Trinitarian Formula?

Trinitarian Formula? May 22, 2016

I was asked the following on Facebook, and thought I would share it today:

Hey, I have a question from those of us who have to preach on Trinity Sunday. What about the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28? Original, later addition?

Here is my response:

I don’t think it is a later addition, although the manuscript evidence is less than clear. But at any rate, the formula seems to reflect a very early creedal practice associated with baptism which is older than what we call the doctrine of the Trinity. It is reflected in post-NT but pre-Trinitarian creeds. “We believe in one God…and in Jesus Christ…and in the Holy Spirit.”

In other words, I don’t think that the threefold formulas indicate anything about a purportedly shared nature of the three “bullet points” in the creedal affirmation.

It’s Trinity Sunday, so feel free to discuss and disagree if you are so inclined!


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  • John MacDonald

    I’ve wondered about the math behind the trinity. Is the idea that God is 100% The Father, 100% the Son, and 100% the Holy Spirit? It reminds me of the Incarnation and the idea that Jesus is 100% man, and 100% God. This Incarnation math is mathematical gibberish (any entity is represented by a limit of 100% Being, by definition). Saying Jesus is 100% man and 100% God is no more meaningful than saying Jesus is 120 % God and 80% man. How could Jesus have 200% Being?

    • You have to use imaginary numbers.

    • arcseconds

      Is this really any more problematic than James being Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University and yet at the same time a human being and yet at the same time being an American?

      We could also phrase this as ‘the maths of McGraths is gibberish: are we to understand that he’s 100% Goodwin Chair, 100% human being and 100% American, and therefore adds up to 300% of Being” but that just seems like a confused and somewhat perverse way of explaining the situation.

      It was of course a problem for early Christian theologians, working as they were with rigid Aristotelian categories and with a pre-conception that gods were of an entirely different kind than human beings, but when we’re presented with challenges to rigid categories, perhaps the thing to do is to give up on the rigid categories, rather than to decide the challenging cases are nonsensical or aberrations.

      (That certainly seems to be the appropriate attitude to take to, say, mixed-race, transgender, or intersexual people, for example.)

      • Occam Razor

        Yes, arc seconds, it really is more problematic because those titles that James carries does not imply he is a being with multiple “essences,” whatever that means.

        The fact is nobody has ever been able to explain the Trinity because it is utter gibberish. Every explanation goes down a rabbit hole that cannot be adequately understood and has to be qualified with, “well, the truth is beyond our human minds to comprehend.”

        • arcseconds

          Not multiple essences. A single essence.

          If you don’t know enough about the doctrine to even get this most basic piece of terminology straight, whatever makes you think you understand it well enough to venture an opinion on it?

          It’s also not surprising someone who doesn’t understand the basic terminology should think something’s gibberish.

          all this talk of ousia is just plain Greek to me!

          (How seriously would you take someone coming in and saying, oh, I don’t know, quantum mechanical wavefunctions are nonsense, but it turns out they don’t actually know what a wavefunction is?)

          • Occam Razor

            Haha, you are a funny little insecure type. I was poking fun at an above comment, though I think I misread it. I guess I know nothing, though I’ve studied the issue for decades.

            I also notice you didn’t care to explain to us how something can be all of multiple things or how multiple persons can be one essence.

            Fact is God spoke directly to lots of people in the OT, but never once told them they had the wrong understanding of who he was exactly. Fact is that Jesus walked and taught among us measly humans yet never once thought to tell people they misunderstood who he was or who god was exactly. Kind of a major thing to let go misunderstood! Not only did he not correct people, he quoted the Jewish Shema, one would logically conclude he had the same view of God as they did.

            Fact is there is not a single reference to a Trinity in the Bible, which you would think would be something important for the Word of God to omit. Fact is no early Christians mentioned the Trinity. It was invented out of whole cloth by Christians would could not agree but eventually got tired of fighting so they essentially concluded that they were all right.

          • John MacDonald

            “It was invented out of whole cloth by Christians would could not agree but eventually got tired of fighting so they essentially concluded that they were all right.”

            Nietzsche said a genealogy of a concept can be telling.

          • arcseconds

            You resort to baseless insults so early in the conversation — I don’t think I’m the insecure one here 🙂

            I don’t need to explain anything: I’m just pointing out that you aren’t in a position to judge whether the doctrine of the trinity is nonsense, as it seems you have no idea what the doctrine of the trinity actually is.

            I’m well aware of all your ‘facts’. They might be relevant to whether the doctrine of the trinity is false (and they certainly seem to suggest it is not so important to believe the doctrine), but they have no bearing on whether it is nonsense.

