The mystery of the Trinity

A while back Matt and I had a discussion about whether the Trinity was a paradox (i.e., an apparent contradiction) or not. I want to revisit some of those issues again here, and maybe some others will be interested too.

This past semester I took a course on Saint Augustine, and my term paper is focusing on his trinitarian doctrine. For a long time Augustine has been smeared as a theologian who corrupted earlier trinitarian theology by unduly focusing on the unity of God at the expense of the plurality of God (with the Cappadocians, who allegedly did the opposite, invariably portrayed as the heroes), but recent scholarship has started to dismantle this claim as historically unfounded. All pro-Nicene theologies affirmed the simplicity of God, the inseparability of the operations of God, the real distinctions of the three persons, the processions, and the incomprehensibility of God and the processions of the persons.

What I have learned from reading Lewis Ayres’ enlightening book, Nicaea and its Legacy, is that really James Anderson’s thesis in his Paradox in Christian Theology was right: the Trinity is an apparent contradiction, and pro-Nicene theologians have always held it to be that.

The reason for this can be elaborated as follows:

1) The doctrine of the inseparability of the operations means that the will, power, and mind of God are one; the three persons always do the same act/thought/volition together, not as a shared project, but as a single act/thought/volition. The persons do not have distinct thought content, etc., like different human persons do. They have the same mind, they perform the same acts.

2) The only distinctions between the persons are their processions/relations. These are called causal relations, but they are not temporal causal relations, as God is eternal.

3) Saying that the only distinctions between the persons means they can’t be distinguished based on thought content; this means that portrayals of the processions (the begetting of the Son and the spiriation of the Spirit from the Father (and maybe the filioque if you’re Western)) cannot be like Richard Swinburne’s schema: the Father, a divine being, eternally creates a second divine being, and thus has the distinct mental content of having caused the Son, which the Son obviously cannot have. Again, the pro-Nicene theologians would emphasize that the persons share all thought-content; they have the same thoughts.

4) This means that when we say the persons are distinguished by their relations only, we are essentially saying: the Father is ungenerate and generating and spirating, the Son is begotten and filiating (and spirating?), the Spirit is not begotten nor ungenerate but spirated and proceeding. Or in other words: the Father is in relation to the Son and Spirit, the Son is in relation to the Father and Spirit, the Spirit is in relation to the Father and Son, but none relate to the others in exactly the same way as the other relates to them (the Son does not generate the Father, etc.). Or to put it yet another way: the Father is not the Son/Spirit, the Son is not the Father/Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father/Son.

5) But if one probes deeper into what this might mean, we cannot have recourse to any other features of the persons, since the only things they do not share are their relations. This means essentially we have no idea what we mean when we say the Son is not the Father, or that the Father spirates the Spirit. All we are saying is that somehow the persons are distinct.

All this means that we really don’t know what we’re saying when we say the persons are one God and yet distinct from each other. We are affirming that these persons are identical in every way except for their not being identical in person, and nothing more.

Someone may dispute the rationality of this; in fact many have, and thus we have modern social trinitarian theories like Richard Swinburne’s or David Brown’s, where the persons are actually just like human persons with distinct thought content. But this is the doctrine of the post-Nicene orthodox church, and (I think) is the doctrine entailed by Scripture (consider: each person is identified in the NT with YHWH of the OT, and described as a person (not as an aspect of a mind, or an action in history, or something like that), and yet YHWH is described as one person in the OT: there is one mind, will, act in God, even to the point where he says “There is none besides me”; these two claims together generate the same paradox: these persons are identical with one person, except for the fact that they are not identical with each other with regards to their unique personhoods).

But this does not answer the charge that believing such a paradoxical doctrine is unreasonable, which I will take up in another post.