May 02, 2006

"Three Persons, One Substance" - Paradox or Solution?

I seem to have opened quite the can of worms in my post on Church dogma the other day when I said:

There seem to be some clear (to me) cases of Christian dogma that are not obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture. For example, consider the formulation of the trinity as three persons (Greek hupostaseis and/or prosopa, Latin personae) in one substance/essence (Greek ousia, Latin essentia and/or substantia). This type of formulation is extremely common in the Christian tradition, and is derived primarily from the Chalcedonian Creed. However, I don't think we can say that it is obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture; that is, there is no reason to say that someone looking at Scripture by some particular method that did not include granting some authority to tradition would lead many people to come independently to this conclusion. What is in Scripture is this paradox: the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, there is only one God. Any number of formulations of the solution could be compatible with the Scripture, but one in particular is generally believed to be part of Christian dogma.

There were many good responses to this, but the one I want to talk about is these few lines from vangelicmonk:
I would posit that the doctrine of the Trinity of three persons and one substance is not a solution for the paradox, but just a restating of what the paradox is from scripture. I don't think Orthodoxy has gone too far from that. Just a restatement that we mostly accept as mystery.

I think the danger comes to when we do try to explain that mystery. Like modalism where we say that the Father becomes Jesus and then the Holy Spirit. Or JW answer which is Jesus is not God but something else and the H.S. is just a power. In this particular dogma, when the mystery is tried to be solved, it creates problems.

Now let me be perfectly clear here: I absolutely do believe and am convinced that God exists as three co-equal and co-eternal Persons in a single Substance or Essence. It'sjust that I'm not always sure what I mean when I say that, and I've recently had some doubts about where that doctrine comes from. It seems to me, as I said, to be a clear case of Christian dogma, but what do we mean by it? Is it just a restatement of the paradox from Scripture?

As I see it, there are two ways that we can treat this statement. First, we can say something like "we know from Scripture that God is three in one sense, and yet one in another sense; let's call the concept under which he is three 'person' and the concept under which he is one 'substance.'" If we do this, we are doing nothing but restating the paradox from Scripture, as vangelicmonk says. However, we can't be sure that we are using the words 'person' and 'substance' in this context in the same way we use them in other contexts. This is perfectly ok with a lot of Christian thinkers. For instance, Thomas Aquinas thinks that when we speak about God we are always speaking by analogy. So, a Thomist could say some thing like: "when we say that God is three persons in one substance, we mean that there is some concept roughly analogous to the concept of 'person' as we ordinarily use it, such that if we consider God under that concept we will rightly state that he is three, but there is another concept, one roughly analogous to the concept of 'substance' such that if we consider God under it we will rightly say that God is one." (I'm not a Thomist, nor have I studied a lot of Medieval philosophy, so I'm not saying that a Thomist would say precisely that, but merely someone who agrees with Aquinas on this particular point could say that sort of thing.) Now, this makes a good deal of sense. Furthermore, the part where the threeness is analogous to 'person' can indeed be supported, to some degree, in Scripture: the Father and the Son are pictured talking to each other (e.g. in John 17) not in the way we talk to ourselves, but in the way we talk to others, and Jesus seems to speak of the Holy Spirit as though he were at least "roughly analogous" to a person in these latter chapters of John as well. There are other similar examples throughout Scripture. The concept of 'substance' is a much more difficult one; sometimes I'm not even sure I know what a substance (in the metaphysics sense, as opposed to the chemistry sense) is, but we can just go with it for now. So, perhaps we should say that a statement like the one above is a matter of dogma, but there is room for a great deal of disagreement as to just how good the analogies are. This seems like a very defensible position to me.

