Discussions between Trinitarians and Unitarians (and often other non-Trinitarians) often come down to three kinds of conversations
- Proof-texting at each other
- Discussing a single passage that is often cited by one side
- Discussing logical/philosophical issues
I want to analyze why I believe that the Trinitarian has the upper hand in all three of these scenarios.
Here, what’s going on is not much deep discussion of texts, but rather a sort of battle of text-slinging. One side throws out a text they see as supportive of their view, and the other side doesn’t answer that text, but rather throws out another text they see as supportive of their view. This is usually where discussion begins, though, if the interlocutors are thoughtful, it will not stay here long, and will hopefully progress to the second type of conversation.
Let’s pause a moment, though, and think about the simple presentation of a text, and why it is that Trinitarians have the upper hand in this activity. As I have written on before, the biblical Trinity is not the same thing as all of the ways in which theologians explain it. Theologians use terms like “co-equal”, “essence”, “subsistence”, etc. to describe the Trinity, and while these terms, rightly defined, are not necessarily wrong, they are a step removed from the biblical language found in the text. The essentials are all simply stated by Scripture. They are stated in a variety of ways.
Among the essentials of the Trinity are its distinctives. It is essential to the Trinity that God is unique. However, this is not distinctive. Other theological positions believe in one God. The distinctives of the Trinity are the belief that God is three Persons and that Jesus possesses deity, as well as the distinct personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs all have supporting texts that point directly to them. Of course these are the texts that non-Trinitarians attempt to explain some other way, but the fact that you can’t find a Unitarian without a particular view of John 1, when nothing in John 1 is distinctly Unitarian, is evidence of this point. It, like many other texts, supports a distinctively Trinitarian position. To avoid that conclusion, the Unitarian or other must argue against that distinctively Trinitarian conclusion.
Nothing about that is unusual. Positive arguments for anything must be countered by opponents. Here is where proof-texting falls on the Trinitarian side. The Trinity, by nature, is an affirmation of Scriptural statements, even though many questions are raised by those statements. Non-Trinitarian views are, by nature, affirmations of only part of what Trinitarians also affirm, combined with denials of other things Trinitarians affirm. As a result, while there are countless texts that affirm Unitarian essentials, there are precious few that seem to affirm Unitarian distinctives. So, in a battle of prooftexts, the Trinitarian is at a distinct advantage. This is one reason why, when reviewing debates, Unitarians often complain if the Trinitarian just throws a bunch of texts out. On the one hand, rapid-fire arguments in a debate are impossible to answer, but that’s just the nature of debate. The other problem for the Unitarian is that he cannot do the same. If he does, it is only by citing texts that affirm something the Trinitarian believes, not any distinctively Unitarian statements from Scripture.
Discussing a Passage
Here, the focus is on what a particular passage means. Typically, it is one that is cited by one side as supportive of their view, and so the discussion takes an affirmative/negative character, where one side argues that it supports them, while the other side seeks to deflect that interpretation, sometimes offering a confident counter, but sometimes just offering other possibilities, so that they aren’t positively arguing what the text means, but rather offering several possibilities so that the one affirming their view from the text doesn’t have the only possible interpretation.
So, when discussing the Trinity, which texts get the most attention? By far, it is those texts that show support for Trinitarian distinctives. This can be seen by looking at any large body of work written on either side. If you’re reading a Trinitarian book defending the Trinity and countering non-Trinitarian views, by far, the most space will be devoted to discussion of passages that support the Trinity, either by presentation of those texts, or answering opposing views’ handling of those texts. Certainly, there are a handful of texts presented in support of other views, such as John 14:28 or John 17:3, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
The advantage for the Trinitarian lies in just what is happening when we discuss any specific text in this way. In most cases, the text in question is one that, on its face, supports a pillar of the Trinity. When Unitarians and Trinitarians discuss one of these texts, the stakes are not the same for both sides. If the Trinitarian is right about the deity of Christ found in passages like John 1, John 5, Colossians 1 and 2, Philippians 2, or Hebrews 1, the Unitarian position is utterly lost. More specifically, if the Trinitarian is right about any one of these and many other passages about other aspects of the Trinity, such as indications of plurality in God, or the distinct personhood of the Holy Spirit, the conclusion disproves the entire Unitarian position. Conversely, if the Unitarian is right about any one of these passages, it does not disprove the Trinity, but only removes one text as supportive of the Trinity.
