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The New Atheism and the Trinity

Here's Mike Reeves speaking at a student evangelistic event this week.  Sound quality is not great but it is well worth listening to!

It's called "How Atheists Are Right."  Mike's arguing that the new atheism rightly rejects the solitary dictator in the sky.   Christopher Hitchens regularly complains that theism is totalitarianism.  The theist God is with you 24-7, cannot be escaped and can even convict you of thought crime - the very definition of a totalitarian regime.

But, as Mike says, traditional Christianity has always stood against the solitary dictator in the sky. Instead, when we say God we mean a fundamentally different being.  We believe in a God who is other-centred love.  And as John Lennox put to Christopher Hitchens in a recent debate - My wife is with me morning and evening but I don't call my marriage a totalitarian regime!  (Or words to that effect.)

Anyway - for Thawed-out Thursday I thought I'd defrost (and slightly revise) an old post originally called 'So what?'.  It discusses the way in which the atheism of the west is linked to the trinitarian theology of the west (or lack of it).

Wherever the inter-Personal nature of God is minimized the 'dictator in the sky' is enthroned.  And in those circumstances atheism recommends itself very persuasively.  But really the solution is to return to a robustly trinitarian theology.  In his talk, Mike does this very winsomely.

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A friend of mine is at Bible college and has been set an essay on trinitarian theology and the difference between east and west.  He asked me to clarify the difference between an eastern and a western approach to the trinity and then to answer the crucial question:  So what!!

Now first of all I'll lay out some broad brush-strokes.  Here's a crude but still useful way of discussing our theological method.  As Theodore De Regnon has famously put it:  In the west theologians begin with the One and work towards the Three.  In the east, theologians begin with the Three and work towards the One.

Now that might be completely false historically.  My point is not to defend this as a reading of the theological traditions.  I'm just wanting to use these definitions of 'east' and 'west' as labels to help the discussion along.  But let's make sure we understand the proposition first.

De Regnon is saying that typically, the west begins with the One God and then tries to figure where Three-ness fits in.  The east begins with the Three Persons and then figures out how the Three are One.

Now... once again, this is a sweeping generalisation but when I use the labels 'western' or 'eastern' to describe the approach to trinitarian theology, that's what I'm talking about.  And I grant that in what follows I am caricaturing positions.  No theologian in the 'west' is as bad as I'm saying.  But plenty, plenty, plenty, of your average western Church-goers are far worse.  Far worse!

And I'm not wanting to get into an argument about whether 'Augustine was a lot more nuanced/ Cappodocian/ economy-driven, etc, etc'.   For the sake of argument, let me grant every 'yes, but...' which an Augustine supporter may wish to raise about Augustine's own theology.  But let's step back and examine a trend in western Christianity that bears the stamp of his influence.  And let's admit that if Augustine doesn't fit the caricature, there are millions descended from him who do.

I should also say that there are basic things about eastern trinitarianism with which I disagree.  But on the simple point of our theological method I believe we should begin with the Three and discuss God's Oneness in that light.

And here's why.

If you're eastern you say: "I've met this guy Jesus and He introduces me to His Father and sends His Spirit."  And then, having met the Three Persons in the gospel, you ask, 'What kind of one-ness do these three Persons share?'  And because you think in this way you can conclude: "These three Persons are one because they are united in love."

So you go to John 17 and you see Jesus saying He wants His followers to be one the same way He and the Father are one.  And then you say "Aha!  The one-ness of the church is loving unity, therefore it stands to reason that the one-ness of Father and Son is loving unity."  And then you remember 1 John 4 and you say with joy: How is God one?  God is love!  God is a loving community of Three Persons.

And this means that the greatest thing in all reality is love (because God is love).  And it means that reality is relational.  And it means that loving community among disinct people is very important.  One-ness for the east is a loving union of particular Persons who don't lose their individuality.  Father, Son and Spirit are all different Persons - they are not one because they are identical.

So, using these rough labels, the eastern approach can say: God is three distinct but totally united Persons loving one another.  Let me flesh out three implications of this:

1) It means that difference, distinction, community, relationship, mutuality, reciprocity and LOVE are all at the very very centre of who God is.  God's identity is not primarily a collection of attributes but a community of love.

2) Because even the Father, Son and Spirit find their identity in relationships we see that relationship is at the heart of personal identity.  God is who He is because He is love.  God is who He is because of the relationships of Father, Son and Spirit.  Therefore I am who I am because of the relationships I share in.

3) Community is hugely important.  Even in God, different voices are not silenced by one dominant ruler.  Instead different voices contribute to a one-ness that's all about distinct persons working together in love.

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On the other hand (using these crude generalisations) the west begins by saying: "we know that God is one.  We know that this one God has all sorts of attributes that go with the 'Creator' job description. So God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, immutable etc etc."  Then the west says, "Ok we've got the one God, but now in the gospel we meet these three Persons.  So how can the three Persons qualify as this one God?"

