Monday, November 19, 2012

A Unitarian with Trinitarian Tendencies

           I’m getting used to being a pastor in the United Church of Canada. This denomination is clearly much more liberal than the Christian Reformed Church I spent most of my life in. My particular congregation, Lawrence Park Community Church, sort of puts an exclamation mark behind the “more liberal,” by describing itself on its webpage as “united, unlimited, and unorthodox.”

            Being “un-,” has had a bit of traction for a while now—at least since 7 Up branded itself as the Uncola, I suppose. I’m reading a book, now, entitled, “Unmarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging,” by Scott Stratton. Still, before I joined the United Church, it was a stretch for me to think of myself as unorthodox.

            Then, a few weeks ago, someone asked me about the Trinity. What did I think of the Trinity? How would I explain it? And—a bit to my surprise—I answered her, “Well, I’m not sure anymore. I guess I’m a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies!”

            I’m not sure where that came from. The person who asked me wasn’t having heart-to-heart conversation. We were playing at theology. But there it was. Very unorthodox. Maybe my church’s billboard fits!

            I don’t mean to be flippant in my comments about the Trinity, even though I do think that theology ought to have something of a playground feel to it. But usually, people take getting it right when it comes to theology much too seriously. Or they want to get it right for questionable motives. Take, for example, Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, on both counts. He convened one of the earliest worldwide councils to settle the question of the Trinity. Christians had been talking about the concept for three hundred years, and had not come to a consensus. The discussion got a bit heated and threatened to split the church into competing camps. Constantine, who became a Christian in large measure in order to unify his empire around religion, didn’t want to see a schism lay his plans waste. So, to keep the peace in his empire, he insisted on a single definition. Constantine then used his political power to force the answer he liked best and got the political result he wanted. Most of the church has held that answer sacrosanct ever since, even though the Empire for which the answer was crafted declined and fell sixteen hundred years ago!

            Anyway, as I was driving home after my friendly discussion about the Trinity, another related question occurred to me. Why, exactly, is it so critical that we get this concept right? The church got by just talking about it, rather than insisting on an answer, for more than 300 years. And what could it matter to God—especially a loving God, if we didn’t get it exactly right? To use an analogy (talk about God is mostly analogical, after all), if someone mistakes me for the father of a young man who is actually my nephew; or if I mistake someone I’ve just met at my Rotary club for another person altogether when I meet her on the street, what real harm is done? None. In both cases, having made a mistake about someone’s identity, we act like adults. We smile, correct each other, make small talk, and go our separate ways.

            What is more, we’re talking about God, here. Mistakes are expected. I learned early in seminary that even if the word isn’t very familiar to us, God is, in important respects “ineffable,” or unknowable. Considering that humans are a single species of life among as many as eight million other species on earth; given that the earth is a tiny speck of a planet on the edge of an unimaginably large cosmos; given that that cosmos is some ten or twelve billion years old and God has presumably been here and there the whole time; given that by most accounts God set all this in motion, and is eternal and omnipotent and omnipresent and on and on, how are we ever going to “get” God "right" anyway?

            So we speak about God using analogies we find in scripture or make up ourselves. He is like a rock, or a mother, or a shepherd, or a burning bush. Or we know something of God on account of the things that scripture tells us God has done.

            But let’s face it. Scripture doesn’t take a keen interest in helping us understand who God is in and of himself. We don’t get much by way of divine ontology. In philosophy, ontology is the study of “being.” It is a big deal. Ironically, most philosophers can’t agree with each other on human ontology. Makes trying to understand divine ontology seem like aiming high.

            Nevertheless, we insist that God is three persons, but only one God. Like a church is many persons but one church. That, at least, is the “social trinity” explanation. There are many others, most judged heretical: monarchianism, adoptionism, Arianism. Even a brief description of these views would involve saying much more about them than the Bible says about the Trinity in any one place (or altogether).

            The Bible, however, doesn’t spend much time on any of this. When it comes to whom he or she (both are anthropomorphic analogies, of course) is, God says, enigmatically, “I am who I am.” Or something like that—the Hebrew is hard to translate.

            So perhaps we ought to take a hint from the Bible on this. It isn’t that important that we get it right. If it was, God would have given us more than sporadic clues—God might have actually given us a book or two or at least several chapters that nailed the matter. But God didn’t.

            So, I’ve given up trying to convince people that the Trinity is exactly this or that. I’ve not given up on the Spirit or on Jesus or on God. But when I talk on how they are related to each other I’m going to give the dearth of scripture and its ambiguity on this topic a lot of respect; I’m going to take a hint from scripture’s lack of interest in the matter. And I’m going to go easy on strong assertions; I’m going to enjoy my conversations rather than pick a fight. I’m going to reread Boethius and Augustine for the fun of it. I’m going to smile at assertions, based on otherwise outmoded classical philosophy, that God consists of substance or essence. I’m going to wonder aloud rather than define terms.

            And when people ask me about it, I’ll say I’m playing at being an unorthodox Unitarian—that is, a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies.


  1. Just a brief comment on Constantine and the Trinity. According to Alister McGrath Constantine actually had Arian sympathies rather than Athanasius.

    The evidence suggests that Constantine ultimately could have worked with either the position espoused by Athanasius or that espoused by Arius, yet he had a preference for the latter. Constantine was quite clear about his role; it was the church itself that had to decide which was right and bring the dispute to an end. His role was to bring about an unequivocal conclusion.

    The fact that the emperor had summoned the council made it quite clear where ultimate authority lay within imperial Christianity. This was reinforced by Constantine’s decision to model the proceedings of the council on those of the Roman Senate. The structures of the church were subtly being aligned with those of the state.

