Patton on Trinity

C. Michael Patton recently outlined the basics of the doctrine of the Trinity. Give it a read if you’re looking for a brief introduction to the doctrine. The only thing I’d take issue with is his concluding paragraph, in which he says:

No Christian understands the doctrine of the Trinity fully. In fact, if people are not confused to some degree by this doctrine, is someone says, “Ohhhh, now I understand,” it probably means that they have slipped into heresy in their thinking. If we think about it too long, try to solve it, or nuance it according to our desire to comprehend things, we will find ourselves refusing the hand of God who has given the mysterious Trinity to us a description of Himself. While it is impossible that finite beings can fully comprehend an infinite God, we can understand him truly. The doctrine of the Trinity does not give us the full understanding of God, but it does give us a true understanding of God.

There’s a few things at issue here:

  1. Just to nitpick, Patton cannot possibly know what all Christians understand so he can’t universally declare that “no Christian” understands the doctrine of the Trinity fully, which brings me to my second point…
  2. There is a distinction that needs to be made between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Trinity itself. Catherine Mowry LaCugna and Tarmo Toom have both rightly noted this distinction and said (I’m paraphrasing) that doctrines are formulated with the express intent of being understood. The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing more or less than our way of making sense of divine revelation. We can understand as much as God has revealed about himself. This does not mean that we can understand the aspects of God that remain a mystery to us. So the doctrine of the Trinity most certainly can be understood fully by a great many Christians, and Patton seems to recognize this in the latter part of the paragraph, but…
  3. Some, like Dale Tuggy, like to argue that there is no such thing as the doctrine of the Trinity. Tuggy prefers to speak of multiple Trinity theories. In other words, on this understanding, Patton’s statement would be correct simply because no single doctrine of the Trinity exists to be understood by all believers. Let’s for the sake of argument grant this position—the result is still the same—any competing doctrine or theory of the Trinity is formulated in order to be understood. Christians therefore are capable of understanding them all fully.
  4. And finally, while it is true that heresy is usually a result of trying to understand God fully (a point James Anderson argues successfully in his Paradox in Christian Theology), the problem is with using an extra-biblical standard as the plumb line. Heresy arises from trying to make revelation conform to predetermined structures of thought. Again, Patton seems to recognize this in the latter part of the paragraph. But if one sticks to revelation then they can say with confidence that they understand as much as God has chosen to reveal, and thus they’ve understood God on his own terms, not theirs.

So in conclusion, I would say that the Trinity (i.e., God) can be understood truly while the doctrine of the Trinity can be understood fully. I’d also say that I appreciate Patton’s distinction between truly and fully and I will continue to apply it in conjunction with my distinction between the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity.


8 thoughts on “Patton on Trinity

  1. Nick: Yes, yes, yes. Well said. It is important to recognize that, while the divine mysteries they seek to describe remain out of our full grasp, doctrines are second-order, human reflections. This means that: a) of course they can be fully understood, even if the doctrines themselves fail to fully describe their object; and b) God does not give us doctrines. God has given us Himself in Jesus Christ and His Word in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture, but the propositional forms are fully our own.

    Enjoying the blog, even though I don’t post much. Keep up the good work.

  2. “the problem is with using an extra-biblical standard as the plumb line. Heresy arises from trying to make revelation conform to predetermined structures of thought.”

    This statement caught my eye. Predetermined structures of thought? Like what? Is logic considered a predetermined structure of thought? Experience? Do we ever not come at scripture or any writing with a predetermined structure of thought? And even if we do is it merely a place to start that will be revised over time? Can we ever be confident that our structure of thought we read scripture with is not foreign to scripture?

  3. Bryan: I probably should have said “systems” instead of “structures.” But my point is basically this: We can’t allow our presuppositions to override revelation. In other words, I can’t come to the text believing XYZ and then when I find ABC say, “This needs to be interpreted to conform to XYZ” or “This must be wrong because it doesn’t conform to XYZ” or something like that.

    So, for example, you’ll find that both the Modalists and the Arians approached Scripture with this presupposed philosophical understanding of God as an indivisible Monad. So what did they do when they got to Scripture and saw the affirmation that there was only one true God and the presentation of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as God?

    Modalists like Noetus and Sabellius took their pre-understanding and said that the apparent distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit that we find in Scripture must refer to roles that God plays or masks that he wears because it would be impossible for God to actually be Father, Son, and Spirit at the same time since this would divide the Monad. They interpreted the distinctions to conform to their understanding because if they were real distinctions then it wouldn’t work for what they already believed.

    The Arians on the other hand recognized the real distinction and went the other direction with it. Rather than saying that Father, Son, and Spirit were God, they said, “No, this can’t be right because God is a Monad and the Monad is indivisible,” so they relegated the Son and Spirit to subordinate creatures and said that the Father was the Monad. Again, they already knew what could or could not be true so they made Scripture conform to their system rather than making their system conform to Scripture.

    So we all obviously come to the text with presuppositions. The question is whether or not we’ll modify our presuppositions according to the text or the text according to our presuppositions. Obviously I think that heretics (every last one of them) do the latter. The Modalists and Arians already knew what could and could not be true of God before they dealt with Scripture. That in turn determined how they dealt with Scripture. So I would say that our presuppositions are a starting point to be revised over time and that as we conform our thoughts to God’s thoughts we can gain confidence. I’d be much less confident in what I believed if I found the Bible always agreeing with what I believed prior to coming to the Bible.

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