Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Responding to Dale Tuggy on Trinitarian Conceptualisation

AS WITH DR. Hurtado, now with Dr. Tuggy, I have received the honour of some recognition and interaction over the ideas contained in their respective fields and work. Some may have already read my response to Dale's new book, What Is The Trinity: Thinking About The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which you can of course still consult here. In fact, I would recommend doing so first and then reading Dale's response to me on his blog in order to make fuller sense of today's post.

Let's get to it!

I think I stand corrected on an important point: small-t big-T usage with the word "Trinity". I may still not quite be on the money here, but if I understand correctly, Dale is not attempting to establish some new literary practice that he came up with, rather he has seen it and wants to encourage that usage. Be that as it may, I stand by the "inoperable" assessment. If the distinction can only be made by writing the word down, then how useful and practical is it to have to say "small-t trinity"? What percentage of people are aware of this practice anyway? Finally, how practical is it when both capitalised and non-capitalised versions are not capitalised in the adjectival form, and how exactly do we go about that anyway? This creates some issues when laid out, and I think we should ask Dale which he thinks is true:



If the answer is 1 (whether someone believes in the Trinity or the trinity, both are "trinitarian"), then not only is the distinction difficult being reliant on a small written difference in the noun form, but once an adjective, even that small written difference is swallowed up. If the answer is 2. (someone who believes in the Trinity is "trinitarian"; someone who believes in the trinity is "unitarian"), then we still have a most peculiar rule set, whereby small-t means one (very significant) distinction in the noun form, but another quite different (simply grammatical) distinction in the adjectival form.

If the answer is both 1 and 2, then further rules (senses) seem necessary in order to prevent a contradiction. Altogether, I believe this is actually quite a complicated state of affairs indeed, and is what I meant by my assessment of inoperable.

Moving on to my criticism of insufficient definition of quite what small-t trinity actually is. Dale responds, John, you’re overreacting to the word “just” here.  In that context the purpose of it is just to let us know that the members of this triad are not necessarily parts that compose some whole, or aspects of some one thing, or even things of the same exact physical status. It is not a comment on the importance of the triad or any member in it.  The thing is, the triad might also be a Trinity.

This is very interesting. Actually, as I mentioned in my initial post, I don't perceive Dale's small-t usage as referencing something small or lesser. In the same way he sees me, according to his definitions, as unitarian, I am beginning to see him, according to my definitions as trinitarian. One of our key differences, I think, is that the model I am trying to develop does not start with the ontology of God - it's conceptual. In my post yesterday I translated some important philosophical contributions made by Paul Ricoeur, because I am particularly interested in the unstated meanings of the institutionalising 4th-century and later Church. We tend to focus on the grand ontological deliberations and damning anathemas. When the church said that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit were of one substance, three Persons in One God, the question is not only what could that mean in the apparent, ontological comprehensive sense, but what else did she mean, in the fuller interpretative sense? What were her concerns, her worries, her goals, her injuries, her loyalties, her priorities? How did "she" interpret the biblical texts to join her horizon with the horizons of the New (and Old) Testament texts? (I have already shared how insightful I find the Sirmium II Council to be into this question in my post Hermeneutic Circle and Asking Better Why Questions).

It's a terrible thing, perhaps, to say, but I actually have found it helpful to put my own beliefs to one side on this. To adopt my own rough model for the emergence of the Triune God (I'm quite enjoying testing the word "triunification" of God) requires no personal faith in Christianity whatsoever. It might help for you to care enough to think about it (let's remember what a tiny minority we are to find this so "crucial"). But an interested atheist or agnostic historian can come to this data and will naturally want to ask the kinds of questions I just stated. How did "substance" help articulate and preserve the collective beliefs and practices of the Church at the time, even if it is entirely symbolic (e.g. zero gods)? My approach is thus to say that this substantialization process is a symbolic hermeneutic that can only mean one thing: they were looking for a way to ground the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the centre in a way that they already were functioning in practice. Dale - I firmly believe history needs more continuity than the 381 eureka! moment/scenario your model seems to require, because as you say, the triad might also be a Trinity (even if we mean this in slightly different ways).

I find it slightly curious that my usage of the word "mutation" is not more meaningful to Dale. It is the go-to word for some scholars like Crossan, NT Wright and Hurtado (the last of whom has been interviewed on four occasions on the trinities podcast, here, here, here and here) to express the modifications of religious belief structures that would permit Jews to still be Jews but also a part of the new Christian movement. I've looked in detail at how each of the aforementioned scholars use the term and feel ready to borrow its usage while still critiquing some inconsistency in its use (esp. Wright). So I think I can be considered clear of simple or unthought idea-grabbing on this point. While I teetered on the edge of embracing biblical unitarianism in 2015, it was (geekily enough) recognising that unitarian scepticism around the textual soundness of Matthew 28:19 was so weakly based, especially when I had to concede the baptismal formula in the Didache, some quite ambivalent personal views I have on the gospel of Matthew (love, hate and late), that made me start to question whether or not a form of trinitarianism did indeed actually spring up as early as the first century. I actually believe it did and I can provide some good arguments to back that up and the fourth-century picture is part of that explanation.

On Tuggy's response to my response to Q5, about "absolute equality", the issue of mutation rears its head again. Tuggy points out that prior to the Christ-event, Daniel 7 provides a precedent: "But to the Jews they were not absolutely unassignable"..."that all sounds like God stuff! It is! It is from him". One of the mutations that Tom Wright highlights about resurrection in Judaism and resurrection in Christianity, is that it (resurrection) has shifted from being a marginal belief to something at the centre - he specifically identifies this relocation as a "mutation". Daniel 7 is a pretty awesome text, but, as with bodily resurrection, it does not seem to have captured messianic hopes in mainstream pharisaic Judaism, which is what Dale's comments could be construed to imply. It is unclear to me even if we can be sure that Jesus or his disciples would have had access to that particular text, although I am inclined to think that they may well have had access to the Parables of Enoch (and possibly Daniel). Larry Hurtado is much more sceptical on this point even than me: zero precedent for this kind of Jewish cultus of Christ. I would point out, however, even if this were a mainstream hope, which it most certainly does not appear to be, it would be one thing to hope for such a figure in the future and quite another to believe that this one like a Son of Man had indeed come as the Messiah and God now required that worship of him be carried out in a way only anticipated beforehand and otherwise reserved for him alone.

Dale's response to the centrality of Jesus and the Spirit is still engaging with the issue from a different standpoint - he can agree on centrality, without any modification to the theology, by which he means the unity of the one God although allowing for modification of the messianic category. But when you examine the issue historically, seeing each set of religious thinkers as interpreters of those before them, then the only way you can get from Point A (monotheistic unipersonal God) to Point C (monotheistic tripersonal God) is via a Point B. There has to be a point B - no, indeed God is not yet triune, but something has changed via his exaltation of Christ and the participative rule empowered by God's sent Spirit. This is something we can identify as a historical religious phenomenon of reconfiguration. As an atheist, agnostic, trinitarian, Trinitarian (oops, sorry ;)), Unitarian, Buddhist, Muslim or whatever your personal faith, none of that matters on this point. You can't teleport Christianity from Point A to Point C, and that Point B simply has to have something to do with the substantial changes and mutations Christianity has been firmly recognised to have brought from within its Jewish contingent. Could it not be that fourth-century ousia is symbolic for religious centrality? Reconfigured divine space? Again, I don't mean real divine space! I refer to the psychological, conceptual and, I believe it is the correct word having looked a little into Ricoeur's work now, phenomenological space hitherto accorded to Yahweh alone.

On the divine logos category, Dale asserts correctly: " It seems to me that he’s really using Jewish categories". I think I get his point, Jewish usage of this "through whom" business in the New Testament is natural and certainly precedes John, who simply clarifies it a bit more than Paul, for instance. It is worth remembering that a lot of Jews at the time may not have known much Hebrew or Aramaic - this was one of the reasons driving the third century BC translation of the Septuagint in Alexandria into Greek. It should still be considered remarkable that these "through whom"s were so readily applied to Jesus so quickly. The Jewish Christians were "primed".

