Wednesday, February 19, 2014

WHY I AM NOT A TRINITARIAN - Part III

 First, let me say that it looks like this will be a 4- or 5-part series of posts. As I've gotten into it and discussed this very weighty subject more and more, I've come to realize that such a discussion could not be done in two or three relatively short posts, as I'd originally planned. Needless to say, I've already received lots of feedback from fellow Christians --- especially, Episcopal clergypeople --- so I know that my position can't be explained as simply as I originally thought it could.

I do not embrace the doctrine of the Trinity for three basic reasons: First, it is, quite frankly, irrational. Secondly, for such a centrally important doctrine, its not being outlined clearly and unambiguously in Scripture nor spoken of clearly and often by Jesus and His earliest followers is, to say the least, puzzling.The third reason, rather related to the second, will seem a little strange to those who are aware that I am not a fundamentalist or a Biblical literalist, but I reject the doctrine because I believe that it is unscriptural. Re that last point: I don't embrace any idea or doctrine just because it may be found in the Bible, but by reading the Bible, I believe that I can find and understand better what the writers believed, and therefore what they meant when they wrote what they wrote.

I am not so concerned with the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational. I do not believe for a nanosecond that my limited, finite human intelligence and mental processes can grasp fully the nature of Infinity, so there is much about the Divine Nature that I just can't possibly comprehend. Besides, every human language is limited, and can express ultimate realities very imprecisely. As I've said many times before, I believe that it is far more likely that an amoeba can understand the ideas and writings of Stephen Hawking than it is that I can understand and describe the Nature of God. So, it isn't just the fact that no human can adequately explain the Trinity that cements my opposition to the idea. I readily admit that the way the doctrine is outlined in the Athanasian Creed flies in the face of any system of human logic, but so what? By purely logical processes, I can't prove that God exists. Or that you exist. Or, for that matter, that even I exist. So, I find this argument against the doctrine to merit consideration only when it is seen in the context of my other two strains of opposition.

Before we really get into the "meat" of this discussion (which may not be until the next post), I think we need to deal with two things: First, exactly what we mean by "the Trinity." As I explained in my first post on this subject, when I refer to that doctrine, I mean it exactly as it's spelled out clearly and thoroughly in the Creed of St. Athanasius. If anyone is unfamiliar with that document, I would suggest that he or she refer either to a missal or prayer book in which it appears, or to my first post on this subject, where I have reproduced the full text of the Creed. Now, many modern Christian thinkers suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity means that God has manifested Himself to humans in three primary modes: As Father in creation; as Son in redemption; and as Holy Spirit in regeneration. Thus, God is not three separate Persons, but the one God manifesting Himself in three different ways. While acceptance of that explanation is fairly widespread among Christians, it was long ago denounced as being a heresy --- specifically, the heresy of Modalism. So that is not what I'm dealing with in discussing what I don't believe in; that idea doesn't enter into this discussion at all. Once more, when I say that I am not a trinitarian, what I mean is that I do not accept that doctrine as it is spelled out exhaustively and almost tiresomely in The Athanasian Creed.

The other preliminary point I want to make concerns two New Testament passages which seem to support the doctrine of the Trinity. The first passage is I John 5:7, the only place in the Bible in which the doctrine is spelled out clearly, and which says, according to The King James Version, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." This can be dealt with very quickly, because, as an eminent New Testament scholar has written, "This text concerning the heavenly witness is not contained in any Greek manuscript which was written earlier than the fifteenth century. It is not cited by any of the ecclesiastical writers; not by any of early Latin fathers even when the subjects upon which they treated would naturally have led them to appeal to its authority. It is therefore evidently spurious." To be honest, there are some scholars --- especially, Roman Catholic scholars --- who insist that there certainly were early ecclesiastical writers and Latin Fathers who quoted this passage before the 15th Century; but let's remember, these are also some of the same scholars who insist that Mary had no children other than Jesus, that He was the only child of the BVM. I'll leave that point dangling.

The other New Testament passage we'll deal with here and now is the very famous and familiar first verse of the Gospel of John, rendered in the King James Version as, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Seems pretty clear and unambiguous in English; the original Greek, though, is anything but. 

Without getting into the really tedious details about exactly why it does so, the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures of Jehovah's Witnesses says "...and the Word was a god" in that passage. My favorite New Testament translation, that of J.B. Phillips, originally translated the Greek word, theos, not as a noun but as an adjective, "divine." Later editions of the Phillips Translation no longer render the passage that way, but I very clearly remember when it used to say, "...and that expression was divine." That is an absolutely acceptable translation of the koine Greek , just as is "... a god." What is very definitely not a reasonable translation is the most common one, "...and the Word was God," considering the context, and translation of the surrounding verses. Please note that in the surrounding passages when reference is made to The Supreme God, it is always with the direct article, but in this instance, there is no direct article; so, I infer (as Phillips originally did) that "theos" was an adjective, not a noun, or (as do the JW translators) that it refers to a much higher-than-human being, but not The Supreme God. I don't know why the Phillips Translation was changed, or when; maybe he was pressured to do so since was an Anglican clergyman, or maybe it was changed after his death.At any rate, that verse can't legitimately be used to support the doctrine of the Trinity.

Those are the two passages of the New Testament in which the doctrine which I deny seems to be clearly taught. Even though we've only lightly skimmed those verses, we can see that what may have at first reading seemed to be what they taught was not so clear at all; there are other possible understandings of both of those passages of Scripture. What I'll get into in my next (and, maybe, final) post in this series are those passages of Judaeo-Christian Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, which show clearly that the idea of God existing as a Trinity was not at all what Jesus and His earliest followers believed and taught.