Friday, January 06, 2017

The Deity

1. Let's begin with a crude formulation of the Trinity:

i) There is one God

ii) The Father is God

iii) The Son is God

iv) The Spirit is God

v) The Father is not the Son, &c. 

On the face of it, this appears to be formally contradictory or polytheistic. Now a formal contradiction is just a verbal contradiction rather than a logical contradiction, so that, of itself, isn't all that concerning. If, however, we say that "God" has the same sense throughout, then it's much harder to eliminate a logical contradiction. 

2. But suppose we don't define "God" in the same sense throughout. Suppose we introduce a distinction between "God" as an abstract noun and "God" as a concrete noun. As an abstract noun, "God" denotes divinity, divine nature. As a concrete noun, "God" denotes the particular being who is God (like an abstract particular). Let's plug that semantic distinction into a more refined formulation of the Trinity: 

i) There is one God (concrete noun)

ii) The Father is God (abstract noun)

iii) The Son is God (abstract noun)

iv) The Spirit is God (abstract noun)

v) The Father is not the Son, &c. 

Not only does that dissolve the formal contradiction, but there's no prima facie logical contradiction either. This is not to deny that the persons of the Trinity are individuals, but the semantic distinction concerns the definition of "God", and not their particularity as distinct individuals. 

We could draw the same distinction using Latin synonyms. If we say there's one Deity, that's a concrete noun. If we refer to the deity of the Father, or Son, or Spirit, that's an abstract noun. 

Now, I don't think a simple formulation of the Trinity can do it justice; I don't think individual words are adequate to capture the conceptual richness; but as simple formulations go, that's a good approximation. 


  1. This seems close to the skeletal, conceptual framework that ante-Nicene Christians would have had. They were not refined enough, understandably, to have a "one essence, three persons" conception. They would have known that there is one God, and that somehow the Father was God, the Son was God, and the Spirit was God. Yet the 3 were distinguished and even interacted and communicated with each other. Surely we must be sensitive to this proto-Triniatarian conception of the earliest saints in the decades following the death of the Apostles and Tertullian et al.

    1. *between the death of the Apostles and Tertullian*

  2. The idea that "divinity" is a what that one or more whos have is precisely where monotheist thought goes off the rails.

    1. The NT presents the Father, Son, and Spirit as divine. So perhaps you were accusing the NT of going off the rails.

      I'm using "divinity" as a general term for the divine attributes.

    2. Monotheism (Jewish, Christian, Muslim etc.) is incoherent.

    3. Steven Dillon

      "Monotheism (Jewish, Christian, Muslim etc.) is incoherent."

      How so? You'll have to elaborate. Your statement is threadbare.

      Monotheism isn't necessarily "incoherent" to believers.

    4. No belief seems incoherent to the one who holds it.

      Monotheists make the claim that there is only one God, and understand this to mean that no deity other than the one they believe in exists.

      But, "God" is not a kind of being that has any number of instances, let alone only one. "God" refers instead to a particular deity. But, it makes no sense to say "there's only one [YHWH, Poseidon, Odin, etc.]" and think this means that no deity other than it exists.

    5. Steven Dillon:

      "No belief seems incoherent to the one who holds it."

      Which applies to Dillon's claim that "monotheism (Jewish, Christian, Muslim etc.) is incoherent."

      So by his own admission, Dillon's claim that monotheism is incoherent is an incoherent claim about monotheism.

      "But, 'God' is not a kind of being that has any number of instances…"

      Monothism doesn't imply that God is the kind of being that has instances.

      "…let alone only one."

      Which assumes that one of something must be an "instance" of something. Are abstract objects? What about abstract particulars?

      "'God' refers instead to a particular deity.'But, it makes no sense to say 'there's only one [YHWH, Poseidon, Odin, etc.]' and think this means that no deity other than it exists."

      If someone is using "God" as a proper name, then to say "there's only on God (=Poseidon) doesn't imply that no deity other than that it exists".

      If, however, God is used as a common noun or abstract noun, and you say there's only one God in that sense, then it implies the nonexistence of other deities.

    6. There's no sense to be made of using "God" like a common or abstract noun though: it's to treat "God" like something that gets instantiated.

    7. Steven Dillon

      "There's no sense to be made of using 'God' like a common or abstract noun though: it's to treat 'God' like something that gets instantiated."

      I suppose that's because you missed or ignored the entirety of this very post and Steve's subsequent comments.

      Or maybe it's because what you say is "incoherent".

    8. Steve's reply exhibits the confusion inherent in monotheist thought, which is why I just went straight to the point. E.g. he says monotheism doesn't imply that "God"is an instantiable kind of being, but then says "God" can be used as an abstract or common noun (which form of noun denotes instantiable forms of being).

    9. You're confusing language with metaphysics. How to refer to God (*words* about "God") are quite distinct from whether God himself is a property instance.

    10. As I said, abstract or common nouns denote instantiable forms of being. To use them to describe a deity is a category error.

    11. You're confusing an exemplar with exemplifications thereof. Something can be instantiable without itself being a property instance. So you're the one who's guilty of the category error, not me.

    12. What is it that you believe Steve? Does "God" refer to something concrete like an individual or to something abstract like an instantiable?

    13. That's a false dichotomy. Consider abstract particulars, viz. Mandelbrot Set. Like God, it's timeless and spaceless. And there's only one Mandelbrot Set. Computer simulations are instances, but considered as an abstract object or abstract particular, the Mandelbrot set is the exemplar.

