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 irreversible 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 (or at least provides sufficient theological data that will “inevitably” develop into the classic Trinitarian formulation of Nicaea-Constantinople) , 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 or reversed under pain of forfeiting the essence of Christianity and as an article of faith, in the strict theological sense, 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 definitive 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 irreversible by virtue of its being believed and handed down as the consensus of Christian reflection through the centuries.
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)
- (Originally published on 3-26-18. First revision on 4-2-18 following feedback from Casey Chalk, administrator at Called to Communion)
- (Second revision, and expansion, completed on 1-16-19. Permission was granted by Daniel Vecchio to quote some of his interventions on this Facebook thread :https://www.facebook.com/peterseanbradley/posts/10216263007919661?comment_id=10216300382654006&reply_comment_id=10216315682516493)