Tuesday, September 05, 2017

What is the Trinity?

Here is a summary and some thoughts on What is the Trinity? by Dale Tuggy...
Dale Tuggy is Professor of Philosophy at a State University close to where I live. I have interacted with him a time or two on facebook and visited his website. When I saw he had published a short little book on the trinity, I decided to give it a try.

Tuggy believes that most Christians claim to believe in the Trinity, but don't really understand (or understand in contradictory ways) just what it is they claim to believe. In this book, he aims to help us think through the issues by "sticking with the foundational, understandable, and indisputable points."

Chapter 1: Don't be afraid to think about God
Tuggy bemoans that fact that even many serious/mature Christians devote little time to thinking on this subject. He suspects this is due to fear or laziness, but encourages us to dive in. God doesn't want to stay in the dark.

Chapter 2: Formulas vs. Interpretations
The creedal statements, according to Tuggy, are ambiguous and are more question-raising than answer-providing. Since it is unclear what many of the key statements mean, we can't proceed in thinking until they are clarified. It's not enough to just parrot the statement if we don't even truly understand it.

Chapter 3: Trinity vs. trinity
Tuggy believes much confusion would be eliminated (and false-confidence deflated) if we were careful to distinguish between trinity (lower-case, referring to the plural) and Trinity (upper-case, referring to a singular God who simply IS Trinity). He states that, in the 1st three centuries of the church, there was a belief in a triad (trinity), but nothing much like 'God in three Persons' belief in The Trinity.

Chapter 4: The deity of Christ vs. the Trinity
Tuggy says that the deity of Christ need not suggest Jesus is equal to the Father. It is not a building block that necessarily ends in a belief in the Trinity. "The Trinity implies the deity of Christ, but the deity of Christ doesn't imply the Trinity."

Chapter 5: Get a Date
It is not true, says Tuggy, that Christians have always believed in the Trinity. While they have always recognized the trinity (lower-case), the doctrine of the Trinity (upper-case) developed gradually. The term 'God' was generally reserved for the Father. It wasn't until the 4th century that mainstream Christians started talking in Trinitarian terms. And even then, Tuggy says, the consensus was acquired largely by political pressure.

Chapter 6: Persons
Tuggy confesses that it is impossible to ignore the distinction, in Scripture, between Father, Son and Spirit. But we should be careful about any tritheistic conclusions (he's not a fan of social-trinity models) or any model that gives a vague definition of the term 'Person'.

Chapter 7: Substance Abuse
In 325, the Christian council declared that the Father and Son share the same 'ousia' (substance), but what this means was not made clear. The word had at least 9 possible meanings. Tuggy goes through each definition and, basically, concludes that the authors of the creed left things somewhat confused and vague. By 381, belief in The Trinity was more confidently stated (to the chagrin of Tuggy).

Chapter 8: Mystery Mountain
It is common to appeal to 'mystery' when talking about the Trinity. By this many things are meant, but it should never be used as a way to derail conversation about what we actually believe. Tuggy suggests that believers in the Trinity doctrine have worded themselves into a philosophical corner that they can't get out of without admitting they've made a mistake.

Chapter 9: What's a God?
Tuggy presents various ways in which the term 'God' is used. He argues that, biblically speaking, God is one (the Father). There are other deities (in a sense) but the one true God is the Father. Tuggy believes his unitarian position actually has older support from the church and is more biblical.

Chapter 10: Says Who?
Tuggy again expresses concern for why the Trinity doctrine took so long to develop. He suggests that scholars generally won't make the sort of arguments for the Trinity that are often made by apologists and lay-people. We should question their authority and go back to the Scriptures.

Tuggy does believe the correct understanding of the trinity is discoverable. He has concluded that unitarianism is the correct view. Jesus is more accurately (and biblically) described as God's messiah, the Son of Man, and the unique Son of God. In any case, there's a lot of disagreement about the Trinity/trinity. We should run toward those disagreements because doing so helps us to find the truth.


