An Analysis the BRI’s God in Three Persons—in Theology

Thank you Jean for passing this on to me at a camp meeting!

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The Biblical Research Institute’s publication God in 3 Persons—in Theology was published in May 2015. Authored by Kwabena Donkor, associate director of the BRI, the twenty-nine-page publication addresses Seventh-day Adventism’s understanding of God’s nature. Adventism’s second fundamental belief, Donkor wrote, “which deals directly with the Trinity, has only this to say about the being of God: ‘There is one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons.’ The statement seems to deliberately attempt to state only the basic facts about God’s nature….” (p. 18)

It is Adventism’s definitive statement about God’s nature, having, according to Donkor,  a key difference from what he calls the “orthodox doctrine” of the Trinity. Two paragraphs later, the author affirmed, “…The Adventist doctrine of the Trinity in the Fundamental Beliefs, unlike the orthodox doctrine, is consciously biblical in its key dogmatic affirmations about the Trinity … and in its lack of speculation….”

On the following page, we can read that “the Adventist statement on the Trinity is biblical, not only in affirming the biblical fact of God’s oneness, but also in desisting from making statements about the nature of the one God.” (p. 18-20)

“Speculation,” then, is regarded by Donkor as the weakness of the “orthodox doctrine” of the Trinity—speculation that manifests in efforts to explain the unrevealed doctrine.

We are compelled to speak up. In the first paragraph, the author observes that the second fundamental belief addresses “God’s nature,” yet in the third paragraph above, quoted from two pages later, the author says Adventism desists from “making statements about the nature of the one God.” Which is it? Have or have not dogmatic claims been made by Adventism about the nature of God?

It is obvious that to claim God is a “unity” of three “co-eternal Persons”—something that is not revealed either in the Word of God or in the Spirit of prophecy—is itself a dogmatic statement about the nature of God. Not being divinely revealed to us, it is therefore assumption—i.e., speculation! The fact that Adventism declines to speculate further does not negate the initial speculation. Initial speculation is to be shunned, as well, as Donkor himself unwittingly seems to have acknowledged. He wrote about the second fundamental belief’s containing “basic facts about God’s nature” (p. 18), but then, on page 26, he quoted this explicit warning from Ministry of Healing:

“…The highest intellect may tax itself until it is wearied out in conjectures regarding the nature of God, but the effort will be fruitless…. None are to indulge in speculation regarding His nature….” MH 429, emphasis added.

Donkor applied this warning to those holding the “orthodox doctrine,” but apparently does not consider Adventism’s defining God in ways in which Scripture and Spirit of prophecy are silent to be speculation, despite the fact that “speculation” is defined as theorizing or conjecture about what is not known for a certainty.

Not surprisingly, then, the author writes that Adventism is “without a burden to define rationally God’s oneness….” (p. 23) In other words, the author wrote, “the defining characteristic of the Seventh-day Adventist approach to the doctrine of the Trinity is to state dogmatically the biblical positions on the relevant points without any great effort at explaining its logic.” (p. 25) Said another way, rather than our denomination being “forced” to “indulge in speculative explanations of the inner nature of the triune God,” the author appreciates the benefits of not explaining. He believes that “without the explanation, the challenges posed by Arius, and later by Eunomius, seemed quite cogent.” (Ibid.) Their downfall, he implies—the weakness of their views—was that they tried to explain their theological views. In essence, had they remained silent about the details after making dogmatic statements, they might have been successful in persuading others to their views. Therefore, having learned from Arius and Eunomius that explanations lead to questions demanding answers, Adventism has declined to explain its doctrinal assertions about the Trinity. Instead, Adventism has chosen to state its theological position on the Trinity “dogmatically” “without any great effort at explaining its logic.” (p 25)

Donkor explained further why Adventism considers it need not explain the Trinitarian doctrine it asserts in its second Fundamental Belief. He cited biblical passages wherein God is one (the shema); wherein “God declares of Himself that before Him no God was formed, and neither shall there be any after Him (Isa 43:10);” and wherein Jesus refers to His Father as “the only God/the only true God” (John 5:44; 17:3).” All of those passages speak of only one supreme Being. The author concludes, “Theologically, the oneness of God for Paul provides the basis for one method of salvation for all (Rom 3:30).”

