The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP addresses recent metaphysical crits of trinitarianism

And now that I’m (more-or-less) through for a while on Prof De Young’s paper, back to trying to address trinitarian issues.

There are two basic categories on this topic: is orthodox trinitarian theism logically coherent (or even moreso, exclusively true)? And, do the canonical scriptures testify to ortho-trin (or even moreso, do they do so exclusively)?

I haven’t tried summarizing a metaphysical argument arriving exclusively at ortho-trin yet, but that third hyperlink down in my signature will take readers to two sections of chapters I’ve posted up on the Christian Cadre webjournal where (after several hundred pages of developing argument) I arrive at that doctrinal set. (The middle two sections are just as important but due to vagaries in my posting schedule I haven’t posted them up yet. On my to-do list for this year…) Any answer I give to metaphysical complaints or criticisms will be given from within the results of this analysis, but (by tautology) when they’re presented out of context of the whole developing analysis then they’re going to look disconnected and maybe even ad hoc. There isn’t much I can do about that, except to point back to the flow of the progressing argument for how the pieces fit together.

In one way, addressing scriptural-based complaints is tougher, because there’s a lot more scriptural data than metaphyiscal analysis! But in another way it can be easier because often the scriptural data can be handled on a case-by-case contextual basis (or even in terms of the immediate shape of the data). Even so, any exegetical theology ought to be trying to include a deep and broad witness across all the canon; and if numerous points are being made, then it can still get rather complicated.

(This presupposes that the thorny question of what counts as canon and why it counts has been settled already; but that’s another discussion. One with connections to historical-orthodoxy debates, though.)

There has been a significant amount of challenge to trinitarian theism recently on the boards, which is why I spent over three weeks working up a 76 page digest of scriptural analysis on the topic. While that document (which can be found in the Biblical Theology section, in the thread I made for posting it) contains a positive scriptural case for arriving at the doctrinal set of ortho-trin, it doesn’t address some scripture-based challenges, much less metaphysical challenges.

For this thread, therefore, I will try to categorize and reply to recent metaphysical challenges to trinitarian theism. In a similar thread (under a different forum category proper for the topic) I will try to categorize and reply to recent scriptural challenges to trinitarian theism.

(That being said, this forum is primarily dedicated to discussing “evangelical universalism” pro and con; which is why, when I mention ortho-trin in this forum, I do so typically in conjunction with, and in service to, that topic. I don’t intend to spend the majority of my time here arguing for and/or defending a secondary topic of the forum.)


I hope you address the concern I just raised in the “Mathematics of the trinity” thread.

I won’t even look at that thread until I finish my publicist stuff, so that it’ll remain marked red (reminding me there’s something new there for me to look at.) Hopefully that’ll make sure I include it in the catchup process.

But if I accidentally skip it anyway, you’re certainly welcome to mention it again. :slight_smile: And thanks for the alert here!

Since the metaphysical objections have been provided somewhat piecemeal, and most aren’t easily grouped into (and dealt with by) categories, I’ll just use bullet points to introduce objections that have come up recently rather than trying to number them.

•• We’re made in the image of God but we don’t have three distinct persons (unless we’re ill with multiple personality disorder). Therefore… ••

We’re made in the image of God but we don’t have omni-characteristics either. Nor are we the ground of our own existence, nor are we the ground of all existence. Obviously, being made in the image of God does not entail necessarily having all the characteristics of God. (Mormons can only coherently follow through on this principle by reducing the status of the gods to high-level derivative entities, even if the natural universe around us depends on their existence; which isn’t strictly impossible, by the way. But then we aren’t really talking about the Final Fact of all existence anymore–not about the real and true God but only about a set of demiurges at best, if not about an ultimate atheism.)

The real force behind this objection lies in the fact that most trinitarian theologians are proposing and defending trinitarianism out of context for how a self-existent, self-begetting and begotten Independent Fact would be constituted in its reality. Most trinitarians haven’t even thought about it, and most are even taught that such things are not to be (or cannot be) even thought about. That’s a failure of trinitarians (often arising because even trinitarians often consider God as simply existing statically uncaused, not as actively self-existent); but not a failure of trinitarianism per se.

