The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP addresses recent crits vs. trinitarianism from scripture

And now that I’m (more-or-less) through for a while on Prof De Young’s paper, back to trying to address trinitarian issues.

There are two basic categories on this topic: is orthodox trinitarian theism logically coherent (or even moreso, exclusively true)? And, do the canonical scriptures testify to ortho-trin (or even moreso, do they do so exclusively)?

I haven’t tried summarizing a metaphysical argument arriving exclusively at ortho-trin yet, but that third hyperlink down in my signature will take readers to two sections of chapters I’ve posted up on the Christian Cadre webjournal where (after several hundred pages of developing argument) I arrive at that doctrinal set. (The middle two sections are just as important but due to vagaries in my posting schedule I haven’t posted them up yet. On my to-do list for this year…) Any answer I give to metaphysical complaints or criticisms will be given from within the results of this analysis, but (by tautology) when they’re presented out of context of the whole developing analysis then they’re going to look disconnected and maybe even ad hoc. There isn’t much I can do about that, except to point back to the flow of the progressing argument for how the pieces fit together.

In one way, addressing scriptural-based complaints is tougher, because there’s a lot more scriptural data than metaphyiscal analysis! But in another way it can be easier because often the scriptural data can be handled on a case-by-case contextual basis (or even in terms of the immediate shape of the data). Even so, any exegetical theology ought to be trying to include a deep and broad witness across all the canon; and if numerous points are being made, then it can still get rather complicated.

(This presupposes that the thorny question of what counts as canon and why it counts has been settled already; but that’s another discussion. One with connections to historical-orthodoxy debates, though.)

There has been a significant amount of challenge to trinitarian theism recently on the boards, which is why I spent over three weeks working up a 76 page digest of scriptural analysis on the topic. While that document (which can be found in the Biblical Theology section in the thread I made for posting it) contains a positive scriptural case for arriving at the doctrinal set of ortho-trin, it doesn’t address some scripture-based challenges, much less metaphysical challenges.

For this thread, therefore, I will try to categorize and reply to recent scriptural challenges to trinitarian theism. In a similar thread (under a different forum category proper for the topic) I will try to categorize and reply to recent metaphysical challenges to trinitarian theism.

(That being said, this forum is primarily dedicated to discussing “evangelical universalism” pro and con; which is why, when I mention ortho-trin in this forum, I do so typically in conjunction with, and in service to, that topic. I don’t intend to spend the majority of my time here arguing for and/or defending a secondary topic of the forum.)

My next comment will begin my replies.

My first ten comments (after the introductory comment above) will involve some generally common scripturally-based criticisms of orthodox trinitarian theism (where “orthodox” is only meant as a group label, remember), all of which have been given one example of (sometimes multiple examples of) in the past few months. Rather than addressing all instances of these piecemeal, I decided it would be better to address them in principle groups. So:

Objection 1.) The term “trinity” is not found in scripture.

The “omni-” characteristics of God are not found by those terms in the canonical scriptures either. (“Omnipotence”, “Omnipresence”, “Omniscience”–to which some though not all Christians would add “Omnibenevolence”.) Practically all Christians accept that the scriptures are testifying to these attributes in some real and meaningful way, though. Again, the term “supernaturalistic theism” (or its 1st c. Greek equivalent) never occurs in scripture, whether Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. But anyone who understands the scriptures to be testifying that there is one ultimate fact, Who is actively personal, and upon Whom all other entities depend for their existence, including the evident system of Nature, which is not to be considered this ultimate Fact–will, by this, be affirming what theologians have later called “supernaturalistic theism”.

Examples of this fallacy could be multiplied at great length; but to give another colorful one: the terms ‘mitachondria’ and ‘psychology’ are found nowhere in the scriptures either, yet this doesn’t slow down anyone from inferring from the textual record that Jesus was fully human and so possessed mitachondria and what we would now call a psychology.

The presence of the particular term is not necessary. The presence of the idea, expressed in whatever ways, is what is important. Appealing to the lack of the term is pointless. (The word “universalism” doesn’t show up in scriptures, either, and I’ve had non-universalists actually try to use that against me; but I suppose the lack of the term doesn’t bother any of the universalists here, and rightly so!)

