TRANSFORMATION. Fall 2017/Spring 2018 - Page 24

On the Trinity

Tom Hale
The concept of the Trinity is undoubtably a fundamental part of the Christian Faith . Followers of Christ begin their journey with baptism in the name of the Father , the Son and the Holy Spirit . However , the concept of the Trinity itself is complicated , especially in the political connotations of its origins . Furthermore , unlike many other core tenets of the Christian faith , the term “ Trinity ” is never explicitly described in the Bible .
Instead , our modern understanding of the Trinity is derived primarily from a series of councils in the early church from 300-700 AD , in particular the First Council at Nicaea of 325 AD . The three hundred bishops in attendance agreed on what would become the Nicene Creed , which essentially states the following : that God consists of three persons , the Father , the Son and the Holy Spirit ; that all are equally God and of the same substance ; and that none created the other .
These statements , although controversial in and of themselves , are complicated even further by the unfortunate context of the councils that passed them . On the one hand , the Nicene Council and others like it were called to unify the early church and prevent the spread of certain dangerous heresies . On the other hand , these councils were political in nature , called with the intent of solidifying and unifying the church as a political tool . In the case of the Nicene Council , the political nature is especially egregious : the council was called by Constantine the Great with the obvious intent of creating a single , united church . Constantine himself , although an early convert , would not be baptized until his deathbed .
This raises obvious problems as to the legitimacy and authority of the Council . One need not look far to find dangerous examples of religion and politics mixing . How then can one trust the outcome of such a heavily politicized gathering ?
In considering the authority of the Nicene Creed , it is important to note that although Constantine assembled the council , he exerted no major influence on its outcome and had no vested interest in the result — as long as the result was unanimous , that is . Meanwhile , the actual bishops assembled had a real interest in producing a text consistent with their best understanding of Biblical teachings . In other words , the Council being called for political reasons isn ’ t necessarily a good reason to dismiss its outcome , and the Biblical foundation of the Creed they produced is an excellent reason to accept it ( Councils and Creeds , David Wright ).
This in turn produces another problem : how Biblical is the concept of the Trinity ? After all , the actual term “ Trinity ” never occurs in the Bible and the concept of the Trinity is barely even implicitly present in the Old Testament .
Johannes Wolleb , a 17th-century Swiss theologian , has the following comments : “ this objection [ that the Trinity cannot be read in the Bible ] can be raised against every dogma and against theology in general … It would also have to be raised against proclamation [ of the gospel ], which does not stop at the mere reading of Scripture but goes on to explain it too ( Barth 308-309 ).
In other words , any understanding of our faith requires a degree of extrapolation from Scripture ; the Trinity is no different . Karl Barth , another Swiss theologian widely considered to be the greatest reformed thinker of the twentieth century , builds on this idea in his Church Dogmatics : “ The Bible can no more contain the dogma of the Trinity explicitly than it can contain other dogmas explicitly . For its witness , which was given in a specific historical situation or in many such , does indeed confront erring humanity generally as the witness to revelation , but it does not confront the specific errors of Church history as such ( Barth 310 ).
Barth goes on to say that we cannot “ prove the truth of the dogma that is not as such in the Bible merely from the fact that it is a dogma , but rather from the fact that we can and must regard it as a good interpretation of the Bible ” ( 310 ). In other words , simply because the Bible does not explicitly contain Trinitarian doctrine doesn ’ t mean that Trinitarian doctrine is false . Indeed , if you interpret the Bible as being written in a specific time period and as addressing specific human mistakes it follows that the Bible does not and should not contain a comprehensive list of human errors , leaving significant portions up to human interpretation ( with the guidance of the Spirit ). This makes intuitive sense and has significant precedent , especially in light of the New Testament . After Christ ’ s ascension the apostles go on to create what is essentially dogma ; consider Paul ’ s words in regard to circumcision ( Acts 15 ) and meat sacrificed to idols ( 1 Cor 8 ).
