The doctrine of the Trinity … it’s a trap!

The doctrine of the Trinity … it’s a trap! June 23, 2013

I wasn’t joking on Friday when I wrote that I’m probably guilty of the old Christian “heresy” of Patripassianism.

The Wikipedia entry on that heresy notes that, “This view is opposed to the classical theological doctrine of divine apathy.” And, well, me too — even if that contradicts 1 John 4:8, where it says “Whoever is not apathetic does not know God, for God is apathy.”

Patripassianism, roughly, is the idea that God the Father suffered in the passion of God the Son. Because, apparently, the idea that a loving Father would suffer from the suffering of a beloved son is heretical. Someone here seems deeply confused about the meaning of the words “father” and “beloved.” The early church authorities say it’s me who is confused. This makes me wonder if the early church authorities had any kids of their own. And it makes me suspect that their own dads must’ve been colossal pricks.

Patripassianism, by the way, is apparently related to Modalistic Monarchianism. Theologian Scot McKnight offers a description of Modalistic Monarchianism here. And here, in a post three days earler, theologian Scot McKnight seems to get his Patripassianism on in a big way. And I say good for him. His post about the various gradations of trinitarian heresies is arcane, confusing, and not obviously helpful when it comes to, say, loving my neighbor. But his post chiding the theology of miserable comforters and commending Bonhoeffer’s appeal to “the suffering God” is a helpful discussion of a necessary subject — even if it could easily be criticized for straying too near the forbidden zone of all those arcane heresies.

This is why the smartest thing I’ve read recently about the doctrine of the Trinity is this post from Reverend Ref back on Trinity Sunday in May:

Today is Trinity Sunday. The day when all regular preachers try to find or draft a seminarian or deacon or guest preacher to fill the pulpit. Because, really, once you get past “Three in One and One in Three,” or, “I am He and He is Me and We are All Together,” one generally begins to wander off into heresy-land — The more you talk, the more trouble you get into.

He’s right. It’s a trap. See also “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” from Lutheran Satire:

As the Irish twins with the Scottish accents in that video illustrate, one is “allowed” to recite the lawyerly formulations of the Athanasian Creed, but if you stray at all from that narrow path or attempt to say anything more — any positive statements, clarifications, analogies, applications — you’re screwed. And as that video shows, this doctrine creates so many different ways in which you can be screwed that it’s hard not to suspect this was the intention — a doctrine more useful for generating and then condemning heresies than for avoiding error.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the Trinity, in one God in three persons. This is a historically Christian way of talking and thinking about God. It’s a helpful and insightful metaphor. And it’s a metaphor that can be supported by several passages in the Bible. But it’s not actually a biblical metaphor. It’s something that Christians have, for many centuries, laid on top of the scriptures, but it was never something we found there in any explicit form.

Set aside all the whole Monster Manual of traditional heresies and heretical -isms, where theology often starts to get into trouble is when we elevate our metaphors about God and begin worshiping and serving those metaphors rather than worshiping and serving God.

That word — “metaphor” — tends to infuriate the defenders of doctrinal purity, but it’s a necessary word. Anything else leads to laughable overreach, to the claim that we can define or confine the infinite.

I believe in God. And I believe that God, being God, is more than I can comprehend, more than I can pin down, define, contain, master or bind into a formula.

And that’s OK. Because I also believe that everything I need to know about God has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. And that is not a metaphor.

As for my Patripassianist tendencies, if I go for a very long walk and think about it very hard, then I can almost imagine some way in which it might be marginally useful to clarify precise ways in which God did and did not suffer in the passion of Jesus Christ. Almost. Just as I can almost conceive of some way that something called “the classical theological doctrine of divine apathy” might be something other than slanderous blasphemy. But all of that still strikes me mainly as an elaborate exercise in evading some other, far more urgent business.

All of which is to say that if anyone is looking to catechize me on the particulars of the doctrine of the Trinity, let me save you some time. I will fail that test. I’m afraid that may delegitimize everything else I have to say among those who regard that test as essential and paramount, but then this illegitimacy was already a given since I don’t have much interest in joining those who regard that test as essential and paramount. (Does that make me some kind of defiant heretic? Well, duh. What part of the words “Baptist” and “evangelical” didn’t you understand?)

If you are ever called on to parse or to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, remember this: It’s a trap.

Your safest response may be something like what a theology student of Ben Myers’ turned in for a class on the Trinity. Myers read the paper’s delirious conclusion and called the student aside, to say: “As your teacher, I have to tell you that this is completely unacceptable, and you must never do this again in an academic essay. As a human being, I loved it – can I post it on my blog?” (This is a response every student should aspire to inspire — but probably only once.)

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  • Carstonio

    I admit that I don’t grasp how the Trinity metaphor could be helpful or insightful, or even what the metaphor is supposed to represent. From my reading of the Gospels, Jesus throws names around like “Son of Man” without any pattern that I could discern, and with that particular term I couldn’t tell if he was referring to himself.

  • Psalm 34:8: “Taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

    This verse gives me the image of someone with eyes in their tongue, I’m afraid. It also inspires me to take refuge in some high-quality chocolate.

    Psalm 63:5: “My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise you with joyful lips.”

    I trust that God won’t raise one’s levels of bad cholesterols or triglycerides.

