Three Trinitarian Theses

Abstract: In this paper I will try to argue that (i) the Trinity is a logically coherent and metaphysically possible way God could be, (ii) that the Trinity, if true, is a great-making feature of God, and (iii) that we can know that the Trinity is true.

St. Anselm classically maintained that God is “that than which nothing greater can be signified,”[1] and the method of perfect being theology, which takes its cue from Anselm, commits one to the view that the word God just means the same thing as Anselm’s famous definition. This definition makes the attribution of the classical ‘omni-’ properties natural, and although varieties exist among ‘Anselmian’ theists on the question of what properties like ‘omnipotence’ and ‘omniscience’ really amount to, this provides the common ground on which these theists stand. The Christian, however, stands out among theists of this variety by making a claim unique to, and distinctive of, Christianity. God, according to the Christian tradition, is a trinity of persons. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet, although He is three co-equal divine persons, “they are not Three Gods, but One God.”[2] There are three challenges which face the Christian theist here, and I aim to address them in turn. First, there is the challenge of addressing how this admittedly “odd arithmetic”[3] is not incoherent, and, therefore, conceptually possible. Second, there is the challenge of showing that the doctrine of the Trinity is, in fact, metaphysically possible. Finally, there is the challenge of showing that the Trinity would, if true, contribute in some way to God’s greatness.

Turning first to the problem of logical coherence, we should observe at the outset that logical coherence is not an altogether well-defined concept. For the purposes of this paper I will take a proposition to be logically coherent if and only if it is conceptually possible, where conceptual possibility means something like ‘involving no prima facie a priori contradiction.’ Conceptual possibility is “closely connected with consistency,”[4] and some thinkers, like Anthony C. Anderson, have elaborated it as being independent of “conceivability, semantical rules, definition, stipulation, or epistemic notions such as provability or deducibility.”[5] The doctrine of the Trinity, then, will count as conceptually possible just in case it presents no contradiction in itself.

It is tempting to think of this species of modality as being somewhere in between metaphysical possibility and merely physical possibility. There are problems with such a characterization, however, for it is not clear that all physical possibilities are either metaphysically or conceptually possible, and it is clear that not all conceptual possibilities are metaphysically possible. For instance, one might maintain that in ontological arguments both for and against the existence of God, the possibility premises are conceptually possible whether or not they are metaphysically possible (surely at least one of them is not). Moreover, if physical possibility is determined by our best scientific theories, and if theories are deemed scientifically better or worse based only on how well they satisfy certain empirical desideratum (like predictive power, explanatory scope, etc.), then it could well be that some scientific theory which is singularly better than its competitors makes claims about the world which are metaphysically and conceptually impossible. One thinks of the way the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment would suggest, interpreted as literally true, that outright contradictions obtain. Moreover, suppose that the infamous ‘principle of sufficient reason’ (henceforth PSR) is true, and that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is our best scientific theory of quantum mechanics. Technically the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is not incompatible with the PSR,[6] but the story about quantum mechanics it offers, if taken literally, really is irreconcilable with the PSR, for it suggests that there are entirely indeterminate events for which no sufficient reason exists.

Why, one might ask, should we even care whether the Trinity is conceptually possible if it can be metaphysically possible either way? First, it seems that conceptual coherence is a necessary condition of sensibly affirming anything, and surely the Christian wants to affirm sensibly that the Trinity is true. Second, although a proposition’s conceptual possibility does not imply its metaphysical possibility, a proposition’s conceptual impossibility does imply its metaphysical impossibility, for the law of non-contradiction is not only a law of conceptual modality, but of metaphysical modality as well. How is one to demonstrate that there is no contradiction in the paradoxical assertion that God is three in one? The answer, of course, is ‘by making distinctions.’ God, according to the Trinitarian, is not one x and three x, but is one x and three y (where ‘x’ and ‘y’ stand in place of the predicates ‘being’ and ‘persons’ respectively). Since the doctrine clearly distinguishes the predicates ‘being’ and ‘person,’ it avoids being narrowly logically impossible,[7] and also provides a clue as to how the doctrine is supposed to be understood.

