Friday, May 18, 2018

Questions on the Trinity

An anonymous author asked me to comment on his post:

Before I ask my questions, allow me to clarify my position: I hold to what you refer to as “Nicene subordinationism,” which you call both “inherently unstable” and “a gateway drug to unitarianism.” As is probably quite clear, I subscribe to the Nicene Creed as adopted in 325. I’ve included Philip Schaff’s version of this creed in the sidebar of this site. My position is that of both Bp. George Bull and Samuel Clarke, though more-so that of Bp. Bull. 

Since Clarke was unitarian, I don't see how that's consistent with Nicene theology. 

Concerning your position, I would maintain that it is at times semi-modalistic, at times polytheistic, and (when considered as a whole)...

i) Since the author doesn't explain in what respect he finds my position to be by turns polytheistic and semi-modalistic, there's nothing for me to respond to on that front. In fairness, he didn't ask me about that. If he had, he might have provided more context.

ii) As I've often noted, discussions of the Trinity routinely suffer from a bias or prejudice by treating unity (the one God) as more fundamental than plurality (the three persons). However, I don't consider tritheism to be worse than unitarianism (or modalism). Both are equally erroneous. 

…at all times contrary to the understanding of the primitive body of believers. 

Is that code language for Nicene fathers/bishops? If so, my position is contrary to their position inasmuch as I reject the paradigm of eternal generation/procession. 

Out of a desire to have a proper dialogue, I will refer to your position as simply “trinitarian” rather than “neo-trinitarian,” which I think is a more proper description of your view.

I understand that most trinitarians (eg. B. B. Warfield, John Frame, John Feinberg, and Paul Helm) would assert that, in objection to their doctrine of the Trinity being polytheistic, that there is but one “essence” or “being” of God. Or, as James White says, “God is one what, and three whos.”

1. In Cyril of Alexandria’s letter to John of Antioch, he states that Christ is “of the same substance with his Father according to His Divinity, and of the same substance with us according to his humanity.” If Christ being of the same substance or essence with us does not necessitate that there is but one human, how does His being of the same substance or essence with the Father necessitate that there is but one God?1

i) Actually, I agree that consubstantiality is a necessary but insufficient condition for divine unicity. That amounts to generic unity rather than numerical identity.

ii) It isn't necessary for me to philosophically refute the charge that my view of the Trinity is tritheistic. The primary criterion is exegetical rather than philosophical. Even if my position had a tritheistic appearance, that's not a defeater or heretical if the NT theism has a tritheistic appearance. We must stay faithful to the revelatory witness whether or not we can tie up the loose ends into a nice little bow. 

iii) Moreover, the objection rebounds against Nicene theology. Grounding the unity of the Godhead in the Father as the fons deitas falls short of numerical identity. A shared essence is consistent with multiple instances or separate beings. So the Nicene alternative is subject to a similar objection. 

iv) Finally, on occasions when I do use models and analogies to illustrate how one God can be three persons, I don't rely on consubstantiality. 

2. When trinitarians use the word “God,” it often signifies the Trinity (all three persons) or the “essence/being” of God. Can you point me to one passage of scripture where the word “God” signifies a complex notion of more than one person at once. Put more succinctly, can you provide any place in the scripture where the word “God” signifies all three persons (the Trinity) in one singular usage of the word? And, if you say that this is not your predominate usage, that you prefer to use the term “God” to refer to the essence or being of God, can you provide me anywhere in scripture where the word “God” is used to signify such a concept?

3. If when you say “God” you mean three persons, how is it right to refer to them as a “he”? If when you say “God” you mean the essence or being of God, how is it right to refer to it as a “he”? Are either of these ways of using the term “God” supported in scripture?

i) I reject how that frames the issue. It's not primarily a question of how a particular word is used, but the concept of God in Scripture, which has a much broader database than occurrences of the word “God”. Not beginning with a word to map onto a concept but beginning with a concept to map onto one or more words–that's my methodology. 

ii) When speaking popularly, I can use "God" both collectively (the Trinity) and individually (the Father as God, the son as God, the Spirit as God). When speaking with greater technical or philosophical precision, I say the persons are "divine"–as well as the nature or essence. 

iii) As I've also noted, there are different kinds of nouns: proper, common, abstract, concrete. The same noun can have four different connotations in that respect. 

iv) I don't use “he” for the divine essence because that's confusing. As a general matter, we don't customarily use singular masculine pronouns to denote a nature, substance, essence. To take a comparison, we don't refer to the attribute of omniscience as “he”, or the attribute of omnipotence as “he”.

v) As a matter of linguistic convention, I might refer to the Trinity as “it” rather than “he” since that's a common way (in standard English usage) of denoting collectives, even in the case of personal collectives. Conversely, I might refer to the “Godhead” as “they”. But this concerns surface grammar. It doesn't carry a lot of theological freight (or ontological commitment).

vi) I usually avoid “being” in Trinitarian discussions because that's ambiguous. 


  1. It is amazing, Steve, how much you can say on this topic without actually expressing any Trinity theory. Tritheism and modalism are bad. Very good. That follows from many theologies, including from mine. It seems tritheistic? Interesting. I wonder why... And does it also seem modalistic? If not, why not?

    It seems to me that you're just relying on the unexamined assumptions that (1) the traditional language - or your subset of it, shorn of "generation" and "procession" talk - expresses some one theology, and (2) you know what that is.

    I know that (1) is not true. Thus, (2) is not true either.

    In any case, nothing you say gives a reader any reason to believe (1) or (2). Your gestures at "the revelatory witness" and "the concept of God" in scripture are empty of content. They're only declarations of loyalty to the trinitarian camp, those who think "the doctrine of the Trinity" is true and important.

    But it's silly to so aggressively defend "the Trinity" - when you stake out no real position on what claims that includes. My What is the Trinity? has given you a big menu to choose from - e.g. is the divine essence a universal or a particular property? Are the "Persons" selves or not? But you have not availed yourself of that help.

    PS - The anonymous author is correct - the 325 creed doesn't say or imply anything about a tripersonal God. It's consistent with Clarke's subordinationist unitarian view. The tripersonal god idea comes later - right around the time of the new and improved "Nicene" creed of 381.

    1. Dale, try not to be such a dolt. In this post I wasn't attempting to present or defend my position from scratch, but responding to a few specific questions. I've presented my position in detail in many other posts, and I've presented the exegetical evidence in detail in many other posts.

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  3. Hey Steve, I am that anonymous author. I am 17 years old and just trying to learn. Thanks for not responding aggressively.

    I found your response very helpful. I've personally never met a Trinitarian who does not use the term "God" to refer to essence/being but to refer to the persons as a collective whole.

    1) So, is this collective whole concept similar to how, in the Old Testament, we see many references to groups of people being, for literary purposes, as a "he" or "she"?

    Though this idea makes sense, I am afraid to accept it on the grounds that I am not sure that there exists even one verse where "God" refers to the persons of the Trinity collectively. And, if I were to find that they were, I would certainly convert to your position... Even if it was just one verse. Though, if you can only put forward one or two verses, I would try my hardest not to use the term "God" to refer to the three persons as a collective often, since I think we should try our hardest to stay close to the language of scripture, which I think would include calling the Father God exclusively when mentioned alongside the other persons.

    2) Can you produce a text where "God" is used in such a manner?

    3) I am still curious, if the persons being of one essence alone does not account for their being one God, how do you account for Unity within the Godhead?

    It seems to me that all claims to monotheism in the New Testament are made on the grounds that the Father is that one true God.

    4) Why don't trinitarians make similar arguments nowadays?

    I guess it doesn't make sense to me how three individual persons, which I think is the definition of a being, can be considered one and the same God. And, some of the quotes Bp. George Bull mentions in The Defense of the Nicene Creed, he specifically showed that certain fathers believed that Jesus Christ was "the true God." So, for that reason, I'd be open to your position if it can be proved from the scripture.

    1. Don’t get so hung up on words and their definitions. Scripture is not merely words but concepts too. Atheists make their bread and butter by isolating words from their concepts and playing them against one another. Unitarians do the same. When the Scriptures ascribe positions and powers to the Son that Scripture also makes clear fall only in the domain of God, that is functionally the same as saying “Jesus is YHWH.”

    2. i) I don't see any priority about staying close to the *language* of Scripture. It's the *sense* of Scripture, the *concepts* of Scripture, we need to track.

      ii) Your criterion is odd because you appeal to Nicene theology, but theological jargon like homousios, hypostasis, persona, and consubstantial aren't scriptural terms.

      This isn't different than systematic theology in general. It's fine to use extrabiblical terminology so long as that captures the meaning and teaching of Scripture.

      iii) "God" terms are part of the evidence for the deity of Christ, but the evidence is much broader than "God" terms. For one thing, divine designations aren't confined to theos. There are NT passages using kurios in reference to Jesus where that's a translation of Yahweh.

      iv) Even binitarian formulas are sufficient to disprove unitarianism. In Jn 1:1, "God" in the second clause ("and the Word was with God") is a proper noun for the Father while "God" in the third clause ("and the Word was God) is an abstract noun for the deity of the Son. Likewise, in Jn 1:18, "God" in the first clause ("No one has ever seen God") is a proper noun for the Father while "the only God" in the second clause is a proper noun for the Son.

