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What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity? Part II: Divinity

September 15, 2014

In part one of this short series I examined the issues involved in splitting the Trinity into three separate gods. In this one I will address a different approach to resolving another problematic aspect of the Trinity: demoting Jesus to a secondary figure, perhaps a powerful angel.

This idea is quite old and is one of the most famous heresies in Christianity, Arianism. However, while its fame may cause people to steer away from it is not always clear to everyone why Arianism is such a problem. One way to address this is to start from an even less Trinitarian proposal, Adoptionism. In Adoptionism Jesus’ status was granted to him by the Father at some point during his life on earth. That is, Jesus was not always the Messiah but was adopted as the Messiah. Most people can see why this is problematic. For one thing is makes God seem rather poorly planned. For another it means that God adopted some poor sap and sent him to the cross. One of the worst of the bad atheist arguments against Christianity is that Christians believe that God killed Jesus to satisfy His wrath, somewhat like a drunk father coming home and beating the family dog instead of his children. Adoptionism has very little defense against this argument. However, I’m not sure classical Arianism does either. In both cases God is selecting some other being to be killed to make things right. God is not fixing the situation personally but doing so by proxy. There are times when this makes sense but in this case it would look like God was not willing to get His hands dirty and used His power to make someone else put up with the worst parts of His plan.

Part of the power of Christianity is that God Himself took on our sufferings. God did not merely arrange for a lifeboat for us but actually came to bear our burdens with us. Arianism removes this – God just sent someone else. While this sometimes seems like a nice way to deal with the issues of Trinitarianism it’s a radically different view of God. It’s a picture of a puppetmaster God Who never involves Himself directly in the puppet show but merely steers other characters around the stage. This is an idea that’s actually very common in the modern world but not one that fits well with traditional Christianity. In many ways it’s a more Islamic picture where some tasks are too demeaning for God, one where God would never let his prophet die a demeaning death. It’s a vision that runs contrary to Jesus’ own teaching on servant leadership unless we assume that servant leadership is a “because I said so” rule and not a reflection of the true nature of God’s power. (This probably deserves a great deal of expansion but I think that Jesus is telling us something about God’s nature when he tells us that the greatest is a servant. After all, orthodox theologians all assert that if God ceased His continual care of us we would simply cease to exist.)

There’s another major argument that I find less compelling. It’s often stated that since only God is sinless then God Himself must be the sinless atoning sacrifice. However, most Christian theologians also think that at least some angels are sinless (this mostly depends on whether you lump demons in with angels) and so it would appear that archangels would fit the bill as well. More compelling, I think, is a view coming from a Christus Victor model of salvation. Here the emphasis is not on Christ’s sinless status as sacrifice but on his great power and the impossibility of his death. When death tries to claim God it fails and in failing breaks itself. It’s less clear that this would make sense if Christ were an archangel or similar being.

One of the interesting things about all of these arguments is that it’s easier to show why the alternatives to the Trinity have problems than why the Trinity itself makes sense. Indeed, the reason there are alternatives to the Trinity is because the Trinity doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This is often a major objection to the Trinity but I think that it is actually a selling point. As I’ve discussed before we sometimes imagine that major doctrines came into being “just because” and without any thought. In reality we know that doctrines all came about through discussion and debate. For the Trinity some of this debate is even recorded for us. So why did discussion and debate land on this odd statement about three persons in one that most people can’t even properly comprehend? I would say that this is a strong suggestion that the other solutions were worse. If you can’t split the Trinity into three gods and you can’t demote Jesus to a non-divine being you have to compromise. That compromise is the Trinity. In some sense I think early theologians were backed into a corner by the obvious flaws with other proposals.

Does this impact us any? I think it does. Yes, the Trinity is hard to understand. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe we can understand why the Trinity is still a better solution than any other idea even if we find the Trinity itself to be confusing.

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