Recently, one of the foremost defenders of unitarianism today, the analytic philosopher Dale Tuggy, squared off in a public debate with popular speaker, radio host, and author Michael Brown to debate the topic “Is the God of the Bible the Father Alone?” Tuggy defended unitarianism and Brown defended trinitarianism.
I very much enjoyed this rigorous debate and after listening to it, I wanted to follow up with some questions for Tuggy. That conversation is below.
RR: Dale, thanks for agreeing to a follow-up conversation regarding your recent debate with Michael Brown.
In your opening statement, you list six facts which you argue fit better if the New Testament authors were unitarian. Meanwhile, Brown was tasked with arguing that those facts instead best fit the assumption that the NT authors were Trinitarian.
Like many Christians, I find myself left out of these options: I don’t believe that the NT teaches Unitarianism, but neither do I accept that the NT authors were already Trinitarians. Rather, I believe that the doctrine of the Trinity gradually emerged in the early centuries of the church as the best interpretation of the NT documents and thus the fullest revelation of God. And this historical development was guided by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13).
That brings me to my first question. While your six facts may provide a problem for Brown’s assumption that the NT teaches Trinitarianism, do you believe they present as serious a problem for the Christian who believes the Trinity is a post-NT doctrine which provides the most satisfactory overarching interpretation of the NT documents?
DT: First, you have to realize that by “unitarianism” I mean that thesis that the Father just is the one God, and no one else is. (As I use the term it is neutral about the preexistence of Jesus.) It is in that sense that I claim that the NT is unitarian in its theology. I think the texts I cite in my opening statement clearly imply that thesis. About those six facts, by the way, Dr. Brown could not and did not deny them, and in my view he didn’t show that any of them are unsurprising if the NT authors are trinitarians. Thus, he did nothing to undermine my point that those facts are strong evidence for my thesis that the NT authors are unitarian in their theology, not trinitarian.
Like many with theological training, you want to say that it’s a false dilemma to be asked to choose between the NT authors being unitarian (God just is the Father) and the NT authors being trinitarian (God just is the Trinity). Why not say that they were proto-trinitarian, or semi-trinitarian, or just that they were neither trinitarian nor unitarian? In other words, the NT authors were confused, though they were sort of trying to head in a trinitarian direction, but lacked the needed terminology or concepts. Here’s the interesting thing: the six facts still confirm my thesis (that the NT authors are unitarian) over this new rival (that they’re confused); it’s just that the confirmation is to a lesser degree than in the unitarian vs. trinitarian comparison. In other words, my six facts are still surprising, given the confused hypothesis, just a bit less so, while again they are expected given unitarianism. I explicitly make this argument in a fuller, more technical version which I presented in Germany in 2017, which is a forthcoming chapter in a forthcoming book, and which is trinities podcast 189, “The Unfinished Business of the Reformation.”
RR: At the close of your opening statement you recount the failure of all Trinity theories to provide a biblical, orthodox, and coherent account of what it means for God to be one and three.
This prompts me to ask two questions. First, on your podcast, you’ve interviewed many theologians and philosophers who attempt to provide a satisfactory Trinity theory which is biblical, orthodox, and coherent. Is there any theory or approach that you find more promising than others? Or do you think they are all equally unsuccessful?
DT: I can sympathize with all of them, and I see what they are getting right, as concerns the NT. The “social” people, I call them “three-self” trinitarians, quite correctly recognize the personal relationship which the NT portrays between God and his unique human Son. But by endorsing the Nicene claim that they are each fully divine, they thereby posit two gods (two beings, each of which has the divine essence), and despite great effort, these theorists have not been able to show that their theory really should count as biblical monotheism.
The one-self people, they are surely right that the Christian God is supposed to be a “He,” a unique and wonderful Self, indeed, someone with a personal name – not a group, family, or set of three selves. Yet as I argued in the debate, it is a terrible error to see the Father and Son of the NT as the same self, or as two manifestations, modes, or personalities of the one divine self. Among other difficulties, it is incompatible with the Son serving as a mediator between God and us, and it rules out the Son being a real man. No human being is a property, mode, or action of anything or anyone. (The many agonies of two-natures speculations are shared by all trinitarians, although this debate didn’t focus much on those.)
The relative-identity theorists are the other current camp; such are theories that only a philosopher could love. But in my view they too are logically incompatible with clear, repeated NT teaching. The NT is explicit that the Father is Jesus’s god. Relative identity trinitarians say that even though they are different “Persons,” the Father and the Son are the same god. (By the way, I write “god” when using the word as a common noun, and capitalize it like a name, “God,” when using it as a singular referring term.) But no god can be god of himself; god-over is an irreflexive relation, like bigger-than. If A is the god over B, A and B can’t be the same god. (Notice that here I grant, but only for the sake of argument, that there are irreducible relative-identity relations.)
