Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Most Plausible Anti-Trinitarian Complaint

(last updated 6/23/14)

Probably the most common comment, complaint, charge and challenge (yay for alliteration!) that anti-Trinitarians make and which also has (IMHO) the greatest plausibility to it is, "If the doctrine of the Trinity is true why doesn't the Bible directly teach it?" There are variations to the comment.

For example:

"Why doesn't Jesus teach it in the Gospels?"

"Where does the Bible state that God is one in being and three in person (or is one in essence/substance and three in subsistence)?"

"Nowhere in the Bible is the doctrine of the Trinity described in full."

"Jesus, as a 1st century Jew, assumes the standard strict monotheistic conception of God and never corrects it. For example, in Mark 10:17-18; Mark 12:28-31; John 17:3."

 "Unitarianism should be the default position until you can prove Trinitarianism since the Bible explicitly teaches God is one and we are in agreement that every other personal being we can think of or discuss is always one in being and one in person."

Jesus affirmed the Jewish Shema in Mark 12:29 and would have naturally interpreted it in the strict monotheistic way the Jews did at the time. Why should we interpret it any other way?.

How should or how can Trinitarians respond to such statements if given or asked in sincerity?

In this blog post I want to answer the above complaint as it would be given by someone who believes in the inspiration of both the Old and New Testaments but nevertheless rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, to Unitarians like Anthony Buzzard et al. Such people affirm the authority of the New Testament, but nevertheless reject the doctrine of the Trinity because they can't seem to find it there. This blog therefore assumes the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture and won't attempt to argue for it.

Three things must be distinguished and a fourth thing recognized.

1. Non-Inspired Doctrinal Development. [NDD]
2. The concept of inspired Progressive Revelation [PR]
3. Inspired Doctrinal Development [IDD]
4. Jesus Veiled Mission and Identity [JVMI]

1. Non-Inspired Doctrinal Development. [NDD]
 1. Non-Inspired Doctrinal Development is the development of doctrine among the people of God in an uninspired non-revelatory way during times when full infallible inspiration has/had ceased (e.g. during the intertestamental period, then later after the closing of the Canon of Scripture).

[As a side note, I'm a continuationist. Specifically a Charismatic. However, I don't think continuationism negates Sola Scriptura (or what I prefer to term Summa Scriptura and which seems to be somewhat similar to what some people call Prima Scriptura).]

As a matter of fact, since the closing of the Old Testament Canon (both during the intertestamental period [as Christians would refer to it] and since the closing of the New Testament) Jews have developed doctrines that have similarities to the doctrine of the Trinity in various ways. Often by affirming a kind of plurality in God. Or by positing an intermediary that was God-like and, analogously, Christ-like. For evidence of this see the resources on this blog along with the link to another blog post of mine HERE. This fact itself would suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so completely alien to Old Testament theology that it must be rejected outright and without further consideration. Otherwise Jews would not have come to such conclusions. Conclusions which they often prooftext by quoting the Old Testament.

Non-inspired doctrinal development has also occurred in Christian history and theology as it did in Jewish history and theology. Such non-inspired development rightly cannot, should not and understandably does not bind the conscience of believers in the New Testament Scriptures. Anti-Trinitarians are therefore right in not accepting the doctrine of the Trinity merely on the basis of tradition or Tradition (with a capital "T").

2. The concept of inspired Progressive Revelation [PR]

The concept of Progressive Revelation is acknowledged by New Testament believing Unitarians like Anthony Buzzard. Otherwise they wouldn't accept Jesus' messiahship, mediatorship, atonement and a host of other New Testament teachings not explicitly found in the Old Testament. However, in my opinion, strict/simple Unitarians don't take the concept of progressive revelation seriously enough in all its implications. Naively appealing to Jesus' monotheism, as Unitarians like Anthony Buzzard do, doesn't do justice to the principle of Progressive Revelation. Revelation didn't stop with Jesus. As Jesus Himself instructed and prophesied. When taken seriously, progressive revelation would lead to the 3rd distinction. Namely......

