May 2, 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 Kenny at May 2, 2006 3:46 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Christian Carnival CXX
Excerpt: Christian Carnival CXX is up at Daddypundit with a link to my recent post on the Trinity. Check it out....
Tracked: May 6, 2006 3:51 PM
Three Substances, One Property-Instance: A Trinitarian Speculation
Excerpt: I've been using the beginning of my summer to make some progress on some theology books that have been awaiting my attention on my bookshelf. So far, in honor of Pentecost, I read St. Basil On the Holy Spirit, and I am also making some progress through...
Tracked: May 27, 2010 1:23 PM


Since you asked, I lean to alternative 2. I might add, though, that "substance" is such an ambiguous term that it is difficult to determine what is meant in this usage, or if it is used in the same meaning as metaphysicists use it, so practically it the "one substance" might not be very different than 1.
Furthermore, I think that everything that's important about "person" and "substance" probably can be proven from Scripture, and although they may not be exactly equivalent to however philosophers use thsoe terms, they will at least be similar concepts.

Some things I'd like to mention-
1) Going with your definition of "dogma" as a test of orthodoxy, I don't think 3 can be defended as dogma, since you'd have to say anyone who holds to merely 1 or 2 is a heretic. (Although since I don't hold to 3 and don't think I'm a heretic, I'm partial.) If you're trying to say that some understanding of "Three Persons, one Substance" is dogma, that one should be eliminated, although it may be a valid understanding of "three Persons, one Substance".
2) Does interpretation 3 have the authority of the Church behind it? Maybe I'm not understanding it fully, but if we say "person" and "substance" are exactly equivalent to how we use them outside, then haven't we (if we can figure out just how we use person and substance) fully figured out the nature of the trinity? Anyway, back when I went through confirmation, I'm pretty sure we learned something like your interpretation 2. (Although my confirmation class was taught by a pastor, not a theologian.) So I'd tend to say that the Church doesn't say that "person" and "substance" are used exactly like we use them ordinarily.
3) To prove 3 from Scripture, I think you'd need to define "person" and "substance" in ordinary usage, and then show God/the Father/the Son/the Holy Spirit has all the necessary characteristics.

Posted by: Lauren at May 2, 2006 7:29 PM

Sorry for the second comment. At risk of being off topic, what do you mean about "They [the three Persons] all will in unison" and how do you interpret verses like Matthew 26:39 in light of this? ["He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will."

Posted by: Lauren at May 3, 2006 5:24 AM

I looked forward to your post and it was all that I expected it to be and more. You put forth an interesting outline.

I'm not a studied or professional philosopher or theologian, but I would say I lean toward (2). The (1) seems alright, but as you said I think it runs into problems when you try to define what you mean by the Trinity in even it's most basic form. Finally, (3) seems fine, but again I think we have to be careful. And this is where I go into one trying to understand a mystery that isn't necessarily explained by scripture. As long as the conjecture does not contradict an essential or the elements of the paradox itself, then I don't see anything wrong with it. I haven't really studied your theory, but from what I can gather I don't think it is heretical (unorthodox or a contradiction of an essential).

I guess I would lean toward (2) because I think our description of it is limited by the fact that we don't know much outside of scripture and there isn't much outside of it that we can compare to it. So the words we attribute to it are going to fall short and there maybe words (not even english) that would be more appropriate to use. Therefore, to take those words and strictly apply them to a metaphysical study would not be appropriate (like you said). In fact, it may be that no known words commonly known in metaphysics would be appropriate. I don't know. I haven't studied philosophy or metaphysics enough to even do justice with a comment.

I think you hit upon an interesting point and that is dogma and a much larger issue of orthdoxy. I think this applies to Lauren's comments as well even if indirectly. It is something I have been meditating over for a long time off and on in my mind, in discussions, and even on paper. It hits upon things such as "authority" and "belief." Again I could go into a long drawn out outline of my thoughts, but I'm going to try to keep this relevant to the discussion. Essentially, is "three persons and one substance" dogma? Yes. Now the question is why? I think there are three points to why it is dogma: (1) It is a statment that although not perfect, reflects the essential idea presented in scripture. (2) The idea is so pivotal to scipture and faith the absence or alteration of it impacts other pivotal dogmas. (3) Finally, the acceptance of it is a guage of ones orthodoxy.

Let me define my terms and then make one last comment. Dogma-is a essential belief that is part of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy-is the minimum of dogmas one must accept and not contradict to be considered an orthodox christian. Essential belief-is those beliefs like the Trinity and the Virgin Birth that are essential to scripture and plain in scipture that has been upheld in creeds, faith statments, and common belief. Distinctive beliefs-are those beliefs that are specific to a denomination or church in which do not contradict an essential, but are in the pale of orthodoxy and can be debated within the body of Christ.

My last comment to Lauren. I would say your view of the God head is unorthodox. However, I must state that Orthodoxy is not a measure of salvation. I am not to say you are or are not a Child of God by faith we are saved through Grace. Nevertheless, I think you are doing a good thing by asking questions. I don't know if this is a good forum to address your questions unless Kenney wants to address it here. If you want to discuss it futher you are more than welcome to email me at vangelicmonk1 at yahoo dot com.

Posted by: vangelicmonk at May 3, 2006 8:44 AM

Lauren, regarding your second remark, I think there is an important distinction between 'desire' and 'volition' here. The Son (qua human? can he have desires that are only part of his human nature and not part of his divine nature?) desires that he not suffer, but also desires that humanity be saved, and desires that the will of the Father be done. Ultimately, despite his contradictory desires, he forms a volition to go through with the crucifixion. This is actually just the sort of thing I'm talking about, because the different persons will form the same volitions for different reasons. The Son may even form a volition for no other reason than to agree with the Father (as in "not my will, but yours"). Of course, since they are all omniscient and omnibenevolent it is hard to see just HOW their reasoning could differ...

