Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Nicene Creed vs. the Doctrine of the Trinity

Kermit Zarley left the following comment on my 'Minecraft model of the Trinity’ post:
Instead of trying to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, how about trying to understand the Bible. In this post, you don't mention a single text in it.
That’s good advice, and I know what he means, and I have tried to adhere to that principle in the past (see this post, for example). The trouble is, one thing that seems to be a fundamental principle uniting all Christians around the world – and it’s been this way for over 1500 years – is adherence to the Nicene (really the Niceno-Constantinopolitan) creed. True, there are groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Christadelphians who reject the Nicene creed – and the doctrine of the Trinity altogether – but, although they would call themselves Christian, they are (rightly or wrongly) not generally considered to be true Christians by the rest of the Church. In many churches, the Nicene creed is recited weekly as a way for the congregation members to re-affirm their faith and to express their unity with other Christians around the world. I find it very hard to be part of a faith, one of the fundamental tenets of which I am unable to give my assent to. My refusal to give up once and for all on the doctrine of the Trinity has largely been motivated by this unwillingness to accept that the faith in which I first encountered God, and through which I have met many people – including family members - who have demonstrated and modeled the reality of God to me in the way they live their lives, could be so wrong in one of its most foundational beliefs.
But my problem with the doctrine of the Trinity is largely constituted by the fact that its premises are inherently self-contradictory and illogical. This means that much of the mental gymnastics involved in my many attempts to render it coherent and therefore believable tend to involve philosophical speculation as opposed to biblical exegesis.
One thing I’ve realised recently, though, is that while I do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity in the sense of three, consubstantial divine Persons, each of whom is the one God – a doctrine which (as far as I can tell) not taught in the bible in any clear sense and which I doubt was believed by those who became Christians in the days of the first Apostles – that does not necessarily mean that I cannot assent to the Nicene creed.
The part of the Nicene creed that I have generally had a problem with is the bit that says of Jesus that He is, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” However, I am not certain that this has to be understood in an orthodox trinitarian way. I certainly believe that, in one sense, Jesus is what God is. I explained in a previous post that this is how I understand the sense of the opening sentence of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and what God was, the Word was. What I understand by this is that God always works through His Son, so that Jesus is imbued by God with all of God’s qualities (for the sake of the argument I’m not going to get into the notion of divine simplicity and its implications for the possibility of God having multiple qualities!) as well possessing the authority to act in God’s name. One way of describing this situation would be to say that Jesus is what God is, but not who God is. This is not to be confused with the very common argument put forward by trinitarians that God is ‘three Whos and one What’. As I have explained in previous posts, that argument is, in my opinion, pure sophistry, and in no way resolves the contradictory nature of the doctrine of the Trinity. Put simply, if each of the three ‘Whos’ is identical to the one ‘What’, then there can be no distinction between those three ‘Whos’. And if the three ‘Whos’ are thought of as being, in some sense, three distinct minds or consciousnesses, floating around inside the one ‘What’ like ghosts in the divine machine, then the Persons are not identical with the ‘What’ (which is, after all, the one God) but rather are inhabitants or, at best, parts or aspects of God.
But what I am arguing is that while Jesus is not who God is – only the Father is God, and Jesus is not the Father – Jesus is what God is in the sense that he is identical to God in every way except for the fact that He (the Son, ie. Jesus) is not the ultimate source of the divine power, authority, knowledge, wisdom, love etc. that he possesses (and surely many trinitarian Christians would agree with that last point, since many of them believe that the Son is eternally generated by the Father).
So if the phrase “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” can be understood as referring to the fact that Jesus is what God is (without it having to mean that Jesus is who God is), then I have no problem in reciting the Nicene creed.
As for the part of the creed which refers to the Holy Spirit, it does not call the Spirit God but describes the Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life” who is to be “worshiped and glorified”. I have never had a problem with this part of the creed. God’s Spirit is, by definition, divine (and therefore worthy of worship), just as the human spirit is human, and it is by His Spirit that God imparts life.
I have mentioned the Eastern Orthodox priest Father John Behr in a previous post, as someone whose ideas about the Trinity seem to me to make more sense that those of most (small ‘o’) orthodox Christians. The other day I came across this talk by Father John, and to my surprise he seems to be describing the Trinity in a way that is – possibly – compatible with the understanding of the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that I have argued for in this post (although I don’t fully agree with stuff he's previously written on the Trinity, such as this post, so it's possible I am misunderstanding him). If it is the case that my views on the nature of God would be considered acceptable by such a prominent Orthodox priest and theologian then I have no further need to worry about whether or not those views are compatible with those of the wider Church. I consider the Orthodox Church to be a good guide to the theological views of the Church of the early centuries of Christianity, since (as far as I understand) it ceased to hold any councils after the split with Rome in 1054, whereas the Church in the West continued – and still does continue in both its catholic and protestant forms - to develop its doctrines and teachings. I have mentioned in a previous comment that the Orthodox understanding of the atonement – which is centred around the idea of Jesus triumphing over death on our behalf – makes much more sense to me than the western idea that God needs to punish someone – even someone completely innocent - before he is able to forgive.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Clarification of yesterday's post

