Comment of the Weekend

Comment of the Weekend January 12, 2009

Wow.  There was a slew of great comments from which to choose this weekend.  The best comment string, methinks, is under The Orthodoxy of Down Syndrome.  But the top comment goes to Steve D., who commented under Is the Trinity Optional?

I certainly HOPE that one doesn’t have to believe Nicaean
Trinitarianism to be considered Christian. Otherwise, NO ONE could be
considered Christian.

The bottom-line is this: people may say they do, but no one actually believes the Trinity as articulated at Nicaea.

To believe something, one must first think it; if something cannot
exist in the mind, it is incapable of being believed. The Nicaean
Trinity is (in a completely non-colloquial way, but still with the
voice of Vizzini from the Princess Bride) “inconceivable.”

Suppose someone asked you to believe that they knew someone that
knew someone that discovered a “four-sided triangle.” Then after they
saw the dumbfounded look on your face, they asked you to just believe
the mystery.

You can’t believe in the existence of a “four-sided triangle,”
because you can’t conceptualize what it would mean for a triangle, any
triangle, to have four sides.

A human being is not capable of conceptualizing one being as three
persons. You can memorize the words, and even confess them every
Sunday, but you can’t believe them, for you can’t even know what they

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  • Kafka

    There once was a boy who was friends with a lovely Kangaroo named Pippin. Pippin and the boy went on many adventures together and were very close. One cold day, as the sun sunk through the horizon, the boy turned sharply to the Kangaroo and said, “Pippen, I regret to inform you that I have make-believed you.” The Kangaroo, having heard this crap before, responded as he always did.

  • Larry

    The Trinity is nothing like a four sided triangle, I cannot conceive of a four sided triangle because such a thing is logical impossible. The Trinity might be difficult, even impossible for a human to conceive, but it is not, as far as anyone can tell, logically impossible. It is not declaring that God is three persons and one person at the same time and in the same way. It also should not be surprising that we have difficulty visualizing or conceiving the Trinity, a God whose ontological makeup I could understand would likely be no God at all, but a human construct. As Tertullian said “I believe because it is absurd”, that is, no human could have come up with the belief, it must originate elsewhere.

  • John C-W

    Though I’m still not sure what “person” means in this context. Any definition I can muster for person[though admittedly unorthodox], includes a sense of otherness. The concept of person comes only from the otherness. It would be quite hard to convince me that other “persons” existed if they were not distinct from myself. I would think them a part of me.
    I cannot conceive of three “persons” without otherness, since it is implied in the word. Just like the word triangle implies 3 sides.
    Seems like a good metaphor to me.
    Inconceivable is different than mysterious. I don’t understand how/why God loves me, but i can conceive of a God that does.
    God is mysterious and perhaps his nature is inconceivable. If it is, let’s stop trying to conceive it and move on.

  • Actually a four sided triangle is easy to imagine. A cubed triangle actually has four sides. ;-P
    But I know that was not your point.

  • John C-W

    Actually triangles are 3 sided polygons(which are by def. 2d). You are referring to a triangular pyramid.
    SORRY, I’m a high school math teacher.
    more to the point. It is interesting to think of explanations of God as us trying to explain a 3d figure to a 2d man. As soon as he tried to describe it it his 2d words he will be incorrect.
    [oops…I believe this example comes from CS Lewis in defense of the trinity]
    interestingly, one can conceive of “solids” in dimensions higher than 3. It’s very hard to articulate or draw, but we can make models and conceptualize. Strangely, or perhaps not, The math “works”.
    For the trinity, the math doesn’t work and the thing itself apparently isn’t anything like the definition of the words describing it.
    I can’t prove it’s not true, but you can’t prove it is.

  • Steve D.

    Larry, thanks for the feedback.
    Let’s just agree, for the sake of discussion, that the Nicaean Trinity is POSSIBLY logical (unlike the four-sided triangle).
    We still can’t form a concept from the words “one substance in three persons.” We can certainly say the words, but we can’t know what they mean.
    As to Tertullian, I’ve heard some pretty absurd things in my time (e.g. everything that exists came from some random Big Bang). That doesn’t mean those ideas came from God.
    IF the Nicaean Trinity is true, we certainly can’t conceptualize it (and thus believe it) on this side of Glory.

  • EricW

    You can’t believe in the existence of a “four-sided triangle,” because you can’t conceptualize what it would mean for a triangle, any triangle, to have four sides. A human being is not capable of conceptualizing one being as three persons. You can memorize the words, and even confess them every Sunday, but you can’t believe them, for you can’t even know what they mean.

    Obviously written by someone who didn’t live during the ’60s and ’70s when any of a number of mind/perception-altering substances made the conceiving of such things possible, even if the resultant experience couldn’t be put into words. Yes, the human mind CAN conceptualize that which is supposedly “inconceivable.” But a “four-sided triangle” is nonsense, not inconceivable. A triangle cannot be four-sided, else it is no longer a triangle.

  • Eric Glover

    First I just want to say that I’m not arguing for or against the traditional understanding of the trinity in this post, I just merely want to engage the applicability of the aforementioned rule, that if “X” cant exist in the mind then “X” cannot be believed, to biblical belief in any doctrine.
    Steve previously said:
    “To believe something, one must first think it; if something cannot exist in the mind, it is incapable of being believed.”
    Steve, I see where you go with your argument but I don’t find it convincing. Your telling me that as long as something can exist in my “MIND”, that is the only way it can be believed? what does that mean exactly? To what extent do I have to understand to believe? Can I even really believe in God at all then? Even though “I Believe” what the bible says about him I cannot at all conceive of where he is right now or that he is Omnipresent, Omniscient ect. If I thought about so much of that long enough and applied your logic then up in the air go both my hands with the concept of God at all.
    what about a new christian who has hardly any concept of who God is in greater detail but yet they still believe? I think your definition of what constitutes belief seems to fit better with non-biblical belief in non-biblical items. I don’t think this same logic should be applied to holy writ.
    The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, right? why is it that I cannot convince a non-regenerate to believe and persevere to the end with my “own” words of wisdom? That’s because God alone is the only one that can truly change a heart, not me. Without the Holy Spirits ministry in the process of salvation we would not be able to come at all because our minds are still darkened in their understandings (Eph 4:18). I understand that the prior post wasn’t intended to be explaining in detail salvific belief, I just don’t feel that belief in anything biblical can be put on the same shelf with “HOW” we believe anything else.
    Steve, I fundamentally struggle with the idea that something in the “BIBLE” has to be conceptualized intellectually before belief of it can be true.
    –More to follow–
    In Christ we stand!

