Thursday, December 25, 2008

Does the Triune God Transcend Reason?

A goodly number of Trinitarians have contended that the Trinity doctrine cannot be conclusively demonstrated by rational thought because it is above reason or transrational. Now assuming that God is triune and God as such transcends reason, then it would seem to follow logically that the triune God (if he exists) would also transcend reason (i.e. the law of transitivity). Therefore, one question that seemingly needs to be addressed is whether God in se is transrational or "metarational."

To briefly address some of these issues, I will admit from the outset that there has long been a tension concerning the proper relationship between faith and reason. Certain thinkers have contended that God or his dealings with humanity are not amenable to reason. There is also the famous axiom in theology that God may be apprehended, but he cannot be comprehended. And even a rigorous theologian like Duns Scotus ultimately argues that when reason leads us to a place where faith does not, we should let faith take precedence over reason.

However, it cannot be the case that God utterly transcends reason. This suggestion is nonsensical and patently false in the light of church history and Scripture. For example, Tertullian writes:

Reason, in fact, is a thing [property] of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason-nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason (De Paen 1).

The Latin text reads:
Ceterum a ratione eius tantum absunt quantum ab ipso rationis auctore. Quippe res dei ratio quia deus omnium conditor nihil non ratione providit disposuit ordinavit nihilque non ratione tractari intellegique voluit.

And Origen of Alexandria (in opposition to Celsus) maintains that humans are able to comprehend or describe God in the sense that familiarity with divine attributes may conceivably guide one who heeds God's truth toward a partial knowledge and understanding of the deity:
But if you take the phrase to mean that it is possible to represent by words something of God's attributes, in order to lead the hearer by the hand, as it were, and so enable him to comprehend something of God, so far as attainable by human nature, then there is no absurdity in saying that 'He can be described by name.'

See Contra Celsum 6.65ff.

Origen affirms that there is a sense in which rational creatures are able to describe or comprehend God. Such comprehension is not exhaustive but relative (i.e. to a degree). Therefore, the often heard maxim "God may be apprehended, but not comprehended" probably needs to be qualified. Origen indicates that rational creatures are able to describe or comprehend God—to an extent.

Finally, from the ecclesiastical history perspective, it seems that Richard of St. Victor (a Medieval theologian) makes a critical distinction between a doctrine being "above reason" and a doctrine being "beyond reason." He seems to apply both distinctions to the Trinity doctrine, even implying that the doctrine of God's triunity seems contrary to reason. However, Richard of St. Victor qualifies his remarks by writing that "almost all the things that we are commanded to believe about the Trinity of persons" are above or seem contrary to reason. The qualifier "almost" is not without importance since Richard himself posits a natural proof for God's triunity on the basis of love, a rational demonstration which resembles Augustine's attempt to show the reasonableness of the Trinity doctrine. But Richard's rational proof continued to be tethered to the Church. That is, it probably cannot be sustained rationally apart from that Trinitarian legacy which has been handed down by various and sundry ecclesiastics. See,M1

The point of the preceding data has been to show that it is untenable to hold that God in se completely transcends reason. And I believe that this point is not only sustained by examining church history, but Scripture also indicates that God does not utterly transcend reason. See 1 John 5:20. For comments on the potential meaning of dianoia in 1 John 5:20, see,M1

In closing this blog entry, I leave my readers with a thought from John Locke:
Nothing that is contrary to, and inconsistent with, the clear and self-evident dictates of reason, has a right to be urged or assented to as a matter of faith.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Addressing Jason's Trinitarian Arguments -Part I

Before I wrap up my series on the Trinity doctrine in the light of reason, I want to address a few objections posed by some Trinitarian objectors. An Orthodox apologist named "Jason" submits the following reply:

Before making any further pronoucements [sic] on the alleged 'unreasonableness' of the doctrine of the Trinity, you might want to reflect on the following answer to the question which Edgar raised on his blog. The reason why human beings cannot be one and many at the same time involves the following observations.

Edgar: the first mistake that Jason makes is to deal with a question that is not identical to the one that I posed. My question concerns how it is factually possible for three persons (however one defines the term "person") to exist as one being rather than three beings. But Jason chooses to frame my question in terms of the One and Many problem. In this way, he basically sidesteps my initial query.

Jason continues to quote Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas:

(a) In human existence, nature precedes the person. When John or George or Basil are born, the one human nature precedes them; they, therefore represent and embody only part of the human nature. Through human procreation humanity is divided, and no human person can be said to be the bearer of the totality of human nature. This is why the death of one person does not automatically bring about the death of the rest — or conversely, the life of one such person the life of the rest.