Having established the conceptual possibility of the doctrine of the Trinity, we move on to the much more difficult problem of demonstrating the metaphysical possibility of the Trinity, to which there are at least three contemporary approaches. I will briefly examine these three, argue that two of them seem viable, and that at least one of them demonstrates that the doctrine of the Trinity is metaphysically possible. Although I will take the time to briefly examine three strategies, there are really “two main strategies for solving the problem: the Relative-Identity strategy, and the Social Trinitarian strategy.”[8]

The Social Trinitarian (ST) strategy finds its impetus in some of the early Church Fathers, including Hilary of Poitiers who writes that ““each divine person is in the Unity, yet no person is the one God (On the Trinity 7.2; cf. 7.13, 32).”[9] In modern times such an approach has been prescribed and encouraged by Richard Swinburne, as well as William Lane Craig. This way of thinking about the Trinity takes the Threeness of God to be primitive, and attempts to explain how God could be one (rather than taking God’s oneness to be primitive and attempting to explain how God could be three persons). Attractive analogies for the Trinity abound on this view, and one, from W.L. Craig, is particularly worthy of examination. He writes;

 “In Greco-Roman mythology there is said to stand guarding the gates of Hades a three-headed dog named Cerberus. We may suppose that Cerberus has three brains and therefore three distinct states of consciousness of whatever it is like to be a dog… He has three consciousnesses. We can even assign proper names to each of them: Rover, Bowser, and Spike… Despite the diversity of his mental states, Cerberus is clearly one dog.”[10]

Those less familiar with Greco-Roman mythology than pop culture can replace ‘Cerberus’ with ‘Fluffy,’ the three headed dog from the Harry Potter novels. This analogy has among its benefits the ability to apparently make comprehensible a prima facie incomprehensible doctrine. It has the added advantage of providing a beautiful explanation of how the Trinity is a great-making property, for on this view the Trinity implies that God is a community of persons, and thus that God can be love.[11]

Unfortunately this ST is riddled with severe problems. It makes a mess of many of the divine attributes, such as omnipotence; questions such as whether all three persons are omnipotent, or whether the community of three is omnipotent, (etc.) arise.[12] The most profound problem, however, is that ST seems to imply polytheism, or at least has no principled way of telling polytheism apart from monotheism. Thus, the “Social Trinitarian claim that there are three minds in the Trinity,”[13] threatens to imply a subtle form of polytheism, where the divine nature is a genus, and the persons are each individual specimens belonging to the same species. They each token the divine nature, but remain distinct non-identical beings sharing in that same nature in precisely the same way as three (or more) human beings token, and share in, the same human nature. Indeed, it implies “that the old testament prophets who thundered that God is one (and whose monotheism Christians inherit) meant only that pagans preached a few too many divine beings, and did not know how alike, akin, and in accord all divine beings truly are.”[14]

A second broad approach is to begin by taking as given that God is exactly one being, and that, although the persons are each identical with God, they are not identical with each other, so that the identity relation is not altogether transitive. Although this violates Leibniz’ famous law of the identity of indiscernibles, problems for such a view of identity have already been alternatively motivated. For example, Max Black famously refuted the principle by rhetorically asking: “isn’t it logically possible that the universe should have contained nothing but two exactly similar spheres?”[15] Alternative accounts of identity have therefore arisen, and some of them will allow for exactly the kind of apparently acrobatic-like maneuver that Christians want to make. Peter Geach has maintained, for instance, that identity statements should be cashed out in terms of the general form “x is the same F as y,”[16] and maintains that “x’s being the same F as y does not guarantee that x is indiscernible from y.”[17] On his view, it can turn out that “x is an F, y is an F, x is a G, y is a G, x is the same F as y, but x is not the same G as y.”[18] What is significant here is that such theories of identity are on the market, and that Geach’s own theory isn’t the only one, as thinkers such as Nicholas Griffin and Eddy Zemach[19] also advance theories of identity which, if even possibly true, logically imply that the Trinity is metaphysically possible.

A third solution to the Trinitarian paradox exists which Michael C. Rea and Jeffrey E. Brower insist is the “single most neglected solution to that problem in the contemporary literature.”[20] Brower and Rea attempt to draw on the analogy provided by Aristotelian metaphysics in order to elucidate how the Trinity can be understood; they ask us to imagine that we have before us “a bronze statue of the Greek goddess, Athena,”[21] and insist that, in the same material object, we would also have “the lump of bronze that constitutes it,”[22] with which the statue is not strictly identical. This analogy, and the way Aristotelian metaphysics entreats us to deal with such funny objects, carves out room for “an object a and an object b to be “one in number” – that is, numerically the same – without being strictly identical.”[23] According to Aristotle, things picked out as material entities are actually “hylomorphic compounds”[24] which are comprised of both matter and form. In this way, however, two non-identical substances might be numerically one by being instantiated by the same matter, such as “a fist and a hand.”[25] This relation between two substances bearing a relation of “accidental sameness”[26] is precisely the right analogy on which to conceive of the relation of the persons of the Trinity to the divine nature, according to Brower and Rea. On this analogy, “each person will then be a compound structure whose matter is the divine essence and whose form is one of the three distinctive Trinitarian properties.”[27]

Although this view seems to imply the existence of what Rea and Brower call ‘kooky objects’ such as “seated-Socrates… pale-Socrates, bald-Socrates, barefoot-Socrates, and so on,”[28] it remains an attractive and viable way of thinking about the Trinity which does justice to what the Christian monotheist wants to say. Moreover, it suggests that the Trinity, along with puzzles about accidental sameness, are “special instances of a broader counting problem,[29] which takes some of the sting out of the Trinitarian paradox.

Do such models demonstrate that the Trinity is metaphysically possible, or do they merely demonstrate that the Trinity is conceptually possible? I take it that insofar as these theories can be taken to describe coherent states of affairs (coherent, at least, to all appearances), they give us as solid a reason to think that the Trinity is metaphysically possible as any arguments for the metaphysical possibility of anything can. Thus, we can safely rest the case for the metaphysical possibility of the Trinity.

How, though, are we to make sense of the claim that this odd metaphysically possible scenario of God being exactly three distinct persons each identical with the same being is a great-making feature of God? The best answer to this question is that the Trinity makes intelligible the claim that God is love, and that God is not merely disposed to love (in potentiality) but is by His very nature loving (in act). As Williams put it;

“… love in the literal sense requires more than one person. So if God is love that love must involve the love of one person by another. And if creatures cannot be the only ones who are the object of God’s love, there must be a plurality of persons in the Godhead.”[30]

To the suggestion that God might love himself merely because he is the summum bonum seems incongruent with His nature as moral exemplar, for then he would be perfectly selfish, and also command of us that we be perfectly altruistic (which he exemplifies in Christ), but as St. Anselm writes “it seems inconsistent to enjoin a thing upon us which it is not proper for him to do himself.”[31]

Latent here is actually a cosmological argument for the Trinity which, as far as I know, has not yet been developed by anyone. Bonaventure famously offered four ‘proofs’ for the Trinity in his commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard,[32] but the argument I have in mind does not figure into any of his four arguments. The argument goes:

  1. If God created the world then He had a rational motivation to do so.
  2. If God had a rational motivation to create the world then it must be an internal, rather than external, motivation (i.e., a motivation arising from his divine nature).
  3. None of the classical divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc.) provide a rational motivation to create the world.
  4. If there is a rational motivation for creating the world then it is love.
  5. If God creates the world out of love then God is love (divine simplicity).
  6. Love is always shared between at least two persons.
  7. Therefore, God is at least two persons.

Another version could go:

  1. If God created the world then He did so out of love – kenosis, a self-giving love.
  2. God did create the world.
  3. Therefore God did so out of love.
  4. If God created the world out of love then love must exist in God’s nature (not merely as a potentiality, but as actuality).
  5. Love (in actuality) is always shared between at least two persons.
  6. Therefore, God in his nature must be at least two persons.

Various other ways of making the same point could no doubt be thought up. The Trinity, from this perspective, becomes something more than a quaint and puzzling theological add-on to the doctrine of God, and instead provides a way to satisfy the PSR which other forms of monotheism simply do not succeed in doing. The Trinity provides a sufficient reason for God’s creative activity, whereas Unitarianism (here understood as the claim that God is one and only one person) seems incapable of giving a comparably good answer (if it can give any answer at all) to the question of why God created the world in the first place.

