Sunday, July 24, 2016

Does the Godhead have three centers of consciousness?

This is a sequel to my previous post:

1. It's common to read Christians who describe the Trinity by saying the Godhead has three centers of consciousness. For instance:

The problem with these analogies, of course, is that they do not account for the New Testament data, in which the persons of the Trinity are actual centers of consciousness, entering into various transactions with one another: the Father sends the Son, the Son prays to the Father, the Father answers the prayers of the Son, the Father and Son together send the Spirit. Indeed, the Augustinian/Aquinas type of model veers toward Sabellianism, a heresy which began in the western, Latin-speaking church, and which has historically posed a particular danger to the Latin tradition of theology.

Likewise, Thomas Morris and Trenton Merricks describe the Trinity in terms of three distinct centers of consciousness. There are, however, theologians like Rahner and Barth who consider that tritheistic. 

2. It's a seminal mistake to begin with a preconception of tritheism, then use that as a filter to preemptively screen out certain models of the Trinity. Rather, we need to begin with God's self-revelation. Our description should model his self-revelation. It's improper to trim God down to fit into our preconceived notion of what God ought to be like. 

3. In addition, "tritheism" is ambiguous. That doesn't have a uniform meaning. It would vary according to what is meant by theism. The gods of pagan polytheism are very different than the god of unitarian thinkers like Maimonides and Al-Ghazâlî. If you had just three pagan gods. that would be tritheistic. If you were to triplicate the Deity of Maimonides or Al-Ghazâlî, that would be tritheistic. But they'd have very different attributes. 

It's been said that Richard Swinburne's model of the Trinity is tritheistic. If so, it's tritheistic in a very different way than a hypothetical heathen tritheism or hypothetical triplication of the Deity which Maimonides or Al-Ghazâlî espouse.

Point being: we don't have an a prior conception of tritheism. The label tends to be circular and question-begging because it presumes a standard of comparison: what God is really like, in contrast to tritheism. Yet what God is really like is the very question at issue when we consider how to properly formulate the Trinity. 

4. Aquinas famously said the members of the Trinity are subsistent relations, viz. substances in their own right rather than accidents contingent on the substances in which they inhere. But that's a very problematic definition. 

i) To begin with, there's nothing inherently personal about a substance or relation.

ii) Moreover, it's hard to see how the members of the Trinity can just be relations. Be reducible to relations. For a relation presupposes things that are interrelated. What obtains between two (or more) things. You can't have relations apart from relata. 

5. I said Alastair's formulation is modalistic because he views the members of the Godhead as modes of the divine nature. The nature is the source of the personal properties. The nature underlies the exempla. So the nature enjoys ultimacy, like an abstract universal is prior to concrete particulars.

6. On a Trinitarian interpretation of the Bible, it's hard to avoid saying the Godhead has three centers of consciousness or self-consciousness. The Son is conscious of his status as the Son, in contrast to the Father, who is conscious of his status as the Father, in contrast to the Son (ditto: the Spirit). Each member is conscious of what he is and what he is not

Perhaps, though, it might be objected that that's equivocal. There's more to consciousness than self-awareness. Consciousness is defined by additional properties like intentionality.

But even though that's a valid distinction, the Bible depicts the members of the Godhead as having consciousness in that fuller sense as well. So I don't think we can eliminate distinct centers of consciousness, or three first-person viewpoints, without lapsing into modalism. 


  1. "So I don't think we can eliminate distinct centers of consciousness, or three first-person viewpoints, without lapsing into modalism."

    Yes, and I think that those who object to first person viewpoints need to explain how they avoid a type of modalism.

  2. It has always seemed to me that affirming 3 "centers of consciousness" is the strongest, and appropriate, way of affirming God as three distinct persons. Indeed, without it does our affirmation of the existence of multiple persons have much ontological cash value? Christian theologians have always struggled to give definition to "persons". But if we insist on a distinction between essence and person, surely these categories need to have basic definition in order to be meaningful.