Until a year or so ago, I had never heard of people who accept the Bible (Old and New Testaments) as inerrant and authoritative, but who do not believe in the trinitarian nature of God because they do not believe the Bible teaches it. My uncle was a Unitarian, and my mother belonged to Unity Church (often confused with Unitarianism because of the similarity in names). They accepted those aspects of Christian tradition that seemed right/made sense to them, and discarded others, such as the deity of Jesus Christ.
It was probably on WorldMagBlog that I first heard of Oneness Pentecostalism, and out of curiosity I surfed the web to learn more about their views. As I understand it, they believe that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply different ways that the One God manifests Himself. It is similar to Modalism (considered a heresy by orthodox trinitarians), but not the same – though the difference between them is not immediately obvious to me.
Last week, a post at Parchment and Pen announced that “The Great Trinity Debate” was coming. I was particularly pleased to see that this would be an exchange between men holding opposite views, so that the arguments of one could be countered by the other. (This is what I find lacking in so many discussions of theology – and many other subjects as well – people argue against what they say are their opponents’ views but do not offer a forum for the opponents to engage them on specific points.)
Today the first two posts went up, one by Christadelphian David Burke, who argues for Biblical Unitarianism, and the other by Rob Bowman, who takes the traditional Trinitarian view. Because readers of Parchment and Pen are less likely to be familiar with the Biblical Unitarian view, Burke starts by giving some background information on the Christadelphians and how they differ from “Rationalist Unitarians” and Unitarian Universalists, as well as his approach to interpreting Scripture.
Burke’s principles for interpreting Scripture sound very much like those I was taught in Bible school. Trinitarians may argue about whether he (and others with the same views) follow those principles faithfully. But because his approach to interpreting Scripture is the same as that of most Christians I know, I think his arguments are worth reading and thinking about, even if you are sure from the beginning that his conclusions must be wrong.
I have to admit that the points he makes are ones I have long wondered about. Is saying that Jesus is the Son of God (as Peter says in Matthew 16, and Jesus commends him for it) the same as saying that Jesus is God? When the question has come up in Bible studies I have been part of, a typical reaction is something bordering on bewilderment – how could it possibly mean anything else? I am waiting for David Burke’s next installment, on Jesus, to learn what it means to him to say that Jesus is the Son of God – but not God himself.
The Old Testament certainly strongly emphasizes the oneness of God. For Burke, it is misusing words to try to say that a being can be one yet also be three persons, as that departs from how we use the words being and person in every other context. Yet as Bowman points out, God is unique, and we have no other examples to point to that adequately illustrate the idea of the Trinity (not that some illustrations may not help, but all ultimately fall short).
Some people will question what use there is in debating the matter to begin with. When the debate was announced at Parchment and Pen last week, one commenter predicted that “this will be an interesting exercise in Theological gymnastics… however at the end of the day, all the debating either position or any position is pointless if one does not KNOW the Father – that is… to KNOW what He requires of us and how we are to live. … And the end of the day it matters not how you can picture God in your mind that saves… but how one lives and models God to the rest of humanity.”
There is a part of me that wants to agree. Yet there must be some limit to what one can mistakenly believe about God and still “model God to the rest of humanity.” Clearly, an indifferent, capricious god (I won’t even use the word “God” for such a concept) is not the God of the Bible (even though some will portray Him that way based on selected passages from the Old Testament). If people who try to faithfully understand and follow the Bible can come to different conclusions about the trinitarian or non-trinitarian nature of God, I have trouble being convinced that it is one of the essential aspects to get right. But even if it is not, it is certainly worth considering the arguments on both sides.
Those who take the Biblical Unitarian view see theirs as the more logical view. It may well be – but that it’s the same as saying it is true. Logic can only get one so far when it comes to the nature of God (Bowman has a good discussion in his post about the Incomprehensibility of God). Some theological positions I disagree with seem (to me) to have been arrived at by trying too hard to take an idea to its logical conclusion, and to make the whole system fit together logically.
Several years ago, I read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, then Further Along the Road Less Traveled. In the latter book, Peck professes to have become a Christian, though he did not choose to identify with a particular Christian tradition. (And some people will conclude from Peck’s writings that he did not truly accept the Truth but only picked parts of it that he liked.) One interesting point – the only one I really remember from that second book – is that if one is looking for truth one cannot escape paradox.
The Trinity is a paradox – God is one and God is also three. If one believes the Trinity, then it is also a paradox that Jesus is 100% man and Jesus is also 100% God. The whole subject of divine sovereignty and free human choices – more paradoxes. Peck warns that a church that is too uncomfortable with paradox will usually fall into one heresy or another. While I wouldn’t look to Peck for theological answers (though I think there is a good deal of wisdom in his writings), I think he makes a good point here.
If you’re at all interested in theological discussions, I hope you’ll consider following this “Great Trinity Debate.” And I’d be interested in hearing what you think. (The posts themselves will not be open for comments during the first five weeks.)