      God can be like an abstract particular. Timeless, spaceless, and unique. Divine attributes can be inimitable (i.e. communicable attributes). In that respect, God can function like an abstract universal.

      If, in addition, abstract objects (e.g. numbers, logical principles, possible worlds) inhere in God's mind, then that's the exemplar for their finite exemplification in time, space, or human minds.

    14. Okay, so in the proposition "there is only one God" does "God" refer to an abstract particular or to an abstract universal?

      If "God" denotes something like an abstract particular, then the proposition "there is only one God" means little more than that there is only one of the abstract particular you have in mind, which would be trivially true of each abstract particular we call a God -- YHWH, Poseidon, Odin etc.

      In order for the proposition to mean that no deity but one exists, "God" has to mean something more like a universal.

      But, as I have said, in that case the proposition does mean that "God" is a kind of being with only one instance.

      So, I stand by what I've said: monotheism wants to be something that ultimately makes no sense.

    15. "There is only one God" best matches an abstract particular, although it's not that simple since, as I explain, God can also function as an abstract universal.

      Moreover, your statement is confused. An abstract universal is not, itself, an instance of a kind. Rather, an abstract universal is an exemplar for property instances.

      In monotheism, God is not an instance of a kind. There is no abstract universal of deity over and above God himself. God does not exemplify a divine nature.

      You may not think such a God exists, but for now I'm just discussing the idea of God in monotheism. Or a particular brand of monotheism in philosophical theology. Basically, classical theism combined with exemplarism. The view that divine ideas function as abstract universals. That divine attributes are imitable.

      That's not analogous to pagan gods like Odin and Poseidon. They aren't comparable to abstract objects.

      If they existed, they'd be physical beings. They exist in space and time. They are basically humanoid organisms with superhuman powers. They have finite knowledge. Finite power. They didn't create the universe. Rather, they are products of the universe. They come into being. They can be killed. They have mothers and fathers. They sire children through sexual intercourse with women or goddesses. They eat and drink, &c.

      Your comparison is simplistic. In, say, traditional Reformed theism, God is timeless, spaceless, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, &c. God is the ex nihilo creator of the world. Those aren't attributes or actions of pagan gods.

      Your argument, such as it is, is based on using "God" as an empty verbal shell. You disregard different concepts of "God". It isn't just about the word we use to designate the Deity, but the content of the concept.

    16. What's your own position, anyway? Do you believe that Thor, Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl, Venus, Anubis, Ganesha &c. actually exist? If so, what's your evidence for their existence?

      Traditional theistic proofs are geared to a fundamentally different kind of God than pagan divinities.

    17. Your description of Pagan theology shows no familiarity with polytheist philosophers who developed -- especially through Proclus -- an understanding of the Gods as beyond being (what's called henadology, which classical theism would later attempt to imitate).

      Look Steve, even after all these qualifications, I can't make heads or tails of what it is that you believe. You seem so driven to correct what you perceive as mistakes that you don't just explain what the monotheist proposition is supposed to mean.

      If you're just saying there's only one YHWH-abstract-particular, you aren't in any way saying there's no eg Zeus-abstract-particular.

    18. You need to clean up your own act. You're the one who used illustrations from pagan mythology (Odin, Poseidon). You didn't begin with philosophical polytheism (e.g. Proclus) as your frame of reference.

      Don't presume I have no familiarity with something you didn't mention in the first place, especially when your chosen examples suggest a very different frame of reference.

      Of course, the notion of the divine as "beyond being" figures in Greek Orthodox theism (superousios). But those are words without definable meaning or reference.

      I've given you a detailed explanation of my position. And using your own examples, I've explained why your comparison is equivocal.

      The fact that you can't keep track of categorical distinctions is not my problem.

    19. Besides, you take all the fun out of polytheism. What's the value of a sex goddess like Venus if she's "beyond being"? Where's the fun in that?

    20. This is what I mean Steve, polytheist thinkers widely discussed what you regard as the Gods of mythology, interpreting their stories, writing prayers, etc. The idea that the Gods were humanoid creatures who quarrel with one another is one you'll find chastised by Platonists from start to finish. Your understanding of the Gods is like one which regards YHWH as an angry old man in the clouds: held by some undoubtedly, but hardly the position one ought to consider. The truth is that the depth of Pagan theology has largely been unrivalled throughout history, and best approximated only by appropriations.

      I'll leave it to anyone following this to decide whether you've explained what it means to say there's only one God.

      The resurgence of Pagan theology that's well underway is not something I think Christian thinkers are at all prepared for.

    21. That's a classic example of ad hoc rationalization. A similar move was made by Greek intellectuals who allegorized Homer to save the reputation of the gods from their embarrassing antics. You're superimposing a filter on heathen mythology that has no justification in the source.

      The comparison with Yahweh won't fly. There are clear indications within Scripture itself that Yahweh is fundamentally different from humans or creatures.

    22. Not that I care, but you haven't spelled out the relationship between the gods of pagan pantheons and the "real" gods ("beyond being") who in some sense stand behind them. Are you saying the gods of various heathen mythologies are simply fictional? Or are you saying these are projections/avatars of gods who, in reality are beyond being? How do the many gods of culturally and geographically diverse mythological traditions and people groups correspond to the "real" gods?

  3. I have to note that John 10:30 helps make the categorical distinction between i) and v).