Trinitarian Thought: Tertullian

Overview

While the exact date and place of Tertullian’s birth and death are unknown, he lived roughly from the middle of the second century through to the middle of the third century, and he grew up and spent most of his life in Carthage, North Africa. He is therefore an ante-Nicene church father.

Tradition holds that he was a lawyer and a priest, but the scholarly consensus today leans towards this being mere legend, proposing that there was perhaps a contemporary figure who practised law that was also named Tertullian, who came to be fused with Tertullian the church father in the historical record.

Tertullian was a highly influential church father, who planted some crucial theological seeds that would eventually sprout and continue growing into the Roman Catholic tradition. The main theological and ecclesial opponents he had to confront were Gnostics and Modalists, while simultaneously coping with physical persecution from the secular authorities. In the course of these confrontations, he laid down the foundational technical terminology that came to be used to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in the Latin tradition, and also kick-started the theology itself. Terms such as persona, substantia, esse, ratio, sermo, and trinitas were first deployed and coordinated by Tertullian.

Tertullian was never canonised due to a variety of factors. The common explanation given for this is that he left the Catholic faith and died in communion with an extra-ecclesial heretical movement called “Montanism,” but the actual story is more nuanced. Firstly, Montanism was a movement within the Catholic church of the day; it was not an external phenomenon in the way that Gnosticism was. Secondly, Tertullian’s adherence to Montanism was inseparable from his Trinitarianism. Thirdly, Tertullian had a bad reputation among the orthodox believers of the day not because he was a heretic, but arguably because he was ahead of his time in his doctrine and asceticism, and the simplices in the pews simply couldn’t keep up with him. As a result, despite being quite orthodox and an influential father in the Latin tradition, he died while being suspected of heresy, and his name has never really been cleared since.1

Tertullian produced a lot of writings, and many of them survive to this day. Some of the most recognisable quotes in Christian history were penned by Tertullian. For example:

The more you mow us down, the more we multiply. The blood of Christians is the seed of the church.2

This is the violence God delights in . . . It is chiefly the quality of our love in action that brands a distinguishing mark upon us in some people’s eyes. ‘See how they love one another’, they say – for they themselves hate one another. ‘See how ready they are to die for each other’– for they are more ready to kill each other . . .3

The two most important texts expressing his Trinitarian theology are “Against Praxeas” and the “Apology.” In the “Apology” Tertullian’s Trinitarianism is not fully explicit, and often he appears to be more Binitarian, by sometimes conflating the spirit with the father, other times conflating the spirit with the Son. This was because Modalism was a rampant heresy in Carthage among the Catholics, so Tertullian had to spend most of his energy defending the distinct identities of Father and Son, and the Spirit was seen as a separate issue. He did not ignore the Spirit however, and in “Against Praxeas” there are early hints of the theology of the filioque:

For the Spirit is a third from God and the Son, just as the fruit is a third from the root out of the new growth, and the canal is a third from the spring out of the river, and the point of light is a third from the sun out of the beam: nothing, however, is cut off from the source from which it derives its properties.4

The one God has also a Son . . . who … sent from the Father the Holy Spirit … as the sanctifier … of those who believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.5

In Tertullian’s thought, the Spirit guaranteed the infallibility of the “New Prophets”, analogously to what later developed into the theology dogmatised at Vatican I concerning the Spirit’s guarantee of Papal infallibility.6 In Tertullian’s understanding the Spirit also guaranteed the transmission and interpretation of the rule of faith (ie, the liturgy and scripture), while simultaneously being a key part of that rule of faith. In this way Tertullian simultaneously sowed the seeds of what would later develop into magisterial Catholicism (in that he strongly affirmed the traditions of the church), and anti-magisterial Protestantism (in that he emphasised the necessity of an individual possessing and being led by the Spirit if they are to comprehend the faith correctly).

While Tertullian did not explicitly coin the phrase, his theology was very much an elucidation of the principle of lex orandi lex credendi: he intimately ties disciplina and doctrina together and points to the Spirit as the power lying behind both. In terms of theological method, his Montanism was crucial: He understood the witness of the Holy Spirit to be key for learning, properly comprehending, interpreting, understanding and living out the rule of faith. Tertullian was adamant that simply participating in the liturgy and learning doctrine are not enough, and that theology cannot be properly done without the guidance and influence of the Paraclete.

Tertullian’s place in history means that he was doing theology without the magisterial resources that Catholics would draw on to today, such as the Catechism, Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Dogma, the Enchiridion, the Pope and council of bishops. Tertullian instead worked with a minimalist rule of faith and a primitive liturgy which hadn’t had as much time to evolve as the liturgies of today. However as long as Tertullian had the witness of the Paraclete, he was confident that his theological conclusions were orthodox. Unlike his contemporaries in the Eastern Christian world, he was resistant to allegorical hermeneutics.

Specific Contributions to Trinitarianism

Tertullian was an ante-Nicene Christian which meant that he was not dogmatically obliged to affirm that the Father, Son and Spirit were consubstantial (“homoousios”). His theology is therefore a fascinating glimpse into the fluidity of Trinitarian theology between the actual historical event of Christ and the later concilliar dogmatic definitions. Tertullian represents an expression of the transitional period between “Christian Platonism” and “Nicene Orthodoxy”. He wasn’t explicitly concerned with whether or not the three persons were consubstantial and as such, his writings could be interpreted in support of both Subordinationism and Consubstantiality.

In Tertullian’s context, it was actually the “heretics” (ie, the Montanists) that were the ones most firmly insisting on the divinity of the Spirit, because their understanding of “the New prophecy” depended on it. Whereas the “Orthodox” of the day were not so firm on the divinity of the Holy spirit and often opted for either simple Modalism, Subordinationism, or some fusion of the two. Tertullian and the Montanists were presenting their Trinitarian theology together with extreme ascetical demands as a complete package, and so the lay rejection of these ascetical demands coincided with a rejection of Trinitarianism that went with it.

Tertullian is the first father known to have identified the Angelic doxology of “Holy holy holy” as a Trinitarian prayer; he points out that the triple repetition of the word corresponds to the Triune nature of God.

Tertullian arguably lays the foundation for a equivocal understanding of the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinities, and by the same stroke expresses what could be taken as a “Latin Nestorianism.” This is shown in that he affirms the eternal pre-existence of the Logos, but not of an eternal pre-existence of the Son. Tertullian understands that the logos becomes the Son when Jesus becomes Son.7 This could perhaps be read as nothing more than an orthodox account of the logos asarkos, but there is definitely room for it to be taken in heretical directions too.

Bibliography

McGowan, Andrew and Joan F. W. Munro. “Tertullian and the “Heretical” Origins of the “Orthodox” Trinity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 14, no. 4 (Winter, 2006): 437-457. http://ipacez.nd.edu.au/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ipacez.nd.edu.au/docview/215200946?accountid=41561.

McGowan, Andrew B., Daley, Brian E., and Gaden, Timothy J., eds. God in Early Christian Thought : Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson. Leiden: BRILL, 2009. Accessed August 16, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

1Origen was the Greek contemporary of Tertullian in the Eastern church, and he makes for a close analogy in terms of both his substantial impact on later Greek theology, and a tarnished reputation which ultimately prevented canonisation.

2Apology 50:13

3Apology 39:2,7,11

4Contra Praxeas 8:4

5Contra Praxeas 2:1

6Despite the surface level similarities, a direct link between the doctrine of Papal infallibility and Tertullian’s understanding of Prophetic infallibility has not (to my knowledge) been demonstrated.

7It isn’t clear to me whether Tertullian locates the event of the logos becoming the Son at Christmas, or at the baptism of Christ, or at some other point.

The COVID Sessions – Online Interfaith Exchange #1

A Hindu, a Buddhist and a Christian discuss politics, coronavirus, and comparative theology.

The Grammar of the Trinity and the East/West Divide

In Christian theology, there are two fundamental perspectives from which one can analyse the trinity: the immanent (or ontological) trinity and the economic trinity. The immanent trinity is concerned with the essence of God as he is in himself, apart from creation, whereas the economic trinity is all about describing the trinity as it relates to creation. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner codified what has come to be called “Rahner’s Rule”, namely, “The immanent trinity is the economic trinity”. We don’t have two distinct trinities here: they are simply different perspectives on the same divine reality.

When approaching the trinity in Christian theology, there are also – broadly speaking – two broad perspectives that appear to contradict each other. The eastern church holds to one while the western church holds to the other. The eastern perspective tends more towards monarchism of the father and subordinationism of the son and spirit, whereas the western perspective is saturated with commitment to a strict divine simplicity which dissolves almost all distinctions between the divine persons.

This post aims to argue that both positions are true, and the key to understanding how they are compatible is to take the eastern view as a description of the economic trinity and the western view as a description of the immanent trinity.

The Western/Immanent Trinity

The immanent trinity is a transcendent and abstract thing to think about, and it is best described using the rules of grammar and linguistics. Our starting point is the statement in the first epistle of John that “God is love”.

