Repost: Why did God reveal the doctrine of the Trinity?

Among the objections to the doctrine of the Trinity raised by our Mormon brothers, some may be dealt with quickly.  They say that it is nonsense, but that is certainly not true.  Substantial unity is logically distinct from personal unity, and the fact that the two are isomorphic for humans does not prove that they must be so for God.  That we cannot really imagine what it would mean for a single intelligent being to have three personal “centers” is true but irrelevant.  All of the divine attributes are ultimately unimaginable to us, including those we think most self-explanatory–his omniscience (we cannot imagine knowledge that is not limited in being mediated by concepts) and omnipotence (we cannot imagine creating beings out of nothing, so that their entire existence is a participation in one’s own).  Nevertheless, we can have some abstract idea what it means to be omnipotent, omniscient, and tripersonal.

A more serious objection, raised multiple times by Bruce Charlton, is that the doctrine is unnecessary to our relationship with God, that it does nothing practically for simple believers but create confusion.  We orthodox Christians obviously do not accept this.  The dogma of the Trinity we hold to have been revealed to us by God, and when God tells us something, it’s because we need to know it.  In fact, the dogma of the Trinity vouchsafes for the orthodox what we think is the proper understanding of God’s greatest and most important promise to us–that through Christ He makes us His own sons.  Misunderstanding the nature of God opens one to disastrous misunderstandings of this promise.

First, appreciate the audacity of this promise by seeing the ontological chasm it claims to cross.  This is not like, say, Superman deciding to adopt Jimmy Olsen.  Kal-El may have many superior abilities to humans, but fundamentally Kryptonians and humans are on the same ontological level, so such an adoption wouldn’t be anything special.  No, this is more like me claiming that I’m going to adopt my pet fish as my beloved son.

Why would that be silly?  It makes sense to say that I take very good care of my fish, helping it to attain the highest level of fishly excellence.  It would even make sense–although it would be odd–to say that I love and cherish my fish.  But I can’t claim to want for my fish what I would want for my son–namely the things I would want for myself:  the excellence of my own human nature, virtue, honor, manhood.  A son I will try to raise to my own level (or, rather, the level I aspire to).  Not just for him to be well-kept like a pet, but for him to know and will as I know and will.  This sort of relationship is possible because a father and son share the same nature.

So God wishes to make us, in some sense, godlike.  However, this opens up another possible misunderstanding.  In the case of human filiation, it is natural that a son ultimately becomes a man, at which point he is equal to and independent of his father.  But God is the single source of all being, and it is absurd and impious to imagine that we shall ever–even in a future divinized state–become independent of Him and “move out of the house” as it were.  It is also metaphysical nonsense to imagine divinity as a type that could have multiple instantiations.

It is an error to imagine that God will merely perfect us as humans, and it is an error to imagine that we can ever have divinity independent of Him (even if He is the one who at first gives it to us).  Both errors make the same mistake of imagining that our beatitude is something other than God Himself, that He is merely a necessary means to some other fulfillment–human or “divine” (with divinity falsely considered apart from the One God).  However, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church insist with one voice that God Himself is our final happiness, and not any exterior good or even any good of the body or soul.

How, though, can we become like God while still relying on God?  After all, God is the “unmoved mover”; being independent and having no principles prior to Him are very fundamental divine qualities.  We are not God, we are finite, because we must rely on Him for our being.  So the serpent reminded Adam and Eve when he promised that to become like God, they had to break off from God and become principles unto themselves.

But the Enemy only spoke part of the truth.  We are not God because we are not the source, but also because we are not entirely receptive.  If a being were entirely open to God’s giving, it could receive the entirely of His being; it would be God Himself.  We are finite because as receptacles of the divine inflow, we are too brittle; we can take in so very little.  We are in a way like the finite real numbers, which are finite because they are situated between two infinities:  positive infinity (the infinity of primacy–the infinity of the Father) and negative infinity (the infinity of perfect receptivity–the infinity of the Son).  If Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, the path open to them (and to us) was the path of the Son.  One sometimes hears theologians (e.g. Balthasar) saying things to the effect that we should not think of the Trinity above us and creation below, but rather that creation somehow exists in the “space” of difference opened up between the divine persons.  I’m not really sure what they mean by this, or if it’s just European continental gobbledigook—but I think they might mean something like what I’ve just said.

