Saturday, July 23, 2016

Incipient modalism in the EFS debate

This is a significant departure from the Church's historic doctrine of the Trinity, within which the language of 'person' functions rather differently and does not carry the meaning that it does in popular parlance. The 'persons' of the Trinity are not three distinct centres of consciousness or agencies--which would suggest something resembling tritheism and undermine the oneness (and the simplicity) of God. The persons, or hypostases, are three instantiations of the one divine nature. However, most of the things that we would associate with personhood--knowledge, will, love, wisdom, mind, etc.--are grounded, not in the three hypostases, but in the one divine nature. In this respect, if we were working in terms of our modern usage of the term 'person', in some respects God might be more aptly spoken of as one 'person' with three self-relations, rather than as one being in three persons. This language still falls far short, though. - See more at:

That's a very flawed formulation:

i) I'm struck by how so many theologians think it's more important to guard agains the appearance of tritheism than unitarianism. Do they think unitarianism is less heretical then tritheism? 

ii) Alastair's formulation works within a Platonic paradigm in which the divine nature is like an abstract universal which members of the godhead exemplify, as property instances of the divine nature. They participate in the psychological properties of the divine nature. Knowledge, love, will, wisdom, mind, &c. primarily inhere in the nature, and only derivatively in the Father, Son, and Spirit.

iii) Does his formulation do justice to Biblical revelation? For instance, in the Fourth Gospel, doesn't the Son have a first-person viewpoint distinct from the Father's first-person viewpoint? Doesn't that dovetail with the modern connotation of a "person"?

Doesn't the Fourth Gospel project that back into the preexistent relationship between Father and Son? In other words, when the Son comes into the world, that's a carryover from his antemundane existence and status. 

Likewise, take Paul's analogy in 1 Cor 2:10-11. Doesn't that define the personality (as well as divinity) of the Spirit in "modern" psychological terms? By contrast, I find Alastair's formulation strikingly modalistic. 


  1. Really, that seems like typical one-self trinitarianism, like we see in Barth and Rahner.

    You point iii is on the money.

  2. My original concern was the accusers were reckless in their critiques. No nuance whatsoever. My concern now is they're unwittingly affirming a type of modalism.

  3. Thinking out loud here: If we take tritheism as an absolute impossibility and incoherent concept, then that frees us to push the distinctions between the three persons of God farther than if we are really concerned with protecting against tritheism. Perhaps in some contexts, we want to be very clear that we deny tritheism (Muslim and Hindu, for example), but when it is assumed that there can only be one supreme being, then we can explore what it means for the one God to be three persons. What do you think? Is this a legit train of thought?

  4. Steve, can you tell me what you think are the main additions to or differences between the metaphysical idea of exemplarism - which I think you've said you believe but I don't know much about - and the metaphysical idea that universals, while real, are only real insofar as they inhere in concretes?

    1. In context, there are roughly three kinds of realism:

      1. Aristotelian realism

      Universals are contingent, concrete properties. There are no universals over and above physical objects in which they inhere. There are no unexemplified universals.

      One problem with this position is how to distinguish it from nominalism. If particulars are all that exist, how are universals even distinguishable from particulars? Aristotelian realism seems to collapse into nominalism or conceptualism.

      2. Platonic realism

      Universals are abstract objects. General paradigms. Repeatable or multiply instantiable. Timeless and spaceless. A tertium quid: neither mental nor material. Particulars approximate universals. Two (or more) kinds of things are said to be similar in virtue of their sharing a common universal.

      There are some problems with this position:

      i) To posit a terbium quid is conceptually opaque. To say something isn't either mental or material seems unintelligible. We can't form a clear conception of what that would be.

      ii) The universals are causally otiose

      iii) There's a discrepancy between the generality of the universals and the specificity of the particulars. What fills the gap?

      iv) A traditional objection, which Plato himself broached (in the Parmenides) is whether his theory of attribute generates an infinite regress (the Third Man).

      We could debate the merits of that objection. I don't think there's anything intrinsically unacceptable about an actual infinity of (abstract) relations. That's not necessarily a vicious regress.

      At the same time, relations are secondary to properties. I think the infinite regress of relations is often imaginary. It doesn't add any new conceptual content. It's not a distinctive perspective.

      3. Exemplarism

      Creatures are instances of divine ideas. Creatures are composite instances of God's communicable attributes.

      For example, God has an infinite idea of the Mandelbrot set. A human idea of the Mandelbrot set, or graphic of the Mandelbrot set, is a finite instance of the Mandelbrot set.

      Likewise, God has an idea of a mathematically perfect ellipse. God creates planets with elliptical orbits that approximate the mathematical idea.

      Many divine ideas remain unexemplified, viz. possible worlds. But they are grounded in God's mind.

      Exemplarism has certain explanatory advantages over the alternatives:

      i) God is an agent, so his ideas are not causally inert.

      ii) Exemplary ideas are mental entities, so we are able to grasp what that means.

      iii) Unlike generic universals, God's complete concept of a creature is exacting and exhaustive. There is no discrepancy between the exemplar and the exemplum.