Unfortunately, this is one of those places where I would have to cover a bunch of preliminary topics in order to demonstrate why we can legitimately expect this kind of paradox when considering the final Independent Fact of all reality. Without going through that background first, I don’t have much way of demonstrating not only the coherency but the logical necessity of the doctrine of a multi-personal singular-substance IF.

(I realize that this won’t be very satisfactory as an answer. Sorry. It’s better than saying that the concept is wholly incomprehensible but you should just believe it anyway, though! In hindsight, various pieces of this idea are discussed in my answers to subsequent objections. But the really really really long answer is represented in that link to my SttH material below. :wink: The chapters are free access, btw; you don’t even have to register anywhere.)

•• Trinitarians have a habit of hiding contradictory proposals under a cloud of inscrutability. ••

Unfortunately, that’s true as a matter of historical habit. By which I mean that often even trinitarians think that the concepts are outright contradictory (not paradoxical) yet they ought to be accepted anyway. Unsurprisingly, this attitude commonly goes hand in hand with a disavowal of logical thinking on the topic.

Without launching into a multi-hundred page metaphysical apologetic, all I can say is: this isn’t what I’m doing. And that I sympathize with complaints on this topic.

Similarly, even when trinitarians recognize a distinction between paradox and contradiction, they often simply assert that trinitarian propositions are one and not the other while at the same time shutting down inquiry into why we logically should arrive at the doctrines being paradoxical not contradictory. This procedure is at least annoying. (I could come up with stronger descriptions for it, too.) A legitimate paradox ought to be arrived at in a way that illustrates why the paradox obtains and is to be distinguished from being a contradiction. Which I think I can say that I do in my own metaphysical work. But that requires a lot more detail than I can go into in a reply within a comment.

•• Proposing that there are three independent and equal persons is tri-theism, not monotheism. ••

I agree; as do careful trinitarians. (Not to say real tri-theists like the Mormons!) No trinitarian should be saying that the persons are independent of each other. Nor would a careful trinitarian say that the persons are co-equal in some regards. Typically what a trinitarian means by saying that the persons are co-equal, is that none of the Persons are substantially superior to or derivative of the others. They all exist on the same (and ultimately final and foundational) “ontological” level of reality. For example, the Son is not a created demiurge or super angel (like Michael or Satan. This comparison assumes that “Michael” is not the Angel of the Presence, Who in the OT is always identified as being YHWH Himself. But that is another discussion or two; and not one I have much of an opinion on at the moment, btw.)

•• God cannot die, on a cross or otherwise. ••

This would be a serious problem for trinitarianism if Jesus was supposed to cease existing at death. But most trinitarians (as well as most other Christians) don’t even think that mere humans cease to exist at death; and trinitarians certainly don’t teach that Jesus ceased existing at death. (On the contrary, we note that the scriptures say that Jesus claimed to have the authority and power to raise himself to life again! While that can be construed in some non-trinitarian ways, too, it certainly means Jesus would continue existing with major capabilities after death before resurrection, if His claim is true. That’s an argument about scriptural data, of course.) The Son only has to die as far as God allows any human to die; which, if the Son is God as well as man, is still not contradictory to the self-existence of God.

Beyond this, there is a strong tradition in trinitarianism, which I would connect more strongly still with positive aseity (the notion that God is actively self-begetting and self-begotten), that the Son’s submission to the Father from all eternity is itself the highest and holiest and truest death, all other deaths being shadows of this (and sometimes debased shadows). The self-sacrificial death of the Son Incarnate fits extremely well with this idea (and, as a matter of historical development of doctrinal understanding, most likely is what suggested this idea to trinitarians to begin with.) Indeed some trinitarians (myself included) have believed from this that even in an unfallen creation God the Son would be born to die self-sacrificially for us as a revelation of what God in His eternal reality does for all creation. (C. S. Lewis is perhaps the most famous modern Protestant theologian to believe and write about this.)

In hindsight, this notion of the highest death of the Son will be discussed a little more in-depth later in my replies.

•• For God, as a distinct Person of the Son or otherwise, to become Man, involves God undergoing change; but God is immutable. Therefore…••

This kind of objection would prove too much if it meant anything at all in principle: it is the same objection that nominal (and indeed minimal) deists use to argue against God doing any action in Nature! The proper answer to this objection, then, goes back to more fundamental discussions about God’s relationship to Nature. The short version is that if God can act in Nature, then the Incarnation is no more a ‘change’ of God than any of God’s other actions in Nature as God.

