Is The Trinity A Paradox?

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Sorry for the delay with my series on theological paradox, but things have been busy at the Brooks’ house. We just welcomed our firstborn to the world, a baby girl named Piper Joy Brooks.

Back to the series. This is post #2 on paradox and theology.

James Anderson’s Paradox and Christian Theology aims to show that paradox is at the heart of Christian theology as it is a necessary concept needed for speaking of God’s being. Some theologians, like Gordon Clark, David Basinger, Jerry Walls, and Doug Groothuis decry this. I’ll deal with some of their objections in later posts. For now, all you need to know is that Anderson grounds his belief in paradox in confessional doctrines surrounding the Trinity and Incarnation. I don’t plan on dealing with the Incarnation, so for now we’ll just stick with the Trinity. Anderson believes that the choice that stands before us with regards to Trinitarian reasoning is to be orthodox and affirm paradox or to deny paradox and be heterodox. There is no middle ground.

Anderson demonstrates this by giving an overview of Trinitarian squabbles. He begins by noting the third century Monarchian heresy. Being strong monotheists, Monarchians affirmed the numerical unity of God. There could be no distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit. According to the Monarchians, if the Father is God, no one else could be, as that would unravel any meaningful understanding of monotheism.

What is instructive about this controversy is how the early church responded to it. Anderson points out three responses. 1) They affirmed the Monarchist’s basic monotheistic premises, but resisted the inferences made from those premises; 2) they pointed out passages of Scripture that were overlooked by the Monarchists – passages of distinction between the Father and Son; 3) they used Greek philosophy as a tool to help affirm distinctions between Father and Son whilst avoiding the charge that they were ‘dividing the monarchy’ and jettisoning monotheism.

It is noteworthy just how similar the heresy of Monarchianism is to Arianism. Anderson writes,

Both parties began with the orthodox conviction of absolute monotheism. Both parties conjoined this premise with another uncontroversial theological tenet: for the Monarchians, the affirmation that Christ is God; for the Arians, the affirmation (previously defended by the anti-Monarchians) that the Son is distinct from the Father.

What we see here is that in both cases the early church affirmed the premises of their theological sparring partners, but resisted the implications and conclusions drawn from them.

As the dialogue with Arius turned into a condemnation of Arianism as heresy with the Council of Nicea, the church showed that their ultimate concern wasn’t ultimately coherence, but fidelity to Scripture and tradition. Anderson points out that the concern for coherence was really the ground level concern of the Monarchists and the Arians. Philip Schaff comments on this by contrasting Arianism with Athanasian orthodoxy, “the one made reasonableness, the other agreement with Scripture, the criterion of truth.”

For the next post, we’ll look at what the early church meant by homoousion, and use that to examine whether modern attempts by social Trinitarians, like William Lane Craig, to avoid paradox are successful.