The Christian faith has been attacked based on various critiques of the Trinity. Although these critiques are frequently based on mischaracterization of the doctrine of the Trinity, often the critics have been aided and abetted by the ignorance of the Christian community at large due to the lack of a Christian defense of the Trinity as a rational doctrine. Also there is a large divergence between Christian writers to how they approach the question, "Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Rational?"
In Gordon H. Clark's book, The Trinity(ref), Clark defends the thesis that the Trinity is rational. This paper will explore how Clark and various other writers have approached the question with a primary focus on Clark's work. The goal of this paper is to demonstrate that the doctrine of the Trinity can be stated in a rational manner involving no essential logical contradictions. Commenting on Berkhof who complained that the Trinity is "unintelligible in its essential nature", Clark wrote: Now, a puzzle may be unintelligible to someone in the sense that he is too unintelligent to solve it; but if a puzzle is unintelligible in its essential nature, it is not a puzzle --- it is nonsense. However little we may understand God, God is not nonsense. But the student must be warned that the puzzle is particularly difficult(ref).
The case against the Trinity has taken on various forms over time. The following sections explore several of the contemporary and historical approaches to this problem.
The history of the Trinitarian controversy is well documented elsewhere(ref). Clark covers the familiar historical ground dealing at length with Sabellianism and Arianism(ref).
Sabellianism is the view that God is a single Person; there is not a second Person called the Son, nor a third called the Spirit(ref). This is a denial of the Three Persons and a failure to recognize necessary distinctions between the Persons. Clark claims that Sabellianism is currently extinct(ref). The strength of Sabellianism is that it guards the unity of God, but does so at the distinction between the Persons of the Trinity. Thus, when the baptism of Christ is described, with the voice of the Father from Heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, this is all an elaborate contrivance, and is not descriptive of an actual relationship between three Persons.
Arianism went off with a different solution to the problems posed by the doctrine of the Trinity. Arianism denies the deity of the Son, making him into a mere Creature. The Personality of the Spirit was also denied. Thus, the unity of God is also preserved, and the distinctiveness between the Persons is also preserved, but the cost is the denial of the deity of the other two Persons.
Both of these historical views have their modern counterparts. Sabellianism has its advocates in the Oneness Pentecostal movement. Arianism has its advocated in the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Oneness Pentecostals(ref), for instance, have claimed that the doctrine of the Trinity leads to a belief in tri-theism. As an example, David Bernard, a Oneness Pentecostal wrote, "The use of the number three in relation to God is also dangerous. If used to designate eternal distinctions in God, it leads to tritheism, which is a form of polytheism(ref)."
The Oneness position is "the doctrine that God is absolutely one in numerical value, that Jesus is the one God, and that God is not a plurality of persons.(ref)" The issues raised by the Oneness Pentecostals have been addressed in detail by Bob Ross(ref).
The Jehovah's Witnesses have criticized the Trinity on the basis of their opinion that the doctrine is irrational, for instance, "Is such reasoning hard to follow? Many sincere believers have found it to be confusing, contrary to normal reason, unlike anything in their experience. How, they ask, could the Father be God, Jesus be God, and the holy spirit be God, yet there be not three Gods but only one God?(ref)"
Clark notes that atheists, Jews and Moslems have historically been critical of the Christian faith based on critiques of the rationality of the doctrine of the Trinity(ref).
Another frequent critique against the doctrine of the Trinity is that it's a borrowed pagan concept. Analogies are sought in the Babylonian trinity, or the Hindu religion. The goal of this sort of analysis is to reduce Christianity to a mere folktale among other equivalent folktales of its time period. This is an outdated claim that is dealt with by a number of Christian sources, but particularly well by Ronald Nash in his book The Gospel and the Greeks(ref). Nash deals with the pagan philosophies of the New Testament era and demonstrates the fundamental differences between these systems and Christianity. Theories of dependence require substantial similarities and these are simply not present in the pagan "pantheon of deities"(ref).
The area of the current state of ignorance of the Christian community is the most frustrating of all. Some of the people who should be more cautious in their language and theological formulations have been the sloppiest.
Most people have a sort of idea of Christianity formed by the expressions and teachings of Christian leaders in our youth. These expressions and understandings should be tutors to lead people to investigate further truths, but often are the end of the journey. This "flannel board Christianity" is a primitive concept of God and Jesus that often stresses the Sonship at the expense of the Deity of Jesus. Overcoming the barrier to those in the church who do not view the Son as fully Divine is a major obstacle to progress.
