The Statue/Lump Analogy and the 'Is' of Composition
Thanks to Bill Clinton, it is now widely appreciated that much rides on what the meaning of ‘is’ is. Time was, when only philosophers were aware of this. So far in our Trinitarian explorations we have discussed the ‘is’ of identity and the ‘is’ of predication. We saw that ‘The Father is God’ could be construed as
1. The Father is identical to God
2. The Father is divine.
Both construals left us with logical trouble. If each of the Persons is identical to God, and there is exactly one God, then (given the transitivity and symmetry of identity) there is exactly one Person. On the other hand, if each of the Persons is divine, where ‘is’ functions as copula, then tri-theism is the upshot. Either way, we end up contradicting a central Trinitarian tenet.
But there is also the ‘is’ of composition as when we say, ‘This countertop is marble,’ or in my house, ‘This countertop is faux marble.’ ‘Is’ here is elliptical for ‘is composed of.’ Compare: ‘That jacket is leather,’ and ‘This beverage is whisky.’ To say that a jacket is leather is not to say that it is identical to leather – otherwise it would be an extremely large jacket – or that it has leather as a property: leather is not a property. A jacket is leather by being made out of leather.
Suppose you have a statue S made out for some lump L of material, whether marble, bronze, clay, or whatever. How is S related to L? It seems clear that L can exist without S existing. Thus one could melt the bronze down, or re-shape the clay. In either case, the statue would cease to exist, while the quantity of matter would continue to exist. It follows that S is not identical to L. They are not identical because something is true of L that is not true of S: it is true of L that it can exist without S existing, but it is not true of S that it can exist without S existing.
Although S is not identical to L, S is not wholly distinct, or wholly diverse, from L either. This is because S cannot exist unless L exists. This suggests the following analogy: The Father is to God as the statue is to the lump of matter out of which it is sculpted. And the same goes for the other Persons. Schematically, P is to G as S to L. The Persons are like hylomorphic compounds where the hyle in question is the divine substance. Thus the Persons are not each identical to God, which would have the consequence that they are identical to one another. Nor are the persons instances of divinity which would entail tri-theism. It is rather than the persons are composed of God as of a common material substance. Thus we avoid a unitarianism in which there is no room for distinctness of Persons, and we avoid tri-theism. So far, so good.
Something like this approach is advocated by Jeffrey Brower and Michael Rea, here.
But does the statue/lump analogy avoid the problems we faced with the water analogy? Aren’t the two analogies so closely analogous that they share the same problems? Liquid, solid, and gaseous are states of water. Similarly, a statue is a state of a lump of matter. Modalism is not avoided. If the Persons are like states, then they are not sufficiently independent. But a statue is even worse off than a state of water. Water can be in one of its states whether or not we exist. But a hunk of matter cannot be a statue unless beings like us are on the scene to interpret it as a statue. Thus my little ceramic bust of Beethoven represents Beethoven only because we take it as representing the great composer. In a world without minds, it would not represent anything. The Persons of the Trinity, however, are in no way dependent on us for their being Persons of the Trinity.
It might be counterargued that water is not to its states as lump to statue. Water must be in one of its three states, but a lump of bronze need not be in any statue-state. That is indeed a point of disanalogy between the two analogies. But notice that God and the Persons are necessarily related: God cannot exist without the Persons. A lump of bronze can exist without being a statue. In this respect, the water analogy is better: water must be in one its three states just as God must be composed of the three Persons.
Besides the threat of modalism, there is also the fact that God is not a substance in the sense in which clay and water are substances. Thus God is not a stuff or hyle, but a substance in the sense of a hypostasis or hypokeimenon. And it does no good to say that God is an immaterial or nonphysical stuff since what must be accommodated is the divine unity. The ground of divine unity cannot be matter whether physical or nonphysical. We saw that one and the same quantity of H20 cannot be simultaneously and throughout liquid, solid, and gaseous. Similarly, one and the same quantity of bronze cannot be simultaneously and throughout three different statues. Connected with this is how God could be a hylomorphic compound, or any sort of compound, given the divine simplicity which rules out all composition in God.
In sum, the statue/lump analogy is not better than the water/state analogy. Neither explains how we can secure both unity of the divine nature and distinctness of Persons.