Scriptural Problems Versus Philosophical Problems

In theological debate, you can categorize arguments, generally, into those that are Scriptural in nature and those that are philosophical in nature. When I say “in nature”, I’m referring to the basis of the argument, that thing down at the bottom that really motivates the argument. I’ve come at this issue in a previous article, but here, I want to focus in on problems and give them a full article. What I hope to do is to give a framework for examination of beliefs that helps us see if what motivates us really is what we think it is.

Every theological or philosophical position has problems. As philosophers will often say, “There is no such thing as an unoccupied position.” This means, that for pretty much any believe you can come up with, you can probably find someone willing to believe it, regardless of how crazy, and regardless of the fact that you just made it up. A corollary to this saying is that, whatever you do believe, someone disagrees, or, “There is no such thing as an unoccupied opposition.” If someone opposes your view on something, they can tell you the problems your position has.

Of course, merely having problems doesn’t make a view false, as this would render all beliefs false, which is actually impossible, since many pairs of opposing beliefs are of such a nature that at least one of them must be right (there is a God/there is no God, for example). It is only to say that arguments exist against any position, even the truth.

So what about our theological beliefs? We all have them, even atheists. We believe things about the spiritual world based on conclusions we’ve come to based on arguments, even simple ones. These ultimately come back to what we take to be our ultimate authority. We all have one of those, too. An ultimate authority, in the mind of a person, is a particular kind of belief. A statement or small group of statements from which everything else is reasoned. For me, it is the statement that the Scriptures are the words of God, and God is infallible. I reason from this point that I can trust the Scriptures in everything they affirm, and interpret the rest of my experience through that lens. For atheists, you’d have to ask individuals, but commonly, it is some philosophical premise that they reason from, whether their trust in their own senses, or that the material world is all that exists, etc. We all have a starting place.

So what about problems? As I did in my previous article on motivations, I am going to focus on problems that arise among people who all claim that the Scriptures are infallible. Even among those who make this claim, there are differences that arise, and arguments in support of and against the various sides of these issues. Now, these arguments are going to vary, but what I want to shine a light on is, as the title suggests, the distinction between Scriptural problems and philosophical problems.

To define my terms, Scriptural problems for a belief arise from the text of Scripture. They tend to sound like, “but what about this passage here?”. Philosophical problems arise from philosophical commitments of one’s opponent. It might sound like, “that belief doesn’t make sense because…”, or “that belief is immoral because…”. As I stated, all views have problems. The question is going to be, would you rather have Scriptural problems or philosophical problems to solve? Let’s look at a couple of examples to show what I’m talking about. And one disclaimer: of course I know that both sides of these issues believe they have Scripture on their side. That isn’t what I’m addressing. I’m addressing the primary ways in which their opponents challenge these positions, and how people who believe these things challenge their opponents. So as you read, if you find yourself disagreeing with me, don’t ask yourself if your belief is supported in Scripture. I’m sure you believe it is. Instead, ask yourself about your opponents. What kinds of arguments do you usually find they bring against you? That is what I’m talking about.

The Deity of Christ

I’ve spent some time on this, and so you may know some of what I will say here, but let’s consider the debate between the Trinitarian and the Unitarian on this issue. Of course, both sides will appeal to the Scriptures they see as being in support of their view. The Trinitarian appeals to passages that apply passages from the Old Testament about Yahweh to Jesus, or passages that speak of Jesus as Creator, or that call Him God, or that He is worshiped, etc. The Unitarian points to passages that say there is just one God, or that highlight Jesus’ humanity, or speak of Him in distinction from the Father, or that show Him worshiping the Father and calling Him His God, etc.

