Monday, May 18, 2009

Monotheism & Trinitarianism

I recently had an email exchange over the Trinity. Since this is a topic of general interest, I’m going to post a slightly edited version of my side of the exchange.


As Peter Geach pointed out in one of his books (don't ask me which one), when the OT says that God is "one," that is not a statement about a divine attribute, as if oneness is an attribute of God. It's not a statement about God's internal structure (as it were).

Rather, it's an economic statement about God's relation to the world. It stands in contrast to the "gods" of paganism. Pagan idolatry and demonology. "Gods" who can't see or hear or do anything (in Isaiah's stinging parody). That's hardly comparable to the persons of the Trinity.

In addition, even in the OT there are indications of divine complexity. How do we relate the Spirit of God to God himself? The Spirit of God is divine and personal, yet the Spirit of God is distinct from the God who sends it/him. Same thing about the Angel of the Lord.

There's this sent/sender relation involving several personal and evidently divine parties.

It's too "messy" for unitarian monotheism to naturally accommodate.

Finally, if Jesus wasn't the Messiah, who was? We're another 2000 years down the pike. Any better candidates in the docket?


Just for starters, whatever else the monotheistic verses do or do not exclude, we know they don't exclude the sort of properties and relations which the OT attributes to the Spirit of God and the Angel of the Lord. That already imposes a tremendous strain on unitarian monotheism.


You could try to explain the Spirit of God and the Angel of the Lord as intermediate buffers who both reveal and conceal the unapproachable God.

However, what's actually attributed to them goes beyond personification or representation. And, indeed, there is no third category between God and the creature.

Neoplatonism glosses this with its series of emanations, but that's pantheistic. Degrees of divinity.

OT monotheism won't tolerate that blurring of the lines.

Consider the scene with Abraham and the three angels. Now, there's a sense in which heavenly angels mediate the presence of God. Heavenly angels are broadly theophanic. God's emissaries on earth. However, two of the angels are creatures, whereas the third is in a different category altogether.


The term [“God”] doesn't carry highly specified metaphysical baggage. It's just a name. A way of denoting a broad range of entities that are higher up the scale than men, animals, trees, or rocks.

It's used for all sorts of entities in ANE literature, with varying attributes.

You can't infer anything very specific from the term, beyond the fact that this term–like any referential term–is used to identify and differentiate one kind of thing from another kind of thing.

A "god" or "gods" is/are whatever non-gods are not. But the specific content has to be filled in by other sources of info.


That's the wrong question to ask since the term itself isn't meant to be that metaphysically freighted.

For example, pagans will use the term with pagan referents in mind. So the "god" or "gods" will have whatever attributes that pagan mythology ascribes to them. Lower gods, higher gods, demonic gods, &c.

What makes Yahweh the true God in the OT is not the use of a particular name. The term "god" isn't meant to tell you anything about the psychological makeup of the being so denoted.

The use of a divine name isn't going to answer your question. That's a classic semantic fallacy. Words aren't concepts.


That's culturebound and varies from one culture to another. It can also vary from one writing to another. What does a Calvinist mean by "God" versus an open theist versus a Hindu versus a Muslim versus a process theologian, &c.?

Divine speakers make first-person statements in the NT, too. So unless you think the NT can be plausibly reinterpreted along unitarian lines, your inference is fallacious.


Likewise, Trinitarian Christians generally refer to God using singular nouns, pronouns, and verbs. It's only when we're going out of our way to distinguish the persons that we use more qualified expressions.


In the OT, it stands in contrast to the sorts of "gods" whom Israel's pagan neighbors worshipped. Dagon, Baal, Ishtar, &c. And behind that lies OT demonology (what animates pagan idolatry).

In the NT, Jesus is claiming to be divine, in the same sense that Yahweh is divine.

Again, though, this is ordinary language, not technical language. It's not intended to draw fine nuances or express specialized concepts. That doesn't come from isolated words, but the larger context.


The OT doesn't come close to making an assertion like that. It has numerous descriptions of God addressing man, or doing things in history. Inevitably these tend to be somewhat anthropomorphic in the way God represents himself–in a "man-to-man" type of dialogue. It also has some monotheistic statements explicitly contextualized in relation to pagan idolatry.


Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Trinity is true, how else would that truth either be expressed or allowed for in the languages available to OT and/or NT writers?


You raised the objection that the wording of OT monotheistic passages is in apparent tension with NT Trinitarian theology. You set this in contrast to specified trinitarian technical language. That would also involve an implicit contrast with ordinary language.

Since, for purposes of this discussion, the Trinity is at issue, I stated the question in conditional terms: "assuming, for the sake of argument..."

