Drinking Deeply

Friday, April 21, 2006 at 8:59 AM

Trying to figure out what I meant...

Someone once told me the key to winning the debate is to define the terms in my favor. I think I'm going to do that now.

Let me say at the outset that Eric (and jefe) are right when they defended a non-necessity of a knowledge of the Trinity for salvation. Thinking it through, especially with the classical example of Abraham, that seems well nigh indefensible.

But.

What I was trying to say, and I think I got side tracked into trying to defend too much, was that the doctrine of the Trinity is a far cry from something like "esteeming the Sabbath rather than the Lord's Day."

I previously gave the example that no one can affirm "Scripture proves A" and "I reject A" without also explicitly rejecting Christianity. But we can have the case "I believe Scripture proves B" so therefore "I reject A and affirm B" when in fact Scripture proves A. For many doctrines, in spite of an incomplete/incorrect knowledge of that specific doctrine, we all would still welcome them as a brother in Christ with open arms.

Yet, I would say that there are a few doctrines with which we cannot do that. That even if someone is convinced that Scripture proves B instead of A, we cannot accept him as a brother in Christ. The Trinity being included in this is what I originally had set off to support, and probably was led astray. My apologies.

Eric said "* I would distinguish between expressing no certain opinion on the Trinity, or never adverting to the possibility of a Trinity, from actual denial of the Trinity. I think I can believe in the Trinity and still believe in the god Abraham prayed to, since so far as I know Abraham never even adverted to the possibility that his god might be triune. The same is not true of my beliefs and, say, a Jewish friend who denies that his god is triune."

I am affirming the same thing, except replacing "Jewish" with "person who claims to be Christian."

(one side note: Maybe what's required is that we be able to distinguish God from gods?)

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Blogger Eric said...

Well, I think we also need to be able to distinguish God from some other hypothetical monotheistic god. I mean, suppose that I have some friend who also, says there is only one true God, but it turns out that each of us thinks the one true God is something so wildly different from the other person's one true God that we cannot possibly be referring to the same entity.  

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Blogger jefe said...

This post provides some helpful clarification. Thanks, Mickey.

(And thanks for sticking out our barrage. I hope that the adversarial tone the discussion has sometimes taken hasn't been discouraging. We're all in this together, trying to understand our faith better so we can live more faithfully, and I appreciate that we can have this kind of open discussion to that end.)

As I understand it now, your basic position amounts to the following argument:

P1. Non-rejection of the trinity is necessary for a "basic understanding" of salvation.

P2. A "basic understanding" of salvation is necessary for faith in Jesus.

P3. Faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation.

Conclusion: Non-rejection of the trinity is necessary for salvation.

I think this is what you're saying; but if that's not the position you mean to defend, please let me know where I went wrong.

I disagree with the conclusion of this argument. The argument is valid (the conclusion follows from the premises), but I don't think it's sound--the premises are flawed. I agree with you on premise 3. But I disagree with either P1 or P2--which one I disagree with depends on what you mean by "basic understanding".

Here is the way you set up the problem in your comment on the previous post:

'... yet "trust in God to save us through the death of Christ" presupposes a great deal of information:

1) Salvation - What are we saved from? What are we saved to?

2) God - Who is God?

3) Christ - Who is Christ? How does his death save us?

Without some basic understanding of this how can someone actually say that they are putting their faith in Jesus?'

I see two things you could mean by this. The first is that a "basic understanding" of salvation means understanding the groundwork that salvation is laid on--the things that are "presupposed" by, or foundational to our salvation. I (probably) agree that rejecting the trinity could mess up this kind of "basic understanding". Answering foundational questions like "How does Christ's death save us?" or "Who is God?" in a satisfactory way would be very difficult.

But I disagree with the claim that this kind of "basic understanding" is necessary for faith in Jesus. By analogy, I have faith in the law of gravity (I trust in it and I believe that it's true), which I exhibit whenever I venture under the yawning abyss of the sky. But my faith in gravity depends in no way on my having this kind of "basic understanding" of gravity. I can't tell you what gravity is; I can't tell you how it keeps me safely on the ground. All I know is that it does.

The second thing you could mean is that, in order to believe a statement, you have to know what the statement means--you can't just be parroting the statement without any notion of what's behind the words. I agree with this, and if this is all you mean by "basic understanding", then I agree with premise 2. But in this case I disagree with premise 1: I think it's entirely possible to know what the statement "God saves me through the death of Jesus" means, even without knowing about the trinity--and even explicitly rejecting trinitarian claims.

Let me show you what this might be like: A says, "God saves me through the death of Jesus." When I ask A what that means, she says, "The creator of the world, who Abraham worshipped, has rescued me from the terror of death and separation from himself. The way he has done this is by sending a man named Jesus, who was put to death in the first century and whom God raised to life on the third day." It seems to me like that explanation gives every evidence that A knows what her original statement meant, and is not just repeating formulaic words. But what A has said is entirely consistent with her also saying, "God and Jesus have different substances, God created Jesus, and Jesus is superhuman but not divine"--that is, explicitly denying the trinity.

Note: I am not claiming that the person who thinks this way would be fully rational. If we go on to cross-examine A further, very possibly her attempts to fit all this together would break down. A might make a poor theologian, or a poor reasoner of any kind. But my fundamental claim is that God doesn't only save reasonable people, any more than God only saves good people.

So if "basic understanding" (BU) means "understanding the basis", then you (probably) do need trinitarianism for BU, but you don't need BU for faith in Jesus. On the other hand, if BU means "knowing what it means", then you do need BU for faith in Jesus, but you don't need trinitarianism for BU. In either case, the argument that (I think) you're resting on is not a sound argument, and leads to a false conclusion.

What do you think?  

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Blogger Eric said...

There still seems to be an identification question here. Ordinarily, when a person tries to identify an individual and gets a basic enough fact about that individual wrong, we question whether the person has correctly identified the individual. So A says she's worshipping the creator of the universe, whom Abraham worshipped. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that there really is such an individual, and that that individual really is triune. This is a little like saying, "I am friends with George Bush, the president of the United States, who is a woman." I have named George Bush by name, and I have correctly given his office, but if I really think that he is a woman, don't we seriously question whether I am in fact talking about the same George Bush that everyone else talks about?

Now the situation might be different if I say, "I am friends with George Bush, president of the United States, who was born on July 6, 1950" (in fact President Bush was born on July 6 1946). If I make that kind of mistake, we would probably assume that I am referring to the same George Bush that everyone else refers to, and I simply have some mistaken beliefs about him.

Perhaps the question here is whether the Trinity is more like believing George Bush is a woman or more like believing George Bush was born in 1950. I gather from what Mickey has written that he thinks explicitly denying the Trinity is more like believing George Bush is a woman - that is, it gives us serious reason to doubt whether A is in fact believing in an entity who has power to save her from sin. Can you respond?  

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Blogger mxu said...

jefe -

Thank you very much for your comments. As I do take a public forum for my thoughts, I do also need that spiritual guidence and godly rebuking that comes from the body of Christ. I do appreciate your comments (though sometimes I feel like I'm way over my head with the positions I am taking and trying to defend them. But really, if I can't defend them, why am I claiming they are true?)

I think I understand the phrase "basic understanding" in your second point: We must know what we are saying.

To that extent, I think Eric has answered it far better than I myself would be able to. That would be pretty much what I would say (if you gave me an extra day to think about it or so!)  

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Blogger jefe said...

Okay, here goes. As I see it, the claim now under discussion is that a person who rejects trinitarianism is unable to assert “God saves me through the death of Jesus” with the right meaning. And the particular reason suggested for this is that when the anti-trinitarian (A) uses the word “God”, her word fails to pick out the same being that the trinitarian refers to as “God”. (Right so far?)

Eric suggests that this could come about because of a general claim: “Ordinarily, when a person tries to identify an individual and gets a basic enough fact about that individual wrong, we question whether the person has correctly identified the individual.” And he gives a supporting example: suppose Bert claims, “George Bush is a woman.” Wouldn't this make us suspect that Bert's use of “George Bush” does not actually refer to the current U.S. President?

I think this intuition is misleading, and I'm going to try to explain it away.

If Bert asserts, “George Bush is a woman”, we have two possibilities: (1) Bert is referring to the current U.S. President, and is mistaken about his gender. (2) Bert is referring to someone else (or no one at all).

Generally if you know someone, you know their gender. This would make option (1) seem kind of far-fetched. So, even though option (2) is also a bit weird, we are led to suspect that it may be the case—that is, to “seriously question whether [Bert is] in fact talking about the same George Bush that everyone else talks about”. But look: the reason we suspect this is because we're inclined to believe that Bert is right about the gender of whoever he's talking about. Suppose that, in addition to Bert's claim, we are informed that Bert doesn't know the U.S. President's gender. In that case, the fact that Bert says “George Bush is a woman” gives us no evidence at all that he isn't talking about the U.S. President.

Now, in the case of the anti-trinitarian A, it's claimed that she has made a basic mistake about what God is like—namely, she thinks God is not triune. But if, in fact, she has made such a mistake, then her saying “God is not triune” doesn't give us any evidence at all that she isn't talking about the same God as the trinitarian T is when he says, “God is triune.” Indeed, if A and T weren't talking about the same God, then they wouldn't even be expressing a disagreement! (It would be like me saying “John is alive” and you saying “John is dead”, when I'm referring to John Stott and you're referring to John Calvin.)

But if A is in fact referring God when she says false things about him, then there is no problem with her also saying some true things about that same God--such as “God saves me through the death of Jesus.”

Here's what I think is going on: It's true that Bert making a wildly mistaken claim makes us question whether he is referring weirdly--so strictly speaking, Eric's general claim is ordinarily true. But it's not true that Bert's wildly mistaken claim makes him refer weirdly. The first point is about our perception of Bert. But the second point is about Bert's actual reference. And what (I think) our discussion is really concerned with is the anti-trinitarian's actual reference.

(I think the intuitions behind the “identification question” actually come from a misunderstanding about the way proper names like “God” or “George Bush” refer to individuals. I don't want to go into a lot of detail unless folks are interested, but it seems to me that behind the “identification question” lies a naïve “description theory” of reference--the theory that when Bert uses a name “X”, the name stands in for some mental description Bert has for X. Theories like this don't hold up well in these situations, when Bert has mistaken beliefs about X. But that's all I'll say about that for now.)

I need to point out one more thing: the position you've staked, as I've understood it, is very strong. You're saying that an anti-trinitarian can't even talk meaningfully about God. I think I've given a good argument against this position, but even if you don't buy that, you've got to ask, why would we think such a strong claim is true? Is there a compelling argument? Is there support for it in scripture?

This is what I tried to return to in my first post: I say the essential doctrines are the ones scripture says are essential--and I was only able to find a couple of those. But I'm not saying I've exhausted all that the canon has to say about it, and I'd honestly like to know what you think the scriptural support is for all these other miscellaneous essentialness claims that you've brought up--like the trinity, or the authority of scripture. Not support for their truth, but for their essentialness.  

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Blogger Eric said...

I think it's well said to distinguish between who we think A is referring to and who A actually is referring to. As a side note along the lines of what we think, I feel I should add that my own view is that we can fairly conclude that Bert is talking about George Bush even if he has made a very basic mistake about this person he is referring to. If Bert engaged me in a lengthy discussion of "George Bush's" impact on contemporary Republican politics, the war on terror, his domestic policies, distinctive mannerisms and turns of phrase, his wife Laura, and yet insisted that he knew George Bush personally and that the person he was referring to was a woman, at some point I would probably have to throw up my hands and admit that something very strange was going on here, but I had no real reason to doubt that Bert and I had the same actual person in mind. At some point the effect of even [what I think is] a basic mistake can be overcome in everyday reasoning by sufficient similarities. I see no reason why similar reasoning shouldn't apply when we try to figure out whether non-trinitarian A is referring to the same deity as we are.  

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