A Short Note on the Concept of “Mystery” in Trinitarian Doctrine

 

The recourse to the category of ‘mystery’ is always a safe refuge for those who believe that Yeshua is a G-dman and that G-d is a Trinity. This is true both for traditional Christian theologians and for those Messianics who try to base their Trinitarian doctrine on a kabbalistic foundation.

 

I think that this kind of reasoning — in so far that is a reasoning at all and not the giving up of all reasoning — is highly defective. Nevertheless, I would say that the Trinitarians have a valid point in emphasing that G-d is transcendent and that His greatness and glory are far above human reason. It is rightly said that He is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”. This is a biblical notion that some Unitarians tend to forget. The reasonableness of the Unitarian exegesis of Scripture should not make us forget that G-d’s Being is an unfathomable mystery. But this doesn’t mean at all that G-d’s mysteriousness is the mysteriousness of a Trinity or a G-dman. Two elementary distinctions should be kept in mind here.

 

The proposition that the Trinity is a mystery is always a conclusion, based on the assumption that the Trinity is true or that a Trinitarian G-d is possible.

 

First, no orthodox Trinitarian accepts that he should believe in the Trinity without any compelling argument. The argument Trinitarians find themselves compelling is that they understand Scripture to teach a number of distinct propositions that logically necessitate the acceptance of the Trinity. These propostions are mainly the following: 1.) that there is One G-d; 2.) that Messiah is the Son of G-d, and, consequently, that G-d is the Father of Messiah; 3.) that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; 4.) that the Son of G-d is G-d; 5.) that the Holy Spirit is G-d; 6.) that the Father is not the Son; 7.) that the Son is not the Holy Spirit; 8.) that the Holy Spirit is not the Father. The Trinitarian — or at least the Protestant Trinitarian — believes that each of these propositions is taught by Scripture. From this he concludes that he has to accept the mysterious concept of a Divine Trinity. But the real question is of course whether all these propositions can really be proved by Scripture. And if some of them can’t there is no longer any necessity to accept the mystery of the Trinity.

 

Second, very often their reasoning is based on possibility, and in this case it starts at the other end. In this case it is argued against the Unitarian: “How can you prove that G-d cannot be a Trinity?” or: “How can you demonstrate that G-d cannot be a man?” But that is simply not the right question to ask. Of course, if G-d is above human reason — and, as I said, truly He is and His Being is unfathomable — the possibility cannot be excluded beforehand that He can assume human nature or that He is Three as well as One. For how can human reason by its own efforts know what is possible for Almighty G-d? To say that we can know a priori what is possible for G-d to do or to be would verge on the blasphemous. But the fundamental and critical question is not whether it can be decided by us beforehand what is possible for G-d. The question is rather: what do the Scriptures say that is really the case? The question is: Do the Scriptures really teach us that G-d exists in Three Persons, or that Messiah is G-d? The question is not whether it is in itself metaphysically possible for G-d to exist in Three Persons or to assume human nature. For even if we admit these possibilities — not because we accept them as true but because we cannot exclude them beforehand — how shall we conclude from these mere possibilities to their actual truth? From the possible to the actual there is no valid inference: de posse ad esse non valet illatio (from the fact that something is possible we can make no valid inference to its reality).

 

Even having stated that we have to fully accept that G-d is Infinite and Incomprehensible, and thus above human reason, I do not think that we should say that He is contrary to human reason. I mean by this that we cannot be asked to believe in flat contradictions. We cannot even really do that, for we are unable to affirm and deny the same thing at the same time and under the same respect when these alternatives are clearly set before us. Personally, I think that Trinitarian doctrine, and above all the teaching that Messiah is both G-d and man, is contradictory in itself. Yet it is difficult to prove this. Such a proof is not necessary, however. It is enough to demonstrate that these doctrines are not found in Scripture and cannot be proved thereby.

