According to the Bible, believing certain propositions is of eternal consequence. Consider Hebrews 11:6
"And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."This verse notes that at the very least one must believe at least two propositions. One of those is that God exists. Yet without correctly apprehending what God is or how God is, how does one believe this very basic proposition?
To illustrate, I could ask if you believe the proposition, "dwarfs exist." Now, if when I say the word "dwarf" you think I am speaking of short and ugly beings from Germanic mythology that live in mountains and are associated with mining, smithing, wisdom and crafting and when I say "exist" I mean in reality and not merely as a product of human imagination, you might be inclined to say that you do not believe the proposition "dwarfs exist." However, if instead you think of the word "dwarf" as representing a human being that is short in stature due to abnormal growth arising from any one of over two-hundred distinct medical conditions, you would probably say that you do believe the proposition, "dwarfs exist."
Now, apply this to the proposition, "God exists." The passage from Hebrews clearly indicates that believing this proposition is necessary (but not sufficient) for pleasing God. What it does not do, however, is define the word "God" or the word "exists." So for the person who believes that in order to please God one must at the very least believe he exists, she is still left with two very important questions, namely "What is God?" and "How (i.e. in what way) does God exist?" To answer these questions wrong is to risk incorrectly believing the proposition "God exists" and to incorrectly believe that proposition is to be in a state in which God is displeased with one, which presumably has dire consequences.
Coming up with the correct answers to "What is God?" and "How does God exist?" is not as easy as it sounds. It seems that the standard answer is that God possesses the properties and characteristics he assigns to himself and exists in the way in which he says he does. Fair enough. We will lay aside the question of whether or not it is safe to assume that God could be trusted to communicate this information accurately. We will also assume, for the sake of argument that God has chosen to communicate this information in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible.
Even granting all of this, we are still faced with a problem. How are we to interpret this information and what about the apparent contradictions we face when we compare different bits of data that would seem to be at odds? We still have a long way to go and there are so many avenues we could explore, given the attributes that the Bible assigns to God. We could spend ages looking at the problems associated with questions regarding the extent of his power, knowledge and presence for starters. For discussion purposes, let's just zero in on the question of in what way does he exist both personally and substantively [begging those questions, of course].
When it comes to the question of how God exists, the vast majority of professing Christians subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, even though I would be comfortable in estimating that well over 99% of professing Christians have absolutely no clear understanding of what that even means and would further posit that this has been the case throughout the history of Christianity. Ask any Christian to explain the Trinity. Most will immediately present some kind of ridiculous analogy about water or oranges or fathers, sons and husbands or some other such nonsense that betrays they have no idea what they're talking about.
Here's the problem, if you use an analogy to explain the Trinity you're a heretic, plain and simple. That bears repeating, but I'll just let you go back and re-read it for emphasis. Another option is to punt by throwing your hands up in the air and with pseudo-humility proclaiming, "You're asking me to explain God? I am but a lowly, sinful creature. How could I possibly explain God?" At that point, you're done talking about God because you've just admitted that you have no idea what you're talking about. You can't have a conversation about something you can't explain, define, conceptualize, describe, etc. Any further discussion would be pointless. It would seem that the only way to articulate Trinitarian doctrine without espousing heresy and without completely abdicating the conversation is to express the concept in confessional, propositional form.
I must ask, however, is it even possible for someone to believe the propositions contained in something like the Athanasian Creed [click the link because I'm not reproducing the whole thing here] when those propositions are taken together? What I mean is that it is generally acknowledged that one cannot believe a proposition that one does not comprehend. Even if we lower the standard from comprehension to apprehension, I’m still not sure those propositions, taken collectively, can actually be believed by anyone because I’m not convinced they can even be apprehended, much less comprehended. Sure, they can be stated just as easily as the propositions 1+1+1=3 and 1+1+1=1; but even with arbitrary semantic distinctions between words like “person” (a relation: the Father generates, the Son is begotten, the Holy Spirit proceeds) and “substance”, which are hardly ever defined or agreed upon, how does any non-heretical formulation of the Trinity not violate the Law of Identity in nearly everyone’s mind?
I'm aware that distinctions have been made by theologians between what God is (the divine substance) and and how God is (the divine persons) in precise ways. That it is impossible to find a proper analogy anywhere else in our experience for this phenomenon should be a giant red flag suggesting that we are dealing with an ad hoc explanation. But let's just lay aside the fact that these distinctions appear to be merely the inventions of theologians from the fourth century and onward trying to wiggle out of the logical identity corner their dogma painted them into. As I said, I'm quite certain that fewer than 1% of the people that would consider themselves Trinitarian are even aware of the distinctions and an even smaller percentage can clearly articulate them. I must ask though, on a practical level, what’s the difference between propositions that are incomprehensible and those that are complete and utter nonsense?
