Monday, June 13, 2011

For Trinity Sunday: The truth in the Trinity, from Rev. Carl Scovel, a UU minister

This Sunday, June 19, is Trinity Sunday in the liturgical year of many Christian churches, including those in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have increasingly referred to my own theology as a small t trinitarian large U Universalism. As a gift for all for this Sunday, I am reprinting here the essay "The truth in the Trinity: a re-examination of some cherished Unitarian views of God, with questions, by the Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of King's Chapel in Boston, receipient of the distinquished service award by the UUA and a Berry Street lecturer, originally printed in the Summer, 1973 issue of The UU Christian Journal.

At the end of the essay I will also provide links to contemporary discussions.

Here is the essay by Carl Scovel:

If God is Three
And three's a crowd,
Then only One
Can be allowed.
If God is One
and one's alone,
Then how can God
Come to his own?
If One is Three
Where's unity?
If three is One,
Then where's the fun?
But if God's free,
He might be three,
Or one, or four,
Or less, or more.
We keep on counting;
He keeps the score.

I suppose the question will arise: "Why discuss the Trinity anyway?" Who cares? Who is going to lose sleep over it? Does it make the slightest difference to the couples wandering in the park, to the bigwigs dickering in Moscow, or to the ballplayers on the athletic field? Does it really interest anyone who attends church nowadays--Unitarian or otherwise?

I asked myself this question a dozen times as I pored over Scripture and the church fathers. And the deeper I got into this doctrine, the more I read and scribbled, the more I encountered ideas and interpretations which ran headlong into each other, the more urgently did this question press itself upon me, until I realized that I was not looking for an answer, for a new doctrine or an old doctrine, but for a question. I was looking for the question which prompted four hundred years of profound and serious and sustained theological inquiry and debate, four centuries of history which have been summarily dismissed by many Christians and virtually all Unitarians as logic-chopping and vain speculation.

Yet we seek for the questions which will illuminate our faith. The issues which faced the church fathers during the first three centuries A.D. are here today, but they are badly put and badly argued. This is not surprising, for theology is hard and desperately unrewarding work. It is easier to spend one's time in committee meetings. But what the church--laity and clergy alike--needs today is clarity. We need to understand the promise that has been given to us. We need to know what is asked of us and what we have a right to ask. It is, therefore, not only proper but essential that we look at the church doctrines which we have so smoothly and arrogantly passed over before--and one of these is the doctrine of the Trinity. And if we need to go beyond the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. we need also to go beyond William Ellery Channing's 1819 Baltimore sermon on Unitarian Christianity.

The case for trinitarianismIn that sermon, Channing articulated the principal arguments against the Trinity which Unitarians have raised throughout Christian history. He said quite simply that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be found in the Bible. It was the same argument used by Michael Servetus three hundred years before and by Arius twelve hundred years before that. Channing wanted to go back to the simple religion of Jesus as he saw it in the Gospels and to bypass all the seemingly useless theological wrangling that followed.

And there's much to be said for Channing's side. The New Testament doesn't ever use the word "trinity." Tertullian coined it in the third century. Jesus refers to God as his father, says he must obey his father, return to his father, and so forth. He clearly subordinates himself to God. But what most Unitarians miss in the New Testament is the way in which Jesus identifies his work with God's work and his will with God's will (cf John 14:1-11). "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me." "He who has seen me has seen the Father." "Know you not," he says to Phillip, who has asked him for a big display of miracles, "know you not that I am in the Father and the Father in me?" This echoes the faith of the early church. "God was in Christ," says Paul, "reconciling the world to Himself." (2 Cor 5:19). And again: "For if there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:6). The New Testament may not teach the Trinity, but it surely seems to pave the way for the idea of the Trinity. The texts just cited are simply ignored by most Unitarians when they talk about going back to that "simple religion of Jesus."

It is necessary to realize that Jesus' ministry per se did not make a tremendous impact on the world while he was alive. His impact came after he died, in the events which we call the Resurrection. He came alive in the remembering, in the reliving of his life, by those who felt his impact in a way that they did not seem to when he was alive and with them. In a sense, he was more alive after he died, alive to those who were so struck by him that now they did not quite know what to do with their traditional Father-God. Jesus now seemed more real to them. They knew Jesus had taught them of the Father-God, but he seemed so much more vital than the God of tradition--until it occurred to them that the reason he seemed so real was that it was this God who was with him and in him and through him, and through him was now with them. Emmanuel--God-with-us--came true in Jesus Christ. This, I submit, was the early Christian's experience of God.

The question which the early church was trying to answer was: How is God with us? And the church answered it by saying, "He is with us through Christ, God's spirit now moving and speaking in our church, among us, present in our hymns and prayers and preaching and in the breaking of bread." No, this in itself does not create a doctrine of the Trinity, but it is clear that the Christian experience was moving in that direction.

The Council of Nicaea

I will not attempt to describe here the two centuries of debate that preceded the council of Nicea. What the Council decided in 325 was that the Son of God was not an angel, nor a creature like other creatures, but was derived from the very essence of God Himself. Christ was "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; being of one substance (homo-ousios) with the Father."