  • Alan

    I have to agree with Larry that the Trinity is nothing akin to a “four-sided triangle.” That’s a bad analogy. But, I will concede that I hope a perfect, Nicene understanding and articulation of the Trinity isn’t required for salvation. It’s been said on this blog already, and Robert Letham’s 2004 volume The Holy Trinity makes the same assertion–most Westerners are very Modalistic in their thinking on the Trinity. So, if we must perfectly believe in a Nicene articulation of the Trinity, then many of us are doomed.
    However, I think a Nicene understanding of the Trinity IS completely possible, and I think there are people who understand what those at Nicaea were saying. However, reading the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed a million times is not going to give you the explanation of the Trinity that you are looking for. Yes, the ideas of ousia and hypostasis and prosopon and physis all sound like nonsense to most of us. But, they were the common language of day. And when you go back and read what the Church Fathers were saying in the Trinitarian and Christological debates, one can begin to see what these terms mean, how they are understood, etc. And it goes beyond the terms, to larger phrases. For instance, I recently read a lengthy article explain the idea of “begottenness,” and dealing with the Nicene phrase, “begotten not made.” What the article failed to realize is that the bishops at Nicaea were not making a phrase like this up, but they were taking the phrase to specifically battle Arianism. Tatian referred to Christ as “made,” and Arius took Tatian’s language and ran with it in a different direction. So the bishops at Nicaea made specific reference to that situation. There are other instances where the Creedal language is taken directly from works of other Church Fathers, and specific from the Rule of Faith as it was passed down.
    And this, to me, gives a great connection for Nicene Christianity and postmodernism. The Creed developed in the context of the overall Christian community. Theology wasn’t isolated, rather it was a collective, collaborative effort, and Nicaea is the culmination. I think there is a relation to the postmodern and Emerging (I know some aren’t using the word anymore, but for now, we all know what I mean) Christianity–the emphasis on community. David Fitch, in his book, makes mention of doing theology within the historic Christian community. I think this is something we can do. Instead of tossing Nicaea because “we can’t understand it,” we seek to understand it by sharing in the life and theology of the earliest Christian community, articulating the Faith in new and fresh ways, as a community today. So maybe a perfect Nicene Trinitarianism isn’t what we need, but at the same time, it’s exactly what we need.

  • john C-W

    I’m still not sure what “person” means or how this is “plain is nature” as romans 1 claims it should be–if it can be known.
    I’m also interested in this question: If God is primarily triune in his nature, then is each “person” also triune? If they are fully God, and Threeness is the most important attribute of God, then I guess they are. Then, each of their persons- that are fully them- must also be triune until there are infinite persons.
    If God is triune and each person is not triune, then each person is not fully God.

  • john C-W

    erik G
    I can concieve of:
    1. an infinite set
    2. an infinite set with infinite subsets
    3. of those subsets being the entire set
    I cannot conceive of those subsets being both different from each other and the entire set at the same time. They are either distinct or not.

  • Larry

    I would have to agree that being able to conceive of, or being able to visualize something is not necessary in order to believe it. I cannot visualize the size of the United States, but I still believe that it is approximately 3000 miles across, whether or not I can conceive of those 3000 miles or not. I cannot really conceive of what the square root of -1 looks like, certainly not in the same manner as I can conceive of the square root of 4, but I still believe in complex algebra. That I cannot conceive, visualize, comprehend or apprehend the ontic nature of God doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in Him.

  • john C-W

    the sqrt(-1)=i
    “i” is the imaginary number.[exactly bc we cannot conceive it.]

  • Your Name

    John C-W,
    I know what you mean, and that is a valid point. However I cannot agree that finite human logic can be applied to understanding something that I believe the bible teaches about God by faith. I accept by faith that God is God, that Jesus is God and that the Holy Spirit is God. I also accept by faith that God is the only God and there are no other God’s but him alone. If there are two things here that seem to be contradictory together, but in there separate elements I can apply a comfortable hermeneutics to see them in scripture, then I accept by faith that they are 3 yet 1.
    If you were to ask me if God can exist within a reality that doesn’t have the limits of understanding that he has sovereignly placed upon us, I would say of course I “believe” that….by faith.
    I agree with Larry when he said:
    “That I cannot conceive, visualize, comprehend or apprehend the ontic nature of God doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in Him.”
    In closing, this verses come to mind:
    1.)Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
    2.)For by it the men of old gained approval.
    3.)By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
    We really need to get away from the idea of Bottling up God into math equations (not that anyone was doing that). I didn’t believe in God because I understood him, I believe in him because I know by faith that my life is changed and I want to serve him. When I get to heaven, if this is possible, I will ask Adam what it was like to not be ashamed of himself and then all of a sudden be ashamed of himself and have different knowledge because of the bite or many bites of an apple. That is a circumstance that I can’t conceive of. The bible says it, so I believe it…by faith.

  • Eric Glover

    The last post was mine, i forgot to put a name for it. I just didnt want there to be any confusion.