These are the positive presentations. As such, each argument for one side is an argument against the other side and so both sides have some Scriptural problems to solve. However, when we look at how both sides answer these issues, they do so very differently. The Trinitarian typically answers the arguments above by simply pointing out that those things the Unitarian is focused on are all things that are consistent with the Trinity. In other words, the Trinitarian affirms the passages appealed to by the Unitarian, but just doesn’t draw the further conclusion that the Trinity is false. Trinitarians believe in only one God, that Jesus is fully human, that Jesus is distinct from the Father, that His status as human also means he relates to God as a human would, through worship, etc. In other words, the Scriptures the Unitarian appeals to are essentially interpreted the same way the Unitarian interprets them, the Trinitarian just doesn’t take it a step further and say that this means Jesus isn’t God. More on this later.

The Unitarian, on the other hand, answers the Scriptures brought up by the Trinitarian in a different way. The Unitarian comes to these passages and seeks to understand the passage differently than the Trinitarian. The Unitarian looks for ways that the passage doesn’t have to mean what the Trinitarian says it means. This is done a number of ways. Sometimes, they employ the word study defense, looking at a particular word or phrase as it is used in other contexts to find a way of understanding it differently than the Trinitarian is doing. Another common tactic is the Shaliach defense, in which the Unitarian seeks to understand the passage as speaking of Jesus as God in some representative sense, not literally. One other defense I’ve seen is to appeal to people’s reason and just say how preposterous it is to suppose a passage is saying Jesus is God.

So, one side, the Trinitarian, basically accepts the other side’s positive exegesis, but just points out that none of that actually proves the Trinity wrong. In fact, it just proves to be true a certain group of beliefs the Trinitarian and Unitarian have in common. The Unitarian, on the other hand, cannot affirm the Trinitarian’s exegesis, and so looks for ways of solving the Scriptural issues the Trinitarian raises by finding alternative explanations of the passages. So, when it comes to positive presentations, the way they are answered is basically that the Trinitarian says, “I agree with you on your basic premises, as the Scripture you quote is clear, just not your conclusions. Your Scriptures pose no challenge.” The Unitarian says, “You are interpreting the Scriptures wrong. They don’t really mean what you are saying, let me give a different understanding.” So, when both sides present a positive Scriptural case, one side, the Trinitarian, can simply appropriate the Scriptures brought up by the other, and even affirm the other’s initial exegesis. That really neutralizes those Scriptures as even presenting a problem. The other side, though, has to offer alternatives to the most basic, surface-level exegesis offered by the Trinitarian in his positive presentation, and has to bring in alternatives not found in the passages themselves, such as the word study defense and the Shaliach defense.

Now, on the flip side of positive presentation is arguments against the other. These are arguments formulated, not necessarily to show that one’s own position is true, and thus others false, but directly aimed at the other side to show they are false, without necessarily proving one’s own position true. What kind of arguments show up here?

From the Trinitarian side, you have arguments that Jesus couldn’t be our Savior or take our sin if He is just a man. He couldn’t answer our prayers with a limited human mind, no matter how empowered. On the Unitarian side, the arguments are truly numerous. Arguments against the idea of God being one and three at the same time, that Jesus couldn’t be human and God, that He couldn’t die if he’s human, that preexistence would mean He isn’t human, Jesus can’t be both identified as God and be identified as someone distinct from the Father, etc.

Now, in my experience, those who spend time dealing with the arguments of the other side tend to discard or ignore poor, weak arguments and move toward stronger ones. I believe it is for this reason that most Trinitarians do not defend the Deity of Christ by just pointing to how great and powerful Jesus is, and that this power must mean He’s God, using such as taking our sin on the cross. Things like this aren’t made exclusive to God in Scripture. Trinitarians tend to favor going to passages that teach on the nature, authority, and roles of Christ that are explicitly limited to Deity to make their argument. In short, Trinitarians don’t have a lot of argumentation that isn’t already a part of their positive presentation.

