Why does the Bible simply proclaim, rather than argue and defend, difficult Christian doctrines like the Trinity or the Incarnation?

This question has been staring at me all afternoon from the little pocket notebook I carry with me to church. This notebook of mine is usually filled with a mad mix of scribbled notes and sermon outlines as I attempt to keep pace with the morning and evening message from the pulpit. Today, however, the question I jotted down sort of stopped my train of thought. It is something that has often nagged at me and challenged my more rational and intellectual tendencies to provide an answer to a question that seems to undercut much of my approach to God, religion, and theology.

Why does the Bible simply proclaim, rather than argue and defend, difficult Christian doctrines like the Trinity or the Incarnation?

Today we began a study of the Gospel according to Mark. The book opens with a reference to Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the Messiah. Eight verses are devoted to preparing the way for the coming Messiah. Verse nine simply and rather anti-climactically announces, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan.” And then the heavens were rent, the Spirit descends, and the Father proclaims the identity of this unknown man, Jesus, as His son. Whisk. And Jesus is taken out and tempted in the wilderness. The proclamation of the long-awaited Savior, the divine blessing and identification of Jesus as divine, and the record of the temptation of Jesus follow swiftly, each nearly tripping over the heels of the next part of the narrative. And no explanation is given of how these events could possibly coherently fit together; yet is plainly assumed that they do. The Messiah is coming. A commoner from the backwoods of Israel is baptized. God the Father speaks from heaven. Jesus is tempted to sin. Nothing is offered by way of apology for the extravagance of these events, the apparent discordance of humanity and divinity existing in one being, or the amazing claim that is being made simply by recounting them together as one single narrative.

Why does the Bible simply proclaim, rather than argue and defend, difficult Christian doctrines like the Trinity or the Incarnation?

Fact is the foundation for theory. Fact sets the playing field and demarcates the boundaries within we must play. Fact is the major chord, theory the descant and grace notes. I tend to reverse the two and press my theories and ideas upon the world, as though my mind were the form and the world around me nothing but pliable putty. The Bible and Christian witness has no room for such nonsense. The Bible offers up the facts, the first and ultimate things which must be taken into account by any theory or worldview. It does not apologize for stating the facts, as facts are not the sorts of things that one can rightly every apologize for. They simply are what they are. One may love or hate them, feel uncomfortable proclaiming them, or even choose to ignore them; all this and more has little bearing on their nature.

The Christian story ultimately claims to be a story of facts, a proclamation of things as they are. If the Bible is true it needs no defense because it is a record of what was and is a revelation of what is and will be. The Trinity and the Incarnation are not presented as theories seeking to harmonzie various facts. Rather, they are the facts themselves which we must harmonize and learn to be in harmony with.

“We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” (1 John 4:14)

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Posted by Tex

7 Comments

  1. It seems much simpler to me: If the Bible is, indeed, the ultimate authority, then to what authority could it appeal for its own defense? If it made such an appeal, it might essentially be declaring itself as subject to that authority.

    So I agree with the point of the post. But permit me to follow a tangent on a subject which continues to irk me:

    Why does the Bible simply proclaim, rather than argue and defend, difficult Christian doctrines like the Trinity or the Incarnation?

    This always makes me smile and sigh. What I’d like to know is why do men simply proclaim that the Bible simply proclaims the Trinity? Where is such a proclamation made, and made simply?

    I know of several verses which hint at Christ’s deity (not that he is the “Son of God,” those are prevalent as others are called sons of God; but that hint that he might be The God). But they only hint. None state it plainly. And that is just Christ’s deity. The obvious fact is that when it comes to the Trinity, exactly zero actually proclaim, simply, any such doctrine of a triune all-parts-equal God.

    But the Trinity is asserted so readily and preached so often that the vast majority of Christians are surprised when they learn that the word, “Trinity,” itself does not actually appear in the Bible.

