Is it really that obvious? A case for Tradition

That without which Christianity could never do…or could it??

If I asked you this question, “Is there a particular Christian belief that is so basic most believers in Christ consider it irreformable?” What would your answer be?

You might say, for example, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, or, the virgin birth. Undoubtedly, these two are distinctive beliefs that Christians hold. But I’m confident that most of you would say almost instinctively: “Well, the Trinity, of course!” Seems pretty obvious, right? After all, what could be more foundational? what else could so decisively set Christianity apart from all other world religions? “Without the Trinity, you lose Christianity!” Some may even claim.

As a Catholic, I can wholeheartedly agree that the Trinity is the sine qua non belief of Christianity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this in rather forceful language: The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith.” (CCC 234, emphasis added)

My goal in this post is to reflect on the following question: “On what basis, or principle, is the Trinity considered a fundamental and irreformable doctrine of Christianity?”

The Reformed and Catholic answers

For Reformed Protestants the answer lies in one of the corollaries of Sola Scriptura, namely perspicuity.

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned , in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. “(WCF 1.7) Since the Bible clearly and plainly proposes the Trinity, therefore it is essential to believe it for salvation. Hence its status as a foundational Christian doctrine that can never be abandoned.

For Catholics the answer lies in Tradition, which includes Scripture, and the definitive doctrinal judgments of the Church’s Magisterium. As Catholics we firmly believe that Scripture is the word of God and that everything in it has been written for the sake of our salvation. However, we deny that Scripture alone is sufficient for proposing a belief as binding on the conscience of Christians, as irreformable such that its substance can never be contradicted under pain of forfeiting the essence of Christianity and as an article of faith, in the strict theological sens, in the absence of a divinely appointed interpretive authority.

But isn’t this what Christians have always believed?!

To which I give my most resounding “Absolutely!” We Catholics believe that the witness of Sacred Tradition is authoritative and normative for theology. We don’t derive the certainty and irreformability of divinely revealed data from Scripture alone. If there were a Catholic who denied the Trinity, we could present him with the testimony of the Fathers and the solemn pronouncements of Popes and Councils and correct his erroneous view.

But what about Protestants? What would they do in case someone in their community arrived at the conclusion that the development of Trinitarian theology is anti-biblical doctrine, indeed, a tradition of men that must be overturned?

Appealing to church tradition won’t work. As Trent Horn put it in his book “The Case for Catholicism“, no Protestant “believes that tradition has any ability to overrule an individual Christian who believes his interpretation of Scripture is correct, no matter what long-standing doctrine of the faith it may reject.” (emphasis added)

Reformulated even more poignantly, no Protestant holds that a particular understanding of a doctrine, or the development thereof, is irreformable by virtue of its being believed and handed down as the consensus of Christian reflection through the centuries.

A conundrum

Case in point, what would they say to someone like Patrick Navas?

Several years ago Navas published a lengthy tome called “Divine Truth or Human Tradition?: A Reconsideration of the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

He writes in the introduction of his book: “Although the doctrine has long been regarded as an established hallmark of orthodox Christian belief , I was always aware of ( and yet seriously perplexed by ) what most Trinitarian scholars themselves normally recognize ; namely , that the actual doctrine itself — as defined by the historic ecumenical creeds — is not one that is directly or formally taught to us by Jesus or by Scripture . But how could a doctrine as important as this — the very nature and identity of God — not have been directly taught in the very revelation of himself that God gave to humanity ? This is , of course , what ultimately led me into a deeper investigation into the matter , in order that I might “ examine everything carefully ” and “ test the spirits ” so to speak , in accordance with the apostles ’ instructions to the Christians that lived in their own day” (emphasis in original)

And also this:

My own conviction is that the authoritative pronouncements of the Scriptures themselves actually—and adequately—fulfill the role of defining Christian “orthodoxy,” and that the historic (4th and 5th century) creeds and their dogmatic formulations are ultimately irrelevant and unnecessary, especially so in terms of determining true or original Christian doctrine.

This is why the reader should know that the views expressed and points made in this book were sincerely and, I believe, reasonably made on the basis (and with deep reverence for the sanctity) of the inspired Scriptures, with the ultimate goal of inciting others to the worship of the one God “in spirit and in truth.” (emphasis added)

The Protestant’s dilemma

Could those Protestants who disagree with Navas say that he is simply engaging in dishonest and careless exegesis? Possibly, but that seems unreasonable given that Navas clearly indicates to have interacted with the views and scholarship of some of the most well-known and respected theological heavyweights in the Protestant community (check link to his book’s product page).