I liked this book. I think Tuggy did a good job of clarifying the points of tension in our thinking about the Trinity/trinity. Many of his distinctions may prove helpful for those who read his book and continue to think through these doctrines. I personally found it helpful.

Nevertheless, there are a few areas I would want to push-back on...

First, it seems to bother Tuggy that the doctrine of the Trinity took so long to develop. One gets the impression that this is a point against its accuracy. But I'm not sure why that need be the case. If God is patient and has promised to lead the church into all truth, it should not surprise (or aggravate us) that clarity sometimes arises over time.

Second, throughout the book, Tuggy is critical of apologists for the Trinity. But I wonder if, by the closing chapters, his book couldn't be counted as an apology for the unitarian position. His critique of Trinitarian apologists is that they present a tidier version of their view that fits with reality, but Tuggy's book (by its nature) avoids talking about the nuts and bolts (and apparent weaknesses) of the unitarian position.

Third, in the final statement of the book, Tuggy says that we should begin by asking 'who is the one God?' and then figure out how Jesus relates to him (for Tuggy, the Father alone). However, I think it should be admitted that, biblically, we know the Father best/most through the Son. If we were to start with the Father, we'd have to be doing so largely via philosophy. We must actually start with Jesus to learn best what the Father is like. Starting our theology with Jesus need not demand that we end up with the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is the best way to do theology.

These critiques aside, I really did enjoy (and was helped by) Tuggy's book. I'm personally more inclined toward a 'social-trinity' model, but this book will help me to dig in deeper to think through what I actually mean by that (and what I don't mean). And if I continue to do that... Tuggy has accomplished his goal.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review of Zahnd's Book

This won't be a typical review. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, by Brian Zahnd, is a book asking the most important question: What is the truth about God? So my review will take the form of competing truth claims. From Zahnd's perspective, notions about God (famously popularized by Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, a sermon by Jonathan Edwards) being filled with wrath and capable of violence are false and could only be called bad news. The good news... that God is love... has been revealed by Jesus Christ. My review will simply summarize the contrast between the bad news and the good news as Zahnd sees it before sharing my personal reaction.


Bad news Evangelism
Evangelism by terrorism. We should threaten people with the wrath/violence of God in order to get them to say the Sinner's Prayer. We must traumatize people with thoughts of the Father (bad-cop) before we introduce Jesus (good-cop) who will save us from the Father's wrath.

Good news Evangelism
Evangelism is about sharing the good news that God is love! "God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus; we haven't always known this, but now we do." God is good/beautiful... and beauty will save the world.

Bad news Hermeneutic
There are strands in the Bible that can be used to paint the picture of a monster God. Since the Bible is our primary revelation from God... and since all parts of the Bible are equally revelatory... the 'monster-god' interpretation is legitimate. God did, indeed, command much violence in the Old Testament. We must balance our theology with both Old and New Testament depictions of God. The truth is thoroughly biblical.

Good news Hermeneutic
Jesus is the best possible revelation of God. Everything in Scripture must be interpreted in the light of Christ. The Bible contains a chorus of voices that aren't always in harmony with Jesus, but all of them point us to the person of Christ. The ancient Israelites assumed God commanded violence when, in fact, He didn't. Christ is the key to interpreting the Old Testament. The truth is thoroughly Christlike.

Bad news Atonement
God has always demanded blood. The events of the crucifixion were orchestrated by God. The Father was angry and needing to be appeased. He demanded a payment for sin. Jesus volunteered His blood as that payment. The Father vented His wrath on His Son. And because the price was paid, God is now willing to forgive us.

Good news Atonement
God never demanded blood. The events of the crucifixion were orchestrated by the principalities and powers. But because Jesus (representing God) offered forgiveness amidst hateful violence, the cross reveals the true character of God. "Jesus did not shed his blood to buy God's forgiveness; Jesus shed his blood to embody God's forgiveness!"

Bad news Hell
Hell is where all non-Christians go to experience the torturous wrath of God forever. God's character toward those in hell is only wrathful. There will be no escape. Hell is the wrath of God justly received.

Good news Hell
We must be humble about hell because not much has been revealed to us. But we can be certain that hell is not God's torture chamber! Hell is for the wicked (and not all 'non-Christians' are wicked). God is always willing to be merciful toward those in hell, should they desire mercy. Only those who refuse to love will end up lonely/tormented souls. Hell is the love of God wrongly received.

Bad news Revelation
The Book of Revelation is like a coded newspaper which foretold events playing out in our day. World history will inevitably trend toward violence, which will culminate in Jesus' 2nd Coming when he comes, as a lion, to violently destroy all who oppose Him.

Good news Revelation
The Book of Revelation is a symbolic book. It symbolizes the war that is constantly going on between beastly Empire and the Kingdom of God. It's a highly political and relevant book, but not in the ways popularly believed. It reveals that Jesus does and will conquer, but not as a lion. He conquers as a sacrificial lamb. If we embrace the way of The Lamb, we get New Jerusalem. If we embrace the beastly way of Empire, we get Armegeddon.


I believe Brian Zahnd when he says that he didn't arrive at this 'good news' because of a liberal agenda. He arrived at it by focusing on Jesus, via prayer, and by taking the Bible seriously when it says God is love. I believe this because that has been my experience as well.

I agree with Zahnd that we must move on from the depiction of God contained in this famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards. We must move on from evangelism by terrorism. We must move on from allowing the lesser lights of the Old Testament to blind us from seeing the clarity that is Christ. We must stop seeing the events of the cross as a Father vs. Son fiasco. We must stop imagining that God would torture human enemies (or that God thinks of humans as enemies in the first place). We must unlearn a reading of Revelation that says much about our lack of faith in the way of Christ. We must learn that the good news is scandalously good.

I may not agree with everyone Brian Zahnd said in this book... but I concur with the focus and the direction of his approach, for it is an approach centered on the revelation that is Jesus Christ.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Zahnd's Book

Chapter 1
Brian Zahnd used to cherish Jonathan Edward's sermon 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' for utilitarian reasons. It worked. People make decisions out of fear. But since then, Zahnd has concluded that Edward's depiction of God (an an angry God needing appeasement) was inaccurate. God is actually like Jesus (a loving God offering forgiveness). 

The Bible can be used to provide support for belief in a monstrous God. But it shouldn't be used like that. The Bible exists to get us to Jesus. And Jesus, being the fullest revelation of God possible, changes the way we read and interpret the Bible. We must learn to recognize the progressive nature of the revelation. Israel often misunderstood (and misrepresented) God. Wrath, while it may be attributed to God because it has to do with out relationship to God, is actually what we experience when we run away from God's loving embrace... not what we experience in His hands.

Chapter 2
When we consider some of the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament, we are left with only a few options (other than trying to ignore them). We can question God's morality (maybe God IS a monster), God's immutability (maybe God USED to be a monster, but has since changed), or how we read Scripture. Zahnd chooses the latter option. 

We must recognize that the Old Testament is a 'lesser light' than Christ. It's an "inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God." It contains false assumptions about God. But ultimately, it does point us to Jesus. And Jesus helps us to weed out those false assumptions. 

Chapter 3
In this chapter, Zahnd uses the story of Jesus' Transfiguration to further prove his point about Jesus being the center of both our theology and our hermeneutic. "Jesus saves the Bible from itself! Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it." Christians aim to be Christlike, not necessarily biblical (since many contradictory things can be considered biblical). 

Zahnd is not dismissive of the Old Testament. "I'm a million miles from the second-century heresy of Marcion", he claims. But clearly the Old Testament is not the perfect revelation of God. Jesus is. This is not a low view of Scripture, but a high view of Christ.

Chapter 4
What is God like? How do we know? These are the questions Zahnd tackles in this chapter. And, as should be obvious by now, he's going to turn to Jesus as the answer. Seeing Jesus IS seeing God. And the cross of Christ is the most precise revelation of God. But to understand this revelation, we may have to un-learn some of the 'atonement theories' we have been taught because some of them pit God the Father against Jesus the Son. 