3. Inspired Doctrinal Development [IDD]

Inspired Doctrinal Development happened during times when inspired Revelation was still being given either verbally or in written form. Or when verbal revelation was being recorded in written form.

This type of development occurs during a time when people could still receive inspired revelation from God, but sometimes made doctrinal inferences and decisions based on their limited understanding of the implications of already given revelation. During such times there's a kind of imprecision and growth in understanding while doctrine is still developing and being refined.

It should go without saying that not all inspired revelations were recorded in Scripture. Also, that because of the historical nature of the Bible, it's also the case that some inspired doctrinal developments have been recorded in Scripture itself (even if not all).

Here are some examples recorded in the New Testament Church:

  • The Gospel was ultimately also intended for the Gentiles

  • Circumcision is no longer necessary for full obedience to God

  • The Biblical kosher laws are no longer necessary for full obedience to God

  • Eating meat sacrificed to idols is permissible with proper understanding and practice contrary to the decree and teaching of the Apostles at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Contrast the seemingly contradictory teaching of Paul in 1 Cor. 8 and Acts 15.

  • There is some sense in which the Old Testament Law no longer applies or is binding. I'll leave the details of this aside and keep this point ambiguous because explaining it will take us away from the topic of this blog post. I mention this as a matter of fact based on Heb. 7:12, 18-19; 8:8, 13; Gal. 2:16, 19, 21: 3:10-13, 21, 23-24; Rom. 3:21; 7:4; 10:4; Acts 13:39 et cetera

  • For Evangelicals, another example is the doctrine of justification by faith alone

It took time for the apostolic Church to come to such conclusions. There were minor disagreements, disputes and doubts. The Church as a whole grew into these conclusions. Such inspired development was sometimes the result of a direct and explicit revelation AND/OR due to a logical inference drawn from the implications and ramifications of the Gospel and other sound teaching or revelation  previously given.

Let's look at the specific example of eating meat sacrificed to idols. At first the Apostles in Acts 15 forbade the eating of such meat because it would violate their understanding of the Gospel at that time. However, Paul's further developed understanding of the implications of the Gospel allowed him to clarify in what sense it was permissible to eat such meat. This shows doctrinal development in the apostolic Church even though one would think that since apostles existed who could receive revelation from God, that therefore the Church would come to perfect and unified doctrinal truth immediately from the very start. But we don't see that in the history of the apostolic Church as recorded in inspired Scripture. Doctrines had to develop EVEN in the apostolic Church when (and while) the apostles were still living.

From these examples it's clearly evident that the apostolic Church was growing in it's understanding of truth and the Gospel during the lives of the Apostles. IT WAS NOT the case that AFTER Jesus died and rose again that the Apostles always and only preached what Jesus taught and preached. Jesus Himself said,

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.- John 16:12-13

Then He said to them, "Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old."- Matt. 13:52

 Paul wrote:

15    Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.- Phil. 3:15-16
12    For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.- Heb. 5:12-14
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part.10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.- 1 Cor. 13:9-10

12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.- 1 Cor. 13:12
Peter even acknowledged that angels were still learning things about the Gospel as the Church progressed in understanding.

12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven --- things which angels desire to look into.- 1 Pet. 1:12
This is just a sampling of the evidence that the Apostolic Church grew in it's understanding of the Gospel.

I belabored the point above to argue that the same thing is true of the nature and work of Jesus (i.e. of Christology). And the reason this is especially true is because of the this next point.

4. Jesus Veiled Mission and Identity [JVMI]

Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus occasionally, and in private, made it clear that He was the Messiah. However, for most of His ministry He veiled His mission and identity. Sometimes to the point of veiling His healings and exorcisms. See THIS LINK for examples. It was not until the Triumphal Entry that Jesus publicly announced His Messiahship. Even then, it wasn't absolutely explicit.

Here's a sampling of the evidence Jesus veiled His mission and identity.