            Distinguishing between false statements and nonsensical ones is an important task in achieving conceptual clarity, wouldn’t you agree?

          • Occam Razor

            Belîeving an eternally begotten being who is fully man and fully human was born of a woman who was impregnated by a third member of a deity (who curiously enough is not the father) is nonsense, yes. But if you want to argue that it is merely wrong, I wouldn’t dispute that.

          • arcseconds

            It doesn’t seem to me there’s anything especially nonsensical about what you say here. There aren’t any logical contradictions, for example, as far as I can see. If there is, maybe you could illustrate where you think they are. There’s no logical inconsistency in thinking someone existed before they were born, for example.

            ‘Father’ is of course a term of art when it comes to the Trinity, so hopefully you’re just being a little facetious when pointing out that Mary’s impregnation is traditionally ascribed to the Holy Spirit, rather than supposing you have pointed out a logical inconsistency here.

          • arcseconds

            If you want me to change my mind about your ignorance of the topic, I invite you to briefly explain the doctrine of the trinity, in your own words. It shouldn’t take any more than a couple of paragraphs to show you understand the general idea.

            That would include showing some understanding of what ‘essence’ means, of course, and what there are three of.

          • Occam Razor

            Briefly, there is no Trinity. How is that?

            Now, since you evidently believe there is one, maybe you could be the first person in the history of the world to adequately explain it?

          • arcseconds

            What makes you think that it’s evident that I believe there is one?

            And given your evident ignorance on the topic, what makes you so sure that no-one’s adequately explained it up until now?

            I’m trying to get you to justify your claims here. It doesn’t seem to me that you can have read any actual account of the Trinity, because you wouldn’t be saying things like ‘there are three essences’ if you were. Are you just repeating something you’ve heard from other people? Were these people experts in the Trinity? If not, how are you doing anything other than what a lot of religious people do, just uncritically accepting something that’s told to you?

          • John MacDonald

            Jesus’ prayer to God in the Garden of Gethsemane shows Jesus in agony, begging and petitioning God to change God’s plan for Jesus to die on the cross. I’m not sure how you reconcile this with your claim that Jesus and God were of the same essence?

          • arcseconds

            I haven’t made that claim 🙂

          • John MacDonald

            I know now. I originally thought you were trying to support a position, but then I read that you were just trying to do an analytic of concepts. Sorry. lol

          • arcseconds

            no problem 🙂

          • John MacDonald

            And I’m not sure what you mean by “essence.” Traditionally, “Being” is divided into the “essential” and the “existential,” an entity’s “what” being and an entity’s “how” being. For example, a chair might be “brown” in terms of “what” it is, and “badly positioned” in terms of “how” it is. I’m not sure how the triune Godhead can be fundamentally different in terms of it’s parts, but still have exactly the same essence. What do you mean when you say the three parts of the Godhead have the same essence? Please describe what this shared essence is, and then please describe how the three differ.

          • arcseconds

            The point of my reply to Razor here is that they have a very firm opinion of a well-known(*) doctrine but don’t actually understand it at all: they don’t know what there are three of and what there is one of. That would seem to be a pretty basic thing to grasp in order to know whether or not the idea is nonsense or not.

            I’m hardly an expert on the topic myself, but I just need a little less than total ignorance to recognise Razor’s ignorance.

            Having said that, I have one or two things to say about this, but I’ll have to leave you hanging right now in order not to do Razor’s homework for them 🙂


            (*) in the sense that lots of people have heard of the doctrine of the trinity, but I suspect actually lots of people with strong opinions about it (especially wholehearted belief) don’t really understand the claim(s), or the problems with it, at all well.

          • arcseconds

            Well, I’ve given Razor plenty of opportunity to demonstrate they actually know the first thing about what they’re talking about, and they haven’t done so, so I suppose there’s nothing to lose by letting the cat out of the bag.

            The usual statement of the trinity is that there are three persons, and one substance. The Greek word translated as ‘substance’ is οὐσία, and this is also sometimes translated as ‘essence’.

            Neither is a particularly good translation, as ‘substance’ suggests to modern readers a kind of stuff, like hydrogen or bubble-gum or something, and ‘essence’ sounds like something fluffy and wooy, a je ne sais quoi, something beyond description and (if one is of a suspicious disposition) perhaps something that’s deliberately like this.

            (I used ‘essence’ purely because Razor did, not because it’s the best English term.)

            ‘Being’ is a little better, but if someone has vaguely heard about Heidegger and has a dim view of him as perhaps also fluffy and wooy and deliberately obscure, it does little to help the matter.

