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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