Saturday, June 15, 2019

Trinitarian Disruption

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas mus be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. [1] The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are, to my understanding mere relapses into polytheism, different from paganism only be being more unintelligible. The religion of Jesus is founded in the Unity of God, and this principle chiefly gave it triumph over the rabble of heathen gods then acknowledged. [2]

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1816. Whether ridicule, objection or parody, the doctrine of the trinity has been, and is, subject to all of them. The reasons for these responses are well known: the messy politics in which the doctrine's development was embedded; the dependence on highly-technical philosophical terms and the subtle distinctions between them; and the propensity of the various participants in the decisive early debates to indulge in ungracious ad hominem attacks on each other. 

Do these problems disqualify the doctrine of the Trinity? For many they do. In a considered blog published earlier this week, my Uniting Church colleague and New Testament scholar, John Squires, has helpfully straddled the positive and negative answers to that question. The value of John's blog is the way he approaches the critical questions from the respective angles of history, scripture, liturgy, doctrine, polemics, prayer, mission and meaning. It's worth a read.

On balance I would see more enduring value in trinitarian doctrine (even in the terms in which it was developed) than John tends to do and I'd push for a more nuanced understanding of what it means for the doctrine to be 'biblical'.  But I think his final challenge is to be heeded. After declaring that "the concept of the Trinity [is] a fine example of good, honest contextual theology" he calls us to follow that example:
The missionary task that we face is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of doctrine by the church fathers. This Trinity Sunday, instead of sermons that grind through abstruse and remote arguments for the Trinity, I would hope we can being to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening.
Let me say at the outset, I don't think I've ever heard a Trinity Sunday sermon grinding through the doctrine's remote arguments. Perhaps I've been lucky.  In reality, I don't have any great sense that this is a particular risk in the Uniting Church!

And to John's challenge I would add the need to allow the peculiarity of allowing a crucified Jewish rabbi to shape the way we use the word God. The reason why Christians developed their own distinctive way of speaking about God was because of the extreme provocation of allowing the reality of Jesus' life, death and resurrection to shape the way they filled out the word 'God'. If that not been the case, whatever other factors came into play, including the inclusion of the Spirit in this task of defining 'God', there never would have been a doctrine of the Trinity. There never would have been a distinctive Christian way of speaking about God.

Rowan Williams once put it like this: "Christian faith had its beginnings in an experience of profound contradictoriness, an experience which so questioned the religious categories of its time that the reorganisation of religious language was a centuries-long task."[3]  Sure, that it is too drastic a summary of everything that happened on the way to getting to trinitarian doctrine. But it's a reminder that the categories of Christianity's language for God aren't random. The challenge of Trinity Sunday can, therefore, include re-familiarising ourselves with this 'profound contradictoriness' of the early Christian proclamation: the claim not just that a human was one with God, but that a state-executed criminal determined the shape of Christian God-talk.

Yes, the move from that identification to the threefoldness and the particular conceptuality of the doctrine of the Trinity involved many further steps, but none of them would ever have been taken without that first move. Of course, the problem is is that in its development and influence, the doctrine of the Trinity has played its own part in insulating our God-talk from that original disruption. On this, it is worth remembering that the Nicene Creed's homoousios  (of one being with / consubstantial with) was a way of insisting that 'God' was defined by Jesus as much as it was that Jesus was defined by 'God' - with the same logic at work in the reference to the Spirit being worshipped alongside the Father and Son. It did so in the face of intra-Christian concerns that this definition disrupted some of prevailing meanings of 'God'. That was exactly the point.

Christian faith has filled the word 'God' with specific meaning. Articulating that meaning, finding the right language for it, and linking it to contemporary life and thought can be the challenge to take up on Trinity Sunday. It is also the challenge to check that our God-talk remains open to being both disrupted and reconstituted by the original Christian proclamation and its theological novelty and peculiarity.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp, July 30th 1816" (accessed October 10th 2008).
[2] Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Rev Jarred Sparks, Nov 4th 1820" (accessed Oct 10th 2008).
[3] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (London: Dartmon, Longman and Todd, 1990), 1.