Initial Reflections on Debate with Andrew Griffin on the Trinity

I would just like to start by saying I am very pleased with how the debate went. I would say it definitely went quite a bit longer than expected, due to the moderator questions taking longer even than I think the moderator himself thought they would. I think both debaters were self-controlled and God was glorified in the proclamation of His truth.

I haven’t gone back and listened to the debate, so any thoughts now are just from memory of the event itself. I went into this debate with a lot of advantages. Mr. Griffin had engaged in two prior debates on the Trinity that were posted online. These debates had the same moderator, and roughly the same structure, so I had a good idea what to expect. I knew the style of argumentation Mr. Griffin would employ and what types of questions Rivers, the moderator, would ask concerning the passages I raised.

At one point, either in his rebuttal or closing statement, Mr. Griffin made reference to some communication we had prior to the debate, where he asked me to provide a summary of my position. He said I didn’t provide that. What I provided was actually the same thing I have said in my article on the biblical definition of the Trinity. This was also the same thing I said in my own opening statement. I told him that my position is that, biblically speaking, the Trinity is a name we give to a collection of doctrines that are all taught explicitly in Scripture. I listed those doctrines for him at that time, just as I did in my opening statement and in the article referenced above. I also gave him a link to this blog also with reference to the same article.

So, on the one hand, I know he had access to my position and my arguments for about a month as we were preparing for the debate. On the other hand, I can understand why he felt that my summary wasn’t a summary. Christians, for the most part, have been taught to treat the Trinity as a single statement. Different Trinitarians have different single statements they like. Some like to say God is one Being and three Persons. Some like to speak of the monarchy of the Father, and that Jesus and the Spirit are also God in the fact that they derive their nature from the Father, but would typically speak of God as Father. As I’ve said, these explanations are ok, but they aren’t the Trinity itself.

The Trinity itself just isn’t one single statement. Biblically, the Trinity is less akin to the doctrine of, say, the resurrection of Christ, which is a single, simple concept, and more akin to entire areas of theology, like soteriology, or eschatology. People don’t think of soteriology or eschatology, or even a particular view of these things, as a single doctrine. They think of them as entire doctrinal systems that contain many doctrines. No one says, for example, that Calvinism or Arminianism isn’t taught in Scripture, for the reason that there isn’t a single text somewhere that teaches all of its tenets in one place.

The Trinity, or perhaps more appropriately for how we are speaking now, Trinitarianism, is a particular view of what is called “theology proper”, the doctrine of God. This includes other things, like the attributes of God, but should not be thought of as a single, simple doctrine, like substitutionary atonement, or that Jesus performed miracles.

I think this lack of a single statement of the doctrine of the Trinity is what made Mr. Griffin think that I hadn’t given a definition. The fact is, most theologians and apologists spend a lot of time offering explanations of the Trinity, which are single, complex statements, only then attempting to support them by appeal to various Scriptures, but the Scriptures only seem to talk about part of it, and never explain the whole thing. That lack of explanation is a constant target of the non-Trinitarian, and I just took that target away in the debate. I didn’t try to defend any particular explanation of the Trinity, but focused on supporting the primary aspect of the Trinity that we disagreed about. This put him at a great disadvantage, I believe. I was arguing for one of the simple doctrines that make up Trinitarianism, taking for granted those other doctrines that we agreed about. The presentation really contained no human reasoning for him to attack. It was just Scripture throughout.

I am not the first to come up with this way of defending the Trinity. Many theologians speak of the Trinity being built on the pillars of monotheism, the distinct personhood of Father, Son, and Spirit, and the deity of Father, Son, and Spirit. My first contact with that was from Dr. James White in discussing how he explains the Trinity this way. He goes on to stress the difference between “being” and “person”, which is a good explanation, but one thing I realized at one point is that that difference is something to help explain the Trinity. It is not the biblical teaching itself.

Another theologian who presents the Trinity in essentially the same way I do is Rob Bowman. In an article titled, “Shouldn’t a Biblical Doctrine Be Explained Using Only Biblical Words or Concepts?”, he offers good reasoning that we really can’t follow that principle strictly, but does go on to actually define the Trinity as a similar group of doctrines:

Fifth, the doctrine of the Trinity can be stated without using extrabiblical terminology. Allowing for using words in English that correspond (generally) to the Hebrew and Greek words found in the Bible, it is quite possible to use biblical words alone to express the doctrine:

  • There is one God, Yahweh (the LORD).

  • The Father is God.

  • The Son, Jesus Christ, is God.

  • The Holy Spirit is God.

  • The Father is not the Son.

  • The Father is not the Holy Spirit.

  • The Son is not the Holy Spirit.

As he says, there’s no extra-biblical language here. He even goes on to restate these statements with the actual Scriptural statements that support them. The important thing to see is that, as he says “the doctrine of the Trinity can be stated…” He takes these statements to be actually stating the doctrine of the Trinity.

When I was a Unitarian, and first came across the idea that, biblically, the Trinity was really just a collection of doctrines, it presented me with a problem. Either I had to show, beyond any doubt, that one or more of these doctrines was contrary to Scripture, or I had to show, beyond doubt, that these doctrines were contradictory to one another and that there is no possible explanation for how they might fit together. My argument that “the Trinity isn’t taught in Scripture”, was forever lost to me. I was attacking a phantom, a straw man of the Trinity itself. It was like saying, “Premillenial eschatology isn’t taught in Scripture”, simply because there isn’t a single place where the entire eschatological system is explained at once. That would be silly, and when you present the Trinity the way that Bowman does, you expose that kind of attack on the Trinity as equally silly.

Another advantage of this way of looking at the Trinity is that it presents a completely Scripturally based theology. At no point in the debate was I appealing to philosophical terms or language, and I made it clear that everything I was defending was what I could derive directly from Scripture. I made the point, which was never addressed, that Unitarianism cannot do a similar thing. Their list of distinctives is either just a subset of Trinitarian distinctives, or adds statements that are not clearly taught in Scripture.

Most Unitarians, when they get truly serious in their arguments, attack the Trinity in two ways. First, they attack the concept of the Trinity as illogical in some sense. Second, they engage in the long, hard task of looking for ways around Trinitarian texts, in an effort to weaken the Trinitarian’s positive argument.

What I’ve never seen is a Unitarian showing how a Trinitarian is committed to any actual contradiction, when all of the terms are defined as a Trinitarian would define them. This must not be overlooked. If you are seeking to mount a logical argument against any belief, you have to demonstrate that it is illogical on its own terms. This means you can’t go in and say the doctrine of the Trinity has a self-contradictory idea of God, but then not let it use its own definitions of words as it defines itself. When you introduce meanings and concepts from outside, you are t arguing that it contradicts itself anymore, but that it contradicts one of your own ideas. If you’re in the middle of attacking the Trinity, we already know it contradicts what you believe. That isn’t news or an argument.

As for the second method, it may be plausible to come up with alternate understandings of some of the passages that Trinitarians use, but not all of them. The ways in which the deity of Christ is affirmed in Scripture are many. In the debate, I chose four: Jesus as Creator, Jesus called Yahweh, Jesus worshiped just as God is, and Jesus as the cloud rider. I could have picked many things, but these are items that are unambiguously associated with and exclusively applied to God. Attempts to weaken these arguments must rely on interpretive methods that just cannot be maintained in other texts, and I think that really came out in some of the moderator question sections.

As I said, I’m pleased with the debate and will soon be uploading my own version of the debate, also with some edits for the debate proper and the moderator questions.