Divine Fission A New Way of Moderating Social Trinitarianism

Peter Forrest

The topic of this paper is a way of speculating about the Trinity in which we start with a heterodox Social Trinitarianism and then moderate it to ensure that various desiderata are satisfied. We could think of this as the synthetic approach: understanding God as a unity formed out of three divine persons. This may be contrasted with the analytic approach in which we start with the one God and discover the three persons in God. St Augustine's Psychological Trinitarianism is an example of that analytic approach. But neither the analytic approach nor ways of seeing the two approaches as compatible are within the scope of this paper. I note, however, that one promising way of combining the approaches is to use Geach's relative identity theory of the Trinity. This has recently been defended by Van Inwagen who notes its antecedents in the Athanasian Creed.1 Indeed I suspect this is the only way of achieving literal conformity with that creed, which however, is not the decree of any ecumenical council. I do, however, respect it because of its traditional use in Christian liturgy. There is a proviso, though, namely that its authority is of an informal kind and so, I hold, there is no need to conform to it literally. Subject to that proviso I shall take respect for the Athanasian creed as one of the desiderata for social trinitarians.

I note at the outset that I shall not be considering the case for believing that there are no more than three divine persons, as opposed to believing there are at least three and then suspending judgement about whether there are any more. Nonetheless for convenience of exposition I shall take myself to be defending the traditional doctrine.

* From Religious Studies 34 (1998): 281-97. © 1998 Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

1 See Peter van Inwagen, 'And Yet They Are Not Three Gods but One God', in God, Knowledge and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 222-259. For a critique of this appeal to relative identity see T. W. Bartel, 'The Plight of the Relative Trinitarian', Religious Studies 24 (1988), 129-55.

My starting point is Swinburne's Moderate Social Trinitarianism (Ch. 8),2 explaining where I disagree and where I think more needs to be said. In spite of these disagreements I am heavily indebted to Swinburne's clear and coherent speculation about the Trinity. And I follow him both in holding that divine persons lack thisness and in what I take to be the most significant feature of his speculation. This is the way he starts with an account of the existence and nature of a God who is a single divine person only—the primordial God in my terminology. Swinburne then explains how the Trinity could arise from the primordial God. I take this to be important as an objection to the widespread assumption that the Trinity is more mysterious, and so intellectually more expensive, than mere theism. I grant, however, that the sort of speculation he gives is in some way 'abstract' or 'arid'. In this paper I shall have occasion to note both intellectual and affective versions of various desiderata for Trinitarianism. It is my contention that the affective aspects of religion presuppose the 'arid' intellectual aspects, so the former are incomplete without the latter. I hope that my speculative development of Moderate Social Trinitarianism both illustrates and supports this contention.

The most striking difference between my speculation and Swinburne's is in our answers to the question: 'How is the Trinity possible?' His speculation is that the First Person is the ultimate cause of all things. I reject this because I identify the ultimate cause of all things with the God who is the Trinity, not the First Person. Accordingly, I speculate that the Trinity arises as a result of fission by the primordial God, rather than the primordial God bringing other divine persons into existence.


I shall assume that we have a good enough grasp of what it is to be a human person. And I assume that, in spite of the historical influence in the other direction, we now form the idea of a divine person by analogy with that of a human person.3 I shall also assume that we have a good grasp of the sort of gods which polytheists worship. These gods are divine persons who, unlike the three persons ofthe Trinity, are individuals in much the sense that we are. I take it that this individuality is what lies behind the 'all too human' antics of the gods of Greek, Indian and other mythologies.

2 Unless otherwise indicated all references to Swinburne are to: Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

3 See David Brown, 'Trinity, Personhood and Individuality', in Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), pp. 21-47 for an account of the development of the concept of a person and the relevance of this to the doctrine of the Trinity.