Could they say that Navas is simply too blind, evil or stupid to understand that what the Bible clearly and plainly teaches cannot possibly be retracted ? Could they say that he’s wickedly suppressing the witness of the Holy Spirit in his exegetical endeavors? Possibly, but then again, that seems unreasonable given the foregoing quotations from the introduction of his book.

If the Protestant belief and understanding in the perspicuity of Scripture is true, then they must either admit that all those who fail to see the Trinity leap off the pages of Scripture are intellectually dishonest, morally obtuse or just plain evil, or, recognize that it is possible for sincere and God-fearing Christians to arrive at conclusions that overturn centuries, even millennia, of historic theological reflection, indicating in the process that the individual Protestant remains his/her own ultimate interpretive authority and that beliefs (or their developments) held to be foundational and irreformable for Christian orthodoxy aren’t rationally necessitated by the available Scriptural data.

As Navas so eloquently put it: ”

Even if one were to accept, in theory, that the creeds serve as a protection against false teaching, we would still have to keep in mind the existence of the various and conflicting creeds that have come down to us, all of course claiming to reflect true Christian “orthodoxy.” But who has the authority to say which creed or confession is the one Christians should look to and why? (emphasis added)

The dilemma continues

On January 11th, 2019, Dr. Dale Tuggy (unitarian) debated Dr. Michael Brown (trinitarian). The thesis of their debate was “Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?”

(Dr. Tuggy, left, is being cross-examined by Dr. Brown, right)

(A recording of the debate can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oi300_FvFz0&t=2s)

Regardless of what you may think about the argumentation presented by Dr. Tuggy, I believe that this debate should motivate Protestants to ponder the following: “on what basis do we hold Unitarianism to be radically incompatible with Christianity? Is it because it is hopelessly untenable from an exegetical point of view? is it really that obvious?

I concur (and conclude) with the thoughts of Daniel Vecchio:

“Dale’s arguments against the Trinity remind me of other Protestant arguments against Catholic accretions. His case against the Trinity from a Sola Scriptura standpoint is quite formidable, if you ask me”. (emphasis added)

“I respect Tuggy’s work and I think he is a consistent Protestant. I disagree with some of his exegesis, but I don’t find his Unitarian readings completely bizarre or implausible. I am a Trinitarian because the Trinity was revealed by the Church. It was implied by Scripture” (emphasis added)

The Theology of the Mass: Divine Symphony Book

David L. Gray has just published a book called The Divine Symphony: An Exordium to the Theology of the Catholic Mass. In it he delves into the theology of the Mass, bringing the reader a deeper appreciation of it.

The Mass As Divine Symphony

The “red thread” through the book that David makes is the analogy of the Mass to a symphony: it is broken up into multiple movements and has parts to it that resemble a symphonic piece of music.

I admit that I had to look up what “exordium” meant in the subtitle: it is the introductory part of a treatise or piece of music.

Before diving into the parts of the Mass and exploring them, David gives a good overview of what the book is and is not. He explains that he is not arguing for any particular Rite or sub-tradition within a Rite but rather focusing on the overarching similarities across all Rites, even in the Orthodox liturgies, as they all represent the same theological meaning.

So, for instance, he is not concerned with proving that the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo) of the Roman Rite is superior or inferior to the Extraordinary Form (Traditional Latin Mass). He is not interested in claiming that the Byzantine divine liturgy is better or worse than, say, the Maronite one. He shows how each of these are substantially similar.

A Disagreement

I appreciate David’s purpose in writing this book. He is not a traditionalist, but he values the Traditional Latin Mass and almost switched from being a Latin Rite Catholic to one of the Eastern Rites (Byzantine et. al.). He definitely seeks to refute those more extreme traditionalists who claim that the Novus Ordo is invalid; I am not one of those traditionalists so I had no disagreement with him here.

Where I did differ is that I would claim the Traditional Latin Mass is superior to the Novus Ordo. Yes both are valid, but that does not mean that one does not surpass the other in terms of beauty, theological exactness and power of expression, and depth of tradition. So while the Novus Ordo does hit all the notes of the Divine Symphony–to use his analogy–those notes are not as true, or deep in timbre, as the Traditional Latin Mass’s are.

That said, he makes very clear that his purpose is not to give a full on defense of the Novus Ordo against the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Maybe that will be in a future book.

What I Like in the Book

I really liked that David went through the Mass step-by-step. Each part, each important phrase, was explained and illuminated.

He includes insights from Pope Benedict, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, Cardinal Sarah, and many other writings, including those of the Church Fathers, which offer meaty food for thought on the Holy Mass.

I learned countless things from reading the book, and I think that everyone would as well. Even having been Catholic now for 17 years, and doing apologetics, this book reminded me of how much I have to learn even in the fundamentals of the Catholic Faith.

Kudos to David for writing this intriguing and informative book.