As important as interpreted dogma may be , it is still crucial that it refers back to the scriptures . Just as the Apostles refer back to the Old Testament , so must our dogma refer back to the scriptures . As such , the Trinity is most clear in the rite of baptism . Matthew 28:19 is widely referred to as a key reference : " Therefore go and make disciples of all nations , baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit .” Indeed , Christ ’ s own baptism is Trinitarian : “ As Jesus [ the Son ] was coming up out of the water , he saw heaven being torn open
22 Spring 2018
On the Trinity Tom Hale The concept of the Trinity is undoubtably a fundamental part of the Christian Faith. Followers of Christ begin their journey with baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. However, the concept of the Trinity itself is complicated, especially in the political connotations of its origins. Further- more, unlike many other core tenets of the Christian faith, the term “Trinity” is never explicitly described in the Bible. Instead, our modern understanding of the Trinity is derived primarily from a series of councils in the early church from 300-700 AD, in particular the First Council at Nicaea of 325 AD. The three hundred bishops in attendance agreed on what would become the Nicene Creed, which essentially states the following: that God consists of three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; that all are equally God and of the same substance; and that none created the other. These statements, although controversial in and of themselves, are complicated even further by the unfortunate context of the councils that passed them. On the one hand, the Nicene Coun- cil and others like it were called to unify the early church and prevent the spread of certain dangerous heresies. On the other hand, these councils were political in nature, called with the in- tent of solidifying and unifying the church as a political tool. In the case of the Nicene Council, the political nature is especially egregious: the council was called by Constantine the Great with the obvious intent of creating a single, united church. Constan- tine himself, although an early convert, would not be baptized until his deathbed. This raises obvious problems as to the legitimacy and authority of the Council. One need not look far to find dangerous exam- ples of religion and politics mixing. How then can one trust the outcome of such a heavily politicized gathering? In considering the authority of the Nicene Creed, it is import- ant to note that although Constantine assembled the council, he exerted no major influence on its outcome and had no vested interest in the result—as long as the result was unanimous, that is. Meanwhile, the actual bishops assembled had a real interest in producing a text consistent with their best understanding of Biblical teachings. In other words, the Council being called for political reasons isn’t necessarily a good reason to dismiss its outcome, and the Biblical foundation of the Creed they pro- duced is an excellent reason to accept it (Councils and Creeds, David Wright). This in turn produces another problem: how Biblical is the con- 22 Spring 2018 cept of the Trinity? After all, the actual term “Trinity” never occurs in the Bible and the concept of the Trinity is barely even implicitly present in the Old Testament. Johannes Wolleb, a 17th-century Swiss theologian, has the fol- lowing comments: “this objection [that the Trinity cannot be read in the Bible] can be raised against every dogma and against theology in general … It would also have to be raised against proclama- tion [of the gospel], which does not stop at the mere reading of Scripture but goes on to explain it too (Barth 308-309). In other words, any understanding of our faith requires a de- gree of extrapolation from Scripture; the Trinity is no different. Karl Barth, another Swiss theologian widely considered to be the greatest reformed thinker of the twentieth century, builds on this idea in his Church Dogmatics: “The Bible can no more contain the dogma of the Trinity explicitly than it can contain other dogmas explicitly. For its witness, which was given in a specific historical situation or in many such, does indeed confront erring humanity generally as the witness to revelation, but it does not confront the spe- cific errors of Church history as such (Barth 310). Barth goes on to say that we cannot “prove the truth of the )ѡЁ́Ё́Սѡ ɕ䁙ɽѡЁѡЁЁ)ЁɅѡȁɽѡЁѡЁݔЁɕɐ)Ё́ѕɕхѥѡ t%ѡȁݽɑ̰)ͥ䁉͔ѡ ́Ёѱ䁍хQɥхɥ)ɥͻeЁѡЁQɥхɥɥ͔́%)ԁѕɕЁѡ ́ɥѕѥɤ)́ɕͥյх́Ё́ѡЁѡ) ́Ё͡ձЁхɕͥٔЁ)յɽ̰٥ͥЁѥ́Ѽյѕȴ)ɕхѥݥѠѡեѡMɥФQ́́եѥٔ)͕͔́ͥЁɕа䁥Ёѡ)9܁Qхиѕȁ ɥӊé͍ͥѡѱ́Ѽ)ɕєݡЁ͕́ѥ䁑쁍ͥȁAճéݽɑ́ɕɐ)Ѽɍյͥ̀ԤЁͅɥѼ̀ā Ȁस)́хЁ́ѕɕѕ䁉Ё́ѥՍѡ)Ёɕ́Ѽѡ͍ɥɕ̸)Ё́ѡѱ́ɕȁѼ)ѡ=QхаͼЁȁɕȁѼѡ͍ɥ)ɕ̸́ՍѡQɥ䁥́Ёȁѡɥєѥʹ)5ѡ܀䁥́ݥɕɕѼ́ɕɕ耉Qɔ)ɔ͍́ѥ̰ѥ饹ѡѡ)ѡѡȁѡMѡ!Mɥлt%) ɥӊéݸѥʹ́Qɥхɥ胊q́)́mѡMt)݅́Ёѡ݅ѕȰͅ܁ٕѽɸ