My starting point is a certain kind of monotheism: God is not an atemporal being but one who of necessity exists at all times and of necessity is a good, loving being at all times. My speculation is compatible with, but does not require, the further claims that: (1) of necessity God has complete knowledge of other things which exist; (2) of necessity God has complete power over all other things to bring into existence any possible kind of universe and to control what has been brought into existence; and (3) of necessity no other things can exist without God's sustaining them. In all the above we should ask what sort of necessity is being considered. Here I follow Swinburne (Ch. 5) and distinguish ontological necessity from mere metaphysical necessity. Ontological necessity is that which is both metaphysically necessary and uncaused. Consider an act by God required by the divine goodness. For example, suppose that there is a best kind of universe. Then, I would hold, it is required by the divine goodness that God create a universe of that kind. The resultant product of any such divine act would be metaphysically necessary but not ontologically necessary.

Now Swinburne considers that the Trinity has the power to annihilate itself, although the necessary divine goodness renders such annihilation metaphysically impossible (p. 147). This power of self-destruction arises because each of the divine persons has the power to annihilate the others. If these powers were simultaneously exercised then there would be no God any more. By contrast, the speculation I provide is compatible with the claim that the continued existence of God is ontologically necessary. Again my speculation is compatible with interpreting necessity as ontological necessity in the further claims (1), (2) and (3) above. I am not sure how much it matters to Swinburne that the continued existence of God is not ontologically necessary, so this difference may not be significant. I note, however, that Clark criticises Swinburne for using metaphysical rather than ontological necessity in his account.4 My speculation will be not be subject to that criticism.

Like Swinburne I shall assume that the Trinity comes about and that before it existed God was what I call the primordial God—a single isolated divine person. On my speculation God changes quite radically, undergoing fission. On Swinburne's speculation (pp. 174-7) the primordial God brought into existence another divine person, and they jointly brought into existence a third. This happened because the primordial God, being good, recognised that a loving community was of greater value than a single person. Hence the community of three persons is metaphysically necessary because required by the goodness of the primordial God.

That, I take it, is Swinburne's Social Trinitarianism. In answer to the question as to why Social Trinitarianism counts as Trinitarianism (not, as Clark charges,

4 All references to Clark are to Kelly James Clark, 'Trinity or Tritheism?', Religious Studies 32 (1996), 463-76.

mere Tritheism), social trinitarians might say that God is to be characterized as the perfect being and that what is perfect is not any one of these three gods, glorious though they be, but the community of love which they constitute. I shall characterize Extreme Social Trinitarianism as the position whose only concession to monotheism is to identify God with the community of gods. Now I grant that extreme social trinitarians believe there is but one God. But they also believe in three gods. So they are, after all, tritheists.

Extreme Social Trinitarianism is tritheistic. But Swinburne is not a tritheist, for he implicitly moderates Social Trinitarianism in two ways. One way is via his claim that God is a unity. The other is via the point that the three divine persons are 'gods' rather than gods—for they lack the sort of individuality that human persons have, and which characterized the gods of polytheistic religion. The one God is a unity in that it is impossible that any of the parts (i.e. the three divine persons) exist without the others existing. For instance, it is impossible that the First Person exist without the second, for the necessary goodness of the First Person requires the causation of the second. This contrasts with the way in which even in ideal human communities some of the parts (i.e. human persons) could have existed without others.

The second moderation of Social Trinitarianism is due to the important thesis that divine persons lack thisness. Here by a thisness I mean an unanalysable intrinsic property necessarily unique to the thing which has it. Swinburne contrasts divine thisnessless with his common sense thesis that human persons do have thisness. Or at least I take that to be common sense, but in order to do so I give it a gloss, namely that the doctrine of thisness is neutral between a nominalist and realist interpretation. On a realist interpretation a thisness exists as a constituent of the person. On a nominalist interpretation to say that a person has thisness is to say no more than that a person is primitively a this, that is, an individual whose individuality does not derive from anything else. Taken in this neutral way the thesis that human persons have thisness follows from common sense intuitions. One such intuition concerns indiscernible but non-identical human persons. The intuition is that this is an ontologically possible, although perhaps absurd, situation.5 Here, we should note, the intuition is not about metaphysical possibility. For we may well think that God's goodness would prevent such an absurdity.