Q6 is really about worship of the Holy Spirit. It is interesting here to note that Tuggy seems to side with Hurtado on this one. Hurtado points consistently to what he calls a "binitarian worship" practice among the earliest Christians. That's distinctly one less than three - however, if pushed to Tuggy's standard of "primary trinitarianism", Hurtado's binitarian usage would fail (Hurtado is not claiming that God himself is binitarian in the first century, it is the act of worship that it binitarian, see my post on this point here: Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado, Part 9: what does Hurtado mean by "binitarian"). My argument, however, contra Hurtado, is that since religious experience would have been best understood by the central revolutionary empowering presence of God of his Spirit, that God is now more firmly located next to his Son in heaven and other distinguishing aspects I will be laying out in my presentation of the forces and factors determining the first century triune hub emergence. Although founded on some traditional creedal authorities, it would be an assumption I think for many evangelical Christians to suppose they worship the Spirit, also calling "him", "Lord". The point here is that contrary to Dale's insistence that the Trinitarians have got it wrong on this one, most evangelical trinitarian practice I know of simply agrees with the New Testament practice Hurtado calls "binitarian" (provided they haven't subsumed the Father into Christ). On over-personification of the Holy Spirit, Dale should remember I share the same reservations, and I still stand by most of what I wrote that he published on his blog, demanding more evidence from social trinitarians of the Holy Spirit as a giver and receiver of love among the other Members.

Dale closes this point stating that he has never heard of nor seen New Testament evidence for a Triune Hub, such as I suppose, and that this idea lacks clarity for him. I take his challenge very seriously - I need to be ready to give a clear presentation of my thesis, and I am pondering doing a youtube video, while at the same time shuddering at my lack of skills in that area. Some followers of the blog will know that I have also made some approaches to book publishers with the idea, which has improved with each submission. Thus far I have tried Wipf & Stock (rejected), Austin Macauley (accepted, but I'd prefer a specialised publisher), SPCK (rejected, although some apparent interest) and now Paternoster (currently under review). If you would like to contact Paternoster to encourage them to take on my project, then please write to Authentic Media Submissions at submissions[at] regarding John Bainbridge's book proposal - thanks! Of course, I can also send you what I wrote to them beforehand.

On the concept of the hub itself, I have tried on numerous occasions to summarise it into a sentence or two, so I guess I could have another go now. The model is a semantic one, it wants to look at how Jews, then Christian Jews and then later Christians could triunify God. It understands and accepts that as neurotheological research has pointed out, the human brain's association with the religious world is actually interconnected. Neurotheology recognises that there is neither a "God Gene" nor a brain "God spot". We are wired to explain a world in which establishing and influencing causality enhances our chances of survival. All cultures have developed with religious beliefs and practices, some establishing a plurality of divine beings, some with one above the rest and others with exactly one, like Islam. I'm not yet completely convinced that the Christian mutation occurred at a time in Jewish history when henotheism (multiple gods, but one above them all) was not the more accurate or representative worldview for them. The semantics and practices around the gods or god of religions are detailed and change over time, although are usually constrained for the more stable religions to ensure continuity with and preservation of sacred revelations of the past. The concept of God, however, shifted astoundingly quickly according to Hurtado. No longer was there God and his emissaries, but now, following the sudden events around the first Easter, is his Messiah forever reigning at his right hand, whom he commands be worshipped.

Such divine reverence, Hurtado argues compellingly, was reserved for Yahweh alone... until now!

"Inasmuch as exclusivist monotheism is manifested a refusal to offer worship to any figure other than the one God". (LJC Ch. 1). Furthermore: [W]e have no analogous accommodation of a second figure along with God as recipient of such devotion in the Jewish tradition of the time, making it very difficult to fit this inclusion of Christ as recipient of devotion into any known devotional pattern attested among Jewish groups of the Roman period. [KL 919, my emphasis], see also my post on Hurtado, "Part 8: the line no-one ever crossed"). The point is that for these Jesus-worshipping Jews, their religious concepts were in a state of flux. Certain rules no longer applied. Some of these were about worship. Others were about a single-stage eschatology. Others were about resurrection. Others were about the participative (as opposed to interventionist) nature of the Kingdom of God. Others were about the temple. All of this was in sudden movement as God started to play some cards that he had previously only hinted he held. The result was Jesus-worship to the glory of God the Father in the Holy Spirit; in fact, the "proto-orthodox" church saw it their duty to sustain these revealed modifications, a process which began before the close of the New Testament canon. Matthew, for instance, one of the most Jewish books of the New Testament canon, is responding to some confusion over baptism as he has witnessed not least in reading Acts 8:14-25 and 18:24-19:8, and ensures that baptism "into Jesus" is absolutely about receiving the Holy Spirit by placing this on the authority of Jesus' own lips post resurrection. All the major acts of God begin to be reconfigured around the Father, Son and Spirit (see this Stephen Holmes video for a clearly articulated argument on this, especially the Q&A at the end).

Prior to Jesus, Yahweh filled that religious centre in the Jewish mind. It was slightly blurrily edged at times, but worship seems to be the big dividing line in the Jewish mind. I slightly prefer "hub" to centre, because you can have a static centre or core, like a building, but a hub is dynamic. It turns and interacts with its surrounding elements. That semantic hub looks different now. That's more than a couple of sentences, but I'm just trying to be clear and yet still not extend into the chapter-length necessary to deal with this new angle.

On Q. 7 about persons, Dales asks: What difference does it make if we go on to talk about this, “hub” thing? In what way are you trying to tweak either a humanitarian or a subordinationist unitarian theology? I am trying to understand how it is possible to end up with a Triune God from the New Testament conceptually, even symbolically. The clearest example we have of the paradox I discovered listening to your podcast episode 177 on the Second Sirmian Creed. The paradox, if I follow Ricoeur's encouragement to decode deeper meaning, is that the precious Trinity is both to be preserved forever, while One (the Father) is greater than the others. I believe that for a stabilising institution, this made for a lopsided and unstable Trinity. What is greatness? Might it not be religious centricity? If "all are central, but one is more central than the others", then we find ourselves in Orwell's paradoxical Animal Farm...

On my two additional comments, Dale seems to concede my point, without explicitly going back on his language in his book of the Holy Spirit's mention in 325 being an "afterthought".

On the second point about risking going around misleading people about my love for the Trinity (i.e. articulating my own spiritual life and purpose around the F, S & HS), I feel no shame nor risk. On the contrary, I believe most people need a simpler emphasis on all three (my 7-year-old was delighted to discover that there were "3 of them"! even though he does not yet need to ask quite what "them" means, and God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit remain distinct for him, or at least I hope). Most people haven't ever heard the word "Triune" before. I'd been a Christian for over a decade and only doing a Bible course to consolidate my faith and knowledge of Scripture at age 21 do I remember hearing it for the first time. In practice, I hardly ever use the word Trinity, but I simply emphasise and articulate my faith in as threefold a manner as I know how and feel remarkably safe there.

Very nearly there...

Dale says: I have the impression that you’re groping for a sort of middle ground between unitarianism and trinitarianism. I don’t see why we need that though. Queue: Paul Ricoeur. Rarely known fact: this influential Christian philosopher actually helped train French President Emmanuel Macron. The book chapter I have been doing some posts on over the last couple of days has a lot to do with arbitration, the title of the book is aptly named The Conflict of Interpretations. Having examined both sides of this trinitarian debate in some depth, I can safely say that both positions have strong points. I don't care much for "groping" - but I am indeed scoping out ways in which dialogue between these two sets of perspectives can lead to a more harmonious reading of the texts. Here's a very small example, one that set my religious foundations into a state of dangerous tremor when I began to see it just three years ago: just look at all those simple "and"s between God and Jesus. This is not a complicated "and", say the Unitarians. And they are right, but that position gets tricky when that same simple "and" (along with other sharp distinguishing linguistic features) comes between the Father and the Spirit.

Finally, Dale closes with: Before, you’ve expressed incredulity at the idea that mainstream Christianity could go from a unipersonal God to a tripersonal one, in the 4th c. I agree that at first glance, this is a big surprise. But I think I sort of see how it went, in the minds of some of the speculators whose views prevailed. At least, I’m starting to. Long story, though. Yes it is! I think that is my point - it has to be a lot longer than is sometimes implied. And it is also the key story that we are all dying to hear and that I haven't yet heard told satisfactorily. Looking forward very much to hearing more of what you have started to see :)

What a fascinating exchange! Thanks so much Dale, I have really appreciated it, and for making me think so very hard about this issue.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

How does your interpretation help you understand yourself more?

Yesterday we began to draw some of the connections between Paul Ricoeur's work and the methodologies underlying some of the historical quests for the Trinity. I attempted this in both English and French, which was a big effort at over 2300 words in total, something I won't be able to maintain. It was also one of my least visited posts recently - possibly a coincidence, possibly English readers hadn't realised that the post was also in English, I don't know. Anyway, today I will keep it mainly in English with a couple of French summaries, using the same colour codings as yesterday. Citations will continue in both languages, the English being my own translation.

Aujourd'hui je me contenterai de faire la plupart de l'article en anglais, avec quelques remarques et citations en français.

Yesterday we saw Ricoeur distinguish two types of ontological inquiry: the short route, which I translated as "ontological comprehension", is very black and white. The longer route is more arduous and involves semantics. It does not attempt what I coined as "historical surgery", is more nuanced, personal, intentional and multi-faceted. I'm going to fast-forward a few pages now to arrive at a key citation that brings in the concept of symbolism, which is important when insisting, as I do, that the fourth-century discussions around the doctrine of God, despite the ontological packaging were not symbolic. Here's Ricoeur on p. 35:

I am calling a symbol any structure of meaning where a direct, primary, literal meaning also provides an indirect, secondary, figurative meaning behind it that can only be apprehended via the first. These two-layered structures constitute the hermeneutic scope ... I suggest we afford [the concept of interpretation] the possibility of the same layering as the symbol. Thus let us assert that interpretation is the mental task in which the hidden meaning is distilled from the apparent meaning and to deploy the various layers of meaning implied in the literal meaning.

J'appelle symbole toute structure de signification où un sens direct, primaire, littéral, désigne par surcroît un autre sens indirect, secondaire, figuré, qui ne peut être appréhendé qu'à travers le premier. Cette cironscription des expressions à double sens constitue proprement le champ herméneutique. Je propose de donner [au concept d'interprétation] même extension qu'au symbole; l'interprétation, dirons-nous, est le travail de pensée qui consiste à déchiffrer le sens caché dans le sens apparent, à déployer les niveaux de signification impliqués dans la signification littérale.

More dynamite! I've been saying this for a while, but the more we look at the Triune-God process - let's call it the "triunification", the intelligent minds that were involved in that process, the more improbable it gets that this was an illogical, unbiblical or crazed invention. Something I breezed over to get to this crucial quote was a very brief treatment of Edmund Husserl, factoring in personal intention. Husserl is focussed on phenomenology, which is this curious sub-world in philosophy that attempts to look at human experiences experientially without reference to metaphysics and theories. All this is very interesting, but where we still need to join some dots is by asking the following the question: can we consider an institution to be a person with intentionality? Chad McIntosh argues compellingly that we can as "corporate personalities", provided we designate them as functional persons and not "intrinsicist" persons. Like most intrinsic persons, these corporate personalities meet the conditions first of agency....:

An agent is anything that has representational states about how reality is, motivational states
about how it wants reality to be, and the ability to rationally process and act on those states so as
to attempt to get reality to fit its desires. Insects, animals, men and even robots may all qualify as
agents on this account. Houseplants, rocks, stuffed animals, and screwdrivers do not.
That groups, too, can be agents in this sense is standard fare among many philosophers.
Once it is recognised that groups can meet conditions of agency, it is natural to consider next
whether they might meet conditions sufficient for personhood, such as being morally
responsible, having free will, and having a first-person perspective. The most travelled route from
group agency to group personhood is via the first of these, moral responsibility.
(CA McIntosh, God of the Groups, p. 2)

Je fais le lien entre Ricoeur et McIntosh, puisque cela me permet de proposer que les collectivités d'évêques qui sont représentées par les documents historiques des concils écuméniques sont, à mon sens, dotées des conditions nécessaires pour l'herméneutique dans le sens où il y a une signification apparente et aussi des significations cachées à en déchiffrer. 

And McIntosh will indeed conclude that such an "adoption" into personhood is not only possible but full, along with some notable philosophical support. All that is relevant to establish a development that I want to make from Ricoeur's insistence that hermeneutics is about teasing out the hidden layers of meaning behind the more literal or apparent meaning. Since we are such social creatures, preprogrammed to work in social structures, we have to step beyond a simple individual's examination of an ancient-yet-meaningful text. The individual's focus and drive are part of a wider-held concern (or lack thereof as perceived by the individual), but so also are the Biblical texts themselves and the later great ecumenical councils, which especially need to be seen as interpretative in the sense brought to us by Ricoeur, and as a collective in the sense brought to us by McIntosh.

When the church said that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit were of one substance, three Persons in One God, the question is not what could that mean in the apparent, ontological comprehensive sense, but what else did she mean, in the fuller interpretative sense? What were her concerns, her worries, her goals, her injuries, her loyalties, her priorities? How did "she" interpret the biblical texts to join her horizon with the horizons of the New (and Old) Testament texts? I have already shared how insightful I find the Sirmium II Council to be into this question in my post Hermeneutic Circle and Asking Better Why Questions.

Let's return to Ricoeur, who wants to widen our understanding of interpretation not just as something we do with knowledge that we have, but as interwoven into the fabric of our being, our deep semantic field of reference out of which we derive our meaning - albeit still on an individual level. Here on p. 40, our author is having another go at Dilthey's hermeneutic problem we examined yesterday:

The exegete can appropriate the meaning of an outsider, she wants to make it her own...; it's then the expansion of her understanding of herself that she is pursuing via the understanding of the other. All hermeneutics are thus, be it explicitly or implicitly, understanding of oneself via understanding the other.

L'exegète peut s'approprier le sens: d'étranger, il veut le rendre propre...; c'est donc l'agrandissement de la propre compréhension de soi-même qu'il poursuit à travers la compréhension de l'autre. Toute herméneutique est ainsi, explicitement ou implicitement compréhension de soi-même par le détour de la compréhension de l'autre.

So, next time you want to understand "what Paul was really saying", you are really trying to understand more of who you are via that understanding - amazing, huh? Would you agree? What about the "great" ecumenical councils - what do you see the purposes and meanings are behind the scenes? Think beyond controversy A, B or C - unless you can answer why those controversies might have shed light on some deeper concern. We need to watch carefully. Let's ask a new question: not what, but who does the Church understand herself to be and how does she understand herself better through her "triunification" of God? That's probably enough to chew on for tonight :)

Monday, 17 July 2017

Digging in deeper into interpretation (Profondons notre perspective de l'interprétation, article bilingue)

I AM TORN between two directions. I want to resume the survey of Lord Jesus Christ as soon as possible, as it simply covers so much important ground and is gathering fresh interest including a referral from Hurtado's blog himself. I also want to explore my deepening hunch that we need to be clearer that, like us, all of our predecessors in the Christian faith were also interpreters of that which preceded them. That is to say, in some clearer sense than before, we need to do away with the ideas that the "divinely inspired" writers of the New Testament were not interpreting according to principles that still govern us today. Same is true of Christian interpreters in the second, third and fourth centuries too. Obviously much more to be said about that. A key author in this field is Paul Ricœur, for whom I have received a specific request to relate his "arbitration" work to the question of the unfolding articulation of the centrality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the first centuries (I also note that my article on hermeneutics received considerably more interest than average, see Hermeneutic Circle and asking better "why" questions).

Since it has always been the goal of this blog to not disenfranchise my French readers, and this second author is French (and I am reading him in French), I propose to do just a few posts (I'm aiming at three) in both languages on Ricœur and then pick things up again with Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul Ricœur

Puisque ça a toujours été l'objectif de ce blog de ne pas perdre de vue mes lecteurs francophones, j'ai choisi de m'orienter maintenant pour quelques articles sur quelques citations de Paul Ricoeur avant de reprendre Lord Jesus Christ, par Larry Hurtado. En effet, j'ai reçu une demande de développer ce qui m'interpelle chez cet auteur français vis-à-vis de la Trinité, son rôle d'arbitrage étant important dans la question du déploiement de l'articulation de la place centrale dans la foi chrétienne qu'ont toujours occupé le Père, Fils et Saint Esprit dans l'esprit Chrétien.

The title I am referring to is The Conflict of Interpretations, which speaks directly to the sharply differing views to which I have been exposed over the last few years, and in many senses encapsulates the direction taken by the Triune Hub model I have been developing. English citations are my translations (which, since I am still grappling with Ricœur, may not be perfect, apologies). Page numbering is from the 2013 edition of Conflit des Interprétations: Essais d'Herméneutique, by Editions du Seuil, which is virtually unchanged from the original 1969 edition by the same publisher.

