote from John Polkinghorne in the post and his name is tagged.

          I can appreciate the development of Trinitarian thought in relation to the New Testament sources, but it is not an inevitable development, one that is the only way to interpret and expand upon them.