  • There’s an anti-gay bumper-sticker line that used to be popular here in the US: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” This led many people to wonder who made Steve, with many folks coming up with entertaining theories. If, as other folks beleive, Steve is an uncreated being, then Steve must be one of the Divine Persons.
    I don’t know how your friend fits in. You might want to apologize now, just to be safe.

  • Michael Pullmann

    I was raised Lutheran, and we had catechism. I think my copy is still somewhere in my parents’ house.

  • Michael Pullmann

    I’m just wondering if the Voltron heresy is made up of five different-colored heresies. And if any of them involve a Blazing Sword…

  • Tom Vinson

    This story is a bit long, but it goes to the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity:

  • phantomreader42

    And do the five heresies fight over which one gets to form the head?

  • Joshua Gutoff

    A long time ago I was writing an article on a point in Jewish theology, and discussing in passing the/a Jewish understanding of monotheism. That, of course, got me thinking about the/a Christian approach, and I found myself running down the street to the local Newman Center to speak to the catechist there, my friend Tom Conry. “Tom! Tom! I’ve got to know: Who suffered on the Cross? Only the Son? Or the Father and Spirit as well?” Tom looked at me, almost sadly. “There is an answer, and I can give it to you. But first I need to tell you this, Josh: No. One. Cares.” I wish I’d seen this back then!

  • DM

    The Genius/GZA of course:’Wu Tang form like Voltron and he the head.’

    (For other hip hop Voltron references, there’s also Eminem’s : ‘Then I form like Voltron and blast you with my solar missiles/Slim Shady, Eminem was my own initials/extortion, snortin’, supportin’ abortion/Pathological liar, blowing shit out of proportion/Looniest, zaniest, spontaneous, sporadic/impulsive thinker,compulsive drinker, addict.’)

    Apologies for derailing the thread slightly.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Of course not. The Black Heresy always forms the head. Reports of other heresies forming the head are themselves heresies.

  • phantomreader42

    MC Frontalot’s song “I’ll Form The Head” is running through my head right now.

  • DM

    Never heard that one….

    Have to confess I’ve never really listened to nerdcore :)

  • phantomreader42

    I got the album via the Humble Music Bundle. It was amusing, but TMBG and Coulton were the attraction there.

  • how many angels can dance on the head of a pint


  • DM

    Ok. Now you’ve lost me :)

  • phantomreader42

    The Humble Indie Bundle is an occasional thing that lets you pay what you want for a bundle of (mostly) indie games, with some of the proceeds going to charity (EFF and Child’s Play). Once, they did a bundle of music, with an album by They Might Be Giants, one by Jonathan Coulton, one by MC Frontalot, some remixes by OK Go, and some other things I don’t remember exactly off the top of my head. That’s where I picked up the song “I’ll Form The Head”.

  • hf

    You’re the one blaspheming against Aristotle’s Unmoved Movers. He didn’t ask to have your messed-up stories grafted onto his theology! OK, the Movers don’t exist either, but they were a natural mistake.

    Aristotle just failed to realize that it’s pirates, with their self-created identities and moralities – rather then heavenly bodies with their “circular motions” – who best reveal the self-creating thoughts we call the merciless Gods. This is the sense in which pirates are absolute divine beings (Pasta 4:20).

  • EllieMurasaki

    Somehow, after hearing that Pastafarian Heaven contains a stripper factory (because sex workers are interchangeable mass-produced objects) and male strippers who are invisible to straight men (because it’s all right to let gay men and straight women have their interchangeable mass-produced sex objects to ogle but not for straight men to have their heterosexuality impugned by catching a glimpse of same), nothing Pastafarian is quite as funny anymore.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Maybe “apathetic” is a matter of tone-deaf translation? In current English, “apathetic” means, more or less, “who cares?” – but my dictionary says that “apathy” comes from Greek words that translate as “not suffering”. I think I can see how someone could start from the idea that “God is and therefore has everything good”, then decide that means that “God never experiences anything unpleasant”. And there you are at “God is apathetic in the sense of not suffering”.

    I still find that line of argument uncongenial – I’m a Fred-style Patripassianist myself – but at least it’s not completely illogical.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Oh, I like your hypercube analogy!

  • Turcano

    Why not both?

  • DM

    Oh, get over your self. Seriously

  • Atheism is no bar to misogyny. If anything, Atheism + Internet tends to equal misogynistic commentators disturbingly often as articles like this continually point out.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You wanna put that in littler words for me? I don’t think I understood. Female brain, you know.

  • Mikki

    I’m new here, so by all means, ignore me if I’m an idiot. You quote that scripture using the word apathy, but the link you give uses the word love, as does my bible. Love and apathy are virtually opposite, so how does this work? Where do you get the idea that God is apathetic?

  • Nick Gotts

    No, there’s nothing nonsensical about non-Euclidean geometry. At least, not if there’s nothing nonsensical about Euclidean geometry (it has been proved that if Euclidean geometry is consistent, so are spherical and hyperbolic geometry). And there’s nothing nonsensical about Euclidean geometry if there’s nothing nonsensical about elementary arithmetic (it has been proved that if elementary arithmetic is consistent, so is Euclidean geometry).

    On the other hand, here’s the start of the dogma of the Trinity, at least according to the RCC:

    The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.”

    It’s nonsense on stilts.