      1 Cor 8:6 is modeled on the Shema, but with a twist. In Deut 6:4, "God" (Elohim) and "Lord" (Yahweh) are both divine designations with the same referent, but in 1 Cor 8:6, Paul divvies them up so that theos/elohim refers to the Father while kurios/Yahweh refers to the Son.

      "It seems to me that all claims to monotheism in the New Testament are made on the grounds that the Father is that one true God."

      In 1 Cor 8:6, the Father is the one Elohim of the Shema while the Son is the one Yahweh of the Shema.

      "I am still curious, if the persons being of one essence alone does not account for their being one God, how do you account for Unity within the Godhead?"

      i) Suppose I can't? There's no antecedent reason we should be able to penetrage the metaphysics of the Godhead at that level.

      ii) That said, resemblance is both a principle of unity and distinction. Take mirror images. They're symmetrical or isometric. That's a high degree of unity. Yet they're distinct due to a left-handed or right-handed orientation.

      "I guess it doesn't make sense to me how three individual persons, which I think is the definition of a being, can be considered one and the same God."

      That's in large part because we use a human frame of reference, where human individuals are separate beings with separate minds. But consider science fiction scenarios about telepathic aliens with a collective mind or consciousness. Then the distinction begins to break down.

  4. In the mean time, I will be reading B.B. Warfield on the issue since you recommend him.

    1. This is the type of stuff I am talking about: Warfield just said, "In His trinitarian mode of being, God is unique." Who is this "his" he is referring to? It is not the Father, for he is not trinitarian, nor the Son or the Spirit. He is then referring to something other than the three persons as a "he," thus introducing a fourth person and confusion.

  5. Alex, as I (fallibly) understand it, Clarke held to something closer to Semi-Arianism/Semiarianism. I do think that many of the Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers held to a generic unity as opposed to many modern formulations of the Trinity which affirms numeric unity. During Clarke's time, they would often use the word specific for generic, referring to species/kind; and individual for numeric. While I'm open to generic unity, I think numeric unity does better at affirming the true oneness of God. If people want to say it's crypto-sabellian, or semi-modalistic, so be it. What matters is which view best lines up with Scriptural teaching and boundaries. One of the best investigators of these issues that I've found is David Waltz [his blog]. He attempts to hold to the original understanding of Nicene subordination, or what he calls Nicene Monarchism which teaches generic, not numeric unity. Homoousios/homoousion meaning "of SAME essence", as opposed to how modern (neo)Trinitarians intepret it as "of ONE essence" (which Waltz rightly says would better be described as monoousios/monoousion).

    Quoting Philip Schaff, Waltz wrote: "The term homoousion, in its strict grammatical sense, differs from monoousion...and signifies not numerical identity, but equality of essence or community of nature among several beings. It is clearly used thus in the Chalcedonian symbol, where it is said that Christ is “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father as touching the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [and yet individually distinct from us] as touching the manhood.” The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence...and the main point with the Nicene fathers was to urge against Arianism the strict divinity and essential equality of the Son and the Holy Ghost with the Father." [Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.]


    1. In my opinion Nicene Monarchism is within the pale of orthodoxy, but it falls short in affirming the true unicity of God. Waltz and many others highly recommend R.P.C. Hanson's book The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 regarding the Arian controversy. I'll be reading that sometime after I finish The Arian Controversy by H.M. Gwatkin (which is his condensation and updating of his Studies of Arianism). Being in public domain, both of Gwatkin's books are freely online. I've download multiple copies of each because some pages are illegible/torn.

      If you're reading Clarke and his defenders, read his opponents as well like Daniel Waterland [I've collected some of Waterland's works HERE].

      //It seems to me that all claims to monotheism in the New Testament are made on the grounds that the Father is that one true God.//

      See what commentators have said regarding 1 John 5:20 in my blog HERE where Jesus seems to be called "true God".

      //This is the type of stuff I am talking about: Warfield just said, "In His trinitarian mode of being, God is unique." Who is this "his" he is referring to? It is not the Father, for he is not trinitarian, nor the Son or the Spirit. He is then referring to something other than the three persons as a "he," thus introducing a fourth person and confusion.//

      "Neo-Trinitarians" like myself would argue that the being of God is not an impersonal being distinct from the persons of the triad [Father, Son & Holy Spirit], but since they share that one being in perichoresis/circumincession, the Trinity as a whole can be spoken of as a single "He" in a sense. Some neo-Trinitarians like myself conceive of the persons of the Trinity as distinct "centers of consciousness". Some are even willing to use the analogy of a person with dissociative identity disorder [formerly known as multiple personality disorder]. If we were to use that analogy, the one human being can be said to be both a single "he" as well as having multiples personalities. A similar situation would apply to God.