Our first citation seems to confirm this conviction that interpretation is integral not only to our acquisition of historical information but also the way in which that was originally composed itself in the past:
No striking interpretation can be drawn without borrowing from the modes of understanding available at a given time: myth, allegory, metaphor, analogy, etc. (p. 24)

Nulle interprétation marquante n'a pu se constituer sans faire des emprunts aux modes de compréhension disponibles à une époque donnée: mythe, allégorie, métaphore, analogie, etc. (p. 24)

Le titre auquel je fais allusion est Le Conflit des Interprétations, ce qui se situe pil là où il faut pour répondre aux perspectives fortement contradictoires auxquelles j'ai été confrontées ces dernières quelques années, et répond bien à l'orientation prise par le modèle du Noyau Trinitaire que je développe. Les citations sont tirées de l'édition 2013 de Conflit des Interprétations: Essais d'Herméneutique, par Editions du Seuil, ce qui reste pratiquement inchangé de l'édition 1969 par le même éditer. Cette première citation semble confirmer que l'intérpretation est intégrale non seulement à notre acquisition d'informations historiques mais aussi à comment ces dernières ont elles-mêmes été composées. Ce constat nous conduit à un deuxième: puisque le cercle herméneutique agit à travers des périodes de l'histoire qui dépassent la simple vie d'un tel ou tel interprète, nous pouvons constater qu'il existerait surement un niveau de réflexion, de compréhension et d'interprétation collective dont l'Eglise est le titulaire. Cette appropriation collective pourrait se rapprocher au sens voulu par Chad McIntosh dans ses illustrations de "personnes groupales" dans sa quête d'ouvrir de nouvelles possibilités philosophiques pour un Dieu multi-personnes (voir mon article de 2015: "Jésus Sois Le Centre").

Not only can we note that it that interpretative processes are constantly active, both now and the periods in the past that seems so vital to us, but that this leads us to a second observation: because this hermeneutic circle hugely exceeds the lifespan of any given interpreter, we should surely consider a real collective thought, comprehension and interpretation ascribable to the Church. This collective consideration may be close to Chad McIntosh's illustration of "Group Persons" in his exploration of new philosophical possibilities for a tri-personal God (see my 2015 article: "Jésus Sois Le Centre").

In surveying the early 20th century efforts to place Hermeneutics more centrally within the scope of human sciences, Ricœur covers Dilthey and his hermeneutic problem, which is profoundly psychological. This is because interpretation (e.g. of a text) is a small part of an individual's wider field of semantic reference, his "comprehension". To understand another person thus becomes seriously problematic and requires some form of conscious reception mechanism:

"To understand is to transport oneself into the life of another; historical comprehension brings into play the full force of historical inquiry: how can a historical being understand historically his history?... This is the major difficulty that can justify how phenomenological search for a reception mechanism, like grafting it onto a young plant" (p. 26).

Comprendre c'est... se transporter dans une autre vie; la compréhension historique met ainsi en jeu tous les paradoxes de l'historicité: comment un être historique peut-il comrendre historiquement son histoire? ... Telle est la difficulté majeur qui peut justifier que l'on cherche du côté de la phénoménologie la structure d'accueil, ou.... le jeune plant sur lequel on pourra enter le greffon herméneutique. (p. 26)

En reprenant les efforts du début de 20ème siècle pour placer l'herméneutique au centre des sciences humaines, Ricœur note le problème fondamental de l'herméneutique décrit par Dilthey. L'hermeneutique est profondément psychologique, puisque l'interprétation (d'un text notamment) est en effet une petite part d'une masse sémantique de référence plus large de la "compréhension". Comprendre donc l'autre devient sérieusement problématique et nécessite un méchanisme de réception qui joue sur le conscient (voir citation dessus de p. 26).

On est au point de voir la pertinence absolue de l'hermeneutique à la question de l'émergence du Dieu trinitaire à la fin du quatrième siècle et faire face aux choix que l'herméneutique pose devant nous.

And so we are just about ready to observe the absolute relevance of this study of hermeneutics to the question of the late fourth-century emergence of the Triune God and face the choices hermeneutics place before us.

"There are two ways to root hermeneutics phenomenologically, the short route and the long route. The short route is that of ontological comprehension"

Il y a deux manières de fonder l'herméneutique dans la phénomé voie courte et la voie longue. La voie courte c'est celle d'une ontologie de la compréhension (p. 26-27)

The short route, to cut a long story short (!), is more problematic. It's like attempting historical surgery, and, most fascinatingly for our own interest in the Trinity, is obsessed by ontology. Guess what? That is precisely the form of expression (I choose these words carefully) that the victorious fourth-century bishops were so concerned adopting their understanding: identification of the Son with the Father and the Spirit, via... something ontological a.k.a. ousia. Here I need to be very careful not to mix up two independent critiques. We can criticise the fourth-century "Homoousians" (those who believed in the "consubstantiality" of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) for inappropriate hermeneutic integration of their predecessors, or we can criticise later (e.g. 21st-century) historians for inappropriate hermeneutic integration - presuming some of the ontological categories to be valid while simultaneously stating that such categories cannot be applied to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Assuming those ontological categories are biblical, you could perhaps continue to say the usage of those categories is downright "unbiblical", transgressing stacks of sound exegetical practice, and so on, while not seeking out what lay behind the form.

La voie courte, pour aller vite (!), est plus problématique. C'est un peu comme tenter une intervention historique chirurgicale et serait particulièrement concernée par l'ontologie, d'un intérêt tout particulier pour notre sujet de la Trinité. C'est tout à fait dans cette forme d'expression (je choisis mes mots avec prudence) que les évêques victorieux du quatrième siècle voulaient exprimer leur compréhension: l'identification du Fils avec le Père et l'Esprit, via... quelque chose de l'ordre ontologique, notamment "ousia". 

Ontological comprehension, says Ricœur, is an all-or-nothing affair, black and white. You've either got 1 God or three. You've either got a Unipersonal God or a Tripersonal God, etc.
La compréhension ontologique, dit Ricœur, c'est une approche tout-ou-rien, noir ou blanc. Soit vous avez un Dieu ou trois dieux. Soit vous avez un Dieu unipersonnel ou tripersonnel, etc.

The Long Route, on the other hand, will not devoid itself of ontology, but will access it via nuanced semantics, "by degree". That is a good term for my model of the Triune Hub: "semantics", which would seem to be situated within Ricœur's second category of hermeneutic. Why is that? I have a hard time explaining to some seasoned philosophers who reason in more black and white categories what I mean by this "hub". Semantic is a very good word to describe it. I also like "space" - I am referring to the Jewish mindset that, while not yet embracing a vocabulary of monotheism, had some strict semantic parameters in place about what could hitherto be said of Yahweh/[the] LORD via his agents and what could not. I like using the word "hitherto" very much; by it, I am of course referring to the events surrounding the life of Jesus, whose Jewish followers felt obligated to modify and reorganise their own monotheistic semantics and God's place within it.
Image taken from

La Voie Longue, en contre partie, n'abondonnera pas l'ontologie, mais l'accédera par la sémantique, "par degrés" (p. 27). Cela est un mot important pour mon modèle du Noyau Trinitaire: "la sémantique", ce qui correspondrait à la deuxième catégorie de Ricœur. Pourquoi? J'ai du mal des fois à essayer d'expliquer ce que j'entend par ce "noyau" à des philosophes bien rodés qui raisonnent avec des distinctions catégorielles bien plus noir et blanc. La sémantique est une bonne expression pour le décrire. J'aime aussi "l'espace" - je fais allusion à l'esprit Juif qui, même si pas encore doté d'un vocabulaire de "monothéisme", intégrait des paramètres sémantiques strictes de ce qui pouvait être dit des agents de Yahweh/L'Eternel et de ce qui nous pouvait pas être dit d'eux. Cependant, cela était jusqu'à l'arrivée de Christ qui a modifié cette sémantique et la place de Dieu dans cette organisation sémantique.

Pour s'interroger sur l'être en général [référence ontologique], il faut d'abord s'interroger sur cet être qui est le "là" de tout être..., c'est à dire sur cet être qui existe sur le mode de comprendre l'être. (p. 28, mon accentuation)

To inquire about the being of something in general [reference to ontology], we first need to inquire about the being that is the "that" of all being, that is to say, this being that exists in and through its mode of being understood.

