In a discussion about the Trinity, I offered a metaphor, and decided to post an edited version to have a bit of sport with the elves at CaNN — who, all kidding aside, seem to be very nice people despite their extreme theological conservatism.
How did the early Christian authors view Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit? They seem to have regarded them in something like football terms (yes, yes, I know it's an anachronism):
• Jesus, the superstar, All-Cosmos, and mortal, quarterback, is temporarily sitting on the bench in heaven.
• When the divine Head Coach (the Father) calls his number, Jesus will go back into the game on earth. There, he'll run the final, decisive plays, leading God's Team to victory.
• The Spirit is both the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, periodically communicating the wishes of the Head Coach to selected players.
Outlandish? Certainly. But that's approximately how the early Christian writings seem to describe what we now call the Trinity.
What the early writings did not envision, was that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all divine Persons of a unified Godhead.
The only early writing I can think of that even comes close to trinitarian thinking is Phil. 2.5-7, where Paul is thought to have quoted an existing hymn:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness. ....
That, of course, doesn't mean that Jesus's purported equality with God was widely accepted in the early church — nor that it's correct.
Okay--a few things here.
1) Perhaps the most important thing to remember about this whole discussion is that most of the writings that we have in the NT and in the early literature like the Apostolic Fathers is occasional. That is, it discusses particular problems actually occuring in churches. Unfortunately for this discussion, correspondence to these early communities from recognized church leaders seem to have been less concerned with systematic theology than who's doing what with whom and who's powertripping whom. We are asking questions that the text does not answer. As a result, any answers that we do find must be read not as a direct answer to our questions but as first and foremost bearing on the situation at hand and only secondarily and tangentially answering systematic questions. Let's not forget--one of the branches of the scientific study of the New Testament is New Testament theology wherein scholars attempt to discern what theology the authors of the NT held (completely apart from adjudicating truth claims). If this was a simple or clear task, the definitive work would have come out in the early years of the nineteenth century. Instead--we've had a lot of very smart people fussing with it for the past two hundred-fifty years...
2) Given 1 if we are goping to privilege any writings over any others, we should privilege those which seem to be giving a more general presentation of theology than addressing specifics. As I interpret it, the three best candidates are Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 John. These come the closest to attempts at theologizing about the relationship between Christ, God, and the Spirit and even they aren't systematic theologies. After these three, I'd put 1 Corinthians because here Paul spends so much time talking about Christ and the Spirit and their relation to the Church.
3) There are a few trinitarian statements in the NT--most notably the Great Commission in Matt 28--but you're right, no definitions. For whatever reason this issue simply was not addressed in the documents that survive. When we have limited evidence we would do well to respect the boundaries of what we plausibly can and cannot say. Arguments from silence should particularly be viewed with suspicion. An extreme example would be me suggesting that since your blog doesn't mention them that you know nothing of the sea, ships, and probably don't believe in the existence of the US Navy.
4) You wrote: What the early writings did not envision, was that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all divine Persons of a unified Godhead. ...And I'd suggest that you're right. However--this does not give you your point. The Church did not engage in philosophically based specualtion about the internal relations of the Trinity until classically trained philosophers came to the faith. All the Church seemded to care about before is that Jesus was Lord--itself the standard circumlocution for YHWH in the Greek-langugae Alexandrian translation of the OT (referred to as the Septuagint or LXX)--God was his Abba, Father, and the Spirit was also key. ...And that God was One just as Deuteronomy says. They lived the tension just fine until the philosophers got converted.
5) Jesus' equality with God was widely believed in the early Church. Perhaps the clearest early statement is the first chapter of Ignatius's Letter to the Smyrnaeans where he opens the leter with: "I give glory to Jesus Christ, the God who has thus given you wisdom..." As systematic works began to be written, the belief is found everywhere. Why then need you posit a discontinuity between the essential teaching of that time and the earlier age?
6) Note that the above discussion brackets the truth claims of this doctrinal position. I'm not trying to prove it true or false, I'm just asserting what the earliest Christians believed which is the necessary starting place as I see it.
Posted by: Derek | May 17, 2006 at 09:21 AM
Derek, everything you say supports my main point, which is that the only defensible position about the Trinity is that of respectful agnosticism.
Responding to a couple of your numbered points:
1. The Synoptic Gospels and Acts are anything but occasional pieces; they purport to be histories, and in the case of Luke / Acts, definitive ones. They say nothing about the Trinity.