            Although ‘one being with three persons’ kind of gets at the general idea here.

            We should look to Aristotle for a clarification as to what ‘substance’ meant, because the statement originates from a time when people were working in a broadly Aristotelian philosophical tradition. Aristotle’s account of substance is complex and ultimately perhaps inconclusive, but the simple version in the Categories could give us something to go on: it is something that bears properties, but isn’t itself a property.

            (Of course, one could complain that Aristotle has a nonsensical metaphysics. But that’s quite a different claim to the Trinity being nonsensical, and also would require an argument, not just a statement to that effect. It would also be contentious: it’s not a consensus opinion in philosophy that Aristotle = nonsense.)

            So the basic idea is that there’s a single thing here, that for some reason manifests itself as three different persons.

            And I don’t find that idea to be nonsensical. We’re familiar with this sort of thing from far more mundane cases. Multiple personality disorder is the most obvious one, where we at least are tempted to say there’s one being with multiple personalities. But there are also other mundane cases where someone is understood to act in different capacities. Monarchies provide some interesting examples here, for example personal unions (two ‘crowns’ in one ‘being’). If we add the fact that monarchs can also act in their own person, a monarch with a personal union is already a ‘three-in-one’ kind of case: when they speak or act, they do so either as the monarch of one country, the other, or on their own account.

  • Our Triune God is very relational; the initial mind/ being that exists outside of time and space, the Spirit that moves like the “wind” in the created universe, the incarnate one who wants to dwell with us. Understanding it from this point of view is the only way that I can make sense of it.

    • John MacDonald

      There is no sense in which an entity can be fully man, while at the same time being fully God. The existential truths of being a man would be absent if a being knew himself to be God. And we see this in the gospels. Take the pericope of Jesus in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, petitioning and begging God to change the atoning death plan that God had for Jesus. How could Jesus be the same as God if Jesus is petitioning God to change His plan?

      • Jesus had a human will, due to the incarnation, but also had the same divine essence as the Father. It is certainly not an easy thing to understand. I found that the theological term for it is Dyothelitism.

        • John MacDonald

          What does having “the same divine essence as the Father” mean?

    • John Haggerty

      It is hard to pray to Christ (in whom we live and move and have our being) unless one proceeds from some Trinitarian sympathy. Athanasius Contra Mundum. John Henry Newman said the Trinity was the greatest of all mysteries, but that it would be as clear as daylight in eternity. Donald Macleod of the Free Church of Scotland said there are some things which are true of Jesus as a man which are not true of him as the divine Son of God – even more riddling to my agnostic friends on Patheos. I recommend his book ‘Shared Life – The Trinity and the Fellowship of God’s People’ to my friends in the Jehovah Witnesses and the Church of the Latter Day Saints.

      • John MacDonald

        “Square circles” and “married bachelors” are also great mysteries, but that doesn’t mean the terms mean anything. The emperor has no clothes.

        • John Haggerty

          Thanks for making me chuckle (square circles and married bachelors is the kind of remark you find in the TV monologues written by the great Alan Bennett). But the debate has moved on from logical positivism. The analytical philosopher and combative atheist Antony Flew reinvented the rules of engagement in religious debate. Major works of theism in the analytic tradition (following Flew’s groundbreaking books) have been written by James Swinburne, Elenore Stump, John Haldane, Peter Geach, Norman Kretzmann, Peter Van Inwagen. The turn towards theism, however, did not prepare anyone (least of all myself) for Flew’s renunciation of atheism and the publication of his book ‘There is a God’ in 2007. For over 50 years Flew not only denied the existence of God but also the existence of an afterlife. He changed his mind and wasn’t shy about saying so. Religious belief can hardly be equated with Hans Anderson’s wise and charming tale of the Emperor without clothes. The moral of the story makes me think of some of the winners of the British Turner Prize for Art, not the acute writings of theologians such as James McGrath.

          • John MacDonald

            You haven’t given an explanation of what you think (a): the shared essence of the members of the trinity is, or (b): how the different members differ from each other, or (c): how (a) and (b) are compatible.

          • John Haggerty

            (a) The shared essence is love. (b) The Father did not take on human flesh and come in the form of a servant, Jesus of Nazareth did. Indeed the humiliation of Jesus begins with his birth. (c) The Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost, after Jesus’ sin-atoning death, his resurrection and ascension into heaven. We read in the New Testament that many in Jerusalem were converted at Pentecost – this was the beginning of the church. The Holy Spirit is God active in the world. Through the Holy Spirit my soul is joined to Jesus Christ’s glorified body in heaven. I am only able to pray because the Holy Spirit is praying in me.

