Friday, April 27, 2018

Double agent for the dark side

I recently read What is the Trinity? by apostate Dale Tuggy, a self-published propaganda piece in defense of unitarianism, written in a duly serpentine style ("Come on–jump off the cliff. It won't hurt a bit. Promise!"). 

1. In the Bart Ehrmanesque intro, narrating his deconversion, Tuggy mentions how influenced he was by reading Arian polemicist Samuel Clarke during his postgraduate program. This indicates that Tuggy was already a double agent for the dark side at the time he was tapped to contribute the entry on the Trinity for the SEP

2. In chap. 1 he ominously mentions people who converted from Christianity to Islam because the Trinity made no sense to them. Although that's tragic, Islam is no worse than Tuggy's unitarian alternative. 

3. In the same chapter he has a theory about how many Christians don't reflect on the Trinity because the damnatory clauses in the Athanasian creed deter them. But how many Christians–especially evangelicals–ever think about the Athanasian creed?

4. In the same chapter he says children, the illiterate, and mentally handicapped can be saved without affirming the Athanasian creed. But what is that supposed to prove? The same groups can't grasp Paul's intricate reasoning in Romans, yet that doesn't mean we should disregard Romans. Of course, we make allowance for the cognitive aptitude of individuals.

5. Two chapters (2,7) devote time to expounding key words in the Nicene creed. I agree with Tuggy that the language is ambiguous and leaves tensions unresolved. As I've said on more than one occasion, I think there's room for improvement in Nicene theology. That said:

i) Creeds tend to be consensus documents that exclude some parties but paper over other differences. Creeds prioritize and compromise.

ii) Creeds aren't philosophical treatises. They affirm some things, and disaffirm other things, but they don't defend their claims. That's not their purpose or genre. 

iii) The Nicene creed was a blunt instrument that accomplished its purpose by squeezing out the Arians. And that was a very worthwhile achievement. 

6. One of Tuggy's demagogical tactics is to confound issues that are clearly separable. 

i) Take the question of whether the Bible teaches the Trinity. If you mean, does the Bible teach a philosophically articulated doctrine of the Trinity, finessing how God can be three persons in one, then the answer is no. There's precious little philosophical theology in Scripture on any subject. Rarely does Scripture define its terms. 

ii) However, the NT clearly teaches the deity of the Father and the Son. There's less material on the Spirit, but what there is is analogous to what is said concerning the Father and the Son. What is more, to possess even one incommunicable divine attribute entails possession of them all, so it isn't necessary for the Bible to check every box regarding the Holy Spirit to imply his deity and personality. Some things necessarily go together. 

iii) Likewise, does the Bible teach the Incarnation? If you mean, does the Bible teach philosophically articulated doctrine of the hypostatic union, then the answer is no. But the Bible can and does teach the two natures of Christ, without using philosophical jargon or explaining how, exactly, they are interrelated. 

As a unitarian, that's not how Tuggy reads the Bible, but he's not the touchstone for evangelicals. 

iv) This goes to the question of what Christians have always believed. But there's lots of individual variation in what Christians believe throughout the centuries, depending on their literacy, education, access to theological alternatives. That variation is not unique to the Christology. So Tuggy's objection either proves too much or too little. 

7. In chap. 4, Tuggy complains about equivocal usage regarding "deity", but he himself concocts bogus contradictions by resorting to equivocal language. 

8. In chap. 5 he makes the trivial observation that Greek MSS don't distinguish "Spirit" from "spirit", since everything is in capital letters. But that applies with equal force to "God/god" (theos).  

9. In the same chapter, he says the eternality and full divinity of Jesus and the Spirit weren't "obvious" to some Christians back in the year 200. 

i) But to begin with, some of them are simply heretics. They're opinion is not the benchmark. 

ii) Moreover, the ante-Nicene Fathers he cites don't believe Jesus was just a human being. So how does that hurt Trinitarians without hurting unitarians?

iii) In addition, what's "obvious" is person-relative. That's makes the reader the standard of comparison rather than the text, as if the text has no objective meaning. Tuggy's resorting to reader-response theory rather than authorial intent, as if that's the yardstick. But there are different kinds of readers. Good readers and poor readers. An author writes with more than one audience in mind: an ideal reader as well as an ordinary reader. Authors may say things a well-informed reader will catch that uninformed readers may miss. That's the nature of mass communication. 