    McGrath, Alister (2009-10-14). Heresy (pp. 147-148). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

  2. Point taken. Clearly God has to tolerate fuzzy, foggy and even wrong headed ideas on the part of his creatures that he's wooing with his love.

    I do, however, disagree that this doesn't or shouldn't matter to God.

    1. One could view most of the Bible in fact as program of confusion clarification. Is Yhwh the kind of God that appreciates human sacrifice or temple prostitution? Is Yhwh the kind of diety that requires extravagant blood letting and physical deprivation before he lends an ear, or is he a father who gives fish and bread rather than scorpions and stones?

    2. We all expect greater identity correctness within a relationship of increasing intimacy. If your wife were to say "Well John is a lecherousness chaser of young girls who sells put to supplement his meager pastoral income" you might take issue and even offense if the statement is made in all seriousness. You want those who are close to you to have an accurate picture of who you are and what you think. If you didn't you probably wouldn't blog. Yhwh's concern for his reputation appeared to be a major issue for the exile in the OT canon.

    While I don't have any problem imagining God showing great latitude at the front end of a relationship, if we posit a relational trajectory of misery, deliverance, gratitude the duty of a grateful person would be to pursue the partner of their affection with a desire to know them more and better.

    3. McGrath's thesis in the book I quoted from was essentially that the process of the emergence of heresy and orthodoxy is a process of discovery where over long periods of time (we might think of it as theological evolution) certain positions appear to become dead end streets while other show themselves to be live giving for the church and the community of believers. This doesn't mean of course that minority positions cease to exist, but rather they continue to be side tracks, less productive on the communal process of loving God with our minds.

    So while Unitarians, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons and other non-Trinitarian breeds persist, the center of the Christian ecosystem remains strongly Trinitarian and given the track record I suspect it will continue.

    As a pastor then, if I have to recommend beliefs to embrace, the Trinity looks like a winner. :) pvk

    1. Sorry for the typos. I've got you selling POT, not "put". Also "life giving" not "live giving" :) pvk

  3. Thanks Paul. My comments on Constantine were based on memory. You may be right on his initial preference, though I think it is right, at a minimum, to say that the real issue for him was that he couldn't afford a church split. Your thoughts on the Trinity are well taken. I know and appreciate that line. However it doesn't move me anymore. How does Holy war, or bashing children's heads against the rocks, or destruction of Jerusalem/exile, or hell (to take a NT doctrine) clarify our views about God? The notion that we can be intimate with God is highly suspect to me (without wanting to write off the possibility that some people who devote their lives to this might not achieve something like intimacy, perhaps). And of course McGrath is going to find an "after-the-fact" justification for emerging orthodoxy. It is plausible, for sure. But it just goes to show, the Bible isn't that clear. It takes hundreds of years to arrive at something like a consensus, and even then those have been overthrown in short order: women in office, gay acceptance, adult baptism, rejection of early Christian pacifism, premil dispensationalism, reformation, mormonism--fastest growning NA religion--and on and on. I don't think the landscapes is actually one where we see directionality. All is always in flux.

    But some of this difference in opinion is the result of changing paradigms. What once seemed true or clear or obvious just doesn't anymore. Oh well!

    Thanks for very insightful and interesting comments.

    John Suk

  4. Interesting convo. I don't think at all that you were being flippant, John. I will now take a turn at rummaging through memory cells, but did not Karen Armstrong make the point that we in the west never really "got" Trinity in any event; that it was something we borrowed, mostly in name, from the eastern Christian tradition where it was used more as a means of mystical meditation. She went on to say, I think, that the western tradition by contrast focused on nailing down a description of God (and even at then we seemed to borrow more from Greek philosophy than scripture).

    1. Well, it surely is the case that in the West, the definition was the thing, while in the East, the mystery was the thing!

  5. Alyce, you are probably right with respect to Karen Armstrong, though I do not now recall that narrative. (One of the problems with blogging is that it is hard to know topics in as much depth as some readers; but that is also the fun of reading responses!). Certainly, you are correct with respect to the Western tradition. We tried to nail down the ontology. First the scholars did it (would be interesting to know what illiterate Christians of the era thought about the Trinity). But as reading became a widespread skill, a faith that used to revolve around knowing the story, caritas, and obedience to the clergy/church became a matter of knowing and accepting propositions. Those propositions are interesting, fascinating stuff--but they are not the same as faith or following Jesus. Thanks for your interesting response. I'm going to dig up my Armstrong (and my Jarislov Pelican!).

  6. You say: "To use an analogy (talk about God is mostly analogical, after all), if someone mistakes me for the father of a young man who is actually my nephew.. . .what real harm is done."

    So, then no harm done if Jesus turns out to be the nephew of God?

  7. Hmm. That might be implied, though not intended. I'll need to be a bit clearer with that example, next time! Enjoyed your book, Walking Away From Faith, very much.

  8. Thanks, John. My comment was just an expression of my weird sense of humor.

  9. Check out this interview with Steve Bell, Winnipeg singer/songwriter

    and part 4.

    He has an interesting take on the Trinity. "Orthodox Christian faith understands God as Triune, meaning that at the very heart of God is a dynamic relationality; a mutual-othering marked by self-donating love." "We can’t understand that these are a piece of each other unless we understand that our full humanity stems from the Trinity. "

  10. Unitarians (not Universalist Unitarians) are delighted that Dunn and McGrath now clearly say what Socinians and others have always said: Jesus was a Shema-affirming Jew, and surely every Jew and scholar knows that Judaism is unitarian. It is amazing that Ps 110:1 is not given the attention it obviously got from Jesus and the whole NT. YHVH there addresses my lord (adoni) and adoni is never ever the title of Deity (all 195 times).


What do you think?