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Newman’s Via Media on the Trinity

October 24, 2023

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All Christians who profess belief in the doctrine of the Trinity believe that it is found in divine revelation. Disagreement exists among Christians regarding the degree to which the doctrine of the Trinity, especially as it was later formalized, is clearly taught in Scripture and the earliest Fathers. The disagreement, in other words, is about the degree to which the doctrine developed over time. Are fourth-century conciliar statements mere rephrases of scriptural teaching, or do they represent a true advancement in understanding and explication of this central doctrine by the Church

I will take a look at two Protestant thinkers, one a Trinitarian and one a Unitarian, and argue that John Henry Newman’s theory on doctrinal development helps to take the best that both Protestants have to offer. While the Trinity is taught in Scripture and was believed by the earliest Christians, the Church’s understanding and ability to explicate the doctrine did truly develop over time.

On the Trinitarian side, meet James White, a Reformed Baptist apologist who maintains an orthodox Trinitarian theology. In his book The Forgotten Trinity, White tries to argue how clear the doctrine is in Scripture and that later conciliar formulations are merely restatements of scriptural truth. On the other side, Dale Tuggy, an analytic philosopher and self-identified “Biblical Unitarian,” rejects the Trinity on scriptural grounds and argues that the Ante-Nicene Fathers did not hold to it either. Tuggy even runs an entire podcast dedicated to the Trinity. Let us look at each view in turn and see how Newman’s views best account for each side’s main arguments.

The New Testament portrays Jesus of Nazareth as a divine person, equal to God the Father.

White’s Scriptural Defense

In his excellent book The Forgotten Trinity, White offers a number of scriptural arguments for the Trinity, appealing to classic Trinitarian texts such as the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2, the prologue to John, and numerous other texts. White pays careful attention to Greek grammar and syntax, arguing persuasively that the New Testament portrays Jesus of Nazareth as a divine person, equal to God the Father.

White also has a chapter on the Church Fathers where he attempts to demonstrate that the biblical doctrine of the Trinity that he has expounded was received by the earliest Christians and has been believed by the Church from the earliest times. All of this rings true to Catholic ears. Where White errs is not in his explication and defense of the Trinity but in his claims of its full and clear explication in both Scripture and the early Fathers. Consider what White says about Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest Church Fathers. White quotes this passage from Ignatius’ “Letter to the Ephesians”: “There is only one physician—of flesh yet spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God, first subject to suffering then beyond it—Jesus Christ our Lord.”

After which, White concludes: “One could well say that even fifth-century Trinitarian thought does not represent any substantial advancement beyond the concepts expressed here. Incarnation, the two natures of Christ—all clearly a part of the theology of the bishop from Antioch” (The Forgotten Trinity, pg. 183).

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While this beautiful line from St. Ignatius makes clear that Ignatius’ thought here is clearly in line with orthodox Trinitarian theology and especially Christology, White stretches to conclude that later Trinitarian thought “does not represent any substantial advancement” beyond the concepts expressed here. We will examine this quote more thoroughly below, but for now note that there is no mention of the Holy Spirit in relation to Jesus Christ and God the Father. Thus, the degree to which it is fully “Trinitarian” is suspect.

Dale Tuggy’s Critique

Dale Tuggy rejects not only the Trinity but even the pre-existence of Christ, thus staking out a position far more radical than even Arianism. From Tuggy’s perspective, however, it is the traditional doctrine of the Trinity that is a radical fourth-century innovation. Not unreasonably, Tuggy finds some tension between the deity of Christ and Scripture’s clear teaching of Christ’s humanity. Tuggy will ask: How can an immortal God die? How can an omniscient God be unaware of the date of the Second Coming? How can God be tempted? and so forth. Of course, Trinitarians have answers to such questions. Perhaps most important is Pope Leo’s teaching of the communicatio idiomatum, or the communication of idioms, which holds that what can be attributed to the natures of Christ can be attributed to the divine person of Christ. Tuggy, of course, is aware of Christian attempts to explain away these difficulties in the doctrine but finds them unconvincing.

St. John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine enables us to see the truth of the Trinity in light of the historical record.

In addition to Scripture, Tuggy points out that, in a strict sense, there were no Trinitarians prior to the fourth-century councils that defined the doctrine of the Trinity. Certainly, he will admit that Church Fathers prior to Nicaea called Christ “God,” spoke of the “trinity,” the unity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but none of them gives an account that fully aligns with the account given at Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, or the late fourth-century Fathers. Tuggy notes even the use of the word “trinity” in thinkers like Tertullian does not mean that such thinkers embraced later Trinitarian doctrine: “Tertullian or Origen . . . will always (when positively employing it) use “the Trinity” as a plural referring term, since they think that those are in the final analysis three things/entities/beings. In contrast, a proponent of a triune God theory may use “the Trinity” that way too, but she will also, sometimes, use “the Trinity” to mean the one God, the three of them together as one god” (When and How in the History of Theology Did the Triune God Replace the Father as the Only True God? pg. 33). From these considerations, Tuggy concludes that the Trinity is nothing more than a fourth-century Catholic innovation and something that sola scriptura–holding Protestants should reject.

