Speculating on Religion with a Friend

I think you are correct to place greater emphasis on the study of scripture over theology.  If you do otherwise, you place the proverbial cart before the horse so to speak.  However, I would argue it isn’t possible to read scripture and avoid practicing theology.  This is because all scripture at one time was theology (simply one step removed from formal promotion, canonization or doctrinal fiat).

I know your personal preference: taking scripture as a whole—not fretting over the peculiar historical circumstances making each book unique and thereby preserving a particular unity in perspective. However, this broad approach (while it has its place) notwithstanding, the Book of Isaiah did not “come out” fully-made and co-equal with Exodus. In the case of Isaiah, its significance was recognized only eventually and only eventually adopted as authoritative; but until enough time passed Isaiah was used by Jews in the same way early Christians regarded the Apostle Paul’s letters (a guide or as supplemental to scripture). Thus until its adoption as authoritative Isaiah (which took two centuries to compose) remained “theology”.

So there’s a bit of an irony when people occupying the present consider themselves possessing a comprehensive view of things, scriptural experts if you will, or some such thing; that is, only the weight of historical circumstances makes this even possible; that being, it just so happens you and I were born after all of these books were written and finally incorporated into the New Testament around (391 AD) or the Tanakh (depending upon which source you consult finally assembled sometime between the years 200 BC and 200 AD).

In the case of the New Testament, if you happen to be born in the year 200 AD the Trinity is theology (speculative) not scriptural (literally authoritative) but if you’re born in 350 this idea is held as possessing scriptural authority because it is finally written down in scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in either the so-called Old Testament or the earliest versions of 1 John.  The Comma Johanneum (or the biblical justification for the existence of the Trinity) was eventually added to John’s letter during the Council of Nicea in the 4th century CE. The doctrine was arrived at following the “Arian controversy” where two church fathers (and their respective factions) wrestled with the nature of God’s relationship to Jesus. The Arians had the audacity of not regarding Jesus quite as godlike as was believed warranted and eventually the supporters of Athanasius’ views on Trinity carried the day. That is not to say that the Trinity was invented at Nicea. Far from it. The first time the word appears in writing is in the work of Tertullian (~150 AD) apparently—he is credited by most sources as the one who coined the Latin term “trinitas” to describe the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit; it must pre-date Tertullian in some respect.

I don’t get the impression the notion of Trinity was well-understood before Nicea. Arguably, more Christians of the early Church accepted the idea of “dualism” as the more plausible (there weren’t three persons in one God but a father, adopted son, and a spirit (intent really) shared between the two). Instead, it was Origen (~200 AD) and later Athanasius (~335 AD) who, in no small part was influenced by the writings of the non-Christian thinker Philo of Alexandria (~50 AD), who used a combination of Jewish allegory and Greek philosophy to describe the relationship of “three distinct persons sharing the same substance”.  Philo also introduced the idea of Jesus being the divine Logos (“Word of God”) present at creation as presented in Genesis. So, you need Philo to first establish, through an ad-mixture of Greek rationalism and Jewish thinking, the existence of a Logos (“Word of God”) distinct but not separate from God to get to Tertullian then to Origen and finally to Athanasius. In short, Trinity is “theology” and not “scriptural” for approximately two centuries within the Christian tradition (and it is not genuinely part of the Jewish tradition whatsoever). So if you think Trinity is “scriptural” and contemplating it is consistent with a purely scriptural/non-speculatory approach this is something of a comforting illusion.

I think the early church was actually reluctant to “theologize”.  I’ve got certain gaps in my learning to be sure yet from what I can tell it appears the Church had no choice but to defend itself against obviously false doctrines. These “false doctrines” are not obviously false, in that, you cannot literally ask God questions for clarification or scientifically falsify a doctrine by comparing it to some sort of phenomenon in the objective world. These false doctrines were either “logically” absurd and/or “scripturally” dubious like “matter/flesh is evil” and therefore “Jesus could not have been a physical being”; or Jesus was not truly human and that he only “seemed” to possess a body, suffer and die (according to one heresy I’ve come across Jesus switches bodies with Simon of Cyrene and laughs at all the stupid people as Simon, not Christ, is crucified).  The frightening thing is that there are people who still think like this; that being, they mistake the particular thoughts they have in their heads or their particular world-view as God’s. I would suggest, politely, they are deluded in their sense of certainty.

How is matter “evil” by the way?

Assumption: because we are sinners and God is perfect. Wow. Slam dunk there. Pure-speculation. The church fathers simply provided counter-arguments to discourage heresy and encourage orthodoxy (or unity for unity’s sake). I’d even argue that the church fathers were attempting, ironically, to diminish the role of the intellect in one’s faith life. They were trying to encourage ortho-praxis (or “right conduct”). Loving your neighbor, after all, is what living your faith is all about and not having the right ideas in your head. The only problem is people act on the basis of the thoughts they have (“you are what you think about”).  So you need to reign in the imagination from time to time, check your intellect at the door, and just be good to one another.

In all honesty, I do not think the various church fathers believed they were writing something scientific or infallible; that is, describing phenomenon that could be tested (affirmed); nor were they articulating concepts that could be falsified or made plain to everyone through some form of experimental validation. On the contrary, I think they knew they were intuiting and inferring and creating and did not mean to imply (as we moderns think) they were deciding issues for all time. In reality, they were just being pragmatic and addressing specific problems as they encountered them in their day. I do not think this means we are necessarily completely ignorant of what God actually is…it just means we are fundamentally ignorant: I rather doubt the following took place, e.g. Thomas raises his hand and asks Jesus, “Are you the second or the third person of the Trinity?”  Jesus responds, “I am the Second.  Next?”  Peter: “Are you literally present in the bread and wine when we do the whole Last Supper thing?”  Jesus responds, “Yes.  The bread and wine literally, not symbolically, become me.”  This Q & A session never happened.

Not sure if you’ve read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  I read it when I was completing my religious studies minor in around 1991 or so.  I was quite taken with it at the time.  Here’s a link to it in full: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm