Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Three Cheers for the Trinity!

Mark Sandlin, an influential progressive Christina blogger, is presently blogging on the theme of:  This Collar Is Too Tight: Heresies From a Southern Minister.  The second installment is titled “No Trinity for Me, Please.”

There is nothing new in the case Sandlin makes against the Trinity.  It’s been standard fare from the time of the early church to today.  And I respect his right to state his views.  And he holds no brief against anyone who believes in the Trinity nor is he trying to “convert” anyone from belief in it. However, there is an agenda beyond a personal faith statement at work here.  Sandlin wants “a larger acceptance of theological diversity in the Christian Church.”

Two questions frame his desire to promote this diversity:

-why do we make it (the Trinity) so important? and

-Why is it a dividing line of who is in and who is out?

And he goes on to say “Frankly, I am not deeply interested in the answers to those questions. I’m much more interested in the validity of those questions.”  And he then seems to claim that because valid questions can be asked about the Trinity, this reduces it to a category of a “theory” and, thus, not something that should divide the church, if I understand him aright.

Since he’s asked these questions in the interest of “heretical” (his own category) answers to stretch the church’s theological parameters, it does not seem out of place to offer a responses from my perspective as one who does hold the Trinity to be important and believes it is a nonnegotiable demarcation between Christian views of God and all others.

Nothing in my response will surprise Mark, I’m sure.  I have nothing new to add to the church’s understanding of the Trinity even as Mark’s case against it brings forth nothing new.  I’m not interested in waging a debate with Mark.  I simply think it appropriate to reaffirm the Church’s theological tradition based on its reading of Scripture in a similarly public way as Mark has stated his beliefs.

Mark questions the importance of the Trinity for its “lack of biblical witness.”  Neither Jesus nor the biblical tradition have anything “Trinitarian” about it in his estimation.  He concludes, “. . . if the Trinity is that important, doesn’t it seem like Jesus or the book of Acts or Paul or James or Peter or John would have talked more directly about it?”

Well, not really.  No one claims that there is a doctrine of the Trinity in the biblical material. There is the raw material of such in it (e.g. Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:13), but no “doctrine” like what we find in the Nicene Creed of the 4th century. 

The reality of the Trinity, however, is the heart of Jesus’ lived experience.  When we say his name, we invoke the Trinitarian reality of his life.  He lives in conscious dependence on his Father and in the power of the Spirit.  He is who he is, as the Bible presents him only in this Trinitarian context.  We may think he is wrong or misguided, or that the Bible misleads us at this point, but there can be little question, I believe, that this is the way the Bible presents his life. 

In truth, there’s very little “doctrine” about anything in the biblical tradition.  That’s why doctrines arose – to summarize, clarify, and analyze the assumptions and implications of biblical “raw material.”  The Bible doesn’t teach doctrines in that form; it tells the stories of faith concerning God’s involvement with humankind as the writers experienced and/or remembered it.  The church developed doctrines to help it order itself and respond to the challenges of its time and place.  That’s painting with a broad brush, I realize, but I think it’s basically what happened.

In the course of those first four centuries, however, the church realized its identity was at stake around two particular “doctrines” – the Trinity and the Incarnation of God in, with, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth.  The outcome of all these discussions and debates (admittedly, not all of which are very edifying) was that these two “truths” became recognized as dogmas, that is, the foundational and definitional basis of the church.

These dogmas answer the questions of “Who is God?” and “Who is Jesus” in such a way that to deny either is to be thinking outside the realm of Christian Faith.  For good or ill, the church staked its ground at these points, based on its reading of its scriptures, and thus established the parameters of legitimate Christian theology.

To wind this up, it’s entirely possible to query every element of this development as Mark and many before him have done.  What it doesn’t seem possible to do is to change or deny them and still be thinking Christianly.  I don’t claim that those who do this are not Christians, that neither my place or within my ability to make such a discernment.  We often believe better than we say or think.

Mark asked:  “Why do we make it (the Trinity) so important?” and “Why is it a dividing line of who is in and who is out?”  I hope my brief response here at least makes it clear why the church has done so.

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