May 27, 2010

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Three Substances, One Property-Instance: A Trinitarian Speculation

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 St. John of Damascus' Concise Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. The latter is pretty dense and technical (that comes from being 'concise'); I started it quite some time ago and my progress has been slow. Anyway, as a result of this reading, and also the always interesting discussions on Dale Tuggy's Trinities Blog, I have been thinking about the Trinity. Today I am going to make so bold as to post my speculations. (It has been a long time since I last speculated on this issue.) I want to emphasize, however, that these are just that: speculations. I am not an expert in doctrinal theology, and am happy to be corrected. However, I think the view I am going to put forward here is along the general lines of the understanding of the Trinity by the Greek fathers. What I am going to do is to first present the theory in the jargon of contemporary philosophy. In this form, the theory will sound heterodox, because it denies the particular form of words which has become the standard formulation of Trinitarian theology in English. After presenting the theory, I will argue that the appearance of heterodoxy arises from the differing jargons of contemporary philosophy and confessional theology; in other words, the philosophers and the theologians are not speaking the same language. I will argue that my philosophical formulation can be reasonably thought of as capturing the intent of the ecumenical councils.

Here is the theory: there is a single perfectly simple property called 'divinity'. This property might be 'pure actuality' (Aristotle), 'maximal greatness' (Anselm), 'infinite being' (Descartes), 'pure limitless intentional power' (Swinburne), or something else of that sort. This property (whatever it is) entails necessary existence, and so is necessarily instantiated at least once, but it also entails omnipotence and so cannot be instantiated more than once. However, there are three divine substances. Thus, one and the same instance of divinity must inhere in each of the three. From the fact that the same instance of omnipotence inheres in each of the three it follows that (as the councils teach) there is but one divine will and one divine activity (Greek energia), but there are three distinct agents exercising the one will and acting the one activity. (If anyone thinks that this renders the doctrine un-paradoxical, she has greater powers of metaphysical comprehension than I; however, it at least doesn't contain any straightforward contradictions, and doesn't require revising classical logic.)

Now here's the trouble: in English, the standard formulation of Trinitarian dogma is that there are three persons and one substance, but I just said there were three substances. Before I get excommunicated, let me try to explain why I think this problem is purely verbal. (Again, I am happy to be corrected.)

In the Greek formulation of Trinitarian dogma put forward in the writings of the Fathers and in the councils, there are three prosopa, three hypostases, and one ousia. These are traditionally translated 'persons', 'subsistences', and 'substance', respectively. The great Shibboleth of Nicene orthodoxy is, of course, the famous homoousion, which in the standard English translation of the Creed is rendered 'of one substance.' I claim that the one property-instance view preserves an interpretation of the homoousion which is plausibly attributed to those present at the ecumenical councils. I will explain each of the three terms in turn.

Prosopon originally meant 'face' or 'mask' in Greek. However, this word, and its Latin counterpart persona which had the same original meaning, became legal terms, much like the legal usage of 'person' still present in English. A person, in this sense, is a (real or fictitious) entity to whom actions can be attributed and praise, blame, legal consequences, etc. assigned. In our legal terminology, a natural person is a real flesh-and-blood human being, but there are persons who are not natural persons, such as corporations or legal offices. For instance, a lawsuit filed against Alberto Gonzales in his official capacity as attorney-general of the United States, if it is still ongoing, no longer targets Alberto Gonzales, but now targets Eric Holder. This is because, in addition to the natural person who holds the office of attorney-general, the office itself is a person. The suit is against the attorney-general of the United States; which natural person holds the office is irrelevant.

Now, if prosopon was used alone, this would leave open the Sabellian heresy. Imagine that the same person could be both president and attorney-general. Call this person 'Sally'. Now, it is true that the president is commander-in-chief, and that Sally is commander-in-chief. However, it is ambiguous whether sentences such as 'the attorney-general is commander-in-chief' or 'the attorney-general is president' are true. On one interpretation, they are true, for the natural person who is in fact attorney-general is also commander-in-chief and president, but on another interpretation they are false, for the powers of commander-in-chief and president are distinct from the powers of attorney-general and these are, in fact, separate legal persons, though they are 'personated' (this is a technical term used by Hobbes - I'm not sure if it's still current) by the same natural person. The Sabellian heresy regards Father, Son, and Holy Spirit like this; they are, as it were, different public personas God puts on.