The more I consider what I wrote in yesterday’s post, the more I realise that it is all about idioms or manners of speaking, rather than about questions of truth or falsehood. In a strictly literal sense, the Father is the “only true God” (John 17:3), while the Son and Spirit are of God (ie. the Son of God and the Spirit of God) rather than strictly identical with Him. But to describe the Son as God is not a falsehood any more than, in the scenario described in the previous post, to refer to my Minecraft avatar, or to the ‘me’ character in my fictional story, as ‘me’ would be false. Those things aren’t literally me, but by referring to them as ‘me’, I am acknowledging that they represent me and function as me to all intents and purposes. To call them ‘me’ is not to say something which is untrue, it is merely to use an accepted idiom or manner of speech. Similarly, when we refer to the second and third Persons of the Trinity as God we are speaking not literally but idiomatically, in order to highlight the fact that the Son is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and that the Spirit is the Spirit of God (and of Christ). So yes, the Father is God and in another sense the Son is God and the Spirit is God. And there is only one God!

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Minecraft model of the Trinity

As a person, I can take more than one form! I have my normal bodily form – that is, I am made of flesh and blood, just like all humans are. But when I play Minecraft (a computer game involving a simulated world) with my son, I am represented by an avatar (a computerised image of a person, that I control) by means of which I can walk around, build houses etc, in the virtual environment. In the Minecraft world, that avatar is, in a sense at least, me. My son will say things like, “you can come and visit me in my house”, and when he says “you” he is not referring to the flesh and blood me, but to my avatar. Likewise, if I decide to write a story and portray myself as one of the characters in the story, that character – even though he may get up to things that I’ve never actually done in real life – is also, in a sense, me. It's not merely that he is based on me; within the world depicted in my story, that character is me. The other characters in the story will refer to him, quite rightly, as Andrew (my name). So, in this sense, it is possible for me to exist as one person in at least three distinct forms.
Now, I realise that the doctrine of the Trinity is very different to this. God is not one person with three distinct forms. He is beyond mere personhood. So, whereas I can be one person in three distinct forms, God can be one Being in three distinct Persons. And whereas, in my case, each of the three 'objects' (flesh and blood, Minecraft avatar, story character) has the same one 'subject' (me), in the case of God, each of the three subjects (Father, Son and Spirit) has the same one superpersonal,divine Nature (God). But the two concepts (that of one person in three forms and that of one Being in three Persons) can be regarded as analogous. And this analogy can, it seems to me, clear up many of the apparent logical inconsistencies that have previously plagued my many attempts to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.
For example, in the above scenarios I described myself as one person in three forms. The flesh and blood me, is (obviously) me – in fact you could probably call it the only true me (and Jesus, in John 17:3, calls the Father "the only true God"); the Minecraft avatar is me; and the story character is me. Yet, even though I exist in three forms, not one of those forms of me has three forms itself. The flesh and blood me isn’t a Minecraft avatar or a story character, the Minecraft avatar isn’t flesh and blood or a character in a story, and the character in the story isn’t flesh and blood or a Minecraft avatar. Yet still, in some sense, each of them is me. You could say that while the Minecraft avatar (for example) is me, there is more to me than a Minecraft avatar.
If the ‘me’ character in the story that I’ve written gets bitten by a dog in that story, then it would be true to say that I have been bitten by a dog (in the story) while at the same time it would also be true to say that I have never been bitten by a dog (in real life). So, because of the existence of different forms of me (the flesh and blood, the Minecraft avatar and the story character) inhabiting different levels of reality (the real world, the Minecraft world and the story world) it becomes possible to say that I have been both bitten by a dog and never bitten by a dog, which sounds like a logical contradiction and yet is true because - even though there is only one me - that ‘me’ exists in three different forms.
Bearing all of the above in mind it becomes possible, by analogy, to say things like the following:

The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God; the Father is not the Son or Spirit, the Son is not the Father or Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father or Son – and yet there is only one God.

or,

God became a man and was crucified. The Father is God. The Father did not become a man or get crucified. There is only one God.

