Models of the Trinity

Does the doctrine of the Trinity make sense? Enlightenment thinkers denounced the doctrine as incoherent, but during the twentieth century many theologians came to a fresh appreciation of trinitarian theology, and in recent decades a number of Christian philosophers have sought to formulate philosophically defensible versions of the doctrine of the Trinity. Two broad models or approaches are typically identified: social trinitarianism, which lays greater emphasis on the diversity of the persons, and Latin trinitarianism, which places greater stress on the unity of God. This nomenclature, however, is misleading, since the great Latin church fathers Tertullian and Hilary were both social trinitarians, as was Athanasius, a fount of Latin theology. Therefore, we shall instead contrast social trinitarianism with what one wag has called anti social trinitarianism. The central commitment of social trinitarianism is that in God there are three distinct centers of self-consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will. The central commitment of anti social trinitarianism is that there is only one God, whose unicity of intellect and will is not compromised by the diversity of persons. Social trinitarianism threatens to veer into tritheism; anti social trinitarianism is in danger of lapsing into unitarianism.

Social trinitarians typically look to the Cappadocian Fathers as their champions. As we have seen, they explain the difference between substance and hypostasis as the difference between a generic essence, say, man, and particular instances of it, in this case, several men like Peter, James and John. This leads to an obvious question: if Peter, James and John are three men each having the same nature, then why would not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit similarly be three Gods each having the divine nature?

In his letter To Ablabius That There Are Not Three Gods, Gregory of Nyssa struggled to answer this question. He emphasizes the primacy of the universal, which is one and unchangeable in each of the three men. This is merely to highlight a universal property, which Gregory holds to be one in its many instantiations, rather than the property instance of that universal in each man. Gregory, like Plato, thinks of the universal as the primary reality. He advises that rather than speaking of three Gods, we ought instead to speak of one man. But this answer solves nothing. Even if we think of the universal as the primary reality, still it is undeniable that there are three instances of that reality who, in the one case, are three distinct men, as is obvious from the fact that one man can cease to exist without the others ceasing to do so. Similarly, even if the one divine nature is the primary reality, still it is undeniably exemplified by three hypostaseis, who should each be an instance of deity.

In order to block the inference to three Gods, Gregory also appeals to the ineflability of the divine nature and to the fact that all the operations of the Trinity toward the world involve the participation of all three persons. But even granted his assumptions, one cannot justifiably conclude that there are not three cooperatively acting individuals who each share this ineffable nature, and any remaining indistinguishability seems purely epistemic, not ontological.

Gregory goes on to stress that every operation between God and creation finds its origin in the Father, proceeds through the Son and is perfected by the Holy Spirit. Because of this, he claims, we cannot speak of those who conjointly and inseparably carry out these operations as three Gods. But Gregory's inference seems unjustified. Simply because we creatures cannot distinguish the persons who carry out such operations, one cannot therefore conclude that there are not three instances of the divine nature at work; moreover, the very fact that these operations originate in the Father, proceed through the Son and are perfected by the Spirit seems to prove that there are three distinct if inseparable operations in every work of the Trinity toward creation.

Finally, Gregory appears to deny that the divine nature can be multiply instantiated. He identifies the principle of individuation as "bodily appearance, and size, and place, and difference in figure and color''—"That which is not thus circumscribed is not enumerated, and that which is not enumerated cannot be contemplated in multitude.'' Therefore, the divine nature "does not admit in its own case the signification of multitude.'' But if this is Gregory's argument, not only is it incompatible with there being three Gods, but it precludes there being even one God. The divine nature would be uninstantiable, since there is no principle to individuate it. If it cannot be enumerated, there cannot even be one. On the other hand, if Gregory's argument intends merely to show that there is just one generic divine nature, not many, then he has simply proved too little: for the universal nature may be one, but multiply instantiated. Given that there are three hypostaseis in the Godhead, distinguished according to Gregory by the intratrinitarian relations, then there should be three Gods. The most pressing task of contemporary social trinitarians is to find some more convincing answer to why, on their view, there are not three Gods.