One of Swinburne's major contributions is to have pointed out that there are many non-divine things which lack thisness, notably regions of space-time but also, probably, subatomic particles.6 Provided we do not think that being a person implies having thisness, it follows that there is nothing ad hoc in proposing that divine persons lack thisness.

5 Richard Swinburne, 'Thisness', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 73 (1995), 389-400. See p. 396.

6 Richard Swinburne, 'Thisness'. See p. 394.

Having made the contrast between divine persons which lack thisness and human persons which have thisness, Swinburne then follows a long tradition which maintains that the divine persons are distinct because and only because they stand in different relations to each other.7 Hence the three persons derive their individuality from precisely that which makes them parts of the one God, while human communities are, partially at least, formed out of pre-existing individuals.8

Both the ways in which Swinburne moderates Social Trinitarianism require the lack of thisness by divine persons. This is obvious in the case of the divine persons' lack of full individuality, which prevents them being gods rather than 'gods'. And Swinburne argues for it in the case of the unity of God; for were there to be three divine persons, each with thisness, we might envisage the first divine person bringing into existence not the actual second divine person but one with a different thisness (p. 176). Having a different thisness would not prevent exact similarity and the choice of one thisness rather than another is not constrained by goodness. So there could be no reason flowing from divine goodness for there being this rather than that second divine person.

The thesis that human persons have thisness may well be common sense but it is nonetheless open to objection, and if it mattered for Swinburne's moderation of Social Trinitarianism I would explain in detail why I do not rely on it.9 But it does not matter. For what is required to moderate Social Trinitarianism is divine thisnessless not human thisness. For suppose neither human nor divine persons have thisness. Then we can still make the contrast. On the one hand, divine persons are individuals because ofthe relations between them, which relations are also such as make them form the one God. On the other hand, human persons are individuals because of their differing physical and mental properties together with their relations with persons who already exist. Both the contingency of the relations with other human persons and the importance of physical and mental properties show human beings to be far more separate from each other than the divine persons.

A natural objection to Social Trinitarianism is that monotheism requires that there be just a single divine thing. My reply is that if we insist on counting divine things and put no restriction on what sort of thing we are considering, then any

7 At least prior to Creation. We need not discuss the question of whether the three divine persons are differently related to created things.

8 In view of the popularity of the thesis of the social construction of the self, I should note that what I am saying is quite uncontroversial. Children may in some sense be constructed by their relations with adults, and adults might get reconstructed by their relations with children, but quite clearly adults exist as persons before their children do.

9 Cutting a long story short, I grant that our common sense intuitions commit us to the thesis that a human person has a thisness, and I grant that common sense has some authority even on metaphysical issues but I say that this is a defeasible authority and, in this case, may well be defeated because there is no good account of how we could know of thisnesses.

distinct attributes of God would be different divine things. So if God has an infinity of attributes there are infinitely many divine things. Now the thesis of divine simplicity, according to which there is no multiplicity of divine attributes, is not implied by monotheism. Hence we must restrict what is taken to be a thing when we are counting divine things, with the expectation of getting the answer 'one'. I take the semi-technical use of'ousia' in the Nicean Creed to be a way of suitably interpreting the word 'thing' when counting divine things. And Swinburne's moderated Social Trinitarianism enables us to rely on the explication of'ousia' to mean 'substance', where I define a substance as something which cannot exist apart from its components and such that the components cannot exist apart from it. This contrasts with a different sense of 'substance' ('hypostasis' in contexts where hypostasis is contrasted with ousia), defined as that in which properties inhere. Social trinitarians, however, do not need to subscribe to the metaphysics presupposed by talk of properties inhering. For they may take it that we have a good enough grasp of the concept of a person and that this concept applies without mere equivocation to divine and human persons.10 So they can ignore talk of hypostases and use the formula 'three persons one ousia'.

Swinburne interprets the Nicean Creed's talk of the begetting of the second and the procession of the third in causal terms. As Swinburne describes it (p. 171) this requires that prior to this process there is a state in which the First Person is identical to the primordial God. The First Person ceases to be identical to God in bringing about the existence of the Second. Contrast this with my speculation in which the primordial God fissions into three persons.

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