Doctrine of the Trinity (part 8)

August 14, 2011     Time: 00:26:10

We have been looking at a model of the Trinity to make sense of the biblical doctrine that there are three persons who are God and yet there are not three gods but one God. What I suggested last time is that when we look at statements like “Jesus is God” or “The Father is God,” these are not to be understood as identity statements but as predications. It is like saying, “Bryant Wright is pastor.” You are saying he fills the role of pastor or he has a function of a pastor. But that is not to say he is the only pastor there is. There could be co-pastors even though Bryant Wright is pastor. So when we say “Jesus is God,” what we are saying is Jesus is divine. But we are not saying that Jesus is identical with that being which is God, which I would suggest is the whole Trinity – the whole Godhead. Jesus is not identical with the whole Godhead. He is one member of the Trinity. When we say, “The Father is God,” “The Son is God,” and “The Holy Spirit is God, ” we are not postulating three Gods because we are not making identity statements. We are making predicate statements. We are predicating properties of the persons, namely, the property of being divine.

This still leaves us wondering, however, how could these three persons all be divine and yet there not be three separate beings? How can you have three divine persons and yet not have three beings, three entities? How can you have three divine persons who are together one being?

The Analogy of Cerberus

Perhaps we can get a start at this question by means of an analogy. I hope no one will find this analogy sacrilegious. I find it useful, but I do use it with some feeling of discomfort and uneasiness. In Greek mythology, there is a dog which is supposed to be guarding the gates of Hades named “Cerberus.” One of the tasks of Hercules is to subdue Cerberus at the gates of Hades. Now, Cerberus is no ordinary dog. He is a three-headed dog, and each of these heads is a fully functioning canine head. I think we can suppose, therefore, that Cerberus has three brains and that these brains are associated with three distinct states of consciousness, whatever it is like to be a dog. Whatever a dog-consciousness is like, Cerberus has three of them, not one of them. Therefore, even though Cerberus is a sentient being, he doesn’t have a unified consciousness; rather he has three consciousnesses – three centers of consciousness. Obviously, in order for Cerberus to be a biologically viable organism, as well as to be a good guard dog, there needs to be a considerable degree of cooperation and harmony among these three canine minds. Despite the diversity of his mental states, Cerberus is clearly one dog. He is one three-headed dog, a single biological organism which exemplifies a canine nature.

We can enhance the Cerberus story a little bit by investing Cerberus with rationality and self-consciousness. In that case, Cerberus now will become a tri-personal being. Each of these consciousnesses will not simply be a canine consciousness, it will be a personal consciousness – a self-consciousness endowed with rationality and will. If we were to ask ourselves what makes Cerberus a single dog, or a single being, despite the fact that he has multiple minds, I think we doubtlessly would reply it is because he has a single, physical body. There is one physical organism in which these three minds are lodged. That answer seems all right for Cerberus so far, but suppose Cerberus were to be killed? Suppose Hercules slays Cerberus, and let’s suppose that Cerberus’ minds survive the death of his body.1 Suppose that his souls are immortal. In what sense would they then be one being if there isn’t any physical body any longer to unify them? How would the three self-conscious minds of Cerberus differ at all from three exactly similar minds which have always been unembodied, which have never been embodied in a dog body? That is the problem facing us with the Trinity. Since the divine persons are prior to the incarnation at least – three unembodied minds – we are faced with the question, “In virtue of what are they one being rather than three individual beings? Why aren’t there three Gods?”

The Nature of the Soul

Maybe we can get some insight into this question by reflecting on the nature of the soul. Souls are immaterial substances. The soul, or the mind, is not a physical thing – it is an immaterial or spiritual thing, an immaterial substance. My colleagues J.P. Moreland at Talbot School of Theology believes that souls come with a variety of capacities and faculties. For example, he would say that higher animals like chimpanzees and porpoises have souls that are more richly endowed with powers than the souls of, say, iguanas and turtles. Whether you agree with that or not, certainly we can make sense of that idea – of souls which are endowed with a range, or a spectrum, of rational powers and abilities, and these souls therefore differ in their cognitive powers and properties. What makes the human soul a person as opposed to, say, the soul of an iguana or a tortoise or even a porpoise? What makes the human soul a person? It would seem that the human soul is equipped with rational faculties of intellect and volition which enable it to be a self-reflective agent who is capable of self-determination. I will repeat that – the human soul is a person, or is personal, because it is endowed with rational faculties of intellect and volition which enable it to be a self-reflective agent capable of self-determination or free will.