I can point to plenty of examples of modern heretical expressions of the Godhead that I personally encountered. I can recall several instances wherein I heard trained clergy pray clearly nontrinitarian prayers. They usually go along the lines of something like this, "Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for dying on the cross for our sins" [insert record needle scratch trope]. That's clear heresy. In Trinitarianism the Father did not die.
This isn't just a problem for contemporary apatheological American Evangelicalism either. We find other problems in some of the classic hymns. "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?" is a great example. It contains the line, "Amazing love! How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?" That's a great question, Charles Wesley. The short answer is, it can't be. 'Tisn't mystery at all, Charles. 'Tis the heresy of theopassianism. God can't suffer or die, as this would be a drastic ontological change. Yet tens of thousands of professing Trinitarians have been singing that line for nearly three hundred years and thousands will sing that line again this very Sunday. No wonder nearly all Christians are heretics when their clergy and hymns constantly reinforce wrong belief.
I can't blame them. It's incredibly easy to think nontrinitarain thougths and I found myself doing it quite readily throughout my Christian experience. I challenge anyone to try to read the Gospels without having a few stray nontrinitarian thoughts. Just try to have a basic conversation about Jesus with a child and you'll see what I mean. It won't take long for you to get confused looks from her and to start getting confused and befuddled yourself.
|Just show them this helpful 12th century diagram and it's sure to all make perfect sense.|
Top that all off with the fact that historically, it's been safer to say nothing about God than to say anything about God. This would also be true for thoughts as well because to think things about God that aren't true is necessarily blasphemy. But that takes us back to our question of how it is that one is to believe the proposition, "God exists" if one can't properly think about God.
Now, let's revisit the less-than-one-percenters who have some understanding of the whole substance/person distinction and are savvy enough to avoid heresy some of the time. The trouble for them is explaining just how the relational distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are even meaningful and serve any purpose whatsoever other than to wiggle out of the problems associated with the Law of Identity.
Let's dig a bit into this. The Greek word for proceeds implies ultimate origination in something. To have an origin necessarily implies some kind of time and change. In Trinitarian creedal expressions the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father (and the Son), yet how is saying such a thing not necessarily implying mutability? Similarly, the word for begotten implies generation, an action involving time and change. Again, if the Son is said to have been begotten of the Father, how is saying such a thing not implying that a person of the Trinity underwent change? How can the act of begetting be eternal? What sense is there in calling something a timeless act? 'Tis mystery all, you say? Perhaps, but now we have to question the practical difference between mystery and utter nonsense. Go ahead. Appeal to the distinction between comprehension and apprehension and beg the question that this doctrine can even be properly apprehended.
Orthodox Trinitarianism says the action of begetting is not dependent on the Father’s will, but rather is ontologically necessary. It is said that in this act the Father generates the personal (read: relational) subsistence (read: maintaining or supporting) of the Son, but thereby also communicates (read: transfers) to Him the divine essence in its entirety. Even readers who aren't following and are now completely lost can understand that those are all actions that imply time and change, even though they are said to be "timeless and eternal".
As I stated previously, the very words “begotten” and “proceed” imply time and change. When used to describe eternal beings those words lose semantic value. They become meaningless. They are merely illusory placeholders. Trinitarian theologians have used words to create a distinction between the persons and essence of God, but in doing so they've merely taken the identity nonsense from the proper nouns like "God", "Father," "Son" and "Holy Spirit" and transferred it to verbs like, "communicates," "generates/begets" and "proceeds." Golly, that sure looks an awful lot like sophistic sleight of hand. But what do I know? I'm not a professionally trained theologian.
Trinitarians posit that for the Godhead there is no beginning, no change in being, no process within time. The Son is said to be generated eternally and the Spirit is said to proceed eternally, but as we've seen, those terms appear to be completely devoid of meaning. What does it mean to be eternally generated? What does it mean to eternally proceed? It is not clear how saying something eternally proceeds or is eternally generated really means anything at all. It's just a very elaborate way to say that the persons of the trinity are not the same...except they are...but not totally...well, in one sense totally, but not another. Look, they just are. Period. Full stop. At this point we appeal to that word again: "mystery."
The more I look into the answer of "mystery" in Christian doctrine, the more I'm inclined to think it is merely shorthand for, "We know it doesn't make sense, now sit down and shut up about it." It seems to me that religion needs mysteries to survive. If it could be explained, it could be disproved. With mysteries like the doctrine of the Trinity, Christian theologians have embraced an inherent weakness by constructing a reductio ad absurdum and then using it as a proof instead of disproof. It's quite brilliant...or silly, depending on your perspective.
So what's a Christian left with if she doesn't want to try really, really hard to believe mutually exclusive things about God? Well, there are alternatives like Modalism and Arianism. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals don't have the same identity issues to contend with that Trinitarians have. They have different issues. Those issues largely stem from the fact that while some passages in the Bible seem to support their views, others do not. Trinitarians, for their part, have done what they could to try to somehow combine the material and make sense of its expression. In doing so, though, they've made the concept of deity sink further into utter nonsense.
