Sunday, 30 June 2013

The absurd prominence of the Holy Trinity in evangelical statements


I am sure that it is counter-productive when Christians give prominence to the Holy Trinity in describing the nature of their faith - to the point that it seems quite common for a statement of Trinitarianism to be the very first thing on the list when some Christian churches make a statement of 'what we believe'.

This is a mistake in so many ways. Fundamentally it is a mistake because these Trinitarian statements are (almost always) formally and literally meaningless - and can (presumably) only be made-sense-of at such a high level of abstraction or spiritual development as to be irrelevant to public statements of faith.

At the level of public discourse, especially of secular discourse, standard Trinitarian formulations sound either confused or insane - which is not a useful impression to create.

Furthermore, these Trinitarian formulations are all-but-irrelevant to the Christian devotional life - and indeed have been a terribly destructive force in the history of Christianity - provoking some of the saddest and most futile yet lasting schisms - such as the 'monophysite' controversy which was a quibble over words that led to horrible persecutions and the first major and still effectual split in The Church.

Against such an horrific backdrop, the Trinitarian formulations such as the Athanasian Creed achieved church unity at the cost of what could charitably be called incomprehensibility, or uncharitably be called obfuscation.

But all this should have nothing to do with a modern secular materialist who is making some tentative moves towards Christianity, and browsing the internet or picking up a leaflet, comes across a church that seems to be (and indeed is) genuinely Christian - and then gets immediately confronted by some Trinitarian formulation as if this was the core and focus of the Christian life...

This is an unforced error by the real Christian churches, a self-inflicted wound; or what people nowadays miscall 'shooting yourself in the foot'.

I cannot imagine anything more off-putting to an incipient Christian than to run-up-against something about the Holy Trinity - like a high jump or a stumbling block or a tangle of thorns which must somehow be got past to become a Christian.

I only got past it by accepting that it was all 'a mystery' - if Aquinas didn't understand it, then how could I? - but the problem was artificially created in the first place.

The Holy Trinity is a matter about which evangelists should answer questions honestly and as best they can - but at the level of answering questions.

To raise the subject of the Holy Trinity, upfront, without provocation - deliberately to highlight the problem, and then utterly fail to answer it acceptably is the worst of possible worlds!



dearieme said...

From the point of view of this atheist some items of Christian, or near-Christian, doctrine or practice are merely laughable or contemptible - elevating a neolithic fertility goddess into the pantheon, worshipping old bones, and what not. But The Trinity is simply baffling - what did those people suppose they meant by it when they patched together the doctrine so many centuries ago?

Bruce Charlton said...

If you look at this -

starting at about 6 minutes 30 and continuing through the following video segments until you have had enough! - I think you will understand.

In sum, the problem of the mainstream Christian formulation of the Trinity is to due with the conflict between the need to be able to say on the one hand that Christians are monotheists and, on the other hand, the need for Christ to be the Son of God - so Christians need both to be, and not to be, mono-theists.

Rationally , something has to give - or else (if nothing is allowed to give) there must be a retreat into obscurity, extreme abstraction, and perhaps mystery or incoherence.

Which is, pretty much, what happened.

Samson J. said...

run-up-against something

Bruce, I have been dying to ask you for a long time and I *must* ask you: is there rhyme-or-reason (ha!) to your usage of hyphenation? Because I can't make hide-nor-hare of it.

dearieme said...

Why the Trinity rather than The Duality? What was the purpose of The Holy Ghost?

Actually, the Duality would be more persuasive, on the lines of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Good Cop, Bad Cop.

Or would that be a weakness?

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - I think you mean hair...

@d - Well, the Holy Ghost is mentioned a lot, and is sent by Jesus after His ascension - and is referred to as if a person.

imnobody said...

Completely agree. The Trinity is and has always been the part of Christian doctrine I have not been able to swallow and it was the most important stumbling block to accept Christianity.

It's good to know that I am not alone in this

Samson J. said...

@SJ - I think you mean hair...

Wot?!?? Well, I'll be jiggered - I had no idea...

Anonymous said...

In a comment/response above, Bruce wrote: "Rationally, something has to give - or else (if nothing is allowed to give) there must be a retreat into obscurity, extreme abstraction, and perhaps mystery or incoherence."

I am not a Swedenborgian but have read Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell and True Christian Religion [TCR] and the comment quoted above reflects what Swedenborg said.

TCR 169 ...Is there anyone who does not see that reason plays no part in this mystic belief that there are three Divine persons, yet only one God; and that this God, for all that He is one, is still not one person?

When the reason is asleep, it can still force the mouth to speak like a parrot.

When the reason is asleep, can the speech which comes from the mouth be anything but lifeless?

If the mouth says one thing and the reason goes a different way and disagrees, speech must inevitably be foolish.

As far as the Divine Trinity is concerned, human reason to-day is fettered, as completely as a prisoner shackled hand and foot

TCR 171 The idea of the Trinity which the present-day Christian church has embraced and introduced into its faith, is that God the Father fathered a Son from eternity, and the Holy Spirit then issued from both, each by Himself being God.

There is no way this Trinity could be conceived by human minds except as a triad of rulers, like having three kings in one kingdom, or three generals in command of one army, or three masters in one house, each of whom has equal power. This can only lead to ruin.

And if anyone wants to form a mental picture or sketch of this triad of rulers while preserving their oneness, he can only conceive of it as a man with three heads on one body, or with three bodies beneath a single head. Such is the monstrous image of the Trinity which will be seen by those who believe in three Divine persons, each of whom is by Himself God, and link them to form a single God, denying that being one makes God one person.

Anyone can see that the idea of three Divine persons from eternity, being the same as the idea of three Gods, cannot be banished by the verbal confession of belief in one God, merely from the fact that it has still not been banished, and is still current with famous people who resist its banishment.

For they insist that the three Divine persons are one God, but are so obstinate as to deny that, because God is one, He is also one person...

TCR 173 [2] ....Take care therefore that your mind is not beset by the idea of three Gods, while your mouth, being totally devoid of ideas, rings with the sound of 'one God.'

If so, then the understanding up above the memory thinking of three Gods, and the understanding underneath the memory which enables the mouth to say the words 'one God', are, taken together, like a clown on the stage, who can play two parts scuttling from one side to the other, saying one thing on one side and the opposite on the other, so that he has a quarrel with himself, calling himself wise on one side and crazy on the other...

[end quotes]

Swedenborg often described people arriving in heaven after death and needing to be awakened/corrected from the interior derangement caused by saying one thing with one's mouth ('There is one God in Trinity') but holding the necessarily unavoidable mental image of three separate beings in the mind.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon (please do not post anonymously) - I am NOT arguing here against the fact that Christ is God (in some Biblical usages of God) - it seems like Swedenberg was doing this.

What I am arguing is that it is crazy to focus on the reality of the Holy Trinity, understood as in Classical Theology, as an early step - indeed the very first step - in explaining Christianity, or in explaining 'what we believe'.