Objection 2.) Where does God the Father say that there is a “Trinity”?

This is a more specific version of Ob(1). Aside from having the same answer as Ob(1), the question can also be answered on its own level by asking in return, where does God the Father ever declare Himself to be God in the NT? The answer is: nowhere! From which a few groups try to argue either that the “Father” in the NT isn’t God, or that at least He is not the God of the Old Testament. (The Marcionites are the most famous group who have tried the latter tactic in early Christian history, although I understand that some Mormons do so in their own way, too; their idea being that only the Son is being testified to and talked about in the OT, with “the Father” being newly revealed by “the Son” in the NT.)

Most Christian groups (and even non-Christians) understand, however, that the mere lack of an explicit declaration by “the Father” on this topic means very little when there are significant (indeed massive) amounts of data in the NT treating the Father as the God of the NT, including statements by persons other than the Father (per se) calling Him God in contexts linking back to OT usage and concepts.

The real question, then, is not whether a divine Person ever testifies to the existence of the orthodox “Trinity” in that term, but whether there are significant amounts of scriptural data treating three distinct persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as the one and only ultimate God, with one of those Persons (the Son) being incarnated as a fully human and also fully divine Christ. (Note that the gauge “significant” may be different for different evaluators, to be fair.)

Objection 3.) There are only a few verses here and there (and only in the NT) which can be easily disposed of anyway, from which trinitarians build their scriptural case (such as it is).

My 76 page digest is sufficient answer to the extent of the content from which trinitarians derive their case scripturally. Whether enough of that material can be disposed of (easily or otherwise) is another question, but would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Even a small amount of data might be sufficient, in the estimate of some people, to establish the case as being a scriptural doctrine–such as in the ultimate case against slavery; or in favor of observing the Lord’s Supper as a continuing ritual (the latter of which has been rarely denied by any Christian group, ortho-trin or not, despite being witnessed to by only around seven sets of NT verses, at most, in the whole Bible). But as it happens, there is very much more data toward the doctrinal set of orthodox trinitarianism than most critics, or even most proponents, are aware of. (And rather than drop a whole book’s worth of data on people, apologists tend to concentrate on a few cases anyway, even when they themselves might know of more data to be used. This can give the impression that only a few bits of data are available to be used, especially when the same few bits of data are commonly repeated.)

Objection 4.) The fact that the NT authors tend to call Jesus “Lord” is of no consequence, since “lord” can be applied as an honored title to people less than God, especially in Greek.

Trinitarian scholars are well aware of this; what impresses us is how the term is used for Jesus in the NT. When St. Paul emphasizes that we are not to worship lesser lords or gods even though they exist, and then goes on immediately to contrast those lesser lords or gods with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in terms of a Shema unity and sharing the same ultimate creative deed, then the contextual result is that Jesus Christ must not be considered one of those lesser lords but rather (in whatever way) as the Lord Creator, the one God YHWH ADNY of Judaism. Similarly, when the title usage of “Lord” for Jesus is combined (as it regularly is) with OT refs where the term being translated into Greek as “lord” is YHWH or ADNY, then we’re no longer talking about some merely human (or even angelic) lesser “lord”.

This is discussed deeply and broadly in my 76 page digest along with a few other considerations in how the NT authors are using “lord” in regard to Jesus across the whole canon. But the point is that competent trinitarian exegetes are not simply saying, “See? Jesus is being called ‘Lord’ in the NT, therefore…”

Objection 5.) The NT texts clearly state, across the Gospels and Epistles both, that Jesus Christ was (and is) human.

This may be an objection to modalism and some forms of Arianism and tri-theism and several other positions; but it is no objection to ortho-trin, because orthodox trinitarianism stresses the full humanity of Jesus. Indeed, the majority of Christological controversies, as a historical matter, involved the orthodox party trying to stress the full humanity of Christ (sometimes against other trinitarian theists, even ones who nominally agreed on the humanity of Christ).

