On James white’s “The Dividing line” James recently criticized a Debate between Unitarian David Barron and Trinitarian Turretinfan. He criticizes first of all that many Unitarians only focus on the Unitarian against Trinitarian debate, fair enough, many of them are unbalanced. But what about their actual arguments. James white Calles David Barron a sophist, and claims to deal with his main argument. Here is the argument that James white criticizes:
My main argument throughout this, including in the cross examination is that, the idea that multiple figures, multiple persons in one God was not an idea existing in Judaism at that time, and Turretinfan he agrees, it was not. And so when we come to the New Testament, do the New Testament authors ever define this for us that, ok now we’re supposed to understand that God exists as multiple persons? No, they don’t, nowhere. So how would the first Christians have this framework for interpretation? How would they know that, now ok, this is said of Jesus and I’m supposed to take this to mean that he is one person of a triune God? Well they didn’t think of “person of a triune God” to know this, or figure of a triune God to avoid anachronism. They didn’t think about this type of thing. What we do know that the New Testament Authors had was they had writings in their religions background, writings that articulated very exalted things of other figures. And so with this, they had their own framework to interpret the things said of Christ.
This is a very basic argument. I’ll lay it out as best I can.
- The New Testament must be interpreted in a certain contextual framework
- The best way to interpret it would be how first century Jews would have understood it.
- In order to read the New Testament in a way that supports the Trinity you have to assume certain concepts, certain doctrines and contexts that are neither found in scripture or nor are found in second temple Judaism.
- Reading the New Testament in the way a first century Jew would have understood it, using the interpretive context of second temple Judaism as well as the Hebrew Bible, one would understand the New Testament to be upholding Unitarianism rather than Trinitarianism.
- Thus the New Testament does not teach Trinitarianism, but rather Unitarianism when read as a first century Jew would read it.
Not so difficult. I’ll give you a different example. Let’s say you come across a text saying “the men were very frightening in their white robes and hoods.” How are you going to interpret who those frightening men are? Well, we have to know the context. Let’s say the text was written in Alabama in the 1950s, it would then be fair for us to say that those frightening men are members of the KKK. Let’s say the text was written by a Roman Soldier during the time of Julius Caesar who had just come back from Britain? Would we say, “well obviously then the KKK was active in Britain in the time of Julius Caesar?” No, of course we wouldn’t, we would then have to say that it’s much more likely that the frightening men were Celtic Druids.
It’s the same when we come to the New Testament text. David Barron is saying that the Trinitarian has to assume that the concept of “being” as opposed to “person” is anywhere to be found among the first century Jews or Christians, as well as the concept that no one but Yahweh can be the proper recipient of certain divine titles and that no one but Yahweh can have a certain authority, and that if someone has that certain authority or receives those certain divine titles then that person must then be Yahweh himself. The problem is those concepts are nowhere to be found in the New Testament, the Old Testament or anywhere in second Temple Judaism. What is found is people who are said to receive all sorts of divine authority from Yahweh, people who are given divine titles by Yahweh, and properly so, and people who are exalted to very high levels. What is found is Yahweh, not as a being who can be inhabited by multiple persons, but rather as a person. There is no distinction between “being” and “person” in the bible or in the context of second temple Judaism. So when we read in the New Testament that Jesus is being given divine titles, or give certain authority, or being exalted, we would read it as a first century Jew or Christian would, still upholding Unitarianism. The only way we could read the New Testament in a Trinitarian way is if we sneak in concepts and contexts from creeds made centuries later, which are nowhere to be found in either scripture or Second Temple Judaism.
That fact along with the many, many verses in the New Testament that demand Unitarianism and Subordinationism, would lead an honest reader of the New Testament to come out as a Unitarian and a Subordinationist. David Barron’s argument is a very clear argument, a very appealing argument, and an argument that needs to be taken seriously and dealt with if a Trinitarian wants to uphold his claim that the New Testament teaches Trinitarianism.
How does James White represent the argument? He says:
Fundamentally David Barron’s argument was that the trinity can’t be true because it is not a part of Jewish belief in second Temple Judaism.