Love is a verb – a transitive one – and as such it stands in need of a subject and an object. How is it possible that God can be love? Is he the person doing the loving? Is he the one being loved? Is he the love itself?

The mysterious answer is actually “all three”. If God is love, then God must be simultaneously Subject, Verb and Object. However, in order for this love to truly be love, the Subject and the Object must be distinct from each other, otherwise it would not really be love, and would instead reduce to masturbatory narcissism.

So we have three hypostases: The lover (who is the subject), The one being loved (who is the object), and the love itself (who is the verb). We can use all of this to go ahead and lay down a Trinitarian formula:

  1. The Lover is Divine
  2. The Loved is Divine
  3. The Love is Divine
  4. The Divine Lover is not the Divine Loved
  5. The Divine Loved is not the Divine Love
  6. The Divine Love is not the Divine Lover
  7. There is only one Divinity

However, these three hypostases sound quite different from to the “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” of traditional Christian theology. What is the relationship? The answer is that “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” are the three persons of God, whereas “Lover”, “Loved”, and “Love” are the three hypostases of God. There is a difference between a hypostases and a persona, and if this difference has not been explicitly recognised by the tradition up to now, it is definitely implicit in the writings of the fathers.

The most fitting way to map the above formula onto the traditional scriptural and theological terminology is to assign the Father to the Lover, the Son to the Loved, and the Spirit to the Love. However with respect to the immanent trinity, due to divine simplicity and perichoresis the three hypostases are completely interchangeable. So it becomes possible, for example, to assign the Father to the Love, the Son to the Lover, and the Spirit to the Loved. In other words it doesn’t particularly matter which particular divine person occupies the role of which particular divine hypostasis: due to simplicity and perichoresis all of the divine persons can and do occupy all of the divine hypostases simultaneously.

There is some nuance however: When we speak of the person of the Son occupying the “Lover” hypostasis and the person of the Spirit occupying the “Loved” hypostasis, it necessarily follows that we must speak of the person of the Father occupying the “Love” hypostasis. This is necessary because while it is true that, for example, the person of the Father is simultaneously all three of the Lover, the Love, and the Loved hypostases; whenever we speak of him occupying one hypostasis it can only be in relationship to the other two. In this way, when speaking of the person of the Father as the Lover hypostasis, we must necessarily speak of the person of the Son as either the Loved hypostasis or the Love hypostasis. We must follow this grammatical rule when speaking about any of the divine persons.

A Higher Abstraction

It is possible to go deeper. The trinity when analysed in terms of hypostases is – in it’s most pure and abstract sense – fundamentally and simply a pure “Subject, Object, Verb” relationship. The verb need not necessarily be “love”, for we do not only speak of God as a lover, but also as a creator, a redeemer, a sanctifier, and so on. The trinity is – to borrow terms beloved by computer scientists – polymorphic and generic. With this in mind, the Trinitarian formula can be abstracted to the following:

  1. The Subject is Divine
  2. The Object is Divine
  3. The Verb is Divine
  4. The Divine Subject is not the Divine Object
  5. The Divine Object is not the Divine Verb
  6. The Divine Verb is not the Divine Subject
  7. There is only one Divinity

We need only supply one of many relevant divine verbs, and we will have a formula which provides a deep insight into the immanent trinity. For example, God is a creator, a lover, a saviour, a sanctifier, a judge and so on. In such a way, all of the following ways of understanding the trinity are valid:

  1. The Uncreated (Subject or Father), Begets/Creates (Verb or Spirit) the Word/λογος (Object or Son).
  2. The Essence (Subject or Father), Emanates (Verb or Spirit) the Energies (Object or Son).
  3. The Saviour (Subject or Father), Saves (Verb or Spirit), the Lost (Object or Son)

There is rich theology in these formulas: For example according to this analysis the Son is the damned reprobate who suffers death, Hell and the full punishment for sin, and the Father is the one who saves him from Hell, death and damnation.

Furthermore, an implication of divine simplicity is that all of these different verbs and ways of understanding God are in actual fact univocally equivalent. In this way, God’s act of creation just is his act of love and both of these just are his act of salvation. When God begets the son, he simultaneously judges him, saves him, loves him, sanctifies him and so on.

The general rule is that the Father is the Subject, the Son is the Object, and the Spirit is the Verb, but this rule only becomes strictly enforced when we move to the economic trinity, as we will see shortly. When speaking of the immanent trinity, it makes just as much sense to call the Spirit the Saviour of the Father and the Son the act of Salvation itself. As mentioned, any of the divine persons can occupy any of the divine hypostases when it comes to the immanent trinity. The relationship between person and hypostasis only becomes locked down when we move to the economic trinity.

The Eastern/Economic Trinity

In the East, the theologians are adamant that the Father enjoys a monarchy which the son and spirit simply do not share. This is encapsulated in their firm rejection of the western Filioque clause added to the creed of the Latin church. According to this view of the trinity, the three divine persons cannot just bounce back and forth between the three divine hypostases willy nilly: instead they each have their rightful place and position in relationship to each other.

This is all quite intuitive. For example consider the following: Would it make sense for the Son – who is begotten – to beget the father – who is uncreated? Things start to sound contradictory and silly very quickly at this point.

In the western analysis, It makes sense that the spirit proceeds from both the father and the son because any of the divine persons can occupy any of the divine hypostases. There is 1. the one who sends, 2. the act of procession, and 3. the one who proceeds. The father could be any of those three hypostases, the son could be any of those three hypostases, and the spirit could be any of those three hypostases. According to the divine simplicity and perichoresis of the immanent trinity, it would be just as true to claim that the father proceeds from the spirit, or the son proceeds from the father. Any of the persons could proceed from any of the other persons, as the three persons are interchangeable in the immanent trinity.

But this is not so in the eastern analysis. Once we start pondering the economic trinity, perichoresis and simplicity no longer apply with the same force. When it comes to the economic trinity, the trinity is still a Subject, Verb, Object relationship, however in the eastern analysis the Father is always the Subject, the Spirit is always the Verb, and the Son is always the Object. In the economic trinity, there isn’t any distinction between a divine hypostasis and a divine person.

The reason this is important is because the economic trinity is the point where the creation comes into play, and if these strict distinctions are not observed, the Trinitarian grammar devolves to the point where one encounters crazy and triggering statements such as “The creation created the creator”.

Christ and Creation

Now, in order to proceed further and demonstrate how the economic trinity links up with the immanent trinity we need to introduce a little Christology.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

According to Paul, there is an intimate relationship between Christ and Creation. Christ is not merely one man, Jesus of Nazareth, but seems to have much more cosmic significance. In fact, Christ seems to be the summary of the entire cosmos. There appears to be some sort of equivalence between Christ and the creation. In this post I don’t aim to tease out all of the nuances of this passage, but for the sake of continuing the argument lets assume a very strict correspondence between the second person of the trinity and the creation.

In this way, saying that the Father begets the Son is basically the same as saying that God created the cosmos, and so the cosmos becomes one way of thinking about or referring to the second person of the trinity.

It is a fundamental principle that there is a distinction between creator and creation, so if all this is true, then it makes sense that the Father alone should be referred to as God, and not the Son or the Spirit. If you examine the early creeds, the writings of the earliest church fathers, and the letters of Paul; you will see this theology reflected in the way that they never straight up refer to Jesus as “God”. Instead, they always say “One God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ”.

The surprising (and contentious) conclusion here is that only the Father is God in the economic trinity, and not the Son and the Spirit. It is helpful to deploy some metaphysical categories to tease out exactly what is going on here. Many of the church fathers speak of “the three persons/hypostases and the one being/essence”. One detail of the discussion that tends to be forgotten these days is that the first hypostasis just is the being and essence of God. The Father is the being of God, while the Spirit is the nature of God – where a nature is simply a summary of the attributes and associated actions of a being – and the Son is the effect of God. Now, in the immanent trinity, obviously both the Father and the Son are divine, because the effect of God (the Word) shares in the being of God (the Father) by divine simplicity and perichoresis. However in the economic trinity, the being of God (the Father) is completely distinct from the effect of God which in this case is the creation (cosmos).

We end up with a situation where the Father is the one God, and the son is the creation, and there is a strict distinction between them. The Spirit is the nature of God, and a summary of all the attributes of the Father. The actions of God are mediated through this nature and the effect is the cosmos and everything in it. There is a pious Islamic theological opinion that God has infinite attributes: this makes sense under the preceding analysis, because every observable effect in the creation must correspond to a unique attribute-with-action in the nature of God (the Spirit). Infinite effects implies infinite actions implies infinite attributes.

So in the economic trinity, you have one God (the Father) and his nature (the Spirit) and the creation (the Son). The persons are not free to roam from hypostasis to hypostasis in the economic trinity. Furthermore the grammar requires us to speak of the Father alone as God, and refrain from attributing that label to the creation (the Son) or the divine attributes and actions (the Spirit).