Jesus didn't specifically and explicitly tell John the Baptist He was the Messiah when asked. See. Matt. 11:4-6

The fact that Jesus had to ask His disciples, "...Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" (Matt. 16:13c) proves that Jesus didn't go about publicly claiming He was the Messiah. Otherwise, Peter's declaration three verses latter that Jesus was the Messiah wouldn't make any sense (Matt. 16:16). Peter wouldn't have had to present his opinion of who Jesus was since he would have already heard Jesus say, "I am the Messiah", or words to that effect. The text goes on to say,

Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.- Matt. 16:20
Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.- Mark 8:30
Compare Matt. 16:13-20 to it's parallel in Mark 8:27-30.

After Christ's transfiguration Scripture says,

9    Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead."- Matt. 17:9 compare Mark 9:9

Much more evidence could be marshaled to prove that Jesus veiled His messianic identity. There are various reasons for why Jesus did so, but it must be realized that if Jesus veiled his Messiahship, how much more would He veil his Divinity IF He were Divine and God? Non-Trinitarians have got to think about that seriously as a hypothetical thought experiment. One of the reasons why Jesus veiled His Messiah was in order not to get stoned to death or crucified too early. It would have ruined God's planned timing of Jesus' crucifixion which was to be after Jesus gave all the teaching that He did give. God probably also timed Christ's crucifixion to fulfill the timing of the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah in Dan. 9:24-26.

Now if the premature unveiling of Jesus messiahship would ruin God's plan and timing, how much more would the Jews have prematurely crucified or (more likely) stoned Jesus for publicly claiming to be God? Such a claim by a human being would be completely outrageous in the eyes and ears of Jews. Yet that's precisely what almost happened in (presumably) private conversations in John 5:18 and John 10:31. In these two passage Jesus didn't explicitly claim to be God, even though the Jews rightly inferred Jesus implicit claim to deity and so were ready to stone Him.

Let's review all Four Points and put it all together:

1. Non-Inspired Doctrinal Development. [NDD]
2. The concept of inspired Progressive Revelation [PR]
3. Inspired Doctrinal Development [IDD]
4. Jesus Veiled Mission and Identity [JVMI]

When one takes into consideration all four points, it can be better understood, that if the doctrine of the Trinity were true, why Jesus never taught the doctrine of the Trinity. Along with why the New Testament doesn't explicitly teach the doctrine of the Trinity in the sense formulated by modern Trinitarians. Since the apostolic Church itself was still growing in its understanding of the person, nature and work of Christ and the implications of the Gospel. Inspired Doctrinal Development was necessary because 1. Christ veiled His identity and 2. intentionally didn't give the final/last word regarding who He was, regarding the fulness of the Gospel and regarding the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

Having said that, there is a plethora of statements and teachings in both the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament which support the Trinitarian position (which I'll call a "theory" or "hypothesis" for the sake of building a bridge for Unitarians to use to incrementally come to Trinitarian conclusions). The links I provided 1. above, 2. on this blog site, and 3. the articles in this blog site itself demonstrate that assertion that there are many passages in the Bible that supports a Trinitarian position. I've even written a rough and ready case for the Deity of Christ based solely on the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark of course is considered by most people to have been the earliest written and therefore the most primitive and pure (accurate) record of Christ's life and teachings. Here's the link:

Returning to the topic of Non-Inspired Doctrinal Development, I would grant that Modern formulations of the Trinity are examples of Non-Inspired Doctrinal Development. However, I'm of the opinion that their various formulations are closer to the truth than the most (if not all) versions of Unitarianism out there because it does the best job of accounting for all the Biblical data using Abductive reasoning. Abduction, also called Inference to the Best Explanation, is reasoning/inferring to that theory or hypothesis that has 1. the greatest explanatory power and 2. the greatest explanatory scope. Different non-Trinitarian Christologies, Theologies and Pneumatologies can explain some aspects of the Biblical data well, but to the neglect of other data which the doctrine of the Trinity can account for and make sense of.
This is how I myself have come to Trinitarian conclusions even though I still have some questions and doubts. For example, I find some plausibility in the position of Nicene Monarchism held by the brilliant former Trinitarian David Waltz and the eccentric Drake Shelton.

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