Thursday, January 13, 2005

Chuck B on the Trinity

Chuck B. writes via e-mail:

. . . Your Trinity discussion is interesting, and it has forced me to think a little more carefully about this doctrine. In brief, I do think that there are passages in the Bible that are hard to take as doing other than asserting the divinity and personality of both Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus, while the doctrine of the Trinity isn't set forth systematically in the Bible as it would be in a creed, I do think there is scriptural warrant for it. I write this knowing that you most likely have a different stance with respect to the Bible than I do, and I freely admit that my view of scripture has a lot to do with regarding it as warranting belief in the Trinity.

BV: I write as a philosopher, not as someone schooled in biblical hermeneutics. My main concern at the moment is with the rational acceptability of the doctrine in its orthodox, Athanasian, formulation. Of course, philosophers are nothing if not epistemically ambitious and so some of us would like to be able to prove not only the existence of God but his triune nature as well. But for the moment I am concerned with the much more modest question of rational acceptability/unacceptabilty -- a question tough enough by itself. I am also interested in doctrines like that of the Trinity and the Incarnation as entry points into an array of intrinsically fascinating questions in philosophical logic and ontology, questions about identity, predication, existence, mereology, modality, property-possession, and others. It is impossible to think about these dogmas without asking such questions as: What is a person? What is a substance? What is it for two things to be identical? And so on.

It bothers me that nothing can be established by citing Scripture. Suppose a Christian and a Jew are debating. (This occurred on Larry King Live the other night.) The Christian points to the Johannine text, "I and the Father are one." Will that convince the Jew that Jesus is God? Of course not. The Jew will question whether Jesus ever said such a thing. (As Dennis Prager did on LKL.) For a Jew, the radical transcendence and unity of God is the lense through which he reads the texts; hence anything that doesn't fit with that antecedent commitment to transcendence and unity will be discounted as apocryphal or else it will be re-interpreted.

The same goes for Muslims. For them, there is no god but God. God is one. (Allah bir as I used to hear in Turkey.) That does not simply mean that there is exactly one God, but that God is unique in a way that rules out the very possibility of a competitor. Muslims draw the conclusion that God cannot have a son, not in time, or in eternity either. Thus they reject both the Incarnation and the Trinity. Note that Incarnation presupposes Trinity, a point I won't argue for at the moment.

I haven't studied all your postings on the issue, but in your response to William Tanksley, Jr. [1], you focus on the nature of the unity of the three persons of the Godhead. This is a compelling question, and tentatively I am inclined to think that it is at the root of questions like predication vs. identity. Your point seems to be that if God is a personal unity of three persons (where 'person' is understood as a unity of consciousness), that unity itself is a fourth person.

BV: Well, that is one of the difficulties that arise. Classical theists want to say that God is a person, a conscious and self-conscious agent who freely does things (like create the world) for a reason. Now if God 'as a whole' is a person, and the F, S, and HS are each persons, then there are four persons.

Of course, one might say that God 'as a whole' is not a person but a collection or perhaps a society of persons. But then the threat of tritheism looms large, and the Jewish and Islamic criticisms win the day. For how could the unity of God be a mere collection or society?

God, as I understand Him, is utterly unique and unprecendented. He (if I may use this pronoun without being taken to assert the unitary personality of the Godhead) is the sole uncreated, noncontingent being ever and everywhere. The Logos is, as it were, *hapax legomenos*.

BV: That is a very interesting way of putting it. The Logos, the Word, is a word that occurs only once. Of course, you are assuming that it is unproblematic to identify God with the Logos. Apart from Trinitarian considerations, it is surely true that God, to be worthy of worship, to be "that than which no greater can be conceived," (Anselm of Canterbury) must be absolutely unique, not just One without a second, but One without even the possibility of a second.

Now, in some bare sense we understand what means to say that God is noncontingent and uncreated. We know we aren't asserting an antinomy when we say such things (or at least I *think* I know that I am not asserting an antinomy when I say such things). I see nothing illogical about thinking this about God.

BV: I agree with you. In a thorough discussion, however, one would have to refute those who maintain that necessity, possibility, etc. are alethic modalities, modalities of truth, that attach to propositions but not to nonpropositional entities like God and Socrates. If they are right, then one cannot predicate necessity of God. There is modality de dicto but not de re.

There is also this wrinkle: If X is noncontingent does it follow that X is necessary? Isn't the impossible also noncontingent? Meinong's round square is an impossible object: it cannot exist. It is therefore noncontingent in this sense: it is NOT such that, (i) if it exists, it might not have existed; and (ii) if it does not exist, then it might have existed. I can explain that further if you like.

And yet how far do I really grasp God's uncreatedness and noncontingency? So here we have two attributes that the Christian (and probably the Jew and Muslim) can predicate of God, and which are

(1) without precedent or exact analogy in the universe;
(2) logically coherent;
(3) not illogically predicated of God; and
(4) meaningfully but incompletely grasped by humans.

If we can meaningfully think that God alone is uncreated and noncontingent in senses that are (1) - (4), it seems to me difficult to rule out the notion that God participates in a kind of unity that is also (1) - (4). Tentatively I suggest that the answer for theTrinitarian lies in this direction.

BV: This is excellent. You have a philosophical head. What you have said is equivalent to the following. God is absolutely unique: not just contingently one of a kind, or even necessarily one of a kind, but such that the very distinction between kind and instance of a kind collapses. (Thus you may be betraying your thought when you write, "participates in a kind of unity...") If so, the unity of God is absolutely sui generis, absolutely unique, so that this unity cannot be represented as a kind of unity known here below. The unity of God is its own kind of unity, tri-unity. I take it that 'trinity' is a truncation or telescoping or contraction of 'tri-unity.' In other words, 'trinity' does not mean threeness, but three-in-one-ness.

Nevertheless, it is still unclear how the foregoing could solve the 'four person' problem. Ater all, 'person' is not being used equivocally when we say that Socrates is a person and God is a person.

I haven't thought this through very completely, and perhaps you can show logically that there can be no such unity, that we are limited either to a unity of the set or a unity of personality, or to some other unity that isn't all of (1) -(4). I do not have a positive statement of the Trinity along these lines, and I don't claim to have done any more than to sketch out a kind of answer to this problem. Da sind meine zwei Groschen.

BV: Actually, your 'two cents' are much more than that. I don't think anyone could show that there could not be any such unity (without making dogmatic assumptions); but we still need a way to show how such a unity (a tri-unity) is conceivable. What we need are some mundane examples of trinity or binity (bi-unity) that point us in the direction of the Trinity. We need some analogical bridges. I'll be coming back to this.