Conclusion

And yet Rahner’s Rule states that the economic trinity and the immanent trinity are the same trinity. The implication is that the perichoresis and simplicity of the immanent trinity “bleed in” to the economic trinity, and that the entire creation is therefore  permeated with the divinity of God, at which point “theology of creation”
becomes Christology, and we have to analyse the relationship between λογος and κοσμος in the same way that theologians analyse the relationship between God and Jesus of Nazareth. The cosmos is simultaneously created and divine, and this needs to be construed in the theological language of dyophysis and miaphysis, just as in the Christological debates of centuries past.

I will hazard a stab at a formula to summarise the situation in closing: The creation is the λογος in complexity, and the λογος is the creation in it’s simplicity, and both of them may be referred to as the Son of God, or the second person of the trinity.

The Epistle to Elder Ritchie

Hi Elder Ritchie,

There’s a lot to say and it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll just start with a definition of the Gospel.

“Gospel” is a loaded word which gets thrown around by Christians of every variety all the time, but it’s rare for people to actually slow down and ask “what exactly is the Gospel anyway?” There are many different gospels on offer (Including the LDS “restored Gospel”), and all of them are true, but some are more true than others. When evangelising, you need to be clear exactly which of these gospels you are trying to convey and impart, because how you convey a gospel depends on which gospel it actually is. It is important to remember that “Gospel” literally just means “Good news” or “Glad tidings”, and keeping this in mind can help you to spot whether someone’s gospel is not quite right, because invariably it won’t actually be “good news” if you analyse it closely.

You are already familiar with the LDS restored gospel (more familiar with it than I am). I’ll attempt to roughly summarise it (forgive me for butchering the nuances here):

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death. Jesus came and atoned for our sins in the garden of Gethsemane. He founded a church which was meant to carry salvation to the world. Unfortunately that church apostatised and the true faith was lost until the 1800s when the church was restored by Joseph Smith. The good news (gospel) is that now it is possible to be saved by joining this restored church. All you need to do is be baptised, live a good life, be sealed in the temple, experience the endowment ordinance, follow the word of wisdom and so on. Failure to meet these conditions is akin to rejecting the offer of salvation, and may either reduce your heavenly glory to one of the lower kingdoms, or perhaps even condemn you to the outer darkness for all eternity with the sons of perdition.

You may have also encountered the “evangelical protestant gospel” in your time as a missionary. This gospel goes roughly something like the following:

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death (or everlasting torture in Hell, depending on the temperament of the evangelical in question). However the good news (gospel) God sent Jesus to take the punishment in our place on the cross. Now, all you need to do to be saved is believe in Jesus! It doesn’t even matter whether you are a good person any more! However failure to believe in Jesus will result in the original punishment remaining over you and so if you don’t believe in Jesus before you die you will have to suffer death (or everlasting torture).

There are other gospels too. The catholic one is quite similar to the LDS one, just that the ordinances are a bit different.

Whereas the most true gospel that I’ve encountered goes something more like this:

We all experience evil, suffering and death. Sometimes it gets so bad that the word “Hell” is appropriate. This is the fundamental problem that needs to be solved, and WE have to solve it, because no one else will. However paradoxically, we are totally unable to solve it. The good news (gospel), is that there is a happy ending to the story: no matter how bad things get, we can have faith and hope in the promise that everything is moving towards God himself, and in God there is only light and no darkness, no evil, no suffering. God himself guarantees a happy ending for all of us. The gospel is basically this promise, with some qualifying attributes:

  1. Antinomianism: there’s nothing we really have to “do” in order to secure this happy ending, because God himself has already secured it on our behalf, and he promises it to us unconditionally. We don’t have to follow the word of wisdom, or sharia law, or Jewish law, or secular law, or any law.
  2. Universalism: God loves the entire creation and everyone and everything in it. His promise applies to everyone, regardless of whether they are a saint or a sinner, a Mormon or a Muslim, a Catholic or Protestant. God promises to save and glorify every single soul.
  3. Pluralism: All truth is God’s truth, and all religions and philosophies and world-views are 100% true in their domain. Islam is the one true faith, but so is Catholicism, Calvinism, Atheism, Islam and Mormonism. All religions are 100% true. Every aspect of every religion also contains the gospel promise embedded in it, and it is the evangelists job to extract it.

There are also some caveats, to balance out those three happy attributes

  1. Expensive Grace: God doesn’t just carry us to heaven while we are sleeping. He requires us to work extremely hard to bring it about. In order to walk the path to the promised happy ending, all of us have to be made perfect, and perfectly follow the divine law of love (i.e., Love God, Love neighbour, Love self). This is something we must do with our own free agency, however the good news (gospel) is that God guarantees that we will succeed, even though the task seems impossible. He promises that he will never leave us, no matter how dark it seems or how hard it gets or even if we end up in Hell or the outer darkness: God will stand by our side and never abandon us, giving us the strength to keep fighting even when all is eternally lost. The law of love is not written in books or church traditions or moral philosophy: it is written directly on our heart, and speaks to us through our conscience. If you listen to your conscience, God will speak and guide your actions from moment to moment. In this way you will know when you have done right and when you have done wrong and you won’t need any priest, pastor or bible to tell you it.
  2. Evangelism is essential: God is going to save the world, but he uses believers to do it. His promise needs to be spread to the ends of the earth, and all people need to hear it and trust it and become full of joy and love. “But how can they believe if they have not heard? and how can they hear if they have not been told? and how can they be told if no one is sent to them?” If we believe the gospel and are saved, but then don’t overflow with love and compassion for those who are still wandering in the darkness, this is the height of selfishness. If we are truly perfect in love, we need to spread that love to the world, starting with our own families, friends and community, and then all the way to the other side of the world.
  3. Great Apostasy: All religions and philosophies are 100% true, however every single one of them is missing the point. None of them teach the true gospel, because all of them are institutions, and the lifeblood of institutions is money, and money is the root of all evil. Imagine me standing out the front of the congregation and preaching this stuff. Many people would have hard hearts and be offended. “You don’t have to pay your tithe. You don’t actually have to follow the word of wisdom” etc. This message is the message that saves, but it is not in the interest of institutions. Furthermore, at the top of every institution is a demon (Paul talks about this in his letters). Fallen angels are the ones calling the shots right now. Every government, religion, and organisation is guided by a demon behind the scenes. We must respect the truths of all religions, while also remembering that not a single one of them clearly proclaims God’s divine promise unadulterated.

Based on all of this, here are some practical principles for living the gospel and spreading the gospel:

  1. Every law is good. Despite the fact that we don’t have to follow any law but the divine law of love, religious laws are still good and helpful, and if you follow them, you will receive unique blessings and graces. For example, the word of wisdom is good. If you refrain from tea and coffee, your life will be blessed, I guarantee it. Similarly, Sharia law requires you to abstain from pork, and this is a good thing to do, even if it isn’t obvious why at first. If you want to understand why refraining from pork is a blessing, you have to try it. It’s the same with abstaining from drugs, alcohol, tea, coffee. People who don’t do it don’t understand the amazing blessings and graces. The only way to understand is to take the plunge and dive into it. Basically you can take any list of “Do and do not” laws from any religion or governing authority, and there will be legitimate blessings from following those rules. However it is important to remember that our salvation in no way depends on following these rules, and they are therefore fundamentally optional.
  2. Become all things to all people. When spreading the gospel, you are not trying to “convert them to your religion”. You are simply proclaiming the divine promise, on behalf of God (and sometimes in the name of Jesus, if you are talking to a Christian). If they fail to trust the promise, then they remain in the darkness. However if they fail to trust the promise, it’s not their fault: it’s your fault, because you were unable to proclaim it to them in a way that penetrated to their heart and soul. The solution is to get into the other persons shoes as much as possible: If you want to save a catholic, you need to become a catholic. if you want to save a Muslim, you need to become a Muslim, and i mean that as literally as possible: you need to follow sharia law, pray five times a day, say the Shahada, honestly believe that Muhammad (pbuh) is the final prophet of God, etc.You need to pray the same way they pray, believe the same things they believe, do the same things they do, talk the way they talk. Because once you have done this, you are “one of them” and they will listen to you when you speak the promise. If you fail to do these things, the encounter will always be a combative one, because you are the Christian and they are the Buddhist, and there is no common ground between you, and then your proclamation of the promise will fall flat. The strategy i describe is exactly the strategy that Saint Paul used on his missionary journeys. He “became a Greek to the Greeks, so as to save the Greeks, and a Jew to the Jews, so as to save the Jews”. He also “put himself under the subjection of every law, so as to save those who are under those laws, even though he himself is not bound by any law but the divine law of God”. Remember when he was in Athens converting the Greeks? He didn’t quote bible verses at them; he quoted their own scriptures, poets and philosophers. In the same way, to proclaim the gospel to a Muslim, you have to quote the Quran, not the book of Mormon. But remember the gospel promise is pluralistic: It can be found everywhere once you have eyes to see it, and once you see it in Islam, you can lead Muslims to it using their own faith. Once you see it in Buddhism, you can lead Buddhists to it using their own faith. Besides, people are more likely to become Mormons if you are willing to convert to their religion first.
  3. Handling contradictions: Whenever you encounter a philosophy or world-view that appears to fundamentally contradict your own, follow the following rule: Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish. You should never, ever think in your heart “you are wrong” towards someone. You should instead always think “I don’t understand what you mean” and keep asking honest questions. Usually they are on to something and if you keep digging, you’ll be rewarded with wisdom and it always fits with what you already believe. This is also a practical implication of “become all things to all people”: how can you do that if you insist on disagreeing with someone? Basically, there is almost never any good reasons to disagree in a discussion. Instead you should always seek deeper understanding and keep asking questions until the link between your view and theirs becomes clear.