Objection 6.) The NT texts broadly and consistently treat Jesus Christ (the Son) as a different person than “the Father”.

This is only an objection to modalism. It is not an objection to orthodox trinitarianism which (along with various other Christian theisms) affirms the same thing, and strenuously so. Trinitarian theologians affirm this in a way differently than other Christians affirm it (such as Mormons, to give the most prevalent modern example), but we do affirm it.

Objection 7.) The NT texts (and the OT canon, too) testify broadly and consistently that there is only one ultimate God upon Whom all other things in existence depend for their existence, including all other supernatural entities; and this is the one God we should be worshiping.

Objection 7.1.) There are many OT texts where the grammar (including the name) in reference to God is singular.

This is an objection to cosmological dualists or tri-theists (who claim that there are multiple ultimate Gods), or in a somewhat different way against polytheists who treat the Father, Son and/or Holy Spirit as all being derivative creatures (dependent for their existence on something else more fundamentally real than they are). It is not an objection to orthodox trinitarian theism (or to some other kinds of Christianity either, such as Arians or modalists), which emphatically affirms there is only one ultimate God upon Whom all other things in existence depend for their existence.

Trinitarians also note that there are numerous times in the OT when the grammar and name-title for God is singular. Just as we note that there are numerous times in the OT when even the grammar as well as the name-title for God is plural. It is incorrect to state that YHWH uses nothing but singular references to Himself in the OT.

Objection 8.) The “Holy Spirit” is identified in the NT as the Spirit of the Father.

This may be an objection to some other kinds of Christianity; but it is not an objection to orthodox trinitarianism, which affirms this.

Objection 9.) The “Holy Spirit” is identified in the NT as the spirit of Christ.

This may be an objection to some other kinds of Christianity; but it is not an objection to orthodox trinitarianism, which affirms this.

(In fact, we note that the HS is identified both as the Spirit of “Christ” and as the Spirit of “God”, while yet being personally distinct from either the Son or the Father! Be that as it may.)

Objection 10.) Jesus himself calls the Father his God, and even the one true God.

10.1.) Jesus emphasizes that he was (and is) sent by the Father.

10.2.) Jesus emphasizes that He does as the Father does, and does nothing of himself.

Trinitarians include this data as part of their overall case, which is one of many scriptural reasons for why trinitarians are not modalists. (And one of many reasons why the “orthodox” party among trinitarians, predating the split between Eastern and Western Orthodoxy, affirmed the two-natures doctrine of Christ, against a few smaller trinitarian groups who thought the deity of Christ was being too imperiled thereby.)

The previous six ‘objections’, by the way, are examples of the principle that there is no point launching an ‘objection’ against something that one’s opponents actually agree with. Much anti-trinitarian apologetic, however, depends on exactly this kind of ‘objection’. Scriptures adduced ‘against’ trinitarians on this topic are exactly the same scriptures trinitarians themselves use when arguing scripturally against various other Christian groups: they are in fact part of the total trinitarian scriptural case.

Consequently, while those scriptural witnesses are not to be ignored (far from it), the short and proper answer to attempts at prooftexting against trinitarians by such means, is “yeah, us too!”. Trinitarians do in fact positively affirm what all those scriptural verses teach. (Whether it’s logically coherent to do so, or whether it’s impossible to consistently do so, are somewhat different questions. It must be admitted that even trinitarian scholars sometimes slip up in consistently affirming the doctrinal set, though.)

Since the numbering of particular scriptural objections would quickly become tedious, I will bullet-mark them in following posts.

•• The term “AeLoHYM” (or Elohim afterward) is often applied to pagan gods, not only to YHWH; therefore is no evidence of God’s multiplicity. ••

Actually, “elohim” is rarely applied to lesser high-ranking entities (be those pagan/rebel deities or whatever), and practically never in the Patriarchial period (so far as I can find anyway, with one special case exception). “Elohim” is much more often applied as a name for God, indeed as the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. But that is beside the point, since relatively rare usage should not be simply discounted.

