By Dale Tuggy, originally posted on Trinities on May 19, 2016. Dale teaches philosophy and religious studies at The State University of New York. This is an extremely intelligent and balanced discussion of the various concepts of God held by Christians.
What sort of being is “God” supposed to be? Your answer to this will constrain your options when it comes to thinking about the Trinity. The “Trinity” (in the primary sense of the term) is supposed to be none other than the triune God, the tripersonal God of officially catholic traditions since the late 4th century. In other words, the Trinity and God are supposed to be one and the same, numerically one reality, referred to in different ways. But then, whatever is true of one must be true of the other.
Option #1: an idea. If you hold, like radical Anglican theologian Don Cupitt, that God is “the mythical embodiment of all one is concerned with in the spiritual life,” you believe God to be a certain human idea. (Taking Leave of God (New York: Crossroad, 1980), 166.) And so, if you’re a trinitarian, then you will hold that the Trinity too is a certain idea, that same one. For you, questions about the Trinity are questions about the thought-lives of humans, not about reality apart from human thought or imagination. For you, theology is a branch of psychology.
Option #2: a big “?”. More popular are philosophical traditions which mean by “God” an “ineffable” ultimate reality, sometimes called “the Real” or “Being itself.” This sort of “God” is such as to satisfy no human concept, so no term in any human language literally applies to it, and we can’t understand this “God” to any significant degree. Maybe we can say what it is not, and maybe we can express how we indirectly experience it or its effects. But the core idea is that we’re not able to understand how it intrinsically is. In itself, it is a blank to even our best minds. If this is what God is, and one is a trinitarian, then one will hold that the Trinity too, being God, is a blinding light (and/or an impenetrable darkness), something wholly beyond our powers of thought, imagination, and ordinary experience.
This last is a hard stance for a Christian to consistently maintain. On the face of it, the biblical authors do think they to some degree understand how God intrinsically is, by understanding his will, his desires, and his actions. Thus, Christians strongly influenced by these philosophical traditions usually try to mitigate the ineffability of God by holding that no human word or concept literally applies to God, but some apply analogically to God. By non-literally describing God, it is hoped, one may understand God to some small degree, even if this can’t be adequately expressed. This will push one in the direction of what I’ve called “negative mysterian” approaches to the Trinity. We see this approach in Augustine of Hippo, and much later the Roman Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas tries to develop a coherent doctrine of analogy, how human words apply to God with meanings similar to their meanings in mundane discourse. Another approach is to argue that we only have cognitive access to God’s “energies” but not to “the divine essence,” that is, to God as God intrinsically is. Thus, any words or concepts we correctly apply to God do so because of a match with these “energies.”
Option #3: a community. In the New Testament, we read that God is love. (1 John 4:8) And the best kind of love is a mutual love between equals, wherein the lovers cooperate to benefit a third equal, who also returns their love. This sort of speculation (precise arguments are many) has led to the conclusion that the one God, as perfect, and so, as perfect love, must be tripersonal, or at least, not “unipersonal.” Any “unipersonal” God, like Allah in Islam or the Yahweh as Jews understand him, would be lonely, inadequate, less than perfectly loving. Their non-trinitarian theologies are easily seen to collapse into incoherence; they say their god is perfect, but that god is demonstrably imperfect. To be perfect, the one God must be a community of love. As such, it has been argued, God (the perfect community) is a model for human families and societies to imitate.
But who are the members of this community? The view is usually that these are three beings, each of whom is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly free, omnibenevolent, and an uncreated creator of the cosmos. It would seem to be a community of three divine beings, which is to say, three gods. But here speculation hits a wall. Is the “one true God” really a group or community or quasi-family of three gods? Trinitarian theology is by definition supposed to include an affirmation of monotheism and a denial of tritheism; but these seem to have been reversed! Moreover, in Christian prayer and liturgy, God is always addressed using the second person singular, never the second personal plural. In churches in the American South, they pray, “God, we thank you for your blessings,” not “God, we thank ya’ll for ya’ll’s blessings.” Why is this?
Option #4: a god. The reason is that in the Bible, “God” is assumed to be a god. What is a god? The Bible uses its words we translate as “god” in a looser and in a more strict sense. In the looser sense, which is common particularly in older parts of the Old Testament, a god is just any self who is much more powerful than any normal human, and who can act even apart from or against nature’s normal ways. The main Hebrew term for this is elohim, which can be singular or plural (one decides by looking at the other words in the sentence). Thus, a ghost is an elohim (Samuel 28:13), an angel is an elohim (Genesis 35:7), and the members of God’s court are elohim (Psalm 82:1).Even certain powerful humans can be described, non-literally, as elohim. (John 10:22-39) And Yahweh too is an elohim, a god, although unique among them. (1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 97:9)
In the more strict use of “god” terms, Yahweh is the only one. The later parts of the Old Testament, and all the New Testament books, are anxious to emphasize the uniqueness of Yahweh, and so are reticent to apply god-words to anyone else, although they occasionally do. Being book-people, they were well aware of the older, looser usage. (John 10:34-35) One way to clarify matters is to talk about the onetrue god. (John 17:1-5) What is this stricter usage of “god” on which there is only one? It is the concept of a super-powerful and knowledgeable and good, unique creator of all else, who is uniquely provident over history. Angels, men, and ghosts fall far short of this, as do the “gods” of the nations, be they idols or rebellious spirits. Thus through the prophet God proclaims,
I am Yahweh, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. …there is no one besides me; I am Yahweh, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I Yahweh do all these things. (Isaiah 45:5-7, NRSV, modified)
Throughout the whole Bible, the unique God speaks, and is spoken to. A a prodigious user of singular personal pronouns, God is always an “I,” “me,” “he,” or “him,” never an “it,” “they,” or “them.” “God” in the Bible refers to one who is a god in both the looser and the stricter biblical senses of the terms. In the New Testament his uniqueness is expressed by the main expression for him which we translate as “God” – the Greek ho theos, literally the god. This is none other than the Father, as shown by the common use of all New Testament authors. For instance, notice how every letter attributed to Paul begins with his sending greetings and blessings from God, and also from Jesus. (e.g. Romans 1: 1-7; Galatians 1:1-4; Philippians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1) In the New Testament, the Father is the one “true God” (John 17:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 1 John 5:20) the only god properly speaking, that is, the only “god” in the strictest sense, the god who is over every human, even over Jesus himself. (John 20:17; Revelation 1:6; Revelation 3:12; Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:17; 1 Peter 1:3)
This Biblical pattern would seem to rule out the conceptions of God as a community or as an ineffable “Being itself.” Against this the God-as-community theorists have only their speculative arguments to fall back on. The “Being itself” crowd is often inclined to go on the offensive, tarring the idea that “God” is a god as anthropomorphism, unreasonably imaging God as if God were some sort of super-duper human. The idea that God is literally a god is derided as “theistic personalism,” a theology for the unsophisticated and uneducated. It is objected that thinking that God is a god makes God a mere “being among beings,” or puts God on a level with creatures, making God finite, understandable, and non-mysterious. To the contrary, they argue, God is beyond being, and so is not a being at all, not even the greatest being there is or could be.
Seemingly contrary to these speculations are the traditions of thinking about God as the greatest possible being, the being with the greatest set of attributes that anything could possibly have, attributes like perfect freedom, unlimited knowledge, perfect power, and perfect moral goodness. Such traditions seem to side with those who think that God is a god, and against those who think that God is a group or an ineffable Something.
One thing to avoid is the fudge of saying that God is “personal.” This weasel-term is perfectly suited to be vague between all the ways of thinking about God here distinguished. Does saying that God is “personal” mean just that God appears to us as if God were a person, a self, or that God is somewhat analogous to a self, as the “Being itself” people would have it? Or does it mean that God is composed of persons, as the God-as-community people think? Or does it mean that God just is, is numerically the same as, a certain self, a unique god? It can mean any of those, and so, it is a cover for confusion, an excuse for ceasing to think hard about all of this. If remaining adrift at sea is what you prefer, plenty of Christians out there can help you remain so. But here, we’re trying to press on through the fog, in search of solid ground.
This is your way forward. How do you, in your soberest moments, think about God? If you think that the one God is in the final analysis a community, this fits with a three-self or “social trinitarian” approach to the Trinity. If you think God is “Being itself,” then you will probably have to say that the Trinity is a nearly completely impenetrable subject for human thought and language. Perhaps you may find some help in Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox strategies for nonetheless saying something non-literal which is true about God. If instead you think of God as a god, as a certain mighty self, and unique among such, then you must decide whether to be a one-self trinitarian, who thinks of the “Persons” of the Trinity as something like ways the one divine Self is, or you can opt for non-trinitarian,unitarian theology, on which the one God is just the Father himself. Modern day bigshots of theology such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner are on the former side. Ancient bigshots of theology such asOrigen and Tertullian are on the latter side. They can’t both be correct. If God is a certain Self, who is he? Which self is he? Is he the Trinity, as fully developed catholic traditions hold, or is he the Father only, as seems to be assumed in the New Testament?
In my view, tradition is pitted against tradition here, apostles vs. bishops, and choices must be made. But mine is a minority view. Among Protestants, arguably a majority assume that what catholic traditions teach just is what is in some sense “in” the Bible, in less clearly. Is this correct?