With regard to the Ante-Nicene Fathers, St. John Henry Newman actually agrees with Tuggy, although he draws a different conclusion. Rather than seeing the Trinity as an innovation, Newman sees the Trinity as a development of doctrine, the preservation of truths taught in Scripture and received by the earliest Christians, thus staking out something of a middle ground between White and Tuggy.

Newman’s Via Media

In the introduction to his masterful essay An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman offers pushback to the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity, one held to firmly by his Anglican Church at the time, was as clear and universal in the Church Fathers’ writing as many of his fellow Anglicans suggested. While Newman would admit to the broad agreement among the Ante-Nicene Fathers about the deity of Christ, an explication of the whole doctrine of the Trinity was lacking. He writes: “It may be true . . . that there is also a consensus in the Ante-nicene Church for the doctrines of our Lord’s Consubstantiality and Coeternity with the Almighty Father. . . . But it is surely otherwise with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Introduction, §10).

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Here, Newman accounts for both the points of White and Tuggy. On the one hand, he recognizes that it is true that Christ’s deity and equality with God the Father are taught by early fathers like Ignatius of Antioch as James White showed. However, as Tuggy would remind us, such teaching does not constitute the full doctrine of the Trinity.

Newman, in a quote resembling Tuggy, goes so far as to suggest that not a single Church Father before the Council of Nicaea held to a perfectly orthodox view of the Trinity: “Moreover, it may be questioned whether any Ante-nicene father distinctly affirms either the numerical Unity or the Coequality of the Three Persons; except perhaps the heterodox Tertullian, and that chiefly in a work written after he had become a Montanist” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Introduction, §12).

Newman does not say this by way of critiquing the Fathers or by casting doubt on the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, he does this to show the reality of the development of doctrine. Newman points out the following present in the Fathers: ascriptions of Glory to the three persons of the Trinity; teachings on their unity, power, and substance; and even the use of the word “trinity.” Such teachings all reflect biblical doctrine and point in the direction of the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople. Such creeds are not radical innovations, but rather the fuller expression of belief and practice already present in the Church.

If we revisit the quote from Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Ephesians, we can see how Newman’s reading of history is preferable to Tuggy’s or White’s.

There is one physician of the flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.
// Ephesians 7

Here Ignatius, contra Tuggy, regards Christ as “ingenerate” and thus not merely a creature. He seems to suggest his equality with God the Father by referring to him as “God in man,” but does not diminish his humanity, noting that he is “from Mary” as well. We can see clear anticipation of later creedal statements on the Incarnation in these words. However, not everything he said is decisively Trinitarian.

His expression “First passible and then impassible” could mean that Christ only now is impassible after his Resurrection. James White would most likely interpret Ignatius as referring to Christ’s human nature with those words. This illustrates care that must be taken when interpreting Scripture or the Fathers in light of later teaching. Lastly, as already mentioned, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned, and, while Ignatius does mention him in his letters, there is not clear teaching that the Holy Spirit is God and of one substance with Christ and the Father. Thus, while Ignatius clearly anticipated later Christology in his writing, his statements do not express Trinitarian theology as it would later come to be expressed in the fourth century and beyond.

Ignatius’ views clearly contradict Tuggy’s view that Christ is a mere creature, so if Ignatius was even close to correct in his understanding of Christ, Tuggy’s view is wrong. On the other hand, Ignatius’ statement fails to express later thought as clearly as James White claims. That which Ignatius expresses is consistent with what came later at Nicaea, but, taken by itself, is incomplete and required further development over the next two centuries of Church history.

Conclusion

While much more could be said, we have seen that the doctrine of the Trinity provides a good occasion to see the true nature of doctrinal development. While Catholics should affirm both that the central doctrine of Christianity is taught in Scripture and was believed by the Church Fathers, the evidence of history shows that the understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity did develop over time, and the Church came to grow in her ability to articulate this doctrine. Thus, a Protestant like James White, while right in his defense of this doctrine, oversteps the evidence when he claims that Scripture or the early Fathers teach this doctrine as clearly as it was explicated in later creeds. On the other hand, a Unitarian like Dale Tuggy is correct that about something truly new going on at Nicaea and Constantinople, but wrong to see this as a radical innovation and departure from biblical revelation. As always, the truth is in between such extremes, and St. John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine enables us to see the truth of the Trinity in light of the historical record.