Mystery vs. Contradiction

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[This article was taken from “Our Heavenly Father Has No Equals” by Don Snedeker.]

In order to escape the contradictoriness of the doctrine of the Trinity, most of its advocates argue that it is a mystery and must simply be “taken on faith.” We are sometimes told that our minds are too small to comprehend it. What many Trinitarians fail to recognize is that mystery is one thing, contradiction is quite another.

Trinitarians have been of the opinion that Unitarians will believe something only if we have complete knowledge of it. Robert Bowman, a Trinitarian, in making this very point, writes: “Trinitarians are willing to live with a God they cannot fully comprehend.”[1] So are Unitarians, and we do every day. The debate is not whether or not God is fully comprehensible under either system of beliefs. The debate is whether or not Trinitarians have reasonably made the leap from God being one to Him being three-in-one. The debate is also about whether or not Trinitarians have justifiably made the leap from Jesus being a man to him being both man and God. In both cases the use of reason is trivialized in order to “enable” people to receive both doctrines more comfortably. The trivialization of reason is absolutely essential for the reception of the doctrine of a triune god. Many of the trinitarianism’s advocates have not spent much time studying this system of beliefs, and perhaps take the easy route by referring to the age-old claim that it is a mystery. They are probably right in this, insofar as the doctrine is a mystery to them because they have not spent much time getting familiar with the doctrine they claim to embrace. But fleeing to the claim of mystery demonstrates the doctrine is one that is not and cannot be understood. If the doctrine and its development were better understood, fewer would place so much confidence in it. R. S. Franks, a Trinitarian, writes:

It is best to recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity has been a matter of debate throughout the Christian centuries and still is so. It is therefore necessary that the issue should be discussed with the best means at our disposal. It is not satisfactory to take refuge in the common notion that it is a mystery. It is the result of a rational and intelligible process, and its value can only be appreciated through a study of this process. [2]

Though I do not believe the doctrine is the product of a rational and intelligible process, if more Trinitarians would follow Mr. Franks’ advice and venture outside the notion that it is a mystery and study the doctrine at some length, many would see the folly involved in the doctrine’s development and would perhaps abandon it.

Unitarians believe that Scripture does not teach that God is triune, but we have never maintained that God is completely knowable. We disagree with those who maintain the Father has equals because we believe that they have introduced unbiblical, absurd and contradictory conceptions about Him (and the Messiah) into Christianity, thereby corrupting it. Trinitarians say the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery, whereas Unitarians say it is not a mystery, but a confusing compilation of tenets introduced by men into the purity of Judeo-Christian truth. The argument that Unitarians will believe something only if we know everything about it is simply a device used to side-track the focus of the debate by making personal attacks.

The term mystery typically refers to something that is difficult to know or comprehend. Such things as how God created the heavens and the earth, what infants think, or how hummingbirds flap their wings 300 times per second are examples of mysteries. We find them difficult to comprehend, but we believe them to be true. In this class the Trinitarian places the doctrine of the Trinity. As we shall see, this is an inappropriate assessment of the character of the doctrine. It is not something that is merely difficult to comprehend, but is a series of contradictions which make it impossible to comprehend regardless of how educated about this system one becomes.

It is one thing for us not to comprehend something we do not fully understand. Everything falls into this category to some extent since there is always something we will miss. Regarding theological issues, we know in part. [3] This pertains not only to biblical matters, but to all matters. However, it is quite another thing for it to be impossible to know something to be true. This latter case arises when contradictory assertions are made about the same thing. For example, on the trinitarian hypothesis God is said to be both three and one, which is a proposition that cannot be predicated of the same being. Hence it must be false. The way in which we use language and words disqualifies such a statement from being true. Something is either three or one, but not both. Since in trinitarian theology no reasonable qualifications of the predicates three and one are offered, the proposition about God being both is rightly rejected.
Another trinitarian contradiction is that Jesus is both God and man. When we define the terms God and man it is impossible for both to be predicated of the same person. It is not, therefore, that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery that it is to be rejected, but because it is a series of contradictions:

Mystery and contradiction are very different things. The former is something beyond our sight, or seen imperfectly. The latter is plainly seen to be untrue. It may concern subjects of which we know very little, but of every subject we know enough to see that two contradictory statements cannot both be true. We know very little, for example, about electricity; but if any one were to say that it is a self-moving and independent power, and also an agent which never moves except by our will, we should answer, that, although the subject is one enveloped in mystery, the statement concerning it is manifestly false. Applying this to religious things: The union between God and Christ is a subject beyond our perfect comprehension—it is therefore a mystery; but as Christ has declared that he could “do nothing of himself,”—that he “spake not of himself,” but only “as the Father gave him commandment,”—we are prepared to see that those who assert that he was equal with the Father, and independent in his authority, are in error. The subject is mysterious, but the contradiction is plain. So when Christ asserts that he did not know of a certain future event (Mark xiii. 32), the assertion that he was nevertheless Omniscient, is evidently a denial of what he said. The limits of his knowledge we cannot define, but he plainly asserts that some limits do exist, which is a distinct denial of Omniscience. [4]

According to trinitarian reasoning, it seems that we cannot know anything about God. If this assessment is inaccurate, then it follows that we can know some things about Him. This being the case, we must decide what things we can know, and therefore believe, about Him. He is certainly not fully knowable, but we can know Him in part. In other words, God is incomprehensible, but He is not unintelligible:

We grant that God is incomprehensible, in the sense already given. But He is not therefore unintelligible; and this distinction we conceive to be important. We do not pretend to know the whole nature and properties of God, but still we can form some clear ideas of him, and can reason from these ideas as justly from any other. The truth is that we cannot be said to comprehend any being whatever, not the simplest plant or animal. All have hidden properties. Our knowledge of all is limited. But have we therefore no distinct ideas of the objects around us, and is all our reasoning about them unworthy of trust? Because God is infinite, his name is not therefore a mere sound. It is a representative of some distinct conceptions of our Creator; and these conceptions are as sure and important and as proper materials for the reasoning faculty as they would be if our views were indefinitely enlarged. We cannot indeed trace God’s goodness and rectitude through the whole field of his operations; but we know the essential nature of these attributes, and therefore can often judge what accords with and opposes them. God’s goodness, because infinite, does not cease to be goodness or essentially differ from the same attribute in man; nor does justice change its nature, so that it cannot be understood, because it is seated in an unbounded mind. There have, indeed, been philosophers, “falsely so called,” who have argued from the unlimited nature of God that we cannot ascribe to him justice and other moral attributes in any proper or definite sense of those words; and the inference is plain that all religion or worship, wanting an intelligible object, must be a misplaced, wasted offering. This doctrine from the infidel we reject with abhorrence; but something, not very different, too often reaches us from the mistaken Christian who, to save his creed, shrouds the Creator in utter darkness. [5]

And I cannot help but wonder, is it because so many Christians are not in the habit of employing their reason in theological issues that they are so distrustful of it? If they permitted themselves the exercise of this God-given faculty, they would probably become better at applying it and therefore more trustful of it.

It is not a trivial matter that so many Christians have adopted a line of reasoning that makes it acceptable to believe anything simply by labeling it a mystery. By labeling something a mystery, deplorably it becomes something to be believed, or at least somewhat credible, in Christian thought. It also renders it impervious to criticism, since the argument that we do not know everything about God may be trotted out and presented as a defense of what has been labeled a mystery. We must recognize, though, that false doctrines may be designated as mysteries as easily as true ones. We must therefore decide what things are appropriately designated as mysteries and what things constitute contradictions and cannot be true. Some Trinitarians have recognized the difference between contradiction and mystery, but ignored the difference and continued to believe in the “mysteriousness” of the doctrine. Dr. South, a Trinitarian, writes:

“For that any one should be both Father and Son to the same person [to David], produce himself, be cause and effect too, and so the copy give birth to the original, seems at first sight so strange and unaccountable, that, were it not to be adored as a mystery, it would be exploded as a contradiction.” [6]

Dr. South recognized the contradictory nature of the doctrine of the Trinity, but was unwilling to part with it. His fondness of mystery caused him to circumvent the warnings his mind gave him. Unitarians reject the doctrine of the Trinity on the same grounds that Dr. South would have if he had not inclined himself toward mysteriousness in matters of religion:

We object, in general, to the doctrine of the Trinity, that it is an invention of the human mind, for which the Scriptures afford no warrant; and that its prominent effect is to introduce into the system of truths taught in the Scriptures an extraneous, artificial, and perplexing dogma, wholly inconsistent with, utterly unlike to, the acknowledged and accepted doctrines of Scripture. We do not object, as is often charged upon us, that the doctrine involves a mystery. On the contrary, we object that the doctrine when urged upon us as a mystery misuses and perverts the word mystery, and avails itself of the acknowledged and allowed credibility of what the word mystery properly signifies, to propose to us something quite unlike a mystery; namely, a statement that is absurd, so far as it is intelligible, and that is inconsistent in the very terms which it brings together for making its proposition. We accept all such religious truths as can fairly be covered by the word mystery. We live religiously upon such truths; they are the nutriment of our spirits,—of infinitely larger account to us than anything we can learn or understand. We are made familiar, by every moment’s exercise of close thought, with the necessity of accepting mysteries, and we know very well what a sensation and sentiment they send down into the innermost chambers of our being. But we are conscious of feeling quite a different sensation and sentiment when this doctrine of the Trinity is proposed to us under the covert of a mystery. Quite another quality in it than that of its mysterious character at once suggests itself to us. Its utter absurdity, its attempt to say something which it fails to say intelligibly, simply because it cannot say it truly, is the first painful consciousness attaching to the doctrine. If the doctrine be true, then it is the only doctrine of the Gospel which causes the same sort of puzzling, confounding, bewildering effect on the mind that seeks to entertain it. It sets us into the frame into which we fall when any one proposes to us an enigma, or a conundrum. It lays at the very threshold of the Christian faith an obstacle at which we stumble. It requires of us a summoning of resources, or a concession, a yielding up, of our natural desire for intelligent apprehension, as if to be addressed by some profound truth, when in fact we are only bewildered. The state of mind into which we should be driven by an attempt to accept the doctrine of the Trinity as fundamental to the Gospel, would be of no service to us in dealing with the real doctrines of the Gospel. The doctrine is not homogeneous with the contents of revelation; it is unevangelical and anti-evangelical in all its characteristic elements. Just where we need the clearest exercise of our thoughts, and wish to accommodate our ideas to our theme, and to engage the orderly action of all our faculties, we are beclouded and staggered, and thrown into a maze. Has not our whole theology been made to suffer, by thus taking its start from a metaphysical subtlety which confuses the mind instead of from one august truth which lifts and solemnizes the spirit? [7]

The designation of the doctrine of the Trinity as a mystery is the only framework within which it may be explained to the extent that people will believe it. It is the only possible mechanism whereby one may be led to accept the doctrine and is a mechanism which, once adopted, opens the floodgates of assault upon truth. It is a man-made artifice, one that God has instructed us to avoid since we cannot be certain of anything by applying this method. If a longing for mystery is to be satisfied, then anything that makes sense would not satisfy this longing and would be rejected. This approach contradicts the injunction to prove all things:

But it is “a Mystery,” this great doctrine of the Trinity! This is the easy and constant resort of its advocates. From the days of Tertullian, who exclaimed, “Credo quia impossible est”—I believe because it is impossible—to our own, it has been their refuge, nay, even their ground of glorifying.

Here let me remark, that the fact that a doctrine is above the grasp of unaided human reason, is not alone a sufficient argument against its truth. It is not, therefore, merely that the Trinity is mysterious, that Unitarians reject it, but—leaving the purely Scriptural argument out of the question for the moment—because it is self-contradictory, opposed to all right reason, positively absurd. Trinitarians themselves have over and over again admitted this. Bishop Hurd admits that “Reason stands aghast, and Faith herself is half-confounded” at the manner in which, on the Trinitarian scheme, “the grace of God was at length manifested.” [8]

Complete confidence in the veracity of the doctrine of the Trinity is simply impossible. When something is admitted to be a mystery, by its very nature it produces within us sentiments that make it impossible to have full confidence in it. As one might expect, writings of Trinitarians are full of statements that illustrate the lack of confidence they really have in this doctrine. Such statements demonstrate that trinitarianism is not mysterious, but unintelligible. For example, the use of the word persons, which is essential to the development of the doctrine of a triune god, is not at all understood:

They are not to take shelter under any plea of mystery, where the mystery is of their own making. No word in our language has a more obvious and simple significance. [9] The late Prof. Stuart of Andover, lamented that it should have ever crept into the symbols of the churches, and preferred “distinctions,” much as Dr. Smith did “somethings;” while the late Pres. Dwight of Yale College, says he does not know what the word means, but yet thinks it “a convenient term.” Convenient! for what? when confessedly it is, in the connection used, so ambiguous as to be utterly unintelligible! [10]

Trinitarian dogmas consistently defy comprehension. Incomprehensibility appears to have become the criterion of preference in determining the so-called truth of this system. It is the criterion of preference because it is voluntary. When given the choice between making sense of (i.e. understanding) God and not making sense, trinitarian methodology and practice demand one choose the latter. To Unitarians, then, the doctrine of the Trinity is simply an unnecessary collection of contradictory and senseless statements:

When I am told that the same being is both God and man, I recognize, I have before said, a very intelligible, though a very absurd proposition, that is, I know well all the senses which the words admit. When it is affirmed that “the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God”; no words can more clearly convey any meaning, than those propositions express the meaning, that there are three existences of whom the attributes of God may be predicated, and yet that there is only one existence of whom the attributes of God may be predicated. But this is not an incomprehensible mystery; it is plain nonsense. [11]

Unitarians have been accused of placing reason above revelation. We are charged with setting our minds above what is revealed in Scripture because we do not fully comprehend it. In actuality, the opposite is true. It is the Trinitarian who sets his reason above God’s revelation of Himself. The Trinitarian has invented a theology, employs invented language, and then calls it a mystery because he does not understand his own beliefs! In this very process the Trinitarian sets his own reason above the revelation of Scripture.

