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An Argument Concerning the Trinity
2010 Dec 04
Although I can identify certain sentences which educated Christians take
as descriptive of the Trinity, I remain unable to meaningfully interpret those
sentences as a cohesive whole, or to otherwise find any substance to the various
supposed descriptions of the doctrine. I suspect that this is not my own failing,
but rather caused by a genuine lack of meaningful content therein. Indeed, I
submit that even those Christians who claim to understand the Trinity doctrine
may not actually understand it. However, I make this suggestion humbly, and
with an earnest desire for correction in case I am mistaken. So it is that I have
sought at some length to meaningfully interpret it, by inquiring after Christians
how to do properly so. Yet this process has proved invariably unsuccessful, for a
number of different reason, chief among them, in my experience, the supposition
on the part of certain Christians that a non-Christian is simply incapable of
understanding the doctrine in the first place. These Christians are unwilling to
discuss the matter because, according to them, I must come to know God, or
some such, before I can appreciate the meaningfulness of the Trinity. In this
discussion, therefore, I shall outline a defense for my position that the following
three statements are inconsistent when taken together:
(I) Non-Christians cannot understand the Trinity.
(II) Christians always understand the Trinity.
(III) Accepting the Trinity is rational.
The purpose of my defense is to promote discussion about the Trinity doctrine’s
meaningful content, or lack thereof, by resisting objections to the effect that
non-Christians cannot understand it.
My defense turns on the important status given to the Trinity doctrine
by orthodox Christians. Indeed, with its long history of difficult formulation,
the Trinity stands today as a particularly controversial doctrine in Christian
theology: On one hand, many Christians consider it to be an essential tenet of
faith, such that anyone who denies the Trinity is not, by their reckoning, a true
Christian. Yet while educated Christians are often able to articulate the doctrine
precisely and with basic agreement, many other Christians have considerable
trouble expressing it, and find serious disagreement in its various aspects. It
strikes me as strange, however, that an essential doctrine should appear so
widely misunderstood within the Christian community. Having observed this,
we might ask, if the Trinity is to be taken as an essential doctrine, then in
what sense is it really essential, given that so many self-professed Trinitarian
Christians cannot communicate it? Perhaps the key is not in acceptance, but
rather denial: So, one may, for whatever reason, fail to accept the Trinity, and
still be Christian; however, if one denies the Trinity, then he ought not be called
Actually accepting the doctrine of the Trinity, then, seems both unnecessary
and insufficient for being a Christian. To illustrate this intuitively, we can consider four distinct types of people, by no means an exhaustive list, who do not
accept the Trinity, but who neither reject it: Firstly, there are agnostics who
claim to understand the Trinity, but who have declined to believe it for some
other reason, for example the perceived lack of evidence for the Trinitarian God’s
existence. This shows rather unequivocally, and believers should for the most
part be happy to agree, that merely declining to deny the existence of the Trinitarian God is not sufficient to define a Christian. Second, we have self-described
Christians who claim to understand the Trinity, but who profess agnosticism as
to whether or not it accurately represents the relationship between Jesus, the
Father and the Holy Spirit. These Christians might, for instance, accept the
divinity of Jesus without being sure how to properly reconcile that doctrine with
monotheism. Thirdly, we may encounter Christians who freely admit that they
do not understand the Trinity. Even if such Christians claim to be Trinitarian,
they cannot possibly be so if their profession of ignorance is correct; for one
cannot accept a doctrine, except by proxy, unless one understands it. Fourth,
and finally for our purposes, many Christians who describe themselves as Trinitarian, and who believe they deeply appreciate the doctrine, in actuality have
little or no understanding of it. We should not expect such Christians to be few
in number, and indeed I suspect they are the most common of all four groups
we have discussed thus far. As with those Christians who openly acknowledge
their ignorance, these Christians whose nonunderstanding remains hidden, at
least to themselves, cannot really accept the Trinity if they do not know what it
entails. Certainly more deserves to be said regarding these types, especially for
those Christians who fail to understand the Trinity, whether knowingly or not.