This last quote is quite a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo and a difficult one to translate (for me), especially Ricœur's use of the preposition "sur" (typically simply "on", which I have rendered "in and through"). But if you get the contrast that Ricœur is driving his readers toward, especially when you are motivated by a key "conflict of interpretation" like I am in the case of fourth-century interpretations of the Trinity, we can maybe start to grasp the distinction in slightly less philosophical lingo. What I am saying is that Ricoeur is right in his drive to help us look at the mode of transmission of important theological information - we cannot strip it down naked so to speak. The bones always have flesh. But here is where we and the church can hit confusion because the very subject at hand is ontology (ousia, divine "substance" or "essence" linking the three Persons as one Godhead, then simply "God")! But we mustn't allow ourselves confusion between the packagin and the contents here, via this double usage of ontology. There is a "mode" at work of transmission of important theological information that has as much ontological importance as the ontology explicitly described.

Cette dernière citation contient pas mal d'expressions difficiles et la traduction en anglais pour moi n'était simple, surtout l'emploi de Ricœur de la préposition "sur". Mais si vous comprenez le contraste que Ricœur veut mettre en lumière, surtout lorsqu'on est motivé par "conflit d'interprétation" comme je le suis dans le cas des interprétations du quatrième siècle de la Trinité, peut-être que nous pouvons commencer à saisir la distinction par des termes moins philosophiques. Ce que je veux dire c'est que Ricoeur a raison lorsqu'il insiste à ce qu'on regarde le mode de la transmission d'informations théologiques importantes - on ne peut pas les réduire comme informations brutes. Les os sont toujours recouverts de la chaire. Mais c'est bien là où nous et l'Eglise pouvons nous heurter à la confusion puisque le sujet même c'est l'ontologie ("ousia", la substance divine qui relie les trois Personnes dans un seul Dieu)! Mais nous ne pouvons pas nous permettre à confondre ce contenu ontologique de son emballage ontologique. A l'oeuvre ici est et était un "mode" de transmission d'informations théologiques importantes aussi important que son contenu.

More tomorrow! A suivre demain!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

What Is The Trinity? A brief response to Dale Tuggy's recent book

WHAT IS THE TRINITY? A central question indeed to which author Dale Tuggy has an answer that leads the open reader dissatisfied with current explanations.

(Since I wrote this post, Dale Tuggy has responded to it over on his blog, Dialogue with John on Thinking about the Trinity, to which I now have an extended response: Responding to Dale Tuggy on Trinitarian Conceptualisation)

I liked the book - that was always probable as I have supported the trinities show for a couple of years and Tuggy's own views have been important in shaping my own, which are nonetheless distinct now from his. I liked it for Tuggy's systematic approach into an issue that for some may have always appeared impenetrable, for the author's ruthless efforts at showing where he sees inconsistencies to lie, for his deep respect for some Trinitarian theologians and philosophers and for what still appears to me to be a genuine search for Truth. Even if Tuggy's place within the Biblical Unitarian camp is now well established and appreciated by them, he is not playing to them.

As I began to read it, I was surprised by a few typos, including on the back cover and early on. But readers shouldn't be put off by those - this is not a slap-dash book, and those seem to disappear as you get further in.

Readers should remember that Tuggy is a philosopher, so at times, although he has deliberately aimed this short book at a wider audience, reference is made to philosophical and logical constructions that not everyone will be immediately familiar with. The examples he gives to illustrate his points often include that dry wit that many of us also appreciate in Dr. Tuggy.

Today, it is not my goal at all to engage with the book in depth - there are other ongoing projects as regular blog readers are aware - I will just take the opportunity to respond to Tuggy's takeaway questions, that can be found on p. 133-134, which might illustrate nicely where our common and uncommon ground lies, and then two other comments.

1. Does the New Testament in any sense appeal to "mystery" about the Trinity or the trinity? If so, what is meant by "mystery" there?
No it doesn't, although I now disagree that the Trinity/trinity distinction is operable in that format. The clearest example of mystery in the New Testament to my mind is the inclusion of the Gentiles into God's people.

2. Does the New Testament anywhere mention or refer to a Trinity, or only to a trinity? Neither, if we are on explicit criteria. If we are on the implicit side and we accept that Trinity = The Tri-personal God alone, then God is certainly not referred to with that idea in mind. However, Tuggy does not integrate the significance of what he calls small-t trinity in sufficient depth. At another point in the book (sorry I'm going for a speedy post today, so no page reference) he refers to this trinity as "just a triad". Don't focus on the word "triad", when he says this. Focus on "just" and "a". In my view, that is a wholly inadequate description of the way in which the Jewish-Christian religious semantics underwent a profound reorganisation ("mutation") through a relatively short number of decades including the divine core itself, which I refer to as the "hub". I want to keep these answers short so I won't say more on that here, but there are quite a few other posts on this if you look back through my archive.

3. Does it teach that there are three eternal equally divine Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who all together in some sense "are" the one God, Yahweh?

4. Does it teach that those three Persons share an ousia, and if so, what would the New Testament authors, in their first-century context, mean by that saying that?
This is a difficult question, perhaps a bit like to use the author's own analogy of wondering what someone from centuries past might have thought of the Internet. Having said that, it is true that Aristotelian ideas of substance, form and matter would have been known to some of the earlier educated Greek converts, although I don't know how well grounded in those Paul would have been. Interestingly, ousia, or substance, does not appear to be the foundational aspect of a thing. In the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (in which Tuggy is also published, unsurprisingly enough on the Trinity), there is an entry under "Form vs. Matter". Here it states: "In these cases, the thing that underlies is the matter of the substance". The substance itself is not the permanent underlier. So the question Tuggy wants to ask of a first-century Christian, assuming he is versed in Greek philosophy is doubly inconceivable since the word ousia does not seem to mean at that point in history what the church would later graft it in to mean and indeed even later adapt (into something eternal).

5. Does it teach the absolute equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit, so that each is eternally unlimited in power, knowledge, and goodness? No, but there are some important things to note in conditioning this response. Firstly "absolute equality". We all know that, awkwardly for some, Jesus goes on the record as saying that "the Father is greater than I", so at least in essential greatness, it is very difficult to go back on Jesus' own words. How do some Christians do that? Well, the passage in Philippians 2 (which is certainly not ignored in this book) may include part of the answer. The idea is that the full worship and glory can be directed at Christ "to the glory of God the Father". One of the key building blocks to the "meta-mutation" of the Triune hub is the recognition of the unforeseeable incorporation of the Messiah into the sphere or individuals worthy of worship, as explained in detail by Larry Hurtado (see my summary post here for a good access point into my series). Hitherto, that space was occupied fully by Yahweh. Jesus receives "all authority". From a New Testament standpoint, the Father's presence and anointing in his son were quickly proven supreme, such that many of these hitherto presumed unassignable qualities of God were indeed shared with the one whose own (essential, I would say) humility was of equal match. If you can be as geeky as I am then you may have already tried doing some New Testament word-counts. I have done this on references to God and Jesus. They both number at around 1200. That's pretty astounding and points to a roughly shared centrality in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit does not fare so well on that criterion although is central on other criteria. Again space here limits me on this, but the primary distinctive that was necessary to make between John the Baptist and Jesus were on the central issue of the Holy Spirit - whose distinction from the Father was an outworking of the going of Christ to "be with the Father" (at his right hand).

On eternality (man, Tuggy's question is dense!), then the New Testament is significant on one understated point. On awareness and influence of Greek ideas (see also question 4), insufficient work has been done on first-century logos incorporation into Christian discourse. The way in which Jewish writers Paul and his followers (some of whom also wrote epistles), the writer of Hebrews and later, John simply assume the agency role of the logos in creation and sustenance of the universe. This can only mean that that which we have fortunately preserved in detail in the writings of Philo likely knew much wider Jewish acceptance than simply one Alexandrian writer. There has to have been something that Jesus said or was ascribed to him early on for him to "transgress" purely human messianic categories and fit so neatly within this adopted Greek one. The parables of Enoch are a likely part of the answer to this pre-Christ, Jewish-Greek convergence that justify the offhand New Testament references. On the Parables, may I recommend Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of the Parables, by Gabriele Boccaccini (2007), especially Part 6: "THE DATING", and the chapter by J.H. Charlesworth "Can we discern the composition date of the Parables of Enoch?" pp. 450-468.

6. Does the New Testament teach or positively portray the religious worship of: Father? Yes. Son? Yes. Spirit? Not "of", but "in". Does it teach or show worship of the three of them together, worship of the triune God as such? There is no Triune God yet - although the New Testament describes a reconfigured hub of the Jewish faith hitherto occupied in its entirety by Yahweh.