(The Matthean version of the Great Commission — which is apparently a late editorial alteration, either that or it was genuine but was completely ignored by the early church, if we're to believe Acts — is at least as coherent with the football analogy as it is with a Triune Godhead.)
As for the occasional pieces in the NT, it's instructive to compare and contrast them with another "occasional" piece, namely the Book of Common Prayer, where we find explicit references to the Trinity on virtually every page.
3. "When we have limited evidence we would do well to respect the boundaries of what we plausibly can and cannot say." I couldn't have said it better myself. To repeat my earlier remark: The only defensible position about the Trinity is that of respectful agnosticism.
Thanks for the detailed comment.
Posted by: D. C. | May 17, 2006 at 10:45 AM
Alright--the Great Commision is alater editorial edition. Would you care to produce your evidence? (Citing Harnack or Bart Ehrman is not evidence, of course...) Tell me:
1. Which of the 4th century Uncials is it in? What are their readings for the verse? Of these, which are considered the first-order witnesses for Matthew?
2. What extant papyri contain the verse?
3. What order witnesses are they?
4. What are their readings for the verse?
5. In order for any scholar without a biased agenda to agree that a passage--any passage--is a "late editorial alteration" we would expect to see conflicting evidence in the first order witness. Provide it for me and I'll be happy to agree.
The Synoptic Gospels are not theological treatises, they are narrative arguments desined to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ of Israel, the Son of God, and the Son of Man. Proving the whole "Son of God" thing was saying that he was divine. Late Antiquity didn't have a sense of "Sons of God" that *weren't* divine.
Sorry, the BCP is in no way an occasional document; it's a book of liturgies. there is quite a large difference between them. The best rough test to determine if something is an occasional document is to ask to whom is it addressed and what specific problem or issue is it addressing. The BCP fails on both counts.
Point three--You seem to be misreading the point. The limited evidence from the earliest period suggests that early Christians understood God, the Creator and god of Israel to be inextricably linked to Jesus of Nazareth, the Resurrected Christ of God, and the Holy Spirit. When evidence does become avaiable and when theological speculation unpacks what this means, the writings are quite clear that this is one Godhead with three persons. On that basis one can...defensibly...suggest that there is continuity within the movement especially if there were, oh--say--a teaching office with a continuous teaching lineage that stretched from where we do have evidence (3rd-4th centuries) to when we don't (1st-2nd centuries). We do in fact. We call them bishops.
Furthermore, because there is limited evidence about what the first Christians thought about the Trinity, it does not follow that holding a trinitarian faith now is an indefensible proposition.
Posted by: Derek | May 17, 2006 at 12:42 PM
Derek writes: "Alright--the Great Commision is alater editorial edition. Would you care to produce your evidence?"
I already did: Acts says, explicitly and repeatedly, that the apostles and other disciples baptized in the name of Jesus alone (when they baptized in anyone's name at all), not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Jesus supposedly commanded in the Matthean version of the Great Commission. So either the apostles ignored Jesus's command, or Acts is wrong, or the Matthean version is wrong. Those are our alternatives. Given that the Marcan version says nothing about baptizing in the name of anyone in particular, and Matthew is derived in part from Mark, my money is on the Matthean version being a later editorial revision.
Derek writes: "Proving the whole "Son of God" thing was saying that he was divine. Late Antiquity didn't have a sense of "Sons of God" that *weren't* divine."
Uh, I don't think so. Matthew contains what sure seems like a direct, on-all-fours counterexample to your claim: Jesus himself tells peacemakers, in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5.9), that they will be called sons of God. My Greek interlinear Bible shows the phrase used here as "huioi theou," which to my untrained eye appears to be the plural of "theou huios" as used by the centurion at Jesus's death (Matt. 27.54). Does that mean that peacemakers are divine?
(Also, please explain all the other adjectival uses of "son of" in the New Testament — for example, James and John were "sons of thunder" and Joseph the Levite was called Barnabas, which means "son of encouragement." Here's a longer list; scroll down to "Son of God.")
Derek writes: "The limited evidence from the earliest period suggests that early Christians understood God, the Creator and god of Israel to be inextricably linked to Jesus of Nazareth, the Resurrected Christ of God, and the Holy Spirit."
I mean no offense here, but: So what? The earliest Christians also understood mental illness to be caused by demons, and the sun literally to rise in the morning, travel across the sky, and set in the evening. They did the best they could to explain the phenomena they encountered, but their explanations can't be irrebuttably binding on later generations.
Regardless how much we revere earlier generations, our higher duty is always to the truth; to think otherwise would be to make an idol of our own wishful thinking (paraphrasing David Pailin). As truth-seekers, we reject on principle any notion that we categorically must conform our scientific thinking to that of earlier generation; we have no reason to proceed any differently in respect of our theological thinking. Bottom line: We can't simply take the earliest Christians' word for it that God is a Trinity — if that indeed is their word.
Derek writes: "[B]ecause there is limited evidence about what the first Christians thought about the Trinity, it does not follow that holding a trinitarian faith now is an indefensible proposition."
I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on that. From where I sit, trinitarians have about as much support for their view as they would if they were to proclaim that the Alpha Centauri star system was ruled by superintelligent Siamese cats. We can't rule out either possibility, and if you want to believe either one it's fine with me; unconventional hunches are sometimes proved correct. But in the absence of at least some evidentiary support, I cannot understand how any serious person could make potentially-grave decisions on the basis of such assertions, any more than I can understand how the Heaven's Gate cult could commit suicide so that their souls could hitch a ride on the spaceship supposedly hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Posted by: D. C. | May 17, 2006 at 01:32 PM
I'll grant your Son of God point--I had the Greco-Roman context in mind. You're right...
I already did: Acts says, explicitly and repeatedly, that the apostles and other disciples baptized in the name of Jesus alone (when they baptized in anyone's name at all), not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Jesus supposedly commanded in the Matthean version of the Great Commission.
Acts also talks about Paul "breaking bread" in chs. 20 and 27. It doesn't mention any ritual or words. Do you thereby conclude that 1 Cor 11 is a "late editorial alteration"?
Given that the Marcan version... and which Markan version would that be? Surely you of all people can't be appealing to the latter half of Mark 16 because it *is* demonstrably a later addition. Which means...we don't know *what* Matthew had before him as an ending to Mark.
All this is to say--I thought the original point was the state of the Matthean text. It sounds like what you may meant to have said is that the Matthean text reflects a later "tradition" rather than a later "addition". Nevertheless, it does present a clearly trinitarian formula well within the first century. Of course, if you want to produce evidence to support that it's a later addition to the Matthean text I'll gladly receive it.
We will indeed have to agree to disagree--but I still take issue with your notion that holding such a faith is "indefensible".
Posted by: Derek | May 17, 2006 at 01:57 PM
Derek writes: "Acts also talks about Paul "breaking bread" in chs. 20 and 27. It doesn't mention any ritual or words. Do you thereby conclude that 1 Cor 11 is a "late editorial alteration"?"
Do you not see the difference? What you're talking about is Acts being silent about details that Paul supplies. In the passages I'm talking about, Acts isn't silent about the baptismal-formula details — it specifically says that the apostles used a particular verbal formula, one that omits two-thirds of what Jesus supposedly commanded in Matthew.
Derek writes: "Nevertheless, it [the Matthean Great Commission] does present a clearly trinitarian formula well within the first century."
I reiterate what I said in an earlier comment: The Matthean version is equally consistent with my football analogy — or, if you like, with YHWH, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit being the "top dogs" of heaven, which doesn't mean that they're three Persons comprising a single Godhead.
Posted by: D. C. | May 17, 2006 at 02:09 PM
I seriously doubt that the exact wording of the Great Commission goes back to Jesus. Because Luke chose not to use it in his novelized account of the spread of the Church does not mean it didn't exist. Furthermore, you're missing the narrative for the formula. Check Acts 19:1-7. Note the close connection between baptism and the Spirit. Again, in Acts 10 the descent of the Spirit is the sign that they were already baptized in God's eyes and yet water and Jesus' name were still applied. So even in Acts the Spirit is intimately connected with Baptism even lacking Matthew's formula.
I actually don't have that much trouble with your formula. Actually, as it's written it's literally true and seems to support my view over yours... I'd agree Jesus is mortal. He did truly die--he just didn't stay that way... ;-)
Don't forget, I'm no Scholastic and no huge fan of Greek ontological philosophy. My eyes glaze over when people start talking about homousia and all that. What's important to me is that I have experienced the power of both the Risen Christ and the Spirit in my life. And I do believe that the OT contains God's revelation to his people and that he is one. I believe that all three are God and yet God is one. As more of a pragmatist than a real honest to goodness philosopher, that does't keep me up at night.
