Friday, May 15, 2009

God in three persons

Cornelius Van Til made the notorious claim that “We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person,” An Introduction to Systematic Theology (P&R 1974), 229.

I’ll evaluate that statement shortly, but I’m going to work through some other issues before I return to his controversial claim.

1.For high churchmen, the correct articulation of the Trinity turns on word-studies regarding the patristic or Scholastic usage of terms like ousia, physis, hypostasis, prosopon, and their Latin counterparts, viz. substantia, subsistentia, essentia, persona.

But from a Protestant perspective, especially the “Biblicist” variety, whatever terms we use are basically verbal placeholders to capture what the Bible has to say about the Trinity.

2.Aquinas defined the members of the Trinity as “subsistent relations.” On the face of it, there are problems with that definition:

i) A relation is a property of a property-holder. There are no properties without corresponding property-holders.

ii) While persons generate relations, relations don’t generate persons. (By “generate” I mean a logical relation of entailment).

“Relation” is too impersonal to define the members of the Trinity.

3.Some theologians, like Barth, define the members of the Trinity as “modes of subsistence.” But this definition is not without its own difficulties:

i) The definition is fine as far as it goes, but it’s too indiscriminate. Just about anything can be a mode of subsistence. A chair is a mode of subsistence. Ideally, we should select terms that are more specific to the object under review. Terms that distinguish one type of object from another.

ii) Apropos (i), “mode of subsistence” is too impersonal to define the members of the Trinity.

Of course, one might say the same thing about the term “member.” But I’m deliberately using a neutral term at this stage of the discussion to avoid prejudging the best formulation.

4.Theologians often use the word “person” to define the members of the Trinity. Of course, you then have to define “person.”

Some theologians (like Barth) tell us that we can’t use “person” in the modern, psychological sense, because three persons in that sense would amount to tritheism. But there are problems with that objection:

i) On historical grounds alone, this doesn’t strike me as an especially modern definition. Boethius classically defined persona as “an individual substance of a rational nature.”

Here I assume that “rational” has an Aristotelian connotation. To be rational is to be in possession of a mind or intellect.

ii) It’s bad theological method to begin with a generic category like “tritheism,” then formulate our doctrine of God to avoid that category. God is like whatever God is like. Our theology must conform to God’s self-disclosure, and not some antecedent parameters.

5.A “person” is sometimes defined as a “center of consciousness.” Of course, if you define “person” by consciousness,” you then have to define “consciousness.” I assume this term has been popularized in Trinitarian discussions due to the emphasis on consciousness in modern philosophy of mind.

“Consciousness” has both popular and technical senses. At a popular level, it can be synonymous with lucidity or a waking state.

At a popular level, it can also be synonymous with self-awareness, as well as awareness of one’s surroundings. The ability to draw a subject/object distinction.

6.Apropos (4)-(5), the issue confronting us is not so much to begin with a definition, and then find a corresponding object–but to begin with the object under review, and then find a word that approximates, as best we can, the kind of object the word is used to denote.

The Bible ascribes certain attributes and actions to God. Because the human reader is a person or conscious entity, he can analogize from his own mental life and behavior to those ascriptions.

If we use words like “person” or “center of consciousness” to denote the members of the Trinity, that’s because, as personal agents, we have a capacity to recognize personal traits in others–including Biblical descriptions of God or the Godhead.

The human reader is using himself as a proximate point of reference. Of course, we must also make allowance for the revealed differences between God and man.

I happen to think that words like “person” or “center of consciousness” are the best available words to summarize Biblical God-talk.

7.Van Til’s statement is problematic on one of two possible grounds:

To use the same count noun (one, three) with the same common noun (person) either generates a contradiction or equivocation.

If he’s using the common noun (person) in the same sense in each numbered occurrence, then the usage is contradictory. And if he’s using the common noun in a different sense, then the usage is equivocal.

In principle, it’s possible to qualify his usage in a way that avoids either equivocation or contradiction. It is, however, better to avoid a confusing formulation in the first place.

Now, if we take the position that the Trinity is paradoxical, then there’s nothing inherently wrong with a paradoxical formulation. If the Trinity is paradoxical, then any accurate formulation would have to preserve the paradoxical element.

But even on that assumption, we need to avoid gratuitously paradoxical formulations. Where the paradox is generated, not by the truth we’re trying to formulate, but by the words themselves.

8.Apropos (6), what do Biblical descriptions of the Trinity tell us about the Godhead?

i) Each member of the Trinity is a self-conscious individual. A personal, rational agent.

(By “individual,” I don’t mean a separate being, but a distinct consciousness.)

ii) Each member of the Trinity is also conscious of the other two members of the Trinity.

Not merely conscious of their existence. But sharing the same knowledge. The same basic thought-content.

(They don’t share exactly the same beliefs, for the Son believes that he is the Son, and not the Father, &c.)

And they share this in common because they are the same being. The same God.

iii) So, in addition to the multiple self-consciousness of the Godhead, there is also a collective consciousness or group consciousness.

And this goes deeper than those SF scenarios in which telepathic aliens can read other minds. For in that scenario you’re dealing with two or more separate entities who happen to know each others thoughts.

In the Trinity by contrast, they know each other’s thoughts because they are the very same being. A single, timeless, indivisible being.

9.And this is why, in Scripture, it’s possible for God to speak or act as one person. Not because he is one person. But because, in addition to his multiple self-consciousness, he also has a collective consciousness.

Likewise, each member of the Trinity can speak or act on behalf of the others. They can represent each other because, at a profound level, they are symmetrical.

10.It’s not my aim in this little post to harmonize the Trinity. But as I’ve said in the past, if I were casting about for a harmonistic principle, I’d model the Trinity on symmetries. In particular, the geometric notion of enantiomorphism. A symmetry is both one and many.

The Godhead is self-symmetrical. The Trinity is a symmetry of persons–three persons.


  1. Aquinas' "subsistent relations" have a property holder: the one God. Similarly, Barth's "modes of susbsistence" are modes of the one God. So both conceptions would be sufficiently personal, since the relations/modes are those of a personal God. One could imagine addressing a personal-God-in-relation or a personal-God-in-a-certain-mode, and one could even imagine God in one of those modes/relations addressing God in a different mode/relation.

    So I'm not sure, functionally speaking, that solution is far from yours.

  2. Well, according to Aquinas, “The true idea of relation is not taken from its respect to that in which it is, but from its respect to something outside…But in so far as relation implies respect to something else, no respect to the essence is signified, but rather to its opposite term.”

    Therefore, to judge by his own explicit usage, Aquinas would not define the Trinitarian relations by reference to the essence.

  3. I think his point there is that the relations don't relate to the one God as to the other two relations, not that there is no relation whatsoever between one of the three and the one God. If Thomas follows Augustine, he would say there is actually a relation of identity between each of the individual persons and the one God. I'm assuming he does follow Aug.

  4. My point is how Aquinas *defines* a relation. He doesn't define a relation by reference to the one (personal) God. Rather, the definition of a relation stands in contrast to something else. Therefore, a relation is an impersonal term, even if it's a relation of a personal being.