The term "nature" is ambiguous. One should clearly define what he or she means by the term. (For instance, see Christopher Stead's work Divine Substance.)Granted, there is a sense in which "nature" (understood as the complex of properties that inform X) is existentially prior to X (= an entity that instantiates a determinate complex of properties). But "nature" can be analyzed in more ways than Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas or Jason suggest. For instance, Aristotle makes a distinction between primary and secondary substance (SUBSTANTIA) and John Duns Scotus is known for analyzing "nature" in terms of an entity's "thisness" or HAECCEITAS (i.e. Peter not only instantiates a nature that is like John's, but Peter also instantiates a haecceity or thisness). Hence, the analysis presented above is inadequate or at best incomplete. Besides, Jason's source does not refute what I have hitherto stated. He does not satisfactorily explain how three persons do not = three beings in the divine sphere. Even the Cappadocians recognized the difficulties with speaking of three persons as one being. See Gregory of Nyssa's attempt to handle this logical difficulty:

Compare his words with Gregory of Nazianzius in Migne PG 35:1220-1221 here:,M1

(b) Because of this, each human person can be conceived as an individual, i.e. as an entity independent ontologically from other human beings. The unity between human beings is not ontologically identical with their diversity or multiplicity. The one and the many do not coincide. It is this existential difficulty that leads to the logical difficulty of saying 'one' and 'many' with the same breath.

My argument is not regarding the One and the Many. It concerns the difficulty that both Gregory of Nazianzius and Gregory of Nyssa discerned in their treatises, namely, how is it factually possible for three persons to = one being? Gregory of Nyssa tried to address the logical difficulty by insisting that human language incorrectly refers to Peter, James, and John as "three men" since human nature is not divisible nor capable of increase or decrease. He writes:

But since the correction of the habit is impracticable (for how could you persuade any one not to speak of those who are exhibited in the same nature as “many men”?—indeed, in every case habit is a thing hard to change), we are not so far wrong in not going contrary to the prevailing habit in the case of the lower nature, since no harm results from the mistaken use of the name

Compare Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition 1:218-224.

Now, if we contrast this with God's existence, we see immediately that this existential and hence logical difficulty is not applicable to God. Since God by definition has not had a beginning, and space and time do not enter His existence, the three persons of the Trinity do not share a pre-existing or logically prior to them divine nature, but coincide with it. Multiplicity in God does not involve a division of His nature, as happens with man." - Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: The Significance of the Cappadocian Contribution.

I have already noted the irrelevance of this answer, so I will not repeat what I have pointed out above. I will conclude by noting that question begging in abundance is occurring here. Firstly, I like the way that "individual" is redefined in an ad hoc manner. After all, Boethius had no problem using the expression "individual substance of a rational nature" to describe a divine person. Thomas Aquinas was amenable to Boethius' definition of PERSONA although he saw the need to nuance each term belonging to the Boethian definition.

Secondly, while I agree with Zizioulas that God has no beginning, God's relationship to time is more debatable. Additionally, whether there is a triune God or a nature with which these supposed three persons coincide is the question. This kind of circular reasoning should be avoided at all costs. Thirdly, multiplicity in God has yet to be proved (quod erat demonstrandum). Why is Jason employing a priori reasoning to supposedly refute my views?

I will address Jason's other "arguments" in another submission.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Trinity Doctrine in the Light of Reason: Part 2

In this post, I want to define the expression "divine simplicity" before attempting to refute it. According to the doctrine of divine simplicity, "God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes. God is thus in a sense requiring clarification identical to each of his attributes, which implies that each attribute is identical to every other one. God is omniscient, then, not in virtue of instantiating or exemplifying omniscience — which would imply a real distinction between God and the property of omniscience — but by being omniscience. And the same holds for each of the divine omni-attributes: God is what he has. As identical to each of his attributes, God is identical to his nature. And since his nature or essence is identical to his existence, God is identical to his existence" (See

