Why the Doctrine of the Trinity is Incompatible With Protestantism

Protestantism as a whole is founded on certain doctrinal assumptions which underly the entire Protestant system; these assumptions form a common basis from which various strands of Protestantism begin, and then branch out into a wide variety of different doctrinal traditions. Among these most basic Protestant doctrinal foundations stand two especially important pillars: the perspicuity of scripture, and sola scriptura. The perspicuity of scripture is the idea that the Bible is, at a basic level, understandable to the common Christian; it is clear enough that any well-intended Christian may come to it and upon serious and sincere inquiry into it, clearly understand at least the most basic doctrines of the Christians faith. While some things will be harder to understand, the basic gospel and rule of faith will be abundantly clear to anyone. Sola scriptura is the notion that we ought to generally base our understanding of Christian doctrine on practice on the Bible alone; other sources lack the reliability and authority the Bible has, and so, cannot be used as a basis for our Christian doctrine and practice.

The doctrine of the Trinity, however, is antithetical to both of these foundational Protestant doctrines. The doctrine of a triune God is said to be “the central mystery of Christianity” by its proponents; yet this is hardly compatible with the perspicuity of scripture for the central dogma of the Christian faith to be a mystery. Proponents of the trinity declare that ‘if one denies the trinity, they will lose their soul; it they try to understand it, they will lose their mind’. How, if the doctrine of the trinity in itself as a doctrine cannot be understood, can it be understood clearly from the Bible?

We must note that historic and creedal trinitarianism always declares that faith in the doctrine of the Trinity is required for salvation; that means that this cannot be dismissed as some tangental point of doctrine. According to the pseudo-athanasian creed, one who does not “so think” about the Trinity will be eternally damned to hell for his heresy. The doctrine of the trinity is, according to trinitarians, absolutely central and foundational to genuine Christianity. If that is so, then according to the perspicuity of scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity must be clear from the Bible- so clear that any well-intended reader would ascertain it from study of the Bible. It should be obvious that this is not the case at all, however. The doctrine of a tri-personal God is utterly absent from the Bible; so far from being a clear and unavoidable teaching of the Bible, it’s one that no one would even think of on the basis of the Bible alone- tradition is absolutely required to supply the ideas.

For evidence of this, one need look no farther than the early church. For the first couple of centuries, we have no record of any Christian asserting that the one God is tri-personal; not one. Assertions that Jesus literally pre-existed as a divine being, calling Jesus “God” etc, cannot be counted as a valid substitute for this, as Arianism would happily embrace such language as well. Indeed, most the early “proto-orthodox” writers are simply Arians of one shade or another, regarding Jesus as created by the Father, and being in some sense after the Father chronologically. Ancient assertions that Jesus is the “one God” on their own will not help either, when the reader sees that these confessions came from the lips of Sabellians, who denied that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons. If the doctrine of a triune God were clear from the Bible, how did the church miss this “clear” mystery for a few centuries? And how could the intense fourth and fifth century debates over the trinity and incarnation have ever occurred over such a clear mystery? How could at times the majority of bishops miss something so clear?

The very fact that the doctrine of the trinity is a “mystery” should make it plain that it is inherently contrary to the perspicuity of scripture. There is no such thing as a ‘clear mystery’- a ‘clear mystery’ is a contradiction in terms. Yet this contradiction is exactly what magisterial Protestantism has attempted to embrace by accepting both the mystery of the trinity and the perspicuity of scripture.

The doctrine of the Trinity is equally a problem for sola scriptura, for similar reasons. We have already addressed that the doctrine of the trinity is absent from the Bible, and that on the basis of church history alone, the honest trinitarian must admit that even if he thinks the doctrine is hiding somewhere in between the lines of the Bible, it at the very least is not clearly articulated in the Bible the way the perspicuity of scripture would demand that such a central and foundational doctrine must be.

Where then is the doctrine articulated clearly? Where must one go to discover the line between trinitarian orthodoxy and heresy? Not the Bible, certainly, but the rulings of councils and historic creeds. These creeds and conciliar rulings, however, are not part of the Bible, and yet are vital and necessary for ‘orthodox’ trinitarianism. This blatantly contradicts sola scriptura, though; how can a Protestant say that something outside the Bible is necessary for understanding basic and foundational Christianity? And not simply for understanding it, but for knowing where the lines between what is regarded as basic and foundational Christianity and damnable heresy lie?

It makes total sense that those who reject sola scriptura and appeal to councils, creeds, and popes as authorities alongside scripture can consistently regard Arianism and various deviations from creedal trinitarianism as heresy, and exclude these from their churches; but how can Protestants do this? The lines between heresy and orthodoxy on the basis of which they wish to exclude certain ‘heretical’ groups do not exist in the Bible; they can only be found outside the pages of scripture in tradition. Here we see the inconsistency- a Protestant cannot appeal to such tradition as having binding authority, and yet, must do precisely that to exclude trinitarian heresy. Only by the exclusion of such heresy can proper trinitarianism be maintained; and so, it will appear that tradition is utterly necessary to maintain the doctrine of the trinity in a church. Yet this is inconsistent for a Protestant, who has taken his stand on sola scriptura, and rejected the notion that ecclesiastical tradition holds any binding authority.

Consideration of these facts will show that it is unreasonable for anyone to attempt to be simultaneously Protestant and uphold creedal trinitarianism. One of these or the other must go, if a person will be consistent- and there is no virtue in inconsistency.

The suggestion of this author is to jettison trinitarianism. Sola scriptura and the perspicuity of scripture are both true, and aren’t the problem here. The problem is Protestants not acting consistently with these foundational principles by hanging onto teachings about God and Jesus that God has never revealed. To be Christian is, at a foundational level, to follow Christ Jesus, and so our understanding of Who God is and who Jesus is needs to match with, and be instructed by Jesus’s own teaching on the matter. The Bible is not unclear in teaching us to believe in one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ; but until we are willing to actually base our beliefs on scripture, rather than the inventions of men, this will remain obscure for many professing Christians.

General

Questions on the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed

The so-called Athanasian Creed, not authored by Athanasius, but by an anonymous medieval author, gives a long summary of Augustinian trinitarian dogma. It was not the product of, nor received the official sanction of, any of the supposed ‘7 ecumenical councils’. It reads as follows:

1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;

2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.

6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.

8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.

9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.

10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.

11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.

12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.

13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.

14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.

15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;

16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;

18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.

19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;

20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.

21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.

22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.

23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

30. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.

31. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.

32. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.

33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.

34. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.

35. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.

36. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.

37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;

38. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;

39. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;

40. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;

42. and shall give account of their own works.

43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

44. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

 

Questions:

1) Does not the teaching that ‘in the Trinity, none is greater or less than another’, contradict the Lord’s own statement, “My Father is greater than I”?

2) If the response to this is that the statement “My Father is greater than I” must be understood in a nuanced way, so that in once sense the Father is greater than the Son, and in another They are equal, then is the creed not convicted of being too broad in its statement, and in error, since it does not make any such distinction in that place?

3) Does not declaring that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal contradict the scriptures which say “God is the head of Christ”, and all the passages in the Old and New Testaments in which the Father is said to be the God of the Son, and that the Son acts according to the will of the Father, and can do nothing apart from the Father?

4) Does not declaring that the Son and Holy Spirit are ‘Almighty’ (Ruler over all) together with the Father clearly contradict the scriptures, which only call the Father “God Almighty”, and declare Him alone to be the Head and God of all things, even of His Son and Spirit?

5) Can something which contradicts the scriptures be fairly made to be standard which one must assent to be saved?

6) Does not saying that the Holy Spirit is ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ go beyond what can be proven from the scriptures?

7) Does not saying that the persons of the Trinity share one metaphysical nature go beyond what can be proven from the scriptures?

8) Can something which cannot be either proven nor disproven by the scriptures rightly be set up as a dogmatic standard which on must assent to in order to be saved?

9) Is it in the authority of any earthly man to set up, apart from the scriptures, or against the scriptures, their own opinions as a standard which others must consent to in order to be saved?

10) Does not the Athanasian Creed contradict the creed of the councils of Arminium and Seleucia, which have the approval of an ecumenical council?

11) How can a creed which contradicts the decision of an ecumenical council be counted as the catholic faith?

12) Since the so-called Athanasian creed includes the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Father and the Son, which the churches of East reject, how can the doctrine it teaches be counted catholic, or universal?

13) How can a creed which declares an equality of authority between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by declaring Them to each be equally ‘Almighty’, be said to teach the catholic faith, when this notion contradicts the teaching of the ante-nicenes, who taught that there is a divine monarchy, with the Father, as the one God, at its head?¬†How can a doctrine be called ‘catholic’ or universal, which could not find acceptance among the churches in the first three centuries after the apostles?

14) Does not the creed break with older trinitarian standards when it applies the title of the Son “one Lord”, and the title of the Father “one God” both to the Trinity as a whole instead of those persons individually?

15) How can a creed teaching Chalcedonian christology, which would be neither acceptable to the Gothic and Vandal Homoian churches, the ‘Nestorian’ Oriental Orthodox churches, nor the Coptic Miaphysite churches, be considered to teach the catholic faith? Or what is universal, or catholic, about doctrines which the whole church is not in agreement upon?

16) Is not the language of the Creed that there “the Father is ‘x’, the Son is ‘x’, the Spirit is ‘x’, yet there are not three ‘x’s, but one ‘x'” manifestly paradoxical?

17) Does not such paradoxical language, which is unintelligible to most, constitute a needless stumbling block to the simple and less-educated?

18) If a creed’s use is to express belief, then is it not requisite that for a creed to be useful, it must be believed?

19) How can people be said to believe what they do not understand the meaning of? Merely giving assent to a series of words which one does not comprehend the significance of can hardly be counted as belief, can it?

20) If then the creed, by being needlessly paradoxical and confusing, is unintelligible to the masses, is it not necessarily a useless creed, since it does not make known the actual beliefs of most who are compelled to give assent to it? And if it does accurately represent the beliefs of an elite few, since it fails to meaningfully communicate that view to the masses, is it not also useless on that count?

21) Finally, how can a creed which contains so so many propositions which are contradictory to the scriptures, and so many propositions which are highly controversial among the churches, and rejected by many of them, and which is so confused, paradoxical, and incoherent in what it says, put itself on such a high and lofty pedestal as to say that anyone who holds a different opinion than what it says, or does not think the same way, shall be damned, and is no Christian? Is it not the greatest hubris to put such a creed on the same level with scripture, in making it a standard which must be believed to be saved, although it contains many things not found in the scriptures?

Uncategorized

Thoughts and Questions on the Councils of Arminium and Seleucia

-The joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia met in 359 to resolve the ongoing trinitarian debates of the fourth century. The council of Nicea had succeeded in largely nullifying the threat of Arianism, but also, by introducing highly philosophical, extra-biblical, controversial language of ‘ousia’, ‘being’, or ‘substance’, had continued to be a source of controversy to the churches of the Roman empire.

Church History