A Possible Model of the Trinity

When you think about it, God is very much like an unembodied soul. When you die and your soul is separated from the body, you go to be with the Lord until the resurrection at the end of history – and you are at that time a disembodied soul. God would seem to be very much like an unembodied soul. In fact, as a mental or spiritual substance, God just is, it seems to me, an unembodied soul. He is a soul. We naturally equate a rational soul with a person, since the human souls that we are familiar with in our intercourse with one another are all persons. But the reason that human souls are individual persons is because each soul is equipped with one set of rational faculties which are sufficient for personhood. Each one of us has a set of rational faculties and volitional faculties that are sufficient for being an individual person. But suppose that God is a soul who is endowed with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties, each of which is sufficient for personhood. Then God – even though he is one soul – would not be one person, but he would be three persons. For God would have three centers of self-consciousness, three centers of intentionality (thinking about things), three centers of volition (freely willing to do things). So God, if he has three complete sets of rational faculties, will have three centers of self-consciousness, intentionality, and will, which seems to be exactly what the doctrine of the Trinity would maintain. God would clearly not be three distinct souls because the cognitive faculties that we are talking about are all properties of the same soul.2 There is one immaterial substance which is so richly endowed with cognitive faculties that it is sufficient for three persons. So God would be a spiritual substance, or soul, which is tri-personal, in contrast to us, who are individual souls, or beings, each of which is one person.

I think this model of Trinity monotheism, as it is called, would give a clear sense to the classical trinitarian formula “three persons in one substance.” That seems to be exactly what this model captures – three persons in one substance. It would seem to me that this would be a model of the Trinity that would be biblically faithful and, so far as I can see, rationally coherent. Therefore, while we cannot dogmatize and say, “This is the correct understanding of the Trinity” – we have no reason to think we should know how God can be triune! – nevertheless, it provides a model for understanding the Trinity which enables us to turn back any allegations offered by cultists, Muslims, or Unitarians who would claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is somehow a logical incoherence.


Question: When you come to a Mormon understanding, which is far broader than a Trinitarian understanding of gods and goddesses, they try to unite these particular “gods” (Jesus and the Father) by way of the will. You are not just using “will” to unite them – you are using a spectrum?

Answer: More than that! I am postulating a single substance. I take Mormonism to be polytheism. Mormonism really is a very crass, materialistic form of polytheism because they think that God has a humanoid body, literally a physical body. And the gods and goddesses sire offspring. So I take Mormonism to be utterly unlike this – it is a form of polytheism. The fact that you can have a harmony of will among two of the gods doesn’t do anything to suggest that they are one being. This is a criticism that has often been given of certain models of the Trinity, like Richard Swinburne’s, where he attempts to unite the persons of the Trinity by virtue of the unity of will and purpose. I agree with you that that doesn’t get you any more than this sort of Mormon doctrine of polytheism. You have got to have some way to unite these persons in one being. I think that what I suggested here, namely, thinking of God as a single, unembodied soul, gets you the idea of the one substance, which is critical to monotheism.

Question: Did any of the historical early church fathers or thinkers adequately explain this, and if so, why have we gone so many years with this criticism still so rampant among the non-believers?

Answer: I have read a lot of the early church fathers on the subject of the Trinity, and I am not convinced that any of them did provide an adequate explanation of how you could have three persons in one substance. I think that their burden was to articulate the doctrine, not to explain it. Similarly, with regard to the incarnation, none of them really – well, I shouldn’t say that, because I do think Apollinarius was on the right track, but – at least the creeds of Christendom don’t explain how Jesus can be one person with two natures or how God can be one being with three persons. They simply articulate what the doctrine is. I think that is the better part of wisdom, in a way. When you are doing theology, systematic theology, you want to articulate the bounds of orthodoxy, and then within those bounds I think you allow reflection and speculation about how this could be so. That is why I am offering this as a model for understanding the doctrine of the Trinity. But I don’t read in the early church fathers any really convincing attempt to provide an explanation of how this could be so.3 When you read Augustine’s classic treatise on the Trinity, at the end he more or less just says, “All of my analogies are inadequate. None of them really explains how God is like this. I’ve just tried to show that in creation there may be reflections of the trinitarian nature of God.” He more or less just throws up his hands at the end and says he can’t explain it. I don’t think you will find anything in the early church fathers that would offer a sort of metaphysical account.

Question: In support of your suggestion or solution is we have the psychological difficulty of multiple personalities, and you could take that as an example where you can have 27 personalities in the same person utilizing the same body.

Answer: In my book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, I talk a little bit about multiple personality disorders and whether these might provide some sort of analogy for understanding the Trinity. In the end, I don’t think they are helpful because in schizophrenia or the split-brain experiences, you still have one person who just has these multiple personalities; but it still is one person. It is not as though there are really different persons there. It is just that this one person can exhibit very different personalities, and these could be in conflict. I do think that those analogies are more helpful for understanding the incarnation with respect to how the divine second person of the Trinity could have a human consciousness as Jesus of Nazareth and yet a sort of overarching divine consciousness that encompasses the human consciousness in the same way that one of these split personalities can actually be aware of the other personalities and talk about “Sheila” or “Jane” and is aware of them and knows about them, even though it is one of the split personalities. So I think that is more helpful with the incarnation than here with the Trinity, where the difficulty is not to explain the psychological properties so much as to account for how you can have three distinct persons without having three different beings.