          • John MacDonald

            (a) What do you mean by “love?”

            (b) What is the difference between Jesus and The Father that allowed Jesus to come in the form of a servant, but that this was not attributed to The Father?

            (c) (i)You wrote “The Holy Spirit is God active in the world.” Is this to be understood in the sense of (b) that The Holy Spirit is active in the world, but The Father and Jesus are not? (ii) You wrote “I am only able to pray because the Holy Spirit is praying in me.” Does this mean that prayer was not efficacious prior to Pentecost?

          • John Haggerty

            (a) The Gospel of John says that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’. (b) Harold Bloom in his book on Yahweh and Jesus finds the relation between the two problematic and absolutely baffling – I only cite Bloom because I love his work and (I hardly need say) he is a greater reader and critic than I could ever hope to be. I will say as a christian (Bloom inclines more towards a very nuanced gnosticism) that the Father must in some way suffer with the Son during the Son’s death at Calvary. However John Murray the systematic theologian says that Jesus did not just feel abandoned by the Father on the cross, he was abandoned. This is how Jesus becomes sin for us; this is what Scripture means by his ‘perfect obedience’. I hold to the penal substitution theory of Jesus’ atonement. (c) Where the Holy Spirit is present, so too are the Father and the Son (ii) Prayer was efficacious prior to Pentecost, but the risen Christ told the apostles to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came. To quote from Tyndale’s translation (which Bloom holds in high esteem) — ‘Now we see in a glass, even in a Dark Speaking’ (Paul). Incidentally I believe the prayers of people of other faiths may be efficacious though my many reformed friends might disagree. Martin Buber said he could never accept the divinity of Jesus and he was a meditative and very moral man. I feel enlightened and blessed by the many comments on Patheos by agnostics and atheists.

          • John MacDonald

            If you believe in Penal Substitution, explain how one person can be justly punished for the sins of others?

          • John Haggerty

            Jesus said he was born for this. The problem alters when I look inside myself and see my own sinfulness. This is the mystery of iniquity.

          • John MacDonald

            Saying someone is born to do something fundamentally unjust does not make the act just. Saying something is a mystery is another way of saying you don’t understand it. Since you are unable to supply an analytic of concepts here, I will restate what I said earlier: The Emperor Has No Clothes. lol

          • John Haggerty

            Yes, it was unjust that Jesus had to pay the price for my sins. Holy Scripture says he fell right down on his face in Gethsemane when he realised what he was going to have to do. Christianity is a mystery. But life felt a mystery during all my years in the secular wilderness

          • John MacDonald

            Then we agree that God The Father is unjust?

          • John Haggerty

            There are many times I feel God is unjust. The evil that men do (the Shoah for one) returns me to God’s justice. Am I playing with words?

          • John MacDonald

            And when you say “God is Love,” is this the same God that ordered genocide: In 1 Samuel 15:2-3, God commanded Saul and the Israelites, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'” God ordered similar things when the Israelites were invading the promised land (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 20:16-18). Why would God have the Israelites exterminate an entire group of people, women and children included, if He is essentially “Love?”

          • John Haggerty

            You are right, this savagery can’t be love. Therefore I cannot hold to the idea that all Scripture is infallible.

          • John MacDonald

            So you get to pick and choose which scriptures are divinely inspired based on your subjective moral compass?

          • John Haggerty

            Yes, there is some picking and choosing, isn’t there? But we are allowed to be moral and discriminating readers, surely? Christians sometimes say things which scare the shit out of me. The man who makes a comment below me never says anything that scares me because he is moral, rational and compassionate and he really listens to other people. Henry James said the essence of moral behaviour is to consider the field. I think he means to look as widely as possible and not to shut yourself away in the dungeon of dehumanising belief.

          • John MacDonald

            If you arbitrarily get to pick and choose what scriptures to believe in, then your faith rests on nothing more than your fleeting feelings.

          • John Haggerty

            Well, I do have emotions and so do you. Even a rationalist can never be certain what part his emotional system plays in his words and decisions. My fleeting feelings were there in my 50-odd years as an agnostic. But my faith rests on Christ’s finished work on Calvary. My reading of modern history confirms what Karl Barth said – ‘Man is not good. Man has never been good. Man will never be good.’

          • John MacDonald

            So your subjective faith is: “My faith rests on Christ’s finished work on Calvary, even though there is no objective reason to believe what scripture says about Christ on Calvary.” lmao!

          • John Haggerty

            I will finish for tonight by suggesting that there is an interplay of subjectivity and objectivity in many lives, perhaps even your own. There is a subjective and objective reason to believe I am a sinner. Read Augustine’s Confessions because he is ruthlessly honest with himself as I am sure you are ruthlessly with yourself, John.

          • John MacDonald

            Come back anytime. It’s fun!

          • John Haggerty

            I doubt you find me fun, John.

          • John MacDonald

            Debating is fun. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t be here.

          • John Haggerty

            Then I misunderstood you. My apologies.

          • John MacDonald

            No worries. I have a graduate degree in Philosophy, so I have spent enough time in the classroom and at conferences debating so as to not take it too seriously.

          • John Haggerty

            I have no background in philosophy, theology or science and it shows. I feel that the little bit of ground I am standing on may vanish. I will look under my feet tonight and it will be gone. There will certainly be the beauty of the natural world and the music of Bach.

          • John MacDonald

            If I were arguing your position, I would focus on what the term “concept” means. If I choose a particular concept of yours and say you don’t understand it because you can’t explain it, you could retort by saying we can understand concepts without being able to explain them. For instance, most people on the planet know what “Love” is, even if they can’t define “Love.” Analogously, if I ask you to go pick up “carrots” from the grocery store, you can go there, pick up the carrots, pay for them, go home, cook and eat them, even if you can’t define the word “Carrot.” As Pascal said, “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t know.” Have a little more faith in your faith!

          • John Haggerty

            Thanks. What you say is very useful. I often quote Pascal’s famous statement to myself and yet he belongs to the age of faith and the age of faith was also violent and vituperative. In my 3Os I called myself a christian humanist and I wonder if this is still what I really am. I agree with many of the remarks made by the characters in novels and stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Can the atonement as it is understood in doctrine really encompass the magnitude of the Shoah, not to mention the acts of genocide that have taken place since then?

          • John MacDonald

            I tend to think that if there was a loving, caring, personal God who watched over us and had a plan for our lives, there wouldn’t be unspeakable tragedies like three year old children dying of cancer. That isn’t love.

          • John Haggerty

            An English theologian (he wrote Invitation to Pilgrimage, though I can’t recall his name) said faith was a way of seeing in the dark. I think the author of that book went blind himself. I knew a woman whose daughter died at the age of five or six. She was a Catholic and her faith meant everything to her in this period of absolute darkness. She told me there was a difference between the question ‘Where are you God?’ and ‘God, where are you?’ In the second question the person is in the direst distress and needs grace now. My younger brother is dying of pancreatic cancer and says he is lucky compared with the children dying all over the world. Yet I know he is leaving the world with all his questions in the air.

          • John MacDonald

            The common apologist retort to the problem of suffering is that faith is not based on whether this world is just, but that paradise is promised in the next life. And cancer isn’t an argument against God, any more than polio is. We just haven’t found a cure for cancer yet.

          • John Haggerty

            But not merely paradise, ‘to be with Christ, which is far better’. To me it could only make sense if there’s something like universal salvation, with people having a second chance to choose Christ after death. But what of people who do not find Jesus altogether congenial? Don Cupitt thinks he is a man of the first century and of another culture – so what can he really say to us? I disagree enough to see the radiance of Christ, who spoke much of the spirituality of children.

          • John MacDonald

            A professor friend of mine is a universalist. He says we need to pray for Hitler. He is nothing if not consistent in thinking through the implications of his worldview.

          • John Haggerty

            Praying for the prime mover of the Holocaust is a dark saying, all right. I twice met the man who shot the little children and their teachers in Dunblane, Scotland, though he could only have been 18 when we spoke. After the shootings I remember thinking what his judgment would be like if indeed there is to be a personal judgment.

          • John MacDonald

            I would say a God who would forgive Hitler is unjust.

          • John Haggerty

            Unjust and unknowable, yes I agree. Now I fear I must retire since it is after midnight here in the Cotswolds of Gloucestershire, England. I like to stand in the garden and look up at the stars. Do you know the line in O’Casey.? ‘What is the stars? The stars is bloody indifferent.’ I hope we speak again on James’s blog.

          • arcseconds

            He’s not doing it arbitrarily, though, is he? He’s doing it on the basis of being consistent with things he believes about God.

            This is no more arbitrary picking and choosing than it is to ‘pick and choose’ to believe out of the Bible, or any other text, according to what one believes is physically possible.

          • John MacDonald

            I would say the arbitrariness comes from choosing a particular faith life without evidence, even if the person is consistent in their arbitrariness.

          • arcseconds

            Don’t you usually claim to be a postmodernist (sensu philosophico)? And, as such, do you not view all such commitments, including commitment to the Modern Scientific Worldview, as essentially arbitrary?

          • John MacDonald

            Sorry it took so long to respond. My health isn’t the best and I can’t get to the computer as much as I would like. I did my Master’s thesis on Heidegger and the Greeks, so I fall in line more with him than I do with postmoderns like Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas and company. As I posted elsewhere on this blog, in my experience religious people tend to treat as “inspired” scriptures that confirm what they want to believe about God (like The loving God who gave his only son), and dismiss as preposterous scriptures antithetical to their theological biases (like the God of the Hebrew Scriptures who ordered genocide). What is the epistemological basis, then, for deciding some scriptures are divinely inspired while others are not? Apparently it is whatever prejudices, biases, and arbitrary feelings one brings to the choice.

          • arcseconds

            Sorry to hear your health isn’t the best. I suspect you must be underplaying the situation a bit, as not being able to get to the computer suggests a health situation more serious than merely falling short of healthiness… my sympathies!

            Since Quine, at least (although one can trace this tendency back to the logical positivists and even before) the prevailing view in analytic philosophy is that, epistemologically speaking, everything is in principle up for grabs. There are no ultimate certainties, maybe not even logic. Quine described this as a ‘web of belief’, where while some beliefs might be more core and less open to revision and others more peripheral and more revisable, but ultimately anything can be adjusted to remove tension and contradiction in the web.

            E.g. while when measuring one’s room for a corner desk, if one finds pythagoras’s theorem doesn’t appear to hold, one should probably revise one’s opinions about whether the walls form right angles rather than thinking geometry needs revision, the discovery of the possibility of non-Euclidean geometries in the 19th century, and the realisation they can have empirical consequences in the 20th, meant that Euclidean geometry, once felt to be something that was absolutely certain, was found to be at best only true relative to an assumption that could fail to hold.

            So the view is roughly this: an agent has various sources of data, including theories, experiments, experiences, and intuitions, and out of them they form coherent theories as best they can. Clearly sometimes they can conclude that they have some certain knowledge in one area, but then come to revise that because it’s in some form of tension with things in another area. Any datum from any of the sources could be taken to be ‘signal’ or ‘noise’ depending on the overall theory-building activity.

            And isn’t this pretty much what considered Christians are doing? They have various sources of data, including scripture, tradition, personal experience, intuition, etc., and they try to construct a coherent worldview from these. None of these are considered beyond revision, so if one becomes convinced of the loving nature of God, one may be prepared to let that inform one as to which bits of scripture tell you more about God and which tell you more about people’s erroneous ideas about God.

            Just as one can see the attempts to prove the incoherence of non-Euclidean geometry as in fact being the first steps to establishing the existence of non-Euclidean geometries, despite the fact that’s contrary to what the authors intended.

            To put it another way, you seem to be assuming that a Christian must be an epistemological foundationalist, and suppose that scripture is certain bedrock, just as Descartes thought that ‘clear and distinct ideas’ could serve as a certain bedrock, and that abandoning this is to adopt an ‘anything goes’ and ‘make stuff up to please oneself’ approach. But abandoning certain foundations is regarded as being properly scientific, and the appropriate approach for a rational agent in science, and isn’t viewed as ‘anything goes’ and ‘making stuff up that sounds good’. So why isn’t this also a possible (and indeed laudable) approach when it comes to Christianity?

          • John MacDonald

            Heidegger would say it is perfectly common to find a system of integrated thoughts and practices that is internally consistent, but rest on an illusory foundation. For example, my cousin has schizo-affective disorder (like schizophrenia). He has a whole system of paranoid and delusional ideas that permeate his experience and frame how he encounters the world. These thoughts make up a terrible system that plagues him, and are perfectly sensible to him (no matter how hard we try to convince him they are outlandish). Christian belief is like that. It is an integrated system of beliefs and practices that are internally coherent, but rest on an illusory foundation. As John Loftus points out, the reason average skeptical people don’t find Christianity absurd, is because we are too used to it being treated as normal. Now if I asked you to join my new “Church Of The Irish” because the “Power Leprechaun” appeared to me and said I would go to heaven if I hopped on one leg for twenty minutes every Wednesday, you would rightly think I was either crazy, simple, or confused. And yet we find it normal believe in the Christian superstition. Viewing it as an outsider, Christianity is just another cult demanding faith in a foundation of superstitious nonsense.

          • arcseconds

            If you think it’s just all nonsense from beginning to end, then why are you complaining that Haggerty is being arbitrarily selective in what he is paying attention to in scripture? Would it be less nonsensical if he believed it all without qualification?

