Monday, June 27, 2011

Parsing the Trinity

Dale Tuggy has responded to two of my posts (“Defining Identity” “What is God?”). For now I’m going to focus on a few key issues:

But the main point is that I think a unitarian view better explains what the Bible says.
But if I understand him, Steve thinks Isaiah there speaks of the one perfect Self, who later, we learn, is the Trinity.
In plain English, I think this amounts to: The Trinity (“the Godhead”) is a complex whole, a compound Self who has three parts (the three divine selves), and these three parts are exactly alike one another.
In sum, the one God is a perfect being, a perfect self, who is the Trinity. He has within himself three parts – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of these parts fully has the (universal) divine nature, and so, each of the essential divine attributes. Each is a divine self. And these three parts are indistinguishable from one another, or nearly so, though they be numerically distinct.

I. Unitarianism & neotheism

I wonder if Tuggy’s unitarian hermeneutic isn’t related to his neotheist hermeneutic, or vice versa. If so, I think that’s consistent with his hermeneutical naïveté.

Open theists seize on isolated passages of Scripture that seem to indicate divine ignorance, then pat themselves on the back for being more faithful to Scripture than classical Christian theism; but they fail to appreciate the dramatic conventions of narrative theology, where the narrator will sometimes withhold information to generate suspense or even foster an initial misimpression in the mind of the reader–which the narrator will later overturn in subsequent developments. Cultivate a false expectation, then turn the tables on the reader. The Joseph cycle is a good example.

Narrative technique is subversive in that respect. First impressions may be misleading, and deliberately so. God may not seem to know what he’s doing as you move forward, but in retrospect you come to appreciate how all of the apparent setbacks were premeditated means to achieve the goal. The very events which seem to derail the promise are moving the action inexorably towards the promised denouement.

II. “Exactly alike”

To the contrary, I don’t think the Father, Son, and Spirit are “exactly alike.” If they were exactly alike, they wouldn’t be three distinct persons.

I think they share a “numerically identical” nature (where I define “nature” by the divine attributes), but each of them also has property the other two do not–a property which distinguishes one from another.

And that’s analogous to mirror symmetries, which are equipollent, but irreducible.

III. Part/whole

i) Tuggy says I view God as “complex,” which he then defines as a “compound,” “part/whole” relation.

I don’t know why he’d recast my position in mereological terms, since I didn’t explicate selfhood in terms of parthood. Perhaps he did so because I explicate the divine “nature” in terms of the divine attributes, viz. a set of divine attributes.

But as far as that goes, the issue of God’s simplicity and/or complexity isn’t confined to Trinitarian theology. As Tuggy knows, even unitarians must confront the same issue when finessing the status of the divine attributes. Are these reducible or irreducible?

iii) We also need to distinguish between ordinary language and technical language. Ordinary language is pervasively figurative. A cemetery of dead metaphors. It may be convenient to use mereological verbiage when we try to express ourselves in popular discourse, even if our actual position isn’t literally mereological. A graphic time-saver.

iv) We could have an intricate discussion about divine simplicity and/or complexity in general (a la Christopher Hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God), but since Tuggy has defined the issue more narrowly in terms of part/whole relations, let’s stick to that.

v) I don’t view enantiomorphism in mereological terms. A mirror symmetry is a system of internal relations. A given totality, where each abstract constituent entails every other abstract constituent. A necessary, timeless, spaceless, self-contained continuum.

To say the Father, Son, and Spirit “mirror” each other means each person contains the other two–from a subtly different orientation (like handedness). You can reconstruct one from another. The relation is iterative, but incongruous (in the technical sense of the word).

vi) Keep in mind, too, that I’m using this as an illustration. It’s not an exegetical prism through which I view the witness of Scripture to the Trinity (although the Bible is fond of symmetries). That stands on its own.

Rather, it’s a type of equipollence, which is, in turn–a useful way to model the Trinity. But it’s also consonant with a Biblical motif: the Son “images” the Father. That’s a representational principle. And, ultimately, only God can represent himself.

