Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Trinity Doctrine: Bad Math

The Trinity Doctrine is a theological Christian concept that says God has three manifestations or extensions – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of God’s manifestations is an independent extension of God, but the three together make up the whole. The idea is that God is composed of “three persons,” but only “one substance,” as the official doctrine states.

In this day and age, the Trinity Doctrine is so entrenched in mainstream Christian consciousness that most Christians hardly give it much thought or critical examination. Certainly no mainstream Christian would consider herself a polytheist. Yet early in Christian history, before Christianity was the force in western society that it is today, it was commonly recognized among non-Christians that the Christians had three gods. Even as late as the 19th century, when the British were busy colonizing and converting the native tribes of Africa, it was understood by the African tribesmen that the British had come from the Great White Queen across the water (Victoria) who worshipped a three-headed god. To people not familiar with this deeply entrenched doctrine, it fairly screams of polytheism at best, and Dissociative Identity Disorder at worst. Maybe Sybil wasn’t so crazy after all.

Read the New Testament, and you won’t find a single instance of the word “trinity.” It is a concept that was developed not by Jesus, not by his followers, not by the writers of the New Testament, but by the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries – in other words, groups of old, rich, powerful men who met in lavish palaces, all expenses paid, and were plied with gifts and food and wine while being tended to by servants, all while doing the so-called work of God to formalize and systematize Christianity so it could be sold to the masses. As Rabbi Joel Blau once said: “Theology: that madness gone systematic which tries to crowd God’s fullness into a formula and a system!” And nothing represents this idea better than the doctrine of the Trinity, which was birthed as a result of the group copulation of those aforementioned old white men at the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries.

Of course, I’m speaking a little tongue-in-cheek here, and to be fair, the Trinity concept was first discussed as early as the 200’s in the writings of Tertullian, but it became a central issue of the first ecumenical councils, and it was at those councils, in the 300’s and 400’s C.E., that the concept was finally cemented into a nice, beribboned theological package – a perfect way to describe how God and Jesus could be one, with the Holy Spirit (whatever that is) thrown in for good measure. The ironic thing is that Tertullian, despite beginning his days as a great defender of Orthodoxy, later moved away from the Catholic Church, referring to it as “the church of a lot of bishops,” and began following a form of Christianity called Montanism, which the Church (of course, since it wasn’t their own) considered heretical. For this reason, Tertullian, despite being a leading theologian, prolific writer, and prominent Christian apologist of the early Christian era, has never been canonized. So the person who, 200 years after Jesus’ life, first gave us the Trinity concept, is also someone who the Church – which adopted that Trinity concept and put it into a nice package – deemed a heretic.

It has long been debated – literally since the doctrine was established – whether there is any biblical veracity for the Trinity idea. I’ve already mentioned that no New Testament text uses the word “trinity,” and the idea itself wasn’t conceived of until at least the 200’s, and wasn’t formalized until the 300’s. But can one go to the words of Jesus, or to the words of other New Testament figures, to find evidence that the Trinity exists?

For those who abide by the Trinity Doctrine, their strongest textual argument comes from the last passage of the book of Matthew. There, Matthew describes the resurrected Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Prior to flying off into the great blue yonder (where, presumably, he donned a space suit and oxygen tank so he could breath in low earth orbit), Jesus instructed his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here, then, is the only instance in the entire Bible where all three of God’s distinct yet unified personalities are mentioned together in one breath.

The problem, of course, is twofold. First, we can’t know for certain whether these were the words of Jesus, or the words of Matthew. Skeptics might immediately reject the words as coming from Jesus, since they are purported to have been spoken after his resurrection. But it’s always possible, of course, that Matthew accurately recorded something that Jesus said, but simply stuck it into a post-resurrection narrative. A scholarly look at the texts of Jesus’ life would imply that he probably did send his followers out to teach in his name (Mark gives a detailed summary of Jesus doing just this during his ministry – sending his followers out two by two to heal and teach). But would Jesus have talked about a Father and a Son and a Holy Spirit? Since messianic prophecies weren’t applied to Jesus’ life until after his death, it seems rather unlikely. Of course, even if they were only the words of Matthew, and not Jesus, they are still words written early in Christian history, in the Bible itself, which might help support a Trinitarian doctrine. This, however, leads to the second problem.

