Sunday, May 12, 2013

Trinity vs. Oneness

Jason Rhoad's FGO for May: 

A few months ago, I was invited by a friend to join a group on Facebook called “Spiritual Debates”. It is a place where people like me who are interested in discussing the things of God can go and make the case for our beliefs. Over the course of a few weeks and months, many different topics have been discussed. Topics ranging up and down the theological spectrum and as you might have figured, with great disagreement on most of it. It is in fact a microcosm of Christendom these days and an ultimate demonstration that Christianity struggles to be all it can be with so many voices competing for truth. It also highlights an age old truism that in order for something to work the way it was intended, somebody has got to be in charge.

Well, one of the topics that has had quite a bit of staying power on the forum is a debate that I had previously not given much thought to. It is a debate over the Trinity. I knew that Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses both denied the Trinity, but I was only vaguely aware of another group known as Oneness or “Jesus only Pentecostals”. Where the Latter Day Saints and JW’s tend to minimize who Jesus was in their denial of the Trinity, this group goes in the other direction. They believe that the person of Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that they are not three distinct persons. There is only one person – Jesus.

As it turns out, “Spiritual Debates” makes for strange bedfellows. There are around 400 members in the group, and I am only aware of one Catholic other than me. So on most things I’ve chimed in on, about the only thing that the other members can agree on is that the Catholic guy is definitely wrong. But on this particular debate at least, my mainstream Protestant friends found themselves in full agreement with the Catholic guy. I watched them go back and forth with one another, making the case for their position, but it struck me that the Protestants who believed in the Trinity had no better argument for their belief than the Protestants who considered themselves Oneness. The best they could do was to argue their interpretation of what they thought the Bible taught. One guy argued that “no one could read the Bible and come up with anything other than belief in the Trinity”. Well obviously they can or we wouldn’t be having this debate. And thus is the state of Christendom. “I think the Bible means this” vs. “I think the Bible means that”.

After watching for a while, I posted several quotations from the early church fathers concerning the Trinity and ultimately the teachings of the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Both sides were unaware (for the most part) that this question had been settled centuries ago. I challenged the Oneness advocates to produce any evidence from Church history that would indicate that their position was the true historical position of the Christian faith. Of course no evidence came (because none exists) and all the Trinity believing Protestants who were engaged in the debate were quick to join forces with the Catholic to dispel the heresy.

But as the implications of where the evidence came from began to become clearer, my new friends were not so friendly anymore. It began to take them to a place that they did not want to go. You see their argument for the Trinity was no better than the other side’s argument for Jesus only. At the end of the day, neither side accepted any other authority other than their own interpretation of scripture. One side says “The Bible clearly teaches the Trinity” while the other side says “The Bible clearly teaches Oneness doctrine”. There is simply no way to settle the matter.

The Trinity is a revelation from God. It has been revealed to us. Though it is not contrary to reason, it is not something that can be come to by reason alone. So the question becomes, how was it revealed? Ultimately it is revealed through the teachings of Jesus, through the teaching authority of His Church. This revelation of the Trinity occurs similarly to another revelation in scripture that we read about in this week’s liturgy in Acts 15. There was a question about whether or not Gentiles had to first become Jews (and be circumcised) before being allowed to become Christians. Here we see the teaching authority of the Church at work. We see the leaders of the Church coming together to discuss and pray and be led by the Holy Spirit. It culminates in the first council of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem. There, the Church definitively teaches that no, the Gentiles did not have to become Jews first. This is the exercise of the teaching authority of the Church, given to it by Christ with His promise of the protection of the Holy Spirit to protect it from formally teaching error.

And so it is with the Trinity. When questions began to arise about the nature of Jesus, the leaders of the Church met, discussed, prayed, and exercised again the teaching authority of the Church at the Council of Nicaea declaring the revealed truth of the Trinity and of the nature of Jesus. But for my Protestant friends to acknowledge that without this teaching authority of the Church, their arguments for the Trinity basically boil down to “just because”, was a bridge too far. They could give no credit to the Catholic Church for settling this matter for the faithful because if they did, then what else does this teaching authority teach that I must also believe? And so it turns out that the Catholic Church just happened by chance to be right about this issue. It was right only because its teachings agree with the scriptural interpretations of the Protestants who believed in the Trinity, not the other way around. Let us be thankful brothers that we do not have to rely on our own sinful, fallen, fallible human interpretations of God’s word in order to determine eternal truth. After all, we may be wrong. Rather we follow the sure guide, holy mother Church, given to us by Christ, with His protection from teaching error so that we may know the truth on this matter and all others He has chosen to reveal.

1 comment:

  1. Yes. If the Bible were self-interpreting and perspicuous there'd have been no councils and no disagreements.