It may be noticed that this objection ultimately goes back to the question of whether God intrinsically acts at all or only statically ‘exists’ non-actively. While the latter option has historically been popular among theists (including supernaturalistic theists, including Christians, including trinitarian Christians), there are serious conceptual problems with trying to hold to this doctrine while also holding to theism at all per se.

•• If God was multi-personal, He would say so in the scriptures plainly. ••

Treating this as a complaint of principle, and conceding that (whatever else may be true) God has not made His multi-personal existence so blatantly clear in scriptural revelation that even the most casual reader could never fail to see it: it should be obvious even to opponents that a multi-personal singular entity can be easily confused with multiple entities. Why God would expect broad (and mostly pre-modern) populations with little-to-no metaphysical training to easily keep the distinction in mind when even modern trained theologians often slip up, is something I never seem to find objectors of this sort clearly explaining. But even some obscurity on this topic in the scriptures and traditions of revelation to Israel, would help keep the people from verging into polytheism: which the narratives (and prophetic denunciations) show was a constant failure among them already.

As a matter of principle, then, I would expect God to be somewhat obscure about it in revelation, while leaving information for people to piece together afterward.

•• True theology would be simpler than trinitarianism. ••

On what principle? That proper doctrinal profession is necessary for salvation? That’s gnosticism: as endemic among trinitarians as in any other positive religious tradition (consider the wrapping statements of the so-called Athanasian Creed as an example), but a much different kind of metaphysical (and maybe exegetical) debate.

Usually I hear this objection stated without qualification, though, as if the principle is “simpler theology necessarily equals truer”. The objector rarely notices that his own theology is more complex in detail than some other variants, and that any theology is necessarily more complex than atheism! (Which in turn is slightly more complex than non-theological agnosticism.)

•• If there is a hierarchy among the Persons, then the Father must be discriminating against the other two. This implies schism, therefore… ••

The short answer to this objection, is that this is a category error: a hierarchy does not necessarily involve discrimination against other persons.

Some trinitarians deny a hierarchy among the Persons, too; but I don’t. Metaphysically I would be expecting it, for reasons I cannot briefly summarize here; and scripturally it’s an obvious piece of data that the Father is considered hierarchically superior not only to but by the Son: the Son Himself testifies to the hierarchical superiority.

Trinitarians, as well as most other kinds of Christians (including those relatively few trinitarians who do not believe this data counts as a hierarchical distinction), note that this necessarily involves some kind of distinction of the Persons. But a distinction of is not necessarily a discrimination against.

•• Jesus calls “the Father” his God; if Jesus was also God but distinct in Person from the Father, He would not call the Father His God; therefore… ••

Spelling out the middle element of this argument, which is often excluded, reveals its paucity. It may seem peculiar for one Person of the Godhead to acknowledge a Person of higher authority to be His God, or even the only true God; but it isn’t logically contradictory to the doctrinal set which this objection is aiming against, and it would be properly humble as to fact. (Eglatarian trinitarians may not like it much, but that isn’t my problem. :wink: )

Beyond this, orthodox trinitarian theism involves the two-natures doctrine of Christ. It would be even more proper for the fully human Christ to acknowledge the Father as His God, as non-trinitarians themselves are well aware. (Though modalists and some docetists might not like acknowledging that this happens.) However, I do dissent from those trinitarians who would try to schism the two-natures in this regard, that the Son in His divine nature would not also regard the Father as greater than He and even as His own God.

This could lead to some interesting discussion on what the statement of the so-called Athanasius Creed is supposed to mean, that the Son is equal to the Father in regard to His Godhead, but inferior to the Father in regard to His humanity. The equality being spoken of is an ontological equality, though; not a denial of personal hierarchy. And the ontological equality is not simply flat in itself either, as the AthCreed illustrates when it speaks of the distinctions within the unity of “substance” among the Persons: the Father is neither created nor begotten; the Son is not created but begotten; the Spirit is neither created nor begotten but proceeding.

•• If the Son is consubstantial with the Father, why is there a Father/Son distinction at all? Or, why is the Son “sired”? ••

Part of the answer to this question is that the language predicated of the Father and Son in their eternal relationship is understood to be analogical; but the analogical language of “begetting” does get across the notion of the generation of something that is substantially of the same kind as that which is doing the generation. For an actively self-existent entity, what is being generated is the ultimate possible example of ‘generation of the same kind’, as this entity’s most fundamental action of self-existence is to generate itself. (Or Himself, to use personal pronouns of a personal entity.)