Against this, the Fathers added the word hypostasis, subsistence. Now, it is only within a few very particular philosophical systems that there is a difference to be made between substance, subsistence, and substratum; they are all very near synonyms. The important point, whether in Greek philosophy or contemporary philosophy, is the notion of a thing which has properties, but isn't a property of anything else. Some philosophers would add that it has causal powers and/or that it cannot be reduced to anything more fundamental. To say that each prosopon is a hypostasis is analogous to saying that each distinct legal person is a distinct natural person. There is no element of fiction, or appearance, or manner of speaking, or convention in talk of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; such talk really attributes properties to three distinct subjects. This, I claim, is best captured in contemporary philosophical jargon by saying that there are three substances.

But what are we to do about the homoousion? In the Metaphysics, Aristotle identifies approximately one bajillion distinct senses of the word ousia. Some of those senses are very closely related (or even identical) to the meaning of hypostasis I have just outlined, and so to contemporary philosophical uses of 'substance' in English. However, if we take one of these we've got a pretty straightforward contradiction on our hands. Fortunately, there is independent reason not to take ousia in the sense of substance/hypostasis: the Chalcedonian Definition says that Christ is "consubstantial [homoousion] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood." This suggests the use of ousia to mean 'essence'. That is, Christ is said to instantiate the essence of God and the essence of man. (Christ is certainly not the same substance, in the contemporary philosophical sense, with each individual human being!) In contemporary philosophy, people who believe in essences think of them as being a special kind of property. However, as I pointed out above, since the essence of God entails omnipotence, there can be at most one instance of it. As a result, the three Persons must share a single instantiation of the property. This is why the three Persons are one in a stronger sense than merely being individuals within a common species.

Thus my proposal is that to translate the language of the councils and the Fathers into that of contemporary philosophy, we need to render hypostasis as 'substance' and ousia as 'essence', where an essence is understood as a variety of property. I don't mean to propose that the language of doctrinal theology or of creeds and confessions in English needs to be changed. The terminology of doctrinal theology needs to be clear to theologians, and the language of creeds and confessions needs to be as clear as possible to the layperson; using the language of contemporary philosophy may not be the best way to accomplish this. However, I do think we need to be aware of the potential confusion caused by the differing jargons of different fields, and that this is best done by a return to the original Greek of the councils and a re-translation into the relevant technical language.

Anyway, such are my speculations. I would be very happy to be further enlightened as to their orthodoxy.

Posted by Kenny at May 27, 2010 12:04 PM
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Hey Kenny,

First of all, I applaud you for plunging into the patristic literature. I feel your pain!
Second, I applaud you for applying your mind to this - in my view, God is pleased when we trying to understand him, even when this involves speculation and creative theorizing, and mind-changing.

Some comments:

(1) On this theory, there is one property. But how is this monotheism? There are three gods, in your view. That they share a property-instance is interesting, but why would that make them one god? Isn't each divine, and each non-id to the others?

(2) Can a property-instance be shared? Most have a strong intuition that this is metaphysically impossible. Exactly why, I think, depends on your stance on universals. Let me assume that you're a realist like many analytic philosophers these days. So, having a token property, is just instantiating a universal property. This is a substance bearing a unique relation (instantiation) to a universal. So, token properties go with individuals - no two distinct individuals would ever have one instance of a universal property. Each, as it were, results from the unique relation of the substance to the universal.

(3) The claim that the three share a will runs against the Gethsemane episode in the Gospels. Jesus doesn't want to die, God does want him to die. Jesus decides to conform his will to God's. If you follow the patristic line and add a human will to Jesus, it's hard to avoid the view that there are two selves - a divine one and a human one - bound together, only appearing to be one unified self.

(4) Your main concern, expressed at the end, is a concern that the theory should be orthodox. But shouldn't one's primary aim instead be truth? Do you affirm or deny that mainstream catholicism went off track on various important theological claims? If like me you affirm this, how can you rule out that (small-c) catholic orthodoxy isn't obviously the right way to go on this issue?

(5) How does YHWH, the one true God, fit into this? I'm guessing that you think YHWH is the sum of the three. But, is he not a self, whereas the sum of these three selves, sharing a token of divinity, is not a self? This is a philosophical and scriptural objection, but interestingly, it is also a patristic one - note that the Nicene Creed assumes that the one god is the Father.

Posted by: Dale at June 22, 2010 10:00 AM

Hi Dale,

Thanks so much for dropping by. I will try to answer your questions.

(1) Consider the question, 'how many Fs are there?' It is plausible that in plain English, this sort of question is ambiguous between two questions: 'how many times is F-ness instantiated?' and 'how many things instantiate F-ness?' We would never have an opportunity in plain English to disambiguate between these two meanings, because in our ordinary experience they never come apart. So I would argue that there is a sense in which there is only one God, namely, that property divinity (the property of being God) is instantiated only once. This also accounts for the sort of odd and seemingly contradictory language seen in, e.g., the 'Athanasian' Creed or a lot of recent Evangelical statements of faith.

(2) I share your worry about the metaphysical possibility of property-instances being shared. I don't have a particular metaphysical theory of properties, so I don't have an answer to this question. However, as I tried to point out in the post, running afoul of metaphysical intuitions or theories is a lot better than running afoul of classical logic! Of course, if the theory I put forward is to be actually accepted, we will need strong enough evidence to justify putting aside these metaphysical intuitions and possibly adopting an unusual theory of properties.

(3) I do follow the standard patristic line here which is, I take it, that Jesus has two capacities for willing, but there is one self which exercises these two capacities. Similarly, for the divine will, there is one capacity for willing, and three selves which exercise it. As long as we talk about two capacities for willing, rather than two exercises of willing (John of Damascus explicitly makes this distinction; I think he is basing it on Gregory of Nyssa, but I'm not sure), I don't think we have a problem getting a single unified self.

(4) The question about tradition is a very complicated one. As a Protestant, I do hold that even the ecumenical councils had the possibility of error. I would say that where I am right now is this: I think that many people more intelligent, more deeply studied, and more enlightened by the Holy Spirit, than I have wrestled with this issue over a very long period of time, and I want to understand what conclusion they came to and why. Until I can understand their reasoning and what, if any, errors might be present in it, I'm inclined to give great deference to the consensus which emerged. I give the same deference on other theological issues. I treat this as a defeasible assumption. I'm a metaphysician and not a doctrinal theologian, so I am especially inclined to defer to experts on matters I consider to be outside my specialization. In short, of course the aim is truth, but at present I believe that views that fall within the realm of orthodoxy are far more likely to be true than those that don't. In this post, I am concerned primarily to come up with a plausible understanding of the patristic view of the subject, but I'm doing that because I think it will help me find the truth.

(5) Throughout the Bible (even in the NT!), it seems that 'God' often refers specifically to the Father. It also seems plausible that in the OT 'YHWH' typically or always refers specifically to the Father. Traditionally, the Father has some kind of special status as the 'font of divinity' or some such, since he is neither begotten nor proceeds. I don't know exactly how to analyze all of the language, but I don't think it's necessarily a problem for the view if 'God' or 'YHWH' is often used to refer specifically to the Father.

Posted by: Kenny at June 22, 2010 10:56 AM
'how many Fs are there?' It is plausible that in plain English, this sort of question is ambiguous between two questions: 'how many times is F-ness instantiated?' and 'how many things instantiate F-ness?'

I don't think that's right. The question is asking how many *things there are which are F*. To see this, pretend you're a nominalist - you won't reject that as a bad question. You just won't transpose it into property-talk. The question doesn't suppose that there are properties at all. I agree that it's plausible that "divinity is instantiated just once" implies that there's only one god. But it doesn't mean the same thing. I think that some patristics actually *identify* God with "the divine nature". If that's right, then of course if there's just one divine nature, there's only one god. But folk who distinguish always between properties and substances, need to say why one instance of divinity implies one god. Suppose an instance of divinity is a trope - if that were so, it's unclear why such a thing couldn't be shared simultaneously by multiple beings. (Analogy: one stick simultaneously in two bundles.)

I have a broader worry here - how could a required Christian doctrine require one also to believe in properties? I know that analytic philosophers are raised on those, but I've come to be a nominalist, mainly because realism about universals creates as many problems as it solves, and because the instantiation relation is inherently obscure.

Posted by: Dale at June 25, 2010 8:04 AM

On (2) - fair enough.

On (3),

Jesus has two capacities for willing

He can either will, or not. So, I can only understand this as the claim that he can will in two different ways. But what could those be? And does the general picture of Jesus in the gospels fit well with that hypothesis? On the face of it, in that story, there is one will in Jesus, and Jesus wrestles with changing it, to match God's.