Many popular Christian sources have aided and abetted in the ignorance of the Christian community. One local church, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa has literally dozens of tapes by the Senior Pastor, Chuck Smith, with speculation on the rapture and the identity of the Antichrist, but literally no teaching tapes on the doctrine of the Trinity. In the case of Calvary Chapel and Chuck Smith, any statements on the Trinity are few and far between and are riddled with errors. The impression seems to be that it's simply too complicated and not particularly relevant to the person in the pew.
The official Statement of Beliefs(ref) for the Calvary Chapel movement(ref), for instance, describes the persons of the Trinity as "three separate persons" in spite of the historical formulation of the three persons as "distinct". This, in spite of the fact, that the statement was reviewed by all the major personalities in the movement.
The Senior Pastor of Calvary Chapel, Chuck Smith described the doctrine of the Trinity in this way, "I have no intention of trying to explain to you the Godhead. It is beyond the boundaries of the human mind to understand the nature of the infinite God. There is one God, and yet he is manifested in three persons that of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.(ref)"
Even in attempting to correct the errors of other groups, Chuck Smith has consistently made serious errors in the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Chuck Smith said, "This Jesus-Only sect [Oneness Pentecostals] has taken up the error of the early heresy in the church that was known as Sabellianism which denied the separate entities of the three persons of the Godhead.(ref)" This mischaracterizes the persons of the Trinity as three entities instead of persons.
Sadly, Chuck Smith is typical of the attitudes of many pastors today. The Trinity is seen as a part of the statement of beliefs, but is rarely taught on in a direct manner. As Clark notes: In contrast with the stentorian evangelists I so often hear on the radio, who know more about Armageddon than they know about the Trinity, the more competent ministers, who read all the Bible and have a better understanding of it, introduce, as a matter of course and necessity, metaphysical and epistemological themes(ref).
There are a number of approaches in the middle ground which have some appeal, but also some problems.
Christian art serves a purpose, namely to demonstrate with concrete examples, the doctrines of the faith. Traditional depictions of the Trinity in Christian iconography depict three men(ref). The obvious weakeness of this depiction is that the other two persons of the Trinity are spirit, and are not incarnated. The strength is that this approach stresses the Personality of the individuals.
Other concrete examples include art depicting the parables, such as Rembrandt's painting of "The Prodigal Son". The Father and Son are depicted in a moving example of God's love for the sinner.
There have been a number of analogies brought to bear to try to help demonstrate the doctrine of the Trinity as rational. Some of these include: * Egg (white, yolk, shell) * Triple point of water * Tri-fold nature of light * Trinity of man (temporal, physical, rational)(ref) Each of these analogies fails for various reasons. Some demonstrate a modalistic tendency. Others are nothing more than a blinding with science. As Clark noted, "modern science too has no meaningful analogies to the Trinity(ref).
Clark employs several analogies to the Trinity. One of these is the three branches of government of the United States and another analogy is the members of the board of a corporation(ref). Clark makes careful note of the weakness of each of these analogies.
Another approach taken by some Christians is to posit a third category of rationalism called transrationalism. Things which are neither irrational, or rational, are said to be "transrational"(ref). Ultimately, this approach does not solve the problem of the rationality of the Trinity, it merely creates a third class of rationality. While it seeks to resolve the problem, in fact, it's a veiled appeal to a sort of Eastern mysticism which denies western categories of thought.
Traditionally, the Trinity has been viewed as a mystery. For instance, the Orthodox Church states "... according to the Orthodox Tradition, it is the mystery of God that there are Three who are divine(ref)". The use of the term "mystery" has become a part of the problem. Certainly, much of the reality of the Trinity was hidden in the Old Testament and not revealed until the New Testament. If this is the form of the word mystery that is intended when the Trinity is described as a mystery, then there's no logical conflict. If the word mystery is being used to hides the irrationality of the doctrine of the Trinity, then that's another matter altogether.
Even in the Old Testament, the use of the Hebrew plural Elohim for God, suggests the Trinity, albeit with no particular revelation of three persons(ref). Additionally, Christians often see the "Angel of the Lord" in the Old Testament passages as a Christophany with an accompanying Theophany. Jesus referred to Himself as the revelation of the mystery contained in the words of Psalm (ref),
As with the word "transrational", an appeal to the Trinity as a "mystery" merely hides the problem and does not answer the skeptic who claims that the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational.
Clark has a large section in his book on the question of the incomprehensibility of God. While the concept of the transcendence of God must be maintained, if God is viewed as incomprehensible, then no actual knowledge about God can be know. Clark notes that the Athanasian Creed in verses (ref) and (ref) call the members of the Trinity "incomprehensible", but Clark notes that the Latin original does not say "incomprehensible", but rather "immensus.(ref)" As Clark notes, even the statement that God is incomprehensible itself is a statement about God that is comprehensible, showing that the view self-stultifies. As Clark notes: Grelling and Russell were no more perceptive when they discussed auto- and hetero-logical words: If the word heterological it itself heterological, it must be autological. This should be sufficient to refute any claim that God is ineffable. As Augustine says, "Is that is ineddable which cannot be spoken of, a thing is not ineffable which can be called ineffable.
As an example, Richardson wrote described the "paradoxical character" of the Trinity as, "the problem, how can three be one, and one three, is not an idle problem. Whenever we speak of God we are involved in using paradoxical and apparently contradictory language.(ref)" This is the statement that Clark finds offensive. If there's an essential contradiction, then God is not the God of truth. Richarson is arguing that the Trinity is an oversimplification of the complexity of the real nature of God, and Clark is arguing that the Trinity is the ontological relationship.
Clark takes on his own in this area as he spends quite a number of pages critiquing Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theologies. Clark notes that Berkhof contradicts himself on the unknowableness of God(ref).
Clark is also critical of Van Til and Bavinck and in particular makes the comment that Bavinck's statement that the Trinity can be apprehended but cannot be comprehended is particularly philosophically weak(ref).
In this area of epistemology, Clark's analysis is penetrating and insightful. If we can't know anything about God, then the whole purpose of the Biblical revelation is called into question. The Scriptures show that God's scope is infinite, and that man can't fully know everything about God, or fully know all of the things that God knows, but man must know some of the things that God knows and know God to some extent.
There are a number of approaches possible to make a case for the thesis that the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is rational. This section describes some of those. In particular the approach of Clark is described.
Some of the common formulations of the Trinity are:
We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity: neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. ... the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God; and yet not three Gods but one God.(ref)
In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons (personae), of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.(ref)
Each of these formulations has particular difficulties. Some attempt to avoid the problem by staying away from contentious terms, such as persons.
Clearing up the meanings of the terms is the first big step(ref). If the terms are properly understood, much of problem disappears. For instance, Dr. Samuel Mikolaski(ref) spends several sections clearing up the terms "God(ref)", "substance(ref)", and "person" as the background to his discussion of the Trinity.
In his debate with Oneness Pentecostals, Robert M Bowman Jr. attempted to clear up the issue of the definition of persons as: To speak of three eternal persons in this sense is to recognize relationships among the Three that transcend manifestations in history. That is, each person is a self-aware subject who relates to each of the other two as "another." In our finite world, we are used to encountering only finite beings, and every person we meet is an entity separate from all other persons. However, God is not finite, so it may be that as an infinite being He exists as three distinguishable persons, while remaining one indivisible essence. Neither can the term "person" be restricted to human beings, since angels are self-aware subjects also. Whether God is three persons cannot be determined by reasoning alone, but only by examining God's revelation of Himself in Scripture.(ref)"
Mikolaski notes that "God is not a person. There are persons in God"(ref).
Geisler points out that "the doctrine of the Trinity, if understood as saying that God is three persons, yet only one person, would be self-contradictory. However, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity says that there are three persons in one being. There is no self contradiction in that"(ref). Common approaches There are a number of common approaches to providing evidence to support the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. These are described in the following sections. Exegetical case The exegetical case for the doctrine of the Trinity is particularly strong. In Scripture, it can be seen that the basis elements of the Trinity are solidly supported. The unity of God(ref), the Father as God(ref), the Son as God(ref), and the Holy Spirit as God(ref) are all clearly affirmed.
Relations between the persons are seen and described in several places(ref). The trinitarian formula for baptism also evidences the persons, in particular the use of the singular "name"(ref). One what, three who's A popular apologetic approach to demonstrating that the Trinity has no inherent logical contradictions(ref), is the "One what and three who's" approach. For instance, the Orthodox Church has used this approach: As the being, essence or nature of a reality answers the question "what?", the person of a reality answers the question "which one?" or "who?" Thus, when we ask "What is God?" we answer that God is the divine, perfect, eternal, absolute ... and when we ask "Who is God?" we answer that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.(ref)
Strong took a similar approach:
The Doctrine of the Trinity is not self-contradictory This is would be, only if it declared God to be three in the same numerical sense in which he is said to be one. This we do not assert. We assert simply that the same God who is one with respect to his essence is three with respect to the internal distinctions of that essence, or with respect to the modes of his being(ref).
Clark notes the same thing:
Note the situation. When opponents have objected that the doctrine of the Trinity is logically self-contradictory because it makes three equal to one, Christians have usually replied that there are many examples are three in one sense and one in a different sense. Hence there is no contraction(ref).
In particular, Clark notes that the doctrine of the Trinity asserts one substance and three persons. If the doctrine asserted one person in three persons, or one substance with three substances, then there's a contradiction(ref).
Clark notes that the problem of unity in multiplicity, noting that this problem exists as a general philosophical problem, and not just in Christianity(ref). Clark's solution to the one in many is Augustinian rationalism(ref).
In my opinion, Clark has accomplished his goal of stating the doctrine of the Trinity in a rational manner involving no essential logical contradictions. His approach is philosophically strong, which is generally a weakness with most Christian readers. Clark is unashamedly a Platonic realist(ref) in his application of philosophy to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Clark's case is weakened by his criticisms of Cornelius Van Til which are misplaced at several spots. Some portion of Clark is nothing more than a slightly veiled critique of the presuppositional apologetics of Van Til. Clarks attack on Van Til's criticisms of induction is particularly misplaced(ref). Additionally, Clark's criticism of free will is a criticism of the indeterminism of the will, rather than of the doctrine of free will(ref). Clark is a strict 5-point Calvinist(ref).
On the whole, Clark's book is an excellent defense of the doctrine of the Trinity against the charge that the doctrine of the Trinity is not rational.
B., F. F. and M., J. W., The Deity of Christ. No publisher listed. 1964.
Bahnsen, Greg. Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, Phillipsburg, New Jersey. P&R. 1998.
Bartlett, C. Norman. The Triune God. New York. American Tract Society. 1937.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eerdmans. 1959.
Bernard, David K., J.D The Oneness Of God, On the Internet at: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pentecostal/One-Ch12.htm
Clark, Gordon H. The Trinity. Jefferson, Maryland, The Trinity Foundation, 1985.
Custance, Arthur C., Part V: The Trinity in the Old Testament. http://www.custance.org/incarnation/5ch2.html. July 15, 1997.
Garvie, Alfred Ernest. A Handbook of Christian Apologetics. New York, Scribner's. 1913.
Geisler, Norman L. and Brooks, Ronald M. Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Baker Books, 1990.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Harper Collins, 1994.
Hackett, Stuart C. The Reconstruction of the Christian Revelation Claim: A Philosophical and Critical Apologetic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eerdmans, 1992.
Lawler, Ronald. The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. Huntington, Indiana. Our Sunday Visitor. 1976.
de Margerie, Betrand. The Christian Trinity in History. Still River, Mass. St. Bede's Publications. 1982.
Mikolaski, Samuel. Theological Sentences. Section 6. Self published.
Moltmann, Jürgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom. San Francisco, California. Harper Collins. 1991.
Nash, Ronald. The Gospel and the Greeks. Richardson, Texas. Probe Books, 1992
Richardson, Cyril C., The Doctrine of the Trinity. New York. Abingdon Press. 1958.
Ross, Bob L., The Trinity and the Eternal Sonship of Christ: A Defense Against 'Oneness' Pentecostal Attacks on Historic Christianity. Pasadena, Texas. Pilgrim Publications, 1993
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1 Clark, Gordon H. The Trinity. Jefferson, Maryland, The Trinity
2 p. 48
3 Rusch, William G. The Trinitarian Controversy. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fortress Press, 1980 documents the historical issues.
4 Clark notes that the Trinity "was the first doctrine that the eartly church had to work out."
5 Clark, p. 9.
6 Clark, p. 12. "The reason Sabellianism is extinct is that since the fourth century unbelievers have regularly admitted that Christ was a person. They deny that he was a Divine Person."
7 Ross, p. 3, identifies Oneness Pentecostals as teachers of Sabellianism. It's not clear if Clark would have agreed with this assessment and was simply unaware of the teachings of the Oneness Pentacostals, but this is contrary to Clark's assessment that there are no contemporary advocates of Sabellianism.
8 Bernard, David K., J.D The Oneness Of God, Chapter 12 is titled "Trinitarianism: An Evaluation" On the Internet at: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pentecostal/One-Ch12.htm
9 David K. Bernard, "The Oneness of God" (WAP, 1983), pp.321-322. Per Robert Bowman, "This book is probably the best and most complete defense of the Oneness doctrine of God in print."
10 Ross, Bob. The Trinity and the Eternal Sonship of Christ, Pasadena, Texas. Pilgrim Publications. 1993.
11 Not author listed. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, How Is the Trinity Explained?, On the Internet at: http://www.watchtower.org/library/ti/how_explained.htm. 1989.