Question: The best scenario that I heard about the Trinity is that if we see the sun and the sunbeam, the sunlight, and the fruit that is ripened by the sun, this encompasses some kind of idea of the Trinity.

Answer: The idea of the sunbeam from the sun is one that the church fathers often used to try to illustrate how the Son is begotten from the Father – eternally begotten from the Father, just as the beam of light is always radiated by the sun. The sun never exists without its radiance. But I don’t think that it helps really with the Trinity – it might help you to catch an image of this idea of the Son’s being eternally begotten – because very clearly the fruit on the tree that you mention isn’t the sun. The fiery orb in the sky is not the fruit on the tree, so there is no unity there. It doesn’t really help in understanding how the three can be one. You’ve got clearly three different things there – the sun, the radiation, and the fruit on the tree.

Question: I am not understanding exactly what unifies them into one substance. What is that substance, what unifies them?

Answer: The idea is that we should start by thinking of God as a soul, just as you are a soul; and when you die, you are a disembodied soul. You are at that time an unembodied consciousness, so you are one thing – you are one immaterial substance. That is what I am inviting us to think about God as. God is an immaterial substance, a mind, just like you are when you are an unembodied soul. Then I want to invite you to think that this is a soul that is much more richly endowed with cognitive faculties than you are. You just have one set of cognitive faculties, and therefore you are one person. But I want you to try to imagine a soul that is endowed with three sets of cognitive faculties, each of which is sufficient for personhood – rationality, self-consciousness, and freedom of the will.4 I think that gets us this idea of one thing, one substance, namely, this soul, that is so richly endowed that it is tri-personal.

Followup: A lot of people don’t even define the “soul,” and I see here that you are equating mind and soul, which I definitely agree with. The French have a kind of linguistic comparison between the two, mind and spirit, but with our culture we tend to almost separate the two. So what constitutes the mind, if not volition and the other things?

Answer: This is a good question. I think what you are putting your finger on especially is that in our materialistic culture, people don’t believe in souls anymore. They think that you are just a neuro-physical organism and that there isn’t any immaterial, spiritual part to your nature. You are just a bag of chemicals on bones, and therefore this doesn’t even make sense. My trinitarian model presupposes the truth of dualism with respect to human beings. We are not just bags of chemicals on bones, but there is this immaterial aspect to our being called the soul or the mind. “The soul” is the theological synonym for what philosophers call “the mind.” When philosophers talk about the soul, they don’t use the word “soul;” they use “mind.” The nomenclature in philosophy is typically “the mind/body problem.” Is the mind identical to the body? Is the mind a sort of property of the body? Or is the mind a distinct substance from the body? I am presupposing a sort of mind/body dualism here that says that the soul is something that is a substance. It is distinct from the body. If you don’t agree with that, then this model just won’t make any sense at all.

Question: I agree with your analysis in your model. Perhaps it is like the concept of God as infinite – the word “infinite” is not found in the Bible, but we believe the concept is taught in the Bible. Do you think it is a viable alternative for someone to say that they have doubts that the trinitarian nature of God is truly a primitive Christian idea because it is not clearly affirmed? And to say we really don’t understand the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and that to quibble about the exact nature of the relationship is wrangling about words, which Paul says in 2 Timothy 2 we should not do? Is that a viable alternative, or do you need to pin this down?

Answer: As I said when we looked at the biblical material at some length, I think that in order to be biblical a view has to affirm that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God – all equally divine – and yet each is a distinct person. If you affirm that, then I think you are affirming a biblical doctrine of the Trinity even if you don’t have this sort of formulation that I have suggested in the model. I am not suggesting that the early Christians had this model in mind or anything like it in mind at all. I am doing the work of a systematic theologian, trying to reflect upon the data of Scripture and saying, “Can we make sense of it?” But as long as you make those affirmations that I suggested, I think that you can say, “It is a mystery, and I don’t know how three are one; but I affirm that each is a distinct person and each is God equally, and I rest with that.” That would be fine, I think.

Question: I derive a little comfort from what you talked about last week with the water metaphor. That makes me feel good – that water can exist in three different states depending on the ambient environment. I can imagine the Trinity being something like that. The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, depending on where it resides at the time could exist independently like water in three different states. It is the same thing except that it appears in three different forms, depending on the ambient environment.

Answer: Now that sounds like modalism to me, not like trinitarianism.5 You’ve got the water, a quantity of water, and it can be either steam, gas, or liquid depending on the ambient environment. That is modalism. Now if you say, “Wait a minute! At the triple point part of it can be solid, part of it can be liquid, and part of it can be gas,” then I am not sure that you haven’t got tri-theism there because it is different quantities of water that exhibit these different properties. How is that different from having, for example, three men all having the same human nature, but they are different parcels of matter – different men? I feel uneasy about the water analogy, whatever comfort that might bring. I would encourage you to think about this model instead and see if that would bring any illumination to this doctrine.


1 5:04

2 10:01

3 15:16

4 20:00

5 25:03