Retractions · Series

On Capitalizing “Trinitarian”

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
—1 John 1:9 (ESV)

This post is a part of the Retractions series.


Christian theology is concerned with getting things right. In some cases, this might look to the outside world like Christians are a little obsessed over minute differences.

Anybody familiar with the discussions about the Trinity around the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) is familiar with the phrase “an iota of difference.” There were some who were content with saying that the Son was homoiousios (“of similar substance”) with the Father. But others, following Athanasius, insisted that the Son was homoousios (“of the same substance”) with the Father. That iota makes a big difference.

That leads into another point: How we use words is extremely important. There are plenty of reasons one could give here, but it’s quite obvious that to Christians, God chose to reveal himself to humans by using human language.

When I first started this website, there were times that I used the adjective “trinitarian.” In later posts, I began to say “Trinitarian” instead. The difference is between a capital and lower-case letter, which to some may seem like “an iota of difference.” In this post I’m going to say why I changed my mind about capitalizing “Trinitarian” in the sense that I was using it in those contexts.

A Grammatical Justification

From what I’ve been able to tell, adjectives that are derived from proper nouns should be capitalized. For example, we capitalize the word “Mexican” in “Mexican food” because that adjective (“Mexican”) derives from the proper noun “Mexico.”

But wait, what’s a proper noun? Typically it’s a unique noun (person, place, or thing). So that I can’t be counted on to be a grammar expert, I’ll give you an enumerative definition: A proper noun is something like Julius Caesar, Rome, or the Washington Monument.

In any case, in common English usage the word “Trinity” has come to be capitalized. There are several possible reasons for this. First, it could be because “the Trinity” is supposed to refer to God himself (the Trinity just is God). And we capitalize God, don’t we? Second, it could be because it is the name of a particular teaching: the doctrine of the Trinity. This kind of capitalization is common to philosophers, for example, who talk about Plato’s theory of the Forms. (Notice the capital ‘F’.)

In short, the word “Trinity,” when it refers to God as triune or as the Christian teaching about the tri-personal God, has come to be accepted as a proper noun in English. Since the adjective “Trinitarian” is derived from this proper noun, it seems proper to capitalize it.

A Pragmatic Justification

Even though my grammatical justification sounds like it’s required by English grammar, I don’t see any reason to think so. One could conceivably come up with some special reason for why “Trinitarian” shouldn’t be capitalized grammatically. But that’s why I’m going to offer pragmatic (practical) reasons as well.

I don’t forage around apologetics forums, but I’ve seen some atheists refer to the Christian God as “god” before. (As if somehow the lower-case ‘g’ defames him?) In a similar way, I don’t want my readers to think I’m anti-Trinitarian for failing to capitalize “Trinity.”

Furthermore, when writers refer to Oneness, they capitalize the word. I’m supposing they do this because it’s the official label for “Oneness Pentecostals.” At the same time, “Oneness” (when capitalized) either refers to the Oneness teaching itself or to some other teaching advocated by Oneness Pentecostals. I just don’t see why “Trinitarian” shouldn’t be capitalized as well, seeing how it is the doctrinal belief of “Trinitarian Christians.”

In short, my pragmatic justification is that I want to be fair. I don’t want it to seem like I don’t capitalize “Trinitarian” because I’m against the Trinity any more than I would want somebody to think that I’m against the Oneness of God if I chose not to capitalize Oneness (and I haven’t).

A Response to Dale Tuggy

I’ve recently recommended Dale Tuggy’s new book What is the Trinity? in another post. (I would recommend that you view what I said about Tuggy and his book there.) In chapter 3 he makes a distinction between the “Trinity” and the “trinity.”

It’s quite a simple distinction: the “Trinity” refers to the tri-personal God who is three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one nature. “Trinity” is a singular referring term that refers to God. The “trinity” (notice the lower-case) refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a group, regardless of whether one thinks that they are the Trinity.

If you’ve read my post on the distinction between the economic Trinity and the essential (immanent, ontological) Trinity, here’s how Tuggy would cash that distinction out: In New Testament salvation we experience the trinity, but what is left for us to explain is whether or not this implies that God is the Trinity.

With that said, Tuggy continues to use “trinitarian” as an adjected throughout his book. I find this incredibly strange, given the distinction between “Trinity” and “trinity” he makes in chapter 3. When he uses the term “trinitarian,” in light of chapter 3, that seems to me to mean that a “trinitarian” is anybody who believes that we experience the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in New Testament salvation. But that’s every Christian. Every Christian believes in the trinity, and is therefore “trinitarian.”

But not every Christian believes in the Trinity—Tuggy doesn’t, after all. So why not call Christians that do “Trinitarians”? His justification is this:

One could use “trinitarian” to refer to belief in the triad (trinity) and “Trinitarian” to refer to belief in the Trinity, but I think it’s less confusing to simply reserve the term “trinitarian” for belief in the Trinity.

But doesn’t that commit the same error as using “Trinity” to refer to both the Trinity and the trinity? Maybe Dr. Tuggy can elaborate on this for us. To me, if I wanted to use the adjective “anti-trinitarian” for one’s view of the Godhead, this would be confusing. If “trinitarian” refers to belief in the Trinity, then “anti-trinitarian” means one does not believe in the Trinity. But per Tuggy’s own (excellent, I might add) distinction in chapter 3, it might sound like one is saying one is anti-trinitarian in the sense of being anti-triad. Obviously this isn’t the case.

I will adopt Tuggy’s distinction between the Trinity and the trinity on this website. But I will not follow him with his usage of “trinitarian.” I will use the adjective “Trinitarian” as an adjective for those who believe in the Trinity and “trinitarian” to refer to those who may or may not believe the Trinity.

The uncomfortable corollary is this: Properly speaking, Oneness Pentecostals are trinitarian (they believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) but they are not Trinitarian. Because I know I’ll be misunderstood, I won’t refer to Oneness Pentecostals (or any other unitarian denominations, for that matter) as trinitarians.

Capitalizing Other Theological Terms

Nevertheless, once again, Dr. Tuggy has gotten me thinking. I had this post outlined before I read his book, but what he said in chapter 3 gave me more content to add, and the ability to hopefully start a conversation about this subject.

I really appreciate the end of his chapter 3, by the way, where he makes it absolutely clear how he is going to capitalize words (or not) for the sake of clarity. I won’t quote those guidelines here, because I think you should buy the book. Because I think Tuggy has given us some great guidelines here to avoid confusion, I will adopt this practice as well when I write on this website.

Summary

Here are the main points that I’ve made in this post:

  1. There seem to be good grammatical reasons for capitalizing the term “Trinitarian.”
  2. I have good stylistic reasons for capitalizing the term “Trinitarian.”
  3. Dale Tuggy prefers to use “trinitarian” on the basis that it is less confusing overall. I disagree on the grounds that it is actually more confusing if one adopts his Trinity vs. trinity distinction (and I think we should) and wish to use terms like “anti-T/trinitarian” (and I do).
  4. At the end of chapter 3 of Tuggy’s book he lays out some guidelines for capitalizing terms in theological (and philosophical) discourse. I will adopt these as I write, except that I will capitalize “Trinitarian.”

Let’s return to a question I raised at the beginning of this post. Is this whole subject pedantic? It might seem that way, but if we’re going to do serious theology as clearly as possible, then it makes sense to lay out guidelines like these. The way we use words is significant to God.

That said, I hereby retract my previous practice of writing “trinitarian” instead of “Trinitarian.” I will stick to the latter usage from now on, provided that the reasons I’ve provided in this post for doing so are strong ones.

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