            It’s hard to see how it would be an improvement if Haggerty agreed that he should be ‘non-arbitrary’ (i.e. irrationally inflexible) in his interpretation of scripture. Indeed, as I have just explained, this seems in keeping with what epistemologists say is the rational approach to theory and evidence. And presumably you don’t actually want another biblical literalist in the the world?

            Is this just some kind of game of ‘gotcha’ where there is no way out?

          • John MacDonald

            I believe “religiousness” reflects the superstition of (usually otherwise high-functioning) gullible people. I generally bracket that in debate because if my default position is that “religion is nonsense,” there isn’t much to debate about. And you can have more and less coherent theories about Zeus, even if at bottom it is silly (or crazy) to believe in Zeus.

          • arcseconds

            OK, but that still leaves the question as to why you are arguing for biblical literalism. That surely is a less coherent position than thinking the Bible has to be treated like any other knowledge source, i.e. as a noisy channel where not everything can be trusted — even if one believes there is good information about the divine somewhere in there.

          • John MacDonald

            It is groundless to believe there is anything accurate about God (if he exists) in the bible. Maybe God is Evil (the fact of 3 year olds dying of cancer would suggest this). Maybe God committed suicide after creating the universe. Maybe God doesn’t exist. Maybe God exists but couldn’t care less about us. We really don’t know anything at all about God, so there is no reason to “believe” the bible has any illuminating information about Him (or Her/Them).

            If people think one part of the bible is divinely inspired, but others are not, then they are “Cafeteria Christians” who have granted themselves the authority to pick and choose according to their own biases. Literalism is a more honest choice.

            If people, like McGrath, think the bible is not divinely inspired, but might have hit on some truths about God by accident, which he then happens to agree with according to his biases (e.g., God is Loving), then I don’t have a problem with that kind of hermeneutic. Such affirmations about God are silly flights of fancy, but if they get you through the night …

          • arcseconds

            Why is it picking and choosing and dishonest when saying some of it is divinely inspired, but not picking and choosing and dishonest if you say it sometimes happens to get something right by accident? In either case, you’re applying other things you take to know in order to work out what parts of the Bible are true or worth paying attention to.

            As I have already explained, applying what you (think you) know in other areas to work out what in the Bible is divinely inspired or correct or worth paying attention to isn’t picking and choosing, if that’s to mean something arbitrary and willful, but rather exactly what we expect of a rational agent.

            An atheist takes themselves to know God doesn’t exist, and they conclude on this basis none of it is divinely inspired, no matter how edifying or wonderful it might be otherwise. A Christian who takes themselves to know God is loving concludes on this basis that the bits that portray God as a moral monster can’t be divinely inspired. These are both the same activity, just different starting points, and they are both very different from and superior to turning blind eyes and twisting oneself and what the Bible actually says in knots in order to avoid challenges to the claim it’s inerrant.

            Are you going to actually address my argument here, or are you just going to continue to ignore what I say and continue to repeat your insistence that biblical literalism is somehow better than a rational approach?

          • John MacDonald

            You seem to be getting upset here and not really paying attention to what I am saying, so I’ll try one more time and leave it at that.:
            I am in no way trying to argue that people should become biblical literalists, just that literalists have a far more intellectually honest approach to what the texts actually say. Liberals create the bible out of there own biases, while literalists try to take themselves out of the equation by doing what the bible says regardless of whether they like it or not (think of how many homosexual Christians have lived their lives in abstinence out of reverence to the Word).
            Liberals affirm the parts of the bible that say God is benevolent in various ways, because it agrees with their bias that God is a nice guy. If a part of the bible makes them feel good, it must be divinely inspired. If a part of the bible helped them get through a divorce, it must be divinely inspired. If a part of the bible says God ordered genocide, the liberal says it must have never happened because it disagrees with their biased approach to the text – ‘Their’ God would never do such a thing. If the bible condemns homosexuality (as it does in Leviticus and Romans), liberals say this can’t reflect the opinion of God because their biased approach the text excludes this from the outset. If the bible approves of slavery, such as Paul did when he sent a fugitive slave back to his master, liberals ignore this and reject from the outset that God approves of slavery. The liberal motto of bible interpretation is “adopt a part if it makes them feel good, flush the rest down the toilet.” Liberals and literalists both let their feelings guide their hermeneutic choices, it’s just that liberals are a lot more lazy about it.
            The bible is an absurd, monstrous document that should be wiped out of our collective history. At very least there should be a law that you should have to wash your hands after reading it. lol

          • arcseconds

            Upset? No.