7. Does the New Testament teach that the only god just is the Father himself or does it teach that the Father is but one of three Persons "in" God? The former, although see my other comments above about the reconfigured monotheistic space/hub.

8. Does the New Testament make catholic bishops the successors of the apostles, with apostle-level authority to settle questions of Christian doctrine, working together in official, emperor-convened councils? As the reader now knows, this describes a scenario much later than the New Testament one. Slightly curious question.

Besides this, there is a lot to commend in this book, whose structure in particular has been thought through carefully with some excellent chapter titles! I am in agreement with a fair bit of the presentation and despite having been exposed to a lot of Tuggy's work already still learned some important things. A lot of this book is not an attempt at promoting (while not hiding) the particular views of the author. I will, however, before signing-off, highlight two assumptions that I do not feel are good characterisations of the historical data, that may also be where the personal views do interact with the analysis of the data.

Firstly, p. 89, the chapter is wittily entitled "Substance Abuse" and concerns the fourth-century controversies. In the Nicene Creed, it can seem striking that so little is said about the Holy Spirit, but look at Tuggy's assumption:

The 325 Creed ends with the seeming afterthought: "and in the Holy Spirit". (p. 89)

Especially in light of his comments elsewhere about the nature of the 325 Creed (its focus is refuting Arianism), it was not attempting to be some kind of eternal declaration that would shape core Christian belief for millennia. Rather, it was clearing up an Arian controversy that messed with Jesus' divine status. If Arians were not perceived to contravene the catholic interpretation of the Holy Spirit to the same degree, then it might seem sufficient to provide a simple mention on this occasion. Meanwhile, the more Trinitarian Creed of 381 can fill this out, without necessarily be seen to "correct" it. We should remember that since the end of the first century, Christians felt it necessary to specify that baptism into the faith was in the name of Father, Son and Spirit. In many ways, I believe that the debates from third to fourth-century act as a mirror to some of the earlier first-century developments, both culminating in a triune result. The first was a Triune Hub of Jewish-Christianity, the second was a Triune God.

My second comment follows on from this and a general disagreement about the distinction method (Trinity vs. trinity) described in chapter 3, over which I was lucky to have some dialogue with Dr. Tuggy. I'll mention that in a second, but first the text of p. 113: What sort of being is "God" supposed to be? Your answer to this will constrain your options when it comes to thinking about the Trinity. The "Trinity" (in the primary sense of the term, as saw in chapter 3) is supposed to be none other than the triune God...". (p. 113, my emphasis).

In Dale's lovely understated tone, I can respond: "Nope". The use of the word "primary" here is, I believe, quite misleading. Although I still haven't gotten round to Robert Jenson's The Triune God, I do value his and Fred Sander's distinctions of a "primary" from a "secondary" (only explicitly so with Sanders) trinitarianism. So, no, I don't think we can simply accept that there is only one form of trinitarianism, which is precisely why Tuggy's blog and podcast is called trinities. He might point out that this is a reflection that the "Triune-God" presentations are multiple and contradictory in important places (to which I'd agree), but that still doesn't make that whole tier the primary form - in fact, it divorces them from it. The Triune God is phase 2 of an insufficiently detailed mutation of the religious core of Jewish faith and practice among Christians in the first century. It is thus the secondary (or even later) sense, not the primary.

Regarding my exchange with Tuggy, since it was semi-public on the trinities facebook group, I feel I can show it again here:

JB: Enjoying what must be one of the first copies of What Is the Trinity to reach French shores, by a certain Dale Tuggy. On Chapter 3: Trinity vs. trinity: Why attempt the distinction this way? Why not reclaim an earlier understanding of a mutated Jewish 3-fold religious core, allow that to be called trinity or even Trinity, and reserve a special term for the fourth-century version that we all get so upset over (my proposal is Triune God advocates/advocacy)? Something along these lines would be more effective in reducing ambiguity, rather than possibly adding to it, as the following (ironically) illustrates: "But it gets confusing, because unitarian (non-trinitarian)..." (p. 29) - by which Dale seems to contradict the central distinction of the chapter, except: no, the adjective should not apparently be subjected to such consistent distinctions (p. 33). Wow.
I used to think the distinction worked, but I personally don't think it's going to catch or even should.
Sorry for the quibble, I think everyone knows I am a big fan, hence my indulgence. :)

DT: Hi John. I'm not sure I understand this idea of a "mutated Jewish 3-fold religious core." About terms like "Trinity" or "trinity," there seem to be only three options. (1) they don't refer, (2) they refer to something, (3) the refer to some plurality of things, i.e. to more than one thing. I propose that it's helpful to use "Trinity" as referring to the triune God of catholic orthodoxy, and "trinity" to refer to the triad of God, his spirit, and his Logos. About the earlier Jewish view - that's just "God" right? Aka "the Father," "the King of the Universe," "Yahweh" - a mighty self, the creator. Yes?

JB: Hey Dale. I'm sorry for the lack of clarity in my explanations about the Triune Hub idea, although I have tried to explain them before in a couple of our other exchanges. On the subject of options, I would also want to place before a BU the following options: is this triad, small-t trinity, or whatever anything special in Christianity, including Jewish Christianity, or not? In your interview with Sean Finnegan I think you imply that it is special if the Bible might indeed be "all about" the small-t trinity. My Triune Hub hypothesis attempts to provide precisely the "thing" that we need in the absence of a first century Triune God. Expanding on Larry Hurtado's comments about how central Jesus is to God discourse for the first-century church, the accepted parlance of "mutation" by leading scholars such as Hurtado, Crossan and NT Wright, and the "Jewishness" of some of the sources that even correct misconstrual of Jesus' baptism with respect to his predecessor John (cf Acts 8:16, Matt 28:19, Didache 7:1 and even "unsuccessful mutation" of GThomas 44:1-3), the mutation I am proposing is that the central religious *space* or focus now includes a consistent articulation with the Son and Spirit. "Personhood" discussions aside, these three appear equally individuated in these significant references and to share **hitherto** (albeit with some conceptual "foreshadowing") - apperently - unassignable - divine (aka religiously-central) prerogatives.

DT: If I understand you, you suggesting that "Yahweh" turns out to really be there beings, functioning in a unified manner. Is that right?

JB: I'm not sure about "beings", certainly entities. I want to account for what you describe as "primary" trinitarianism (see your use on p. 113) in a way that makes better historical sense (ie Triune God advocacy as a "stable" interpretation of that which was primary, which has to be something other than "just a" triad). Otherwise we are still left with the impossible theological switch problem (wake up one day in 382 and decide that God is tri-personal). I have just completed a fuller response over on my blog to your excellent little book here: [link to this post]. Thanks for the exchange, always a real pleasure!

Thanks Dr. Tuggy for a great yet stimulating little book, very well referenced and clear. I have since been lucky enough to earn a response from Dale over on his blog

(Since I wrote this post, Dale Tuggy has responded to it over on his blog, Dialogue with John on Thinking about the Trinity, to which I now have an extended response: Responding to Dale Tuggy on Trinitarian Conceptualisation)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Blog reader question: "the Father is greater than I" - Jesus Christ

Something of a milestone has been reached in the last month - actual interaction on the blog! Some of the questions and comments in the sections underneath each post are really interesting and thought-provoking for me, so thanks, I really do genuinely appreciate the interaction, even if I do wish there was even more. Hopefully that'll come. The best theology is done together.

I put quite a lot of thought into my last post on the hermeneutic circle - indeed, it was probably by far the longest post, I think, that I have ever done on this blog at around 1600 words. But the length fortunately didn't seem to throw off Jonathan B., a French reader in London. Here's his question:

You seem to fault the authors of 2nd Sirmium for their interpretation of "the Father is greater than I", but for what reason exactly? According to you, is it false to say that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate? (let's forget about 4th-century ontology and just stick to the terms greater/subordinate in their 1st-century sense)

Don't you think these legitimate concerns about protecting the religious 'centricity' should not go as far as to prevent us from using plain scriptural vocabulary/notions?

Excellent questions.