In the past I have considered these types of statements as being self-contradictory and therefore illogical and incoherent, but – if one remembers my description of one human being (me) in three forms, and the paradoxical-yet-true statements that can result from that concept – then it is possible, by analogy, to hold each part of the above statements as simultaneously true and not indicative of any contradiction.
In other words, if you accept that it is possible for a human person to exist – in some sense – in three forms, then you must also accept that it is possible for a Divine Being to exist – at least in some sense – in three Persons.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Forget the clones

I've already spotted the flaw in the 'three clones' analogy from my post earlier today.
Imagine one of the clones (Dick, say) is bitten by a dog. Now, since Dick was bitten and neither Tom nor Harry were, and since each of the clones is the same one man, then we would have to say that the same one man was both bitten by a dog and not bitten by a dog. This is clearly impossible, since a thing can't be both 'x' and 'not x' simultaneously. Therefore, as with my many previous attempts, my latest analogy of the Trinity, when subjected to a detailed analysis, has proven itself to be logically incoherent.

The only way to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity?

I regularly come across articles and posts on the internet which claim to offer coherent explanations of the doctrine of the Trinity yet, however promising they may seem at first glance, on close examination they almost always prove to have one or more fatal flaws. The majority of attempted explanations of the doctrine of the Trinity fall down in one of three ways. They either end up with no real distinction between the persons (the husband / brother / son analogy), or with distinctions that cannot exist simultaneously (eg. water / ice / steam) or – most commonly of all – with the Persons of the Trinity as parts of God rather than each of them actually being God as the doctrine requires. Many allegedly coherent explanations of the Trinity involve the idea of God as one entity with three ‘minds’ or ‘centres of consiousness’. The trouble with such models is that the only elements in them of which there are three instances (and therefore the only elements which are capable of representing the Persons) are the ‘minds’ themselves, so that on close analysis it becomes plain that the Persons are not actually depicted as God but simply as minds or centres of consciousness of God. And if each of the Persons is not merely a mind of God, but is the actual Being of God Himself, then, since there is only one Being of God, it follows that each of them is the exact same thing - in which case we end up with no distinction between the Persons.
Another of the most common ways in which the coherence of the doctrine of the Trinity is supposedly defended is to say that there is no contradiction between God’s oneness and His threeness, since the oneness applies to what God is and the threeness to who He is. God is, in other words, ‘three whos and one what’. But the trouble is, if each of the ‘whos’ is the ‘what’ (because each of the Persons is God) and there is only one ‘what’ then, once again, each of the ‘whos’ must be the exact same thing, of which there is only one. So, again, we end up with no distinction between the Persons.
I believe that grammar is the logical component of language – a universal element of all human languages, because logic itself is universal truth in the same way that mathematics is. The doctrine of the Trinity – at least in its traditional, orthodox form - is, it would seem, almost impossible to explain coherently in a way that does not defy the limits of grammar - and therefore the very bounds of logic and rational coherence.
There are, however, two ways in which I have found that it is possible to describe the Trinity without abandoning the normal rules of grammar. One is to view the word God as referring to a ‘mass noun’ rather than (or as well as) a ‘count noun’. Then we could say that while the Father is a Being called God, the Son and the Spirit are each God in the sense that they consist of a substance called ‘God’, even though neither of them is a God or the God (similarly to how a piece of an apple is still called 'apple' but not an apple or the apple - or how a piece of cake is called 'cake' but not a cake or the cake). However, I rejected this approach for the simple reason that this is not the way in which the vast majority of Christians (or others in the Abrahamic tradition) understand the meaning of the word ‘God’. He is not a substance in the material sense, or even analogous to a material substance.
The second way in which it is possible to make grammatical sense of the doctrine of the Trinity is by viewing the Persons in the same way we might view clones. For example, if a man called Tom made two clones of himself, called Dick and Harry, we could perhaps say that Tom, Dick and Harry, while being three distinct persons (because they are three distinct subjects (in the sense that only Tom can [truthfully] say “I am Tom”, only Dick can say “I am Dick” and only Harry can say “I am Harry”) are all actually the same man (three different versions of that one man, if you like). In the past, I have rejected this idea because, while it is possible to say that Tom, Dick and Harry are all the same man, it also seems perfectly reasonable to describe them as three identical men. Nevertheless, more than perhaps any other type of Trinitarian model or attempted explanation, this 'clone' analogy does, I think, provide a way to speak of God in trinitarian terms while not departing from grammatical (or logical) coherence. The Father is the one true God, and the Son and the Spirit are two other versions of that same God. One version of God became a man, the other two versions did not – God was crucified in one of His versions, but not in the other two, etc. Of course, the Son and the Spirit are not literally clones of the Father in the genetic sense - this is only an analogy, after all - and, unlike Dick and Harry, they had no beginning in time.
In my first post on this blog I quoted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." I have no intention of leaving the Christian faith (as the disciples said to Jesus in John 6:68 when he asked if they were going to leave him: “"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”) and, whether I like it or not, the Trinity is one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity – about as near to a non-negotiable as it’s possible to get. So it’s important to me to have a way of understanding the doctrine that makes sense to me. This analogy of the clones, then, being the only way I can make sense of the teachings espoused in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, is the model that I choose to adopt as my own understanding of the true meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity and as the closest we can come, in my opinion, to a true appreciation of the trinitarian nature of the Godhead.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