Anti social trinitarians typically look to Latin-speaking theologians like Augustine and Aquinas as their champions. To a considerable extent the appeal to Augustine rests on a misinterpretation that results from taking in isolation his analogies of the Trinity in the human mind, such as the lover, the beloved and love itself (On the Trinity 8.10.14; 9.2.2) or memory, understanding and will (or love) (10.11.17-18). Augustine explicitly states that the persons of the Trinity are not identified with these features of God's mind; rather, they are "an image of the Trinity in man'' (14.8.11; 15.8.14). "Do we,'' he asks, "in such manner also see the Trinity that is in God?'' He answers, "Doubtless we either do not at all understand and behold the invisible things of God by those things that are made, or if we behold them at all, we do not behold the Trinity in them'' (15.7.10). In particular, Augustine realizes that these features are not each identical to a person but rather are features which any single human person possesses (15.7.11). Identifying the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with the divine memory, understanding and love, Augustine recognizes, would lead to the absurd conclusion that the Father knows himselfonly by the Son or loves himself only by the Holy Spirit, as though the Son were the understanding of the Father and the Spirit, and the Father the memory of the Spirit and the Son! Rather, memory, understanding and will or love) must belong to each of the individual persons (15.7.12). Augustine concludes with the reflection that having found in one human person an image of the Trinity, he had desired to illuminate the relation among the three divine persons; but in the end three things which belong to one person cannot suit the three persons of the Trinity (15.24.45).

Anti social trinitarians frequently interpret Augustine to hold that the persons of the Trinity just are various relations subsisting in God. But this is not what Augustine says (5.3.4-5.5.6). Arians had objected that if the Father is essentially unbegotten and the Son essentially begotten, then the Father and Son cannot share the same essence or substance (homoousios). In response to this ingenious objection Augustine claims that the distinction between Father and Son is a matter neither of different essential properties nor of different accidental properties. Rather, the persons are distinguished in virtue of the relations in which they stand. Because "Father'' and "Son'' are relational terms implying the existence of something else, Augustine thinks that properties like begotten by God cannot belong to anything's essence. He evidently assumes that only intrinsic properties go to constitute something's essence. But if being begotten is not part of the Son's essence, is it not accidental to him? No, says Augustine, for it is eternally and immutably the case for the Son to be begotten. Augustine's answer is not adequate, however, since eternality and immutability are not sufficient for necessity; there could still be possible worlds in which the person who in the actual world is the Father does not beget a Son and so is not a Father. Augustine should instead claim that Father and Son imply internal relations between the persons of the Godhead, so that there is no possible world in which they do not stand in that relation. The Father and Son would share the same intrinsic essential properties, but they would diflEr in virtue of their differing relational properties or the different internal relations in which they stand. Note what Augustine does not say, namely, that the Father and Son just are relations. It is true that Augustine felt uneasy about the terminology of "three persons'' because this seems to imply three instances of a generic type and hence three Gods (5.9.10; 7.4.7-8). He accepted the terminology somewhat grudgingly for want of a better word. But he did not try to reduce the persons to mere relations.

For a bona fide example of anti social trinitarianism, we may turn to Thomas Aquinas, who pushes the Augustinian analogy to its apparent limit. Aquinas holds that there is a likeness of the Trinity in the human mind insofar as it understands itself and loves itself (Summa contra gentiles 4.26.6). We find in the mind the mind itself, the mind conceived in the intellect, and the mind beloved in the will. The difference between this human likeness and the Trinity is, first, that the human mind's acts of understanding and will are not identical with its being and, second, that the mind as understood and the mind as beloved do not subsist and so are not persons. By contrast, Aquinas's doctrine of divine simplicity implies that God's acts of understanding and willing are identical with his being, and he further holds (paradoxically) that God as understood and God as beloved do subsist and therefore count as distinct persons from God the Father. According to Aquinas, since God knows himself, there is in God the one who knows and the object of that knowledge, which is the one known. The one known exists in the one knowing as his Word. They share the same essence and are indeed identical to it, but they are relationally distinct (4.11.13). Indeed, Aquinas holds that the different divine persons just are the different relations in God, like paternity (being father of) and filiation (being son of) (Summa theolo-giae la.40.2). Despite his commitment to divine simplicity, Aquinas regards these relations as subsisting entities in God (Summa contra gentiles 4.14.6, 11). Because the one knowing generates the one known and they share the same essence, they are related as Father to Son. Moreover, God loves himself, so that God as beloved is relationally distinct from God as loving (4.19.7-12) and is called the Holy Spirit. Since God's knowing and willing are not really distinct, the Son and Holy Spirit would be one person if the only difference between them were that one proceeds by way of God's knowing himself and the other by way of God's loving himself. But they are distinct because only the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

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