Unitarians, on the other hand, don’t tend to spend as much time going over passage after passage to attack the Trinity, like Trinitarians do when attacking Unitarianism. They tend to either be focused on logical, philosophical considerations like those mentioned above, or digging into the Scriptures used by Trinitarians to find defenses. Charges of idolatry, paganism, or apostasy are common from Unitarians, but the reason for these charges usually comes down to Trinitarians somehow denying that “God is one”, or that Jesus truly came in the flesh. While these are Scriptural concepts, the argumentation itself doesn’t just appeal to passages that teach these things, since Trinitarians affirm them. Rather, the argumentation focuses on trying to find logical contradictions in Trinitarian theology regarding these truths, so they fill out the definitions of concepts of “one”, “God”, “human”, and “being” to try to make it so that Trintiarians are contradicting themselves.

This distinction is so important. In the crucible of argumentation, the Trinitarian goes to the Scriptures to define every detail of his theology to defend it there. The Unitarian, on the other hand, goes to some of the same Scriptures as the Trinitarian, then adds to the definitions of terms and moves into philosophical considerations and arguments to try to disprove the Trinity.

To see this, consider those specific beliefs that are actually unique to each side, not what they have in common. Trinitarians believe Jesus is God, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct, yet all identified as the one God. Are these beliefs, on the surface, derivable from Scripture? Of course they are. Even the Unitarian has to admit that there are passages that at least seem to say things like this. Trinitarians are constantly quoting them and Unitarians are constantly defending against those interpretations. So, even if Trinitarians were wrong, one can see where their ideas came from in Scripture.

Now, consider some uniquely Unitarian beliefs: Jesus is only human. Jesus is not God. Jesus did not preexist in any other form except as an idea before His conception in Mary’s womb. God is a being of only one Person. The Holy Spirit is not a Person distinct from the Father. Now, considering these beliefs, are they found in Scripture? If you think so, consider that, in order to make these uniquely Unitarian beliefs, the negations in these statements (only, not, etc) must be present. The fact is, Scripture never says Jesus is “only” human, or that He is not God, or that God is only one Person. All of the uniquely Unitarian beliefs are derived through reasoning out from certain things Scripture does say, but that reasoning comes to conclusions that are not found in Scripture. Trinitarians do this as well, but not with that which is definitional to the Trinity.

Now, as this relates to problems, it means that, philosophically, Unitarianism is much simpler and less difficult for our minds to grasp. It has fewer philosophical problems than the Trinity, and we can see why. It starts from certain Scriptures, then reasons to what we find philosophically easy enough to understand. The Trinity, on the other hand, takes all of Scripture into account, and comes up with truths that are not philosophically simple to reconcile. God is one, in one sense, but three in another. Jesus is both God and man, somehow. These are hard, some would even say impossible, to fully explain. Now, the Trinitarian doesn’t believe any actual contradictory things, but there are unanswered philosophical questions.

So take your pick. You can be a Unitarian (or pick another non-Trinitarian view; they do the same thing) and you will find it easy to answer philosophical questions about God, but will have to work hard to handle Scriptures that seem to go against you, or you can be a Trinitarian and affirm all the Scriptures say with very little difficulty, simply affirming all the positive Scriptures the Unitarian appeals to, since they fit within your theology, but have unanswered philosophical questions. Now, as a professing Christian, would you rather have numerous philosophical problems or numerous Scriptural problems?

Predestination and Free Will

Let’s look at another big controversy. Does God predestine who will be saved, completely apart from human decisions, or is it a free will choice, not determined by anything outside our own free decision? Here, you will find a similar situation as before, with both sides appealing to Scripture to make their positive case, but one side will move outside to philosophical considerations more than the other. Now, I think this issue is less clear than the Trinity. I do have a side, but here we do actually have Scriptures that both sides can appeal to that seem, on the surface, to support their side. What I will say is that it is impossible for both sides to be right in their conclusions, so someone must be wrong about their interpretation.

Also, I have seen people on both sides of this issue spend a great deal of time appealing to philosophical considerations more than the Scriptures. One side is so focused on preserving their own idea of free will that they will twist any Scripture to get it to fit. The other is so focused on their own ideas about God’s sovereignty that they will simply dismiss anything they see as attacking that, without considering the Scriptures themselves with any depth.