The Holy Spirit is a more shadowy figure in the Christian life, and rightly so, since His role is to deliver God to the soul.  He has no “face” of his own, as some theologians say in their usual cryptic way.  Does this not seem like a humble job, the job of a messenger, the sort of thing our missionaries are supposed to be doing?  We think so only because our missionaries do it in an imperfect, human way.  If a being could deliver the mind of the Son Himself, with no interjections of its own biases or oversights, that being would be God Himself.  Thus, three ways to appropriate divinity:  source, receptacle, carrier.

The Fathers borrowed from Platonism for the very good reason that Platonism’s logic of participation provides a way to make sense of the promise of theosis.  In the Platonic system, human beings are humans because they participate in the Form of Humanity.  Each human being is a combination of Humanity and receptacle/potency/”being an instance of”.  The Form of Humanity is itself not an instance of Humanity; if it were, that would open us up to the paradox of the “third man”.  No, the Form of Humanity must be subsistent Humanity–the act of humanity without subsisting in an instance.  If it were an instance, its humanity would be enclosed in itself and could have nothing to do with anybody else’s humanity.

This is very close to the theist understanding of God (first formulated, I believe, by Ibn Sina) as subsistent existence.  To non-Christian theists, it would have been unclear whether subsistent existence could Itself have Its own nature without that reducing It to an instance, limited by being one nature among many.  (Hence, the One is “above Being”.)  The Christian scholastics, though, never doubted it.  God must have a nature, because He has promised that we can partake in it.  But to be subsistent existence, He must be identical to His own nature, because His essence is identical to His existence.  This formulation certainly makes God more mysterious than any other being, but also makes Him more communicable.

It makes no sense for someone to share in my human nature, because my “being an instance of” has enclosed my nature in myself.  If someone made a clone of me to carry out human processes just like mine, that clone would thereby have his own human nature; he would be a separate instance of humanity.  With God, things are different.  There are no instances of divinity.  If somewhat engages in distinctly divine activity (charity), it can only mean that God Himself is dwelling in that person’s soul and acting in him.

Western theologians sometimes refer to the persons of the Trinity as “subsistent relations”.  This means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have no existence apart from the interpersonal acts that define their relationships with each other.  It also means that the logic of participation can be applied to these relations–in particular, that the Sonship of Jesus Christ is something we can participate in.  If Jesus were just “a Son”–an instance of sonship–rather than “the Son”, this would not be possible.  Rather, the Fathers–and most splendidly in the great Apostle, Saint Paul, himself–speak of our adoption into divinity through a profound interpenetration with Jesus Christ.  We are to put on Christ, to be buried and rise with Him, and He is to live in us.  The identification with our Savior must be great indeed, that Christ can take upon Himself our sins, and we can take from Him His righteousness.  And none of this is a game of pretend played by the Father, but rather the identification between Christ and those he saves is so strong in reality that the Father is perfectly just in imputing the righteousness of the one to the other.

Surely, you will say, God did not intend that everyone should have to think through all of this in order to be saved?  Of course He didn’t.  All Christians must believe that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that God Himself is our final purpose and joy, and that the Father wants to make us sons through the work of the Son, but no one is obliged to think through it any further.  If one does want to think through it further, the Church has provided us with a wondrous glimpse of God’s inner life to make sure that we don’t lose our way.

11 Responses

  1. When priests of one religion compete with priests of another religion, they always say “My God is bigger than your God”. Eventually he gets so big that, like the pumped up moon god Allah, it becomes impossible for humans to relate to him.

    The trinity solves this problem. God the father is as big as Allah, Jesus is wholly man and wholly God, and had to experience pain, the sense of abandonment by God, and death, the whole human condition, and the holy ghost is a quiet voice in one’s head.

    Jesus allows us to relate to God. And, if God exists, allows God to relate to us.

  2. @Bonald

    “The dogma of the Trinity we hold to have been revealed to us by God, and when God tells us something, it’s because we need to know it. ”

    But, as you say in the last paragraph, we do not *need* to know it.

    My position, simply stated, is that there are ways of being a Christian, including ways of conceptualizing the relationship between the three persons of the Godhead, which conform to your definition that “All Christians must believe that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that God Himself is our final purpose and joy, and that the Father wants to make us sons through the work of the Son” but which reject the mystical and (to most people, including me) incomprehensible creedal formulations, such as the Athanasian creed.

