Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Trinity

Controversies in the early Church about the Holy Trinity inflamed passions to the point of violence between contesting parties. In the 21st century this is no longer the case. The Trinity for most is now little more than part of the creeds recited during church services. On examination, the doctrine turns out to be less important than theologians make out.

The teaching of the Church about God is at its most complex when dressed up in the elaborate costume of the Trinity. Christians are traditionally supposed to assent to this doctrine on pain of exclusion from the Church. But as many see it, they are required to believe something which is at best dubiously coherent and at worst ridiculously impossible.

The doctrine is most familiar in the form of the Nicene Creed, recited from time to time in most churches. It is more fully (and more incomprehensibly) stated in the Athanasian Creed which is much longer and far more complex than the Nicene.

Someone once observed that these creeds are there not to express what's true about God, but rather what is not true about God. That is, they don't so much point out the way ahead as much as block off paths we should not take.

One problem with the doctrine is its absence in the New Testament. Traditionally, all right teaching must be based on Scripture. Some argue that the Trinity is inherent in the biblical view of God, even if not yet crystallised there. But most acknowledge that the teaching was not fully formed until four centuries after Jesus died and that it derived from a need to rebut various heresies. 

This was a time when Christians were coming to terms with Greek and Roman philosophy, and with Platonism in particular. The Jewish philosopher Philo (20BCE -50) influenced Christian theology substantially. He upheld Jewish monotheism and thought that the one (Hebrew) God could be expressed well using the Greek name "The One" (monos). Just as other numbers all derive from the singular, so it is that everything springs from this unifying "Oneness".

This sort of subject is profoundly boring to most people and its relevance to ordinary life far from obvious. Exploring further into the subject makes for no improvement. The terms get ever more obscure and chains of reasoning ever more tortuous. 

It is nearly impossible for us to today to fully grasp the flaming passions aroused during those early times by small verbal differences such as characterised conflict about the Trinity. Pitched battles were fought between orthodox and heretics in the streets of Alexandria in North Africa and elsewhere. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and arch-enemy of Arian heretics, was charged at the Council of Tyre in 335 of

... smashing an episcopal chair, deposing a bishop unlawfully, placing him under military guard and torturing him, striking other bishops physically, obtaining his bishoprics by perjury, breaking and cutting off the arm of one of his opponents, burning his house, tying him to a column and whipping him, and putting him in a cell illegally. [1]

All this and worse was focused on a single vowel - the difference between the Greek words homoousios and homoiousios. The former defined the relationship of Jesus to God as "of the same substance". The latter defined the relationship as "of like substance" - in other words, the Son of God was a creature, not co-eternal with the Father. The former word has survived in the Nicene Creed Christians recite today, while the latter is heretical.

The idea of God was sine qua non for most people until recent times. So the question being asked in the third and fourth centuries concerned mainly the nature of Jesus. For how, it was asked, could Jesus be the Son of God and simultaneously fully human? This question had to be answered effectively if Christianity was to gain prime place in the social order of the day.

There were many rival attempts at a solution. All have been relegated to the heresy bin, since it is the victors who write history and orthodox theology. 

A central problem was that by definition God cannot suffer - so if Jesus was God, he couldn't suffer. Therefore, thought some people,  his agony on the cross wasn't real but apparent. Some went to the extreme of proposing that Judas or Simon of Cyrene changed places with Jesus just before the crucifixion and suffered in his place.

Others ventured that Jesus was created by God before anything else and became God's instrument to create the world. He was subject to change and  therefore not God but like God. The difficulty of the unity of Jesus and God was solved for some by proposing that he did not have a human soul and therefore did not develop morally as we do. That is, Jesus was not a complete human being.

The Julianists got around the difficulty by teaching that as soon as Jesus was born he became incorruptible and immortal - and therefore was not truly human for the rest of his life. The Monarchians took a different tack. For them, Jesus was God only in the sense that he was temporarily empowered or influenced by the Father.

The final (now orthodox) solution was to describe Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three hypostases ("entities") in a single ousia ("existent"). Over the centuries this formula has been translated into Latin as three personae in one substantia. This is rendered in English as "three persons in one substance" - which neither makes much sense and nor renders the original meaning accurately.

But why should anyone bother about this sort of thing? Difficult as it may be for people today to fully appreciate, the fact is that the nature of the "perfect" (Plato's Form) was regarded in pre-Nicene times as critical to understanding how the world works. Christians looked to the New Testament for their starting points in this demanding search for truth. 

John Spong puts it like this:

This was the only way the Jewish Christian people of the first century who wrote the Bible, and the later Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries could make sense out of their experience, given the frame of reference set for them by their presuppositions and their worldview. [2]

Two examples of "proof texts" in relation to the Church's thinking are:

  • The relationship between Father and Son  John 10.30 in particular, and this Gospel in general, make it clear that the Gospel's author saw the relationship between Jesus and God as that of unity. He expressed it as words attributed to Jesus: "The Father and I are one" (10.30).