    The Bible does make simple proclamations, though. In the Old Testament, for instance, over and over, the Lord God is one God. Even in the new Testament, Jesus never raised from the dead (as songs are sung and pastors preach), but was raised from the dead by God.

    There are numerous other biblical proclamations of the separateness and inequality of Jesus and the Father, God. Jesus, himself plainly denies equality with God in John 14. He prays (to God) – odd behavior for one of equal power. He’s given a name above every name implying he did not always have it. He’s given authority (power in KJV) implying he did not always have it. There are more.

    I apologize if this is off topic. After all this is about Biblical assertion. But I find it quite odd that the two “facts” chosen to illustrate the Bible “simply proclaiming” are actually not proclaimed simply anywhere therein.

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  2. How are we to look at facts outside of our worldview? I believe in objective truth, and objective belief. Most of time, though, I think we tend to do as you say, stuff the facts into our theory. How are we to avoid this?

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  3. Warren,

    I think in some ways your tangent provides more support for my thesis. As you point out, the Bible is full of statements about the unity of God, full of statements about the humanity of Jesus, and full of statements that imply a distinction between the Father and the Son. However, Jesus all makes outrageous claims that He and the Father are One…so outrageous, in fact, that the Jews were ready to stone Him for blasphemy, for claiming to be God. Yet, as we both have said, there is never any explanation of the “doctrine of the Trinity” in so many words.

    The facts are put forward: Jesus is God, the Father is God, and there is only one God. If this were an argument, it would look pretty specious. But it isn’t. It’s a declaration. The readers, the audience, the people get to figure out how to account for all the facts in a way that does no violence to either. That’s where the theories come in. But since the fact of the matter has been stated, the theories must always return to the statements of Scripture and humbly submit to it’s factual claims.

    It’s worthwhile to ask why the Bible is the final authority. Is it because it offers the best harmonization of a multitude of facts? If so, how could this ever be proven, this claim to be the “best harmonization”? I think it is authoritative because it is a record and revelation of what was, and is, and is to come.

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  4. QNormal,

    Good question.

    Let me get back to you on that one. It’s a question that has plagued me for quite some time. I’m open to suggestions.

    Reply

  5. Excellent. I’m not off topic then. Let me echo QNormal’s question in a different way. What should one’s final authority be? And can one believe in both objective truth and the final authority of the Bible?

    The Bible has the appearance of self-contradiction here. Jesus says both “I and my Father are One” and “the Father is greater than I,” and later all authority is given to him. He also prays to his Father (things which indicate two rather than one).

    So how do we reconcile contradiction? Do we, A) try to determine the possibility that one of the contradicting statements has been misunderstood or misinterpreted, or B) try to find some explanation, however obscure or unlikely, that allows them to coexist?

    The Trinity answer is B: Jesus and the Father are two, and Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus and the Father are equals and the Father is greater. This is possible because Jesus is both God and man at the same time, both omnipotent and temptable, somehow, or by some other explanation which is simply too advanced for our mortal minds to comprehend.

    Is the difference between A and B not the very definition of “objective.” To choose the “B” answer is to “stuff the facts into our theory.”

    But what if we instead took an “A” approach? We might try to determine objectively, which interpretations of the contradicting clauses bears the most support. So are Jesus and the Father, one, or is the Father greater than he?

    A clue you’ve already presented is that the Jews interpreted his “I and my Father are One” statement as “blasphemy” that being a man, he made himself God. However, we should also note that Jesus immediately corrects them. And after doing so, changes terms from “I and my Father are One” to “the Father is in me, and I in him.” (They try to stone him for that too)

    Here’s another clue: In chapter 17, we see those terms again when Jesus prays, “…that they [the disciples] all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” If the meaning of “one” in chapter ten is the meaning of “one” in chapter seventeen, then there would have to be a lot more than three in one. One should also note again that the miracles in chapter ten were done so that they would believe, and here in chapter seventeen again the purpose of the “oneness” is “so that they may believe.”

    I have many discussions where one states that the Bible’s inerrancy is supported by the fact that against extremely remote odds, the Bible contains no internal inconsistencies, and then in the same discussion use inerrancy to support the Trinity by saying that if the Bible makes no mistakes, then the obscure doctrine of the Trinity is the only explanation. Is it not circular reasoning to explain away inconsistencies by declaring inerrancy and then using the absence of inconsistencies as evidence of inerrancy?

    So I echo QNormal. If evidence doesn’t support a Trinity theory, do you A) objectively reevaluate the theory or B) subjectively stuff the evidence into your theory?

    That question is a plague which I wish infected more people.

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  6. Warren,

    When presented with seemingly contradictory statements you propose that we either A) try to determine the possibility that one of the contradicting statements has been misunderstood or misinterpreted, or B) try to find some explanation, however obscure or unlikely, that allows them to coexist?

    My position, and point of the post, is that the Bible presents certain propositions to the reader as fact, and more or less ends the discussion with this presentation.

    Presented with these facts, the reader is left to make sense of them the best he could. Historically, Christians have largely found that the best theory that explains and encompasses the facts of Scripture regarding the nature of God is that of the Trinity.

    It is important to note that this theory or doctrine arose out of the facts presented. The great councils didn’t begin with a theory of triune divinity that they felt compelled to defend and to “stuff the evidence into.” Rather, they had a certain set of propositions presented as fact in Scripture and were left to make sense of the facts in a reasonable, honest, and intellectually defensible manner. The result of these efforts? The doctrine of the Trinity.

    There is evidence, in the writings of the church fathers, that they examined Scripture, understood its claims regarding the nature of God and Christ, took these claims to be true and reliable statements, and then went on to propose a theory that encompassed all the facts.

    In fact, I suggest that the orthodox Christians were more objective in their approach than the heretics. The Arians, for example, were convinced that a man could not also be God, and then took pains to interpret the Gospels and epistles in a manner that supported their theory.

    Of course we ought to do our best to correctly interpret the propositions we are seeking to harmonize. If they seem contradictory we ought to see if they seem so due to our misunderstanding, or to our preconceived notions, or to our previous theories. If it turns out, however, that we have rightly understood the propositions, we ultimately must do our best to objectively harmonize them without regard to the seemingly difficult theory they may bring us to espouse.

    In my opinion, the evidence does support a doctrine of the Trinity…in fact, a Trinitarian theory turns out to be the only theory that can encompass all the Biblical data…however, the defense of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity must be left for another day. My point here is to highlight the way in which the Bible presents the facts. They are presented as such, with no apology or explanation–a presentation that is possible only if given by someone who is convinced of the factual (rather than theoretical) nature of the propositions presented.

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  7. QNormal,

    I think you may be presenting a false dichotomy: Either we must look at facts outside of our worldview or else we must stuff the facts into our theory.

    In a grand sense it is not possible to look at facts outside of our worldview without going outside of ourselves. We view the world in a particular manner and from a particular perspective that is unique to our position and point of view.

    However, given our inability to transcend Self, we still are able to entertain other theories, other systems of thought, other religions, or other philosophies and even attempt to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

    When we approach a set of facts, it is important to try and understand them as they are before going about giving them value or interpretting. When we come to understand them as best we can, then we begin the humble task of interpretation. We must consider how the facts are related as well as the relevance and bearing they have on all other facts.

    Certainly we have every reason to begin to interpret the facts within the framework of our theories about the world. However, we also must be willing to evaluate the consequences of a particular fact set migh have on our theories. Do the facts bring our previous understanding into doubt? Is it possible to harmonize the fact set with everything else we know and with the way in which understand things?

    A great deal of humility is a necessary part of this process since there are many opportunities to go astray due to the difficulty of the task and the human tendency to interpret things a certain way for ulterior motives.

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