The real point, which this objection rather sidesteps, is that Elohim is a plural term being used for a single entity in the case of God. This usage is absolutely unique across the OT (including in Deuteronomy where Moses and Aaron are made to be elohim to Pharaoh)–except in one special case (or perhaps a very few such, more debateably) where the Messiah appears to be in view (i.e. Psalm 45). But the Messiah is the very person under debate, among Christians, as to whether “Elohim” in the fully divine sense should apply to him. (See the digest for more discussion of this.)

•• The term ADNY doesn’t have to mean Adonai. It could also mean Adonei, which is used of human men. ••

This is typically raised in objection to trinitarian use of Psalm 110:1; and will be the topic of my first planned expansion to the scriptural digest. The point which this kind of objection is usually (always?) granting, though, is that ADNY in its plural usage always refers to God in the OT–and in fact is voweled the same way (as Adonai) in modern Hebrew Bibles, during the few times when even non-trinitarian Jews agree that “my Lord” is definitely being used in reference to God by context. This is important when noting that some references to the OT, applied to Jesus in the NT, involve references to Adonai and no merely human adonei.

In lieu of a full discussion of the riddle of Psalm 110, allow me to note that insofar as trinitarianism (and perhaps some non-trinitarian) theology goes, we affirm Christ to be Adonai and adonei both: fully God and fully man. And the key scriptural issue is to check how various authors and characters in the NT (up to and including Jesus) are using their references to that verse. One way? The other way? Or both ways?

•• Elohim and/or Adonai could refer to multiple modes of a single-person God. ••

The short scriptural answer to this is: maybe they could, but they never do. Modal descriptions of God exist in the Hebrew scriptures–trinitarians recognize that as firmly as anyone–but modal descriptions aren’t contextually linked to plural descriptions and grammar of God. Far more importantly, positive indications of at least two (and in a couple of rare cases three) distinct persons identified as YHWH, are what give us ground for synching the compound-plural names and grammar of God in the OT (not even counting the NT) with distinctly operating persons (not merely modal operations of a single person. Which would be odd anyway, to speak of God as King, Judge and Husband, for example, as though multiple persons are in view but not as meaning multiple persons!)

•• God as “the Father” is mentioned only a few times in the OT; and the referent relationship is to Israel or maybe to all mankind or to creation or whatever. ••

It’s true that God as “the Father” is mentioned only a few times in the OT; and at least some of those times this is certainly in reference to Israel. The question is whether other times, when a son of God is mentioned (sometimes without specific reference to God as “the Father” per se), the descriptions are far more appropriate to a deity-level entity. The 76 page digest has some discussion on this.

•• The Bible states that humans are created in “His” not “Their” image. ••

Actually, one of the relatively few places where Bibles in English usually (and accurately) translate the numerous plural-grammar references to God, is in Genesis 1, where humanity is made in “Our” image. Notably, not plural images; so God and angels aren’t in view. Nor is cosmological multi-theism.

(This objection rather surprised me when I saw it go by. Possibly the critic was only familiar with Bibles that use singular grammar there, though. If there are any…?)

•• The Bible says Christ was tempted; but God is not supposed to be tempted. ••

Trinitarians agree that the Bible says Christ was tempted, and that it’s a sin to try to tempt God, and that no one is going to succeed in tempting God. Since trintiarians aren’t disagreeing with any of that, merely calling notice to these factors in scripture is no argument against orthodox trinitarianism. Metaphysical complaints along the same line will be addressed in the sister post to this one, in another forum category.

•• The Father abandoned Jesus on the cross, which for trinitarianism would be tantamount to schism. Therefore… ••

The first answer to this, which is primarily a metaphysical complaint anyway, is given in the sister thread addressing metaphysical complaints. Suffice to say here that if God had really abandoned Jesus to die a cursed death on the cross, there would have been no resurrection.

What, then, can the “lama sabachthani” really mean? (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34)

Here it is helpful to keep in mind that among rabbis, when a teacher wishes to rebuke a student with scripture, the rabbi will sometimes quote one part of a set of verses, leaving the rebuke to be inferred from the other parts. If the student is competent enough to figure out the rebuke, then at least he has that to be said in his favor.