            I’m mildly frustrated and a little disappointed that you don’t seem to be able or prepared to listen to me, that’s all. You show no signs of having actually read or understood my argument, and you certainly aren’t addressing it, just repeating yourself.

          • John MacDonald

            Let’s start over. We are two reasonable people and should be able to come to a meeting of minds. What would you say is the main point we are disagreeing about? Give your thoughts, and I will see how I can reconcile my views with yours.

  • As i’ve read it, the main evidence that Matthew 28:19 is an interpolation comes from Eusebius and other biblical accounts of baptism.

    The verse reads: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

    But Eusebius quotes Jesus as saying: “Go and make disciples of all the nations in my name.” both in his Church History http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm and in his Oration in Praise of Constantine http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2504.htm.

    The argument is that Constantine had a different version of the baptismal formula in the biblical texts available in his day, and that the trinitarian formula was added later.

    The other evidence comes from baptismal accounts in the book of Acts, which include a number of baptisms “in the name of Jesus Christ”, but none using the trinitarian formula.

    Add to this the scholarly consensus that the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7-8) is a trinitarian interpolation, and precedent for such interpolations is established.

    • John MacDonald

      There are suggestions in John that Jesus is different from God, such as Jesus’ active prayer life [Before the raising of Lazarus (John 11:41-42), “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28), His prayer in John 17]. Jesus was obviously not praying to himself.

    • Eusebius also quotes the passage in full, and shortens or paraphrases other parts of the bible. For him to paraphrase this one verse isn’t enough to suspect it has been edited or interpolated. The ‘triadic’ formula in Matthew 28.19 is also quoted or alluded to by several other writers before Eusebius, going back to the second century: Diatessaron, Tertullian, Irenaeus, etc.

      • Thank you for the correction! Yes, I found some of the earlier quotations (or close approximations) of Matthew 28:19 that you mention,:

        Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 17, Section 1) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103317.htm

        Tatianus, The Diatessaron (Section LV – the very end of the document) http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diatessaron.html

        Justin Martyr, The First Apology (Chapter 61) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm

        So now I’m worried that I’ve misrepresented the arguments of scholars who do argue for the verse as a partial interpolation? I’ll have to do more reading.

        • In the last few months I’ve seen being passed around online a long list of quotations from modern scholars (past hundred years, right up to Pope Benedict XVI) claiming the triadic formula in Matthew 28.19 is an interpolation. I looked up as many of the citations as I could find, and I discovered that all of them had been misquoted or misinterpreted (and at least one didn’t even exist in the source being cited); none of them actually suggested the phrasing ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ was unoriginal to the text of Matthew, only that Jesus himself may not have spoken those exact words. After that, I tried to find where the list originated, and it appears to have started with a unitarian Christian’s blog. I guess my point is, online at least, there’s an abundance of people claiming the verse is an interpolation, passing off their ideological agenda as scholarly. Just keep your eye out that you’re not being misled by these.

          • Good advice, thanks!

            I usually try to steer clear of bad online apologetics, but I confess this one caught my eye. I don’t really have strong opinions about the trinity either way.

            This is one thing I love about James’ blog, though. I can trust that any ideas I share here will be subjected to a healthy dose of skepticism!

            Thanks for steering me in the right direction!

          • arcseconds

            Whenever I try to search for anything related to biblical studies, almost always I find myself wishing that the topic did not have such popular appeal… for any notion you can find lots of enthusiastic but not very scholarly amateurs either for or against it, it sometimes seems.

          • Agreed, though I don’t mind the opinions of amateurs (aren’t we all, in one subject or another) as long as it is based in solid research. I admit, I didn’t look carefully enough at the sources above; but that’s what these online discussions can be useful for – sifting the chaff from the wheat. I try to stay amenable to having my mind changed.

          • arcseconds

            Oh, I’m fully happy to admit that I’m an amateur when it comes to biblical studies, and a pretty lazy one at that!

            Having said that, I try to be responsible and base my opinions on scholarship, and if I’m going to engage in hand-waving and wild speculation, I try to make it clear that’s what I’m doing.

          • arcseconds

            The fact that it is a popular topic makes it pragmatically more important to be well-informed about it, though, I suppose.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I don’t think it -needs- to be an interpolation. It isn’t Trinitarian, at least in the Nicaean sense. People who are baptized are being baptized into the Kingdom of God ruled by Jesus through the Spirit. All that can happen without all parties being the same, divine being.

    1 Corinthians 10:2 talks about the Israelites being baptized into Moses without indicating that Moses is actually God. But I’m preaching to the choir, here.