Now of course the Council of Nicea was a highly politicized event. It was called by the emperor, Constantine, in order to bring about theological unity in his empire. He paid the expenses of the 318 bishops who attended, and it is likely that he neither understood nor really cared much about the arguments that filled the air. What he wanted was a unified statement of belief, and he got it. Only two of the bishops who attended the Council--one of them Arius, a proto-Unitarian--refused to sign it.

I am convinced that certain benefits resulted from this decision. The trinitarian style of thinking preserved both the majesty of God and his proximity to his children, asserting both his mystery and his love without compromising either. The trinitarian style of thinking kept a certain motion or dynamic in the center of God. There is a church in Constantinople (Istanbul) which has a mosaic depicting God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit dancing with each other hand in hand. Motion is essential to an understanding of God, unless you prefer to see God as a big clockmaker who winds up the clock and then goes to sleep.

But the political atmosphere of Nicaea and the harshly dogmatic debates turned Christianity into a religion of propositions which one either assents to or denies. I can appreciate the (small t) trinitarian style of thinking, but hardening this into the formula of (capital T) Trinity has hurt the Christian faith.

Servetus and afterwards

It was up to Michael Servetus 1206 years after Nicaea, to raise this question again when he published On the Errors of the Trinity in 1531. In this work, written in the midst of Protestant and Catholic inquisitions, Servetus affirmed that the Bible teaches the Father is supreme, the Son is coeternal with the Father but subordinate to him, and that the Son can save mankind without being equal to the Father. For these heresies Servetus was executed in 1553, but his ideass travelled across Europe and eventually reached England, where in 1714 a young minister named Samuel Clarke, rector of the church of St. James in Picadilly, wrote a book that might have come from the pen of Servetus himself. It was called On the Scriptural Doctrine of the Trinity, and with 1250 Scriptural citations attempted to prove exactly what Servetus had said. Just before his death, Samuel Clarke amended the Book of Common Prayer, removing the prayers to Christ and the Athanasian Creed, and substituting Scriptural doxologies for the Gloria Patri. It was this revision of the Service of Morning Prayer which 55 years later became the basis for James Freeman's revision of the prayerbook at King's Chapel. The prayerbook now used in King's Chapel, therefore, contains the classical Unitarian Christian theological position. The prayerbook protects this position and makes possible its enunciation every Sunday.

From Unitarian Christianity to Humanism

At one time Unitarian Christianity was the theological position of every American Unitarian church. Now it is the position of relatively few Unitarians, and those few are dwindling. There is a reason for this. Unitarian Christianity has sought simplicity. Simplicity is fine, but simplicity has its dangers. It tends to become a religion of that which is intellectually the easiest to grasp, and of what feels to be true at the moment. Furthermore, one God without dynamics and without a mediator becomes either the unmoved Never, utterly transcendent and remote from man, or else becomes solely the Father God, so anthropomorphic that he ceases to be believable as God. For example, the God whom Channing described in his Baltimore Sermon sounds for all the world like a benevolent New England merchant. Very anthropomorphic.

In this Unitarian Christianity, God becomes either too remote or too close, but in either case the same result ensues. Man takes God's place. Unchecked Unitarianism then leads to Humanism. As Robert Frost aptly stated it in a passage in his Masque of Mercy (describing a bookstore owner named Keeper):

Keeper's the kind of Unitarian
Who having by elimination got
From many gods to Three, and Three to One,
Thinks why not taper off to none at all,
Except as father putative to sort of
Legitimize the brotherhood of man,
So we can hang together in a strike.

Intellectual positions do have consequences: What has happened to American Unitarianism is no accident. And what is amazing is how much mysticism and God-talk and orthodox hymnology still remain in Unitarian churches--a witness to the spiritual hunger of the human heart.

The church in a godless world

If then, we are to go beyond Nicaea, we must also go beyond Channing. We cannot go back to what is called "the simple religion of Jesus." It is just not available to us, and, after all, Christian faith is the response to Jesus; it is in fact the religion about Jesus, and there is no escaping this.

But we must begin where we are--in an essentially godless world, a world that gets along by and large without a sense of God and probably will indefinitely. Yet we are a special community--we who call ourselves Christians. We have elected to stand within the promise that God is with us. By being members of the Christian church we assume that somehow this promise is true, although we do not understand how. In fact, our question is the same one the church fathers asked so many centuries ago: "How is God with us? What does it mean--to be in Christ? How can Christ be close to us and yet remain still God in all His, or Its, mystery?" I believe that if we have the courage to ask these questions, God in his time and in his ways will answer us.

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[Here are some more links for more recent conversation and exploration. The first is the link to an archived blog discussion on Chris Walton's Philocrites blog stemming from a post on the anti-trinitarianism of Isaac Newton and the place of responses to the Trinity in the UU history and tradition and contemporary setting. http://www.ctr4process.org/publications/Biblio/Thematic/Trinity.html...Much of the newer reconstruction of the Trinity comes from both liberation theologians, and missional church theologians such as Jorgen Moltmann, and also process theologians. For a bibliography of how process theologians approach the Trinity go to http://www.ctr4process.org/publications/Biblio/Thematic/Trinity.html...We have also had good discussions online of the Trinity and UUism in our UUCF-L and UUCF-bible email lists you can join through the www.uuchristian.org site.

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