Other scriptures indicate that Jesus was acknowledged to be (and claimed to be) a rabbi-teacher, including to other rabbis–indeed, to all other rabbis, in principle! (For example Matt 23:8.) That would include chief priests, scribes and elders (though not all rabbis would be priests, elders or scribes); who are at hand for the crucifixion, making comments and challenges that inadvertently echo Psalm 22:8. (Matt 27:41-43 is clearest about this.) Moreover, other portions of the incident seem to be echoing Psalm 22 as well.

In response to this, Jesus quotes the opening line of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?!” But the point to the Psalm as a whole is that God, despite all appearances, hasn’t forsaken the speaker: not King David, and therefore not the son of David either. The Psalmist, against despair, trusts that God has not in fact despised and abandoned him, but rather that God will so completely reverse this apparently hopeless situation against the enemies of the Psalmist that all the world for generations to come will seek and worship God.

Even non-trinitarian Christians agree that this is exactly what happened, though not without the death of Christ first. But the point is that scripturally, the declaration of Christ on the cross is not an affirmation that God has abandoned Him, but rather a reference to the hope in apparent hopelessness of Psalm 22 being fulfilled around and in Him at that time. It would also serve as just the kind of rabbinic in-house rebuke from teacher to student mentioned earlier, that the chief priests etc. would be expected to pick up on: they have put themselves in the place of the enemies of David. (Plus it succinctly serves these purposes without having to waste breath breathing in an excruciating situation!)

Obviously, this is no problem for non-trinitarian Christianity. Just as obviously, though, this is no problem for trinitarian Christianity either. (Despite trinitarians often being inept enough to miss the connotations, too!)

•• 1 John 5:7 is a late addition to the manuscripts and so should not be used as any evidence toward trinitarianism. ••

Which trinitarian scholars are well aware of, and have been for nearly 200 years now. (And in fact were aware of at the time the first text-critical translations from Greek were being attempted, though the sentence ended up being included at first anyway.)

What happens to be adduced among uninformed or desperate people on the internet is not my concern. But it would be better to save that objection for times when someone is actually adducing that verse as scriptural testimony, rather than assuming beforehand that someone is going to.

•• God says at the end of Isaiah 44 that He alone is our redeemer, and the Maker of all by Himself. Therefore there cannot be multiple Gods. ••

Trinitarians agree that there are not multiple powers in heaven, including from this verse. Trinitarians also take note, however, that this declaration of YHWH Elohim ADNY is typically applied to Jesus Christ, personally, across the New Testament, including in places where the Son is distinguished personally from God the Father. One power in heaven, but multiple persons. (See the digest for discussion of some of the NT uses of Isaiah 44.)

Incidentally, about 10 chapters later, God, the husband and redeemer of Israel, is described as her Makers, plural. (54:5) English translations typically render it “Maker” because the other titles are singular, in order to avoid confusion. But it’s a good example of how the normal choice to avoid translating multiple grammar in English can lead to readers thinking that no multiple grammar is there in the Hebrew.

Isaiah happens to contain one of the famous places where the plural grammar of God is retained along with the singular, though, in practically any English translation: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send; and who shall go for Us?’” (6:8.) Gen 1:26-27 (where God’s plurality and singularity are emphasized in the creation of mankind), and Gen 11:7 (where God confuses the speech of men during the building of the tower of Babel) are two other famous places even in most English translations.

•• Name one verse that names YHWH has having experienced death. ••

Heb 2:9, of course, states that Jesus has tasted death for everyone. This same Jesus is identified by OT refs just one chapter earlier, though, as YHWH by name.

Trying to get around this by asserting that references to “Son of God” mean only a reference to the power of God Who is not Jesus, doesn’t do justice to the character of the actual scriptural references, which (including in Heb 1) treat the Son of God as a distinct person compared to the Father. Not as the Father acting within the Son of Man (though that is affirmed as well in scripture).