24 December 2008

The Trinity

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 21, 2008

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is interesting. It holds that God exists as three persons: father, son (Jesus Christ), and spirit (Holy Ghost). Many Christians believe in it, including members of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Reformation branches. This last branch includes Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism. The Bible also provides some support for it. This includes Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and 2 Corinthians 13:14, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." An interesting question is whether a theist should believe in it. I should disclose that my Fredonia State colleague, Dale Tuggy, who writes here as The Theist, is an internationally recognized expert on the topic and the ideas here are influenced by his writings.

In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea held that the doctrine should be understood to involve the notion of one substance and three persons. On this account, according to The Sheed & Ward anthology of Catholic philosophy, the answer to the question: What is God? indicates the one-ness of God and the answer the question: Who is God? indicates the three-ness of the Trinity. The problem is that distinction is hard to understand.

The Trinity might mean that there are three different persons. This is analogous to three different roommates living together in an apartment (for example, Three’s Company). The concern is that if there are three distinct persons, then Christianity would be a polytheistic religion (believing in multiple gods) rather than a monotheistic one. The Christian might respond by claiming that one or more of these people is not divine (for example, Jesus is not divine), but then it is hard to square with Jesus Christ’s central role in Christianity. It is also hard to square with other parts of the Bible. Consider, for example, John 10:30, where Jesus says, "I and the Father are one."

In addition, the Council of Nicaea formulation can’t be squared with this account for if there are three different persons and if persons are distinguished because they are made out of different substances (that is, different objects), then it is hard to see how there could be just one divine substance. The notion that persons are differentiated by being made out of different substances (objects) makes sense once we recognize the logical incoherence of saying that one and the same object could constitute different persons. This is true regardless of whether the object is physical or spiritual.

Fans of the Trinity might assert that the three are different parts of the same whole. This is analogous to the way in which an elephant has different parts (for example, a trunk and two floppy ears). The problem is that a person cannot have another person as part of her. For example, a mother does not have an adult daughter as part of her even if the daughter were somehow to live inside her. If each member of the trinity were to have distinct thoughts, then it does appear that they are different persons and not merely part of one person. The notion that Jesus has thoughts that differ from those of God can be seen in that Jesus at times prays to God and this does not appear to be similar to a person conversing with himself. Also, Jesus is anguished at the thought of his future and this is not something that could be true of an all-powerful being like God.

Trinity proponents might instead assert that the three are different properties of a single person. For example, a person such as Winston Churchill was wise, courageous, and intelligent. If this is all that proponents of the Trinity are asserting then it seems obviously true. To say a perfect being like God has different properties such as vast knowledge, power, and goodness is uncontroversial. This would be unable to explain that vast amounts of ink, hard feelings, and church divisions that this doctrine has caused. In addition, this account would not explain the way in which God can be three persons.

One objection here is that all this shows is that the Trinity does not make sense when subjected to logic, but because God created logic and thus exists outside of it, this is not a problem. Exempting God from logic, however, runs the risk of reducing Christian beliefs to a contradictory morass. For example, when someone asserts that God is eternal, she means to rule out God’s having been created in 1984. However, if God is outside of logic, then the former does not rule out the latter. Similarly, when one asserts that God is all-good, she means to rule out the notion that God tortures puppies just for the fun of it. Again, this follows only if God is subject to logic. In addition, if God gave human beings reason to understand the world and then made the most important parts of it inaccessible to reason, this seems vaguely misleading, if not mean-spirited.

Some Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne of Oxford University and Stephen Davis of McKenna-Claremont College argue that there is good reason to believe that God has companions. They argue that God is perfect and that a perfect being will ensure that his life goes well. Because someone’s life goes well only if they have family or friends with whom to share their love, God would ensure that he has family or friends. This explains why there are the other members of the Trinity. This strikes me as a convincing argument, although it raises the issue of whether God created Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit or whether they exist independently of him. This argument strikes me as plausible, although it entails there are three divine beings and hence that Christians should be polytheists, that is, they should worship at least three gods and perhaps more.

The Trinity raises interesting issues. It is difficult to fit the traditional doctrine with the notion that there is only one divine being and ideas about what makes one person distinct from another. Christmas strikes me as a fun time to think about these issues.

No comments: