Trinity And Divine Simplicity

Christianity inherited the fastidiousness of a philosophical system which cannot countenance the notion of any plurality in God, and regards anything but the utmost simplicity as unworthy of him. That was also a position highly congenial to Islamic monotheism, and Giles of Rome notes that Averroes gives that reason for insisting that there can be no Trinity in God (Errores Philosophorum IV.7). But for Christians the doctrine of the Trinity presented a challenge here which had to be taken up.

The particular philosophical difficulties which the doctrine of the Trinity had raised in the first centuries, with the concomitant Christological problems, had not on the whole been causing difficulties in the West since Augustine. Augustine had consolidated an adequate working Latin vocabulary of substantia and persona, and he had spelt out in his De Trinitate the essential principles of the unity of the Godhead and the co-eternity and equality of the Persons which had been so controversial in the early Christian centuries. Boethius had added fresh illustrative material to his account, by way of logical and mathematical analogies. He takes the Pythagorean rule that 'one' can become plural only if some 'otherness' is introduced. (In geometry, for example, any number of points may be piled upon one another and there will still be only one point; but if one point is separated from another along a line, then the points begin to multiply.) The Arians, who tried to establish degrees of merit (gradus meritorum) in the Trinity, thus made God a plurality. The equality of the Persons is therefore a guarantee of God's unity, not a source of plurality (De Trinitate, 1). In logic we speak of the same and the different in three ways.

Something may be of the same genus (in this way a man is the same as a horse). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three Gods but one, because there is no differentia to make them differ in species or genus (I). Ten categories can be predicated of everything in creation, but with God everything is of his substance. He is not good but goodness; not merciful but mercy (IV). To predicate substance, quality, quantity of God is to predicate the divine substance, to say what he is (quid). The other categories can be reduced to a second 'theological category' that of relation (ad aliquid). But in God, the rule of reciprocity which governs ordinary relations does not apply. Where one speaks of a slave one must normally also speak of a master. A father must have a son, and so on. But God the Father was always the Father, and the Son was always the Son. No new relationship came into being with the begetting of the Son, for that is eternal. Sonship and Fatherhood in the Trinity are not interdependent in the same way as they are in creatures (V).

Secondly, we can say that things are of the same species. (Cato is the same as Cicero.) Thirdly, there is also sameness of number. (Tullius is the same person as Cicero.) We can say that things differ numerically. Numerical difference is the result of variety in accidents. Cato and Cicero cannot be in exactly the same place at the same time, but Tullius and Cicero can and must. It is clear that in the Godhead, where there are no accidents, and where genus and species are not applicable either, the rules of logic are challenged, and we are not obliged to speak of many Gods. If 'God' is predicated three times, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that does not make three Gods (III).

This treatise of Boethius became the focus of a renewed philosophical debate in the twelfth century. Thierry of Chartres and Gilbert of Poitiers were among those who lectured on his opuscula in the schools of northern France before the middle of the century. It was Gilbert who ran into controversy in his attempts to force Latin to encompass ideas it was not yet capable of expressing with technical exactitude. Gilbert tried to explain the relationship between 'God' and his 'divinity', Deus, divinitas, by means of an analogy with the natural world, where it is one thing to be and another to be that by which something is: aliud est quod est, aliud quo est.10 Gilbert certainly did not intend to attribute a causative sense to divinitas when he spoke of a Deus a divinitate;11 in fact he insisted that divinitas is very God.12 But his opponents suspected him of introducing another God into the discussion, that is, of making God plural. Gilbert was brought to trial at Rheims in 1148 for heresy on this and other counts, but his intricate analysis of the Boethian text continued to be influential among his pupils. (Alan of Lille, much later in the century, included references to Gilbert on Boethius' De Trinitate in his Regulae (12,12).)