Alternatively, we could say that when we say that God exists as three Persons in one Substance we mean these words in the same way we mean them whenever we use them rigorously in this kind of metaphysical context (and statements about God are metaphysical statements). This needn't make any particular metaphysical system a matter of dogma (in fact, it had better not), it would simply say that if you are an orthodox Christian and you have a metaphysical system, your metaphysical system had better be able to account for this in its definitions of persons and substance. Now, the Bible doesn't use this kind of language (in fact, it doesn't even use English), so this couldn't possibly come from the Bible, and therefore can't be dogma under the Protestant idea, unless we think that Protestantism has room for saying that a disputable interpretation of Scripture can become dogma due to the authoritative status of the Church (that is, the true spiritual Church, not any particular hierarchy) as an interpreter, provided we realize that the Church continues to be less authoritative than the Bible itself. In this case, we might say that the formulation in English "three Persons, one Substance" was a matter of dogma, since all legitimate Christian communities that speak English affirm this (if, in fact, the broad, sweeping statement I've just made is true). Alternatively, of course, it could be that the Council of Chalcedon is an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, which might make its formulation, in the original Greek, a matter of dogma. I am of the belief that the word choice in the Chalcedonian Creed comes from Aristotle, so I hope eventually to go through Aristotle's Metaphysics and look at how each of the terms is used and see what meaning I can derive from Chalcedon on that basis, but I have no time right now, so let's assume for the sake of argument that the English formulation "three Persons in one Substance," where Person and Substance are used in precisely the same sense as in other metaphysical assertions, is a matter of dogma.

If this is the case, what we will do is proceed with an inquiry into the meaning of these terms by the methodology of analytic metaphysics (or some such) and then apply the results to doctrine. Note that, in this case, what the results have to be is not proscribed by dogma, but merely that if we get our metaphysics right with regard to other persons and substances, then we can apply the same definitions to God. It doesn't say under what circumstances our metaphysics is 'right.'

Now, I have argued previously that persons are in fact events, or, more specifically, connected series of mental states. A common definition of substance in metaphysics is "a center of causal power." Furthermore, I believe that God is atemporal, rather than merely everlasting. If we combine all three of these claims, we can get a very clear picture of God as Trinity: God, we will say, is a single center of causal power, existing in three separate eternal complex mental states. This is roughly analogous (here we go back to analogy) to three minds controlling a single body, but always agreeing on how to move it. God is only one set of causal powers, so it is a metaphysical impossibility that any Person of the Trinity should will anything by himself, without the other two. They must all will in unison. Since they cannot, metaphysically, act other than in unison, only having one set of causal powers, they are a single Being or Substance, but since there are three mental states, there are three Persons.

Now, even this detailed explanation doesn't really solve the mystery, it merely speculates on the meaning of three Persons in one Substance. I hope that it falls within the realm of orthodoxy, because I sort of tentatively accept it, and I would like to think that I am not a heretic, but it is certainly closer to wild speculation than to dogma.

The point that I'm trying to make is this: if God has in fact revealed that he exists as three Persons in one Substance, then he must expect us to understand something by the words 'person' and 'substance' in this context, and we should try to figure out what that is, as I did briefly above. If, on the other hand, God has revealed to us only that he is three in one, and we have simply plugged in the words 'person' and 'substance' as ciphers having no meaning external to the formulation in order to help us talk about it, then we should totally abandon this line of inquiry, because there is no way we can no anything about the internal nature of God apart from revelation. So this gives us basically three possible understandings of the formulation: (1) 'person' and 'substance' carry no external meaning into the formulat and are merely plugged in as a matter of convenience, (2) 'person' and 'substance' carry external meaning only by analogy to their ordinary usage, or (3) 'person' and 'substance' are used within the formulation in the same way they are ordinarily used outside of it. For each of these it is fair to ask whether the formulation is true under it, and also whether it is a matter of dogma under it. Each has problems.

Interpretation (1) can certainly be proven from Scripture, and is therefore certainly true and a matter of Christian dogma. However, if (1) is dogma and neither of the others are, then someone might refuse to say that God was "three Persons in one Substance," on account of the fact that it was misleading since these words had outside usages and we were here using them in ways unrelated to those outside usages. This person might wish instead to say that God was "three Wizboons in one Poobam" or some such, and we could not then consider this person a heretic. Does anyone else think this is a problem?

Interpretation (2) can be supported from Scripture, and I think the 'person' part can probably even be proven. However, I'm not sure the substance part can, but maybe I should ask someone who has a better idea what the heck a metaphysical substance is to figure that out. Besides this, you could still have someone insisting on saying that God was "three Wizboons in one Poobam" be orthodox, he would just have to acknowledge that a wizboon is sort of like a person, and a poobam is sort of like a substance. That actually doesn't seem that problematic to me, on the whole. I think interpretation (2) may be the best alternative.