I have said a lot already, so in closing I’ll just ramble on a bit about the gospel promise a bit more.

The resurrected Christ IS the gospel promise and the gospel promise IS God. There is a strict equivalence. So whenever you proclaim the promise to someone, you are actually verbally giving God (Christ) to them. This is quite profound. Because if they truly trust the promise when you proclaim it, this just is faith in God. And consider what it would look like if you trusted such a promise: Infinite happiness, joy and bliss forever and ever, for you and all your loved ones. If you actually believe this, it changes how you see the world right now. It’s almost as if the lights come on throughout the whole creation. “I was blind but now I see”. When you trust the promise (i.e., believe in God) You taste the joy of the happy ending right now. You overflow with joy and become a light in the dark. Proclaiming the promise looks different in every case however, because every person is different. This is why we must become all things to all people. If i need to proclaim the promise to a Buddhist, it is essential that I am able to proclaim it in Buddhist language. If i am to proclaim it to a catholic, i need to be able to proclaim it in catholic terminology. And for this very reason, real evangelism occurs in the context of friendship. It’s not often possible to proclaim the promise correctly and save someone in a 5 minute conversation. You need to walk with them for a long time, together meditating on the promise and addressing each other’s doubts and concerns, learning from each other. We can do the best we can out on the street with random passers by, but the real deep conversions happen in long conversations between friends, over many years. Friendship is very important.

Anyway, i have to run off to class! Sorry for sending such a long email, but despite the pure beautiful simplicity of the gospel, it is always hard to put into words. But always a joy. Stay in touch!

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Salvation is a Promise, not an Offer

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThe original Sola Fide rested on the conviction that salvation is a promise, not an offer. If it’s an offer, then it depends on us to accept it. The key phrase there is “it depends on us”; in other words it is a violation of Sola Gratia and Sola Fide. Whereas if salvation is a promise then it depends entirely on God, which is much more in accord with Monergistic Calvinism and Lutheranism, rather than Arminianism. If salvation is a promise, then it doesn’t depend on how much faith we have, or whether we even have any faith at all; instead it depends entirely on God’s love and sovereignty.

The only question left if you’re on board with all of this is “To whom does God speak this promise?” Luther’s answer was “Whoever has been baptised”; he was very sacramental. Whereas Calvin’s answer tended more towards “preaching as sacrament”; that is, whenever the preacher declares his congregation justified in the name of the risen Christ, the unconditional gospel promise has been spoken; the final judgement has taken place; and the congregation is divided into sheep and goats in that very moment; there are those who trust the promise and those who don’t; those who do are saved into the life of the age, while those who do not are condemned.

But the key point here is that the promise has been spoken, and at the end of the day this promise cannot fail, on account of the one who is really speaking it. If God – through me – declares you justified, then that’s damn well how it is, regardless of whether you trust the declaration or not. However, you won’t experience the salvation that Christ has won for you, and that is presently being declared to you, until you place your trust in that declaration.

So yes, if one does not have faith, they are not saved. But you are nevertheless elect, regardless of whether or not you have faith, because God declares that it is so, and the divine declaration of God completely and entirely trumps a person’s lack of faith.

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThis is what bugs me about typical evangelical distortions of Sola Fide. They get everything totally back to front. They will claim that it’s only after we have faith that God declares us righteous. But this is just silly: How am I supposed to have faith in God’s declaration when God hasn’t even spoken that declaration to me?

This is why Luther put everything on baptism; because his interpretation of the sacraments was that they are the objective, tangible moment when the declaration of justification is made. They therefore give you something to anchor your faith on. Whereas the Evangelical construal requires me to have faith before I even have an object to anchor my faith on in the first place. This distortion of the doctrine of Sola Fide is clearly the work of Satan as he constantly battles and compromises the doctrines of the church.

So according to evangelicalism, I’m required to have faith in the declaration. But how can I place my faith in the declaration if the declaration is not even spoken until I have faith? It’s a chicken and egg impossibility.

Whereas the original Sola Fide went more like this: “Christ died for you, and therefore your future is secure” – None of this pointless speculation about who is elect and who is not. For you can be 100% assured and certain that you are saved by the blood of Christ, and this is not because of anything you’ve done – not even your faith.

Similarly, you can be 100% assured and certain that whoever it is you are talking to is also saved by the blood of Christ. This is because scripture clearly says so, and this therefore gives you the authority to proclaim the divine declaration of justification to that person as an unconditional promise, in the name of Christ and the good God on high.

Eternal damnation is always a completely abstract hypothetical. It’s for people who are not present, and this is why we must evangelise. We need to proclaim the declaration of righteousness to everyone, and help them to believe it. Remember Romans 10: “How can they believe if they have not heard? How can they hear if no one is sent to them?” etc etc

But remember: The moment your gospel preaching gets contaminated with conditions and “ifs”, you’re preaching some other gospel. “If you get circumcised”, “If you get baptised”, “If you go to confession”, “If you die without committing mortal sins”, “If you believe in Jesus” –  all of these are false gospels.

The one true gospel goes something more like this: “Christ died for you, and so I confidently promise you that your eternal destiny is secure”, and to go even further you could say “and if by chance you do end up in Hell, I promise you that I will come down there and help you to escape.”

Every false gospel preaches law in the form “If x then y”, whereas the true gospel preaches promise in the form “because a then b”.

Highway to Heaven – And the Words became BooksCompare “If you believe, Christ will save you”, to “Because Christ has saved you, you may now trust him and rejoice!!!” The first proclamation is law, it generates works or efforts or εργα, and as you know, we are not saved by works or efforts. Whereas the second proclamation is gospel, good news! The first proclamation places a massive burden on the hearer: they must try as hard as they can to fulfil the stated condition. But how on earth does one even begin to believe?

So the first proclamation will either produce despair, or a proud Pharisee: Despair, as the sinner realises he is completely incapable of meeting the required condition. Or a Pharisee, when he fools himself into thinking that he has successfully managed to do it. Whereas the second proclamation is liberating; it confronts the listener so completely that their only response can be a free faith or a heart that yearns to explode into that free faith but is enslaved by questions, objections and doubts – all of which will be dealt with in due time, if only they would be humble and patient.

This is the essence of faith alone: Once the gospel has been correctly spoken, faith is the only possible response. If the gospel is proclaimed and there is no faith, then the person doing the proclaiming simply hasn’t done the proclaiming correctly, and the saving word of the gospel was therefore never actually spoken. In this way, if someone ends up in hell, it’s actually not their fault; it’s my fault, because I wasn’t able to evangelise them effectively.

But thank God for his unconditional promise, and the fact that his word always achieves what it sets out to achieve, and that we are authorised to spread that promise to the entire world, and that it can’t ultimately fail: eventually all will hear it, all will understand it, all will believe it, all will be saved, and God’s final victory will be complete.

Support a Missionary Studying Patristic Greek and Latin

tl;dr Summary:

I am trying to rustle up some money so that I can attend the 2020 Macquarie Ancient Language School intensive summer week. I intend to study biblical and patristic Greek for the duration of the week. I am also trying to gather funding to attend the Sydney Latin Summer School. Both of these weeks are taught in an intensive mode, which I personally find very effective and valuable.

I need $500 in total. $160 will pay for the tuition for the Greek week, and the extra $20 will cover the cost of the food catering for the week. The remainder ($320) covers the total cost of the Latin summer week including food and materials.

I do not have a very large or stable income. Which is why I’m asking for donations. The vast majority of my money goes into rent, and the rest of it goes into groceries. If you were willing to help out with supporting me in my academic and religious missions, it would mean the world to me.

To donate, click here

Elaboration:

I’m a second year arts student, studying ancient languages at the University of Sydney.

So far I have studied

  • Classical Latin (one year)
  • Attic Greek (one year)
  • Koine Greek (one semester)
  • Levantine and Modern Standard Arabic (one semester)
  • Mandarin Chinese (one semester)
  • Biblical Hebrew (one semester)
  • Sanskrit (one semester)

I am intending to continue with all of these languages over the next 5 or so years and strive to achieve mastery in them all at least in terms of reading fluency.

My motivation for this is that I am intending to go into academia and missionary work here in Sydney. There are many diverse religious communities in this city, each with a very important history, culture and deep tradition. The languages I am studying are highly relevant to the literature that has historically defined these communities.

In terms of the academic side of things, I’m intending to do comparative studies of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Daoist philosophy/theology. I want to get deep into all of these traditions at once and study them via the original languages and primary texts.

In terms of the more practical missionary side of things, I spend much of my week visiting mosques, temples and churches in order to engage with members of these various traditions at both a lay and academic level. Learning these languages enables me to connect on a very deep level with all these people, as I’m able to articulate the theology which defines their faith lives in their own prestige language.

As a missionary, I don’t actually seek to convert anyone to anything. I merely aim to be a bridge between communities that tend to regard each other with suspicion and animosity (for example, evangelicals and Catholics, or Muslims and Christians). In other words, my goal is to teach Muslims about true Christianity and teach Christians about true Islam, and that sort of thing. There are many myths and lies on both sides of the divide and my mission is merely to shine a light and reveal the lies for what they are, and hopefully in the process get people talking and engaging with each other in a more friendly way.

A breakdown of which of the languages I am studying correspond to which religions:

  • Arabic – Middle and far Eastern Christianity, Islam of all varieties
  • Latin – Western European Christianity, the Vulgate, the eastern church fathers, the liturgy
  • Greek – Eastern European Christianity, the new testament, the Septuagint, the eastern church fathers, the liturgy
  • Syriac – The language of Jesus, the liturgy, the far eastern church fathers, the Peshitta
  • Hebrew – Judaism and all it’s related literature. The Torah, Mishnah and Talmud
  • Chinese – Chinese religion and philosophy
  • Pali and Tibetan – Buddhism
  • Sanskrit – Buddhism and Hinduism

To donate, click here

“Are You Saved?” – The Essence of the Gospel

I was reading Eclectic Orthodoxy today and the latest post was a sermon by Met Kallistos Ware. He relates how he has been asked “Are you saved?” many times, and sets down his response to the question, which turns out to be quite long and involved.

“Are you saved?”: This extremely loaded question is commonly deployed by evangelicals when they are out and about evangelising, or if they encounter a Christian who attends a church or denomination different from their own. It is basically the most efficient litmus test for working out whether someone is a fellow believer or not.

However I think there is a better way of phrasing this question, which is able to elicit a fuller picture of what the person you are talking to believes. It basically boils down to 4 questions:

  1. Are you saved?
  2. Am I saved?
  3. Are Hitler/Satan/Judas/members of ISIS saved?
  4. For each of the above, Why or why not?

The Evangelical Answer

Now, the common evangelical answer to the above questions goes something like the following:

  1. Yes! Amen! Praise God!
  2. I’m not sure.
  3. Probably not.
  4. I am saved because I believe in Jesus. But I’m not sure if you believe in Jesus so I don’t know whether you are saved, and it doesn’t seem to me that Hitler and the rest of those people had faith so they’re all probably gonna roast in Hell for eternity.

Now, I find this response incredibly problematic, because it seems to be reducing salvation to works, law and legalism: “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be damned.” This attitude is a flagrant contradiction of the Gospel, which is that salvation comes entirely by grace, and not by law. It also just adds fuel to the fire of tribalism: The believers are “in” and the unbelievers are “out”. It just leads to a very “us and them” approach to Christianity, which is another thing strongly condemned in the pages of the New Testament (cf. Paul insisting that there are no relevant distinctions between Jews and Gentiles)

The Catholic Answer

How would a Catholic respond to the above questions?

  1. I dunno (but probably not)
  2. I dunno (but probably not)
  3. I dunno (but probably not)
  4. We simply can’t be sure about the salvation of anyone and are forced to remain agnostic and “hopeful”. This is because we have “freedom” and so it is therefore up to us to decide whether we are going to heaven or not, but we don’t know what decision we are going to make, and all signs point to the fact that we are dirty sinners destined for Hell.

The Catholic answer is tragic. I can’t tell whether it is better than the evangelical response or not. At least it doesn’t devolve into tribalism: God still loves everyone and wants to save everyone. But unfortunately all of us are “free” and tend to make the wrong choices again and again and again. So while we are called to “Hope” for salvation, we must necessarily end up being totally pessimistic about the whole enterprise. Pretty much everyone is gonna end up in Hell. There is a narrow gate that leads to life and a wide gate that leads to destruction. Most people pick the wide gate.

The Correct Answer

There is in actual fact a correct answer to the four questions. But before we get to that, we have to nuance the language being used: When someone asks “are you saved?” do they mean to ask “are you going to heaven in the future?” or do they mean to ask “are you in heaven right now?” because there’s a relevant difference of meaning there.

So, if “saved” is taken to mean “being in heaven right damn now”, then for a believer in the Gospel the correct answer to the questions would be:

  1. Yes!
  2. It depends who’s asking
  3. Probably not
  4. I am saved because I live and breath salvation in my day to day experience of life. I’m not sure if you’re saved because I can only know the content of my own experience, but I can make an informed guess by listening to how you talk and the way that you behave. And Hitler et al are probably not saved because they were clearly evil to the core and pitiful lost souls.

This answer is honest and true. There’s nothing to dispute here. But the question becomes much more interesting if we take the first definition of “Saved”, which is to say “Elect” and “Chosen” and “Predestined”.

If we take “saved” to mean “Your spot in heaven is secure”, then the answer to the four questions would be:

  1. Yes, of course!
  2. Yes, of course!
  3. Yes, of course!
  4. All people are saved, including you and me and Hitler (and even Satan!) because God is sovereign and God is loving: God intends the salvation of all people and his intentions cannot be thwarted by anything or anyone. God will save whom God wants to save, and he wants to save everyone.

This is the essence of the Gospel. God loves everyone and everything and has chosen all of us for his children, regardless of whether we are good or bad. This is cause for rejoicing and praising God. His Grace and Mercy are powerful and sovereign, and cannot fail to save the world that he has created and everything in it. God loves all and all will love God.

What are your answers to the questions?

Tawḥīd Trīnitās

Introduction

I will propose a new formulation of the traditional Catholic/Orthodox Trinitarian theology, firstly, as expressed in the venerable dogmatic definitions of the first seven councils; secondly, as anciently interpreted by St. Augustine and the Cappodocian fathers; and thirdly, with reference to the fresh and contemporary expositions of Trinitarianism in the literary corpus of Dr. David Bentley Hart. The proposal is made in precise terminology which carefully expresses the doctrine of divinity found in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as coining some more precise terminology so as to carefully make the proposal in such a way that certain Islamic criticisms of ‘Trinitarianism’ (considered broadly) do not pose any problem to it. Importantly, the proposal will elucidate the actual doctrine of the Trinity: ie. the doctrine of the Trinity as it has continuously developed in the Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the time of Christ all the way up to the present.1

A Dogmatic Requirement of Islam

In Āyah 4:1712 the angel Gabriel commands the Prophet Muhammad to proclaim a prophetical rebuke to the Christian world:

O People of the Bible! Do not exceed the limits of your religion; Do not say anything about God except the Truth; that the Messiah, Jesus, was the son of Mary; that He was a Prophet of God; that He was the Word of God; that He was born of the holy and immaculate virgin mother; and that His spirit proceeds from God. So believe in God and his prophets, and never say “Three” – Cease from such blasphemy for your own benefit, because God is One. Glory be to God that he should have a son, to whom belongs all that is in heaven and all that is in the earth. And behold: He is entirely worthy of our faith.3

While admittedly here the Āyah has been ripped out of its context in Surah An-Nisa, when taken in isolation there is arguably nothing in it which actually conflicts with Orthodox Christian belief. The angel Gabriel is not here admonishing Christians to abandon Christianity and become Muslims, but rather to stay within the limits of Christianity. He then lists these limits in the form of a simple creed which would be acceptable to Muslims and Christians alike. So rather than Christians interpreting this Āyah as an attack on their faith (as they usually do), I propose that it would be better if they instead humbly accepted it as a prophetic gift from the Ummah, which can then serve as a help to keep the community of the Church steadfast in the truth and purity of Monotheism. When read in this way, it just so happens that for Christians the most relevant part of the Āyah today is the prohibition against saying ‘three;’ The Āyah does not deny the divinity of the Father, of the Son, or of the Spirit, and in fact is perfectly consistent with a “high Trinitariantheology.4 It would seem that the single thing forbidden is the attribution of the number “three” to God.