Posted by: Derek | May 17, 2006 at 09:13 PM
I have a more practical question for D.C. Do you still say the Nicene Creed on Sunday and offer an "amen" to prayers that end with a clear, Nicene, Trinitarian ending ("...who lives, and reigns," and so forth)?
One thing that has always confused me is that many who deny a belief in the Trinity, still say the creeds and essentially "act" Trinitarian in their worship, both public and private. I have always wondered the motivation behind this, since if I personally didn't believe in the Trinity, I wouldn't act like I did.
Posted by: David | May 18, 2006 at 09:22 AM
David, at the Nicene Creed I stop at "and in one Lord, Jesus Christ." And I don't say "amen" to any trinitarian prayers.
Posted by: D. C. | May 18, 2006 at 09:47 AM
I commend you in your honesty. I mean it. I think that is the most genuine thing to do.
Posted by: David Bennett | May 18, 2006 at 10:12 AM
btw--one of Bede's sermons this morning reminded me of Col 2:9--"For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form..." With Paul and John we thus have two different strands of early Christian thought both pushing the same notion...sounds like multiple attestation to me.
Posted by: Derek | May 18, 2006 at 03:41 PM
Derek writes: Col 2:9--"For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form..."
I can accept that as a metaphor, but (for a lot of reasons) not as a statement of fact, no matter how many attestations it has: "If all your friends told you it was safe to jump off a cliff ...."
Posted by: D. C. | May 18, 2006 at 04:18 PM
Dude--I know it's your blog but you keep changing the conversation... Are you attempting to determine what earliest Christianity taught or what is true? These are two different questions (though they may have same answers...). My "multiple attestation" comment was directed towards the first--which you had been talking about before, but you applied it in this case to the second. I think you're better off formally seperating the two topics and discussing them independent of one another.
Posted by: Derek | May 19, 2006 at 09:40 AM
Derek asks: "Are you attempting to determine what earliest Christianity taught or what is true? These are two different questions (though they may have same answers...)."
Here's my interest in whether the early church believed in a Triune God:
Many traditionalists tell us we should believe in a Triune God, in the divinity of Jesus, and in other doctrines of "orthodoxy," because the earliest Christians supposedly believed those things, and they supposedly were in a better position to know the truth than we are.
Personally I'm not persuaded that either of the underlying premises here is supportable. For now let's focus on the first one: that the earliest Christians believed in a Triune God and in the divinity of Jesus.
The reason I'm not persuaded is that I recognize their argument for what it is: wishful thinking.
These trads have combed through the Bible, looking for text to support their claim. Finding little or nothing on point hasn't stopped them: they've simply switched to Plan B, which is to cite various bits and pieces of text and to declare, with invincible certainty, that they've proved their case.
When you look closely at what they're brandishing, however, it just doesn't add up. The "evidence" they cite is nowhere near as probative as they claim.
Even when someone points this out to the trads — that the emperor has no clothes, so to speak — they just keep repeating their argument. They know human nature is such that, if they say it often enough, and with enough confidence, some people will believe them.
For almost 25 years now, I've watched lawyers in court do exactly the same thing. It's not just lawyers: You practically can't read the newspaper (or the on-line equivalent) without seeing politicans and PR flacks doing the same thing too. And let's not leave out the preachers of non-Christian religious doctrines who do it too. Believe me, I know it when I see it, and you should too.
For that reason alone, I'm not perusaded by the trads' insistence that the earliest church believed in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.
(Moreover, even if the earliest Christians did happen to believe either of these doctrines, that still wouldn't establish that they were in a better position to know than we are, let alone that the doctrines are true, any more than in the case of, say, the causes of mental illness, or the reasons for sunrise and sunset.)
Posted by: D. C. | May 19, 2006 at 12:02 PM
Would you read a clear historical argument with supportable evidence on the matter with an open mind or would you simply see it as contrary to your belief and dismiss it out of hand?
Posted by: Derek | May 19, 2006 at 01:34 PM
Derek asks: "Would you read a clear historical argument with supportable evidence on the matter with an open mind or would you simply see it as contrary to your belief and dismiss it out of hand?"
The former; my personal mantra might well be "Face the facts, whatever they are."
Posted by: D. C. | May 20, 2006 at 02:04 PM