For those of you who don’t know, my dissertation project for my Master’s at the University of St. Andrews is focused on sketching out a Trinitarian epistemology in the Apostle Paul, particularly from 1 Corinthians 2,1 that focuses on how the three persons of the Holy Trinity relate to theological knowledge. My interest in this project has been due to complex reasons. I affirm the validity of Trinitarian doctrine and think it is next to impossible to make to interpret the New Testament in a way that is both reasonable coherent and also correspond to the various texts without the basic Trinitarian framework. However, I have always felt the way people used the doctrine of the Trinity typically puts the emphasis in the wrong place on the metaphysical descriptions of the Trinity, to the point that I remember that in a homiletics class in seminary I was almost considered a heretic because I was criticizing how the Trinity was used in one of the preaching texts. I lacked the specific language and clear concepts to adequately express my criticism, so that combined with being in a strongly orthodox environment suspicious of heterodoxy or heresy, made me realize the importance of refining my understanding.
Without going into all the glorious details of my dissertation, which I am sure many of which will change over the course of the upcoming months, I will provide a simple summary of my argument. For the Apostle Paul, God discloses Himself in an absolutely reliable way through two agents, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. While there are other agents, such as Paul himself, who may disclose correct understand about God, only Jesus and the Spirit are worthy of objects by which we come to confidently trust that we know God because they come from God, have the creative power of God, are fully faithful to the will of God, etc. We know of God as disclosed through Jesus Christ via the narrative traditions of his ministry, life, death, resurrection, glorified body, and ascension. We know of God as disclosed through the Holy Spirit by the dramatic power, inspired speech, transformation of persons, etc. In short, for Paul, His conviction about God being known through Christ and the Spirit is a deeply epistemological concern. This is how God has chosen to make Himself known that undergirds a particular pedagogy: we as individuals come to know, both propositionally and relationally, God as we are known by God in attunement to the stories of Jesus and the present, on-going work of the Spirit. Paul’s form of Trinitarian thinking is deeply instructive and pragmatic. Thus, it is incoherent with Paul’s view to treat the doctrine of the Trinity as an idea or set of concepts that help us to understand God and faith; they are ideas or concepts that direct our attention in faith and practice in obedience, and it is actually through our attention and practice that we come to know God.
So, when an article as this one treating the Trinity as an arbitrary construct gets posted on a United Methodist site, I mourn. I don’t mourn simply because of the presence of “heresy.” I also mourn the way Trinitarian theology has been taught and employed that exemplifies the criticism of that article. The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out from the epistemic reality of Paul and the rest of the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John. To protect the worship and practice of the church that put this epistemic reality into practice, the formalized doctrine of the Trinity had to be presented against various challenges, most particularly Arianism, in order to protect the integrity faith, devotion, and practice of the Church. But in so doing, the Church went down a direction that came to its apex in medieval theology, where the central focus on the Trinity is on the metaphysical explication of the reality, rather than on the (epistemic) reality that the metaphysics of the Trinity undergirds and warrants. Ever since then, it has been the primary litmus test of Christian orthodoxy, and taught in such a way that people adhere to the formal concepts of the doctrine, rather than also learning how the doctrine of the Trinity undergirds and explains the very way people come to know God. Being abstracted apart from its original epistemic context, it can be taken to be quite as arbitrary and conjectural, as the article complains.
However, this isn’t the problem of Trinitarian doctrine, but the failure to recognize that the origins of the Trinity is rooted in how the Scriptures testify to how people come to know God; this is no more arbitrary and conjectural than models of the scientific method being a way to understand the practice of science and warrants the knowledge gained from science. The value of the models/doctrine is more so in how it directs epistemic practice and reasoning rather than what the ideas themselves state; furthermore, the validity of the models/doctrine is based upon how they represent the forms of practice and reasoning that produce reliable knowledge that we can trust in. If models of the scientific method aren’t arbitrary, neither is the doctrine of the Trinity. They are in origins derived from specific practices and forms of reasoning. One can suggest they are not reliable, but arbitrary they are not. However, because we fail to adequately connect the doctrine of Trinity to the epistemic practice and reasoning of the New Testament church, in part because we fail to connect the doctrine of the Trinity to an epistemic practice and reasoning in our own lives, then yes, the Trinity may comes across as an arbitrary litmus test simply designed to control people. Why? Because that is how the doctrine of the Trinity is commonly taught and used. But as I have personaly learned, function does not determine origin; that the doctrine of the Trinity can be used the way the article describes does not mean it has an arbitrary or conjectural origin.
For Paul, the reality of the unity of Father, Jesus, and Spirit should direct Christians to learn about God through Christ and Spirit. It’s importance is not in the metaphysical descriptions in and of themselves, but the ways of knowing people ground their faith in God to. However, insofar as the critical context is lost in doctrinal pedagogy and we live in a society that celebrates free thinking, the decontextualization of the doctrine of the Trinity from its original, epistemic base serves as seeds for heresy by making the doctrine appear to be something it actually is not in its origins.