Custom without truth is the antiquity of error.
-Cyprian of Carthage: To Pompey, Against the Epistle of Stephen About the Baptism of Heretics.
So there has been a mini-debate within Reformed theological circles concerning the question of subordinationism within the Trinity. The debate itself is quite tediously technical with each side trying to be “more orthodox than thou” in their formulations and arguments of their positions.
However it seems that the debate has more or less ground to a stalemate when those rejecting the subordinationist thesis starts invoking the wisdom of the past with slight accusatory overtones of present theologians trying to be too clever. In the words of this post:
It is easy to argue, “we need to just follow the plain teaching of the Scriptures” and not be so dependent upon a “New Scholasticism,” but less easy to convince readers this method yields better results than what the church has already arrived at. The Fathers, the medievals, the Reformers, and the Post-Reformation Reformed theologians were men of the Word. I venture to guess that they were far more comfortable with the Scriptures than we are today.
It is against this pious cant to which this post is now dedicated. It is one thing to demonstrate the pedigree of one’s theological position, or at least, its non-novel nature, by invoking the past (see my post here for the Protestant responsibility to Church history). It is another thing to pretend that the past is somehow a sort of normative uniform standard to which we are to conform to.
I will first present the traditional understanding of tradition. Then I will argue that the “orthodox” doctrine of the Trinity is not traditional in this very specific sense. Finally I will move on to give my own approach to Trinitarian controversies.
What is Tradition?
I think there is a great confusion in our time concerning the meaning of “tradition”. People are often confused between something being very old and something being traditional. They may often go together by that aren’t the same thing, especially in theology. Tradition has a specific meaning, it simply referred to that which was continuously transmitted or handed down from the beginning. Something could be very very old and yet not have originated from the source. Thus when St Paul instructs us to “hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us” (1 Thess 2:15), he is referring to that which he himself or the original apostles themselves taught, not what some subsequent Father or doctor of theology taught, no matter how many old it maybe from our point of view. Patristic teaching maybe very old but it isn’t the same as being something which they have received from the very original apostles themselves.
The Traditional Understanding of Tradition
Before Newman, in the age of Bossuet, virtually every major theologian in the 16th-19th century (e.g. Boussuet, Francis Suarez, Cardinal John De Lugo, etc) believed that the apostles were explicitly aware of doctrines like the two wills of Christ, etc. Whatever the Church would later teach are nothing more than faithful transmissions of the very doctrines which the apostles explicitly knew and taught. For them it was impossible for the future generations of the Church or later Christians to claim to know more than the apostles themselves. In the works of the early Church Fathers there is no sense or consciousness that later churches would get a better or clearer idea of the faith than the apostles. Their obsession was with accurate and faithful transmission of what went on before, they did not look forward to some future council to clarify doctrinal teachings or invent better formulas for explaining the faith, nor did they believe that later Christians would know better than them concerning apostolic doctrine. (For a fuller treatment on this I would recommend Owen Chadwick’s From Bossuet to Newman)
The problem of course is that obviously concepts like the Trinity, etc, could not be found in the early Fathers explicitly. How then did all these doctrines get transmitted? The predominant theory, still appealed to in some parts of the Church today, although hedged with many qualifications, is that there is another source of “unwritten oral traditions” whereby such doctrines are transmitted. This theory went hand in hand with a belief that the common piety of the faithful themselves were a source of tradition. The Fathers and doctors of the Church could not possibly record everything, so it supposedly got orally transmitted via the practical piety of the general populace. To this day Eastern Orthodoxy still holds that the people of God themselves are the “guardians of the faith” (the 1848 Encyclical letter of the Eastern Patriarchs) rather than the clergy.
The Demise of Oral Traditions and the Development of Doctrine
Whatever the merits of the oral tradition theory, that theory has more or less been repudiated today by the majority of Christians even high church ones. Modern historical studies tells us that it is extremely difficult to maintain that the early Church Fathers, never mind the very apostles themselves, were explicitly aware of doctrines like the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost were of the same substance.
This was why Newman’s development of doctrine was formulated to compensate for this apparent “gap” in the transmission of our present doctrines. Newman basically argued that the what the apostles were aware of were principles and general ideas, a “seed” of an idea, and then subsequently later minds after the apostles “developed” the idea by deducing the logical implications of their principles.
Trinitarians do know better than the Apostles
Whatever the merits of Newman’s development of doctrine theory we have to be clear about one thing: it is essentially an abandonment of tradition in the traditional sense of the word.
Very few Christians today maintain that the apostles were explicitly aware of the proposition that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of the same substance and yet three equal and distinct persons. Whether or not it can be logically inferred from the New Testament is one thing, but that the apostles were explicitly aware of this formula is virtually impossible to hold. Even those on the “Orthodox” side basically concede that most of the ante-Nicene Fathers do sound subordinationist.
So regardless of the pious cant of the “more orthodox than thou” camp about respecting the wisdom of the Fathers or past or whatever, let us be abundantly clear about one thing: they all claim to know better than the apostles about the doctrine of the Trinity if for no other reason than that they have made the logical deductions and inferences the apostles did not. Thus if we claim to be wiser than the very inspired apostles themselves, there is nothing wrong with claiming that we do know better than some fallible church Father or medieval doctor.
The Alternative: The Proper Role of Creeds
It is clear that once the premise of doctrinal development is conceded, there are no brakes on the “growth” of doctrine. If the Nicene Fathers can know better than the apostles, why can’t we know better than the Nicene Fathers?
The alternative to meaningless pious cant is to understand the the function of later creeds and the weight of their formulas. If we do not wish to claim to be cleverer than the apostles then obviously we cannot pretend to arrogate to ourselves the ability to improve on their teachings. While it is clear from the New Testament that the apostles were explicitly aware of the divinity of Christ and his ontological union with the Father from before all the worlds, the apostles never felt the need to dogmatically explain this mystery, neither should we.
What do the Creeds do then? The function of the creeds, I would suggest, is to facilitate the communication of Scriptures’ meaning. It is to help us, in our particular historical/cultural context, to understand the apostles’ teachings. They should therefore be used as instruments to help clarify the apostles’ teaching to us. However the moment the creeds themselves become objects of confusion and controversial in their meaning such that we start arguing over the interpretation of the interpretation of Scriptures’ meaning, it is time to set them aside. The Creeds obviously cannot perform their function in helping us better understand the apostles’ meaning when they themselves need clarifying!
Thus, we do not claim to know better than the apostles about the godhead nor pretend to improve on their teaching, but rather we merely seek to help us, in our particular cultural situation, understand the Scriptures’ meaning. If our particular formulas and creeds do not help, then by all means set it aside and find something else which does help.
Conclusion: The Probable Weight of Theological Theories
Does this mean that ecumenical creeds are meaningless or are entirely a matter of subjective decision as to whether one feels that they make sense? No, because creeds do serve certain ecclesiastical functions.
The analogy one can use is like that of Newton’s theory in relation to quantum theory. Is Newtonian mechanics an infallible truth? Nope, but it does contain certain essential ideas which are basically correct for a large range of phenomena, we merely need to supplement their deficiencies where it exists, e.g. super large astronomical phenomena or micro small scale phenomena. Likewise the Nicene Creed and other traditional confessions are good explanations for Scriptures’ meaning for a large range of biblical texts. Their explanations and concepts having been formulated to answer what are no doubt recurring questions and possess good probable weight. But while we should not reinvent the wheel, we should not treat the creeds as infallible either. From an ecclesiological point of view, creeds are portable symbols which refer to a certain set of resembling ideas or concepts and which helps focus our theological thinking or deductions, but they cannot possibly be replacements for understanding the Bible itself.
In the end, we ought to have some consciousness of the gradations of theological claims and we should treat the creeds as possessing probable weight in our arguments. Those which are clearer and more evidently present in the Scriptures ought to possess greater and more vital weight, e.g. the resurrection of Christ and his divinity, while others which are not so evident ought to be treated with less gravity, the formula of homoousia, etc. To that end, I think we need a theory of Protestant doctrinal disagreement which this post goes some lengths towards articulating.