With respect to the question of whether one can come to know that the Trinity is a great-making property, it seems obvious that one can come to know this. First, even if one cannot clearly articulate why the Trinity adds to the greatness of God, one can come to know that the Trinity is a great-making property of God simply by knowing i) that all God’s essential attributes are great-making, and ii) that an essential attribute of God is that He is a Trinity of divine persons. One can know the former analytically, for it is a tautological truth if one accepts that God just means maximally great being. One can know the latter if one knows the doctrine of the Trinity to be true, for instance by recognizing it to be the conclusion of a sound cosmological argument, or by having religious experiences which provide sufficient confirmation of this truth, or by having a properly basic belief in the truth of the Biblical testimony – or any number of other ways. However, suppose that one wanted more here – suppose one wanted to know why the Trinity increases the greatness of God; some progress can be made here in terms of noting that the doctrine of the Trinity allows God to be essentially loving, which seems like a great-making feature. The problem is that this could be satisfied just as well if God were four persons, or five persons, or infinitely many persons. Bonaventure provided arguments for thinking that the number of divine persons must be exactly three,[33] and so one could appeal to such arguments in combination with the insight that the Trinity allows God to be essentially loving in order to explain just how the Trinity could be a great-making feature. However, even apart from such an argument’s success, there is enough to justify the Christian in believing that the Trinity is a great-making feature of God.

From what has been said it should be clear that the Christian can claim, with due propriety, to know that the Trinity is both true, and a great-making feature of God. The justifications available for both of these (true) beliefs are many and powerful. One can also show that the doctrine of the Trinity is conceptually possible (i.e., involves no inconsistency), and is metaphysically possible. In fact, one can argue from the fact that we have good reason to think that a Christian can have a justified belief in the Trinity’s truth (quite independently from whether the Trinity is in fact true) that it must be metaphysically possible, for nobody can have a justified belief in a metaphysical impossibility. The relative-identity thesis, if viable, provides a way to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity, and is independently motivated by puzzles plaguing Leibniz’ account of identity.[34] The solution offered by Brower and Rea is also a philosophically live and promising option open to the Christian theist which, if nothing else, helps to strengthen the reasonable conviction that the Trinity is metaphysically possible.

 

 

[1] Brian Davies, “Aquinas and Atheism,” The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (2013): 120.

[2] J. Sullivan, “The Athanasian Creed,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company: 1907). Retrieved November 17, 2015 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02033b.htm

[3] Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 52.

[4] Marcin Tkaczyk, “A Debate on God: Anselm, Aquinas and Scotus,” Ontological Proofs Today 50 (2012): 117-118.

[5] Anthony C. Anderson, “Conceptual Modality and the Ontological Argument,” in Ontological Proofs Today. Lancaster: Ontos Verlag (2012): 299.

[6] See Alexander R. Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment,” (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 160-170.

[7] Where by narrowly logically impossible I mean simply “amounts to a contradiction of the form ‘a is B and a is not-B’ where B is used univocally.”

[8] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Faith and Philosophy 22, no. 1 (2005): 57-76.

[9] William Lane Craig, “Toward a Tenable Social Trinitarianism,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 96-97.

[10] William Lane Craig, “Toward a Tenable Social Trinitarianism,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 98.

[11] 1 John 4:16.

[12] See Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 62-66.

[13] Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 60.

[14] Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 73.

[15] Max Black, “The Identity of Indiscernibles,” Mind (1952): 156.

[16] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[17] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[18] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[19] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[20] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 269.

[21] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 263.

[22] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 263.

[23] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 263-4.

[24] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 267.

[25] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 271.

[26] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 269.

[27] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 269.

[28] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 268.

[29] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 280.

[30] C.J.F. Wiliams, “Neither Confounding the Persons nor Dividing the Substance,” in Reason and the Christian Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994): 240. Cited from Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 54.

[31] St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 203.

[32] St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Commentaria In Librium Sententiarium, trans. The Franciscan Archive, (n.p.: The Franciscan Archive, 2010), compact disk.

[33] St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Commentaria In Librium Sententiarium, trans. The Franciscan Archive, (n.p.: The Franciscan Archive, 2010), compact disk.

[34] One might think to ask whether a fist and a hand are really indiscernible, for they involve different forms.

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  1. Pingback: Islam and the Trinity – Tyler Journeaux

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