OHPT: Thoughts on The Trinity (Chapter 18)

At first I was a little disappointed opening this chapter, because I realized we were entering a new section, leaving behind my beloved Problem of Evil. But Section IV, Topics in Christian Philosophical Theology (is that not what we’ve been doing this whole time?! Je suis confus) started off with an oldie but a goodie: THE TRINITY. Dun dun duuuuuuun.

Chapter 18, “The Trinity”, was written by Michael C. Rea, the Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at University of Notre Dame and Director of UND’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. He has written on a plethora of topics in philosophical theology.

Rea tackles the metaphysical question of how Christianity can defend the idea that One God is composed of three distinct Gods. He calls this the “threeness-oneness” problem. What does it mean for three Gods — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — to be consubstantial and for us to consider them as a whole to be One distinct divine Being?

There are two general camps into which defense of the threeness-oneness doctrine fall (though Rea is quick to say this bifurcation has come under scrutiny): Latin Trinitarianism (LT) and Greek Trinitarianism (GT). LT is in the lineage of the western church, most specifically with the theology of St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. Arguments in the LT line tend to favor psychological analogies. GT is in the lineage of the eastern church, specifically with the theology of the Cappadocian Fathers, or Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Arguments in the GT line tend to favor social or group analogies. Most interestingly, LT takes the unity of God as the philosophical starting point and GT takes the plurality of God as the philosophical starting point.

The three errors Rea says most ways of explaining the Three-in-One doctrine devolve are defenses of either modality (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are aspects of the One Divine), polytheism (the Unified substance is overlooked), or subordinationism (saying they exist in hierarchy). After outlining several attempts to answer the challenge, Rea concludes by presenting his preferred argument: the Constitution Model. However, as you’ll see below, I found it hard to see how his preferred argument avoids failing prey to the modality error, and also that it seems to fail to require three distinct persons in one.

Rea’s Constitution Model relies on the Relative Identity strategy which says “statements of the form ‘x = y‘ are to be analyzed in terms of statements of the form ‘x is the same F as y‘ rather than the other way around” (417). The constitutional model adds to this by saying that what it means to say that “two things are the same material object at a time is that those two things share all the same physical matter at that time” (418). Rea uses the analogy of a statue that is built to act as a pillar in a building. The object is both statue and pillar. Erosion may ruin the statue but not the pillar. Removing the object from its place will destroy it as a pillar but not as a statue. They are two things sharing the full and entirely same physical matter (not part of a whole, but each the whole). They are “distinct, though not distinct substances” (419).

I hate to criticize an idea on its analogy, but frankly that’s all we have for this aspect of God, anyway. (We threw logic out when we rejected numerical identity.) This analogy doesn’t seem to avoid falling into modalism, if I’m understanding modalism correctly. Isn’t it right to say that the object fulfills two functions: decoration (statue) and stability (pillar)? We don’t need to say that the object is two distinct things, but rather it makes more sense to say that it fulfills two distinct functions. If we can think of the object like this, it seems that if we can understand the object like this then we don’t need to argue multiple beings. Regarding the Trinity, each function is a mode of God, not a distinct being that constitutes God. With this analogy, we can just as easily say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are simply different actions God takes, or different ways She acts out Her singular Being. (Rea compares to Augustine’s analogy with the mind, and the three Gods being “the mind remembering itself, the mind understanding itself, and the mind willing itself” [421]). There is no sense in which we need to understand the statue and the pillar as distinct, other than as distinct functions the object fulfills.

To be honest, I rather like Augustine’s analogy even while disagreeing that it satisfactorily answers the threeness-oneness challenge. I think the mind is a great analogy for God (I rather like the social analogies, as well). The analogy I came up with is that of the mind and how it is led by different of its parts. Sometimes we act out of the priority of the limbic system, that which is primed for emotion and “fight or flight”. Sometimes we act led by the frontal lobe, which is more about conscious and careful analysis. All parts of the brain are operating and the limbic system and frontal lobes cannot be reduced to themselves as fully distinct beings, nor do they operate fully independently of one another. The mind in full relies on the entire physical substance of the brain (I argue is a product of the brain – emergent complexity, ftw!), but can operate in different ways with different aspects “leading the way,” as it were.

To be clear, this still does not avoid the modality error; however, I’m pretty sure there is just no way to argue for three distinct bodies being one body! Are we going to reject sameness as numerical identity when understanding what it means to say ‘x = y‘? This is ultimately what the doctrine of the Trinity requires of us. So either we say that God is not bound by the rules of logic in our world or that She is either Three or One. I’m sympathetic to the claim that God, if She exists as the kind of Being western Christianity argues, is not bound by the rules of our world. [Also, it should be noted that all analogies are flawed, so it really isn’t good thinking to rely on an analogy for arguing a position, nor is it good thinking to attack an idea wholly by attacking its analogy. I did a bad up there.] However, the idea that we can reject numerical identity opens us up to a whole heap of absurdity in what can be claimed about God, and risks undermining the great work of philosophers and theologians in their attempts to find a logical, rational, cohesive (even if not fully comprehensive) understanding God, spirituality, and perhaps ethics in our world. The more we default to God’s mystery, the more we undermine what has actually been argued about God.

All in all, great article for thinking, would recommend, even if it came to an unsatisfying conclusion. BUT Rea did provide us this illustration which made me laugh out loud, so add that to its merits.

Favorite quote. Well, it’s not so much a quote as a concept, that of “monotheism-securing relations” (414). I put a smiley face next to that one.

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