Given that the OT writers were using ordinary language, rather than technical language (which would be anachronistic), how else would they express themselves?

Wouldn't they express monotheism in much the same way regardless of whether God is unitarian or Trinitarian? We wouldn't expect OT writers to draw person/substance distinctions in their language, even if they were aware of God's Trinitarian nature (and I wouldn't expect them to have full revelation of that fact).


I'm not talking about the meaning of words. You can't derive that from words alone.

It goes to the fact that just about every writer says less than he means. He takes for granted a cultural preunderstanding which he shares in common with his target audience. They fill in the blanks.

And that's what makes it difficult for a modern reader to understand everything in a book like Dante's Divine Comedy. We lack the common knowledge which a Medieval Italian reader would bring to the work. There are things that even leave Dante scholars scratching their heads.

I don't have any problem with the Trinitarian inferences we draw from the NT. My point is simply that the mere wording of the OT monotheistic passages does not, of itself, denote singular consciousness or personhood. Those don't come from the words alone. Those come from concepts which a reader associates with the OT descriptions of God. This involves a process of subconscious recognition on the part of the reader–involving analogy. A relation between the reader, who stands outside the text, and the text itself.


True, but a cultural preunderstanding can include cultural universals as well as cultural particulars. Every human reader qua human can recognize from Biblical descriptions of God that God is a personal agent.

My point is that the actual OT usage doesn't distinguish between one person and three, or one center of consciousness and three.

There's a sense in which we project personhood or consciousness into these texts. It's not the bare wording alone. It's the ability of a human reader to recognize analogous traits.

There's nothing wrong with that projection. It's not the same thing as eisegesis. For the Bible is addressed to conscious beings or persons. It takes for granted the reader's ability to fill in the blanks.

But the wording itself doesn't use those categories. So it's neutral on single or multiple centers of consciousness.


You can't infer personhood or consciousness from grammatical personhood. That's simply a linguistic convention. Even in English usage the third-person includes the neuter pronoun "it."

Moreover, Corporate entities can also use first-person speech along with explicit exclusions.

Furthermore, a fictitious character will also speak in the first-person. That doesn't mean a fictitious person is a conscious agent.


In science fiction, would that hold true for an AI program? Is HAL one person? Is that even a meaningful question to ask?

What if an AI program had multiple-centers of consciousness. Why would it address a human being in the first-person plural rather than the first-person singular? How would that distinction between relevant to the conversation? The human conversation-partner doesn't have to know whether the AI program has one center of consciousness or several for the AI program to have a meaningful dialogue with its human conversation-partner.

I'd add that in real life, organizations often issue public statements using singular constructions even though the organization is a corporate entity, and the public statement may have been drafted by several different participants. Or them may reflect the collective viewpoint of the board.

There can be several minds behind the public statement, even though the statement assumes the grammatical viewpoint of a single spokesman or representative.


Unless there's some particular reason why a Trinitarian God would address an audience in Trinitarian terms, there's no expectation to defeat.

And this is more than speculative. In the NT, which is undoubtedly Trinitarian, the Father speaks in the first person, and the Son speaks in the first person.

In NT narratives like the Book of Acts, divine speech is described in the same way as OT narrative. A first-person divine speaker, talking to people. Yet this doesn't mean that Luke was unitarian.

As I've said before, divine speech (i.e. recorded examples thereof) is generally speech between God and man. For purposes of communication or conversation, it's unnecessary for God to identify himself as a Trinitarian being. As a rule, this is not divine speech between one divine speaker and another. This is not about Trinitarian relations.

Rather, this is how the Creator relates to the creature. And he assumes certain anthropomorphic conventions in the process.

At the same time we also have some examples of divine speech between members of the Trinity, viz. the Father addressing Jesus and vice versa.

Yet it's not as if Trinitarian speech ordinarily employs the first-, second-, or third-person plural.

In addition, members of the Trinity use first-person constructions in the NT as well. The Father speaks. The Son speaks. But that is not meant to exclude another or other divine persons. The singular usage of the Father doesn't stand in antithetical contrast to the singular usage of the Son.

But God uses grammatical conventions because he's speaking to humans. As such, he uses idiomatic speech. And, when addressing human beings, he assumes the anthropomorphic viewpoint of "a" speaker addressing an audience.


1. First of all, I disagree with where you place the burden of proof. There's no expectation that a Trinitarian being would speak in Trinitarian terms when addressing man unless his Trinitarian identity was relevant to the communication. Unless the purpose of the communication was to reveal his Trinitarian identity. And even then, there are various ways to reveal his Trinitarian identity. That doesn't depend on which pronoun is used.

Normally, I'd expect a Trinitarian being to assume the viewpoint of a speaker in a speaker/audience transaction when addressing one or more human beings.

