Saturday, April 29, 2017

Thoughts on Discussing the Trinity and Incarnation

The Trinity and Incarnation are two of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. These doctrines are probably the most mysterious, and also the most difficult to properly explain to unbelievers and skeptics. First, it must be stated that because a doctrine is mysterious does not mean it is unintelligible or contradictory. A mystery is something affirmed by faith that cannot be fully comprehended by finite minds. When the Christian believes something by faith, they believe based on testimony, and this testimonial basis is rationally justifiable. Mystery does not contradict, but it does go beyond, or is not subject to nor arrived at by, purely logical demonstration.

It should go without saying that Christians must be Biblically informed on why they hold the doctrine of the Trinity. A shallow faith is one not explored for oneself within the page of Scripture. Given this, what Christians affirm of the Trinity is as follows:

  1.         The Father is God.
  2.          The Son is God.
  3.          The Holy Spirit is God.
  4.          The Father is not the Son.
  5.           The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
  6.           The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  7.       There is exactly one God.
There is much more that could be said (and volumes have already been written) on why and how Christians affirm the Trinitarian doctrine. But, given the above, there are at least three common points of attack on the Trinity leveled by skeptics. Each one is taken in turn below.

The Trinity is incomprehensible (so it must be false)

Simply because something is complicated or difficult to understand does not mean it is untrue. Trinitarian skeptics (ex. Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses) frequently make this very fundamental mistake. The reasoning goes as follows:  “a Trinitarian God is ‘more complicated’ than a Unitarian God, therefore the Trinity must be false.” The full argument seems to look something like this:
  1. A Trinitarian God is complicated.
  2. Complicated things are less likely to be true than simpler things.
  3. Therefore a Trinitarian God does not exist.
In syllogism form, the weakness of the argument is apparent in P2. It is unlikely anybody will agree that complicated things are a priori not true. Further, there are plenty of examples where the existence of something complicated is accepted as true.  One example that immediately comes to mind is biological activity within humans at the cellular level. The physical sciences have shown that what man used to think was quite simple is actually a very complex arrangement of microscopic machines that have certain functions and processes. A rational mind should not deny as true something because it is not easily understood. Such thinking would void the entire enterprise of science, and probably any other venture of human thought.

The doctrine of the Trinity was created/developed under suspicious circumstances.

Trinitarian skeptics will point to the Council of Nicaea or other church councils as evidence that the Trinity was created under sketchy circumstances. The reasoning goes that if a doctrine is developed under such circumstances, it must be rejected. The argument in syllogism form seems to be:
  1. The Trinity was developed under sketchy circumstances
  2. Anything developed under sketchy circumstances is false
  3. Therefore the Trinity is false.
Premise 2 is clearly false. This premise seems to beget a  type of genetic fallacy. How a person comes to believe something does not have any bearing on whether the belief is true. Such would be the same as arguing that religion R is false because person A only believes religion R because their parents were of religion R. But the question is just whether R is true or false. 

Premise 1 should also be closely examined. The skeptic wants to argue that the motives of those arranging or involved in the church councils were not to develop Biblical doctrine, but were politically or otherwise motivated. And so a sound historiographical approach must be used in evaluating whether there was any ‘suspicious circumstances’ at the church councils which would have effectively prevented proper Biblical doctrine from being expounded. If Constantine was a pagan and he arranged the council, does that mean the entire council was beholden to develop a certain desired doctrinal outcome? And what might that doctrinal outcome be?  

Further, even if there were suspicious circumstances, does this mean that the doctrines expounded or defended are false? Certainly not. Christians can look to the Scriptures themselves and see if any errors were made by the councils. To say that a church council decision has clouded the judgment of any Christian looking for the Trinity in the Scriptures is bad argumentation. The Christian could simply reply that the egg salad sandwich the skeptic had for lunch is clouding the skeptic’s judgment.
Similar responses can be made to the claim that the Trinity was developed based on pagan deities with three heads and the like. There is just no reason to think that because there were pagan deities with three heads or ancient images on cave walls of triangles that the Trinity is based on mythology. It is easily demonstrable that the creedal affirmations of the Trinity stand in no causal relationship with paganism. One need look no further than what the pagans affirmed and what the images (likely) meant versus what Christians believe. The difference is stark and irrefutable.

 The Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament

Since Christians accept the full canon of Scripture (at least with regard to 66 books, with all due respect to non-Protestant churches), including 27 New Testament books, this objection is quite weak. A common hermeneutical approach is what is called the ‘progressive revelation’ of Scripture. As time advances, God reveals more and more of His will, commands, character. Moses had more revelation from God than did Abraham, and the Jews at the time of Christ had more revelation than did Moses as many prophets had come and spoken from God since Moses. Those who accept the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures – Moses/Law, Prophets, Writings) must work very hard to deny progressive revelation. It should be noted that progressive revelation should not be thought of as God changing, but simply God revealing more of who He is. 

Given the teachings and sayings of Christ Himself, as well as the authoritative writings of the Apostles, denying the Trinity based on its apparent absence in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) is not tenable. It is also quite debatable whether the doctrine of the Trinity is, in fact, absent from the Old Testament. The Messianic Psalms, for example (Psalm 22:22, 45:6-7, 110:1) seem to present at least the basic sketches of Messiah’s Deity. Quite simply, if Christ was who He claimed to be and the Apostles were authentic, then the full disclosure of God’s Tri-unity in the New Testament alone is not problematic.

The skeptic is certainly allowed to object to the Trinity based on other grounds. The skeptic could approach from the side of bad hermeneutic and say the Christian has wholly misunderstood the Scriptures referring to the Deity of Christ and the Deity of the Holy Spirit.  The skeptic can also argue that it is just impossible for the Trinitarian affirmations to be coherent (many have, in fact, argued this). The skeptic may argue along these lines that it is metaphysically impossible for God to be one in essence and three in person. But these approaches require deeper and properly constructed argumentation. The three, and I would argue most often used, objections discussed above have no force against the Christian.   

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