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What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity? Part I: Unity

September 1, 2014

Recently I was catching up with a friend and he mentioned that another friend of ours had left the church he was going to over a conflict that had begun as a discussion of Trinitarian theology. While I agreed that the conflict had probably reached the point where stepping away was a good idea the whole incident prompted the question “Why do we care about Trinitarian theology so much?” After all, Trinitarian theology is extremely confusing. It’s easy to get into conflicts about because it’s so confusing and it’s actually pretty easy to make statements about the Trinity that have been deemed heretical in the past. (Get a pastor to give you an analogy for the Trinity – odds are the analogy will suggest something heretical. Normally people give multiple analogies with non-overlapping problems to get around this.) So why don’t we just say that Trinitarianism is confusing and leave it at that except for a few more specialized theologians? Why is Trinitarianism at the center of so many historical Christian disputes? In this article and the next one I intend to tackle the theological implications of breaking with Trinitarianism. (A separate issue, and one I’ve covered somewhat before, is what the Biblical rationale is for believing in the Trinity.)

To deal with this idea we need to briefly discuss the central problem in Trinitarianism and its two non-Trinitarian solutions. The problem is that while almost everyone can figure out a way to make the Spirit and the Father go together (the Spirit is, after all, God’s spirit) making the Father and the Son go together is more difficult. Jesus talks to the Father as if they are separate entities and the Incarnation appears to limit Jesus in ways that separate him distinctly from the Father’s infinite power. One solution to this is to de-divinize Jesus, to make him a powerful angel or some such being. I intend to discuss this solution next week. The non-Trinitarian solution I will discuss this week is to split the Trinity into three separate beings.

This is actually how the Mormons deal with the Trinity – they simply split it into three gods who work together. This seems to be a pretty rational approach to many people, as many people effectively treat the Father and Son as separate anyway, so what exactly is the fallout from this position?

A short side note: three gods is definitely a position that comes after the Trinity. As I pointed out previously, the Spirit is so seriously neglected in so much Trinitarian theology that nobody proposes that there might be three gods until well after the default position is Trinitarianism. The older version of this is to split the Father and Son apart as two separate gods.

Now, the very oldest of these proposals is also strongly anti-Jewish. Various flavors of Marcionite teaching denounced the god of the Old Testament and upheld the god of the New Testament as a better replacement. It’s certainly not necessary to do anything like this if one feels compelled to split the Father and Son from one another but it is impossible to come very close to Jewish Scripture.

The Old Testament spends a lot of its time on the oneness of God. This is one reason not to drop this theme off of the edge of the world. However, the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament also depends on a single actor in both Testaments. The Old Testament makes sense to Christians because it depicts a single deity who makes promises and then follows through on them in the New Testament. If the Old Testament god was separate from the New Testament god then the Old Testament god is, rather inevitably, a screw-up whose mess gets cleaned up by the New Testament god. While one could seek to de-emphasize this by speaking of cooperation between gods it’s hard to avoid this implication entirely. Indeed, once one accepts the premise that there might be different gods in each Testament Marcion’s claim that the Old Testament god isn’t very good seems rather inevitable.

Let’s examine some scenarios here. What if the gods were friends? The Old Testament God (hereafter the OTG) would then be responsible for making the world and getting it to the point of the New Testament. That is, this god would be responsible for creating a world that almost immediately breaks, coming up with a plan, and having that plan not pan out. The New Testament God (hereafter NTG) would then come in and help a friend out and set things right. Several questions would immediately arise: would the OTG be worth worshipping? Could we blame current problems on things the OTG did that were so messed up that even the NTG couldn’t fix them entirely? These aren’t questions that arise in classical Trinitarianism.

What if, instead, the OTG and the NTG collaborated to come up with a plan? In this scenario the division of labor is the same except that both gods would have agreed to the whole plan. In this case we couldn’t claim that the OTG was less competent at planning a world than the NTG (since both of them would be in on the planning) but we could still ask whether the OTG was worth worshipping since it would still be the NTG who saved us. Indeed, the division of labor would strongly suggest that the OTG was incapable of pulling off salvation.

The other issue here is that (like many flavors of popular Protestantism) all of this pretty much writes off the Old Testament. Marcion himself simply tossed out the Old Testament. Almost no Christians today suggest this but if this suggestion isn’t on the table then the Old Testament must have value for us now. Now I suppose you could think of some way in which the OTG and the NTG cooperated so closely that every action of the OTG must be scrutinized so that its significance in the New Testament could be determined. However, at this point we’ve also removed most of the reason to split the Trinity. If we split the Trinity we don’t have to deal with the oddness of the Old Testament – and in doing so we write off the Scriptures that Jesus and the disciples used. If we force ourselves to deal with the Old Testament we remove a powerful reason to split the Trinity.

But what if you agree that it works best to insist that one deity planned everything and that the whole plan is a single indivisible unit but you find it difficult to believe that Jesus is the same being as the one he calls “Father”? There’s an option to deal with this that doesn’t involve splitting the Trinity into separate gods: Arianism, the denial that Jesus is God or a god and making him God’s second-in-command. This, however, circles back to the issues with denying that Jesus is divine. I will discuss these issues in next week’s article.


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