Arguments Against the Social Analogy

It is time we looked at the objections that have been raised against social trinitarianism. Three scholars, Keith Ward, Sarah Coakley and Brian Lef-tow, will serve to illustrate the other side of the argument.

We have already encountered Ward's views in chapter 3 on Creation. Ward frankly accepts the consequences of his critique of social trinitarianism in holding that some creation or other is necessary to God, if God's goodness is to have the form of love. But what precisely are his reasons for rejecting 'the idea of a social Trinity'? They are spelled out in the section given that title in his book, Religion and Creation.48 First, he accuses Brown of virtual polytheism, an accusation to which we shall have to return in the final section of this chapter. The chief difficulty is held to be the apparent need to postulate a principle of necessary unity that is superior to the Persons of the Trinity themselves. But this criticism fails to do justice to the ways in which accusations of tritheism are actually met by social trinitarians, as we shall see. Ward's critique of Swinburne's solution, whereby the Father is deemed the source of the Son's and the Spirit's being and unity, is much more telling. We have already questioned its evident subordinationism. Pannenberg's solution,49 whereby the divine essence is thought of as consisting in the mutual loving relations of the trinitarian Persons, is unfairly criticized by Ward as treating love 'as a force superior to the persons in which it is actualised'. There is no reason why love should be thought of in those terms. Ward's only alternative is to assert that 'God is love, not as three loving individuals, but as a unity of three coinherent modes of action of one supreme Being'. The 'modalism' of this view is manifest, as is that of Karl Rahner, whom Ward quotes: 'Within the Trinity there is no reciprocal Thou.'52 The basis of Ward's criticism then emerges when he writes: 'A model of love within the Trinity must be in the end simply the love of God for the divine self, and not the love of another.'53 The dominance of the isolated individual in Ward's thinking could hardly be more blatantly expressed.

Sarah Coakley's contribution to the Dunwoodie symposium, while directed specifically against the contributions of van Inwagen, Brown and Swinburne, is primarily historical in character. She shows, convincingly, that Gregory of Nyssa is not so readily to be cited as a source for social trinitarianism of the kind defended by the analytic philosophers of religion just named, for whom talk of three Persons is modelled on that of a society of three human individuals. That Gregory did not use the term 'hypostasis' in the sense of distinct consciousnesses or self-consciousnesses may well be the case. Many other images, often 'impersonal' like the colours of the rainbow, were used by Gregory, all of them subject to control by a fundamental 'apophaticism', that is, an insistence on the unknown mystery of God. Now we have already come across a comparable assimilation of the eastern (Cappadocian) tradition to the western (Augustinian) tradition in Richard Cross's article, discussed in the last section. But Cross, as we saw, allows for the development of this common theistic metaphysic in the direction of social trinitarianism, if there are good reasons for such a development. And the most notable aspect of Coakley's critique is her failure to consider the reasons why, irrespective of reference to Gregory and the other Cappadocians, the analytic philosophers with whom she takes issue have pursued the path of social trinitarianism and insisted, as we saw Geach doing, on the word 'person' bearing something like its modern sense. Those reasons were primarily, in the first place, the need to make sense of the Incarnation of God in and as a man who prayed to God and, in the second place, the need to see in God as such the prime analogate of the relational properties of love given, love received and love shared still more. Hence Geach's insistence on the concept of persons involved in I—Thou relations. Hence too the implausibility of Rahner's denial of any reciprocal 'Thou' in God. Gregory's use of images like that of white light refracted and reflected in the colours of the rainbow is no help at all in this connection.

One of the most detailed and sustained critiques of social trinitarianism is Brian Leftow's essay in the same volume.55 With relentless logic and great clarity, Leftow attacks the 'three centres of consciousness' model for its inability to avoid either tritheism or Arianism, that is, the postulation of lesser or created 'deities'. His arguments on the latter score are entirely convincing. Swinburne's 'subordinationism', the view that the second and third Persons of the Trinity are brought about by God the Father, in order to instantiate, at the highest level, the excellencies of love, is sharply criticized for the inequalities between the Persons which it inevitably entails. But the accusation of tritheism against a view like that of C. J. F. Williams is not so plausibly made out. Social trinitarianism of a non-subordinationist kind holds that the one God simply is tripersonal. When Christians speak of God they are either referring to God the Father (as, so Christians hold, are Jews and Muslims) or to God the Son, as they do when they pray to the risen Christ, or to God the Holy Spirit, as they do when they invoke the indwelling Comforter, or to God the Holy and Blessed Trinity, as they do when referring to God as such, who is none other than these three Persons in relation. Leftow makes things much too easy for himself by treating social trinitarianism as belief in three divine substances, three individual cases of deity. Christian theology has always (except where 'substance' was equated with 'hypostasis') seen the divine as one, infinite and necessary substance. The trinitarian distinctions and relations are internal to the Ultimate. There are not, and could not be, three ultimates, externally related. This enables us to pinpoint one of the basic flaws in Leftow's approach. All the models and analogies which he attacks are from limited, finite minds, externally related. He nowhere ponders the difference made by the fact that theology is concerned with the necessarily unique, because infinite, substance that underlies all finite, created being. The question at issue is whether sense can be made of the supposition that the one infinite is best thought ofas internally differentiated and interrelated in three mutually loving and interpenetrating subjectivities.

Leftow fails utterly to do justice to the grounds for supposing this to be the case. Like Coakley, he gives no consideration at all to the revelatory factors, that is, to what is revealed through the Incarnation and the indwelling Spirit, which have been stressed in this present chapter. He does refer to the a priori grounds from maximal greatness theology, as set out by Swinburne. But he quickly gets diverted on to the 'inequality' problem, which is a problem with Swinburne's version, not, e.g., Williams's, and he does little more than mock the basic argument from love's excellencies ('dilection' and 'condilection' in Richard of St Victor's terms) by citing many other facets of love in the all-too-human finite scene of family and social life. There is no serious exploration of the minimum requirements for analogical predication of the virtue of love in talking of the divine as such.

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  • Adelbert
    Is keith ward a modalist?
    8 years ago

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