If you're a Christian and you're having difficulty keeping up with the theological jargon and distinctions that surround discussions like this one, don't feel bad. You are the 99%. You may have cause for concern, however, as failing to correctly believe the right propositions may result in a one-way ticket to eternal torture. On second thought, maybe you should study up on this. Jesus did say the way was a narrow one that few would find, and nontrinitariansm is regarded as damnable heresy by quite a few Christian denominations.
This whole thing is really messy from a practical standpoint because it screws up the reliance on Pascal's Wager by plugging yet another variable into an otherwise convenient, binary risk assessment. What if you're wrong about the way in which you believe the proposition "God exists"? To revisit my earlier illustration, what if you're thinking of short people when the Bible means mythical miners? Uh-oh. All of sudden eternal hell is right back on the table and you're in the same boat with atheists when it comes to the possibility of being tortured forever.
The doctrine of the Trinity is but one rather complex angle I could've taken. There are countless other variables I could throw into the mix to show how you may have missed the mark in your understanding and apprehension of concepts like faith, grace, salvation, God, the person of Jesus Christ and works along with whatever beliefs have to be held or deeds performed in order to fulfill God's requirements for avoiding eternal torture. Just getting the "I believe in Jesus" part right is not as simple as all that. Concepts like "believe in" and "Jesus" have to be properly defined and understood. There is plenty of room to screw up in just that little four-word phrase.
Point is, even if we rule out all other religions and make Christianity and atheism the only options, Pascal's Wager is still not binary. You are risking everything on one particular understanding of Christian doctrine among so many others. In spite of whatever words some clergy member may try to assure you with, you can have absolutely no assurance that you've chosen correctly because no matter what that clergy member says or what verse of scripture may be appealed to, the possibility remains that he or you may have the wrong interpretation. But hey, whatever helps you sleep at night, right? I mean, it's only the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you. I'm sure it's safe to just put that question to the back of your mind and trust what you've always thought or been told.
Is it safe to just listen to that reassuring word from the pastor telling you that this is all just Satan trying to rob you of the joy of having the assurance of your salvation? Otherwise comforting statements like, "you just have to trust Christ and rest in his finished work" run the risk of being empty platitudes. Now that I think about it, that sounds exactly like something Satan would want you to believe so that you won't worry about it and so that at your appointed hour you will have your soul dragged off kicking and screaming toward hell amid your pitiful protests of, "but I believe in Jesus! The pastor said not to worry!" Mwuhahahaha! See, you can really work yourself up in knots over this thing.
This could be the point where some theologians step in and say that Christ, as part of his substitutionary role, fully and correctly comprehends God on behalf of believers. OK, but believers in what and to what extent? Is there some sort of scale and when you get to a sufficient level of some arbitrary apprehension of the object of your faith, you're in? Where is the line? I ask, because we've now opened the door to the possibility that any incorrectly or inadequately comprehended truth proposition could potentially be propped up by Christ in this substitutionary capacity. This would include truth propositions about Christ himself, his work or the entirety of what one must believe in order to be saved.
In other words, any false belief about anything up to and including a false belief about whether or not something like God (whatever it is) even exists could potentially be overcome by Christ's believing it correctly on someone's behalf. At this point it seems we're either reduced to absurdity, universalism (Yay, love wins!) or a rather capricious deity that went to a great deal of trouble to do and say a lot of things about himself and salvation and faith and all sorts of other things that ultimately turn out not to matter much at all in the eternal grand scheme of things.
If you happen to be one of those less-than-one-percenter theologians and you're reading this now and foaming at the mouth or face-palming because I've somehow misunderstood or misrepresented something, ask yourself why. Why is it so easy for someone to completely misconstrue or misunderstand such an important doctrine and why does it take entire chapters of systematic theologies to unpack and articulate this doctrine, largely to no avail?
Please feel free to offer your corrections in the comments below. However, be sure to answer those questions in a way that spares me a conveniently unfalsifiable appeal to the noetic effects of sin or the role of Holy Spirit as divine interpreter/knower. Such appeals bear no resemblance to the reality of the oh-so-many divergent and confused understandings of this doctrine. Also, see my objections in the previous two paragraphs.
Maybe, just maybe the material about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit contained in portions of the Bible, when combined, has left the majority of Christianity with no alternative other than to try to believe nonsense, even though the vast majority of Christians don't even have a rudimentary grasp of the nonsense they're trying to believe. Like so many people who just check the "I agree" box at the end of the lengthy terms of service agreement and click "OK" when downloading new software to their devices, most Christians couldn't care less and remain blissfully unaware of just how absurd their concept of the divine really is.
Of course, that doesn't stop them from appealing to Pascal's Wager like it's an either/or assessment, and it damn sure doesn't stop them from making fun of and pointing out the absurdities within every other concept of the divine on the face of the earth. Meanwhile Jews and Muslims are left shaking their heads wondering how in the world Christians can get away with calling themselves monotheists. Can you blame them?