I don't think interpretation (3) can be proven from Scripture, and the Scriptural support for it is very limited. However, it certainly doesn't contradict Scripture, and it may have the authority of the true Church behind it (though my Protestant ecclesiology makes that very difficult to determine).

So, to all of you who commented on the Church dogma post, and to all of you who didn't, which alternative do you take? Can the problems I've listed be solved, or are they not really problems? Or is there another alternative I'm not seeing?

Posted by kpearce at 03:46 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

April 26, 2006

Church Dogma

I've been thinking for some time now about dogma, and so I wanted to write a post to outline just what dogma is, and give some questions (but no answers!) about what it's content ought to be and where it ought to come from.

First, dogma is not dogmatism. I positively despise dogmatism. Dogmatism is the practice of holding to one's beliefs in such a way as to utterly ignore alll evidence and arguments to the contrary. Dogmatism is the death of intellectual growth, and of Christian faith. A faith that does not allow itself to be challenged, or that stops questioning, stops growing. Christianity as I understand it is utterly opposed to dogmatism. This is because Christianity is vitally concerned with truth and anything concerned with truth is necessarily opposed to dogmatism. The dogmatist cannot find truth. In addition to all of this, dogmatism is intellectually and morally lazy and irresponsible. I don't claim to be totally innocent of all forms of dogmatism, nor am I advocating that our beliefs ought to be in constant flux; I am merely saying that we ought to give all the arguments and evidences we are presented with as much rational consideration as they deserve, and not discount anything without an intellectually principled reason for doing so. This is an ideal to strive for.

Now that I've said what dogma is not, let me say what it is. 'Church dogma' is the name given to that body of doctrine (where 'doctrine' means any collection of teachings or beliefs) which forms the test of orthodoxy within a given church or denomination, or within the Church as a whole. So, for instance, the doctrines of salvation in Christ and the triune nature of God are both matters of Christian dogma in general. That is, they define orthodoxy for Christianity as a whole. On the other hand, papal infallibility is a Catholic dogma only; it defines Catholic orthodoxy, but for those of us who do not believe that orthodox Christianity is broader than merely the Roman Catholic Church, it is not part of Christian dogma. Now, the big question to me, just at the moment, is this: where does dogma come from?

In the Roman Catholic Church, dogma is formed by councils and ex cathedra papal statements. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, dogma is formed primarily by Scripture and ecumenical councils (seven councils are recognized as being ecumenical), but doctrines can become sort of unofficial dogmas through wide acceptance over time. I don't know if someone would really be branded a heretic in the Orthodox Church for denying something that hadn't been clearly proclaimed by Scripture or an ecumenical council, but had merely come to be taken for granted in the Church. There are a lot of grey areas in Orthodoxy.

Now, the Protestant Reformers reacted against this sort of thing, famously formulating the doctrine known as sola scriptura. For some time now, I have been wondering what the end of this sentence is really intended to be; in short, I want to know, 'Scripture alone ... what?' I suspect there are a wide range of answers to that question among Protestant theologians (and I intend to do some serious reading on the subject in the near future), but one piece of the formula is very common: that Scripture alone is 'binding' on the believer. That is, Scripture alone is the source of Church dogma. This way of finishing the sentence (by the way, I don't know of any Protestant theologian who says only this) seems eminently reasonable to me, especially in comparison with some other imaginable endings to the sentence (e.g. 'Scripture alone is the source of all our knowledge of God' - how then could we know the truth of that statement, which would in fact be a piece of knowledge about God? And how would this be compatible with Romans 1:19-21?) but is not without problems, as we shall see shortly.

This is played out in different ways in different Protestant churches. It seems to me that it is taken most seriously by the non-denominational 'Bible churches' and the other neo-Evangelical groups who are not in the habit of writing authoritative doctrinal statements. In these cases, the Bible is simply identical with Church dogma. To be orthodox is to believe the Bible in all things; to be heterodox is to disagree with the Bible at some point.

On the other hand, most traditional Protestant denominations do write doctrinal statements intended to be authoritative at leats in some degree, and therefore to define dogma (for that particular denomination). The difference here, however, is that unlike the council statements of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, these statements are considered valid only insofar as they can be seen to derive from Scripture, and they do not consider them to define Christian dogma, but only the dogma of that one denomination. (Note the "be seen to" - in Orthodoxy the decisions of ecumenical councils and all other matters of dogma are considered in principle to have their source in Scripture, but if some particular person or group is unable to see how they are derived, this is irrelevant because the councils are infallible.) That is, I understand (and I may be wrong, I am no expert) that the Presbyterian Church teaches something like: "we say that the Westminster Confession is a correct interpretation of Scripture, and in order to be an orthodox Presbyterian you must agree with this; however, our interpretation of Scripture is not infallible, and if our interpretation should happen to be incorrect, it doesn't particularly matter whether or not you are an orthodox Presbyterian. Our interpretation is fallible; the Scripture is not." Now, another question is as to whether someone who misinterpreted the Scripture on a matter not dealt with in the Confession would be considred heterodox. I'm not sure about this, but I suspect not. If, then, my understanding of the Presbyterian position is correct (and there's some extrapolation going on here, so I'm really not very certain), Presbyterian dogma is derived from Scripture but not identical with Scripture. If the Presbyterian Church doesn't actually teach something like this, I'm sure some other church does, which is sufficient for this discussion.

Now, I mentioned that there were some problems with the Protestant understanding that 'Scripture alone is a source of Church dogma,' although, as I said, I think this formulation is, on the whole, quite reasonable. The first problem I want to point out is, from where do we derive the canon? The obvious step, as I see it, is to say that Protestant Church dogmatics takes the canon of Scripture and the authority thereof as an axiom of the system, and builds from there. Now, this may be a perfectly good system, but you will need some explanation outside the system itself for why we ought to accept this system and not some other, and this will be difficult.

The second problem is that there seem to be some clear (to me) cases of Christian dogma that are not obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture. For example, consider the formulation of the trinity as three persons (Greek hupostaseis and/or prosopa, Latin personae) in one substance/essence (Greek ousia, Latin essentia and/or substantia). This type of formulation is extremely common in the Christian tradition, and is derived primarily from the Chalcedonian Creed. However, I don't think we can say that it is obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture; that is, there is no reason to say that someone looking at Scripture by some particular method that did not include granting some authority to tradition would lead many people to come independently to this conclusion. What is in Scripture is this paradox: the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, there is only one God. Any number of formulations of the solution could be compatible with the Scripture, but one in particular is generally believed to be part of Christian dogma.

This, I take it, is much more difficult than the first problem. One possible solution is for Protestants to 'bite the bullet' as it were, and say that only the paradox itself (and the statement that there exists some solution) is really Christian dogma, and someone who denied that God existed as three persons in one substance (but believed in some other solution to the paradox, or that there was a solution but we didn't know it) would not in fact be heterodox. This is a difficult thing for a Christian to say, but I suppose it's not totally absurd. Another thing that could be done is to invoke the proviso that many Protestant statements include to the effect that believers must interpret the Scripture in community with the Church (that is, the 'invisible' Church, not any particular hierarchy or institution), and to say that the Church has always and everywhere proclaimed this and, while the Church has less authority than the Scripture, it is to some degree an authoritative interpreter of the Scripture and as such where it has reached a concensus it cannot be wrong. Then we will have to ask whether this is really a true concensus (what is or isn't the Church? Is the WHOLE Church really in consensus?). At this point perhaps the statement that Scripture is the only source of Church dogma is a matter of purely theoretical interest, because in actual practice we have to look at other sources. Furthermore, in this case the Protestant view would differ from the Orthodox only in that Protestants are not convinced that all seven (or any?) ecumenical councils really represent consensuses of the Church.

So, as I said, I have questions rather than answers. Do other Christian groups have different views than those I have listed, as to the proper sources of dogma? Are there solutions to the problems in the Protestant view that I have listed? (I bring up objections to the Protestant view rather than to the others, because it is the one that I have accepted in the past and would like to continue to accept.)

Posted by kpearce at 10:00 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack