Pilgrim Course – Trinity

My small group are currently working through book 1 of the “Grow” stage of the Pilgrim Course, which has a total of eight books, each of six sessions for groups. This one is on the Creeds, and I perhaps rashly volunteered to lead this week’s session, on Trinity.

On the basis of reading this book only, I rather rate this as a resource for group work; each session comes with prayers, a bible passage for consideration using something akin to group Lectio Divina, a short video and two short audio reflections, questions for discussion at each stage and final prayers and take-away passages for contemplation; it therefore potentially makes the task of the leader really easy. By and large, it is well constructed, and from my limited exposure to date, it seems that the whole set could form an excellent follow-on from a gateway course such as Alpha.

I say “by and large” because the one session with which I have major issues is that on the Trinity. I volunteered before seeing the course material, but on the basis that I’m currently formulating a personal view of the Trinity, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing already, and was only too familiar with the pain of writing a Trinity Sunday sermon which avoids heresy; I therefore thought I’d find it easier to do than other group members.

I was wrong. I know far too much, it seems.

I can forgive the authors for picking Eph 1:1-11 as the passage. There really isn’t any single passage from which you can derive anything remotely like an orthodox concept of Trinity, even 1 John 5, but that has the serious drawback that the most explicitly Trinitarian verse (7) does not appear in any of the earliest manuscripts and is therefore suspect. The video and audio clips make much of the concept of drawing the believer into an already existing relationship, and that fits reasonably with the passage from Ephesians, which makes much of our participation in Christ, a favorite Pauline motif, which might save me from having to discuss whether Ephesians is actually Pauline (I lean heavily towards it being deutero-Pauline).

The trouble is, no mention is ever made of the fundamental orthodox doctrine, and that isn’t particularly apparent from the creeds printed in the book (the Apostles and Niceno-Constantinopolitan). No mention is made of the huge set of doctrinal pitfalls into which you can fall, such as modalism, subordinationism, Arianism, partialism and tritheism. Finally, the actual presentation (of one concept of trinity only) is one which a significant number of theologians would regard as heretical in its general principle (for tritheism, at the least) and doubly so as the Holy Spirit is stated in the audio reflection to be the love between the Father and the Son, and this arguably denies the personhood of the Spirit.

Now, I am not particularly concerned to be orthodox myself, and as any regular reader of this blog will realise, that’s an understatement. However, I really don’t consider it fair to my group not to point out that this is at best marginally orthodox, and arguably heretical.

That is not to say that I don’t think it has some merit. It’s not vastly removed from the position of John Duns Scotus, for instance, and it has serious resonance with Process Theology. Although I do not think of myself as espousing process, I find a lot of the less philosophical process theology, such as Hartshorne in his shorter works and Bruce Epperley generally, say a lot of things which fit well with my own conceptions.

There are also a few radically philosophically rash statements made, such as that it’s only possible to say that God is Love if love is already a constitutive part of God (which does not follow in my view), and that only Trinity gives a basis for God’s self-revelation, as otherwise God’s existence would have to be deduced from things which are not God (arguing a denial of immanence in favour of pure transcendence and a serene disregard of passages such as Romans 1:19-20) or would have to be imposed from above (in which case, what price the inspiration of scripture?). I’m also worried by the suggestion that Trinity “confirms and makes possible things about God which are already revealed in Scripture”, notably God as creator, as this might too easily lead to the idea that a concept of trinity can be validly derived even from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is absolutely not the case.

Perhaps I can get away with presenting the Athanasian creed and saying, as per St. Patrick in the agonising Lutheran satirical video, that that’s all you can really say. But then, that’s basically what that creed states anyhow!

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