Friday, June 10, 2011

Arianism redux

Dale Tuggy wrote the entry on the Trinity for the Stanford encylopedia. That's unfortunately inasmuch as Tuggy is an anti-Trinitarian. As he explains elsewhere:

This is all a lot to digest. But the main effect all this had on me was to drive me back to the New Testament, to see if what Clarke says about it is true. I found that all the New Testament authors very clearly distinguish between God, a.k.a. the Father, and Jesus. With a few exceptions, “God” refers to the Father, and generally in Paul, “the Lord” is Jesus. (This last can be confusing to us.) But what could hardly be clearer is that Father and Son there are different selves. Clarke also shows that for just about any favorite proof text supposedly showing that Jesus “is God,” in the immediate context, we find that the author seems to assume them to be two.
Now the standard answer to Clarke’s point that Father and Son are different selves is this: Sure, they are two persons, but that’s compatible with their being one God. But Clarke explodes this defense numerous times. A “god” in the Bible is always a self – not a substance, nature, or whatnot. Thus, if Father and Son were the same god, they’d also be the same self, which Clarke would explain, is unacceptable modalism, and just makes nonsense of the New Testament. Just to take one point, the Son can’t be the same person he mediates for – if he’s the mediator between God and man (which the NT says he is), then that precludes his being the same self as God.Further, if you think that “sharing a substance” (whatever that amounts to) makes them one god, you need to say why it is that two gods couldn’t share one substance – and Clarke bets that you can’t show this. Keep in mind that he agrees with the claim of Nicea (325) that Father and Son are homoousios – but he argues that we should accept just the original meaning, which is, essentially, that the two are similar, i.e. both divine. Indeed, that very document plainly assumes them to differ, and so to not be numerically identical. (So, not one self, and not one god – for in either case, they would have to be numerically identical.)

I agree with him that in a conflict between Scripture and catholic tradition, Scripture wins. However, Tuggy/Clarke's linguistic analysis is naive.

i) It fails to distinguish between ordinary language and technical language. Tuggy/Clarke act as if ordinary (Biblical) usage maps isometrically onto dogmatic/systematic/philosophical usage. I'm surprised Tuggy would make that elementary mistake.

We have to begin with concepts, not words. We then find suitable words to label the concepts.

ii) There's no reason to equate Yahweh with God the Father. That's highly anachronistic.

In most OT usage, Yahweh (as well as Elohim) is simply the name of the divine character in the story, just as the human characters (or angelic characters) are also given names. You can't write a narrative without naming some of the characters–especially major and/or recurring characters. The divine character has to be called something.

That's a basic feature of storytelling. It's hardly intended to draw ontological, intra-Trinitarian distinctions.

And it overlooks the way in which certain NT passages assign "Yahweh" passages to Christ.

iii) Tuggy/Clarke fail to distinguish between common nouns and proper nouns. In Pauline usage, "God" is generally a proper name for the Father, while "Lord" is generally a proper name for Christ.

The NT also uses "God" as a common noun when it isn't distinguishing the Trinitarian persons.

iv) I don't know if Tuggy has read any of the standard monographs on NT Christology, viz. Bauckham, Fee, Gathercole, Harris, Hurtado. 

To amplify one of my points, in a sacred historical narrative like much of the OT, the narrator will have a "God" character who plays the role of the divine agent. He's the primary protagonist, and the normative character in the story. A named individual who plays that part. That's the level at which "Yahweh" (or "Elohim") generally operates in the OT.

This would involve an individual characterization, whether or not the underlying theism is unitarian or Trinitarian. Rather, that's a narrative representation. As a rule, we'd expect a single character to play that role. The role of the divine actor or speaker. 

Other agents play other parts. Human, angelic, demonic, diabolical. Lesser protagonists or heroes, as well as antagonists, villains, and foils. The Devil is the main foil to God. That's how narrative theology works. 

These established characters may carry over into other genres (e.g. prophetic oracles, psalms).

But "Yahweh" doesn't stand for God the Father. That's a level-confusion. That's not the narrative function of "Yahweh" in the OT story. Rather, "Yahweh" is simply the divine character, in contrast to various creatures.

It is, of course, possible for the narrator to draw Trinitarian distinctions. Is the Angel of the Lord a Christophany?

However, it's not merely the use of "Yahweh" that differentiates one divine person from another.

Moreover, at the narrative level of tangible actors, these might as well be separate individuals. How they're ontologically related is not something the narrative action can explicate, for the narrative action operates at the level of discrete, concrete physical manifestations.

Trinitarian distinctions ultimately subsist behind-the-scene, outside time and space, whereas a narrative is set in time and space.  


  1. I can't make heads or tails of Tuggy. Is the Father "the God" while the Son and Spirit are lesser deities?

    I've been reading Athanasius' Contra Arianos, and it would seem his arguments add clarity where Tuggy makes things blurry (the Son cannot be lesser because if He were, He would not be eternal...if eternal, uncreated, if uncreated then begotten from the very substance of the Father, light of light, begotten, not made).

    Further, if he follows Clarke in saying that the Father and Son are "similar" in substance, then in what sense is the Father "father" to the Son?

    Tuggy says: "A “god” in the Bible is always a self – not a substance, nature, or whatnot. Thus, if Father and Son were the same god, they’d also be the same self, which Clarke would explain, is unacceptable modalism..."

    Then it would also seem to follow that God the Son cannot also possess a human nature according to the orthodox notion, therefore, Tuggy is also Nestorian.

  2. Steve,

    In your opinion is the filioque clause lurking somewhere just behind this discussion?

    I've read through some of your archived treatments of this topic in response to certain EO e-pologists, and it seems to be a recurring theme that I've been bumping into lately.

    In Christ,

  3. CD,

    Yes, that might be a factor.

  4. Steve,

    You wrote: ii) There's no reason to equate Yahweh with God the Father. That's highly anachronistic.

    How would you respond to humanitarian unitarians (the label used by Tuggy to describe himself and others who deny Jesus' actual preuhman existence) who quote Hebrews 1:1-2 to prove that Yahweh in the OT must have been Father?

  5. i) The question is not whether "Yahweh" includes the Father, but whether "Yahweh" excludes the Son.

    ii) The contrast in Heb 1:1-2 is not between God (or "Yahweh") and the Son, but between prophets and the Son.

    iii) The author of Hebrews also attributes divine speech to the Spirit of God.

  6. Steve,

    Thanks for the reply. You wrote:

    i) The question is not whether "Yahweh" includes the Father, but whether "Yahweh" excludes the Son.

    ii) The contrast in Heb 1:1-2 is not between God (or "Yahweh") and the Son, but between prophets and the Son.

    Tuggy's argument is that in the OT Yahweh is a single person, whom the NT writers identify as the Father. Tuggy would argue that the point of Hebrews is that it was the person of the Father who spoke through the prophets during the OT period, and later on spoke through his Son, thereby affirming that Yahweh or God is a single Person. His argument, and those who believe like him,is that Hebrews proves that the Son cannot be the God who spoke during the OT period.

    So, even though Hebrews is contrasting the prophets with the Son, it still affirms that is the Father who was speaking as God during the OT, which unitarians take as proof that God is one person.

    I hope I am making sense. If not let me know.

  7. Steve, they even quote Murray J. Harris to prove their contention that God or Yahweh in the Bible refers to the Father, and never the Trinity:

    For the author of Hebrews (as for all NT writers, one may suggest) ‘the God of our fathers,’ Yahweh, was no other than ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (compare Acts 2:30 and 2:33; 3:13 and 3:18; 3:25 and 3:26; note also 5:30). Such a conclusion is entirely consistent with the regular NT usage of ho theos. It would be inappropriate for YHWH, or Elohim ever to refer to the Trinity in the OT when in the NT theos regularly refers to the Father alone and apparently never to the Trinity. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), p. 47, fn. 112.

    Perhaps you could write a post addressing these issues if you think it worthwhile.

  8. I see about doing a post on the subject.

  9. Hello Steve & readers,

    First, I wouldn't call myself an anti-trinitarian. I'm not from any such denomination or group, and I think believers ought to believe what seems true to them, and that they have the right to speculate. Thus, I would not break fellowship with someone, or accuse them of misc. bad stuff because they accept some Trinity theory or other. I am certainly a non-trinitarian, i.e. a small-u unitarian. I've been dragged there by the texts, and by the desperate problem faced by every Trinity theory out there.

    Term-quibble #2: "Arian"? I suggest we should reserved this tired, unhelpful old label for those 4th c. guys - and even then, it's not too accurate. In any case, I'm not an "Arian" even in a extended sense - I'm not a subordinationist.

    Naive? Really? I don't fail to distinguish between technical and non-technical language. Where have I made any elementary error? Yes - concepts are more fundamental than words. You'll notice that at no time do I ever appeal to the true but shallow point that Trinity-lingo is not found in the Bible. That's interesting, but not decisive. What it is decisive, in my view, is that all NT authors assume the one God, Yahweh, to be the same self as the Father of Jesus.

    "There's no reason to equate Yahweh with God the Father. That's highly anachronistic."

    Nothing like bald assertion. :-) Please look at my arguments for this in my 2004 "Deception" piece. To take but one example - which can be wriggled out of, but which is about as clear as could be: John 17:3. Jesus calls someone "the only true god/God". Who is he talking to? The Father. So if he's the *only* true god, then anyone else is not that one true god. A god, we assume, is a someone; basically all Christians believe that.

    The poster argues that just because the OT God is given a proper name, it isn't necessary a self. Well, sure. Bill Clinton called one of his parts, which was not a self, "Willard". But a god, and the God in the OT is always a self, and this is obvious to every reader - indeed, frequently insisted on in apologetics and inter-religious contexts.

    Yes, I agree that one can and in some cases should read various OT texts as having the "Yahweh" who appears by not God himself, but rather some sort of messenger, who speaks for him, and they would say "bears his name."

    "Tuggy/Clarke fail to distinguish between common nouns and proper nouns."


    "if Tuggy has read any of the standard monographs on NT Christology, viz. Bauckham, Fee, Gathercole, Harris, Hurtado" - yes. All but Gath. Found both Harris and Hurtado helpful. Am working on a paper on Bauckham.

    "But "Yahweh" doesn't stand for God the Father. That's a level-confusion." The NT explicitly identifies the two, in particular in Acts.

  10. "I can't make heads or tails of Tuggy."

    Yeah, sometimes me too. :-)

    "Is the Father "the God" while the Son and Spirit are lesser deities?"

    Got a long, forthcoming paper on this. But in brief: by the criterion of Is 40-55, only YHWH/the Father is a god. This is also the perspective of the NT - there, Jesus isn't a God or a god, but simply: the Son of God.

    Complicating things, on a looser concept of a god like that employed in any form of polytheism, Christ will count as another, and yes, a lesser god. This fact was not lost on the early fathers of c. 150-300, who went around calling Jesus "our god", a "second god" etc. all the while making clear that in their view, the one true god was none other than the Father himself. (Happily, they follow the NT in this last.) This is especially clear in Justin or Origen. In my paper, I'm trying to clear up some of the linguistic and conceptual confusion about gods, monotheism, etc. See Hurtado's more recent stuff if you want to see why scholars are actually fretting about what the monotheism/polytheism distinction amounts to. It sounds idiotic, I know, but there are deep issues there.