The Coherence of the Trinity
We refer to the Athanasian Creed which gives us a useful starting point for our discussion: “We worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son is another, and the Spirit is another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty equally eternally. Thus, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; yet there are not three gods but one God…And in this Trinity there is no before or after, no greater or lesser, but all three persons are equally eternal with each other and fully equal.”
We may break down the above statement into the following propositions:
(1) The Father is God.
(2) The Son is God.
(3) The Holy Spirit is God.
(4) The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.
(5) There is one and only one God. /1/
Critics have attacked the Trinity on two counts:
A. Statement (2) basically affirms the Incarnation of Christ or the teaching that Jesus Christ possesses both the divine and human nature, as a foundational truth for the formulation of the Trinity. Critics therefore charge that the proposition that Christ is both God and man is a contradictory statement. For example, John Hick alleges that the contradiction is of the same kind as that of affirming a ‘square circle’.
Now we have no problem in affirming that the ‘square circle’ is a contradiction since by definition a square excludes being a circle. Our definitions of a square and a circle are mathematically exact and we know precisely what we are talking about.
On the other hand, it is not obviously evident why God and man need to be mutually exclusive. Certainly we are not in a position to give an exact mathematical definition of God or man. We have not succeeded in defining exactly what man is, much less who God is. We have not been given cogent demonstrations why God could not act as a subject with the characteristics of divinity and humanity under the condition of earthly existence. We can argue that no man could assume Godhood, but there seems no logical limits to God taking on manhood or acting as a subject under conditions of humanity. At least critics like Hick have not demonstrated it.
Take as an example, the case of Ahmad the (fictitious) chief minister of the state of Johor, who is also the father of Kamal now residing in Singapore. As chief minister, Ahmad has authority over all citizens of the state of Johor. Being the father of Kamal he may also exercise authority over Kamal. But his authority over Kamal is not by virtue of his position as chief minister. Neither is his authority over the state of Johor by virtue of his position as father of Kamal. The point is that we may recognize Christ as the subject of different things depending on whether we are thinking of him as God or as a man. In other words, it is appropriate to predicate certain divine qualities (e.g. he is uncreated) as well as human qualities (e.g. he was thirsty) to Jesus without confusing them as identical things.
B. The second attack comes in the charge that statements (1) to (5) constitute what is logically termed an “inconsistent set”. The ‘proof’ for this charge allegedly comes in the form of showing how the set of propositions generate two contradictory statements. Thus, statements (1), (2), (3) and (5) entail:
(6) The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one thing,
and (4) entails:
(7) The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are separate things.
However, it is evident that (6) and (7) are inconsistent. Hence, propositions (1) to (5) form an inconsistent set of statements.
But the conclusion relies on a set of logical moves that fail to recognize that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are separate things in a different sense from the sense that they are one thing. It is necessary to acknowledge how blurred the boundaries are with regard to what is a thing. Stephen Davis gives two useful illustrations: /2/
(8) Joseph, Mary and Jesus are separate things and Joseph, Mary and Jesus are one thing.
Once we realize that each thing in the first clause refers to a person while the thing in the second clause refers to a family then there is no ground to conclude that a contradiction exists.
(9) Lines AB, BC and CA are separate things and lines AB, BC and CA are one thing.
Again the contradiction is resolved if we recognize that each of the first things refers to a line while the second thing refers to a triangle.
We may now reconsider (6) and (7), and combine them as follows:
(10) The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one thing and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are separate things.
In the light of the earlier discussion on statements (8) and (9), it is obvious that different things are involved in the two occurrences in (10). There is no ground to judge the statement as self-contradictory.
Admittedly, the term “things” is used without specificity since the above analysis is restricted to the modest goal of determining the coherence of the Trinity at the formal level. However, the same logic applies in the theological formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity which is based on two propositions: (1) God is one in “essence” (ousia) and (2) God is three in “person” (hypostasis). It should be noted that the doctrine does not assert that God is one and three in the same sense, but rather that God is one in respect to “essence,” and that God is three in respect to “person.” In affirming that God is a tri-unity, we are saying that God is one in a sense that is different from the sense in which he is three.
We may speak about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit both in terms of what is common to all (essence), and what is proper to each (person):
a) When we refer to what is specific or proper to each (person), we are saying that: The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit. Finally, the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
b) When we refer to what is common to all (essence), we are saying that: The Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. Therefore, we may rightly refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together as God.
Based on the precise usage of the terms of “essence” (ousia) and “person” (hypostasis), we conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is logically coherent.
In short, the doctrine of the Trinity affirms that the Father, Son and Spirit are distinct, and yet they are a unity in the equality of the one essence. Still, within this equality there are distinctions between the persons. The terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit denote not difference in essence but their specific relations to one another. The Father is not only Father, he is the fatherhood (the relationship) in which he eternally begets (in contrast to ‘create’) the Son as Son, but not the Son as God. Likewise, the Son is the sonship in his relation to the Father. In respect to deity, the Son is God in himself (autotheos). Finally, the Holy Spirit is the relationship of ‘givenness’ between the Father and Son ((spiration or procession). But in respect to deity, the Spirit is God in himself (autotheos).
It is evident that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a product of abstract philosophical speculation. As such, the early Church applied philosophical analysis or abduction not to prove the doctrine of the Trinity but to clarify its meaning and significance. /3/ The early Church accepted the doctrine of the Trinity because it is the best explanation of the biblical data and the Christian experience of salvation.
The biblical data claims that what God does in salvation reveals what God truly is, that is, God is revealed as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is valid to infer the pattern of relationships within God-in-himself (eternal processions) on the basis of God’s work of salvation (temporal missions). In short, the premise that what God is in himself (the ontological trinity) is the basis or pattern of what God does in the work of salvation (economic trinity). This premise is the foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
The final revelation in Jesus Christ enabled the early Church to experience the reality of God’s salvation as the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was this deeper experience of God’s salvation, especially in worship, that compelled the early Church to develop the Trinitarian understanding of God. It is the testimony of the Church throughout history that anyone seeking to gain a full and proper understanding of the doctrine of the Triune God must follow the same path.
/1/ Note on whether the copula “is” refers to predication or identity – Shabir Ally has raised a common criticism in his debate with William Craig. Craig described the Trinity as analogous to a triangle – one shape, with three angles each being a part of the whole. Ally countered that each angle is not itself the triangle. Craig responded, “The ‘is’ in the statement ‘Jesus is God’ is not an ‘is’ of identity. It’s not like saying ‘Cicero is Tully,’ where those are simply two different names of the same person – an ‘is’ of identity. Rather, this is an ‘is’ of predication. It’s like saying ‘the couch is red’. You don’t mean that the couch is a color; you mean that the couch has the property of being red. Similarly, when you say ‘Jesus is God, the Father is God, the [Holy Ghost] is God,’ that is to say that they are all divine – they all share attributes of deity. This is not an ‘is’ of identity, and unless you understand that, you’re bound to be confused. So, it is simply not the case that according to the classic doctrine of the Trinity that the Godhead as a whole is identical to any one of the three persons. It is very much like a triangle, where you have one entity comprised of three angles, or one entity comprised of three persons.” The doctrine of the Trinity says we have a single divine essence – a single Godhead – and it comprises three beings who are God in a sense of predication. In short, if the statement “Jesus is God” is understood as employing a copula or predication or description, then the doctrine of the Trinity does not entail incoherence. For the full transcript of the debate between William Craig and Shabir Ally on “The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity” held at McMaster University, Canada in March 2002, see The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity
/2/ See Stephen Davis, Logic and the Nature of God (MacMillan, 1983) and Brian Davis, Thinking About God (Geoffrey Chapman, 1985).
/3/ “Abductive reasoning accepts a conclusion on the grounds that it explains the available evidence…an inference pattern sometimes called a ‘hypothesis’ or ‘inference to the best explanation,” q.v. “Abduction” in Ted Honderich, Oxford Companion to Philosophy 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2005). See Julian Bagginni, The Philosopher’s Toolkit (Blackwell), pp. 42-46.
Herman Bavinck on the unity of essence and distinction of persons in the Trinity. [Source: Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Vol.2: God and Creation (Baker, 2004), pp. 300-308]
The historic church seeks to maintain both the unity of essence and distinction of persons in the Trinity:
(1) The divine nature cannot be conceived as an abstract generic concept, nor does it exist as a substance outside of, above, and behind the divine persons. It exists in the divine persons and is totally and quantitatively the same in each person. The persons, though distinct, are not separate. They are the same in essence, one in essence, and the same being. They are not separated by time or space or anything else. They all share in the same divine nature and perfections. It is one and the same divine nature that exists in each person individually and in all of them collectively. Consequently, there is in God but one eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient being, having one mind, one will, and one power…God is absolute unity and simplicity, without composition or division; and that unity itself is not ethical or contractual in nature, as it is among humans, but absolute; nor is it accidental, but it is essential to the divine being [p. 300].
(2)…the word “person” simply means that the three persons in the divine being are not “modes” but have a distinct existence of their own. The emphasis here in no way lies on the elements of rationality and self-consciousness, for this follows naturally from the fact that all three persons have the same being and attributes and hence the same knowledge and wisdom. What does come out in the term “person,” however, is that the unity of the divine being opens itself up in a threefold existence. It is “a unity that derives the Trinity from within its own self.” The persons are not three revelational modes of the one divine personality; the divine being is tripersonal, precisely because it is the absolute divine personality [p 302].
[Finally], the divine nature similarly develops its fullness in three persons, but in God these three persons are not three individuals alongside each other and separated from each other but a threefold self-differentiation within the divine being. This self-differentiation results from the self-unfolding of the divine nature into personality, thus making it tri-personal…The three persons are the one divine personality brought to complete self-unfolding, a self-unfoldment arising out of, by the agency of, and within the divine being…The difference did not consist in any substance but only in the relations, but this distinction is grounded in revelation and therefore objective and real. The difference really exists, namely, in the mode of existence. The persons are modes of existence within the being; hence, the persons differ among themselves as one mode of existence differs from another [p. 303].
God is no abstract, fixed, monadic, solitary substance, but a plenitude of life. It is his nature (οὐσια) to be generative (γεννητικη) and fruitful (καρπογονος). It is capable of expansion, unfolding, and communication [p. 308].