Insofar as one Person, considered to be the living action of God, is conceived as a baby within a woman by the Person of God Who sends the power of God, then obviously that would count as a unique siring of the Son by the Father, too; as even most non-trinitarians acknowledge (when they aren’t modalists).

•• Jesus was tempted by Satan, but how could God be seriously tempted to do evil? ••

Sometimes trinitarians (and some other deific Christians like modalists) answer along the lines that it was no real temptation; but I would agree with critics that this runs against the gist of the passages in GosMatt and GosLuke (much moreso EpistHeb, where it is stressed that He was tempted in all things as we are–a factor the Hebraist believes is crucially important for our own salvation.)

Trinitarians have also tended to answer that the humanity of Christ was tempted but not His divinity. While I don’t think that’s impossible, in principle, the narrative thrust of the temptations is certainly not aimed toward seducing a schism of the humanity away from the divinity of Christ.

The temptation of the Son still makes sense, however, within trinitarian theism, especially for those of us trinitarians who are positive aseitists i.e. who believe that God is an actively interpersonal self-begetting self-begotten unity, Who depends on the Persons each choosing to maintain this compound unity for His continuing existence. Any of the Persons could, potentially, choose to act against the other Persons or try to act in independence from the other Persons. That’s potentially true for privative aseity trinitarianism, too (where God does not even depend upon His own action for self-existence), but the stakes aren’t as high because God’s self-existence would not be threatened by schism between the Son and the Father.

Either way, though, the question is whether the Son will try to act for His own sake apart from permission from the Father. As some Christian exegetes have noted over the years (the 19th century trinitarian universalist George MacDonald being my favorite example), on the face of it each of the temptations could be said to be a temptation to good. The saving of a good man from starvation, the rule of a good man over the nations of the earth, the revelation of a good man to the people he has come to serve and to save–are these not good things?!

Not if they’re being done apart from the Father, though. The Father had made that stone a stone–indeed had done so through the Son if trinitarian (among some other kinds of) Christianity is true! The Father (and the Son) had not made it bread. If the Father gives permission for the Son to make it bread, then fine. But better to starve than to act apart from the Father–better even for that stone’s own existence, whether as a stone or anything else!

Bowing down to Satan and receiving kingship from him instead of from the Father would be obviously wrong. But Christ’s remonstrance to Satan exactly parallels His rebuke to Simon Peter later when Peter prayed as an exclamation oath “that be far from you, Lord!” In regard to what? In regard to the upcoming crucifixion. Consequently, even non-trinitarians have often regarded the path being tempted toward by Satan here, as involving a conquest lordship without the submissive humility of the crucifixion. Jesus can pray for that cup to be passed by, if at all possible, without sinning in asking for it: but only if He submits with the qualification, “Thy will be done”. To insist otherwise, to go His own way regardless of the Father’s intention, would be a schism against the Father.

To do any sign for purposes of proving to anyone that He is the Son of God, without instruction from the Father, would again be schism from the Father. If the Father says go, then the Son would do so–whether to be saved from death or not, whether to give evidence to others for belief or not. But for Satan to tempt Jesus to do so is (one way or another) to tempt the Lord his God.

GMacD puts the matter beautifully in his remarks on the temptation to rule under Satan:

•• Jesus was sent by the Father and does nothing of himself but only what the Father does. If Jesus was also God but distinct in Person from the Father, He would not be sent by the Father and would do something of Himself and maybe even what the Father doesn’t do. Therefore… ••

Again, stating the typically hidden middle element of the argument reveals its paucity. There is no logical problem with one Person being sent by another Person and doing faithfully only as the other Person does and doing nothing of Himself. On the contrary, evidence otherwise would tend to count against trinitarian theism! (For example, the scriptural-based complaint about the Father supposedly abandoning Jesus on the cross.)

•• The Father abandoned Jesus on the cross, which for trinitarianism would be tantamount to schism. Therefore… ••

If this was actually true, then it would surely not be any kind of selling point for Christianity, whether trinitarian or non-trinitarian! That God would abandon an innocent man to die an unjust death, is no good news.