 

Moreover, the Scriptures even positively exclude that Messiah is G-d and, consequently, that G-d exists in Three Persons. Not because that these things are metaphysically impossible, but because they are not actually true. Scripture clearly teaches 1) that Messiah is man and 2) that he is not G-d. A reasonable exegesis of Scripture does not lead us to “the mystery of the Trinity”. And yet this reasonable exegesis does lead us to acknowledge the incomprehensible greatness of G-d and the glory of his gracious revelation in Messiah Yeshua.

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7 Responses to “A Short Note on the Concept of “Mystery” in Trinitarian Doctrine”


  1. 1 Christian for Moses February 17, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Hi Geert,

    Nice post. I am reading a book by Keith Ward called God: A Guide for the Perplexed wherein he also touches upon the apophathic way of talking about God. He also talks about Thomas Aquinas’ approach and I was wondering if you could tell in a concise way how Aquinas reasoned about/to the idea of the Trinity, was it in the same way as he approached God; “we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not”? Or in a different manner?

    Blessings,

    Daniel

    • 2 messianic613 February 18, 2009 at 9:35 pm

      This is an interesting question, but I’ll only give a partial answer to it, because of the highly technical nature of the philosophical distinctions involved.

      Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge of G-d: knowledge that can be acquired by natural reason and knowledge that can only be acquired by means of supernatural revelation. G-d’s existence and a number of his attributes, e.g. his Unity, can be established by natural reason on its own, without the help of faith knowledge. In this domain of natural reason Aquinas accepts the Aristotelian proofs of G-d’s existence. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, however — which by Aquinas are considered as the fundamentals of the Christian faith — are only accessible because G-d has made them known by supernatural revelation.

      An important question for Aquinas is how the human mind is able to accept these supernatural truths. For the human mind is unable to confirm things that are unintelligible or contrary to natural reason. How, then, can human beings affirm truths that cannot be found out by reason itself?

      Aquinas’ answer is, essentially, that supernatural truth is accepted on the authority of G-d who has revealed himself in human history. In like manner as a lower science, optics for instance, accepts and without questioning gives credit to the higher science of mathematics (e.g. geometry) in the domain of its own research, the science of theology accepts and gives credit to that science which is only known by G-d himself, parts of which He has graciously chosen to reveal to us. (This is treated in the opening question of the first part of the Summa Theologica, art. 2. View: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1001.htm#article2)

      Yet, although supernatural truths cannot be established or found out by human reason by its own capacity, these truths in Aquinas’ scheme can never be contrary to human reason. For human reason itself is a limited participation of all truth, and one (domain of) truth cannot be contradictory to another. From this it follows, says Aquinas, that one of the main tasks of theology is to demonstrate that the supernatural truths, received by grace and faith, are not in conflict with those truths established by human reason on its own.

      For the doctrine of the Trinity this means that Aquinas has to show how the doctrine of G-d’s Being consisting in three Persons can be reconciled with the doctrine of His perfect Unity, which can be demonstrated by natural reason. One should take care to notice, however, says Aquinas, that even this Unity — and all the other divine attributes discoverable by natural reason — can not be intellectually penetrated or completely comprehended by our natural capacities. Here the apophatic element mentioned in your question comes to the fore. All the attributes we ascribe to G-d are derived from human language and concepts, which have a created and thus limited mode of being. The infinite and uncreated cannot really be conceptually grasped or adequately expressed by a created and finite mind. G-d’s Unity requires, to give an example, that his righteousness coïncides with his omnipotence. Not only these attributes must coïncide in the same instance or being, but they must they must be also the same formally qua righteousness and omnipotence. Thus, for G-d — not for us — the concept of righteousness is completely synonymous with the concept of omnipotence. Because we are unable to grasp this synonymity we are also unable to grasp what it really means for G-d to be One or righteous or omnipotent. There is always a beyond our understanding here, and this beyond also constitutes the possibility of additional light, by G-d’s grace, in revelation, and, ultimately, in the beatific vision of the eternal state of the redeemed. (For the names of G-d in Aquinas, see question 13: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1013.htm#article4)