Likewise, symmetries are representational. If A mirrors B, then A represents B, and vice versa.

IV. Selfhood

Tuggy has also recast my position in terms of divine “selfhood.”

i) One problem I have with this framework is that I don’t know how he defines “self.” I haven’t read everything he’s written on the subject, but here are two definitions he’s given:

#1 …is God a self – a subject of consciousness, what Descartes calls a thinking thing, something with will and intellect.

#2 For Swinburne, the Trinity is not a self. It is composite substance, composed of three selves, but it isn’t itself a self. It has no first person point of view, performs no intentional actions.

On the face of it, these are not synonymous definitions.

#1 defines a self in terms of consciousness whereas #2 defines a self in terms of self-consciousness. But those are not interchangeable concepts.

ii) Not only does the answer vary according to how we define “self,” but it also varies according to our model of the Trinity. Wainwright’s comparative analysis highlights that issue:

iii) There’s also the issue of how far the question moves us into the realm of theological speculation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with theological speculation, and some speculations are more reasonable than others, but it’s not like there’s a right answer we can pull of the shelf.

Basically, all we have to go by in speculating about divine “selfhood” (whatever that means) are the mental states which Scripture ascribes to God–along with extrapolations from human psychology. That’s an argument from analogy. And both source of information have limitations.

We have to make allowance for anthropomorphism in Scriptural ascriptions. And we have to make allowance for the categorical difference between the divine and human modes of subsistence when we extrapolate from human selfhood to divine selfhood.

I’d add that unitarians are in the same methodological boat when they attribute selfhood to God.

iv) There’s also the specter of a false dichotomy. If God is a Trinity, then must he have one first-person viewpoint rather than three first-person viewpoints? Is that an either/or proposition, or a both/and proposition?

On the one hand, if God is a Trinity, then the Father is self-aware of who he is, and the Father is also aware who he is in relation to, and contrast to, the Son and the Spirit. Likewise, the same holds true in reverse for the Son and the Spirit.

So each member of the Trinity would have a first-person viewpoint.

On the other hand, each member is transparent to the others. It’s not like an outside observer with a third-person viewpoint of another other than himself. Within the inner life of the Trinity there’s no privileged access.

Finally, wouldn’t their individual viewpoints include a corporate viewpoint? If God is a Trinity, then I’d expect the Son (to take one example) to have both an individual viewpoint (“I’m the Son”) and a corporate viewpoint (“We’re the Trinity”). The constituent members would also have a Trinitarian viewpoint, for they collectively constitute the Trinity.

This is true even in human social relations, where, by contrast, we’re dealing with truly discrete individuals or separate entities. I have an individual viewpoint as a unique individual with a unique experience, but I also have a corporate viewpoint as a man, a Christian, a baby-boomer, an American, &c.

If both perspectives are sustainable for self-contained beings like me, surely that’s sustainable in the case of God, where the persons of the Godhead are internally related.

Again, though, we’re not dealing with revealed data alone, but possible inferences thereof, or conjectures consistent with revealed data, but going beyond the immediate scope of revelation.


  1. Hi Steve,

    First, thanks for engaging with Tuggy on this, it feels like a great opportunity to see where a discussion between 2 such Christians (a unitarian philosopher and a trinitarian theologian), takes us.

    Unfortunately, at times I'm a bit disappointed by the exchange. I'm really keen to read and understand what you have to say, but unfortunately certain things keep on getting in my way... and I wanted to share these with you as I feel sure I won't be alone, and hope to help you to address a wider readership (if that's an aim).

    1) Ad hominem statements (or similar)
    Suggesting that this or that specific argument is a "hermeneutical naivete" for some good reason might be one thing, but applying that description to Tuggy himself is surely ad hominem. Likewise, dismissing him as a neotheist in a paragraph that has no obvious link to the point you claim to be addressing, again is ad hominem. I'm sure you'll remember that some time back you wrote "Ad hominem invective, as a substitute for reasoned argument, is unacceptable", and, "Triablogue is no respecter of persons or parsons".