If Christians are to take this Āyah to heart, they must cease from saying things such as “One God in Three Persons,” and indeed refrain from talking about “One ουσία in three ὑποστάσεσῐν,and even stop speaking of “One substantia in three persōnīs.” According to Gabriel – however else Christians might talk about God, “threeness” should never be attributed to him (Incidentally, this renders the Athanasian creed unspeakable on account of it containing a single unfortunate clause which explicitly mentions “three persons”).5

As it turns out, this is all something of a felix condicio; none of these stringent limitations on the boundaries of Christian speech pose any actual problem for traditional Trinitarian thinking, nor does anything in Āyah 4:171 require Christians to modify their doctrine of God in any way. Rather, the Āyah is itself a concise statement of various key moments in the Christian narrative and a perspicuous affirmation of divine oneness. In essence, it merely requires that Christians be more scrupulous with the phraseology they employ to explain the occultus opes hidden within the mysterium fidei sui. While it is true that many Christian theologians have employed the number three to construct analogical imagery for the purpose of helping the faithful to develop an intuition for the divine; and while it may be conceded that certain theologians – the vast majority necessarily being schizmatic, if not always heretical6 have explicitly imported ontological triplicity into their doctrine of divinity; nevertheless the traditional Christian explanations and dogmas concerning God do indeed refrain from attributing “threeness” to God in any real or ontological sense,7 thus obeying Gabriel’s imperative in the Āyah.8

Christians are not forbidden by Āyah 4:171 to confess that Jesus is fully divine, nor are they prevented from claiming the Son and the Spirit to be ὁμοούσιον and co-eternal with the Father. But they are commanded – on pain of the sin of blasphemyto refrain from developing such a confession into any ‘tripling’ description of God. As such, the ubiquitous “three divine persons,” a speculative “three beings,” the tenured language of “three substances,” and ancient formulas of “three hypostases” are forbidden. According to Āyah 4:171, the only number that can ever be applied to God is “One.”9 Taking this seriously requires Christians to think very carefully about what the word “person” really means, because the implication is that while the Father, Son and Spirit are equally divine, equally personal, and truly different from each other, there can only be one person in God.10 This will be explained below, whereupon it will be made completely clear that I am not merely proposing a nouvelle résurrection of the venerable and charming heresies of Sabbelius, nor a plein d’entrain répétition of the modalism embraced by St. Tertullian’s beloved simplicēs.

Aesthetic Epistemology: Divine Truth as Infinite Beauty

Hart systematically sings the glories of the Triune God in his published PhD thesis – The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth – which is a profound and stimulating distillation of the entire Orthodox/Catholic tradition concerning the Trinitarian nature of God, and a bringing into dialogue of this tradition with the promiscuously multiple and nefariously protean existentialisms, absurdisms and nihilisms of modernity. Importantly for the purpose of this paper, during his confrontations with the heathen philosophers he manages to pull off a lucid explanation of the Christian God without ever insinuating – neither explicitly nor implicitly – that divinity encompasses any sort of ontological triplicity.11

It is hard to summarise all of the surprising reflections that Hart communicates to us in his magnum opus, however for the purposes of this essay the essential theological point I will extract from his delightful prose and attempt to rephrase in my own inadequate words is the following: To be a Person – whether Human or Divine – necessarily implies the ontological relationship of this Person with an “Other”a Different Person – who shares his or her nature, by way of communion with a “Yet Another” a further Distinct Person – who also shares his or her nature.12 In other words, the key to understanding the Trinity according to Hart is to first straighten out our Anthropology: The prevalent modern notion of a Person as a self-sufficient, self-defining, isolated single subject is unmasked by Hart as nothing but unequivocal heresy, and he then explains how Christianity reveals the true nature of Personhood: Persons cannot be Persons apart from multiple other Persons. Rather, Persons are only truly Persons when they are in the intimacy of loving community, each with the other. When this relationship of loving community is rejected by a human individual, that individual is rejecting their essential – and personal – nature; they are depersonalising and even dehumanising themselves.13

To put it another way, rather than speaking of God as “three persons,” Hart instead speaks of God as one single personality which – in a way necessary to the nature of personality just is the strictly essential yet entirely uncoerced embrace of both univocal identity (or sameness – the Father) and equivocal dissimilarity (or otherness – the Son) in the peaceful traversal of the infinite analogical interval between them (the communion – the Spirit).

A Proposal of a Refined Creedal Formula

In light of all that has been said thus far, I now propose a new and precise dogmatic formula which concisely sounds all the essential notes of the Immanent Trinity without in the process falling into any of the theological discord which is firmly forbidden by Āyah 4:171 insofar as it is understood to prohibit any language which implies an ontological attribution of “threeness” to the divine. To wit, rather than speaking about God as “three persons,” I should instead say that The One God is One Divine Person in relationship to himself in The One Divine Other through The One Divine Yet-Another. Or, to moot it as a precise Latin dogmatic formula, solus dīvīnus simplicitas in ūnō dīvīnō persōnā patris ad sēsē in ūno dīvīnō alterapersōnā fīliī per sēsē in ūno dīvīnō redalterapersōnā sānctī spīritūs Deus est.14

The first thing to observe – and in light of the analysis of Āyah 4:171 above, the most important – is that the formula does not “say three;” rather, all of the words in the formula are grammatically singular (ie, none of them are semantically or morphologically plural), and the adjective ūnus is pointedly and reiteratively affirmed of all the nouns in the formula. The formula also carefully avoids deploying the word persona thrice;15 rather, the father is identified as the divine person, while the son is named as the divine other-person and the Spirit is referred to as the divine yet-another-person; this linguistic tactic makes clear the important fact that God is only one person, while simultaneously affirming that the personality of the Father necessarily requires an essential and ontological relationship of divine communion with the Son and the Spirit, which therefore implies that the Son and Spirit are truly and fully personal as well, yet their personalities subsist as precisely distinct modes of relation and thus are truly different ways of being and analogically related moments in divine personhood. Secondly, this formula captures the orthodox notion of the monarchy of the father,16 in that ūnus dīvīnus simplicitas in ūnō dīvīnō persōnā patris is syntactically the sole predicate of Deus est. However it also captures the consubstantiality of the Son and the Spirit with the Father by applying the adjective dīvīnus to them.

Thirdly, it is necessary that dīvīnus be understood to imply strict divine simplicity, hence the clarifying inclusion of ūnus dīvīnus simplicitas immediately at the beginning of the formula. If simplicity were not explicitly stated, it would be possible to read the formula as a straightforward confession of Subordinationism or Arianism. Simplicity ensures that the alterperson of the Son and the realterperson of the Spirit are fully divine in all the same ways that the person of the Father is divine, sine exceptione (aka, the Father, Son and Spirit are consubstantial), while yet remaining personally distinct from each other and from the Father. To wit, saying that the Father is “The Unbegotten God who is not Begotten” and that the Son is “The Begotten God who is not Unbegotten” is simply to say that – on account of divine simplicity – the alterpersona of the Son is fully divine and fully personal in all the same ways as the persona of the Father; but it is also simultaneously to say that the divine person of the Father is analogically distinct from the divine alterperson of the Son while always remaining ontologically equivalent to him.17

Applying this formula rigorously leads to further clarifying limitations on Christian theological language. For one, just as in scripture and the Nicene Creed Jesus is never called “God” and – when he and the Father are referred to in the same breath – is instead always called “Lord,” so too it is inappropriate to refer to the Son as “a person” except when talking about the Λόγος in isolation. When referring to both the Father and the Son in the same sentence, the person must always be the Father while the alterperson must always be the Son. On the other hand, there are also times in scripture when the Son is referred to without any immediate referential connection to the Father, and in these situations the Son is quite often called “God.” Therefore in a similar fashion, if a Muslim were to interrogate us with “Do you say that Jesus is the Divine Person of God?” we are still permitted by Christian orthodoxy (and even Āyah 4:171) to joyfully respond with a confession of unconditional affirmation. However if the interrogation were to flow on from this sublime μᾰρτῠρῐ́ᾱ to a querying of how, if both the person of Jesus and the person of his Father are equally God, this does not imply a form of polytheism, we would respond by disputing the very terms in which the question has been phrased: If the Father is the divine person, then Jesus – while always remaining fully personal is nevertheless not the divine person; rather, Jesus in relation to the Father is the divine alterperson. And this way of speaking theological truth lines up directly with how Jesus must be referred to by the title “Lord” whenever the Father has already been spoken of as “God.”

Another implication is that it becomes permissible to call Jesus “The Father” by analogy, in much the same way Christians call Jesus “God;” a title which – strictly speaking – belongs to the Father Alone. To devout Trinitarians who find this unnerving, I draw attention to the famous scriptural precedent of Isaiah 9:6:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”18

One more implication of the formula is that it can be reformulated into the style of the Athanasian creed (in order to redeem said creed from its sins against Āyah 4:171) and substituted over the offending section like so:

So God is one Person, not three Persons; one Other, not three Others; one Yet-Another, not three Yet-Anothers. And in this communion none is before, and none is after; none is greater, and none is lesser. But the Person, his Other and his Yet-Another are coeternal, consubstantial, and coequal.