      Aquinas’s theological solution in reconciling G-d’s Unity with the Trinity of the Divine Persons is that the three Persons in G-d are not parts of G-d, for the concept of parts implies internal division and thus conflicts with the Divine Unity. Instead, he conceives of the Persons as internal relations. The characteristic of the category of relation — in its Aristotelian sense — is that it is only an esse ad (i.e. a referring or proportion) that doesn’t affect or change the internal being of the thing thas has the relation. Being a son, for example, only constitutes a relation to another person who happens to be the father or mother, not an inherent quality or another attribute of the person who is a son.

      A relation of course needs a foundation in the being that has it — as e.g. sonship requires the existence of a human being that has this relation of sonship — but the characteristic thing of the relation is only the property of referring. Now, without going into too many details, Aquinas says that G-d has internal relations, and he equates these relations with the Persons of the Trinity. Thus the three Persons are no threat to G-d’s Unity. For their proper being is only a referring that doesn’t affect G-d’s essential or substantial Unity. The foundation of these relations is G-d’s Essence itself. Thus the Persons are only one Divine Being, and — this is the crux of the matter — they are distinct only in referring to each other. In fact they are completely identical with their referring to each other and they are completely identical with the Divine Essence which can be said to be this internal referring.

      Personally, I think that Aquinas’ solution deserves our intellectual admiration for its elegance and simplicity, although I think it cannot be sustained as entirely satisfying from a philosophical point of view — even setting aside the fact that I reject the theological premises on which it is built.

      Apart from the theological premises involved in Aquinas’ Trinitarian thought my own opinion as a philosopher is that G-d’s existence and Unity cannot be demonstrated by what Aquinas calls “natural reason”.

      Theologically I find it quite interesting and remarkable that in Aquinas’ thought G-d’s Unity requires no supernatural revelation to be known by us. This implies that an important part of the truth of the Shema Yisrael — namely the truth that G-d is One — can be discovered by our natural effort. Only that G-d is Three is strictly based on revelation. Here we see the great scheme of Supersessionism active in the very heart of traditional Christianity and in Aquinas’ theological presuppositions. The revelation of G-d to the nation of Israel is thought of as inferior and only of a preparatory nature, because its most important truth is something that can be discovered by natural reason itself. The really important revelation here is about the Trinity of the Divine Persons, which is closely connected with the supposed incarnation of G-d in Christ. It can easily be seen that this thought is very far removed from the climate of the Apostolic Scriptures which are about a human Messiah as the culmination of G-d’s communication with and revelation to Israel, not about a G-dman opening up a completely new mysterious domain of knowledge about the internal structure of G-d’s Being.

  2. 3 graspingmashiach February 19, 2009 at 2:29 am

    ~~“my own opinion as a philosopher is that G-d’s existence and Unity cannot be demonstrated by what Aquinas calls ‘natural reason’.”~~

    Would you expound on this further especially regarding G-d’s existence in light of Romans 1:19-20 and Psalm 19:1-4?

    • 4 messianic613 February 22, 2009 at 9:46 pm

      Romans 1:20 is a dense and difficult text, but I’ll try to give an interpretation that is both exegetically sustainable and compatible with the differences between the disciplines of theology and philosophy.

      Romans 1:20 is read and explained by a host of theologians as a classic text in favour of the possibility of demonstrating the existence of G-d by natural reason from the visible and perceptible things (the so-called cosmological or aposteriori argument). There are a few difficulties involved in this reading.

      First, as some have noticed, it will be clear that if the Apostle wanted to say by this verse that G-d’s existence is capable of philosophical proof, this implies that he is prescribing, from a theological or perhaps better religious viewpoint, what philosophy can or cannot do. This would be a bit strange manoeuvre and easily give rise to tensions between philosophy and theology, if a philosophical demonstration of G-d’s existence has to be motivated strictly by natural reason. It is clear that the above explanation of Rom. 1:20 cannot hold if in the process of philosophical research it turns out that philosophical demonstrations of G-d’s existence based on the cosmological argument cannot be successful.

      It must be said, however, that Aquinas explains Rom. 1:20 in the manner mentioned above, and in his Summa (Part I, question 2, art. 2) he first gives a theological demonstration of the possibility itself to demonstrate G-d’s existence by natural reason (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm#article2) , and then, in the next article (art. 3), gives five philosophical proofs of G-d’s existence. These proofs are based on Aristotelian philosophical axioms that Aquinas held to be self evident. (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm#article3).

      Since Aristotelianism received severe criticisms, however, from the later Middle Ages onward and throughout the history of modern philosphy — especially after the reception of Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft or: Critique of Pure Reason — the majority of the philosophical world has gradually moved to a position that regards a strict demonstration of G-d’s existence as impossible or at least problematic and disputable.

      But even if these criticisms are dismissed and the classic proofs accepted as valid inferences, it is still a question of doubt whether Rom. 1:20 should be understood as teaching that G-d’s existence can be demonstrated by a process of natural reasoning. Aquinas’ own teachings give raise to this doubt, by the fact that he himself holds that G-d’s supernatural revelation contains also those truths about him which are discoverable by unaided natural reason. Consequently, these truths are not only the object of natural reason but also of faith. And Aquinas gives three important arguments for this. He says, in the Second Section of the Second Part of the Summa (question 2, art. 4):

      “It is necessary for man to accept by faith not only things which are above reason, but also those which can be known by reason: and this for three motives. First, in order that man may arrive more quickly at the knowledge of Divine truth. Because the science to whose province it belongs to prove the existence of G-d, is the last of all to offer itself to human research, since it presupposes many other sciences: so that it would not by until late in life that man would arrive at the knowledge of G-d. The second reason is, in order that the knowledge of G-d may be more general. For many are unable to make progress in the study of science, either through dullness of mind, or through having a number of occupations, and temporal needs, or even through laziness in learning, all of whom would be altogether deprived of the knowledge of G-d, unless Divine things were brought to their knowledge under the guise of faith. The third reason is for the sake of certitude. For human reason is very deficient in things concerning G-d. A sign of this is that philosophers in their researches, by natural investigation, into human affairs, have fallen into many errors, and have disagreed among themselves. And consequently, in order that men might have knowledge of G-d, free of doubt and uncertainty, it was necessary for Divine matters to be delivered to them by way of faith, being told to them, as it were, by G-d Himself Who cannot lie.” (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3002.htm#article4)

      These three arguments, in particular the third, contain a conspicuous contrast with the saying of the Apostle in Rom. 1:20. While Paul says that “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made”, Aquinas says that philosophers often have fallen into error and disagreement, and that philosophical knowledge, especially if it has G-d as its object, is not easily freed from doubt and uncertainty. This is a strong indication that Paul is not thinking of philosophical demonstrations of G-d’s existence when he speaks of invisible things that are clearly seen. Philosophical learning is only attainable for a few, but the Apostle seems to point to a knowledge that is within the reach of all and of which the purpose is “that they are without excuse”.

      It seems improbable, thus, that Paul in Rom. 1:20 is laying a religious or theological claim on philosophy to demonstrate the existence of G-d. In fact, nothing is said about the human mental activity involved in obtaining this knowledge of G-d. I think it more probable that in Rom. 1:20 Paul is addressing the possibility and responsibility of man to receive G-d’s revelation. If this is true, then this verse is not about the possibility of demonstrating G-d’s existence by philosophical proof, but about the capacity of the human mind to be impressed by G-d’s glorious revelation by means of the created things, without such proof. Of course this is not meant in a logically redundant (or tautological) sense according to which the things of this world are already conceived formally and a priori as “things that are made”. The general thought of the verse seems to be that the things of this world by their very capacity to be known by us show a wisdom realized in them, and are thus naturally understood to be made by a divine intellective power, in an analogous manner as an artifact is understood to be made by a human intellective power. This interpretation would mean that the knowledge of G-d’s existence is spontaneously formed in us when we consider the things of this world. And in this sense one could say that G-d’s existence and unity are knowable to us in a natural — though not in a theoretical and philosophical — way. This explanation of Rom. 1:20 seems to be in full accord with the thoughts expressed in (the first part of) Ps. 19.

      The category of truths about G-d which are both supernaturally revealed and discoverable by natural reason are called by Aquinas the preambula fidei, preambles of the faith. In Aquinas’ thought these truths are on the preparatory level compared with those truths he considers to be the real “mysteries” of the faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation. As I said, I think this is not a biblical scheme. When G-d supernaturally reveals himself to the patriarchs and the nation of Israel, and when he reveals himself in Messiah Yeshua, his main objective is to restore the original communication of love between G-d and man that was disturbed by the fall, not to reveal new mysterious things about the structure of his own inner being that were not known before. In the Shema Yisrael he reveals his Unity as the necessary focus of human love. Because G-d is One and not many he is able to possess the whole human heart and the love of his redeemed can be fully concentrated on him. This answer of restored human love to the One G-d was given in a full and unsurpassable manner by Messiah Yeshua in his self-sacrifice. And if we acknowledge Messiah’s love to the Father as the true measure of love we are graciously included in him and accepted by G-d. The appearance of Messiah thus doesn’t lead to a Supersessionist Trinitarianism that only obscures the relation of love between G-d and man by positing a G-dman. Instead, it was only as a man that Messiah could fulfil the commandment of the Shema, the commandment to love the One G-d of Israel above all things, to its fullest measure.

      Literature:
      David L. Turner, “Cornelius Van Til and Romans 1:18-21: A Study in the Epistemology of Presuppositional Apologetics” In: Grace Theological Journal 2.1 (1981) 45-58. Downloadable at: http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/NTeSources/NTArticles/GTJ-NT/Turner-Rom1-GTJ-81.pdf

      Gerhard Swart, “Why Without Excuse? An Inquiry into the Syntactic and Semantic Relations of Romans 1:18-21” In: Neotestamentica 39.2 (2005) 389-407. Downloadable at: http://www.axbe40.dsl.pipex.com/archive/392/392gswart-sample.pdf

      C. Stephen Evans & Merold Westphal (eds.), Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company — Grand Rapids, Michigan 1993.

  3. 5 graspingmashiach February 24, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Messianic613,

    Your reply has brought to mind the philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel who defines “awe” in much the same sense you relate the concept of “the human mind as impressed by G-d’s glorious revelation by means of the created things”. For Heschel “awe” is the intuitive knowledge within every human being by which one recognizes that everything in creation stands in relationship to a Creator or that all things stand for something absolute. “Awe” involves human intuition or insight that cannot be comprehended by analysis. It is “an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves”.

    In Heschel’s view, “awe” precedes faith; it is at the root of faith, and a person must grow in awe in order to reach faith. Awe is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew; “The beginning and gateway to faith, the first precept of all.”

    For Heschel the only way to wisdom is through awe. “Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you.” “Knowledge is fostered by curiosity, wisdom is fostered by awe.” Yet, Heschel also qualifies that wisdom is given to us by G-d and may be taken away by Him (cf. Proverbs 2:6, Isaiah 44:25)

    Reference:

    Heschel, “God in Search of Man” (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1955) pp. 73-79.

  4. 6 Daniel T. February 24, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    If Aquinas solves the logical problem of the “Trinity” by speaking of relation between its members.

    Then how do you solve the issue of shared attibutes in your perpective?

    If Meshiach is only human, how come he shares the revealed attributes of Hashem in the accounts of his earthly life as well as in the passages of Daniel of the Son of Man and in the messianic passages of the book of Psalms?

    I propose that his character reveals a pre-existent nature shared with his father.

    • 7 messianic613 February 25, 2009 at 5:10 pm

      Shared attributes are divine prerogatives delegated to Messiah by the supreme power of the Father. Messiah was exalted by the authority of the Father to be lord over all things, in his resurrection and ascension, in a similar way Joseph was exalted to be lord over all Egypt under the supreme authority of Pharaoh. Messiah shares in some of the divine attributes — both in his earthly life and after his resurrection — because he is made the supreme agent and representative of the Father within created reality. ‘To share in’, however, means ‘to participate in’ and to participate in implies a relation of dependence that is only possible for a creature. Messiah was given a position of authority during his earthly life by HaShem’s fore-ordained plan. And as a reward for his sinless life and his self-sacrifice on the Cross for the salvation of mankind he received immortality by being resurrected from the dead. He was made the first in rank and the cornerstone of the new creation, in whom all things consist. But this exalted position does not make him G-d. (View for this the article of Anthony DeMarco, “Basic Biblical Christology for Unitarian Christians” In: Focus on the Kingdom, Volume 9 No. 8, May 2007, at: http://focusonthekingdom.org/98.htm#1

      Participation in some of the divine attributes is not an essential or ontological property of Messiah, but a property belonging to his function or office. The authority to forgive sins, or to resurrect the dead on the Day of Judgement, to mention some of these powers, are graciously bestowed upon him by the Father. All these powers and attributes are given to Messiah by the Father, and Messiah thus is always dependent on the Father.

      In the passage in the 7th chapter of Book of Daniel about the Son of Man it is very clear that the “one like a son of man” is portrayed as distinct in essence as well as in rank from “the Ancient of Days”. He is distinct in rank, as can be seen from the fact that the Son of Man is led before the Ancient of Days , to receive from Him (Dan. 7:14) “dominion, and glory, and a Kingdom”. That the Son of Man is also distinct in esssence is clear by the title “Son of Man” that could never be predicated of the “Ancient of Days”.

      There is no thought of real pre-existence in all this. Messiah did not pre-exist, but was fore-ordained by the eternal counsel of the Father. The vision of Daniel is about the future Messiah, not about an pre-existing eternal Son. This is the same in the passages of the Psalms, e.g. the famous Ps. 110:1. For an exegesis of this verse, view: http://focusonthekingdom.org/articles/adonai.htm and: http://focusonthekingdom.org/articles/BD86.htm About pre-existence in the NT view the article of Anthony Buzzard, “The Nature of Preexistence in the New Testament” In: A Journal from the Radical Reformation, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall 1996, at: http://www.abc-coggc.org/jrad/volume6/issue1/The%20Nature%20of%20Preexistence.pdf

      A good general introduction to Biblical Unitarian Christology is given by Mark M. Mattison, “Trinitarian Dogma from a Unitarian Perspective” In: A Journal from the Radical Reformation, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer 1994, at: http://www.abc-coggc.org/jrad/volume3/issue4/Trinitarian%20Dogma%20from%20a%20Unitarian%20Perspective.pdf

      Additional literature:
      Sean Finnegan, “Literal and Notional Pre-existence: Crossroads for the Incarnation Debate” Downloadable at: http://www.kingdomready.org/topics/pdfs/IncarnationPaper.pdf

      Nathan Crowder, “Christ – The Firstborn Head of the Universe”, Paper presented to the One God Theological Conference, Living Hope International Ministries — Latham, N.Y. 2007. Downloadable at: http://www.kingdomready.org/topics/pdfs/One%20God%20II.pdf

      Gary Fakhoury, “The Incarnation: Does It Make Sense?” Paper presented to the One God Theological Conference, Tyler — Texas 2003. Downloadable at: http://www.kingdomready.org/topics/pdfs/Gary%20Fakhoury%20-%20The%20Incarnation,%20Does%20It%20Make%20Sense.pdf


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