Whether Jesus said these words, or Matthew simply put them into Jesus’ mouth, there is no indication or even implication that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all of one substance, as the Trinity doctrine states. Because the Trinity doctrine is so entrenched in our Christian mindset, we read this passage through the lens of that later doctrine. Yet, if you strip the doctrinal blinkers away and read the passage as it was written, you can see that Jesus is simply instructing his followers to baptize people into the names of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. He says nothing, and implies nothing, about these three entities being one and the same and equal. It would be no different than telling someone to go teach the principles of American democracy to foreigners, “baptizing” them into the names of Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress. That doesn’t mean Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress are all of the same substance.

On the flip side of the coin, there is another passage, this time in Mark, where it seems quite clear that Jesus is, in fact, saying plainly that God is “one” (as opposed to “three” as the Trinity doctrine suggests). This “one vs. three” dichotomy has long been the central issue between Christianity and Judaism. I read a rabbi/priest joke just today that centered on the idea of God as one and God as three. Jews, of course, believe that God is one, relying on that oft-repeated mantra from the Torah: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Christians, because of the Trinity concept, believe God is three.

The writer of Mark – the earliest of the Gospel writers – gives us a very detailed picture of Jesus’ last week on earth. According to Mark, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, and spent the week before his death teaching and fending off attacks from the Pharisees. In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus is approached by one of the “teachers of the law” and is asked to tell which commandment of God’s is the greatest. I’ll let you read the rest of the passage for yourself:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared asked him any more questions.

As you can see, this is a rather eye-opening passage, in light of our understanding of God as three. Jesus – who, of course, was a practicing Jew living in a pre-Christian Jewish world that knew nothing of 4th century Trinity doctrines – said that the greatest commandment, the one that stood out above all the others, is the very one that Jews still use to this day to ritualize their belief in the basic oneness of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The “teacher of the law,” the Orthodox Jew, says that Jesus was “right in saying that God is one,” and Jesus then recognizes that the man “had answered wisely.” As with the passage in Matthew, whether you attribute these words and thoughts to Jesus himself, or simply to the writer of Mark, the fact remains that this New Testament passage is clearly describing God’s nature as one, not three. For a traditionally-believing Christian who accepts that the words of Jesus recorded in the Bible are accurate, this passage should be quite eye-opening, as the Son himself is unmistakably saying that God is one.

As you can imagine, I don’t personally find any absolution in the idea that God has three distinct personalities. I believe Jesus was a man who was uniquely in touch with the essence of God, and who taught a message of love, peace, acceptance, and servitude. Regarding God, I suppose I conceive of God more like a Jew than a Christian – that is, I conceive of God as unknowable, unnamed, and formless. For me, God is love, and love is God. As for the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure I could even define what Christians believe the Holy Spirit is. Clearly it is born from that feeling of religious ecstasy that people experience from time to time. But how this emotional feeling could relate to a being that exists as a personality of God is beyond me. It would be like suggesting that the feeling of anger is a divine aspect of God. I think most Christians probably don’t understand the concept of the Holy Spirit either.

Most Christians will freely pray to God and Jesus, individually, but I’ve never heard anyone address the Holy Spirit, as an entity, in prayer. Yet, by the doctrine of the Trinity, that would be perfectly sensible and reasonable. Unfortunately, from my perspective, that’s about the only way that “sensible and reasonable” could occur in the same breath with “doctrine of the Trinity.” For me, the Trinity doctrine is bad math; three just doesn’t add up, either biblically or spiritually.


Anonymous said...