For now, however, it suffices to have briefly surveyed various groups of people
who do neither accept nor reject the Trinity, in order to show that they are not
all obviously Christian or non-Christian.
If the Trinitarian acknowledges that not all Christians understand the Trinity, then hopefully this will enable him to consider the possibility that he himself
hasn’t properly understood it, either. In that case, we might seek discussion
along those lines. Nevertheless, some Christians may insist that even if a person fails to deny the Trinity, if he does not accept it he cannot be a Christian.
However, this view, when taken with certain uncontroversial assumptions, has
serious consequences, in particular, that either non-Christians are able to understand the Trinity doctrine or else all Christians make an irrational decision
when they accept the Trinity. For, if non-Christians are unable to understand
the Trinity on one hand, and on the other hand Christians always accept (and
therefore understand) the Trinity, then this means that a person only begins
to understand the Trinity at the very instant of becoming Christian. So, there
can be no time for rational deliberation, which of course means that any such
decision to accept the Trinity must be irrational. Presumably the Christian will
wish to preserve his sense of rationality, and so when confronted with this choice,
should he recognize its necessity, he is likely to acknowledge that non-Christians
are capable of understanding the Trinity. The conversation can thereby move
forward to exploring that doctrine.
In case the Christian insists that non-Christians can never understand the
Trinity, while simultaneously holding that anyone who does not accept the Trinity is not a true Christian, then we can drive home the point with a formalization
of the afore-mentioned argument:
(1) A person x is a Christian at time t only if x accepts doctrine Y
(2) Person x understands doctrine Y at time t only if x is a Christian
(3) Person x makes a rational decision to accept doctrine Y only if
x deliberates on doctrine Y.
(4) If person x deliberates on doctrine Y, then there is a time t at
which x understands but does not accept doctrine Y.
(5) If person x accepts doctrine Y at time t, then either x makes a
rational decision to accept doctrine Y, or else x makes an irrational
decision to accept doctrine Y.
(6) Therefore, if person x is a Christian at time t, then x makes an
irrational decision to accept doctrine Y.
The deductive validity of this argument may be verified1 using the following
(t)(x)(Cxt → Axt);
(t)(x)(U xt → Cxt);
(x)(Rx → Dx);
(x)(Dx → (∃t)(U xt ∧ ¬Axt));
(t)(x)(Axt → (Rx ∨ Ix));
therefore (t)(x)(Cxt → Ix);
where U xt symbolizes the statement “Person x understands doctrine Y at time
t,” Axt symbolizes “Person x accepts doctrine Y at time t,” Cxt symbolized
“Person x is a Christian at time t,” Rx symbolizes “Person x makes a rational
decision to accept doctrine Y,” Ix symbolizes “Person x makes an irrational
decision to accept doctrine Y, and Dx symbolizes “Person x deliberates on
doctrine Y.” Clearly, we take “doctrine Y” in all cases to denote the Trinity,
but the generalization allows us to apply the argument to any doctrine whose
acceptance is perceived as essential to salvation.
1 Let t, x be such that Cxt. Then Axt by (1), and either Rx or Ix by (5). Suppose towards
a contradiction that Rx. Then Dx by (3), which means by (4) that there is s such that U xs
and ¬Axs. By (2), this gives us Cxs, and by (1) we have Axs, a contradiction. Therefore Ix.
Here we wish to show the consequences holding to both of the first two
premisses. In contrast, premisses (3)-(5) seem fairly straightforward, though
objections may be thrown up against these, as well. For example, a Christian might wish to quibble over premiss (5), claiming that there is a difference
between ir rational and non-rational decisions. Yet even if we allow such accommodations, we should still feel the force of the argument.
Recall again statements (I)-(III) from earlier: If a Trinitarian is willing to
deny (III), then while it may end any discussion of the meaningfulness of the
Trinity doctrine, it presents an opportunity for exploring the rationality or irrationality of Christianity, a worthy subject on its own. Otherwise the Christian
can deny (I) or (II); if (I), then clearly the conversation can continue unabated;
if (II), then, as mentioned previously, this motivates the Christian to reflect
upon his own meaning, and we can foster care and attention in that task.