You have to be joking. That was not David Barron’s argument at all. He was not saying that for the trinity to be true it must have been taught in second Temple Judaism. Go back and read his argument. The point was About the interpretive framework one uses when reading the New Testament. The trinity is not taught explicitly in the New Testament, all the Trinitarian has are verses that he has to interpret in a way that necessitates the Trinity. The question is whether or not that interpretation is valid. The Trinitarian interpretation requires assumptions that are unjustified, that is the argument, not that the trinity isn’t true because it’s not part of Second Temple Jewish belief.
James White goes on:
First of all, just on a historical level, second temple Judaism is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a monolithic thing. I think far too many times in this debate he got away with saying “the second temple Jews believe this and the second temple jews believe that.” Well which group in second temple Judaism?
All of the groups! James is either misunderstanding or misrepresenting David Barron’s position again. None of the Second Temple Jewish groups had the concepts and interpretive frameworks that would be necessary to interpret the New Testament in a Trinitarian way, the fact that they were different concerning many things and on wide variety of topics is completely besides the point. If any of them included the concepts and interpretive framework required in order to interpret the New Testament in a Trinitarian way, that would be a start of an argument, but none of them did.
James than said:
The New Testament authors are not sitting there going “Well you know, what the Jews as a whole believe, or what this sect believes or what that sect believes, that really should be our ultimate authority.”
Who makes this argument? Not David Barron. In fact no one that I know of argues that the New Testament authors viewed the second temple literature David Barron talks about as scripture, or as their ultimate authority. The Argument is that those writings give us a clue as to the culture of the time, and thus the interpretive framework in which the New Testament documents would have been read in the first century. This is not a difficult concept, we do this with every writing, even when figuring out what words mean we have to go to non canonical sources sometimes to understand fully the meaning, and thus what the author was trying to say, that does not mean that those non-canonical sources are somehow now our “ultimate authority.”
What about the concepts of a division between being and person? What about the doctrine that anyone who is given divine titles or authority must be Yahweh? Those aren’t found in scripture, in fact they are contradicted by scripture. Those concepts come from later Church teachings, so why should those concepts be our “ultimate authority” when interpreting the New Testament? If one is a Catholic maybe they should be, but if you are a Sola Scriptura Protestant they should not be.
If you want to argue that those concepts must be applied to scripture, you have to prove that there isn’t a better way to interpret the scriptures that is, in fact, more in line with the way a first century Jew would actually have read the scripture, than a Unitarian Subordinationist interpretation would be.
James white goes on:
The assertion is this, if it’s not there (in the concepts of second temple Judaism), then God can’t reveal it.
No, that is not the assertion. The assertion is that God didn’t reveal it. He revealed all sorts of things that were not in second temple Judaism, for example, the including of gentiles in the New Covenant, but those things are given to us explicitly in the New Testament, they don’t require us to include Ad Hoc interpretive concepts or interpretive concepts borrowed from later tradition, it’s given to us directly in scripture. He goes on:
The doctrine of the Trinity is revealed in the incarnation of the son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so it takes place between the testaments.
So the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the interpretive context. Where is this interpretive context found? Well the only source for it is either in the pages of the New Testament itself, or later Church Tradition. Given that James white is a Reformed Baptist I don’t think Church Tradition would be his source, so it would have to be in the New Testament itself. So the New Testament interprets the New Testament? Ok, make the argument that the New Testament gives us the interpretive contexts necessary for a Trinitarian exegesis.
Or is James white talking about the act of incarnation itself, that because God was incarnate in Jesus, we must interpret the New Testament in light of that fact? If so then he’s saying that the Trinity is taught in the New Testament, because we must interpret it assuming that God was made incarnate in Jesus. That’s called a circular argument, assuming your conclusion.
James white is not dealing with David Barron’s arguments at all. He’s misrepresenting them and instead just making up strawmen to knock down. David Barron’s arguments are serious arguments, and they must be dealt with seriously, not with sophistry.