The Social Trinity and Tritheism

The accusation of tritheism is strongly resisted by defenders of social trinitarianism. We have already noted Brown's reference to the way in which an inseparable loving union of Persons transcends individuality. It is this insight that invites reflection and expansion in this final section of our chapter on the Trinity. Brown himself develops the point in an essay in the Feenstra/Plantinga volume. In it, he acknowledges the wide and changing range of meanings of the word 'person', but suggests that 'so far from defenders of the social model being firmly trapped by modern understanding of the person, it is their detractors who are trapped'. To focus attention too literally on the finite, human aspects of the social model — three separate, externally related, finite individuals, such as those portrayed in the Rublev ikon — is to fail to do justice to the way in which separate, autonomous, self-conscious persons are already something of an abstraction, even in the human world, let alone where the infinite paradigm of personality and relationality is concerned. Even in the human world, it can be shown that communion is more basic than the individual, and that persons in relation, not least in intense loving and mystical communion, glimpse or achieve a unity that transcends their separateness. Brown endeavours to substantiate his case by distinguishing first between individualism and individuality, the latter, but not the former, being ascribed to the Persons of the Trinity, and, secondly, between consciousness and self-consciousness, the former being ascribed to the Persons severally (how else could they be in 'I—Thou' relations?) and the latter only to God tout court.

It might be thought that this second distinction, between consciousness and self-consciousness, is a little forced. It trades on the somewhat pejorative conception of individual self-consciousness as self-absorption. But Brown is quite right to stress the way in which commitment to a task or to another person is at its most exalted where one 'loses' oneself in the project or the relation. There is perhaps a hint here of the way in which the unity of the tripersonal God involves the highest degree of mutual interpenetration (perichoresis in the Greek terminology, circumincessio in the Latin). But what Brown fails to give sufficient attention to, either in his book or in this later essay, is the fact that, unlike finite persons in relation, the infinite simply cannot be thought of as consisting of separate, externally related, personal beings. But, again it has to be emphasized that to see the infinite as internally differentiated and interrelated in mutual loving relations is not a matter of modelling the Godhead on human self-love. For that, too, would be to give the priority to the isolated individual. Brown's essay constitutes a bold attempt to break with that paradigm.

Cornelius Plantinga's essay, 'Social Trinity and Tritheism', in the same volume as Brown's, is the work of a systematic theologian, not a philosopher; but it provides, for philosophical reflection, an admirably clear example of social trinitarianism. First, Plantinga spells out the biblical sources for trinitarian theism. He then attempts a statement of a social theory, in terms of'a divine society of three fully personal and fully divine entities', each possessing the divine essence and together constituting the one God. There is some tendency in Plantinga to characterize the trinitarian relations as involving derivation as well as mutual love and common action, but it would be easy to amend his statement and present it in a non-subordinationist form. Plantinga claims that each member of the Trinity 'is a person, but scarcely an individual, or separate or independent person' (his italics). They 'are ''members one of another'' to a superlative and exemplary degree'.60 Social trinitarianism, thus defined, is then declared, against mod-alism (God being just one person, with different operations) and against Arianism (ontologically graded distinctions between God the Father and God the Son) to be the mainstream Christian tradition, both western and eastern. But is this social trinitarianism tritheistic? No, says Plantinga. Only if the three Persons were finite and potentially opposed would the Trinity amount to three gods. And then, of course, they would not be God. The Persons of the Trinity are not, even theoretically, independent. 'Each is essentially the fellow of the other two. And such interdependency is a vice only to egoists and individualists.' Again we note the suggestion that it is the opponents of social trinitarianism who are working with the model of persons as isolated individuals.

Very reasonably, Plantinga goes on to suggest that classical Christian trinitarian theism is not necessarily committed to the strong (Neoplatonic) doctrine of divine simplicity, whereby each Person is identical with the divine essence. That would mean they were identical with each other. Rather, each possesses the generic essence of divinity, and each possesses his own essence, defined primarily by the relations which each bears to the others within the one infinite Godhead.

The doctrine found in Thomas Aquinas, that the Persons of the Trinity are best thought of as 'subsistent relations' within the one Godhead, is perceptively discussed by C. J. F. Williams in the essay mentioned above.63 Williams confesses that at first he thought it utter nonsense; for a relation exists between things or subjects. But, with some help from Aristotle, Williams came to realize that Thomas was speaking of relational properties without which the subjects in questions — the Persons of the Trinity — would not be what they are. The Father subsists eternally as the Father of the Son, the Son as the Son of the Father, and the Spirit as the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Admittedly, Aquinas himself interprets these relations as those of self-love, and I have already mentioned Williams's (and Geach's) categorical rejection of this as failing to capture the nature of love as a matter of interpersonal relations.

Williams concludes his essay with some very illuminating reflections of the unity of the tripersonal God. The interpenetration of the divine Persons, of which the Christian tradition speaks, is glimpsed, albeit faintly, in the poetry of love and in the literature of mysticism, east as well as west. Both in will and in act, the persons ofthe Trinity are eternally and necessarily at one. Williams makes the all-important point that 'the reasons that we have for affirming the existence of a God at all are reasons for affirming that there cannot be many Gods'. 'It is precisely as Creator, as the source of all contingent being, that God must be one. How could this unity be more gloriously manifested than in the love of the utterly distinct and uncon-founded Persons who together constitute the Holy and undivided Trinity?'

The contribution of analytic philosophers of religion to the case for and against the coherence of social trinitarianism may be further studied in a number of articles in Faith and Philosophy. C. Stephen Layman's defence of the social analogy65 is interesting, but suffers from his unwillingness to pursue the question of the ontology of infinite substance. Similarly, the purely logical arguments for and against the coherence of the doctrine, contributed by John Macnamara, Marie La Palme Reyes and Gonzalo E. Reyes in a joint article, and by E. Feser in reply, while they certainly show that the question remains an open one (unlike the arguments of Richard Cartwright, who claims to have decisively refuted the social theory68), fail to do justice to the potentialities of the doctrine of relative identity vis-a-vis the unique case of the infinite. Of particular interest is T. W. Bartel's attempt to show the coherence of ascribing the property of sovereignty to the three distinct divine 'individuals' comprising the Trinity. But even here, as with Swinburne's reflections on the property of omnipotence, the treatment is marred by concentration on the finite analogies rather than on the infinite analogatum.

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  • Simone
    What is the between Trinity and Tritheism?
    3 years ago

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