Conclusion

If – against all expectation – Christians were to unanimously agree to cease using the word “trinity,” perhaps a more orthodox replacement which better conveys the underlying theology – and might perhaps be more satisfactory for Muslims – would be “community.” David Bentley Hart demonstrates in The Beauty of the Infinite that it is possible to construct a robust trinitarian theology, without ever “saying three.” This is a great boon for interfaith dialogue with Muslims, and can help Christians to more precisely refine their theological language. God is indeed Father, Son and Spirit, but we need never attribute ontological threeness to God in order to hold on to traditional Christian theology and Doctrine.

Bibliography

Hart, David B. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003.

Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicaea. Selmer Tennesse: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014.

Br Reginald Mary Chua OP, Masters Thesis (Unpublished).

1As opposed to modern and contemporary innovative accounts of Trinitarianism which tend to either completely jettison the traditional understanding or merely pay lip-service to it without actual comprehension.

2لنِّسَاء – Surah An-Nisa – “The Woman”

3Intentionally interpreted here to line up with Christian doctrine as closely as I believe is permissible by the underlying al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥā: يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ لَا تَغْلُوا فِي دِينِكُمْ وَلَا تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّهِ إِلَّا الْحَقَّ ۚ إِنَّمَا الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَىٰ مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِّنْهُ ۖ فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرُسُلِهِ ۖ وَلَا تَقُولُوا ثَلَاثَةٌ ۚ انتَهُوا خَيْرًا لَّكُمْ ۚ إِنَّمَا اللَّهُ إِلَٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ ۖ سُبْحَانَهُ أَن يَكُونَ لَهُ وَلَدٌ ۘ لَّهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ وَكِيلًا – 4:171

4ie, divine consubstantiality. While Āyah 4:171 is the most relevant to Trinitarianism, this paper is not an exhaustive survey of the Quranic canon, and so there are almost certainly other Āyat which require exegesis if one aims to show that the entire Qu’ran is consistent with Catholic tradition.

5Sed totae tres personae coaeternae sibi sunt et coaequales. However the creed can arguably be salvaged with some creative contextual hermeneutics, by proposing that the personae being described in this clause with the adjective tres are something recursively located on the purely syntactic/lexical level (ie, as a reference to the words “Father, Son and Spirit” as they have been used prior to this clause in the creed), rather than importing any semantic onto-triplicity into the underlying res referred to by the signum ‘God.’ This would therefore allow us to understand the clause to be saying something roughly similar to, for example, “The seven theological categories of essence, fatherhood, nature, filiation, being, spirit and existence are coeternal and coequal with each other in God (while yet remaining analogically distinct in their perichoretic simplicity);” thus, it can be seen how on the lexical level God is just as much “seven” as he is “three.” Orthodox Sunnī Muslims would be unfair to make a controversy out of this interpretive move, considering that in their expositions of the doctrine of Tawḥīd (according to both Al-ʾAšāʿirah and Al-Maturidiyya schools), they are entirely content to attribute a numerical plurality of equivocal attributes to Allah. In any case, divine personality must be ontologically consistent with the demands of Tawḥīd, and therefore the phrase tres personae cannot in any real sense attribute “threeness” to God’s unique essence, simple nature, one reality and singular being.

6They are most often protestant, evangelical or analytical philosophers, fond of ‘explaining’ the Trinity with simplistic aphorisms such as “God is one ‘what’ and three ‘who’s.” This is unacceptable and it would be more accurate to say something along the lines of “God is one ‘I,’ one ‘thou,’ and one ‘him.’ (and for that matter, one ‘我們 (Wǒmen – exclusive 1ps, pl),’ one ‘咱們 (Zánmen – inclusive 1ps, pl)’ too)” Describing God as “three ‘who’s” is unrefined and – according to Āyah 4:171 – a heretical way of speaking.

7As mentioned above, in theological discourse, numerical adjectives can only be used in descriptive analyses of sentences concerning God, but they cannot be used in descriptions of God per se. So while it is valid to note the “threeness” in, for example, the baptismal formula, it would not be valid to infer from this lexical triplicity in the liturgical language to any sort of ontological triplicity in the divine per se.

8Whenever a classically-leaning theologian in the course of their theologizing happens to “slip up” or “throw in the towel” by “saying three,” this is always in the context of an analogical illustration, and to their scandalously tantric trinitarian imagery will invariably and immediately be appended extensive apologies, repentant obeisances and precise qualifications to explain how the theologian is in no way claiming to deny the oneness, singularity, uniqueness, simplicity and unity of divinity. A skilful theologian such as Hart – who is deeply read in both classical Trinitarian literature and Islamic writings on Tawḥīd – is able to explain the Trinity in a completely orthodox manner without even once falling into the trap of “saying three.”

9As well as according to Islamic Tawḥīd more broadly, which holds that God is One (الْأَحَد – Al-ʾAḥad) and Single (الْوَاحِد‎ – Al-Wāḥid), and therefore neither Three nor Triple. Whether Āyah 4:171 permits Christians to speak of God as Triune or a Tri-unity is an unresolved question, seeing as these terms both include the morpheme “tri-” which semantically involves a loose concept of “threeness.” Whether or not “saying three” on the morphological level of language is considered to fail the injunction of Āyah 4:171 is something to be explored via further interfaith dialogue, but in this author’s opinion it will be a hurdle extremely tough to clear: Requiring Christians to refrain from saying “three” is reasonable enough, but asking them to renounce their natively developed terminological heritage of “Trinity/Triune/Tri-unity” will invariably continue to be an exceedingly tough sell (And further, Āyah 4:171 in the Abdul Haleem interpretation aggravatingly adds more polemical fuel to the theological fire by directly translating ثَلَاثَةٌ ۚ as “Trinity”).

10It is important to clarify here that I am not arguing for the position that traditional Christian theology of the Trinity which uses ‘tripling’ language is inherently contradictory or incoherent. For example Aquinas presents an extremely orthodox, compelling, consistent and coherent doctrine of divinity which permits him to – for example – describe God as “one being” and as “three beings” simultaneously. I’m simply proposing a manner of accurately articulating the traditional Christian doctrine of divinity which conforms to the restrictions on theological language mandated by Āyah 4:171. The challenge a theologian confronts in attempting to accurately explain the Trinity according to the requirements of Christian orthodoxy while also refusing to “say three,” is analogously akin to the challenge which a vegan embraces when she searches for creative ways to maintain her health and vitality while refusing to ever eat meat or drink milk; both are incredibly difficult, yet both are also entirely possible.

11I make this claim on the basis of my impressions immediately after having read through the entire tremendous tome in one sitting. I concede that a more rigorous, slow and scientific reading may perhaps reveal this judgement to be technically inaccurate.

12Successfully grasping this point elegantly leads one’s intellect to a beatific theoria in which it logically comprehends the notion that – while the definition of personhood is univocal between Humans and God – the fact that personhood requires relationship “within” persons of a mutually shared nature leads to there being a single person in God – on account of his simple nature – and a plurality of persons in Humanity – on account of our non-simple nature.

13All of which is to say they are rejecting God and experiencing damnation.

14Literally “God is the singular divine simplicity, in the one divine person of the Father, towards himself in the one divine other of the Son, through himself in the one divine yet-another of the Holy Spirit.” While this formulation and the Latin terms alterapersōna and redalterapersōna are terms of my own coinage, I believe they accurately capture the theology expressed by Hart in his minor dogmatics.

15This safeguards against any subtle leaning towards an intuition that there is some sort of triplicity or tritheism in God, which inevitably happens when the father, son, and spirit are spoken of as “three persons” rather than “one person in relation to himself-in-the-other by means of yet-another”

16This being important so as to keep the formula in accord with scriptural and creedal language: All of Paul’s letters open with some variation on the first lines of the Nicene creed: One God: The Father; and One Lord: his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.”

17This can be understood in more or less exactly the same way that Catholics claim the divine justice to be analogically distinct from the divine mercy while also understanding both to be ontologically equivalent to each other and equivalent to divinity per se. A soteriological aside: All of this means that just as it is appropriate to say that in God the Father has complete precedence over the Son, so too it is possible to say – following St. Isaac of Nineveh – that in God, restorative mercy has total priority over retributive justice, and that therefore God’s graceful willing towards ἀποκατάστασις entirely trumps the massa damnata merited via the total depravity (cf. Romans 1-3) of mankind.

18Is 9:6 (RSV:CE)

A Christian Speaks In Defence of Hinduism

I was googling for a definition of “Kenotic theology” when I stumbled across this blog maintained by a Southern Baptist Pastor called James Attebury. As I browsed his articles, I landed on this one titled “Why I am not a Hindu”. It was interesting, and I can’t resist posting a response. I should be straight up and say that while I identify as both Christian and Hindu and regularly attend my local temple, I am a neophyte and not an expert in Hindu theology. However I know enough about Advaita Vedanta and other schools of Indian thought that I feel equipped to make a response.

Response to the Objections

1. Hinduism is scientifically impossible because it teaches that the universe never had a beginning because it is divine.