This is not an equal contest. The precious few texts Unitarians can appeal to don’t explicitly endorse any distinctive Unitarian tenet. John 17:3 says the Father is the “only true God”, but does not say “only the Father” is the only true God. John 14:28 records Jesus saying “The Father is greater than I”, but it doesn’t explicitly describe this relation in any non-Trinitarian way. It is the same with every supposed support text for Unitarianism. None makes a distinctive Unitarian belief explicit. It is for this reason that most argumentation from Unitarians has to do with defending against the many extended passages that support the Trinitarian pillars. They have to. If they lose even one of those contests, their position is lost utterly.
In several cases, texts that were thought to directly support the Trinity, like 1 John 5:7, were found to be based on bad textual support, and they are no longer appealed to seriously by Trinitarians. But, at the same time, while the bedrock passages of the Trinity have remained strong, there have been just as many, if not more, textual discoveries and scholarship that have increased the number of texts that Trinitarians can point to, such as John 1:18, Romans 9:5, 2 Peter 1:1, and Jude 5. If textual scholarship can take away, it can also give. While textual understanding has removed some pro-Trinity passages as later additions, it has added new ones as more likely original, and what it has never done is add a single pro-Unitarian passage in this way.
If it gets into the texts themselves, the Trinitarian advantage is great. This is why, when trying to argue for his position, the Unitarian is so often drawn to the third kind of argumentation we now consider.
Discussing Logical/Philosophical Issues
Here, the argumentation moves off of Scripture, to discuss whether one side or the other is logically committed to anything they wouldn’t want to be, whether that is a contradiction, or a view that is equivalent to something unbiblical that isn’t the main focus of discussions. This is a favorite place to run for Unitarians, as well as Oneness folks and others. The strongest attacks on the Trinity always come from here, likely because they perceive the concepts of one God in three Persons, or Jesus being both human and divine, as weak points in the theology of the Trinity.
Of course, perception is not the same as reality. There is no question that the most difficult thing about the Trinity is comprehending it on a philosophical level. There are many questions that the biblical revelation doesn’t answer. But this is where the difficulty ends. It is one thing to ask a question that doesn’t have an answer. It is another thing entirely to prove someone is contradicting himself. The standard is much higher.
This is what gives the Trinitarian the advantage here. To prove that the Trinitarian is contradicting himself, the Unitarian must limit himself to appealing to things the Trinitarian actually believes, and show a logical contradiction there. It doesn’t work to just say “Trinitarians say God is one and three. That’s a contradiction!” A real contradiction requires that belief in the Trinity implies both A and not A in the exact same sense. Trinitarians do not believe that God is one and three in the same sense, so this is not a contradiction. I’ve written on this before, but I have never come across a logical argument against the Trinity that does not misrepresent it in order to derive the contradiction.
A point needs to be stressed here. Arguing against the Trinity on logical or philosophical grounds is, logically speaking, an isolated line of attack. What that means is that it cannot be combined with other types of arguments, such as those from Scripture. Allow me to demonstrate.
A logical argument against a given position must always begin with premises that position agrees with, and cannot introduce premises that position disagrees with. Trinitarians believe Scripture is true, but obviously interpret it differently than non-Trinitarians. The merit of those interpretations can be challenged two ways. Either on the basis of Scripture, which would be one of the previous two areas of discussion, and not a discussion seeking to show the Trinity is self-contradictory, or a logical argument that takes the Trinitarian interpretations for granted for the sake of argument. This second line is what we are talking about as a logical argument. But notice, it must take the Trinitarian interpretation of the text for granted, not challenging that interpretation on interpretive grounds, but seeking to show the Trinitarian, by adopting a Trinitarian interpretation of a text, contradicts himself elsewhere. The minute someone brings up a Scripture, offering a non-Trinitarian interpretation, that person has left the philosophical challenge behind, precisely because that person is introducing a premise or evidence that is not agreed upon by the Trinitarian. Now it is no longer a challenge to the Trinitarian about being consistent with himself, but has rather become a challenge to handle something the Trinitarian doesn’t agree with. At this point, the non-Trinitarian has jumped back into proof-texting or discussing Scripture. If the non-Trinitarian sees this move as essential–and why wouldn’t he, if he is making the move–then he is admitting that the philosophical/logical challenge has failed. He has not succeeded in finding any genuine contradiction, and has gone on to other avenues. This was a dead-end.
