Jeff is puzzled that I have made the claim that Christians ought to be trinitarian. Let’s hear Jeff in his own words:
“Randal, sorry to be a pest, but I’m still surprised that you haven’t stepped back from your statement that adherence to trinitarian doctrine is essential for identification as a Christian. Maybe it’s a bit unfair of me to do so, but I want to make this very personal: Mike Gantt, right here in this very forum, has said, “if you can show [trinitarian doctrine] to me in the Scriptures, I’ll buy it.” Would you really insist that Mike ought not identify himself as a Christian? If so, that seems like the type of schoolyard bullying I’d expect from someone like Al Mohler. As Walter said, this seems way out of character for you. Or am I misunderstanding your position?”
There are several things I’d like to respond to in Jeff’s comment. I have boldfaced a few of his comments for further commentary.
it’s a bit unfair of me to do so, but I want to make this very personal
Let’s begin with Jeff’s own recognition that he is “personalizing” the issue. There is something good here and something problematic.
Let’s start with the good point. Imagine that I’m at a Patriots party (the football team) when I say “Broncos fans are idiots!” Everyone laughs and cheers. Everyone that is, except my good friend Tommy. A few minutes later Tommy quietly walks up to me and says “Hey, uh, just so you know … I’m also a Broncos fan. I grew up in Denver.” Immediately I would experience the shame of having unjustly maligned all Broncos fans. There is nothing like making things personal to reprimand a person making incautious prejudicial statements of this type.
So I agree that sometimes it is worthwhile to make things personal. In fact, I myself have done exactly this on the current issue. Several years ago I delivered a lecture to a group of Christian school teachers. At one point I listed off the core beliefs that have historically marked the Christian community and I listed trinitarianism among those beliefs. Then after the talk a kind old lady came up to me, thanked me for the talk, and then added, “But just so you know, not all Christians are trinitarians.” In an evangelical context like I was in at that moment that could only mean one thing. It turns out that she was a Oneness Pentecostal.
Now that sounds really mean, doesn’t it? Saying the elderly lady wasn’t a Christian because she was a oneness Pentecostal. How could I be so cruel?
But is this really cruel? Is it necessarily cruel to claim that orthodox Christians are trinitarians?
that seems like the type of schoolyard
Now this is an interesting charge. Jeff claims that I have descended to schoolyard “bullying”.
Jeff should be careful here, for there is a petard in his midst which he may soon find he himself has hoisted. (Sorry, I know that previously sentence was a ponderous attempt at being clever. You can’t bat a thousand every time.) To see the problem we should keep in mind that Jeff and I are arguing two different claims:
Randal’s thesis: denial of the doctrine of the Trinity is inconsistent with membership in the historic Christian community of faith.
Jeff’s thesis: denial of the doctrine of the Trinity is consistent with membership in the historic Christian community of faith.
So let me get this straight. If Jeff affirms and seeks to defend Jeff’s thesis then that’s okay. But if Randal affirms and seeks to defend Randal’s thesis that’s bullying? Wait a minute. Doesn’t that seem inconsistent? Why is it bullying to argue the one thesis but it is not bullying to argue its negation? More to the point, why think that arguing either thesis is “bullying”?
Perhaps Jeff thinks there is some sort of asymmetry here. He might be of the opinion that my position is inherently intolerant (or “bullying”) because I exclude a certain group. Since his thesis includes that group his thesis is tolerant and welcoming and thus not bullying.
Let’s grant that is the case for the moment. In other words, let’s grant that it is bullying to affirm a claim that excludes some people. Still, Jeff faces a problem for if Christianity means anything then he too will find himself excluding some people who want to be called Christians. Mormons often like to be called Christian even though their theology is radically polytheistic. Some secular death of God theologians like to be called Christian even though they are atheists (albeit atheists who dress up their atheism in obfuscating language like a Hegelian description of God as human self-consciousness in history). Some others like to be called Christian because they were baptized as an infant, even though they’ve never darkened the door of a church since. Some like to be called Christian because Jesus is their third astral guru of the sacred crystal. Some like to be Christian even though they think all religions are equally true (meaning they’re all equally false). And so it goes.
In short, somewhere along the line Jeff will indeed be hoist with his own petard because he will argue that
“denial of _____ (monotheism? theism? …) is inconsistent with membership in the historic Christian community of faith.”
So if I’m a school yard bully for saying that it is necessary, if not sufficient, that Christians be trinitarian, Jeff is a school yard bully for saying that it is necessary, if not sufficient, that Christians be x, because there are people who say not-x and claim to be Christian.
bullying I’d expect from someone like Al Mohler
I would propose that there are two important differences between Al Mohler and myself.
First, there is a difference in our assessment of what constitutes an (orthodox) Christian. Mohler’s view is significantly narrower than mine. One of the advantages of my definition is that it accords much more closely than does Mohler’s with the historic Christian tradition, a tradition that encompasses not only Mohler’s Southern Baptists but also charismatics, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and other Christians around the world, a view which is informed by multiple creeds, councils and catechisms in the recognition that the Spirit has been leading the Church into truth for the last two thousand years.
This is also where Jeff and I diverge. Since Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) Christians have explicitly identified themselves as trinitarians, a confession which is rooted back in the New Testament texts themselves as they affirm the following:
(1) There is one God
(2) The Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God
(3) The Father, Son and Spirit are distinct
Jeff diverges from this tradition. He apparently believes the majority of Christians (myself included) are mistaken in our apportioning of priorities. That’s fine. But then Jeff shouldn’t conclude that we’re all bullying him when he rejects this traditional consensus.
And what about that second difference? The Mohler style, as I’ve seen it, is not only to draw narrower boundaries than I would draw, but to go on and marginalize those on the other side of the boundary as having some sort of moral default. I am loathe to do that. I believe Mike is mistaken in his reading of scripture. But I am not going to attribute his hermeneutical errors to a fallen character. I’m grateful when the same courtesy is extended back to me.
And in terms of who gets to be called “Christian” I root my decision of the normative use of this term based upon its meaning as informed by historic councils, creeds, and catechisms. It is based on this kind of observation that the Assemblies of God disfellowshiped the Oneness Pentecostals in 1917. To deny that those who reject the Trinity are orthodox Christians is not a contentious issue. It is, rather, simply a matter of familiarizing oneself with the Christian tradition. So I find claims about “Mohlerian marginalization” to be a distraction. We’re all making assessments about who is and is not properly to be called a Christian. Ultimately each of us must justify our use of terms. I would have thought that rooting the use of the term in the Christian church’s formal councils, creeds and catechisms over the last two millennia would be a rather uncontroversial place to start.