The west figures that since the one God is defined by these attributes then the way these Three are One is by sharing in all these same attributes.  And so they map these attributes identically onto the three Persons.  In this way the distinctions between Persons gets lost.  Every difference is blurred into the one God who is defined not by relationships but by attributes (i.e. He's big and clever).  Three implications of this:

1) God's identity is primarily a collection of attributes - attributes that are about His distance from creation, His difference to us.

2) If God is who He is because of His attributes - personal identity is essentially about attributes (about being big and clever).  Therefore I am who I am because of how big and clever I am.

3) Community is not really that important - there's only one voice and will that counts.  Distinctions and difference will get bull-dozed before the all-important one.

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Ok, now that I've laid it out like this, hopefully you can see some of the 'so what' significance??

Let me tease it out by discussing the three implications:

Regarding 1):  In the west, God has been defined as a collection of attributes that place Him at an infinite distance from us.  Now if you go out on the streets and talk to people about whether they're religious, basically (keeping eastern influences out of this) people will say either they do or they don't believe in a distant, uni-personal God who is approximately the 'omni-being' of philosophy.  Whether they believe in "God" or don't believe in "God", the "God" they're talking about is the collection of attributes which the western theologian began with before they examined the gospel!

The god that our western culture has either embraced or rejected is not the God of the gospel!  Instead the "god" of the pub discussion is pretty much the "one God" that the western theologian began with.  And if the bloke in the pub rejects that god - I don't blame him!!  And if Christopher Hitchens rejects that god - we don't blame him, right?  Because that's not a god who is obviously related to Jesus of Nazareth (or His Spirit or the Father He called 'Abba').  And therefore its not a god who appears to be particularly interested in us - its not a god revealed in gospel love but in philosophical speculation.

Now the cultures shaped by the western church have been shaped by this doctrine of God.  When they accepted "God" it was this "God" they accepted.  When they rejected him, it was this "God" they rejected.

Atheism has basically been the rejection of this god.  People have decided they don't want a distant omni-being over against them and proclaimed his non-existence.  And what people like Colin Gunton have asked is, "Would the west have rejected "God" so thoroughly if the "God" they were presented with by the western church was the community of committed love revealed in Jesus?"  The answer still might be yes, but at least we'll be discussing the true God when we evangelise!

Regarding 2): The question of personal identity.  Well if we go with the west (as I've been defining it), my identity is all about my attributes.  I need to build up a CV of my big-ness and clever-ness.  That will define me.  But if I go with the east then my identity is about my relationships.  I am who I am because fundamentally I'm in Christ (and what's more I'm a son, a brother, a husband, etc). When I take this seriously, my western status-anxiety can be relieved in a second.  I find liberation from the western drive to prove myself and forge an identity for myself.  I am given identity in the relationships I have (primarily my relationship with Christ).

Think also of the abortion debate. What is it that defines whether this foetus has personal identity?  Ask a westerner and they'll instinctively answer you in terms of attributes: "This foetus can/can't do X, Y, and Z therefore the foetus can/can't be aborted."  But what if the foetus is a person not because of its attributes but because it already stands in relationships of love?

Regarding 3): The point about community.  Here's a quote from the website: (https://christthetruth.net/audio/threepersonsunited.htm)

"...what can we learn about relationships and community from The Relationship? In gender relations, in multi-ethnic society, in equal opportunities policies, in the church, in our families - we are constantly confronted by people who have real and important differences and yet people who ought to be treated with equal respect and dignity. How do we appreciate the differences and uphold the equality? If we treat all in exactly the same way, are we not ignoring the valuable distinctives? This ‘melting pot' approach falls foul of oppression-by-assimilation. The incumbent majority always wins out at the cost of the minorities - they either become like the majority or they die. Do we, therefore, treat specific parties differently in an attempt to give them a leg-up? When this happens stereo-types can be re-enforced by ‘special treatment' and work against the value of equality. Furthermore: who defines the appropriate yard-stick of "success" in a culture? Perhaps it is better to abandon the idea of community altogether and accept along with Margaret Thatcher that there is "no such thing as society."

"Well what can the Trinity teach us? At the heart of reality lies a Community of different but equal Persons who have their own identities constituted by their mutual interdependence. They work together as One. There definitely is such a thing as society. Person-hood can never be considered individualistically but is made up of relationships on which we depend. Within The Community, the Persons freely submit to one another in roles of subordination while never losing their equal status. They do submit to differences in treatment and in function - but they maintain a definite equality of being and uphold one another in bonds of unconditional love. Here is a Community on which to model our own."

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I think Mike's talk is the most brilliant example of how this approach pays off in evangelism.  Do listen to it.

