Thursday, December 14, 2017

A theology in crisis?


“the doctrine of the Trinity stands today at a point of crisis”
“the Trinity is a local phenomenon in the realm of systematic theology, with no provenance in the territory of New Testament scholarship”
“Some [Trinitarian] proof texts evaporated because they were, in fact, never anything but Trinitarian mirages.”
“Many arguments that once seemed foundational to Trinitarianism no longer apply.”

That is how the Trinitarian Dr. Fred Sanders appraised his theology in his 2016 academic tome The Triune God. This situation was showcased by Dr. Dale Tuggy in his podcast site where he read from The Triune God in “Review of Sanders’s The Deep Things of God – Part 2” (trinities.org/blog/podcast-193-review-of-sanderss-the-deep-things-of-god-part-2). There he read from pages 162-164 and 179, where Dr. Sanders expressed his call of alarm. What he said is worth repeating. Beginning on page 162, under the heading “The Shifting Foundation of Biblical Trinitarianism,” he wrote:


Although there has been no change in the material content of the doctrine of the Trinity, the epochal shifts in biblical interpretation in the modern period have greatly altered the available arguments for Trinitarianism. Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity stands today at a point of crisis with regard to its ability to demonstrate its exegetical foundation. Theologians once approached this doctrine with a host of biblical prods, but one by one, many of those venerable old arguments [163] have been removed from the realm of plausibility. The steady march of grammatical-historical exegesis has tended in the direction of depleting Trinitarianism’s access to its traditional equipment, until a prominent feature of the current era is the growing unpersuasiveness and untenability of the traditional proof texts that were used to establish and demonstrate the doctrine.

[Dale Tuggy then mentioned that he skipped some quotes. I will not. These are:]

“Most theologians no longer expect to find in the New Testament a formal Trinitarianism, only and elemental Trinitarianism,” remarked conservative Jesuit theologian Edmund Fortman in 1972. The heightened historical consciousness of modern scholars has made the very idea that Trinitarian theology has a foothold on the documents of the New Testament seem laughable: “Whatever Jesus did or said in his earthly ministry,” wrote R. P. C. Hanson in 1985, “he did not walk the lanes of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem laying down direct unmodified Trinitarian doctrine .” [R. P. C. Hanson, Studies in Christian Antiquity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1985), 296.]

[Dale continued reading:]

The presupposition has become widespread that the doctrine of the Trinity is a local phenomenon in the realm of systematic theology, with no provenance in the territory of New Testament scholarship.

[Again, Dale skipped over a quote that I will not:]

So deep has this presupposition sunk into the practices of the field that Ulrich Mauser could write in 1990, “The historically trained New Testament scholar will today proceed with the task of interpretation without wasting a minute on the suspicion that the Trinitarian confessions of later centuries might be rooted in the New Testament itself, and that the Trinitarian creeds might continue to function as valuable hermeneutical signposts for a modern understanding.” [Ulrich Mauser, “One God and Trinitarian Language in the Letters of Paul,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 20:2 (1998): 100.]

[Dale continued reading, but I will skip ahead to this part:]

Perhaps no development in biblical studies has left the foundation of Trinitarianism [164] unaffected, partly because the long Christian exegetical tradition had at various times delighted to find the Trinity in nearly every layer and every section of Scripture. If the doctrine of the Trinity had come to be at home in every verse of the Bible, it was more or less implicated in revisionist approaches to every verse.

At any rate, the overall trend of sober historical-grammatical labors has been toward the gradual removal of the Trinitarian implications of passage after passage.

[Dale paused and noted that only one example of a “removal of the Trinitarian implications” of a passage was cited, 1 John 5:7. This skipped-over part reads:]

Some of these proof texts evaporated because they were, in fact, never anything but Trinitarian mirages: 1 John 5:7’s “three that bear witness in heaven,” for example, withered away at the first touch of “the lower criticism,” textual criticism. By overwhelming consensus, the comma johanneum is judged not to have been in the original manuscript, and therefore it should not be used as biblical support for Trinitarian theology, though it has some value as early Christian commentary on John’s letter. The discarding of the Johannine comma is perhaps the clearest example of the helpful, clarifying, and destructive work of biblical scholarship. … Nor is this cutting-edge research; it was seen and affirmed in the eighteenth century and disseminated in the early nineteenth. … [T]he complex clashes of premodern, modern, and postmodern modes of interpretation have left the field of Trinitarian exegesis in extensive disarray. Many arguments that once seemed foundational to Trinitarianism no longer apply.