First on the impression that I may have left about finding fault in the 2nd Sirmium Creed's insistence that the Son is inferior in greatness to the Father. Not my intention, I am not judging it. I mentioned in my last post that in 2014 I went through a deconstruction process in my faith, which eventually led to the opening of this blog in the Autumn of that year. That was and remains part of my reconstruction process, albeit to a new and more nuanced understanding. On that journey of deconstruction then reconstruction, I won't hide that there have been points where I seriously doubted the ultimate truth behind the biblical worldview we're all so studiously pondering. I associate these times of doubt not with any knock-down atheist arguments, but with the fact that my previous Christian worldview was profoundly called into question, that I myself (without any assistance from anyone else) have dug up and continue to dig up some rather curious paradoxes in my Christian faith, which have nothing or little to do with the Trinity, and also an illness, which can leave me mentally quite drained. The combination of all these factors has led me at various times to not just prefer but need to take the pressure away from my own personal faith, and examine more closely what they believed, by which I in 2015 I meant the first-century (as opposed to the late fourth-century) Christians. That was my 2015 move. My 2016-17 move is to integrate subsequent reflections as helpful hermeneutic interpretations of what preceded them, thus helping us better understand "plain" and "less plain" first century texts (which, let us remember, are not the origin of that Christian hermeneutic circle).

My personal journey, I believe, is not irrelevant (that is obvious anyway if you read Ricoeur - same is true for everyone). My own worldview has been so seriously shaken and deep views changed so quickly that while I don't claim to be neutral, I don't think I can be much more shaken up than I already have been. I have changed my mind several times on some important issues. I have areas of disagreement with everyone I read (including some of my favourite authors like Tuggy, Wright, Hurtado, Crossan and Holmes). My process has led me to be skeptical about a lot of things, including my own opinions. And that is why at this time of my life, I am not asking myself whether I believe that in all his might and glory Jesus Christ might actually be a bit inferior (according to my ideas of what inferiority and superiority might be) to God the Father. What I want to know is historically what these questions you are asking, Jonathan, might have meant then, in the late first century and in light of the decades preceding it. I can't shortcut that, not anymore. It's personally too precarious.

So for the question:  is it false to say that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate?  - I really don't care much what I think about that at this time, although I am delighted that verse is there. What interests me from a first-century perspective is to ask why on Earth would John have Jesus say this? What were his hermeneutic concerns? If you really want a direct point of view on something from me: I don't think Jesus necessarily mouthed those words, the Father is greater than I, in 30 AD. Probably not, in fact. From what I see elsewhere about other interpretations, recollections and reconstructions of the life of Jesus, his custom was as a faithful Jew to regularly attend his local synagogue, spend lots of time in prayer with God (whom he called both "Father" and "God"), do all his miraculous work via the Holy Spirit and in fact be in a symbolic-yet-real and exemplary sense the "son" of Yahweh that Israel had refused - none of the major emphases of Jesus' historic life point to any need to clarify any such ideas of equivalence. 

Yet, I don't see John's gospel as a fictional account! In fact, I am kind of wondering if his is the most direct record we have from any of the Twelve even if it were written so late. I suspect that John, in line with his emphatic conclusion in John 20:31, recalled along with his community, the sense of extraordinary divine empowerment and legitimacy of Jesus' messiahship and sonship. I wrote a short post on this two years ago, entitled "Seeing the Father in Jesus", which includes some example verses to this effect. Jesus' messiahship is frankly not a question that many Christians care much about, and this is perhaps also a reflection of how Christological developments unfolded slowly away from Judaism. However, what did not diminish was the status of the texts themselves as canon formation became an increasing concern. And so we have the first-century concern of establishing Jesus' messiahship along with some radical redefinitions of what that fulfillment meant and did not mean. 

So with this controversial statement, which during my rejection period of the Trinity stood as a glaring proof against the validity of the fourth-century emergence of the tri-personal God, it is not as simple to assert: the Bible said it "plainly". If we adopt the critical historical route, which I most certainly want to do, and want to integrate hermeneutics as fully active in the first-century, which I also most certainly want to do, then I have to realise that John's book was, along with the other gospels, a deeply theological and christological work rooted in real-world events and locations, intended to shape and protect (or "preserve") the Johannine community's faith. As a result, I conclude that it is distinctly possible that "Father-eclipsing" was a likely phenomenon as early as the first century in some circles. Amazing, huh?! To answer the question more fully, however, I confess I'd like to know more (perhaps more than is publicly known) about the location in which this gospel was composed, the relationship of the community with its Jewish roots and a good number of other things besides.

So in short: I don't fault Sirmium, I simply am grateful that we have such an explicit, succinct and clear presentation of the paradox that was perceived to threaten a stable and sustainable Trinity. I also think deeper engagement with the hermeneutic circle prevents us from access to "plain scriptural vocabulary/notions", as plain as some might appear to us.

Thanks Jonathan for your question.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Hermeneutic Circle and asking better "why" questions

I have been making the newbie mistake of calling this circle a hermeneutical circle - sorry about that! The hermeneutic circle is a process of interpreting a text (or an author via his text) as developed in particular by Heidegger and Gadamer. In short, the disappointing news is that where the circle is operative, it is de facto going to bar your access to a text in any objective way.

The text is understood to have two important conditions. It must be terribly important to the reader, and it must be at least in part(s) difficult to comprehend. This difficulty is not necessarily readily apparent, I don't think, but is evidenced through the inevitable gap in "horizons" separating the author and the reader, differing worldviews affected by time in history, geographical location, culture, and so on.

Unfortunately, because hermeneutics was only developed in the last few hundred years, I am not sure how effectively it has been applied to our key question at hand: the emergence of the Triune God around the end of the fourth century, and indeed to other theological matters that "crystallised" in various directions. Even during the first century, I believe that we have the necessary ingredients to see the circle clearly in operation, and that is very significant if we are ever going to be able to move Christian apologetics away from frankly unconvincing anachronistic importations from a later time and yet still hold to some form of sensible first-to-fourth century continuity. If we are to achieve this goal, then hermeneutics is key. Not primarily in the sense of how we bridge the gap to today, our own contexts and our own lives, but to see how earlier gaps might have been bridged by Christians in the past, long before the word "hermeneutic" had ever been dreamed up. First century Judea was not fourth century Constantinople!

But what is this hermeneutic circle? Very simply put and as I understand it, it is the to and fro between the (Christian canonical) text and the reader's conceptual framework of meaning, out of which she is making sense of that text ("WHOLE", below). Each of these crisscrossing "trips" effects both elements (the whole and interpretation of the part), by which I mean the reader's general and multilayered understanding (right up to "their theology") and their interpretation of what the text is saying.

History of Christianity doesn't seem to embrace this concept enough, but perhaps it does attempt it under different guises.

One historian of Christian antiquity whose work I continue to respect is Bart Ehrman. His book How Jesus Became God arrived at a critical time in my deconstruction process in 2014 and the entire journey to which this blog bears witness. But it is his earlier and lesser known academic volume (and it is a sizeable book to be sure) The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, that I think carries a fantastic example of what I am trying to get at here. This book is of considerable note because it is really Ehrman's original field of expertise, textual criticism - since then it seems that he has strayed a bit into other areas in a (successful) bid to write for a wider audience. In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Ehrman carefully and correctly insists that not all the changes that Christian scribes copying the texts made were accidental. The evidence for that is pretty irrefutable, multifaceted and extensive. Although I felt at times the book development made for some hypothesis-supporting conjecture, i.e. a too-tight association of a deliberate scribal corruption according to a specific heresy, the fundamental point that the scribe is safeguarding against misconstrual (rather than, in the scribe's mind, "corrupting" the text) is vital and all that matters for my purposes here. Ehrman has stacks of examples, but one that is perhaps the most deeply inscribed into my memory is Jesus' added titles. At various points in the codexes, scribes would deliberately add "Christ" and "Lord" at points they considered significant in the new copies they were transcribing. Why? There are other points in Scripture that contain combinations of "Lord Jesus", "Jesus Christ" and even "Lord Jesus Christ", so why add it to the new transcription? Here's Ehrman's reasoning, and it makes sense: some branches away from "orthodox" Christianity would read the Christian texts according to a variant "whole" (see above diagram), which included a "separationist Christology" (incredibly, that is still affirmed by popular Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr: Jesus is sharply and explicitly differentiated from "the Christ", "the Cosmic Christ", etc). According to this "whole", the Holy Spirit scene at Jesus' baptism was construed as the moment when the cosmic Christ entered into Jesus, before leaving him at his death on the cross (by the way, I am not saying that this is the conclusion Rohr makes, I'm sure it isn't). Back in the early Christian centuries, by adding "Christ", scribes certainly did not think they were the ones doing the corrupting. Quite the opposite, actually. By emphasising the inseparability of Jesus Christ (or Jesus from Christ), the scribes would have seen themselves as safeguarding a better interpretation against corruption.

