Monday, 8 May 2017

Jewish roots of the Trinity

As readers of my blog may have noticed, I can appear difficult to pin down on my views on the Trinity. That isn't because I enjoy that status - the reason is that my view simply doesn't fit any of the categories that I am currently aware of, and I continue to tweak it.

I see that we must make a distinction between two historical components or phases: a first century Judeo-Christian "mutation" and a late fourth-century Hellenistic preservation of the first-century mutation. Both are hermeneutic effects, but work differently.

In the New Testament, Father, Son and Spirit dominate. Never before in Jewish thought had focussed religious reflection ever been expressed in such a way, but that is the plain and evidential reality that we find in these first Christian texts (including early non-canonical texts, like the Didache).

The title of this post now needs some word of explanation. What I am about to grossly over-simplify is a Jewish threefold centre of their religious worldview and discourse. It is not a Hellenistic product (even if Tuggy is correct to assert an influence of divine triads over the development of Christian Trinitarianism, I would argue that this influence would be underscoring a pattern that we see already evidenced in the texts that we both agree are authoritative). However, it is also false to affirm that the second Hellenistic phase has also occurred, namely that God is triune. First, faith mutates into having a trinitarian structure. Secondly, the God concept mutates into having a trinitarian internal structure but in conformity with the faith mutation stage. 

What is going on in the first phase? The religious space typically accorded by the Jews to Yahweh alone, that hub, centre, core or whatever other synonyms you might prefer, had come to be shared with those other Two (my favoured term is "hub" because, in addition to centricity, it also carries the idea of movement of dependent elements around that hub). 

The first-century mutation, the Triune Hub, is making Jewish sense of:

  • the Jesus events: death, postmortem encounters and enthronement visions mean the resurrection of God's Messiah and Son, physically absent but envisioned exalted and reigning at a cosmic level: at God's right hand.
  • This super-exalted raised Messiah is also a clear instruction to worship God's annointed and continue to "follow" him.
  • the unforeseeably early resurrection of Jesus winds the eschatological clock forward and prepares a new eschatological window: outpouring of the Spirit, empowering God's people symbolised through baptism to advance the inevitably victorious kingdom foreshadowed by Christ's victory over death and evil during the Easter-Passover weekend.

Between the two trinitarian mutation phases, there was a lot of heated debate within the church, particularly over Christ's exalted status as the movement rapidly outgrows its Jewish roots and moves wholesale into the Roman empire. This too is unwittingly hermeneutical, because while debating subordinationism, for example, and trying to understand quite what Christ meant when he said "the Father is greater than I", another threat was lurking in the shadows. By asserting an unnuanced interpretation of that statement, the Jewish root idea of tri-centric religious discourse was under threat, along with the movement hosting the discussion. If the church were to admit that one really was greater than another, then that lesser one would also begin a potentially slippery slide further and further from the divine centre space. This would throw the whole delicately balanced mutation out of whack. At some point, the words trias and later trinitas were introduced to help establish the hub with a referring term, even though God himself remained graciously one of those three.

When eventually events required some sort of resolution to this fourth-century crisis, it is the response to the subordinationists that wins the day. Orthodoxy - if we may personify it - subconsciously realised the inherent paradox of the Sirmium Council, which both affirmed the central task of forever preserving the Trinity and that one of those three really was lesser. Those two views are not compatible. Since it was indeed essential that the Trinity be forever preserved (or perhaps practiced would have been more faithful still to the New Testament texts), it could not be that one Trinity member was greater than another, where "greatness" carried symbolism of not just greatness or glory per se, but centricity.

So it is an over-simplification from the Unitarian minority report to insist that God is one, God is one, God is one, until suddenly a great theological switch is thrown to now insist that God is three in the late 300s. It's an impossible picture and one that would be far too destabilising for the church. No, you have to start earlier than the New Testament and affirm that God was identical to the space he occupied at the hub of the Jewish faith. Secondly, the faith unpredictably evolves to feature three somethings at the hub of the faith - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thirdly, the space is again reconciled with the being of God, comprising now three hypostases. So while the Unitarian will seek to show the drastic error of saying God was simply one and became three much later on, that person misses the organic nature of the development I am arguing for and the threefold centre of the faith they cherish. The number "three" can be seen as a threat to Unitarians, so they do not tend to focus on the possibility of such an early threefold hub. Perhaps they too, like Trinitarians, confuse trinitarian faith with trinitarian God. What both camps thus ignore is that the first and fourth-century churches share a triune hub. 

The fourth and fifth-century creeds, as ontological in focus as they might appear, should be seen to carry purpose, and that purpose is to guard - fiercely - the triune Hub rooted in the Jewish first-century church, by means of the philosophical tools available at the time. Those tools happen to be metaphysical and appear to be straight up fact claims, but they are loaded with the deeper purpose given at Sirmium.


  1. Well that was interesting, i'm really glad i found your blog John...

  2. Thank you Shaad, wonderful to have you on board!

  3. I really appreciate the warm welcome John, thank you for that...


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