The Upanishads teach that God is the whole world (pantheism):

“Brahman, indeed, is this immortal. Brahman before, Brahman behind, to right and left. Stretched forth below and above, Brahman, indeed, is this whole world” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.11).

“Thou art the dark-blue bird and the green parrot with red eyes, Thou hast the lightning as thy child. Thou art the seasons and the seas. Having no beginning, thou dost abide with all-pervadingness, wherefrom all beings are born” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.2.4).

Since “Brahman, indeed, is this whole world” and he has “no beginning,” therefore, the world must have no beginning.

But this goes against everything that we know about the universe from science. While many atheists try to defend an eternal universe because they don’t want to believe in God, their arguments have insurmountable problems.

A couple of things come to mind. Firstly, citing “science” as an authority comes across as incredibly simple-minded and vague. Whenever someone says “Science says xyz” it comes across to me in exactly the same way as when fundamentalist evangelicals say “The bible says xyz” or fundamentalist Catholics claim “The Church teaches xyz”. Usually in these cases, science does not say xyz, and neither does the bible or the church.

Secondly, if we take “Science” to mean “empirical investigation of reality” and “theories grounded in consistent results derived from repeated experiments”, then science suffers from the problem of induction. For those who are unfamiliar with this problem, here is an illustration: We tend to observe, day after day, the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. This consistent pattern gives us the confidence to be sure that the sun will continue to behave in this way. We try to predict the future behaviour of things by examining how they have behaved in the past. However there’s one catch: we do not have absolute certainty that just because something behaved a certain way in the past, it will continue to behave that way in the future. It is entirely conceivable that one day the sun will simply stop rising and setting.

Hopefully this sheds light on why James’ objection is unfounded. Just because today “science” teaches that all things begun at the big bang, does not mean that it will continue to teach this tomorrow. In any case, there is nothing in the quotes he provides from the Upanishads that actually contradicts the current scientific consensus. He is just insisting on interpreting it with a hermeneutic of disagreement, rather than a hermeneutic of charity and openness. He seems to be seizing on certain words in the translation and using these to justify his rejection of something which he doesn’t truly understand.

2. Hinduism teaches that the universe is an illusion or maya:

“This whole world the illusion maker projects out of this [Brahman]. And in it by illusion the other is confined. Now, one should know that Nature is illusion, and that the Mighty Lord is the illusion maker” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.9-10).

But if this world is an illusion, then that would make scientific inquiry impossible. We would be unable to trust our own senses or believe anything at all. Yet Hindus use science all the time and act as if their senses are trustworthy. In this sense, Hinduism suffers from many of the same problems as Christian Science which teaches that death is just an illusion.

The notion that maya makes scientific enquiry impossible is a false implication. As James himself states, “Hindus use science all the time and act as if their senses are trustworthy”; surely this would clue him in to the fact that he’s missing something and doesn’t properly understand that which he is criticising.

Furthermore, he’s got the maya doctrine all wrong. Maya claims that the descriptions of events in the Hindu Scriptures are “more real” than the mundane reality we perceive day to day. The colour and beauty described in the Indian Scriptures is not often seen and manifested in day to day life. The doctrine of Maya claims that these poetic descriptions are “more real” than the reality we currently inhabit. The doctrine of Maya does not claim that everything is just an illusion. Our reality is still real, just less so than the “true” reality which is hiding behind all things.

3. Hinduism offers no means for atonement in this life or assurance of salvation.

There is no forgiveness in Hinduism, only reincarnation into a lower caste of people to pay off the sins from our previous life. The caste system is inherently racist and forbids marriage between the castes. It condemns people to a life of poverty and is cruel to the poor. It justifies the attitude that poor people are getting what they deserve so there is no incentive to help those who are poor and suffering.

This criticism of Hinduism is inaccurate, and flows from a culturally imperialistic attitude towards other faiths and cultures. Unlike Christianity, Hinduism does not see the world primarily in terms of sin, guilt, forgiveness and retribution. These categories are relevant to Hinduism, but Hindus and Buddhists see the world through the lens of samsara: the cycle of birth and rebirth that carries on for all eternity. The primary problem to be solved according to Hinduism is not guilt and sin, but instead eternal suffering. Salvation is called moksha and is conceived of as an escape from this eternal cycle of suffering into a state of permanent and everlasting bliss. According to certain schools of Hinduism, there is indeed an assurance of achieving Moksha. According to other schools there is no such assurance. This is similar to the divide between Catholic and Protestant Christianity on the issue of assurance. (Perhaps James is the sort of person who would not acknowledge that Catholics are also fellow believers worthy of the title “Christian”. He’ll have to let us know in the comments)

I am however happy for now to agree with his criticism of the caste system. But my agreement is provisional, as I don’t actually know enough about it to accurately pass judgement.

4. Hinduism is filled with pagan religious practices which demonstrate its human origin.

I remember a great illustration from my Biblical Counseling class with Paul David Tripp where he told a story about how he visited India once and entered into a Hindu temple where the people were bowing down before statues of male and female private parts. He was so revolted by what he saw that he ran out of the temple as quickly as he could. Then he realized the disgust he felt is how God sees his sin.

Hindus still do this today as you can see from this sad video. Some Hindus even worship rats and other animals as Paul warned against in Romans 1:22-23. Historically, Hindus practiced sati where widows were burned alive with the bodies of their husbands. It was only because of the work of Christians in India who raised awareness about this evil practice that resulted in it being banned.

The attitude that “Pagan = bad. Bible = good” really irks me. Non-Christian philosophies, theologians, religions and traditions have so much to offer us; so much beauty and richness of thought. Rather than having a knee jerk reaction to practices such as those performed by the Hindus, we should seek to understand why they do what they do, and then try and replicate that in our own traditions. We should strive for unity and ecumenism with those who are different from us, rather than further division, schism and disunity. It is important to acknowledge our differences, but rather than allowing those differences to serve as a wall that divides us, we should treat them as the beautiful manifestations of God that they are, and then come together in love, charity, dialogue and understanding.

I think James’ analysis of what the Hindus are actually up to is not 100% accurate. Hindus don’t worship rats, they worship Brahman; the supreme godhead. However just as Christians worship God through Christ, (and Catholics through the Eucharist), so too Hindus worship God through many and various mundane intermediary objects. It might look like idolatry, but it’s not.

5. Hinduism is not a faith grounded in real historical events.

There is no corroborating evidence for Hinduism outside of its sacred texts. In contrast, Christianity is rooted in the historical events of the Bible, a book grounded in history. And there are good answers for those who object to the historical reliability of the Bible.

I personally know many Hindus who would dispute this point. I have no dog in the fight either way, but I would tend towards agreeing with my Hindu mates rather than James here. The bible is a beautiful mixture of mythology and history, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the factual core of the stories from the surrounding poetic embellishment (The Genesis creation stories are notorious for this. I’d be curious to see if James holds to a strictly literal interpretation). It is exactly the same with Hinduism. There is definitely a historical core to many of the Hindu tales, but it’s tricky to work out what is fact and what is embellishment.

6. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the Bible, fulfilled prophecy, and history is overwhelming.

I have already written about the evidence for the resurrection of Christ in this article.

7. The Bible is filled with incredible prophecies which confirm its truthfulness.

While there are many prophecies in the Bible about the kingdoms of this world and the coming of Jesus, the most incredible one is the messianic prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 which gives us the exact date when the Messiah would die.

I don’t actually disagree with these two points at all. The evidence for the resurrection is vast and astonishing. However it is somewhat odd that James includes this in a blog post aimed at criticising Hinduism. Isn’t it completely irrelevant to the argument? I imagine his thought process is something along the lines of “If Christianity is true, then everything else must be wrong”, but of course, that simply does not follow in any way. Both Christianity and Hinduism can be 100% true and compatible, but the only way we are going to see that is if we approach each of them in a spirit of charity and ecumenism, with a willingness to listen and entertain foreign ideas and world-views.

I will register one small reservation about point 7. Just because a book accurately predicts future events, does not automatically prove that every single other thing that it reports is correct and truthful. I don’t mean this as an attack on the bible, as I myself am happy to affirm that it is 100% true (with qualifications). I simply mean to point out that it is fallacious to claim that a couple of prophecies that were fulfilled in a book prove the entire book 100% inerrant and infallible. The biblical prophecies also tend to be incredibly vague and open to interpretation; it is rather telling that James is willing to entertain these non-specific prophecies whilst nonchalantly rejecting anything that the Hindu scriptures have to say without giving them any further thought.

Conclusion

I don’t mean this post as an attack on James. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy and his congregation is blessed to have him as a pastor. But I think his rejection of Hinduism is incredibly rash and ill-informed, if the reasons he reports in his post are to be believed. Hinduism is a beautiful and colourful family of traditions, and Christians would do well to seek out and meet Hindus, and perform interfaith exchanges with them. We have so much to share with each other and teach each other, so let us come together and edify each other, rather than bashing each other over the head with holy books and demanding that we renounce one faith for another. As the classic meme goes: “Why can’t we have both?”