Now let us see how the concept of “oneness” has been conformed to justify the Trinity doctrine. Referring to the verses Donkor quoted to show God’s “oneness,” he pointed out that “these texts assert the oneness of God dogmatically without any hints about the inner structure or nature of God.” True. They are divinely-inspired statements of spiritual truth that offer no explicit contextual explanation as to their truth. BUT! The BRI author, having stated those divinely-inspired, explicit precedents, seems to have inferred that humans can make their own dogmatic doctrinal statements without explanation also, just as God has done through the Bible’s inspired authors! In essence, he seems to have reasoned that if God inspired the Bible authors to write statements of doctrinal fact without explanation, that established a biblical principle, and Adventism can also make doctrinal statements without explanation! Thus the BRI, in this publication, takes this theological position: “…The Bible seems not to go into the issue of how God is One, and we should not, either…. We may state the Bible’s view of God as One and Three without trying to explain it.” (p. 26) “Thus,” the author wrote, “the Adventist statement on the Trinity is biblical, not only in affirming the biblical fact of God’s oneness, but also in desisting from making statements about the nature of the one God.” (p. 20)

Again we are compelled to speak up against this reasoning and conclusion. The pronouncements of an all-wise, sovereign God we can trust to be true. The pronouncements of men do not merit the same confidence; history is too full of examples to rationally believe otherwise. God need not explain Himself, since He cannot err. Men, on the other hand, do err. In this case, men advocating a major doctrinal change from non-trinitarian to Trinitarian have the burden of proof. It is their ethical and reasonable responsibility not only to show the error of a literal biblical understanding (excepting when symbolic language is used; see GC 598.3), but also to provide the rationale from clear statements in Scripture of the doctrine with which they would replace it.

Notwithstanding the fact that the BRI author has already affirmed that the second fundamental belief addresses the nature of God (see the first paragraph), another significant problem is that Adventism attempts to hide tritheism behind biblical statements of God’s “oneness.” According to the Biblical Research Institute in this publication, in claiming three divine Persons in a unity of one God without explaining how such a thing could possibly be, Adventism is true to Scripture and also faithful in following the example of God’s inspiration of His written Word. In other words, God spoke, and it was so; Adventism speaks, and it is so. Divine example followed; no explanation needed.

The author even admitted, “…Sound theological reasoning from biblical principles often leads to biblical truth. No text of Scripture specifically says that God is three Persons: but theological reasoning on the basis of biblical principles leads to that conclusion.” (p. 19-20) According to the BRI, then, the Trinity doctrine is one of those times and topics wherein “sound theological reasoning,” lacking explicit divine revelations, nonetheless led to “biblical truth” about our majestic God. Confidence in human reasoning enabled Donkor to write of the “fact” that “in Scripture God has revealed His transcendent nature as Trinity, namely three distinct divine Persons who act directly and historically in history and constitute the one divine Trinitarian being.” In even more detail, he added that those “different Persons” are “conceived as centers of consciousness and action.” (p. 22) And yet, Donkor quoted Fernando Canale, who wrote, “…In no way could human minds achieve … the description of the inner structure of God’s being” (p. 22). One wonders where the BRI’s imaginary theological line is that compartmentalizes God into “inner structure” and His (outer?) nature (p. 18). What is the difference between the two, and why they are indulging in speculation about His nature, anyway? Where is “the truth in its simplicity and strength”? (EW 273.2) Where is “the word, which is plain and powerful in its simplicity”? 2T 694.2

“…Multitudes have a wrong conception of God and His attributes, and are as truly serving a false god as were the worshipers of Baal…. [T]hey are led to turn away from the divine and to exalt the human.” PK 177, emphasis added.

Undeniably, the BRI has made tritheistic statements about God’s nature and pronounced them “facts.” Also undeniably, such “facts” have not revealed to us, and therefore are not “facts” but human assumptions about a topic concerning which the Holy Spirit through Ellen White said we are “not to indulge in speculation.” We must disagree, then, with both the single “biblical principle” referenced and evidently employed, and with the conclusion reached.

“…If men would use their reason, and take the Bible as it reads, they would see the absurdity of their positions. The plain ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ would dispel their errors, as the mist is dispelled by the glories of the rising sun.” ST Aug. 5, 1886, par. 13, emphasis added.