I will be removing your musings from my favorites sections. I feel that with each passing post, you become more "venomous and scathing" in your observations. (For example, the space suit comment) I love the way that you try to stretch people's minds in what they believe, but you have become more judgemental. You can write me off as just another blinded evangelical without any intellect if you want. I agree with your sister in that I would have liked to have seen a few more posts about your family and career. Peace.

Scott said...

The space suit comment was meant to imply that the very idea of the "ascension" of Jesus is based on a basic understanding that we live in a 3-tiered universe -- heaven above, earth in the middle, hell below. Of course, in the 21st century, we have knowledge that those in the 1st century didn't have regarding the nature of the universe, and we know that heaven is not right beyond the clouds. The ascension mythology is an example of how those living in the 1st century simply didn't understand that heaven wasn't right above them. Angels singing in the sky is another example. Still another example, perhaps the best of all, is the passage in Revelation where the writer is explaining what the end of the world will be like, and he mentions that Jesus will cast one-third of the stars in the sky down to earth. It's not hard to see the basic problem with such a concept.

We don't live in a 3-tiered universe. So I made the comment about the space suit to illustrate how frankly silly a concept like the ascension is. I'm sorry if you found it blasphemous. I guess it's a good thing I don't live in Sudan.

Mystical Seeker said...

As John Spong has pointed out, if Jesus ascended at the speed of light 2000 years ago, he would not even have left our own galaxy yet. The whole ascension story is definitely a myth based on a three-tiered cosmology. It can't be taken literally.

I compeltely agree with you on the Trinity. This is a doctrine that was formulated long after Jesus was alive. I consider myself a (lower case "u") unitarian within the Christian tradition, and I cannot accept the doctrine of the Trinity at all. To me, this is the religion that Jesus himself had--he worshiped a unitary God.

(And in the Gospel of Mark, at one point Jesus was asked a question, to which he replied, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." That was a pretty clear statement that Jesus wasn't God. That passage was too embarrassing for Matthew, who rewrote it )

I agree with you that Jesus was a man who had a particularly close relationship with God. I view him as a prophetic voice with a unique mission and message, who lived his life fully in accordance with his understanding of God's will. But I don't believe that Jesus was God. I prefer the religion of Jesus over the religion about Jesus.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading and replying, Mystic Seeker. Sounds you like and I probably see quite eye to eye on religious topics. Spong is among my very favorite religious writers.

Robert Sievers said...

First, there are plenty of Biblical verses which mention all three aspects of God in one verse. Let me know if you want me to share them with you.

Second, Notice in Matt 28, it says "in the name" of those three, not the "names". Funny such an odd but obvious gramatical error is in the text.

Thirdly, the word "cellular phone" isn't in the Bible either. Do you also believe they do not exist?

Fouthly, you reference Deut 6:6. Wonderful. That same word "one" is used to mean multiplicty within unity in many passages. Let me know if you are intested in dong a Biblical word study together.

Fifthly, any educated Christian does not believe God is three. The trinity, by definition, is one.

However, I don't want this to come across as too negative. We are in agreement about one thing. You definitely don't understand what the Holy Spirit is.

Scott said...

"First, there are plenty of Biblical verses which mention all three aspects of God in one verse. Let me know if you want me to share them with you."

I'd love for you to.

"Second, Notice in Matt 28, it says "in the name" of those three, not the "names". Funny such an odd but obvious gramatical error is in the text."

That's an interesting point, but if you can make the point by discussing the original Greek word, rather than an English translation of a translation, then your point would be stronger.

"Thirdly, the word "cellular phone" isn't in the Bible either. Do you also believe they do not exist?"

This is a logical fallacy and doesn't add anything to your argument about the validity of the Trinity.

"Fouthly, you reference Deut 6:6. Wonderful. That same word "one" is used to mean multiplicty within unity in many passages. Let me know if you are intested in dong a Biblical word study together."

