cjbanning: (Trinity)
[personal profile] cjbanning
Over at Patheos Evangelical, Kermit Zarley asks "Is Trinitarianism Monotheistic?" and comes to a negative conclusion. My main reaction to this is a healthy helping of apathy: certainly there is a sense in which Trinitarian Christianity is monotheistic primarily because we have defined our terms in such a way as to make it so. If Zarley wants to use a different definition of monotheism, one which requires not only unity of being but also unity of hypostases, then obviously there's nothing that you or I could possibly do to stop him.

Nor would I argue that Trinitarian monotheism is the same thing as the strict monotheism of Judaism. It clearly isn't, although I would point out that the oldest parts of the Hebrew scriptures seem to draw from a henotheistic worldview rather than a strictly monotheistic one. I'm also curious how such a strict monotheism makes sense of passages such as Proverbs 8. But these are sidebars; I'm not arguing that the Hebrew scriptures teach Trinitarianism in any direct sense. Heck, I'm not even arguing that the New Testament does so.

However, it's unequivocally incorrect to say that orthodox Trinitarians believe in three gods. No matter how you parse it, that's just false. Maybe there's something subtle I'm missing to the distinction Zarley wants to make between a "unity" and "numerically one," but it seems to me pretty clear that in orthodox Christian Trinitarianism God is not only a unity, but numerically one. There is only one God. Period. Anything else is heresy (from an orthodox Trinitarian perspective).

Zarley seems to be taking advantage of a confusion between our ordinary language use of the word "person" and the specialized theological usage as a translation of the Greek hypostasis. The Trinity are not (in orthodox Trinitarianism) three separate people who together make up God, the way three members of a family might make up that family. Instead, the hypostases of the Trinity share a unity of essence: they are all, quite literally, the same metaphysical entity, in a way which is avowedly paradoxical and mysterious. The "persons" of the Trinity are not their own separate gods--on this point, Trinitarian theology is absolutely and unrelentlessly unequivocal.

And this isn't just true of abstract theology. When actual Christians get confused about the Trinity and fall into heresy--which, admittedly, happens fairly often--it's almost always either modalism or partialism, and hardly ever tritheism.

Now, I suspect that Zarley would take this as evidence of us either being disingenuous (because we're not using his definition of monotheism) or, more charitably, that Trinitarian Christians are confused about what they actually believe. (And of course, given the abysmal state of catechesis in the Church today, the latter is almost certainly true!) But given the utter clarity with which orthodox theology teaches that there is no division in being within the Godhead, I don't see how one can argue that Trinitarians understand God as being even "numerically three."

I suspect Zarley might argue something along the line that Trinitarians cannot simply declare by fiat that a distinction between separate persons doesn't require a belief in different gods. But if Trinitarians cannot define what our own theology is, who can? One can argue that the Trinity as a doctrine is incoherent--and I might even agree with one; there's a reason why we call it a "holy mystery"--but saying that Trinitarians believe in three gods is just flat-out incorrect, and seems to willfully misrepresent what orthodox theology teaches.

In many ways, the Trinity is a good example--indeed, I would argue that for the Trinitarian Christian it is the prime example--of the sort of reason-defying doctrine that Theo Hobson quite rightly defended in the article I posted about yesterday. (And note that the Trinity is not a claim about "the supernatural" as I define it!) Indeed, I fear that Zarley's antagonism towards Trinitarism on some level stems precisely from the sort of modernist hyperrationalist theology--the attempt to "iron out" Christianity and to make it "make sense"--of which both Hobson and I despair. (And note that such hyperrationalism finds a comfortable home in evangelicalism, which already eschews the ritualism of so-called "liturgical Christianity.")
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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