In his intellectual biography Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton famously summed up the ironic conclusion of his wayward intellectual journey away from the church:
“I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”
But things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes a scholar sets out to defend (or at least understand) the orthodoxy of the church and, when he has put the last touches to it, discovers that his view is heterodoxy. One might summarize the intellectual journey of philosopher Dale Tuggy this way. A couple years ago Dale, a Christian philosopher who has spent more time thinking about the Trinity than the vast majority of Christians, came “out of the closet” as a Unitarian. In taking this position Dale found himself differing with 99.999% (or something like that) of self-confessed Christians. Dale isn’t an iconoclast and so this wasn’t really a welcome conclusion for him, but it was one to which he believed he was forced in good conscience. He wrote:
“For me, the Bible had to win. So, reading Clarke led me to see the unitarianism (again, just the thesis that the Father is one and the same as the one God) in the Bible, and this made me a unitarian, though I had no desire to be one, and many reasons to not want either that label or that belief.”
“But I have decided in recent months that to be ashamed of these truths would be disloyalty to Jesus, whose disciple I endeavor to be. He too taught that the one God, who is both his God and my God, was the one he called “Father.” (John 17:3, 20:17) So did Paul, John, and Peter. So, kick me in the shins and call me a heretic, but I know to whom I must answer. For the record, no, I don’t think I’m smarter than everyone else, and yes, I admit that it’s possible that I’m mistaken. And no, I’m not a “rationalist.” It is the texts which drive me to unitarianism.”
I don’t agree with Dale and so I’d be fibbing if I said I wasn’t disappointed when I first heard of the conclusions he had drawn. But my concern here is not with Dale and his views. Rather, it is with the 99.999% of Christians who would disagree with Dale. Assuming that the orthodox tradition is right and Dale is wrong, does this mean that the 99.999% are better off than Dale? (I’m not going to define “better off” precisely here, but you can think of it in soteriological terms if you like, or perhaps epistemic virtue, or both.)
Let’s start with the story of two identical twins, Jack and Zack. When still a child Jack is on an airplane that crashes on a tropical island. Jack lives on the island the rest of his life never meeting a woman, let alone having the opportunity to marry. By contrast, Zack grows up, gets married, has a rocky union, and finally divorces his wife due to “irreconcilable differences”, differences that have a whole lot to do with Zack’s own character flaws. And so Jack ended up a celibate, while Zack ended up a divorcee. Is Jack a more admirable moral exemplar for ending up a celibate versus Zack who tried marriage and failed?
I don’t think that such an assertion can be made. It would make sense to compare Zack to others who had tried marriage and succeeded. But it makes no sense to compare him to an individual who never had an opportunity to marry in the first place. How do we know that Jack might not have been an even more glaring failure at marriage than his brother, had he too had the opportunity? And given that counterfactual possibility, wherein is the sense of superiority for Jack over Zack?
I said above that 99.999% of Christians would disagree with Dale. But that’s not exactly true. Rather, most of those 99.999% of Christians would disagree with Dale once it was explained to them that his articulation of the doctrine of God was inconsistent with historic orthodox confession of the Trinity. That is quite a different matter. Over the years I have asked many, many lay Christians to summarize their understanding of the Trinity. The most common response is a blush followed by a mumbled response along the lines of “Well, you’re the theologian. How do you define it?” This is not a response to inspire confidence. I’m not asking folks to explain the mystery of the Trinity. I’m only asking them to summarize the set of truth claims about God that they purport, as orthodox Christians, to confess. I’m just looking for something like this: “There is one God and that God exists eternally and essentially as three equally divine and distinct persons.” And in my experience, even that very, very low bar is too high for most (i.e. at least 50%+1) Christians to clear. (I should add that some Christians can recite from memory a confession or snippet of catechesis which may clear that low bar, and yet it is dubious in many cases that they understand minimally that which they are confessing from memory. Their situation is akin to the person who can say they believe E=mc2 but who cannot say what “E=mc2 “is supposed to mean.)
Jack’s happenstance celibacy provides him with no intrinsic moral virtue over Zack, particularly if it is counterfactually the case that he too would have failed at marriage as surely as his brother. Nor do I find that the typical hobbling, mumbled confession of the Trinity provides the average lay Christian with any intrinsic epistemic virtue over a Christian who tried in all earnestness to understand the orthodoxy of the church and, when he had put the last touches to it, discovers that his view is heterodoxy.