Zahnd speaks passionately against this sort of Penal Substitution Atonement view. The cross is not a transaction to appease God's anger, but a revelation to reveal God's (loving) character. The cross is actually the ultimate death of the monster god mentality (which, Zahnd claims, is a major source of atheism). We need not fear God (in the sense of being afraid of Him). Perfect love casts out fear. In saying this, Zahnd is not driven by liberal humanism, but the revelation of God crucified.

Chapter 5
Continuing his discussion of the cross, Zahnd ask the question 'who killed Jesus?'. His answer is clear: "God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers". God didn't need to kill Jesus in order to forgive humans. God can just forgive! God never demanded payment for forgiveness (even though Ancient Jews assumed He did). Jesus death embodied, rather than purchased God's forgiveness. Jesus sacrificed His life to show the love of God. He sacrificed himself to end all sacrifices.

Chapter 6
In what may be the most provocative chapter, Zahnd tackles the topic of Hell. For starters, Zahnd focuses on how hell, in an important sense, is experienced here on earth by many people. But he does believe in postmortem hell. That being said, he believes postmortem hell will be experienced only by the wicked (and he differentiates 'the wicked' from 'non-Christians'). And Zahnd believes the wicked, if they were to cry out for the mercy of God from hell, would receive it.

In the end, Zahnd simply believes that we should be more humble about our opinions about hell and who goes there. He's only certain that hell isn't a place where all non-Christians are tortured forever because that thought, according to Zahnd, does not come from Christ.

Chapter 7
The rest of Zahnd's book is about the book of Revelation. As most conservative Christians in America, he started out as a Dispensationalist. He now believes that is the worst possible interpretatio of the book since it rejects the peaceful way of Christ in favor of divine violence. Nowadays, Zahnd sees Revelation as an incredibly important book for modern Americans... not in the sense of newspaper eschatology, but in the sense of its counter-cultural critique of Empire.

Zahnd believes the entire book needs to be read symbolically. The symbols target the Roman Empire. The solution to the problem of Empire is not the 'lion', but the slaughtered lamb. The sacrificial Jesus is The Way.

Chapter 8
In this chapter Zahnd talks about 2 ways. The way of Armegeddon and the Way of the New Jerusalem. If we embrace the way of violence, we get Armegeddon. If we embrace the way of Christ/peace, we get New Jerusalem. Zahnd continues to reject dispensational interpretations of Revelation by showing how each symbol is carefully chosen by the author to show that Christ is a completely different kind of conqueror.

Chapter 9
Zahnd focuses on the New Jerusalem here. It's a place with gates that are always open in his view.

Chapter 10
Zahnd summarizes his work by emphasizing love. Jesus reveals the fullest truth about God. He hasn't changed his views because he went 'liberal'... he changed his views because he encountered Christ in prayer. He calls us to leave behind the terribly violent ideas about God, like that in Edwards' sermon, and cling to the beautifully good news of Christ.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Crucifixion of the Warrior God

Introduction to volume 1

Part 1: The Centrality of the Crucified Christ
Jesus is the center of the Christian faith. And the cross is the center of Jesus' ministry (and revelation of God). Therefore, we must view violent portraits of God (in the Old Testament) through a Jesus lens with a cross focus.

Chapter 1: The Faith of Jacob
It's OK to wrestle with Scripture as Scripture
Chapter 2: The True Face of God
Jesus is the revelation of God
Chapter 3: Finding Jesus in the OT
Christians read the OT through the lens of Christ
Chapter 4: The Cruciform Center 1
God is love. Love is defined by the cross.
Chapter 5: The Cruciform Center 2
The New Testament is thoroughly Cruciform
Chapter 6: Is [The Thesis so far] Defensible
The Cruciform Thesis stands up to scrutiny

Part 2: The Problem of Divine Violence
The problem of divine violence (especially in the Old Testament) is real. We can't simply dismiss God-breathed texts that we don't like (there are too many of them!). Nor can we make them fit with the revelation of Jesus (they are contradictory!). While both of these attempts are well motivated (and demonstrate healthy 'wrestling' with Scripture), they are ultimately unsuccessful insofar as they fail to show how these texts point to Jesus.