    I would simply say that there are a variety of ways of being a Christian, and there are different metaphysical systems *within which* to be a Christian.

    You are assuming the validity of a particular abstract metaphysical conception of the Trinity – but this concept does not come directly from Scripture, or the known teachings of Jesus – it is derived-from them in the context of pre-existing philosophical assumptions.

    I am perfectly happy that people embrace Classical Metaphysical Philosophy as the basis for their understanding of Christianity – that is of course how most/ nearly-all intellectual Christians have been since (presumably) shortly after the time of the Apostles (I mean the Apostles who died, obviously not St John the Evangelist – who still lives).

    They, you, can be (and are!) real Christians.

    I simply point-out that it is possible to be a real Christian with a *variety* of philosophical ways of conceptualizing the Godhead – including no philosophical conception at all, but instead an explanation based on narrative and relationships.

    It is even possible to be a real Christian (and a real Christian denomination) with erroneous and incoherent understanding of the Trinity – or else we would have to acknowledge that the fruits of errors and incoherence may not be apparent in this world over considerable timescales.

    Therefore, while an understanding of the nature of God is vital; this necessary understanding seems *not* to be of an abstract, philosophical or metaphysical nature; but rather at the level of ‘relationships’ – in just the kind of way you describe in the middle of your posting.

    Indeed, aside from your framing your post in terms of opposition to my views; from having read this blog over several years I don’t really think we disagree at all about the essence of Christian life! – but only about the proper way of explaining it.

  3. Are the simpler of the creeds any more incomprehensible to the simple mind than, say, the pledge of allegiance is?

  4. @brucecharlton,

    Last Sunday, I was just looking to dig up a post on the Trinity, and the most appropriate one happened to be prompted by this year-old controversy. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I’m still looking to fight over it.

    I accept your claim that one can be a Christian with a variety of metaphysical commitments, and even with some degree of confusion and incoherence in one’s understanding of God. This is really a psychological statement: certain ideas can coexist in a single person’s mind, and there are unorthodox understandings that don’t frustrate piety on a practical level. Thus, I countered Alan Roebuck’s claim that Mormonism isn’t really Christian with my conviction that Mormons are real Christians, which was sort of a different issue, but one I felt more confident in answering.

    I think your claim is stronger, that Christianity is metaphysically undetermined, that it fits equally well within a variety of philosophical systems and can’t be used to discriminate between them. If by “Christianity” one means the Bible, this is probably true. If one includes ecclesial Tradition within the definition of Christianity, it would not be, but the status of this tradition is of course one thing that divides Catholics and Mormons. Certainly, there should be a strong presumption that a mentality among real Christians is itself really Christian (albeit perhaps erroneous or heretical–lots of heresies are really Christian, after all, and plenty of false beliefs are consistent with orthodoxy).

    And then there is another possibility: that Christianity is consistent with several brands of philosophical theism, but a particular alternative is untenable for other reasons (logically inconsistent or affectively repugnant to religious sensibility). This is usually what Orthosphere polemics are getting at, at least mine. Well, actually, this particular post was defensive. I wanted to rebut the idea that the orthodox position could itself be ruled out on logical or affective grounds.

  5. To be a Christian, one must be baptized. Mormon baptism is invalid. Ergo, Mormons are not Christians.

    All of this is aside from their belief in an infinitude of deities.

  6. My head hurts.

  7. I think one of the reasons that the Trinity is so hard to get a handle on for most people is that, like you say, we find it hard to relate to this concept of three distinct persons in one entity. Humans naturally, when describing anything, try to relate it to something similar. ergo – explaining a wolf to someone who had never seen one, we would say it looked a lot like a dog. The Trinity doesn’t really have anything analogous to itself.

    @James – you put that rather nicely. I think it goes to show the Christian concept of God is the most advanced, because it has the advantages of a religion like Hinduism, all while affirming only one all-powerful divine entity. There is only one God, and He exists only as a Holy Trinity.

  8. “If a being were entirely open to God’s giving, it could receive the entirely of His being; it would be God Himself.”

    I doubt it. Surely, it depends upon how much Being that particular being could hold.

  9. That’s the point. Only God Himself can receive the fullness of God.

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