Independently of this formal study of Boethius in the schools, Anselm

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES of Canterbury had returned to the Trinitarian questions at the end of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth, in his treatises on the Incarnation of the Word and the Procession of the Holy Spirit. The first was written during the period when he was moving from Bec to Canterbury, and the second after the Council of Bari in 1098, where Urban II had asked Anselm to construct a case against the Greeks and prove to them that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. The two treatises are closely related in their concern to establish the simplicity of God in his Trinity. In the first Anselm tries to answer Roscelin of Compiegne, who had been calling him a heretic, and whom Anselm had already striven to silence in an earlier version of the De Incarnatione Verbi. Roscelin had cited an example Anselm was evidently fond of using in his talks with his monks. If we say that someone is 'white', 'just', 'literate', we do not mean that he is three separate entities. The force of the analogy is a little different in Latin, because the words albus, iustus, grammaticus can serve as nouns as well as adjectives, so that we are also saying 'a white man', 'a just man', 'a literate man'. Roscelin had pressed the image much further than Anselm intended and accused him of saying in effect that either the Trinity was like three souls or three angels; or it must be the case if the Trinity was not thus three res, that the Father and the Holy Spirit were incarnate with the Son. This, he claimed, Lanfranc had conceded, and Anselm would agree to if he conducted a disputation with him.13 Anselm responded by trying to make it clear exactly what he had intended his analogy to do. In suggesting that 'Father', 'Son', 'Spirit' may be said of God in the way 'white', 'just', and so on may be said of a man, he had meant to demonstrate only one or two principles. If the presence or absence of 'fatherhood', 'filiation', 'procession' is said to 'make some change' ('aliquam faciant . . . mutationem') in relation to the divine substance ('circa divinam substantiam'), in the way a man's whiteness or justice can be predicated of him or not; or if it is suggested that the Father14 can be said to be the Son or the Spirit, Anselm will have nothing to do with such a reading. If his analogy is read as explaining how 'Father', 'Son', 'Holy Spirit' can be predicated of God without making three Gods, he is content. He insists that that is all he said.

Anselm was to discover in his attempt to win over the Greeks to the Western doctrine of double Procession that analogies were dangerously likely to be pressed too far by determined opponents. But this was his first experience of an encounter with a good mind which was determined to outwit him. Roscelin was not silenced. He began again, and this time, Anselm abandoned any attempt to clarify the possibilities of the 'white, just, literate' analogy. He was wise to do so, for he was in fact in deeper waters of speculative grammar than he was technically equipped to swim in.15 In his second, published letter On the Incarnation of the Word, he tackled first the contention that the three Persons must be three things, which would destroy the simplicity of God and make him plural. Anselm presses Roscelin to explain what he means by 'things'. No Christian wants to say that Father and Son are one thing in their Fatherhood and Sonship. But Christians believe that in what is common to them, their Godhead, they are one thing. Again Anselm resorts to the notion of predication, and says that God is unique in that 'Father' and 'Son' are predicated of one Being; if a man is called 'Father', that is in relation to a second man who is his son. So we could certainly say that Father and Son are two things, if that is what we mean by 'thing'. But it is not what Roscelin means. In making the comparison with three angels or three souls, he is slipping from a relational predication (proper uniquely to God) to a substantial predication, which one might use of any created thing (Chapter 2). He is saying that God has three substances and is therefore three Gods. Anselm goes on to develop the implications of Roscelin's error, touching in passing on a notion which may have occurred to him as a result of reading Boethius' De Trinitate, if he knew it: that a series ofpuncta is never plural until the points are separated along a line (Chapter 15). Eternity is like that. Instants do not form until there is a difference between them. However often eternity is repeated within itself, it does not become many. Since God is eternity, there can be no plurality of Gods within the Godhead. 1 x 1 x 1 = 1 (Chapter 15).

In the De Processione Spiritus Sancti, Anselm examines the ways in which attributes such as eternity, or being Creator, are predicated of God as one, without implying plurality, and asks how it can be that when we say, as we must, that 'Father', 'Son' and 'Holy Spirit' are not all one, but distinct from one another and plural, we do not thereby imply that there is more than one God. It would seem that the unity of God's being makes it impossible to speak of relations within the Trinity; or conversely, that the existence of such relations implies plurality, not unity.

We should look a long way before finding an approach so original, and in some ways so independent of the stock philosophical sources, as that of Anselm. But Peter Abelard, too, tried to think the thing through from first principles. He suggests that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit differ not in essentia (which would make them three distinct things), but in status. Richard of St Victor, a little later, made use of the concept of love between the Persons. In God, he says, there is fullness of love. Perfect love demands plurality, because it must be love of another. In God there is perfect happiness. That requires mutual love. In God there is fullness of glory. True glory is to

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES share generously all one has, and that presupposes an associate in glory. On all these grounds we must postulate Persons in the Godhead, and we can be sure that they are co-eternal, for God is immutable. We can also be sure that they are equal, for mutual love demands equality between lover and beloved.

Some of the devices used in the Boethian De Trinitate are adopted and exploited by Alan of Lille in his Regulae Theologiae. He stresses that there can be no diversity of parts in God, or plurality of properties, for in God there is nothing but what he himself is. Whatever is in God is God (VIII). Alan seeks to prove as Augustine and Boethius had done, but with some of the additional sophistication of his time, that the divine attributes (as wisdom, holiness, strength) are of God's essence.

Regulae III and IV are concerned with the Trinity. As we saw in Part I, that 'multiplication' of one by one which occurs in the Godhead does not produce multiplicity. Alan describes it as an act of love in which the Father does not cease to be himself, but on his 'other self' (in se alterum) the Son, he 'bends' (reflectit) that love which is the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father in such a way that, by his authority (eius auctoritate), he also proceeds from the Son. The use of a principle which allows Alan to insist upon the double Procession of the Holy Spirit is an important development of patristic philosophy in this area, made necessary for him because of the controversy with the Greeks which had separated Eastern and Western Churches since 1054. In Regula IV Alan elaborates upon the equality of the Persons of the Trinity. In the Father, he says, is unity specialiter; in the Son, equalitas, for the Son is the first to be the Father's equal. We may say that there is a connexio of unity and equality here.

Alan looks both at general problems of naming God, and at particular questions about predicating the Aristotelian categories of the divine substance. Whenever a term which would refer to a quality if it were used of a creature is predicated of God, it refers to his essentia (IX). Although many names may be so predicated, that does not make the divine being plural (IX). That means that when, for example, we call God 'good', we are using the term in a 'copulative' or 'conjunctive' way (copulata, coniuncta), because it also implies God's other attributes. ('It is as though I said that God is good, holy, strong', comments Alan.) When I say 'Peter is righteous', that leaves many things outside what is predicated (extra hanc predicationem) which apply to Peter, and I must use other terms to predicate those qualities of him (X).

As a prelude to what he has to say about the categories, Alan goes back to Regula VIII and derives another rule from it (XI). As a simple being, God's being is one with whatever he is. To say 'God is' is also to say 'God is this and this.' Because there is no diversity or plurality in this being there can be no substance and accident in him, as Boethius maintains when he says (De Trinitate, II) that no simple being can be a substance (XII). We may, however, say that God is Form, for he gives form to all things and takes form from none; and we may also say he is Substance, if we understand that this is substance without form, that is, substance without property or accident. Substance understood in this sense is not of the sort to which Boethius objects when he says that no simple being can be a substance (XIII). We may also say that all being is from Form, if God is Form (XIV); because God participated in nothing in order to be, we may say that there is nothing of which his being is (XV); and that his being is formless (informis), because the divine Form takes its form from no other (XVI).

Alan pursues these questions of the use of language about God still further. When a noun signifies the divine being, it only seems to signify a quality (Justus); in the case of God it behaves like a pronoun (pronominatur), and signifies not a form attributed to God, but the Divine Form itself (XVII). Similarly, although in other cases we make a 'composite' affirmation when we say, for example, 'Peter is just', in the case of an affirmation made about God, there is nothing 'composite'; while negative statements may be made quite straightforwardly about God (proprie et vere) (XVIII). God is just by the justice which is his very self, but when we say he is just, we are really speaking from our knowledge of the effect his justice has on us, and so what he is, is not exactly what he is said to be (XIX). All nouns used of God are used improperly, and so there is propriety in God's being, but impropriety in saying that he is (XX).

Alan agrees with Boethius that to predicate substance, quality, and quantity of God is to predicate the divine substance and to say what he is (quid). The other categories can be reduced to a second 'theological category', that of relation (ad aliquid) (XXII-XXIII). (Here Alan acknowledges his debt to Augustine, De Trinitate V.8.9). But Aquinas asks how we can find a principle upon which there can be understood to be threeness of Persons, when God is immensity, and it would seem that he must embrace all in one. Aquinas uses the mathematical principle that there must be boundaries or limits before there can be plurality. That is to say, 'one' must end before 'two' can begin. In God there is no boundary or limit. But there is a distinction of 'origin' through relation in the Trinity; that is what we understand to be the case in the Persons. There is no boundary or limitation in that, so we can see this distinction as compatible with divine immensity.16 In the eight Articles of Question 3 of the first part of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas considers simplicity separately from Trinity. He asks whether God is a

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES body, whether he is composed of matter and form, whether he is the same as his own nature, whether being and essence are the same in God, whether God belongs to a genus, has any accidents, is altogether simple, or enters into the composition of other things. In the Questions on the Trinity itself (I q.XXVIIff.), he deals strictly with the implications of the idea of 'relation of origin' (relatio originis).

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Responses

  • gundobad
    What does boethius say about God the father, the son and creation?
    2 years ago

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