Revelationbased Arguments for the Trinity

As a matter of historical fact, the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed on the basis of a priori reasoning, but rather as a response to what Christians believed to be divine revelation. The heart ofthat alleged revelation was the Incarnation. Growing conviction of the divinity of Christ led, over centuries — although its beginnings are there in the New Testament (cf. the Prologue to the fourth Gospel) — to profound and often tortuous reflection on what this meant for the doctrine of God that Christians had inherited from the faith of Israel. Sense had to be made of the fact that the one believed to be God incarnate prayed to God, calling him Father and existing in a relation of love — love given and love received — with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By itself, of course, this source would have led to no more than binitarian theism, premised on the relation between the divine Father and the divine Son.

Similarly, the gift of the Holy Spirit, 'another Advocate' (John 14: 16), as experienced by the early Christians and described by Paul (the indwelling Spirit, writes Paul, 'intercedes with sighs too deep for words': Romans 8: 26), came to be thought of as revelatory of another interpersonal relation within the one God, leading to doctrinal expression in trinitarian rather than binitarian terms.

In holding that trinitarian theism arose within Christianity as a response to revelation, philosophical theology is confronted once again with the debates over the locus of revelation which were discussed in chapter 2. Stephen Davis and to a certain extent Richard Swinburne see the Christian scriptures as the main vehicle of divine revelation and therefore the main sources for the development of trinitarian theology. If, as was suggested in chapter 2, it is rather the Incarnation itself and experience of the risen Christ and of the indwelling Spirit, to which the scriptures bear witness, that are the primary vehicles of revelation, then the sources of trinitarian theology are best thought of as being these historical, and more than historical, events, requiring, as they did, a radical rethinking of the doctrine of God.

Either way, to argue for trinitarian theism on the basis of revelation is not to forsake the domain of critical rationality. As was shown in chapter 2, appeals to revelation are not just appeals to authority. They are appeals to new data, just as susceptible of rational scrutiny as any more generally available data or indeed as any a priori considerations. Moreover, the tentative a priori considerations, sketched in the previous section, 'become enormously more probable if backed up by revelation', as Swinburne observes. And the same is true the other way round. Revelation-based arguments find support, even confirmation, in the a priori arguments.

That it was indeed the Incarnation and the gift of the Spirit that led to, and indeed required, the development and articulation ofthe doctrine ofthe Trinity is argued by a number of philosophical theologians, including Donald MacKinnon and David Brown. MacKinnon, in his aforementioned article,30 concentrates on the Incarnation. It is the story of the Son's 'descent from heaven' that makes a reconstruction of the doctrine of God in trinitarian terms unavoidable. Only so can this 'descent' be seen as 'supremely, indeed paradigmatically, declaratory' of what God is in himself. And only if there is already in the eternal, transcendent God both gift and receptivity can the incarnate Son's life on earth be interpreted as the 'painfully realized transcription into the conditions of our existence of the receptivity... that constitutes his person'.31

David Brown's rehearsal of the argument from history for the divinity of Christ has already been discussed in the chapter on Incarnation. But the context of that argument was his book The Divine Trinity, and the argument represents the first stage of his presentation of the case for trinitarian theism. The second stage forms chapter 4 of Brown's book, entitled 'Holy Spirit: The Argument from History'. Brown agrees that the problem here is not so much the divinity of the Holy Spirit but rather whether the Spirit is to be thought of as a third Person in the one God. After giving the case against such a view, Brown proceeds to set out four considerations that cumulatively suggest that we are bound to regard the Holy Spirit as a distinct personal subject in the divine.

The first involves an explanation, in terms of the incarnational Christ-ology set out in his (and our) previous chapter, of why the incarnate one did not himself say much about the Spirit. This negative point is then complemented by three positive considerations: first, the powerful 'Pentecost' experience of the earliest Christians, who clearly felt themselves overwhelmed and empowered by the gift of the Spirit from on high. Moreover the early Christians explicitly differentiated this inspiration from the presence, now withdrawn, of the risen Christ. The second positive consideration involves reflection on the further New Testament evidence, in Acts and Paul, concerning the witnessing, interceding, life-giving, indwelling character of the divine Spirit in their hearts and in their midst. (I ignore some rather curious remarks, on Brown's part, about why Paul partly misconstrued all this. Brown fails to bring out the force of Romans 8.) In the third place, Brown claims, St John's talk of the Paraclete, the Advocate or Comforter, to be sent by Christ from God the Father, reinforces the personal and distinct nature of this divine presence. Brown's final point concerns non-biblical experience. Here he notes the way in which a number of the great mystics describe their experience not simply in terms of union with God simpliciter, but in terms of participation in love given and love received within the Godhead. Interestingly, Brown cites not only the Christian mystics, but non-Christian mystics too, as giving expression to a comparable sense of union with God in relation to God, in other words, of being caught up into an internally differentiated, relational divine life.

Brown's whole approach to the analysis and defence of trinitarian theism was sharply criticized at the time of its publication by Nicholas Lash and Kenneth Surin for its alleged failure to respect the 'grammar' of Christian theology. Brown's reply is a masterly refutation of the way in which some followers of Wittgenstein have attempted to rule out of court the whole approach to philosophical theology that constitutes the subject matter of this present book. I commend it, therefore, as an invaluable supplement to my own first chapter here. Of particular interest in this article is Brown's section on 'The Trinity and the Priority of the Social'.36 Here Brown himself appeals to Wittgenstein in order to question 'the modern stress on an irreducibly ultimate individualism' as an appropriate basis for analogical talk of God's unity. Taking full account of the context in which trinitarian theism first arose and of the forms of interpersonal relation, human and divine, to which it gives expression, Brown goes on to defend the social rather than the psychological analogy for the articulation of a Christian doctrine of the triune God.

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