    2) Esoteric words & concepts
    I begin to wonder who you're writing for. On the basis you're blogging rather than just emailing Tuggy I assume it's not just him, and I suppose that there must be a Trinitarian apologetics objective in view (is there?) However, as a well-educated Bible-believing Christian with a growing interest in theology (though it certainly wasn't my major), I confess to having struggled to follow this post. It's rather difficult to follow your flow when I have to reach for the dictionary / encyclopedia every other paragraph. It reads like you're not interested in 97% of Christians being able to follow you - which may be the case but would seem to be an unusual choice if your aim is indeed Trinitarian apologetics.
    One word in particular I'm struggling with is enantiomorphism. I struggle perhaps because I _have_ come across it before but in a different context - relating to crystals or molecules which are reflections of one another. In this case there are two crystals (or molecules) which happen to be symmetric. But there are still numerically two (or more) crystals/molecules. Perhaps you could expand this, as I can't seem to find an alternative definition.
    Also, saying that to "mirror" means to "contain the other (two) from a subtly different orientation"; and "you can reconstruct one from the other" (a) doesn't seem like what I understand from "mirror" or "symmetry", or indeed enantiomorphs; and (b) begins to sound like modalism. Perhaps I've misunderstood?

  2. 3) Orphan statements
    In your first section you criticise open theists, and talk about narrative theology (which you do at least explain at some level), drop in the Joseph cycle (which you don't explain), and seem generally to be doing some apologetics for divine foreknowledge. It's not clear to me how this relates to the first quoted statement by Tuggy - the truth or falsehood of which is at the core of the discussion. Nor is it clear to me how it relates to the latter 3 quotes from Tuggy - which are (assuming he's bona fide) just an attempt clearly to understand your position.
    Likewise you seem to suggest you will address Tuggy's assumption on your position about the identity of the "Yahweh" in Isaiah - but then never refer to the passage.

    4) Unsupported statements & unshared axioms
    For example you claim, unsupported (as if everybody will treat it as axiomatic), that "only God can represent himself". Clearly this is not shared as an axiom on all sides, and indeed I'd struggle to think of any biblical support for this position right now. On the contrary - Christ as the "image" of the Father you suggest means he's God by that same logic. Does that mean Adam and Eve are also both members of the Godhead? Either way, quoting unshared axioms as if they settle anything is unhelpful.

    Sometimes when I read a discussion, I feel that the more questions are asked the further the language and reasoning become abstracted, and the more difficult it is to actually address or even access the core issue. I hope this will not be the case here. As I say, I remain interested in what you have to say and will continue trying to follow you, but currently I'm not finding it easy for the reasons above. If it is the case that you're simply not aiming this stuff at me, perhaps you'd be kind enough to let us know who you are writing for so the rest of us can move along!

  3. DIY LPG 330Ci: I won't presume to speak for Steve, but I've been following his exchange with Dale with interest as well, and I have to say that I haven't had much difficulty following along. In the interest of full disclosure I'd note that I have no formal training whatsoever, but I read broadly in the field of Trinitarian theology, although I'm more familiar with exegetical/biblical/systematic theology than I am philosophical theology (so I'm probably the type who should have problems following along).

    Having said that, I wanted to note a difference of opinion with some of your points.

    1) Throughout this exchange (and it has spanned many posts and comments) Steve has demonstrated quite a few places where Dale can be said to exhibit "hermeneutical naïveté." I don't see that as ad hominem, or at least not the kind of ad hominem that's informally fallacious. In this case it's relevant.

    2) While this discussion has been made public, it is still between two people who have philosophical training. The use of esoteric words/concepts is bound to happen. I've had to look up a word or two myself but once I did I didn't have any trouble understanding what was being said.

    3) The point of talking about Open Theists and divine foreknowledge was to draw an analogy about how people read the Scriptures. Sure, one can point to this passage and say, "Aha! I gotcha!" But when that passage is read in light of later passages it might not be quite the "gotcha" that they imagined.