The central claim of the doctrine of the Trinity is that God exists in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This claim is not problematic because of any superficial incoherence or inconsistency with well-entrenched intuitions. Rather, it is problematic because of a tension that results from constraints imposed on its interpretation by other aspects of orthodox Christian theology. These constraints are neatly summarized in the following passage from the so-called Athanasian Creed:
We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the Persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person for the Father, another for the Son, and yet another for the Holy Spirit. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one... The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, and the Holy Spirit is eternal; and yet they
3 Note, however, that we stop short of actually endorsing the solution that we describe. There are three reasons for this. First, our solution, like most others, attempts to provide a metaphysical account of the ultimate nature of God. But surely here, if anywhere, a great deal of circumspection is warranted. Second, the contemporary Trinitarian debate, as we see it, is still in its infancy; hence a deWnitive stand on any particular solution, including our own, strikes us as a bit premature. Third, the solution we develop strongly supports a specific understanding of material constitution (as will become clear in Section 4)—one that is at odds with some of our previously considered views on the matter. (See, e.g., Rea 2000.) But, given the current state of the Trinitarian debate, we are uncertain whether this fact should motivate us to change our views about material constitution or to continue exploring yet other alternatives to the currently available accounts of the Trinity. Thus, it is important to understand that we are not here aiming to resolve the contemporary Trinitarian debate once and for all, but rather to advance it by introducing what seems to us to be the most promising solution to the problem of the Trinity developed so far.
are not three eternals, but there is one eternal. Likewise, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, and the Holy Spirit is almighty; and yet there are not three almighties, but there is one almighty. Thus, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but there is one God.4
The passage quoted here is widely—and rightly—taken to offer a paradigm statement of the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, it tells us that the doctrine of the Trinity must be understood in such a way as to be compatible with each of the following theses:
(T1) Each Person of the Trinity is distinct from each of the others.
(T2) Each Person of the Trinity is God.
(T3) There is exactly one God. Each of these theses is affirmed by the Creed in order to rule out a specific heresy. T1 is intended to rule out modalism, the view that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not really distinct from one another. According to modalism, each Person is just God in a different guise, or playing a different role—much like Superman and Clark Kent are just the Kryptonian Kal-El in different guises, or playing different roles. T2 is intended to rule out subordinationism, the view that not all of the Persons are divine, or that the divinity of one or more of the Persons is somehow unequal with, or subordinate to, that of the others. T3 is intended to rule out polytheism, the view that there is more than one God. The problem, however, is that the conjunction of T1—T3 is apparently incoherent. For on their most natural interpretation, they imply that three distinct beings are each identical with one being (since each of the Persons is God, and yet there is only one God).
In the contemporary literature, there are two main strategies for solving the problem: the Relative-Identity strategy, and the Social-Trinitarian strategy. Both of these strategies solve the problem at least in part by denying that the words 'is God' in Trinitarian formulations mean 'is absolutely identical with God'. Thus both are well-poised to avoid the heresy of modalism.5 Furthermore, both affirm T2 (or some suitable variant thereof); thus, subordinationism is not a worry either. The real question is whether either manages to avoid polytheism without incurring other problems in the process. In our view, the answer is no—at least not as these solutions have been developed in the literature so far. Social Trinitarianism we reject outright. The Relative-Identity solution we reject as a stand-alone solution to the problem of the Trinity. (That is, we think that it is successful only if it is supplemented by a story about the metaphysics of relative-identity relations. More on this at the end of Section 2 below). Since we have already explained elsewhere why we find these solutions unsatisfying, we will not
4 Quicumque vult (our translation).
5 Denying that 'is God' means 'is absolutely identical with God' doesn't guarantee that modalism is false; but making the denial removes any pressure toward modalism that might arise out of
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