12 Clark, p. 86.
13 Nash, Ronald. The Gospel and the Greeks. Richardson, Texas. Probe Books, 1992.
14 Clark, p. 45, "The arguments of Athanasius show how Scriptural the doctrine of the Trinity is, and how little it depends on pagan Greek philosophy." Clark expounds at length this subject.
15 Taylor, Larry. What Calvary Teaches, Found on the Internet at: http://calvarychapel.org/library/taylor-larry/text/wcct.htm
16 The Calvary Chapel movement consists of over 600 churches with about 250,000 weekly attendees.
17 Tape 3052, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca. The Word for Today tape library.
19 Clark, p. 126-127.
20 This may be a representation of the "three men" who appeared to Abraham in the Gen 18 account. The men are addressed, by Abraham, in verse 3, as "My Lord."
21 On the Internet at: http://www.oca.org/Orthodox-Faith/Doctrine/Holy-Trinity.html
22 Clark, p. 33.
23 Clark, p. 86.
24 Wimber, John. Power Evangelism, London. Hodder and Stoughton, 1985. p. 79. Describes "signs and wonders" in this category as "The experiences of signs and wonders are transrational, but they serve a rational purpose: to authenticate the gospel."
25 On the Internet at http://www.oca.org/Orthodox-Faith/Doctrine/Holy-Trinity.html
26 Psalm 107:20 suggests plurality to some in the phrase " He sent his word, and healed them." It may be reflected in the words of Mat 8:16, "he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick."
27 "The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool", as quoted in Mat 22:43
28 Clark, p. 62.
29 Richardson, Cyril C. The Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 15.
30 Clark, p. 76.
31 Clark. p. 80. Clark comments, "This is incredible."
32 The Athanasian Creed as found on the Internet at: ftp://pharos.bu.edu/CN/texts/AthanasianCreed.txt
33 Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom. Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Book House, 1983 reprint, Vol.III, pp.607-608. Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).
34 Clark, p. 41, "In any subject terminology is important. No one achieves an understanding until he knows the definition of the key words. The doctrine of the Trinity, unfortunately, seems to have been beset with more difficulties than nearly any subject."
35 Mikolaski, Samuel. Theological Sentences.
36 Mikolaski (section 6.1.4) notes that Christians use the word "God" in more than one way. At times, the Father is being referred to, and at other times each of the persons are referred to.
37 Mikolaski (section 6.1.5) notes that "substance" is not used to denote materiality, but reality.
38 Bowman, Robert M. Oneness Pentecostalism and the Trinity, On the Internet at: http://agape7.com/cult/oneness5.htm
39 Mikolaski Section 6.1.8
40 Geisler, Norman. Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Books. 1990. pp. 19-20. Geisler concludes with "How it works is beyond us, but it is not a contradiction."
41 1 Cor 8:6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him. Others passages include Deut 6:4, Isa 44:6, 8, 45:5, 21.
42 Gal 1:3 Grace be to you and peace from God the Father,
43 John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
44 Acts 5:3 ... why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost... 4 ... thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
45 The baptism of Jesus is one such place. Mat 3:16-17 shows the baptism of the Son, the voice of the Father, and the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove.
46 Mat 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
47 In particular, this is the demonstration that there's a categorical difference between the terms.
48 On the Internet at http://www.oca.org/Orthodox-Faith/Doctrine/Holy-Trinity.html
49 Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 345-346.
50 Clark, p. 91.
51 Clark, p. 95.
52 Clark, p. 45, notes "This problem (unity in multiplicity) is not an artificial problem invented by secular philosophy which Christians automatically escape." Clark then goes on to note that the problem is posed in the question of Original sin being transmitted to Adam's descendents (p. 46).
53 Clark, p. 46. Clark wrote, "The solution the following pages defend, if it is a solution, is Realism, often called Platonism, more accurately called Augustinianism."
54 Clark, p. 127, "The philosophy used here is first of all a form of Realism. There are several kinds... realism is such because it asserts a knowledge of the 'real' object, and not a sensory, or other type of representation of it."
55 Clark, p. 93, "...there is no logical place for induction in presuppositionalism. One assume or presupposes certain axioms and from there on everything is deduction." Greg Bahnsen deals with this subject in his comprehensive volume, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, on pages 642-643.
56 Clark, p. 116, "Yet the words is not 'voluntary', if this term is used to denote some irrational, unnecessary freedom." Clark continues, "...though our wills may sometimes be free, unfortunately, from our rational control, just as our intellectual endeavors may be vitiated by fallacous syllogisms, yet none of these defect can be attributed to God."
57 Clark, p. 118, wrote "God is truth, he is omniscient, he decrees whatsoever comes to pass." Where is there a place for individual responsibility in this system? Is the Trinity Rational?
Last Updated 04/12/01