  • The Spirit proceeding from the Father Paul writes that "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts ..." (Galatians 4.6).

Given the way early theologians regarded the authority of the past, it was inevitable that they should take such passages as the "gospel truth" and seek to make sense of them through the only usable conceptual framework available to them - what we now usually call neo-Platonism. In other words, because Scripture was to them the final authority, concepts had to be tortured until they fitted the texts. 

There have been a number of relatively recent attempts to make more sense of the Trinity. G W F Hegel (1770-1831) set out to show that the world around us must exist because it is necessary to human beings. We grow and develop only because we interact constantly with other people. Similarly, he argued, it is necessary for God the Father to have God the Son other than himself before full self-consciousness could occur and be expressed in the Holy Spirit (what he called Geist). In philosophical terms, the Absolute realises itself through a dialectical process in history.

A similar argument has been advanced in the 20th century by Richard Swinburne (following a certain Richard St Victor who died in 1173). The former argues that because God is the essence of love, then that love must be shared just as we humans must share when we love others, particularly as in marriage. This is why the Son must exist. The Holy Spirit must exist as the outcome of the shared love of Father and Son [3].

This sort of line has proved common in recent times. Eberhard Jungel, for example, explains in typically philosophical language how God as a unity embraces differentiation:

... love is structurally to be defined as - in the midst of ever greater self-relatedness - even greater selflessness, that is, as self-relation going beyond itself, flowing beyond itself and giving itself. [4]

The two criteria for our attempts to understand God should now be apparent. First, in what sense is God a unity? Second, in what sense can we differentiate between aspects of God? There appears to be no satisfactory way of resolving the contradictions which follow from either understanding.

  1. God as a unity  The classical statement that "God is one" appears to exclude any sort of differentiation between "parts" or "aspects" of God. What is being said is that the Father is the same God as the Son, but not the same person. Both are the same as the Holy Spirit, but the latter derives from the former. This is not a valid use of language. 

    Take a similar statement that "The present church is the same as the previous church, but it isn't the same building." This is not two different descriptions of the same thing, but two different things - the church as a building and the church as a group which continues independently of the building.

  2. God as relationship Parts of the New Testament do distinguish quite sharply between Father and Son and between God and the Spirit. But if we look at the terms "Son" and "Spirit" it is clear that they are metaphors. If the terms are not descriptions, and if therefore the "persons" don't literally exist, the use of metaphors doesn't establish an objective distinction between the "persons". And if we can't properly differentiate between aspects or "persons" in the unity of God, how can we require Christians to assent to the distinctions made in the creeds?

It seems now that although Church luminaries and theologians must continue to assert the doctrine of the Trinity, it is in fact a dead letter.

  1. Despite the reams that have been written about God, it is true that the Deity is beyond human knowledge. The word "God" is, it might be said, an empty word until it is filled by our own imaginings, insights, experiences and metaphors.

    This is true for all Christian theology. According to orthodox teaching, the unknowable God allows us glimpses of the ineffable through revelation. But it remains true that we can't know anything about God directly, at first-hand. Given this, it is absurd to split hairs with the kind of tortuous, over-subtle language games which result in, for example, the florid phrases of the Athanasian Creed. Very few today have either the need or the energy for this venture.

  2. The person in the pew is largely ignorant of the results of some 300 years of intensive research into the nature of the New Testament. That research has revealed that the gospels are not the historical record of the life and times of Jesus they were once thought to be. As it turns out, they contain more theology than history.

    A casualty of this conclusion, one now widely accepted by the theologically literate, is that Jesus never thought of himself either as the Messiah ("Christ") or as the Son of God. John Hick maintains that 

        ... it is widely agreed today by New Testament
        scholars, including even relatively conservative
        ones, that the historical Jesus did not himself
        teach that he was God the Son, the second person
        of a divine trinity, living a human life. [5]

    That is, the starting point of all Trinitarian theology has been removed. With its removal the entire elaborate edifice falls away - except insofar as it remains the creation of the Church. It has no absolute status as revealed truth about God's nature.

  3. In certain parts of Christendom, it is becoming increasingly impossible to think of God as relating to humanity from another, non-physical sphere or dimension. That which is "utterly other" is not perceived as relating to us in the way we relate to each other. The gaze of the Christian is beginning to turn away from speculating about God in heaven to finding God on earth. As this happens, so also the focus turns less to God "out there" and more to God "in here".

    In this context, the Trinity as expressed in the creeds becomes at most a way of linking to the past, of affirming continuity with what has gone before. It has almost no reference to daily life and therefore ceases to be either of much interest or relevance to a large majority of Christians.

There can be little doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity will remain part of the Church's statement of belief for a long time to come. But just as it has never been understood by the vast majority, so also will it remain confined most of the time to dusty tomes and liturgical formularies.
[1] A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976
[2] Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, HarperSanFrancisco,1999
[3] Summarised by David Brown in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1999
[4] Quoted by J B Webster in The Modern Theologians, Blackwell, 1997
[5] The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, Orbis Books, 1988

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