Chapter 7: The Dark Side of the Bible
The Old Testament is filled with ugly depictions of God
Chapter 8: Wrestling with Yahweh's Violence 1
It won't do to simply dismiss these texts as non-revelatory
Chapter 9: Wrestling with Yahweh's Violence 2
It won't do to try to synthesize the violence with Jesus

Part 3: The Cruciform Hermeneutic
The Cruciform Hermeneutic equips us to see how all of Scripture (even the violent texts of the Old Testament) points us to Jesus. When we interpret such texts with this method, we are able to remove the veil and see the Jesus-like beauty contained deep within.

Chapter 10: A Meaning Worthy of God
Origen was on the right track... there's a deeper meaning!
Chapter 11: Through the Lens of the Cross
This hermeneutic removes the veil and find the beauty
Chapter 12: Interpreting Scripture as God's Word
Let's read all passages as passageways to Christ

Introduction to Volume 2

Part 4: The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
When God breathed Scripture to the covenant people, the revelation was given gently and with much stooping on God's part. Like a good doctor, God was able to administer the medicine that would lead to future healing, but was willing to give it to the people in a flavor they could handle (even if that 'flavor' was in otherwise bad for them... a reflection of their corrupt taste-buds, if you will).

Chapter 13: The Masks of a Humble God
God accommodates us even to divine detriment
Chapter 14: The Heavenly Missionary
A good tutor teaches at the pace the students can handle

Part 5: The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
God judges sin, defeats evil, and works for the redemption of creation by withdrawing his protective presence, thereby allowing evil to run its self-destructive course and ultimately self-destruct. This is exactly what happened in Canaan and would later happen to Israel itself.

Chapter 15: Divine Aikido
God's wrath is non-violent withdrawal aimed at redemption
Chapter 16: Crime and Punishment
Scripture is filled with examples of wrath equaling withdrawal
Chapter 17: Doing and Allowing
God is sovereign, but doesn't actively engage in violence
Chapter 18: The Question of Divine Culpability
This principle stands up to scrutiny
Chapter 19: Defending Divine Genocide
Copan's defenses fall short in multiple ways
Chapter 20: When God's Nonviolent Plans Fail
God's original plan for Canaan got distorted by violence

Part 6: The Principle of Cosmic Conflict
There are powerful creatures of chaos in the cosmic realm. When God withdraws from a given context, these chaos producers have opportunity to wreak havoc. God is capable of accomplishing 'judgment' simply by withdrawing and allowing these cosmic forces to do what they do (as in natural disaster judgments).

Chapter 21: The Battle of the Gods
Powerful wanna-be God's exist
Chapter 22: Caught in the Cross Fire
God's secret plan is what wins w/o a fight
Chapter 23: When All Hell Breaks Loose
God did no violence to Job or those Outside the Ark
Chapter 24: The Dragon-Swallowing Dragon
God did no violence to Korah, Egypt, or Sodom/Gomorrah

Part 7: The Principle of Semiautonomous Power
Authority and power, once gifted by God, is not controlled by God. Therefore, even some of the 'heroes' of the Old Testament occasionally abused their spiritual power by using it violently.

Chapter 25: Mauling Bears and a Lethal Palladium
When God grants power, it is sometimes abused/misused



Friday, August 18, 2017

CWG (Postscript)


Boyd uses his interpretation of the Book of Revelation to show how earlier violent depictions of God have been turned on their head by the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Foundational to Boyd's project were the twin ideas that 1) The cross is central to theology and 2) the rest of Scripture, particularly troubling OT texts, must be read in a cruciform way. Just as Jesus stooped down to become human and bear the sin of His people, so too was God willing to stoop down in Old Testament times so as to appear to be like other Ancient Near Eastern gods.

Via the 4 principles of the cruciform thesis, Greg's project has attempted to show that the 'warrior God' that we sometimes find in the Old Testament, is not a direct revelation of the Christian God. It is an indirect revelation insofar as it shows how far God was willing to go to stay in relationship with His covenant people. The idea of the warrior God was crucified with Christ.