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A Trinitarian Trilemma

Concerning whether the Christian God is a self

A couple years ago I enjoyed reading Dale Tuggy’s article entitled “Divine Deception and Monotheism” in the online Journal of Analytic Theology. I’d like to share some highlights from his article and offer some comments of my own along the way.

Dale’s Trinitarian Trilemma

The article begins with the following inconsistent triad:¹

  1. The Christian God is a self.
  2. The Christian God is the Trinity.
  3. The Trinity is not a self.

One of these claims is false. But which one?

Option A: Perhaps the Trinity is in fact a self?

Dale points out that certain “prominent theologians such as Barth and Rahner . . . [have] taken for granted that the Trinity is not much like a group of three selves.”² Along these lines Robert Letham writes, “the doctrine of the Trinity does not admit that the three are separate centers of self-consciousness, as the post-nineteenth century idea of human personality understands persons. This would indeed be tritheism.”³

Thomas McCall expresses my concerns with this option quite well:

Despite their stature as important theologians, however, it is hard to see how Rahner and Barth might be right on this point. The Son very clearly is presented in the New Testament as an “I” in relation to another divine “Thou.” Only the Father sends, only the Son becomes incarnate, and only the Spirit comes at Pentecost. Only the Son is baptized, only the Father says, “this is my beloved Son,” and only the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Only the Son prays “not my will but yours be done,” and he prays it to his Father. For orthodoxy, it is undeniable that “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” As the early controversies with modalism made clear, to deny this is to make a charade of the narrative drama of Scripture, and especially of the paschal mystery of Christ and his Abba.⁴

I need to look elsewhere.

Option B: Perhaps God is not a self?

Dale notes that many Christian social Trinity theories imply that “the Christian God is not a self, but rather some sort of group, collective, or complex whole which somewhat resembles a self.”⁵ I’ve personally taken this option seriously in the past. It’s main weakness, however, is that it claims that God is properly an it rather than a he, a group of selves rather than a self. What’s wrong with that? My main concern is that we never speak of God as anything other than a person in everyday Christian discourse. That’s because the Scripture consistently speaks of God as an individual self, and never as a group of individual selves.⁶

Richard Bauckham suggests that Old Testament talk of God-as-a-self only serves as an analogy for God since “the God of Israel clearly transcends the categories of human identity.”⁷ This strikes me as deeply unsatisfactory. Why shouldn’t I take the fact that Scripture describes God as a self and Jesus and his Father as different selves at face value? In any case, those who believe otherwise should speak accordingly. However, Dale points out (and I know from personal experience) that those who embrace option B “know their theory to be controversial, so they habitually hide it, by almost always speaking of the Christian God as if it were a self.”⁸ This seems dishonest once one realizes what one is doing. Once I did, I had to stop.

Option C: Perhaps the Christian God is not the Trinity?

In the past I would have had a hard time taking this option seriously, but on a face value reading of Scripture, I am forced to (tentatively) reject the other two options. (We’ll pass over the matter of whether a face value reading is best, all things considered).

What would it look like to embrace option C? Surprisingly, it would look a lot like the early church and the New Testament. Dale points to Samuel Clarke’s book The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity as a sophisticated example of option C. In his book, which I read a few years ago, Clarke surveys the entire New Testament — as well as many pre-Nicene thinkers — to determine how language about God is typically used. He concludes, amongst other things, that,

When the Word, God, is mentioned in Scripture, with any High Epithet, Title, or Attribute annexed to it; it generally, (I think, always) means the Person of the Father. . . . The Scripture, when it mentions GOD, absolutely and by way of Eminence; always means the Person of the Father.⁹

Once you’ve read Clarke’s book (or the New Testament) its hard to argue with these conclusions. As such, for what it’s worth, a face value reading of Scripture and early church history supports option C.

Immediate Concerns

Perhaps there are some overriding reasons to reject option C and prefer a non-face value interpretation. Perhaps the foremost concern on option C is the status of Jesus as the Son of God. Is he divine? Can he be worshipped? Is our received understanding of salvation affected?

I doubt that there’s any threat here. I think Athanasius provides support here, despite being perhaps the foremost historic defender of the Nicene Creed. He distinguishes two meanings of the word “unoriginate”, namely (a) “what is, but is neither generated, nor has any personal cause at all,” and (b) “the uncreate.”¹⁰ He then affirms that Jesus the Son of God is unoriginate in the latter but not in the former sense.¹¹

Athanasius clearly affirms that only the Father is without personal cause. However, both the Son and the Father are uncreated. We thereby see Athanasius adopting something like option C, along the lines of Samuel Clarke. The only one without personal cause for Christians (the Christian God) is the Father. Nevertheless, the Son is not created. Something similar applies for various other attributes.

There are certainly other ways to think of things under option C, many of which run into problems. But as far as I can tell, Scripture and early church history (at face value) points to something like option C.

  1. Dale Tuggy, “Divine Deception and Monotheism,” Journal of Analytic Theology 2 (May 2014): 186.
  2. Ibid., 193.
  3. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub, 2004), 282.
  4. Thomas H McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), 89, emphasis added.
  5. Tuggy, “Divine Deception and Monotheism,” 187.
  6. I became convinced of this point upon reading Samuel Clarke, The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, and Related Writings, ed. Dale Tuggy, 4th Edition (Dale Tuggy, 2008).
  7. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel : God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 56.
  8. Clarke, The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, and Related Writings, 199.
  9. Ibid., 133–134.
  10. Athanasius, “De Synodis,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Archibald Robertson, vol. 4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994),, 46, cf. 47 in which Athanasius discusses how Ignatius used the term in multiple senses.
  11. “As then a person, having in view the former of these senses, viz. ‘that which has no personal cause,’ might say that the Son was not unoriginate, yet would not blame any one whom he perceived to have in view the other meaning, ‘not a work or creature but an eternal offspring,’ and to affirm accordingly that the Son was unoriginate, (for both speak suitably with a view to their own object)” ibid., 46.