One Person in three guises

I have mentioned in a previous post that the Latin word 'persona' (from which we derive the English word 'person') is itself derived from a Greek word which originally meant 'mask' (as in the mask worn by an actor on the stage. In this post, I propose the word 'guise' (not to be confused with disguise) as an appropriate substitute for the word that is usually rendered 'Person' when referring to the trinitarian nature of God. The traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity involves the concept of God as three Persons in one Being. I am suggesting, instead, the idea of God as one Person (in the modern sense of the word, ie. an individual conscious entity, a self) in three guises.
The "only true God" (John 17:3) is the Father, but we encounter him in two other guises: firstly, He is fully present in the life and teachings of Jesus and, secondly, He is fully present in the form of (or, rather, by means of) His Spirit (the same Spirit which was, and is, present in Jesus). When we encounter God in the life and teachings of Jesus, rather than call Him the Father, we refer to Him as the Word (see John 1) or, since Jesus' relationship with God was so utterly intimate that He was able to say "I and the Father are One", and Jesus is, in a unique way, God's Son, we can also refer to God in this guise as the Son - but that is not to imply that Jesus the man is actually God himself, or that Jesus and the Father are the same Person, only that God is fully present in Jesus and in his life and ministry (see 2 Corinthians 5:19).
When we encounter God in the guise of the Spirit then we refer to Him as such, ie. as the Spirit, rather than as the Father.
I think this understanding of God can be distinguished from modalism/sabellianism, because in the modalist idea of God, the Father and the Son (Jesus) are considered to be the same Person and this, perhaps, is the reason for modalism being declared a heresy, since it would mean that when Jesus prays to the Father it is actually God praying to Himself. The model that I am proposing does not, however, suffer from this problem.

Actually, all of this is really just another way of stating the position I set out with my very first post on this blog, the idea of one God in three presences.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

More 'Symbolic Trinitarianism'

Imagine that, in a General Election, each of the three main UK parties gets exactly one third of the vote. As a result it is agreed that the three party leaders (Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron) will share the role of Prime Minister. Not only that, but, by some miracle, it turns out that all three of them agree 100% on every single issue imaginable so that every action or decision of one of the three is fully concurred with by the other two. Furthermore, due to the wonders of modern technology they are constantly linked to each other by an online connection which means that any conversation one of them takes part in is instantaneously seen and heard - and, naturally, concurred with - by the other two.
In the situation described above, would it be legitimate to say that although each of the three party leaders is Prime Minister, there is actually only one Prime Minister because each of the three share exactly the same power and knowledge and - because of their absolute agreement on all possible issues - there is no possibility of conflict, rivalry or disagreement between them?
I think that this type of model is one way to make some kind of sense out of the doctrine of the Trinity. Each of the Divine Persons shares the one office of God (ie. the office of supreme ruler of the universe). Since each of the Persons fully possesses all the divine powers and attributes (ie. each is fully omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent etc.) and since, because of the infinite nature of the divine attributes, each individual Person has these attributes to the exact same degree as do the three of them combined, and since there is no possibility of disagreement or rivalry between them, perhaps it is legitimate to symbolise this situation by referring to each of the Persons as God while simultaneously asserting that there is only one God.
A similar model is to think of God as a Composite Being comprised of three inseparable Divine Persons and to assert that each of the Persons is fully God even though none of them is all of God. Again, this is to symbolise the fact that each each of the Persons fully possesses all the divine powers and attributes (ie. each is fully omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent etc.) and that, because of the infinite nature of the divine attributes, each individual Person has these attributes to the exact same degree as do the three of them combined, and also that there is no possibility of disagreement or rivalry between the Persons.
Personally, I incline more towards the first of these models because of my (biblically based) belief that the Father is "the only true God" while the Son and Spirit share fully in His divine power and attributes.
Of course, neither of these models can explain how God could literally be both one Being and three Persons simultaneously. For example, using the first model, imagine one of the Prime Ministerial Persons has an egg thown at him/her. In that case, it would be possible to say that the Prime Minister both did and did not get splatted with egg yolk (depending on which of the Persons one is considering). Yet it is logically impossible for the same thing to be both 'X' and 'not X' simultaneously.