Vangelicmonk, lots of interesting thoughts here. (2) seems to be the concensus, and I agree. By the way, I don't see how what Lauren is saying about the Trinity is substantially different from what you are saying.

Posted by: Kenny at May 3, 2006 10:57 AM

When I said:
"3) To prove 3 from Scripture, I think you'd need to define "person" and "substance" in ordinary usage, and then show God/the Father/the Son/the Holy Spirit has all the necessary characteristics.", I did NOT (very emphatically) mean to imply that there are four parts to the Godhead. What I meant was you'd need to define "substance", show God (as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) has all of the necessary characteristics to be one substance. Then you'd need to define "person" and show that God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit each have all the necessary characteristics to be a person individually. Does that clarify the issue, vangelicmonk?

Posted by: Lauren at May 3, 2006 4:31 PM

Lauren I made a huge mistake. I'm sorry. Seriously, you didn't make a mistake. I did. I read part of your first comment and then your second comment and somehow I got the idea that you didn't believe in the Trinity. Now that I re-read it I totally read it wrong. I am so sorry about that.

Posted by: vangelicmonk at May 3, 2006 5:30 PM

It's ok. I'm just glad I won't be burnt at the stake. :-)

Posted by: Lauren at May 3, 2006 6:00 PM

The difficulty I have with your classification of interpretations is that the term 'person' originated in the Trinity debates. It's not as if the word had some prior meaning. That pretty much rules out 2 and 3, and it makes it highly likely that 1 is correct. Of course, the word has since taken on meaning, and in our current context it may well be that 2 or 3 is the best way to take the word given our current usage of 'person', but you seem to be interested in the original meaning of the creed, and that's got to be 1.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at May 10, 2006 3:38 PM

Jeremy, that may be true of persona in the Latin version of the Chalcedonian Creed, but not of the Greek. Upostasis and prosopon both predate the creed. Of course, originally upostasis meant 'substratum' (in roughly the Lockean sense), as its etymology also indicates, and prosopon meant 'face.' Prosopon IS used to mean person in late secular Greek, but I can't determine from LSJ whether this started before or after the use of the term in trinitarian debates. Upostasis is used for the 'inward man' in the creed because without it prosopon would seem to indicate that the distinction of persons was purely external and apparent (because of the original meaning of prosopon as face).

In short, I don't know the etymology of the English and Latin terms here (although I seem to remember reading that persona was a legal term in Latin before it was used theologically), but your criticism doesn't apply to the Greek.

Posted by: Kenny at May 10, 2006 3:50 PM

You requested a fresh perspective - Here's one that I am sure you haven't heard..........I am a christian in the classical sense though without denomination which will probably become clear as to why shortly. In building my understanding of God the Father, the Spirit of God the Father known as the Holy Spirit and of Jesus it has become clear to me the "trinity" meaning Jesus is equal to God the Father is not supported by scripture. That does not mean that Jesus is not my God appointed a God to me by God the Father. It does mean that the definition of monotheism (which will not be the clasical definition) must be that there is only one most high God, the Father. Under the Father is Jesus Christ both God, not equal, but one above the other in heirarchy. This is supported in scripture - Jesus always calls God the Father his God. Jesus is identified as our God throughout the New Testament even till the end but always refers to his God, God the Father. God the Father never refers to a higher God. Jesus says the Father is greater. In this, there is no mystery. As to the Holy Spirit, it is God the Father not in completeness but an indistiguishable part of God the Father. But the Holy Spirit is clearly not equal to God the Father as it is always sent at the command of God the Father to do the will of God the Father. Even when "sent" by Jesus, the sending was done as a granting of a request by God the Father to Jesus. All of which shows heirachy between God the Father, the most high God and Jesus. For Jesus to be our intermediary it would also require that Jesus be between God the Father and us. In a trinity there is no intermediary except in some mystery. In heirarchy it is obvious. So the true mystery to me is how tradition from the middle of the 4th Century to present day has so influenced the reading of scripture that no one can read and think for themselves asking the Holy Spirit to lead them to truth.

Posted by: Ben at May 16, 2006 9:39 AM

Ben- Well, what you are advocating is clearly not orthodox Christianity. As to the Biblical basis for it, you are right that there are some suggestions of this, but there is also John 1:1 - "the Word was God" - which clearly refers to Jesus. The language of the Greek does permit the Watchtower Society (Jehova's Witness) translation "the Word was a God," but this is refuted elsewhere in Scripture. There is John 10:30, "I and my Father are one" and John 14:7, "If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him." John, then, is fairly adamant about the unity of Jesus and the Father in a single X (where it's not clear what X is). We also have in Paul Colossians 2:9, "For in Him the entire fullness of God�s nature dwells bodily." In other words, there is something, which in Greek is called theotes, which is 'deity' or 'godhead' or 'the divine nature.' It is obvious that the Father has this in all fulness, but Paul asserts that Jesus has total divinity as well, a divinity that is thus in no way inferior to that of the Father. It is clear as well (though I don't have the relevant book with me at the moment to give citations) that the tradition of Trinitarian theology goes back farther than the fourth century. It is a very early idea in Christianity, it is just in the fourth and fifth centuries that it was formulated very clearly.

Posted by: Kenny at May 16, 2006 1:05 PM

You are deceived by seducing spirits as the word of God declares. The one and only God came to the earth in a human body (son) to shed Holy blood to redeem a people for His Great name (Jesus). The Trinity doctrine is Satanic. May God have mercy on your soul.

Posted by: Thompson Palmer at January 10, 2011 7:22 PM

Post a comment

Return to