Yes, the Trinity is a problem, as well as a solution

I'm a bit of a fan of J. Warner Wallace, the cold-case detective (occasionally featured on the Dateline NBC news series) who converted to Christianity and then, when he retired from policework, became a full-time apologist. I'm enough of a fan to be on his mailing list, and so when he posted an article last month (May 4) titled "The Trinity is Not A Problem, It's A Solution", I was particularly curious since the importance of the Trinity as a solution to certain problems has been a main thrust of my own apologetic work for more than 15 years.

Not that I think the Trinity isn't also "a problem".

I think it's fair to say that any complex theory is inherently more difficult, and so more problematic in that sense, than a relatively simpler theory, and I don't know of a theistic doctrinal set more complex than trinitarian theism. It isn't easy to arrive at metaphysically; and no less easy to arrive at by working out the implications of Christian (and to at least some extent Jewish) scriptural testimony!

For anyone about to type "Hinduism" in the comments as a more complex theology: I don't regard its doctrinal set, so far as I know it, to be actually more complex. I consider its numerical complexity, although vast, to be ultimately trivial; and since a common tenet of its theology is that the numerical complexity is kind of an accident and will be resolved back into undifferentiated unity sooner or later, I get the impression that the numerical complexity although interesting and entertaining is supposed to be ultimately trivial -- that ultimate simplicity despite appearances, might even be its chief theological point! But since I'm not claiming, much less arguing, that complexity is necessarily evidence of better truth, the existence of an actually more complex theology wouldn't bother me. My point was only that complexity is inherently more difficult to accept than simplicity in some ways. (I would say the same about the variegated cosmologies common to mystical Gnosticisms from the 2nd century onward: the complexities end up being ultimately trivial, and that might even be an important point to their theologies!)

Anyway, JWW's post can be read here, (; and while I don't want to disparage it, it's a short introduction to a hugely complicated topic which, so far as the article goes, only deals with a solution to one rather limited type of problem: what do the theological implications of the Judeo-Christian canon coherently add up to, if anything?

And I can anticipate some reasonable objections already, chief among them:

(1) At best the implications are weaker in the pre-Christian scriptures (the Jewish canon) than in the Christian scriptures, so why should the Christian scriptures be regarded as anything better than foisting new ideas alien to the Jewish ones?


(2) Why should anyone today even care, other than as a fun hobby perhaps, about what two sets of texts from two periods of Near Middle Eastern antiquity say about anything theologically, any more than caring about, for example, Philo's notions of Platonism or Plutarch's notions of Pythagoreanism? (Both of which have some theistic details, Philo naturally moreso than Plutarch, and both of whom lived and worked in the early and late 1st Christian century respectively.)

Now, I myself don't need the Judeo-Christian canon to believe trinitarian theism is true and to expect that something equivalent to the trinitarian Christian story (from the story of Israel through the story of the Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection) will happen in history someday. But as a matter of historical fact, people worked out those beliefs, within the context of Jewish monotheism, thanks to following a guy they understood to have been executed by crucifixion in a historical setting (around the 30s of the Common Era, which of course is only Common by being Christian to start with), and whose body soon afterward disappeared and then, apparently, showed up again in a rather peculiar way.

Sure, there were some other quite different theologies attached to beliefs about that man sooner or later (without getting into the question of which beliefs came sooner or later); but this particular doctrinal set only came about historically due to beliefs about what that guy did and taught in his life. And the special importance of his life is tied historically to whatever peculiar thing happened after his death.

To this, however, a charitable sceptic could reasonably reply that this might only be some kind of coincidental accident, that the impressive mystery of what happened to that man (impressive at least to many people of that time) happens to be connected eventually to this unique set of religious doctrines. It isn't, after all, super-obviously obvious how what happened to him, and what he did and said, relates to those doctrines, even on the report of the religious scriptures that eventually came (for whatever reasons) to be authoritatively accepted by those who (with some variances) also came to accept this complicated doctrinal set. One of the commonest criticisms of trinitarian Christianity throughout history, after all, is that it takes no small amount of work (despite small summary articles like what you might read on the internet or hear in a 20 minute sermon) to arrive at trinitarian theism by reference to the Christian scriptures themselves! -- much moreso the Jewish scriptures promoted by Christians!

To which an ignorant sceptic (charitable or not) might add that there are plenty of other 'trinity' religions in the world and so there's nothing specially unique to bother about believing this one anyway.

And even if the sceptic has actually studied enough (perhaps by being an ex-Christian) to recognize and acknowledge that trinitarian theism is a lot more distinct than just having three whatevers connected with a deity somehow -- and so laughs or snorts or shakes her head at attempts to make trinitarian theism no different from the three heads of the big dog "Spot" (or "Cerebus" in that non-English language) guarding the gate to hades --

-- even then, the doctrines and their distinctive differences from other theologies, might mean and be nothing more or better than characteristic signifiers: nothing other than the details of one species of religion in categorical distinction from other species, so to speak.

And she might well have that attitude from being formerly a Christian herself and so knowing quite well that, in practice, nominally 'trinitarian' Christians themselves are rarely if ever taught that the details are important for any reason other than to distinguish "us" from "them" over there, whoever they are, who aren't Christians or who aren't real Christians or who aren't sufficiently real Christians. A tribe's peculiar tattoos might indeed be distinctively unique compared even to trivially similar other tattoos, but if the tats only exist for tribe members to recognize and acknowledge each other as allies, then sure that might be important to them personally, but otherwise so what?

Normally I spend most of my time in my articles talking about the "so what". But I also try to be fair to whomever I may be opposing at the moment, so I wanted to just do a short article (or anyway short by my standards), not on the "so what" this time, but on why non-trinitarians -- whether atheistic or agnostic or alternately theistic or alternately Christian -- could, even when not unfairly trolling us, say, "So what? The Trinity is at best a problem that is always going to be difficult, so why even bother? We have plenty of other things to be doing and working on believing that are difficult, too, or not so difficult, which are more obviously important to us to believe and to do. We'll just get on with spending our limited time and energy working on those things. We don't care about being in your tribe (maybe anymore), and so we don't care about making sure our henna ink tattoos are the proper shapes and positions -- let them fade, or leave them off! It's nothing better than silly for you to pester people about this, and worse than silly if you're basically threatening anyone who isn't wearing your specific tats!"

Or similarly, even trinitarian Christians often say, in effect, "Yeah, look, I've got the right tattoos, see? Oh is the ink faded? -- is the shape a little off? Sigh, fine, I'll make an adjustment, I want to be in the tribe. Now I'm good with my people, right?"

And that's when we aren't just as often, or more often, saying in effect, "We have these tattoos, and so we aren't like them over there, and if they aren't like us then they're dangerous, and they're using resources we want to use -- those ought to be for us, this tribe!" "Right, but your tats aren't as accurate as ours, so you're actually the dangerous outsiders who aren't like us!" "NO, YOU ARE!" "YOU LIE!!"

The results of which are not hard to calculate. So why not reduce yet one more inducement to inflict tragedy on each other, and not bother about the tattoos so much? -- or even at all?!

I would answer, of course, that the doctrines are more important than gang colors or tribal flags. Which, the sceptic will reasonably reply, is also just what someone trying to invest in mere signifying colors or flags will surely answer, especially if I (the doctrinaire) can finagle some increase in my own power over other people by doing so. An argument from suspicious innuendo may be paranoia, but paranoia is only paranoia if people aren't really out to get you -- and historically it's abundantly clear that people are really out to get you!

And I agree, that isn't some kind of inherently evil response; that's at least somewhat prudently responsible as a response for the protection, not only of one's self but of other people, too, from being exploited.

But all such factors (and I don't mean to say I've discussed them all), also necessarily make it more difficult to answer the "so what", even if (hypothetically if you prefer) there are genuinely important answers to the problem(s) of the Trinity -- and even if the Trinity is the best solution to important problems.


Jason Pratt said…
Hmm, the composition format is currently weird. I've tried fixing it in Blogger's composition window several times, and it stays like this. Argh.

Oh well. Let me add as a postscript that this has some obvious bearings on J P Holding's article (The Futility of Apologetics) from a few days ago. (Now let's see if I remember how to code links on this engine... {wry g})

Also, welcome to the Cadre, other-and-far-more-famous JP! {g!} Off to go squee a fanboy welcome in those comments now...

Excellent article. Trinity is not the big incomprehensible contradiction a lot of people think it is. it is challenging. The only problem I have with your piece is that Hinduism is really complex if you read their top theologians. I'm not saying it's more so than Christianity but it;'s a lot more so than just the numerical complexity. My brother was really aware of that and read some of their to thinkers they are as complex as Western philosophy.
Jason Pratt said…
(Okay, weird, Blogger was adding in a bunch of {span} commands in html, and doing some other goofy things behind the scenes. Initial fix is working out, although it also removed my occasional italics...)

Do their top theologians not think (on what you've read) that the various complexities amount to appearances or, at best, temporary modal operations, which will be resolved eventually back into (or be ultimately revealed as) undifferentiated divine unity?

Jason Pratt said…
Meanwhile, as a qualifier to the main post: when I acknowledge that trinitarian theism will always necessarily be more problematic to accept (even if true!) than any simpler theism (or any simpler idea of any type really), I don't mean ortho-trin is necessarily less probably true than basic theism.

Does that sound weird and maybe self-contradictive? For God's sake stay away from this 11 page article I wrote on the topic 4 years ago!

...ack, I told you to stay away from it. Now you are insane. Sorry. But maybe also better prepared to cast a jaundiced eye on apologists, whether Christian or atheist or whoever, appealing to Bayesian Theory as some kind of mathematical justification for their belief or disbelief or whatever.

Do their top theologians not think (on what you've read) that the various complexities amount to appearances or, at best, temporary modal operations, which will be resolved eventually back into (or be ultimately revealed as) undifferentiated divine unity?

I can't say non do but they have a lot of diversity. Vedanta for example is very complex and not at all most of you have provably heard a bout it. they make the same kinds of sophisticated hair splitting our guys do.

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