Refusing the responsible “burden” of explaining or defending the Trinity doctrine is understandable (though not condoned) due to the very serious doctrinal challenges that have arisen since its adoption as a fundamental belief. As stated in this Biblical Research Institute’s publication, “…The issue is how one may define the ‘One’ and relate it to the three Persons without falling into tritheism. It may be that theology needs to acknowledge its impotence in this matter.” (p. 26)

Does the “issue” disappear—does the charge of tritheism evaporate—if the dogma is not explained, but simply proclaimed, as the BRI has done? Hardly! Frankly, the explanations are irrelevant, if the basic theological assumption itself is flawed, being speculative. Rational people readily discern the irrationality and speculative reasoning in the dogma of three coeternal Persons in one God! That dogma—indeed, any dogma, to be believed and accepted—requires at least some explanation that is not speculative but explicitly, plainly biblical. It is not satisfactory for our Biblical Research Institute—Adventism’s primary “go-to” source for theological understanding—to figuratively shrug their shoulders and say, “We don’t try to explain it, because we really can’t explain what we dogmatically proclaim is true, even while we also admit that there is ‘no text of Scripture specifically say[ing] that God is three Persons’ (p. 20).” Is this not “confusion of face”? Dan 9:8

There is another option open to the BRI, other than to “acknowledge its impotence in this matter.” It is to honestly concede that “three Persons” (the capital “P” indicating deity) is logically and simply tritheism! What the BRI has proved truly impotent to do is to conceive a way to convincingly explain something illogical and unbiblical so that it appears logical and biblical, so that it will be accepted without divisive challenges. Therefore, they have chosen to “state dogmatically the biblical positions on the relevant points without any great effort at explaining its logic.” (p. 25) It seems they have trusted that their authoritative proclamation would be sufficient to persuade. However, the theological division in our midst concerning the Godhead indicates the BRI has misjudged Adventists’ deep desire for sustainable biblical truth.    Furthermore, until the BRI can show the error of a literal understanding of God’s Word (symbolic language excluded, of course), the Trinity doctrine with its new hermeneutic of metaphor is essentially a second, competing view, which does not unite Adventism, but, rather, continues and intensifies the division.

It is one thing when God speaks authoritatively, as He has done in His Word. We simply accept and believe. But when authoritative human pronouncements about the Trinity fail to persuade, what then? How does human authority maintain its authority then? We see the results in the “believe or leave” dictum employed by some in authoritative positions. Is there a precedent in God’s word for that action? Yes, but not on God’s part. Dictums of that nature were the tool of those who hated Jesus. Remember the young man in John 9 whose sight Jesus restored? Having become a believer in Jesus, he was “cast out.”

The critical, summary point is this: We are not to indulge in speculation about God’s nature. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has been done; the BRI admits the second fundamental belief about the Trinity states “basic facts about God’s nature.” (p. 18) The burden of proof for the Trinity doctrine belongs to those advocating the new doctrine, but efforts to explain or justify it have led to ongoing biblical challenges. To prevent or avoid those challenges, one option for the BRI was (and still is) to concede error and retract the doctrine they admit they can’t even explain logically. Unfortunately, a different option was chosen. The unfortunate route the BRI (and hence Adventism) has taken is to state the speculative doctrine authoritatively and “dogmatically”—as fiat fact, but without explanation. The result? Not only have the biblical challenges continued—the very thing the BRI hoped to avoid—but it is a route that threatens the salvation of those who accept it, due to its “wrong conception of God.” We read in plain language in God’s Word and in the writings of Ellen White,

“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3, emphasis added. 

“…Multitudes have a wrong conception of God and His attributes, and are as truly serving a false god as were the worshipers of Baal…. [T]hey are led to turn away from the divine and to exalt the human.” Prophets and Kings, 177, emphasis added.

“One of the greatest evils that attends the quest for knowledge, the investigations of science, is the disposition to exalt human reasoning above its true value and its proper sphere. Many … endeavor to determine the nature and attributes and prerogatives of God, and indulge in speculative theories concerning the Infinite One. Those who engage in this line of study are treading upon forbidden ground. Their research will yield no valuable results and can be pursued only at the peril of the soul.” “…By every device at his command he [Satan] tempts men to speculate in regard to God. Thus he seeks to prevent them from obtaining that knowledge of God which is salvation.” Ministry of Healing, 427.1-428.1, emphasis added.

Jean Handwerk

office@jeanhandwerk.com

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