No, I'm not interested. I would much rather hear you make reasonable and sound arguments to support your point, rather than hear you act arrogant and pious. Your piety does not impress me or convince me of anything.

"Fifthly, any educated Christian does not believe God is three. The trinity, by definition, is one."

Therein lies the rub. The Trinity Doctrine is, in fact, logically and rationally incomprehensible. From a logical and rational standpoint, three cannot be one. Any third grade math graduate understands that.

I've recently read an interesting perspective on the Trinity, however, which has caused me to rethink my position somewhat. The Trinity, incomprehensible as it is, was developed doctrinally in the 4th and 5th centuries by Greek church fathers, and it was intended to be rationally incomprehensible. The inability to really grasp the concept was the whole point -- it functioned as a symbol of the fact that human beings cannot grasp God's essence. Rather than being a literal description of what God is, it was intended to point to God's inherent mystery. The Western Church (which later became the Roman Catholic Church) literalized this Greek doctrine and began thinking of it as a literal description of God's nature. So the problem wasn't the doctrine -- the problem was the literalization of the doctrine several centuries later. The Trinity doctrine, after all, was the primary cause of the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches in the mid-1000's -- a schism that still exists to this day.

"However, I don't want this to come across as too negative. We are in agreement about one thing. You definitely don't understand what the Holy Spirit is."

I can definitely see that you are striving to live the life of Christ! Full of mercy and humility, you are.

Robert Sievers said...

1. As for the Trinity mentioned in Scripture. I will start with two, but there are many more. 1 Peter 1:7 and Acts 2:38

2. The greek is TA ONAMATA rather than hO ONAMA.

3. True. I responded to your logical fallacy with one of my own. Yet your original arguemnet assumes that absense of evidence is not evidence of absense.

4. I agree my piety is not on the table. What is on the table is the difference between the Hebrew words echad and yachid. If you choose not to care, that is indeed your choice.

5. The trinity is only incomprehensible without the Spirit. (1 Cor 2:14) Your statements about its incomprehensibility only go to confirm its reality.

And thanks for pointing out my sin. Perhaps I can return the favor someday.

Scott said...

1. 1 Peter 1:7 says: "These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." I may be missing something here, but what does this have to do with the Trinity?

Acts 2:38 says "Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'" This talks about forgiveness in Jesus name leading to the gift of the Holy Spirit, but this is not evidence that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are identical in nature, substance, and form. Furthermore, there is no mention of God. The point I made, which you argued against, was that beyond the Great Commission, there is no place in the New Testament that clearly links God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. You argued that, in fact, "there are plenty of Biblical verses which mention all three aspects of God in one verse." I asked you to share one with me, and you've shared two, neither of which support your argument. I wasn't asking you to provide textual evidence that theologians piece together to support the Trinity; we were talking about clear references to all three of God's personalities in one verse or phrase.

2. Since I don't read ancient Greek, I can't discuss the intricacies of the words with you regarding "in the name." Regardless, this textual nuance doesn't really change anything.

3. My argument regarding how the word "Trinity" doesn't appear in the bible wasn't a suggestion that its absence alone means the Trinity doctrine is false. It was merely one part of my overall argument against the doctrine, and it's sort of eye-opening, as many people haven't ever considered the New Testament's lack of Trinitarian language and images.

4. I understand the different ways the Old Testament refers to God. And I understand that those varying names represent varying images of God layered throughout the documents that have come down to us which we call the Old Testament. If this is not what you are talking about, then you have lost me and you need to expound.

5. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." You seem to be suggesting that the Trinity doctrine came from the Spirit of God, and not from the machinations of human beings over the course of several hundred years. Clearly there was no moment of God-inspired revelation that resulted in the Trinity. The Trinity was the culmination of many decades and centuries worth of careful manipulation. And it was tweaked and altered and amended many times after that.

As for this statement: "Your statements about its incomprehensibility only go to confirm its reality" -- the Trinity doctrine has never made sense to me, even when I was a devoted, traditionally-believing Christian -- i.e., in touch with your Paul-inspired evangelical notion of the "Spirit of God". Which, I might add, represents all of my childhood and teen years, and about half of my adult years. I suppose you'd just respond to that by saying that when I was a traditionally-believing Christian, I must have been a bad one, otherwise I would have understood, right? Unfortunately, the world, the nature of reality, and the nature of God is not as simple and easy as your brand of theology likes to imagine. Working God into a human formula and system may work for you, but it does not work for me, or a lot of other deeply religious and spiritual people.

Robert Sievers said...

oops. I got the reference wrong. Let me expound. Let’s take a look at what Peter has to say about the nature of God. From the beginning of the first of his letters (1 Peter 1):

2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.

In this opening, Peter talks about how it is the Spirit that does the sanctification, which only God can do. He makes reference to the shed blood of Jesus, which was required for forgiveness of sins, which only God can do, all according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Peter’s view of Jesus was not a view fabricated out of hearsay, but came due to extended and direct contact with Jesus. Here is how Peter describes and justifies his own doctrine from 2 Peter 1:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

You believe, as many Muslims do, that the trinity was a man-made doctrine. Yet throughout Scripture, all of the New Testament authors point to it. The Bible is full of contradictions if you reject the idea of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as God. Many people choose that path, much to their destruction I am afraid.

I know you are educated fellow, as I have seen your reading list. But please don't let the opinions of those who don't the Lord lead you down a dead end.

Scott said...

Good find on getting another reference that mentions all three aspects at the same time, but it still doesn't make any implication that all three are equal manifestations of the one true God.

The quote from 2 Peter doesn't have a whole lot of bearing on the argument, as 2 Peter wasn't written by the apostle Peter (1 Peter probably wasn't either, by the way).

As for the dead-end path I am being led down by those who don't love the Lord...thanks for your concern.

Anonymous said...

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in part to explain what the New Testament said. Each of the three persons, Father (sometimes simply 'God'--the authors except Luke were Jewish and this was a great paradigm shift for them), Son (or Logos) and the Holy Spirit. An interesting point is that though the noun pneuma in Greek is neuter, consistently masculine forms of adjectives, participles, etc. are made to agree with the noun. The Spirit is clearly being thought of as a person. Since there can only be one God, according to the Jewish background of these authors, and Scripture speaks of three distinct persons as divine, the Church in order to make sense of the phenomena settled on Tertullian's use of the term 'trinity'. As to common sense telling us three cannot be one, common sense also tells us that a particle cannot be in two places at once, quantum physics notwithstanding. Is light, by the way, a wave or a particle? Paradox is a mark of human language any time we try to describe anything 'above' us (I speak metaphorically, of course).

Scott said...

Thanks for posting, Anonymous. Actually, since writing this essay last December, I have changed my opinion on the Trininty somewhat. This is based on the writings of Karen Armstrong, in her book "A History of God," which I finished in February.

It appears that the original Trinity concept, as first enunciated by Tertullian and then developed into doctrine by the Greek Christians, was probably never meant to be a literal description of God's nature. Armstrong makes a very strong and conclusive argument showing how the developers of this doctrine, in the 4th and 5th centuries, intended for it to be metaphorical and paradoxical. The paradox of the Trinity concept is the whole point - it illustrates that God's nature can never be understood objectively by human beings, and that our descriptions of God are never the same as definitions of God.

It was only later, as this Greek concept came to be accepted in the Roman Church, that it started becoming literalized. Thus, many Christians today would "define" God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one. That was never the intention of those who developed the doctrine.

So my perspective on this has changed - by understanding the original intent of those who came up with the Trinity, the Trinity doctrine becomes a useful tool for illustrating the ineffible nature of God. In that sense, I can identify very deeply with this doctrine.

When the doctrine is literalized, however, as it is so often in modern Churches, it becomes little more than idolatry.