There is always meaning to be found.

So, why would the church perform some almighty U-turn by suddenly switching from a Unitarian God to a Triune God sometime around the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381? Put this way, as Biblical Unitarians sometimes infer, it seems impossible, random, unbiblical, and... meaningless. I follow Dale Tuggy's work quite closely on his blog (definitely worth checking, loads of great material in there), and I even get to contribute in a couple of very small ways to his show. But the closest I have seen to an answer to this fundamental "why" question, is that Greek mythology was rife with divine triads, and the fourth century was very complicated theologically for the church. But even as Tuggy does an expert job (in my opinion) at unravelling some of that fourth-century complexity, the listener is left with a decidedly bleak impression that these were such chaotic and political times, that there must, therefore, be a degree of randomness there that subverted Orthodox belief away from the Truth, and that this has stuck for a really, really long time.

I no longer buy it. We need to mine these controversies afresh to see what the deeper meaning is behind these debates, from both sides as far as we can understand them. For me, and I have probably mentioned this before, but it does no harm in repeating, there is one particular treasure to be mined in this transitional period, that is the very creed orthodox tradition has since labelled "The Blasphemy", officially: The Second Creed of Sirmium (357). It states: And the whole faith is summed up and secured in this, that the Trinity must always be preserved, as we read in the Gospel, Go ye and baptize all nations in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Complete and perfect is the number of the Trinity.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: they were all Trinitarians, they all believed that since Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit, there was a new centre to the faith that emerged from Judaism. So here's the crazy thing: the very creed that is dubbed "The Blasphemy" contains the very goal that united everybody. The problem with Sirmium was the interpretation of Jesus' words: "The Father is greater than I". So if the "Whole" comprises the three in (roughly) equal measure, and you want to push for "greater greatness" in one of the Three, what might be the interpreted outcome? I'll tell you exactly what I think the worry really was. Greatness in religion corresponds, I would argue nearly perfectly, with centricity. And if you make Father, Son or Spirit more central, then it is precisely that preservation of the Trinity that is thrown out of whack.

Look, I am not saying that the Triune God is "biblical", but I am going to give it credit for this: it posed a stable platform and standard from which further theological reflection could be realised without messing about with this important centricity issue, which up until this time lacked vocabulary. Where it had beforehand lacked vocabulary, it had not lacked meaning. So what do I think about the Triune God? It's interpretative. I've been saying that for two years now, but now with the help of the hermeneutic circle, I think we can see the strength of that claim. The Triune God solution is not random - it has purpose and is in line with the perceived threats of that time. It also includes quite a lot of ambiguity, as Tuggy points out, which actually dotes the stability also with flexibility.

I'm really eager to take this discussion soon back to Ricoeur's work, whose ideas about "ontology" (and its pitfalls) speak profoundly to the debates around the Trinity doctrine. Ricoeur also has helped me realise that it is possible that despite their best intentions, Biblical Unitarians might actually be importing some of the fourth-century baggage into their first-century analysis in precisely the ways they lament sloppy Triune-God advocates do, everyone failing to integrate historical hermeneutics into their models. My Triune Hub model must not make that mistake!

As chaotic and turbulent a century as the fourth century was to Christianity, it is vital that we see continuity as well as discontinuity. Sometimes the discontinuity at the time that seems huge to us from our vantage point might have seemed like a minor point of a whole series of adjustments that, just like in Ehrman's textual example, avoided misconstrual of a historically preceding idea, and guess what: it is "terribly important" and "difficult to understand".

Hermeneutics, we welcome you to the first four centuries of Christianity!

Monday, 10 July 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, Part 16: Triune Hub Gleanings?

HURTADO'S POWERFUL STRUCTURE functions well not only in chapter 1 but also as a way in which to organise the historical data that aligns with his thesis of consistent Jesus worship in early Christianity for the rest of his book, Lord Jesus Christ. It seems to have enough flexibility to allow for the diversity of various strands of "successful" Christianity while ensuring that the model is sufficiently broad by insisting that the various factors he identifies are all covered as we move between location and time.

As a reminder: I am not just doing a critical series for the sake of doing a series. I have a thesis of my own. It is not yet as sophisticated or robust as Hurtado's, but it is definitely out of the starting blocks. It is my conviction that study of key works like LJC will help me form the case I want to make for a first-century form of Jewish-Christian trinitarianism that does not require the Triune God idea of post-381 Christianity (when a Roman-sponsored Church Council ruled in favour of the notion of "consubstantiality" of the Persons: Father, Son and Spirit) but rather provides a better platform for speculation about its historical occurrence via hermeneutics theory. So before we continue with the book Lord Jesus C, how might I follow Hurtado's fourfold structure, and where should I depart from it?

1. Monotheism

This constraining force prevented Jesus from supplanting the Father or a simple apotheisis of Christ as an additional God. All of what has already been said is 100% relevant for the Triune Hub hypothesis. But is the Holy Spirit ever at risk of apotheisis? You might think not, but check out this "unsuccessful" Gnostic movement in the early second century:

"Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him.
And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him.
But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit,
it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven." (Gospel of Thomas 44:1-3)

(Gnostic trinitarianism provides an interesting early case of the problem of a triune Hub, but one in which "some are more equal than others", to borrow from George Orwell's famous line in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this case, it is the Holy Spirit, even though it is considered possible to blaspheme (and somehow get away with it) against the Father and the Son. In other cases, especially in the fourth-century, the theological equilibrium is under threat by subordinationist proponents, who may simply be trying to follow through with authoritative texts with seemingly obvious interpretations like "the Father is greater than I", John 14:28. If the Son is lesser in glory and greatness than the Father, then it is also therefore legitimate to place a still lesser place of glory and greatness to the Spirit.)

2. Jesus

Well, this is going to sound heretical, but I think my case is going to be clearest by emphasising and focusing on the John-Jesus distinctions that the gospel writers are at pains themselves to emphasise. So if I were to adopt such a subheading it would likely either need to be "Jesus and John" or "John and Jesus" or possibly isolating John into his own subheading. This contrast does not only propel Jesus more to the centre but the Spirit also, who is the fundamental differentiator between Jesus and John when it comes to baptism.

The points that Hurtado makes of the impact of Jesus' ministry as forcefully polarising his followers and opponents should be maintained, albeit adapted for my purposes, which are to see Jesus moving rapidly toward sharing the centre of the Jewish faith with God, via resurrection, enthronement etc.

3. Religious Experiences

As I already pointed out in my two posts here and here, there is ample space in this section to validate a trinitarian framework for these experiences.

4. Religious Environment

Since the clearest ideas of trinitarianism that emerge in a late first-century Jewish context follow on organically from the extraordinary events and changes that allowed Christianity's initial emergence from within Judaism in the 30s, I feel inclined to move a section such as this to the beginning. In addition to some of the comments and observations already made on the religious environment here, a summary of Tom Wright's presentation of the resurrection, Larry Hurtado's presentation of Jesus-worship and John Dominic Crossan's presentation of the collaborative kingdom may be appropriate as painting the backdrop of mutations out of which the trinitarian mutation follows, in which the Messiah is ushered into the divine centre and the Spirit is heralded out of the Father into God's now-multiethnic people in this new eschatological timeframe.

In light of my comments above, the early Gnostic threats identifiable already in the contexts into which 1 John, in particular, is written, might require repeating as a shaping force. 1 John combats this famously by insisting on the physicality of Jesus rather than an equal balance between Father, Son & Spirit, and I don't find its pneumatology particularly clear, to be honest (regardless of 1 Jn 3:24, e.g. see 1 Jn 4:2). This case of 1 John raises an interesting point about first-century trinitarianism I need to think more about.


I'm still not certain I would maintain the four factors per se, although it is tempting to adapt them for my purposes. My issue is when to lay them out. It certainly couldn't be in Part 1 of my manuscript, which will focus on my initial investigation and its inadequacies (as a reflection of some of the inadequacies of the various explanations for the Trinity currently on offer).

Since my book does not attempt a historically parcelled defence of the factors in the way we will see Hurtado to proceed, it may instead serve as a conclusion section to my presentation chapter for the Triune Hub model, which could provide a launchpad for further historical research into the early centuries of the church à la Hurtado, while preceding my other important offering, which is to develop the hermeneutical circle principle to look as a more satisfactory explanation for the Triune Hub-to-Triune God transition.