(To which I would add, against some trinitarians unfortunately, that for God to abandon an innocent man to die an unjust death while pretending that the innocent man was a sinner so that the sinners deserving the death could get off scot-free, is even less of good news; expediently convenient though it might be for the sinner so unjustly treated. But then the sinner is placing his own convenience over against justice: the kind of action for which he was regarded as a sinner in the first place!)

Even non-trinitarian Christians consistently agree, however, that God did not in fact abandon Jesus, but raised him from the dead in vindication. So much for the complaint that the Father abandoned the Son on the cross: opponents to trinitarianism cannot have it both ways (even if trinitarian scholars have a bad habit of agreeing with the abandonment on the cross). If God really did abandon Jesus in a cursed death, then there would be no resurrection, even in spirit. It would in fact mean that Jesus was only a Satanic pretender after all.

As to what Jesus’ declaration really meant (which in its profession of “My God” is at least not the abandonment of the Father by the Son), that will be discussed over in the scriptural complaints thread.

Note that my response here is not ‘Jesus couldn’t have been abandoned by the Father because that would involve a substantial schism and so trinitarianism must be false’. That answer would be fine when discussing the matter with trinitarians, but would be begging the question hugely in a discussion with non-trinitarians.

There is, however, a more fundamental metaphysical question at issue here, regarding whether any existent entity can continue to exist ‘in separation from’ the Father. This topic will be addressed later.

•• Would YHWH not be disrespecting Persons of Himself to use singular grammar in regard to Himself if He is a compound unity? ••

No, not if there is a singular unity of Persons. Trinitarians are not tri-theists; we recognize and affirm and profess only one ultimate God, and speak of God as singular ourselves, including with singular pronouns when that seems more immediately convenient.

It would of course be inaccurate (or incompletely accurate, rather) for God to speak of Himself without ever any reference at all to multiple persons. But there are plenty of such references in the OT (see the 76 page digest), and I am not aware of any metaphysical reason why God would not have the perrogative to speak of Himself in singular terms; especially if that helped avoid leaving the impression of multiple powers in heaven.

•• God does not copy anyone or anything or is counseled or advised by anyone or anything, but does only as His will counsels. ••

The critic doesn’t notice that this phraseology (borrowed from Eph 1:11, among other places) tacitly implies some kind of multiple personage in God anyway: God does only as God counsels! This actually has strong links back to Old Testament notions of the visible YHWH representing the invisible YHWH as the Angel of the Presence. (See the scriptural digest elsewhere for examples.)

Be that as it may. Trinitarians (including myself) usually affirm a hierarchy of the eternal Persons; where one of these is God in action, sent by God Who does the acting. (Notice that we’re back to the concept of positive aseity again: God’s most fundamental action is the being of God Himself.) As long as there are distinct Persons being recognized, there is no logical problem with one of them subordinately representing and obeying another one.

See also a more in-depth discussion of one particular scriptural complaint along this line, in my collected answers to recent scriptural complaints vs. trinitarianism (which can be found in the Biblical Theology section of this forum).

•• God has supreme authority, but that does not logically mean that all who have supreme authority are God. ••

This could be put another way: that those who are not God do not really have God’s supreme authority. Trinitarians certainly agree with that. The question is a compound one: can a not-God entity really have God’s supreme authority? Trinitarians say no. (As do practically all non-trinitarians, when they come down to it.) Does Jesus Christ really have the supreme authority of God? Trinitarians, from scripture, think the answer is yes. Oddly, so do most non-trinitarians! (Which, incidentally, is why this critical retort, quoted above, was tried.)

Besides which, the person of the Father delegating authority to the person of the Son within the unity of deity, is not a logical problem for trinitarianism. (It would be a logical problem for modalistic Christians.)

•• The fullness of God cannot exist in the limitations of a natural entity. ••

Aside from the fact that even some non-trinitarians agree that it can (though not in the way that trinitarians and modalists believe), this claim if pressed would prove too much: any purported action of God in Nature could be denied on the same ground!

The proper debate on this point is settled (or not) a long time before getting to the debate of trinitarianism: can God, as He Himself, interact in any way with Nature? If the answer is yes, then nothing logically stands in the way of God interacting as God in some other ‘limited’ way within Nature either, such as in an incarnation or even a mere manifestation of Himself in various modes (which most non-trinitarian Christians are willing to accept in principle, too).