An obvious hypocrisy has arisen from the trinitarian claim of “mystery.” It is argued that, in order to receive the doctrine of the Trinity, one’s reason must be suspended. This is because, as Thomas rightly observes, “reason will refuse to lend its testimony to support a contradiction.” [12] In their effort to get others to accept the trinitarian faith, Trinitarians employ reason in the process of causing others to stop using this vital faculty:

Did I say I rejected the doctrine of the Trinity because it was incomprehensible? No, dear friend, I have not said so. I have rejected it because I cannot find it in the Bible. If I could satisfy myself that it was there, I would instantly receive it, however incomprehensible. The doctrine of the Trinity is, to me, so plainly a contradiction, that I deem it impossible it could be found in a revelation from God.

Were I disposed to retort, I might say that those who receive the doctrine of the Trinity are the persons who are depending upon human reason. It appears to me they fall into two strange and opposite errors. They first construct the doctrine upon inference and human reason, and then prostrate reason to receive it. [13]

Recognizing the doctrine of the Trinity as a contradiction leads to the next step in our evaluation of it: it is an absurdity. When a contradiction is developed and believed, and then others are expected to believe it as well, the whole process is an absurdity. Absurdities must be rooted up whenever they are discovered, but ardent Trinitarians seem content not following this course of action, but content themselves with preposterous notions of God:

There is reason to believe that three parts of those who profess to hold the Trinity, have scarcely bestowed one half hour’s serious thought upon the subject; they content themselves with the reflection that it is a mystery, and therefore not to be explained, and hence they are satisfied with confessing a doctrine with their lips, which is, on their own showing, inexplicable. But how any Christian can believe that doctrine which they cannot understand or explain, we are at a loss to imagine. As it regards the mystery of the Trinity, the last refuge of the Trinitarian, when pressed with the difficulties that attend his doctrine, what is more humiliating to him than to be obliged to fly to mystery, to shelter him from the argument of an opponent. The Trinitarian asserts that the Trinity cannot be explained because it is a mystery; we do not call upon him to explain the doctrine, but merely to state it in terms we can understand; and when he employs language in expressing the doctrine which according to its common interpretation, represents three distinct deities, to use the language of holy writ, and not that of fallible men. If he attaches a peculiar meaning to the word in which he states his doctrine, let him explain this meaning to us, but it is mere evasion to tell us he cannot explain the doctrine because it is a mystery, when we only ask him to explain the expressions in which he clothes the doctrine. When so much difference of opinion prevails among the Trinitarian advocates themselves respecting the Trinity—when it cannot be stated by them in intelligible terms, surely Unitarians are at liberty to doubt the truth of such a doctrine. We should like to know what the unlearned man can make of the Trinity, when one Divine tells him it is the union of three persons, in the Godhead—another that it consists of three differences, by another of three subsistencies—by another of three distinct cogitations, and by another of three somewhats. When so many opinions are intended among Trinitarians themselves, respecting their own doctrine, surely Unitarians may be permitted to entertain an opinion different from all the rest, which is that the Trinity itself is an error. [14]

It is astounding to see that so many Christians have predicated their system of beliefs upon mysterious dogma, and then demand that others adopt the same method of formulating their beliefs. Implicit in this method is that God has not given us an adequate revelation of Himself in Scripture. But it is certainly preferable to have a comprehensible system of beliefs rather than one that is incomprehensible. As a general rule, comprehensibility should govern our beliefs. The mind cannot rest comfortably having accepted things it cannot understand, and without understanding it is impossible to know whether a doctrine is true or not. The introduction of the concept of mystery into Christian faith undermines the very confidence we are to have in what we espouse.


Endnotes:

1. Bowman, back cover. Back to top

2. Franks, p. 1. Back to top

3. 1 Corinthians 13:9. Back to top

4. Eliot, p. 6. Back to top

5. William Channing, Unitarian Christianity and Other Essays (Liberal Arts Press, 1957), pp. 49-50. Back to top

6. Dr. Robert South, Sermons, vol. iii. p. 240; quoted in Wilson, p. 321. Back to top

7. Ellis, pp. 118-20. Back to top

8. Farley, pp. 24-5. Back to top

9. The author here is referring to the word person. Back to top

10. Farley, p. 31. Back to top

11. Norton, pp. 169-70. Back to top

12. Thomas, p. 17. Back to top

13. Dana, pp. 84-5. Back to top

14. Thomas, pp. 13-14. Back to top