The fact is that predestination, election, God choosing, God giving faith, are all biblical concepts, found right there in the text. The other fact is that human choice, responsibility for choices, and culpability are also biblical concepts. So if they are all biblical concepts, how do they fit together? Once again, one side seeks first to believe the Scriptures as they appear, and only secondarily considers other philosophical commitments. The other side places other commitments at the forefront.

To look at it another way, there are basically three categories of statements in play in the debate, and each side is committed to two of them.

  1. The Scripture teaches predestination.
  2. The Scripture teaches human responsibility
  3. If predestination is true, there is no human responsibility.

These three statements are of a nature that only two can be true, not all three. The one that believes the first two statements is generally called a Calvinist, and the one who believes the second two is often called an Arminian. In this article, I’m not going into all the nuances of different forms of these beliefs or different preferred names. My point is simply that the Calvinist and Arminian are basically looking at these statements and picking the two that make the most sense to them. This, of course, leads to problems for both. For the Calvinist, the problem is that the third statement seems plausible to most people and so must have some kind of explanation for why it isn’t actually true. For the Arminian, the Scriptures that are appealed to by the Calvinist in order to support the first statement must have different interpretations than what the Calvinist says is the plain meaning. For the Arminian, the problem is that they have to deal with difficult Scriptures.

If this is all looking a bit familiar, that is because the situation is similar to the first example about the Deity of Christ. One side has a philosophical commitment that allows them an easier time dealing with certain philosophical questions, but the price is having to deal with difficult Scriptures that seem to go against their view. The other side just bites the bullet on difficult philosophical questions in order to accept the teaching of Scripture as paramount. Many Calvinists call this compatibilism, the view that predestination and human responsibility are compatible, somehow. If you think they are incompatible, then you’re probably not a Calvinist.

Interestingly, on this issue, there is actually a third position that also believes the third statement true, but instead of rejecting predestination, it rejects human responsibility. This fatalistic view is known as Hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinists believe that God predestines everything, and since that negates human responsibility, they reject that Scripture actually teaches human responsibility. What I find fascinating is that, while so much attention is focused on Calvinism versus Arminianism, what we really have is a trio of systems, two of which are willing to reinterpret Scripture in order to uphold a certain philosophical belief, while a third, Calvinism, says we should trust the Scriptures first and work on solving the philosophical problems with that, rather than invite the Scriptural problems of following the other views.


In discussions I’ve had about these issues and others, I have often said that I would rather face difficult philosophical questions than difficult Scriptural questions. And this is for the simple reason that human philosophical reasoning is not as trustworthy as the very words of God. I stand on the Scriptures, not human intuition, no matter how plausible. And this is not an admission that the Scriptures are somehow non-logical or not reasonable. I believe that there are no contradictions of any sort in Scriptural teaching. So I do believe I have good, logically coherent answers to the philosophical challenges I face from opponents. It’s just that I’m ok with rejecting some common philosophical predilections that lead others off into speculations about the text of Scripture that are not the least bit motivated by the text itself.

Also, none of this is to say that I think all concepts taught in Scripture are equally clear. They don’t all fit into this sort of analysis. If you look at various view of the end times, you find that, really, it is a clash of different views that are all trying to adhere to Scripture, in their own ways. The only real philosophical differences are related to how we should approach Scripture, not other moral or logical considerations.

My hope is that those reading this will be willing to reexamine their view to see where they are standing. Have you ever appealed to “reason” or what “makes sense” to defend your interpretation of a passage or your rejection of another view? Have you ever appealed to an attribute of God to contradict someone’s interpretation of Scripture? That’s a philosophical tenet. Your understanding of the attributes of God do not override the text. You’re more likely to be wrong about the implications of your definition of God than the Scriptures are to be wrong about what they are saying. This goes for whatever any of us think. Consider why you believe what you believe and consider your challengers. How do they challenge your views, for the most part? If they are coming at you with Scripture, and you are coming at them with philosophy, you might be in trouble.

I hope you have found this helpful.