If he doesn’t retreat, but sticks with the logical attack, we find that most of what he does is either ask questions or simply assert that his premises are self-evident. And this is where it must be said again that questions are not arguments. If a Unitarian asks “How is it that Jesus can die if God is immortal?” That isn’t an argument. That doesn’t demonstrate a contradiction. That is a question. At the most basic, biblical level, Trinitarians are committed to believing that Jesus is both God and man. Trinitarians are not committed to any particular position about how those truths work together. It is sufficient for the Trinitarian to say, “Since Jesus is human, there is a sense in which He could die, as all human beings can. And since Jesus is God, there is some other sense in which He cannot die, as God cannot die. We don’t know the specifics of how these things fit together, but we are not committed to believing that Jesus is both mortal and immortal in the same sense.” This statement could be bolstered in a number of ways, but nothing else is really needed to avoid the contradiction. As I’ve pointed out, proving someone is contradicting himself is not as easy as many people think.
The Non-Trinitarian Hail Mary
Now, since these advantages crop up frequently. It is not uncommon to see non-Trinitarians attempt some kind of amalgamation of these different lines of argumentation. One very common one is to appeal to some fact about Scripture, such as that it uses singular pronouns to refer to God, and then argue that it is a contradiction of language to say that God is more than one Person. Is this a Scriptural argument, or a philosophical argument?
The one time a philosophical argument could appeal to Scripture in itself would be if Scripture itself explicitly makes that philosophical argument. Since Scripture never comments on its own use of singular pronouns, it is countered on a logical and Scriptural basis easily by simply pointing out that Scripture, while it shows a tendency toward the singular, does use both plural pronouns and plural verbs about God at times, and also uses singular pronouns of pluralities at other times. This nullifies the Scriptural basis of this argument, and also shows that there are senses in which singular pronouns get used in a broader way than the Unitarian wants to argue, and so there is no clear contradiction in the Trinitarian’s beliefs about language and beliefs about God.
One last example is one of my favorites when it comes to terrible arguments. On more than one occasion, Anthony Buzzard has argued that, since many Trinitarians believe that the name Yahweh is properly applied to God, or to any of the Persons, that this implies more than one Yahweh, and thus “The universe would collapse”. Needless to say, no careful reasoning went into this statement, but it illustrates the character of a lot of the attacks on the Trinity we often see. It is one thing to carefully build an argument. It is another to mistake one’s own philosophical biases as premises one’s philosophical opponents are committed to accepting. When someone jumps around from questioning the coherence of a view to appealing to the number of times Scripture uses a certain kind of word, to appealing to the advances of textual criticism when it suits you, but then ignoring those same advances when it doesn’t, and when none of that connects, start making assertions about how their view is somehow true “by definition”, and the universe would collapse if they’re wrong, you know that you are dealing with a position forever at a disadvantage.
The truth is that the truth always has the advantage that it cannot be proven false. It may not always be simple, or fit neatly into our limited ability to explain its intricacies. When we’re talking about God, we are talking about the one who invented a universe that is constantly baffling the experts who study it. Can you explain how gravity works, and why it is so much weaker than the strong and weak forces? Can you reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics? Dig into this stuff enough and you will not just find things that are complicated, but understandable with enough education. You will find things that challenge assumptions almost everyone has about the way the world works. Just remember that God invented that. All that was a thought God had. Is He not greater than this universe He made in less than a week?
No matter how someone comes against the Trinity, in truth, it is their own view that is hanging onto a narrow ledge, about to fall from the many biblical truths standing on their fingers. The fact that they have held on this long doesn’t lessen the peril of their position. It isn’t fair, and that’s as it should be.