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0 thoughts on “The New Atheism and the Trinity

  1. dave

    I'm hoping we might get a better recording some time - this one was the best my mobile phone could pick up from the other side of a large lecture theatre.

    If not, we'll get him to give it again somewhere else and soon.
    Or, make him do an interview version of it or something...

    Worth googling Rublev's picture too.

  2. Glen

    Hey thanks Dave - great to get it in any version.

    Funny - I used the Rublev icon in the video I made the other day. It's a good'un.

    Hoping (Lord willing) that you'll regain the will to blog soon...

    :)

  3. dave

    I sort of figure that Mike Reeves should be permanently recorded...

    It's partly a question of the will to blog and partly a function of what this year has been like... adding being a Dad and more involvement in our church and doing more evangelism... you can't keep pouring stuff in and not take anything out. For now what's out is the blog.

    I also fancied a break after 6-7 years, so as and when I pick it up again hopefully it'll be fresher and better for it.

  4. dave

    Pleasure to link - even if I'm not writing a blog at the moment I'm reading and want others to read the best stuff out there - you make my top 4 comfortably :)

  5. Perry Robinson

    The term attribute is way too ambiguous and confused. One the one hand it seems to be used as a property and then later as a function.

    Second Rubalev's icon is not an icon of the Trinity. it is an icon of the hospitality of Abraham, which is a TYPE of the Trinity.

  6. Otepoti

    Great work with the shoe phone, Agent 86.

    Distribute the intelligence on Need-to-Know.

    Perry, surely love is both a function and a property of God. Is there a problem there?

    Did anyone catch where lunch was?

  7. Perry Robinson

    Otepoi,

    THat depends. Functions are behaviors that are the result of working parts. Does God have parts? Likewise, it depends on the conception of God one adheres to. Ifyou take one of the western views of simplicity such as Augustine, God has no intrinsic properties that constitute him. God has extrinsic properties, how things are related to him via efficient causation.

    Consequently,we make judgments about God that are different in our minds but in God they are all the same either formally or metaphysically or both. these are called attributions. Attributes are not properties then. And this is a very common mistake.

  8. Heather

    Glen,

    I haven't been able to listen to the presentation, yet.

    But wanted to say that when I first found your site, I told Craig how exciting it was to be able to read someone who relates to Who God is in word "pictures" rather than simply lists of definitions with more definitions piled on to help better refine your meaning.

    Certainly, God has attributes, whether we define them as "properties" or "functions". It would not be wrong to say God is One-who-is-Three, Three who are One, loving, just, holy, angry, omniscient, omnipresent, etc...

    The Bible tells us these things about God, so we can trust that they are true.

    But, I've had a terrible time moving from the (western?) view of God as an impersonal list of descriptive terms into the (eastern view?) reality that God is a living being (three persons) Who is relational. Like the guy who misses seeing the forest because of all the trees in the way--the relationship aspect was just lost on me.

    When frustration finally caused me to ask the Lord to show me the pictures that He has given in Scripture to flesh out those attributes, the Tri-unity of the Godhead--and God's desired relationship with His creation, finally started to make sense.

    The Bible is full of illustrations that help to create a better understanding of the more abstract definitions. Of course, t's possible to go too far to one side or the other and end up with a wrong perception. But it's a beautiful thing to be able to combine both the "western" and "eastern" ways of thinking and have them complement and balance each other. :)

    I have noticed that many atheists do seem to be rejecting the heavily "westernized" view of God. While I don't know that a shift in presentation would necessarily change their hearts, I do agree that it is our responsibility to not stand in the way of their being able to see Who it is they are rejecting.

  9. Glen

    Very well put Heather.

    Perry, I'll have to think about the attributes stuff.

    So did Rubalev think the trinity met Abraham? I think it was the Son and two angels (as Gen 19:1 makes clear). But I was under the impression that Rublev stood in a long interpretive tradition that saw Gen 18 as an appearance of the trinity. I defer to your knowledge though...

  10. Perry Robinson

    Glen,

    Attributes in classical Latin theology from Augustine through Alcuin to Anselm to Ockham are predicates-things said about God. This is fairly uniform throughout the Latin tradiiton. The differences come on the degree of grounding in God, if any, and what then the metaphysics of the relation between what is predicated of God to God. That is, what is the truth maker for propositions about God? Are in they in God and if so in what way? If yes, then are they metaphysically the same but different in form or definition? (Scotus) Or are they even the same in definition? (Maybe Aquinas)

    As for the Rubalev icon, initially he did think it was an icon of the Trinity, but after he was corrected, he rescinded that, which is why he vowed never to paint it again.

    At most in the patristic literature it is a type of the Trinity, but icons are limited to what has been revealed or manifested in history, so there is no revelation or manifestation of the Father's form, which is why there can be no legitimate icons of the Father or the Spirit say beyond that of the form of a dove at Christ's baptism and flames of fire at Pentecost. The Father is not an "old man."

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