By human standards, there's something a bit artificial about divine speech anyway. By human standards (especially in the ancient world, before the advent of electronic communication technologies), a speaker occupied the same space and timeframe as the audience. The speaker used vocal chords. And so on and so forth.

So, when we identify divine speech, we must make allowance for ontological differences between the divine speaker and the human audience.

2. What viewpoint does a 1st-person singular mode of address normally assume? You're supposing that it presumes a singular personal viewpoint. But I think, in large part, that you're simply getting that from the way we label certain pronouns.

However, to the extent that the choice of a personal pronoun is even intended to express something about the speaker, I wouldn't assume a singular pronoun expresses singularity. Rather, it expresses individuality. The speaker will use a singular pronoun because the speaker is an individual, speaking as an individual.

(Even then, an individual can speak on behalf of others. Act as a spokesman or representative. Other voices stand behind his voice.)

And this is perfectly consistent with Trinitarian theology. There is individuality within the Godhead. The Father is not the same individual as the Son, or the Spirit.

3. In addition, in Trinitarian theology, God is both one of something and three of something. Singularity and plurality are both characteristics of the Trinity. Even if a Trinitarian person were using a singular pronoun to express his singularity, that is not incompatible with the Trinity. Although God is not actually one person, God can speak as one person. The Son is the revelation of the Father.

4. Furthermore, and this is the third time I've made this point, in NT usage, singular pronouns are employed by and for divine speakers. Yet the NT is Trinitarian. So the singular usage is not intended to be exclusive. You're drawing an inference from Biblical usage which Bible writers wouldn't draw.

5. Finally, to reiterate another thing I've said before, the Bible is written in idiomatic language. It employs the conventions of human discourse. Even in the NT, it's not as if NT writers coin Trinitarian circumlocutions to refer to Trinitarian actions.

Presumably, though, you don't think that we can plausibly interpret the NT along unitarian lines, for your questions are based on the apparent contrast (to your own way of thinking) between OT and NT representations of God.


I'd make an additional point. You're citation of OT prooftexts is lopsided.

For example, there are liberal Bible scholars who don't think the OT teaches consistent monotheism. For example, they think Exod 20:3 teaches monolatry or henotheism rather than monotheism.

Likewise, Margaret Barker takes the position that Israelite religion was ditheistic rather than monotheistic. Ancient Israelites worshipped two deities: a high God (Elohim) and a national God (Yahweh).

Liberal scholars account for this theological diversity (as they see it) by claiming that the OT preserves conflicting traditions. Monotheism eventually won out, but we can see traces of the older polytheism.

My point is not to endorse these aberrant interpretations. My point, rather, is that if the OT were clearly unitarian, these aberrant interpretations would have no foothold.

The OT witness to God is more complex than unitarianism absorb.


On a final point: On the one hand, it's true that, in one respect, the Pentateuch sets the standard for what qualifies as true (subsequent) prophecy.

On the other hand, that's a rather lopsided way of viewing the issue. For the Pentateuch isn't just a backward-looking document. It's not merely about the past. The standard of the past.

It's also a forward-looking document. It's primarily concerned with a pattern of promise and fulfillment. Divine promises and historical fulfillments. Moreover, as scholars like Sailhamer and T. D. Alexander have documented, the Pentateuch already has a Messianic motif.

And, of course, a document like the book of Isaiah is, if anything, even more future-oriented.

So while the OT is, in some measure, a criterion of the NT, there is also a sense in which the NT is a criterion of the OT. The relation of promise and fulfillment is a two-way street.

On the one hand, the terms of the promise serve as a criterion for the terms of the fulfillment. On the other hand, the fulfillment is a confirmation of the promise.

At some juncture, the promises must come true to be true promises. If God never makes good on his promises, then he broke his promises. Or God never spoke in the first place.

So the OT is not a stand-alone document. There has to be some historical fulfillment which corresponds to the prophecies and promises to validate the prophecies and promises.

And this is one of the problems with modern Judaism. At what point in time do you stop waiting?

It's like a husband who never returns home. He leaves for work one morning, and never comes back. Does his wife spend her entire life waiting for him to walk through the door? Or is there a point at which she files for divorce (on grounds of desertion) and remarries?

The NT represents a balloon downpayment on God’s promises. Without the NT, the OT begins to lose its plausibility.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, It would help to know the position of the person(s) who were dialoguing with. Was it someone holding to strict monotheism? Or Arianism? Or Modalism? Or something else?

    Also, for those reading this blog who don't know, the NT portrays the Holy Spirit as speaking and referring to Himself as "I" and "Me" (Acts 13:2). It's clear from the rest of the NT that He is said to have a mind, will, emotions.