[Dale then jumped over to page 179, which I will include the most succinct parts:]

There is something disconcerting in maintaining a doctrine while replacing many of the arguments for it. If Trinitarian theology can arise using one set of arguments, but then discard many of those and set about seeking better ones by which to maintain its claims, does this imply that Trinitarians intend to go on believing what they are believing, no matter what? … Proof-switching could signal that a system of orthodoxy is functioning like what Marxist analysis calls an ideology: a set of power relationships concealed behind ideas that really defend them by rationalization. … Buildings that have always stood firm can, on inspection, be found to have less than optimal support, and undergo seismic retrofitting without ever coming down. After the tectonic shifts of biblical criticism, Trinitarian theology is due for some seismic retrofitting.
[End quote.]


As noted, the reason for saying that “after the tectonic shifts of biblical criticism, Trinitarian theology is due for some seismic retrofitting,” is that “the overall trend of sober historical-grammatical labors has been toward the gradual removal of the Trinitarian implications of passage after passage. Some of these proof texts evaporated because they were, in fact, never anything but Trinitarian mirages.” The sole example of a “Trinitarian mirage” was 1 John 5:7. However, he likely also had in mind another Johannine scripture, the Trinitarian favorite John 8:58. He may also agree that another Trinitarian favorite of Jeremiah 23:6 is nothing more than a Trinitarian mirage. Resources explaining how these are Trinitarian mirages, scriptures stripped of their “Trinitarian implications,” (more like Trinitarian accretions) are:
  1. Articles here:
  2. YouTube videos from the Ask an Apologist channel:
(For the record, Dr. Hugh Ross is aware of these resources and has offered no rebuttal at all.)

The last video gives a more detailed explanation for Jeremiah 23:6.

So how extensive is Dr. Sanders’ call for a “seismic retrofitting”? After quoting Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation, he states that there has to be a “shift in register” to follow what Athanasius prescribes: “a good life, a pure soul, virtue, holiness, purity, and imitating the good deeds of the sacred writers.” That is, “a spiritual and ascetical training that will result in communion with the mind of Scripture’s authors … and promises hermeneutical insight.”[1] The problem with this approach though is that it does not demand that Trinitarianism be the outcome. For instance, ones who have indeed pursued “a good life, a pure soul, virtue, holiness, purity, and imitating the good deeds of the sacred writers” and ‘a spiritual and ascetical training resulting in communion with the mind of Scripture’s authors and producing hermeneutical insight,’ have arrived at a Patritheistic theology where the Father alone is the “only true God.” (John 17:1-5) Thus, claiming that a pious life can only result in adopting Trinitarianism is actually an act of hijacking and is quite unreasonable, and also reduces piety to intellectual snobbery. It is also a call to abandon the scriptures and rely on one’s own supposed piety, an act proscribed at 2 Corinthians 10:12. Christians are not to “measure themselves by themselves,” but rather are to “explain spiritual matters with spiritual words,” or “matching spiritual with spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:13, NWT, Byington) This is accomplished by becoming “doers of the word” (James 1:22), studying the Bible objectively and honestly to not have a deceptive heart.

Thus, Christians are instructed differently by “the sacred writers.” Indeed, David, Isaiah and James all urge us to search for God by drawing close to him with clean hands and pure hearts. (Psalm 145:18; Isaiah 55:6; James 4:8) This calls for humble objectivity to question the Trinitarian groupthink and transcend it, outwitting confirmation bias to find the true God that Scripture reveals. Trinitarianism is indeed “a theology in crisis.”

Questions for Dr. Fred Sanders:
  1. What other Scriptures do you think no longer support Trinitarianism and were just Trinitarian mirages (or, examples of Trinitarian confirmation bias) the entire time? John 1:1, 8:58, 20:28?
  2. Have you done any objective research into the life and character of Athanasius? Are you sure he was as savory and pious as you are portraying?


Footnotes:
[1] While Dr. Sanders quoted Athanasius as stressing the importance of piety, Athanasius himself was known for being extremely impious, as a slanderer and wicked schemer. On this outrageous hypocrisy, see Dr. Dale Tuggy, “Assessing Athanasius and his Arguments” trinities.org/blog/podcast-171-assessing-athanasius-and-his-arguments and Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993), 37.


Additional Reading:

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