10. Chap. 6 reviews different definitions of "person". 

i) The word has different connotations in patristic usage than modern usage. Modern usage is more psychological or Cartesian. And debates over AI have highlighted the first-person viewpoint as a defining feature of consciousness. In formulating the Trinity, I myself prefer the modern connotations of the word. 

ii) Tuggy says the modern definition poses a "tough dilemma" by "compromising" monotheism, which is supposed to be "nonnegotiable".  Of course, for a unitarian like Tuggy, monotheism means the Father alone is God. However, OT monotheism creates no presumption that the Father will be God rather than the Son (or Spirit). In the OT, Yahweh isn't the Father in contrast to the Son. In the OT, Yahweh is a father to Israel. It's a statement about his relationship to some of his creatures. It doesn't single out the Father as Yahweh, in contrast to the Son. It doesn't operate with that comparative framework. An explicit Father/Son comparison is something reserved for NT revelation. The OT fosters no expectation that the Father is Yahweh or God instead of the Son. 

11. Chap. 7 reviews different definitions of "substance". 

i) Although I affirm that Father, Son, and Spirit are "consubstantial", I don't think "substance" is the best word to employ. It has different connotations in modern usage than patristic usage. A complex linguistic evolution. There's what ousia means in patristic usage. I doubt it has a uniform meaning in patristic usage. Substance is a translation term for ousia, and is therefore a Latin word with a Greek meaning. But it then acquires additional layers when filtered through Thomistic or Scotist metaphysics. Same factors apply to hypostasis/persona. 

ii) I prefer to say that Father, Son, and Spirit are "consubstantial" in the sense that they share the same nature or attributes. Tuggy will object that this only gets you generic unity rather than numerical unity. But other issues aside, the question isn't whether "consubstantial" is sufficient to define the Trinity, but a necessary element. No one word or category will be sufficient. Like some other doctrines, the Trinity is a theological construct with multiple elements. 

iii) They don't share the same nature in the sense that each one is a property-instance of a common property. They don't exemplify a generic universal. Rather, it's like mirror symmetries where the whole image is contained in each reflection, rather than samples. 

12. Chap. 8 is the most intemperate chapter. Paradox gets Tuggy riled up. 

i) Unsurprisingly, Tuggy misstates the role of analogies in Trinitarian analysis. You can state the elements that comprise the Trinity without resort to analogy. Analogies are a second-level reflection that provide philosophical models for the Trinity. An attempt to explicate the relationship. 

ii) It's trivially easy to concoct a bogus verbal contradiction. Take a question like, "Are three sugar cubes one substance or three substances"? The answer is both. That's not even paradoxical. Yet you could arrange that claim in a way that makes it look contradictory. One of something can't be three of something! (unless it can!).

iii) Tuggy has a simplistic grasp of identity. If A and B are identical, what makes them identical? One way to unpack that might be intersubstitutability. A point-by-point matchup between A and B. 

But compare that to reflection symmetries. A corresponds at every point with B, yet there's a residual, irreducible difference between A and B because a right-handed image is not equivalent to a left-handed image. 

13. In the same chapter, Tuggy recycles the same obtuse objection he's been touting for years: It's "uncharitable" to impute a contradiction to a writer. 

i) Speaking for myself, I don't find the Trinity paradoxical, but even if I did, Bible writers have no control over what God is like. They simply report what they witnessed, or what God revealed to them. If that struck them as paradoxical, they'd still have to record it. 

ii) In addition, given the number of tenacious paradoxes in math, logic, and physics, paradox may well be an intractable feature of how humans perceive and process reality. That's what happens when finite minds encounter truths more complex than their finite minds. That's not unique to Christian theology, but a common phenomenon of human experience.

14. In chap. 10, Tuggy alleges that many Protestant theologians pay lip-service to sola Scriptura but in practice treat some of the "ecumenical" councils as inviolable. I agree with him. Ancient creeds should be scrutinized.

15. In the same chapter (pp133-34), Tuggy has a set of loaded questions. But there are no good answers to bad questions.  


  1. Hard to write a good book review when you thoroughly despise the author. Oh well.
    For those who want to judge for themselves, and see what those questions are that Steve doesn't want you to know about,

    1. Hm:

      1. I think Steve strongly disagrees with your unitarianism, but I don't know how you know he "despise[s]" you.

      2. It's definitely possible to write a fair and objective book review despite personal feelings. But it may be telling you don't think so.

    2. 'Hard to write a good book review when you thoroughly despise the author. Oh well.'

      This is a strange response from somebody whose book has been reviewed. If the author on the recieving end of a review finds the review objectionable, then standard practice would be to address the review. Instead, Tuggy deems it adequate to speculate in hissy fit fashion about being 'thoroughly despise[d] [sic]'. How quaint.

    3. I don't think that Dale can face the music.

    4. Sorry to disappoint you, Dale, but I don't take you seriously enough to despise you.