There are other less popular speculations out there, but they too seem to conflict with what look like self-evident and necessary truths. Still, for me the fundamental problem with Trinity theories is not their internal difficulties, or their clashes with other things we know, but just that none of them is the best explanation of what the Bible does and doesn’t say. It wasn’t the difficulties of the theories that made me a unitarian. Rather, those drive me back for a difficult, decade-long re-examination of the Bible, which ended in my concluding that such theories just aren’t well enough motivated by the texts themselves.
RR: Second, what would you say to the person who says they believe in the doctrine of the Trinity without a satisfactory theory of the Trinity just like they believe in libertarian free will without a satisfactory theory of libertarian free will?
DT: A difference here is that in my view belief that we have libertarian free will is properly basic, something that adult humans normally believe and know to be true. No Trinity theory has that epistemic status. Of course, most of us don’t have much of a theory of libertarian freedom, any detailed model of how it works. And I guess your point is that likewise, most trinitarian Christians don’t have detailed views about how God is three in some way and one in some other way. Of course, there are a few philosophers who think that there is some contradiction lurking in the idea of libertarian freedom.
I grant that in many cases we reasonably believe and even know important truths without having any explanation of those truths. I also grant that we can reasonably believe and know some truths even though there is some difficulty about them that we can’t solve. But I don’t grant that we can have strong reason to believe some set of sentences the meaning of which we don’t fathom. Some sophisticates, usually theologians, can see that however we understand sentences like “The one God exists in three Persons” or “God is three Persons sharing one essence,” hard problems quickly arise. Their solution is to refuse to interpret the words. They’ll say that all analogies, all comparisons to other things, fall short, and no “model” can be offered, that is, we can’t really set out under what conditions the sentence in question would be true or false. In my published work I call this “negative mysterianism.”
But I take it this is feigned ignorance. In fact, there is a certain way of thinking about the triune God that they’re employing, when not adopting this artificial, defensive pose of ignorance. Just about all Christians habitually think of God as a who, a someone, a “He,” a self. And since “Jesus is God,” Jesus is that same self, the same self as the Father. So one starts a prayer with “Oh Father, we love you…” and then two sentences later, “…and we thank you for dying for us.” In practice, among the laity, all the sound and fury of trinitarian theorizing just gets dumbed down to this: sometimes confusing together Jesus and God. But then, you read the Bible, and when doing that, you think they’re two selves, two personal beings, two intelligent agents, indeed two friends, though one is the boss of the other, indeed, his god. It’s just a confusion.
Now what about the few hearty souls who will both say that their Trinity theory seems incoherent and they’ll even say out loud what that apparent contradiction is? E.g. “God is one being, and it is not the case that God is one being.” (Mind you, I’m not saying that all trinitarians are committed to that; but we’re supposing that some trinitarian does commit to this as the nub of the “mystery” in his theory.) The problem here is that apparent incoherence (here, seeming to have the form P and not-P) is very strong evidence of falsehood. It seems to me this is going to outweigh whatever reasons you have in favor of the theory, as I explain in my “On Positive Mysterianism.”
RR: Interestingly, during the debate Brown accused you of bitheism while you suggested his view was actually modalistic. You made it amply clear that the bitheism charge was unfair: as you pointed out, you refer to Jesus as “God” while recognizing that ontologically there is only one God, the Father.
However, could you say more about why you believe Brown could be interpreted as a modalist?
DT: As I said in the debate, by “modalism” theologians usually mean a view on which God is successively Father, Son, and Spirit, one after the other, with no temporal overlap. In that sense, he is not a modalist. But if “modalism” is just the “Persons” of the Trinity being just ways the one divine self is, then it seems he is a “modalist” in that sense. I used to use the word “modalist” that way, like here and here. But I don’t want to just quarrel about words, and I think the traditional heresy-labels are too often used as a substitute for critical thinking. So for some time I’ve preferred calling such views “one-self trinitarian.” The thrust of my rebuttal was that such a theory clashes with clear NT teachings, such that Jesus is God’s prophet (the predicted one who’d be greater than Moses), that Jesus is our high priest, that he mediates for us, that the Father commands and he obeys, etc. Also, it is self-evident that a thing can’t be and not be some way at one time. But he theorizes that the Father and Son are the same self and the same god, even though in his view, the two of them have differed in various ways. (This was the part in the debate where he said, I think against his better judgment, that the Son actually didn’t die – I was urging that on the first Good Friday Jesus was dead but the Father wasn’t – and then shifted to the view that the Son’s body (or human nature?) died, though his soul did not – or at least, the Logos did not.)
Brown made it clear that he was irritated by this sort of objection, that in his eyes it was “philosophy,” and that’s not what he was there to debate. But of course if something is manifestly impossible, and your reading of the Bible implies that claim, that’s a huge problem for your reading of the Bible. You can’t separate considerations of consistency from the process of interpretation. The more we respect a book, the more we should strive to read it in a self-consistent way. I don’t see how Dr. Brown could be exempt from such considerations. I certainly don’t think that I am.
RR: Okay, here’s the last question. Could you say more about what it means to worship Jesus if Jesus is only a human being?
DT: By “only a human being” I take it you mean a man, a human being who does not also have a (or the) divine nature. So, there’s nothing in the Bible that says that God could not will that we also give religious worship to his special man. And it is a core NT teaching that God has willed this; this is part of what it means for Jesus to be “exalted to God’s right hand.” This is a real and shocking promotion, not just Jesus resuming his previous position. For him to now enjoy that position is for us to owe him worship. We see Jesus worshiped, and not on the basis that he is God (or is divine, has a divine nature) in Revelation 5. And Paul explicitly says that the confession of Jesus as Lord is “to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:11) Of course, we should not “worship Jesus as God” if that means worshiping Jesus while thinking that Jesus is God himself. But if “worshiping Jesus as God” means worshiping both God and his Son in (outwardly) similar ways, then that is just what we see in Revelation 5, and in all Christian assemblies since the beginning.
The word “worship” has shifted in meaning since biblical times so that a lot of us assume that “worship” is something which in principle can only be fitting to give to God. (In philosopher-speak, there is no possible world in which it is not morally wrong to worship someone other than God.) As I’ve explained, the biblical words translated as “worship” are not so specific in meaning. Worshiping is a type of honoring, and there is nothing self-evident about the claim that necessarily, only God can be worshiped. You honor both your parents; you honor both the mayor and the prime-minister. Why shouldn’t religious honor be in principle give-able to more than one?
As I said in the debate, Dr. Brown seemed to have as an unexamined assumption that only one with a (or the) divine nature could be worshiped (so, Father, Son, Spirit, and presumably also the Trinity as such). But the Bible neither says nor implies such a claim. What the OT says is that only Yahweh (aka “God the Father”) should be worshiped. That looks like a problem for my view, since in my view Jesus isn’t Yahweh but rather his Son.
But I don’t think it really is a problem. Words like “all,” “only,” “none” etc. are interpreted in a context, relative to some assumed domain. So if I comment on your blog and say “Everyone knows that Rauser is a Christian apologist,” it would be silly to try to refute me by pointing out the existence of some man who lived in Borneo in the fifteenth century who surely did not know that. The objector doesn’t grasp that the assumed domain was something like: people who read this blog. So in, for example, 900 BC, among the beings then worshiped, i.e. God and the alleged deities of the nations, only God should be worshiped. That is still true now – out of that group, only God should be worshiped. Of course, if we shift the domain, so that now it includes the risen and exalted man Jesus, we get a different claim. It is now false that [out of all the available objects of worship] we should only worship God, precisely because we should also worship Jesus.
I think this is why no NT author seems worried about the worship of Jesus, that it should violate monotheism or count as idolatry. And notice that angel says “Worship God [and not me, the angel], not “Worship only God!” as some mistakenly translate. (Revelation 19:10, 22:9) This is because the very same author has just positively portrayed the worship of both God and his exalted Son. And speaking of “idolatry,” again, Dr. Brown, as is traditional, seemed to assume that any worship of someone other than God himself counts as a case of the sin of idolatry. (I would assume this to be based on Romans 1:25.) But again, that is not a scriptural claim, and the NT itself falsifies it!
Dr. Brown’s move here was to insist that John 5:23 says the Son should be honored “even as” the Father is, in the sense that exactly the same type of religious worship must be given to each (and this is the type only God should get). But the passage simply doesn’t demand that reading, and at any rate, the NT is clear enough that the exalted Son should be worshiped because of his faithful, redeeming, Kingdom-establishing service to God. (Revelation 5:9-10)
To hear more from Dale Tuggy, you can visit him online at his excellent blog and website: https://trinities.org/blog/
In addition, you can buy his fine book What is the Trinity? here.
(And you can read my review of What is the Trinity? here.)