Non-Biblical Vocabulary: Does it Make the Trinity False?
Oneness believers have commonly argued that the concept of God as a Trinity of persons is false because the words employed in Trinitarian theology such as "Trinity," "God the Son," "God the Holy Spirit," "eternal generation," and "three persons" are not found in Scripture. It goes without saying that such words are not found in Scripture, but the significance attributed to this fact in our evaluation of Trinitarian doctrine is another matter. The locus of this article seeks to evaluate the validity of arguing against the doctrine of the Trinity using the absence of key Trinitarian terms from the Bible as a key argument. While I would argue that we are justified in using this fact as a contributing argument against the validity of the Trinitarian doctrine, we are not justified in using it as a principal argument against the same. There are many elements to the Trinitarian doctrine that must be evaluated and shown invalid if we are to reject the dogma of the Trinity as a whole. To argue that Trinitarianism is invalid, using the absence of its key terminology from the Bible as a principal argument to demonstrate this, is not a reasonable position to take, and one which often causes Oneness believers to appear foolish before their Trinitarian audience. While I believe we have solid grounds to reject the doctrine of the Trinity, there are good reasons and bad reasons to do so, and we must reject the doctrine based on the good reasons. While there is some strength to the "non-biblical terminology" argument against Trinitarianism, this article seeks to illustrate why it is not sufficient to demonstrate the Trinitarian dogma to be a false understanding of God.
The Utilization of the "Non-biblical" Vocabulary Argument
It must be made clear that the "non-biblical vocabulary" argument can and should be utilized in our argument against Trinitarianism, but should be utilized with balanced wisdom and a proper perspective of the nature and force of the argument. It is entirely valid for Oneness believers to point out the lack of Trinitarian terminology in Scripture, especially considering the importance, yea, even salvific importance attached to some of the terms by Trinitarians. The Athanasian Creed, for example, says one must confess their belief in God in specific non-biblical terms to be saved. To require the confession of non-biblical words for one's salvation is nearly tantamount to claiming extra-biblical revelation. One need not confess non-biblical words to be saved. In light of this we must maintain our opposition to such non-biblical terms as the test for orthodoxy and salvation, and be bold in doing so.
Where we must exercise caution is in our protest to the use of non-biblical words altogether. If we are honest with ourselves, we all use non-biblical words to describe our doctrinal beliefs. We speak of a "rapture," "innerancy," "monad," "dual nature," "fully God and fully man," "hypostatic union," "incarnation," "alien righteousness," etc. The employment of non-biblical words is natural--and at times necessary for clarification and proper understanding--and as such should not be rejected, but should be used with caution and wisdom whenever and wherever necessary.
The Error of the Argument
The underlying argument of those who oppose Trinitarianism on the basis of its non-biblical terminology is that only Biblical words can express Biblical truth. This argument is faulty at its core. While it is true that Trinitarianism is defined by its use of non-biblical words, using this as an argument against the doctrine of the Trinity in and of itself is logically invalid because it assumes that only Biblical words can be used in our formation of Biblical doctrines. To say that one can only use Biblical terms to describe their understanding of Scripture is to say that any interpretation of the Bible that is not composed strictly from Biblical words is in error. But the vocabulary of the Bible is not always adequate to express the meaning of the Bible's teaching. If one could only use Biblical terminology to explain the meaning of Scripture, ultimately they would not explain the meaning of the Bible, but merely quote its pages. While it is best to use Biblical words to describe Biblical teaching, such is not always possible. To understand the Bible other words will often need to be employed. As demonstrated above, we all use non-biblical terminology to one extent or another in our doctrinal formulations and think little of it because we believe the terms express a Biblical teaching.
The fact that Trinitarian terminology is lacking from Scripture is indisputable, but the significance of such is, specifically whether or not the lack of Trinitarian vocabulary in the Scripture is, by itself, enough to condemn the Trinitarian doctrine. While I believe that many of the terms employed in Trinitarian theology do not accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture, it would be wrong to condemn Trinitarianism simply because it uses non-biblical words to describe God. If we wish to discard the Trinitarian understanding of God based on its use of non-biblical vocabulary, we would also be forced to abandon Oneness theology (or at least abandon traditional words employed to explain it), for we have utilized non-biblical words and phrases in our description of God including "mode," "monad," and "three manifestations." Whether such terms are acceptable is beyond the scope of this article. I mention these examples only to demonstrate that Oneness believers also employ non-biblical terminology in our attempt to accurately describe God.
While I believe we must reject the Trinitarian dogma, we must do so for reasons other than its utilization of non-biblical words. The fact that these terms are not found in Scripture does not in itself make the concept of a Trinity wrong. The real issue in the debate over Trinitarianism is not whether one uses non-biblical words in their explanation of God, but whether those terms accurately reflect the Bible's portrayal of who God is. In the case of Trinitarianism I would argue that the language employed to describe God distorts the Biblical teaching of God, and as such it should be rejected. But Trinitarianism should be rejected because its concept of God is not faithful to the Biblical portrait of God, not just because of its terminology.
The Confusion of Words and Concepts
To evaluate the validity of the Trinitarian dogma based solely on its use of Biblical words or the lack thereof is to confuse words with concepts. Concepts are distinct from the words that represent them. A concept could be expressed using several different, but similar words. This is due to the fact that many words overlap in their semantic domain. The Bible uses words to express particular concepts, but the expression of those concepts is not limited only to those particular words. It may be that a non-biblical word can adequately express a biblical concept, and even more adequately explain the concept underlying and represented by the Biblical word to its modern audience, which is far removed from the linguistic and cultural background through which those Biblical words came. More importantly, non-biblical words can be employed to attach a label to an implicit Biblical teaching for which no explicit vocabulary was utilized to express it.
On a practical level we all understand the distinction between a word and a concept because we have experienced it many times in our communication with others. Often we will unknowingly attach the wrong concept to a particular word, and thus use the word in a way that is not the accepted, agreed upon meaning. In such a situation others will either find it difficult to understand what the person is trying to say, or misunderstand them altogether.
A person can use a particular word, but redefine it by imposing on it a concept that is foreign to it, thus meaning something by it that is different than how it is understood by others. We have all experienced two different people using the same word in two different ways, meaning two different things by it. While some do so through ignorance, it is possible to knowingly redefine a word so as to say the same thing as another, but mean something entirely different. In light of such, to make a rule that we can only utilize Biblical terms in doctrnal formulation would not ensure orthodoxy. One could simply redefine the Biblical words so that they are understood in a manner that suits their opinions, rather than extracting from the words the Biblical concepts that they represent. To say we can only use Biblical words in our doctrinal formulations would not ensure orthodoxy, but would ultimately conceal heresy, for one could hold to heretical beliefs and yet be considered orthodox because they utilize Biblical terminology in their doctrine. It is for this reason that the correctness of one's theology cannot be judged upon their subscription to certain phonetic combinations (words). Confessing particular words cannot do much in the way of preventing an individual from holding an un-biblical understanding of those words. This will be discussed further in the next section.
In the context of the discussion at hand the difference between a word and a concept could be best expressed as the difference between a non-biblical word and an un-biblical word. Non-biblical words are those that simply do not appear in the Bible (e.g. America), whereas un-biblical words are words that contradict the concepts expressed in Scripture (e.g. using "metamorphosis" to explain the manner in which God became incarnate). The "non-biblical vocabulary" argument errs in that it fails to make a distinction between non-biblical words and un-biblical words. While it is true that many words employed in the Trinitarian dogma are non-biblical, it does not necessarily mean that they express an un-biblical theology. I would argue that indeed they are un-biblical in their concept, but this must be demonstrated by means other than looking in a concordance to see if the words appear in Scripture or not.
Words Do Not Guarantee Right Concepts
Using only the vocabulary of the Bible in one's explication of a Biblical doctrine does not guarantee that they are faithfully representing the teaching of the Bible. It is very possible to espouse to Biblical words and yet hold to an un-biblical concept or teaching, holding an interpretation of those words which was not intended by the Biblical authors. Non-biblical words, then, serve to clarify and differentiate between divergent concepts, all of which claim a common label. For example, while most believers believe in the "inspiration" of the Bible (a Biblical term), some define that to mean the Bible can be in error in certain places, while others define it to mean that the Bible is entirely without error. As a result, theologians have developed specific terms, such as "verbal plenary inspiration," to clarify their particular understanding of inspiration. The Bible does not use this term but it accurately reflects the Biblical teaching on inspiration. Two people, then, can describe their view of Scripture with Biblical words, and yet have opposing definitions of those words, and mean something entirely different from the Biblical teaching.
The same can be said of the word "one." Trinitarians and Oneness believers both confess that God is one (a Biblical term), but understand the meaning of the term much differently. Trinitarians understand it to refer to a unity of three persons in one essence, while Oneness believers understand it to refer to a numerical oneness.
One final example concerns the understanding of "Son." Trinitarians understand the term to apply to an eternal second person in the Godhead and to the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, while Oneness believers understand the term to apply exclusively to God's incarnate existence as the person of Jesus Christ--a temporal designation to describe a temporal relationship arising in the incarnation, not an eternal designation to describe internal relations in God's very essence. To show where the two understandings differ from one another one must rely on more than just the vocabulary of the Bible. Non-biblical vocabulary, then, is often utilized to more clearly express and/or clarify what it is we believe about the meaning of the Biblical words. While our doctrines should utilize Biblical words whenever possible, often it is not possible to construct our entire theological system limiting ourselves to Biblical vocabulary.
When Non-biblical Words are Necessary
It might be wondered why non-biblical words would ever be necessary in the formation of doctrine. One such reason is due to the fact that the Biblical authors could not and did not address every issue that would concern later generations, or did not develop an explicit vocabulary to explain and define the concepts they did discuss. Subsequent generations have asked questions of the Biblical material that the authors of Scripture did not ask, did not address, or addressed, but not on a level that is entirely relevant for the particular situation we find ourselves in. This is nowhere more explicit than in the area of Christology.
The apostles and prophets who penned the NT declared Jesus to be both God and man, but made no real attempt to explain how He could be both simultaneously. Because they did not address this issue in any detail they never developed an express vocabulary to explain the nature of the incarnation. Also, the Biblical authors expressed their understanding of Christ primarily in terms of His function, not in metaphysical terms. This is not to say that they did not have some sort of a metaphysical concept of Christ's person, or that they could not think in metaphysical terms, but is to say that their focus was on Christ's function. Most assuredly they had some rudimentary understanding of the metaphysics of Christ's person, because the functions He carried out required Him to be a particular someone (one's function is derived from the kind of being on is). One cannot do unless someone is. Surely the apostles and prophets understood this, but they did not focus on the ontological level of Christ's person, and thus never developed a vocabulary to express it. Over time, however, the church came to see a need to understand and explain the metaphysical constituents of Christ's person so that Christ's function would be preserved. They understood that Christ could not save man if He was not fully God, because only God can save mankind from his sin. On the other hand Jesus also had to be fully man, for only those parts of humanity that were assumed by God could be redeemed by God. The pursuit to explain the dual reality of Christ could not be adequately explained using only the vocabulary of Scripture, because there was no real developed vocabulary that addressed these specific and technical concerns. The church, then, came to use non-biblical words to describe the metaphysics of Christ person, to preserve the Biblical teaching of who Christ was and what Christ did on our behalf.
It is best to stick with Biblical words whenever we can, but we cannot always do so and at the same time faithfully communicate, clarify, and preserve the meaning of the Bible. It is sometimes necessary to utilize non-biblical words to describe Biblical concepts, especially when attempting to make the Scripture understandable to our modern audience (contextualization). We should be cautious that we do not find ourselves ignoring the Biblical terminology and utilizing an overabundance of non-biblical words in our doctrine. We ought to do our best to limit the vocabulary we employ to explicate our doctrinal positions to that of Scripture whenever possible. When the Biblical vocabulary is not adequate to clarify or explain the meaning of the Scripture, however, other words can and should be employed. When we do use non-biblical words in our doctrinal formulations we must take heed not to elevate their confession to tests of orthodoxy or salvation. Non-biblical language serves the purpose of clarification, and as such can be beneficial. At the same time it can set forth an un-biblical concept which distorts our understanding of the Biblical teaching, and thus we should use extreme caution in our choice of words to describe the Biblical teaching.
While we must reject the Trinitarian dogma, we must do so for reasons other than its utilization of non-biblical words. We must demonstrate how the Trinitarian concept of God--as it is expressed in its terminology--fails to accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture (thus making its vocabulary un-biblical). It would be wrong to condemn Trinitarianism simply because it utilizes non-biblical terminology. For in condemning Trinitarianism we would be condemning many of our own doctrinal formulations that utilize non-biblical words, and ignoring the real issue: the concepts expressed by the words. The doctrine of the Trinity should be rejected because of its utilization of un-biblical terms, words that express a concept of God that is not faithful to the Biblical teaching, and because it has redefined Biblical terms that it does use in un-biblical ways.
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