Some patristics really think of the natures as the willers. But leave that aside. Suppose we say that "Jesus wills crucifixion by his divine nature" and "Jesus doesn't will crucifixion by his human nature." It's not clear what these could mean - natures aren't instruments by which we do things. But more disturbingly, if you will A by whatever means, you will A. And if you don't will A, you don't. So, we still have him willing and not willing the same thing at the same time.

(4) I agree completely with this methodology. Take a hard look both at all these guys' moral character, at their deeds, at their philosophical abilities, and at their exegesis.

(5) We can certainly have names which are used for more than one self, and for both selves and groups. But we should ask what kind of evidence it takes to ascribe to a writer the view that some "Smith" and "Jones" are one and the same. It's going to be facts of language use... too much to get into here. Just beware, I'd say, of dismissing such evidence as plain old name re-use. Crude example: in Acts, Paul just is Saul. If someone had a pet theory, that these were two dudes (I don't know, Paul and his evil twin), he could just dismiss all the evidence we'd cite - "Sometimes, "Paul" is used for Saul, and sometimes for Paul. What's so hard to understand about that?" But this would not be reasonable.

Posted by: Dale at June 25, 2010 8:22 AM

PS - I like the "boring colors".

Come on - evangelical libertarian - that's enough excitement right there.

Now add on - philosopher!

Let your colors bore, and your ideas excite. :-)

Posted by: Dale at June 25, 2010 8:24 AM

PPS - You're at USC now? You MUST work with JVC. But surely, you knew that already. :-) I was just praising his philosophical virtues to someone the other day.

Say hi to him for me.

Posted by: Dale at June 25, 2010 8:27 AM

On Counting and Properties. I agree that if nominalism makes sense of everyday cases, it would be unfortunate to have a theological doctrine that required realism. But I think we can give a nominalist interpretation of the unity in question. For instance, if it's logically impossible for the wills of the Persons to disagree, then what (nominalist) sense does it make to say they are different wills? And if there is only one omnipotent will, what sense does it make to say that there is more than one instance of omnipotence? On the sticks in the same bundle, some have held that all the intrinsic properties of the Persons are shared, and only the relational properties are different. So this would be more like the exact same bundle being multiply located.

I thought the claim that the divine nature was God was supposed to be motivated by the special features of that particular universal - e.g. its being necessarily instantiated. I don't understand this view very well, so I wouldn't want to endorse it (or necessarily deny it).

On Wills. So, the problem with monothelitism is that it leads to what I like to call the 'remote-control robot' model of the incarnation. God is omnipotent and can move any piece of matter he wants, by mere fiat. On the monothelite view, God just exercises his omnipotent will and moves the body of Jesus around how he likes, in much the same way he could move a rock or my body. By saying that Christ has two wills, I mean to affirm (and I'm trying to affirm the same thing as the Fathers, but let's not confuse the interpretive issue with the philosophical/theological issue) that Christ is hooked up to his human body in the same way I'm hooked up to mine, whatever that might be. Christ still has the power, in virtue of his omnipotent divine will, to move a rock simply by so willing, and so he could still move his body that way, but he also has the power to move his body in the same way I move mine (whatever way that might be). I take it this is why some of the Fathers also affirm that there are two energiai; Christ's body is actuated by his human soul in the same way my body is actuated by mine.

Now, it seems that in the Garden there was some difficulty involved in conforming the human will to the divine will. Dithelitism at least does better than monothelitism in dealing with this problem, though I wouldn't want to claim that the problem goes away altogether. (Views such as Arianism would make the problem go away altogether.)

On Names. Yes. In saying "I don't think it's necessarily a problem," I didn't mean to imply that there was no difficulty involved at all, or no further interpretive/theological work to be done on the subject. We would need to examine the specific passages and the patterns of usage to see if things fit together the right way.

I did notice that you were a former JVC student. I am still pre-diss., but I have been working with him quite a bit and he will certainly be on my committee. (I expect to write a dissertation in early modern metaphysics.) I read his Kant book recently; I think it's the best thing I've read all year. He's on vacation right now, but I will try to remember to say hi for you when I see him in the fall.

Posted by: Kenny at June 25, 2010 11:07 AM

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