Sunday, 16 July 2017

What Is The Trinity? A brief response to Dale Tuggy's recent book

WHAT IS THE TRINITY? A central question indeed to which author Dale Tuggy has an answer that leads the open reader dissatisfied with current explanations.

(Since I wrote this post, Dale Tuggy has responded to it over on his blog, Dialogue with John on Thinking about the Trinity, to which I now have an extended response: Responding to Dale Tuggy on Trinitarian Conceptualisation)

I liked the book - that was always probable as I have supported the trinities show for a couple of years and Tuggy's own views have been important in shaping my own, which are nonetheless distinct now from his. I liked it for Tuggy's systematic approach into an issue that for some may have always appeared impenetrable, for the author's ruthless efforts at showing where he sees inconsistencies to lie, for his deep respect for some Trinitarian theologians and philosophers and for what still appears to me to be a genuine search for Truth. Even if Tuggy's place within the Biblical Unitarian camp is now well established and appreciated by them, he is not playing to them.

As I began to read it, I was surprised by a few typos, including on the back cover and early on. But readers shouldn't be put off by those - this is not a slap-dash book, and those seem to disappear as you get further in.

Readers should remember that Tuggy is a philosopher, so at times, although he has deliberately aimed this short book at a wider audience, reference is made to philosophical and logical constructions that not everyone will be immediately familiar with. The examples he gives to illustrate his points often include that dry wit that many of us also appreciate in Dr. Tuggy.

Today, it is not my goal at all to engage with the book in depth - there are other ongoing projects as regular blog readers are aware - I will just take the opportunity to respond to Tuggy's takeaway questions, that can be found on p. 133-134, which might illustrate nicely where our common and uncommon ground lies, and then two other comments.

1. Does the New Testament in any sense appeal to "mystery" about the Trinity or the trinity? If so, what is meant by "mystery" there?
No it doesn't, although I now disagree that the Trinity/trinity distinction is operable in that format. The clearest example of mystery in the New Testament to my mind is the inclusion of the Gentiles into God's people.

2. Does the New Testament anywhere mention or refer to a Trinity, or only to a trinity? Neither, if we are on explicit criteria. If we are on the implicit side and we accept that Trinity = The Tri-personal God alone, then God is certainly not referred to with that idea in mind. However, Tuggy does not integrate the significance of what he calls small-t trinity in sufficient depth. At another point in the book (sorry I'm going for a speedy post today, so no page reference) he refers to this trinity as "just a triad". Don't focus on the word "triad", when he says this. Focus on "just" and "a". In my view, that is a wholly inadequate description of the way in which the Jewish-Christian religious semantics underwent a profound reorganisation ("mutation") through a relatively short number of decades including the divine core itself, which I refer to as the "hub". I want to keep these answers short so I won't say more on that here, but there are quite a few other posts on this if you look back through my archive.

3. Does it teach that there are three eternal equally divine Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who all together in some sense "are" the one God, Yahweh?

4. Does it teach that those three Persons share an ousia, and if so, what would the New Testament authors, in their first-century context, mean by that saying that?
This is a difficult question, perhaps a bit like to use the author's own analogy of wondering what someone from centuries past might have thought of the Internet. Having said that, it is true that Aristotelian ideas of substance, form and matter would have been known to some of the earlier educated Greek converts, although I don't know how well grounded in those Paul would have been. Interestingly, ousia, or substance, does not appear to be the foundational aspect of a thing. In the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (in which Tuggy is also published, unsurprisingly enough on the Trinity), there is an entry under "Form vs. Matter". Here it states: "In these cases, the thing that underlies is the matter of the substance". The substance itself is not the permanent underlier. So the question Tuggy wants to ask of a first-century Christian, assuming he is versed in Greek philosophy is doubly inconceivable since the word ousia does not seem to mean at that point in history what the church would later graft it in to mean and indeed even later adapt (into something eternal).

5. Does it teach the absolute equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit, so that each is eternally unlimited in power, knowledge, and goodness? No, but there are some important things to note in conditioning this response. Firstly "absolute equality". We all know that, awkwardly for some, Jesus goes on the record as saying that "the Father is greater than I", so at least in essential greatness, it is very difficult to go back on Jesus' own words. How do some Christians do that? Well, the passage in Philippians 2 (which is certainly not ignored in this book) may include part of the answer. The idea is that the full worship and glory can be directed at Christ "to the glory of God the Father". One of the key building blocks to the "meta-mutation" of the Triune hub is the recognition of the unforeseeable incorporation of the Messiah into the sphere or individuals worthy of worship, as explained in detail by Larry Hurtado (see my summary post here for a good access point into my series). Hitherto, that space was occupied fully by Yahweh. Jesus receives "all authority". From a New Testament standpoint, the Father's presence and anointing in his son were quickly proven supreme, such that many of these hitherto presumed unassignable qualities of God were indeed shared with the one whose own (essential, I would say) humility was of equal match. If you can be as geeky as I am then you may have already tried doing some New Testament word-counts. I have done this on references to God and Jesus. They both number at around 1200. That's pretty astounding and points to a roughly shared centrality in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit does not fare so well on that criterion although is central on other criteria. Again space here limits me on this, but the primary distinctive that was necessary to make between John the Baptist and Jesus were on the central issue of the Holy Spirit - whose distinction from the Father was an outworking of the going of Christ to "be with the Father" (at his right hand).

On eternality (man, Tuggy's question is dense!), then the New Testament is significant on one understated point. On awareness and influence of Greek ideas (see also question 4), insufficient work has been done on first-century logos incorporation into Christian discourse. The way in which Jewish writers Paul and his followers (some of whom also wrote epistles), the writer of Hebrews and later, John simply assume the agency role of the logos in creation and sustenance of the universe. This can only mean that that which we have fortunately preserved in detail in the writings of Philo likely knew much wider Jewish acceptance than simply one Alexandrian writer. There has to have been something that Jesus said or was ascribed to him early on for him to "transgress" purely human messianic categories and fit so neatly within this adopted Greek one. The parables of Enoch are a likely part of the answer to this pre-Christ, Jewish-Greek convergence that justify the offhand New Testament references. On the Parables, may I recommend Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of the Parables, by Gabriele Boccaccini (2007), especially Part 6: "THE DATING", and the chapter by J.H. Charlesworth "Can we discern the composition date of the Parables of Enoch?" pp. 450-468.

6. Does the New Testament teach or positively portray the religious worship of: Father? Yes. Son? Yes. Spirit? Not "of", but "in". Does it teach or show worship of the three of them together, worship of the triune God as such? There is no Triune God yet - although the New Testament describes a reconfigured hub of the Jewish faith hitherto occupied in its entirety by Yahweh.

7. Does the New Testament teach that the only god just is the Father himself or does it teach that the Father is but one of three Persons "in" God? The former, although see my other comments above about the reconfigured monotheistic space/hub.

8. Does the New Testament make catholic bishops the successors of the apostles, with apostle-level authority to settle questions of Christian doctrine, working together in official, emperor-convened councils? As the reader now knows, this describes a scenario much later than the New Testament one. Slightly curious question.

Besides this, there is a lot to commend in this book, whose structure in particular has been thought through carefully with some excellent chapter titles! I am in agreement with a fair bit of the presentation and despite having been exposed to a lot of Tuggy's work already still learned some important things. A lot of this book is not an attempt at promoting (while not hiding) the particular views of the author. I will, however, before signing-off, highlight two assumptions that I do not feel are good characterisations of the historical data, that may also be where the personal views do interact with the analysis of the data.

Firstly, p. 89, the chapter is wittily entitled "Substance Abuse" and concerns the fourth-century controversies. In the Nicene Creed, it can seem striking that so little is said about the Holy Spirit, but look at Tuggy's assumption:

The 325 Creed ends with the seeming afterthought: "and in the Holy Spirit". (p. 89)

Especially in light of his comments elsewhere about the nature of the 325 Creed (its focus is refuting Arianism), it was not attempting to be some kind of eternal declaration that would shape core Christian belief for millennia. Rather, it was clearing up an Arian controversy that messed with Jesus' divine status. If Arians were not perceived to contravene the catholic interpretation of the Holy Spirit to the same degree, then it might seem sufficient to provide a simple mention on this occasion. Meanwhile, the more Trinitarian Creed of 381 can fill this out, without necessarily be seen to "correct" it. We should remember that since the end of the first century, Christians felt it necessary to specify that baptism into the faith was in the name of Father, Son and Spirit. In many ways, I believe that the debates from third to fourth-century act as a mirror to some of the earlier first-century developments, both culminating in a triune result. The first was a Triune Hub of Jewish-Christianity, the second was a Triune God.

My second comment follows on from this and a general disagreement about the distinction method (Trinity vs. trinity) described in chapter 3, over which I was lucky to have some dialogue with Dr. Tuggy. I'll mention that in a second, but first the text of p. 113: What sort of being is "God" supposed to be? Your answer to this will constrain your options when it comes to thinking about the Trinity. The "Trinity" (in the primary sense of the term, as saw in chapter 3) is supposed to be none other than the triune God...". (p. 113, my emphasis).

In Dale's lovely understated tone, I can respond: "Nope". The use of the word "primary" here is, I believe, quite misleading. Although I still haven't gotten round to Robert Jenson's The Triune God, I do value his and Fred Sander's distinctions of a "primary" from a "secondary" (only explicitly so with Sanders) trinitarianism. So, no, I don't think we can simply accept that there is only one form of trinitarianism, which is precisely why Tuggy's blog and podcast is called trinities. He might point out that this is a reflection that the "Triune-God" presentations are multiple and contradictory in important places (to which I'd agree), but that still doesn't make that whole tier the primary form - in fact, it divorces them from it. The Triune God is phase 2 of an insufficiently detailed mutation of the religious core of Jewish faith and practice among Christians in the first century. It is thus the secondary (or even later) sense, not the primary.

Regarding my exchange with Tuggy, since it was semi-public on the trinities facebook group, I feel I can show it again here:

JB: Enjoying what must be one of the first copies of What Is the Trinity to reach French shores, by a certain Dale Tuggy. On Chapter 3: Trinity vs. trinity: Why attempt the distinction this way? Why not reclaim an earlier understanding of a mutated Jewish 3-fold religious core, allow that to be called trinity or even Trinity, and reserve a special term for the fourth-century version that we all get so upset over (my proposal is Triune God advocates/advocacy)? Something along these lines would be more effective in reducing ambiguity, rather than possibly adding to it, as the following (ironically) illustrates: "But it gets confusing, because unitarian (non-trinitarian)..." (p. 29) - by which Dale seems to contradict the central distinction of the chapter, except: no, the adjective should not apparently be subjected to such consistent distinctions (p. 33). Wow.
I used to think the distinction worked, but I personally don't think it's going to catch or even should.
Sorry for the quibble, I think everyone knows I am a big fan, hence my indulgence. :)

DT: Hi John. I'm not sure I understand this idea of a "mutated Jewish 3-fold religious core." About terms like "Trinity" or "trinity," there seem to be only three options. (1) they don't refer, (2) they refer to something, (3) the refer to some plurality of things, i.e. to more than one thing. I propose that it's helpful to use "Trinity" as referring to the triune God of catholic orthodoxy, and "trinity" to refer to the triad of God, his spirit, and his Logos. About the earlier Jewish view - that's just "God" right? Aka "the Father," "the King of the Universe," "Yahweh" - a mighty self, the creator. Yes?

JB: Hey Dale. I'm sorry for the lack of clarity in my explanations about the Triune Hub idea, although I have tried to explain them before in a couple of our other exchanges. On the subject of options, I would also want to place before a BU the following options: is this triad, small-t trinity, or whatever anything special in Christianity, including Jewish Christianity, or not? In your interview with Sean Finnegan I think you imply that it is special if the Bible might indeed be "all about" the small-t trinity. My Triune Hub hypothesis attempts to provide precisely the "thing" that we need in the absence of a first century Triune God. Expanding on Larry Hurtado's comments about how central Jesus is to God discourse for the first-century church, the accepted parlance of "mutation" by leading scholars such as Hurtado, Crossan and NT Wright, and the "Jewishness" of some of the sources that even correct misconstrual of Jesus' baptism with respect to his predecessor John (cf Acts 8:16, Matt 28:19, Didache 7:1 and even "unsuccessful mutation" of GThomas 44:1-3), the mutation I am proposing is that the central religious *space* or focus now includes a consistent articulation with the Son and Spirit. "Personhood" discussions aside, these three appear equally individuated in these significant references and to share **hitherto** (albeit with some conceptual "foreshadowing") - apperently - unassignable - divine (aka religiously-central) prerogatives.

DT: If I understand you, you suggesting that "Yahweh" turns out to really be there beings, functioning in a unified manner. Is that right?

JB: I'm not sure about "beings", certainly entities. I want to account for what you describe as "primary" trinitarianism (see your use on p. 113) in a way that makes better historical sense (ie Triune God advocacy as a "stable" interpretation of that which was primary, which has to be something other than "just a" triad). Otherwise we are still left with the impossible theological switch problem (wake up one day in 382 and decide that God is tri-personal). I have just completed a fuller response over on my blog to your excellent little book here: [link to this post]. Thanks for the exchange, always a real pleasure!

Thanks Dr. Tuggy for a great yet stimulating little book, very well referenced and clear. I have since been lucky enough to earn a response from Dale over on his blog

(Since I wrote this post, Dale Tuggy has responded to it over on his blog, Dialogue with John on Thinking about the Trinity, to which I now have an extended response: Responding to Dale Tuggy on Trinitarian Conceptualisation)

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