David Burrell tries to illuminate this seemingly obscure or abstruse doctrine. He explains that (generally) no entity is identical with its nature (e.g., a square is not identical with squareness, nor is a rectangle identical with rectangularity, nor is a human being identical with the abstract property of being human). God is supposedly the only exception to this "rule" in Burrell's estimation. See his text Aquinas: God and Action, pp. 5-7. Thomas Aquinas himself insists that God is non-compositional or wholly simple in his Summa Theologica. Aquinas emphasizes this datum within the prima pars of his Summa: ST I.3.1: "I answer that, It is absolutely true that God is not a body; and this can be shown in three ways." ST I.3.2: "I answer that, It is impossible that matter should exist in God." ST I.3.3: "I answer that, God is the same as His essence or nature." ST I.3.4: "I answer that, God is not only His own essence, as shown in the preceding article, but also His own existence. This may be shown in several ways." ST I.3.5: "I answer that, A thing can be in a genus in two ways; either absolutely and properly, as a species contained under a genus; or as being reducible to it, as principles and privations. For example, a point and unity are reduced to the genus of quantity, as its principles; while blindness and all other privations are reduced to the genus of habit. But in neither way is God in a genus. That He cannot be a species of any genus may be shown in three ways." ST I.3.6: "I answer that, From all we have said, it is clear there can be no accident in God. First, because a subject is compared to its accidents as potentiality to actuality; for a subject is in some sense made actual by its accidents. But there can be no potentiality in God, as was shown." ST I.3.7: "I answer that, The absolute simplicity of God may be shown in many ways. First, from the previous articles of this question. For there is neither composition of quantitative parts in God, since He is not a body; nor composition of matter and form; nor does His nature differ from His 'suppositum'; nor His essence from His existence; neither is there in Him composition of genus and difference, nor of subject and accident. Therefore, it is clear that God is nowise composite, but is altogether simple."

Another way of making the same point as Burrell and Aquinas is to affirm that God is non-mereological. In other words, the doctrine of divine simplicity contends that God is timeless and non-spatial or utterly non-compositional: God has no parts whatsoever. And if God's essence is identical with God's existence, then the three Persons of the Trinity presumably are not three beings, but one being. Trinitarians assert that the Persons are supposedly one being although they putatively are not identical to one another (i.e., the Father is not the Son nor is the Son the Holy Spirit or the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit the Father or the Son). But how is it possible for three Persons to constitute one Being? In the next post, I will answer this question and offer reasons why a Christian probably should eschew the simplicitas dei doctrine.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Amazon Review Of Nancey Murphy's Book

I used Murphy's Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies for two classes this past semester. I then had my classes to compose reviews that outlined their basic impressions of this book. Certain remarks were common in their reviews. I will list some of those comments in this review of Murphy's book. First, let me say that I was surprised at how many students recommended this book for future courses. Nancey Murphy explicitly advocates and offers arguments for a thoroughgoing form of non-reductive physicalism. She does not denigrate opposing positions, but her view of the body and soul is not the popular or traditional religious view of the body or soul. Murphy ultimately contends that we are spirited bodies (i.e. we do not have souls, but we are purely physical). Now I thought that my students (attending a Lutheran university) would immediately say that this book should not be used in future courses at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Boy, was I mistaken!

Along with their enthusiastic recommendations for using Murphy's book, whether they hated or loved it or felt lukewarm about it, some oft-heard criticisms regarding the text were as follows:

Murphy's work is too detailed for those who are just beginning to undertake a study of philosophy or theology. Moreover, it is too redundant, inconsistent, and unclear at points. The least favorite part of the book (for the professor and students) was the information-engineering diagrams that Murphy included on pages 86, 89, and 101. These diagrams were supposed to shed light on non-reductive physicalism. Unfortunately, they left most students scratching their heads and wonder what was the point of the diagrams. Even I had to read those pages three times to understand what each thing stood for in the diagrams. However, I understand why Murphy included those diagrams. But in my opinion, they were only helpful to a point.

In addition to the numerous criticisms of Murphy's book, there were statements that reflected praise for her work. Some students wrote that her text contained a clear statement of her physicalist thesis, they thought the book was well-written, and they expressed praise for her efforts to substantiate her general thesis by the employment of manifold scholarly sources. Most students offered a hearty recommendation for the book, although most took issue with her thesis or felt that she relied too much on science or reason as opposed to relying on Scripture. Finally, while most students did not find Murphy's arguments compelling enough to make them change their minds, certain students did begin to entertain non-reductive physicalism, and others at least began to question the traditional body and soul view. My overall goal was achieved. I wanted to critique dualism, trichotomism and physicalism for a semester with my students help. I believe that we all walked away with a deeper knowledge of the issues. Furthermore, they now are more familiar with an alternative worldview vis-a-vis human nature.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Trinity Doctrine in the Light of Reason

Okay, let us get down to brass tacks regarding the Trinity doctrine. Both Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians appeal to the Tanakh or Christian-Greek Scriptures (the New Testament) to substantiate their respective beliefs. But one hardly witnesses any gain from such discussions. For instance, it seems that something as simple as examining the Johannine Prologue (Gospel of John 1:1-18) ultimately proves unproductive in debates about the deity of Christ. Does John 1:1c say that the Logos "was God" or "a god" (NWT) or some derivation thereof? And the debate goes on.

Since I do not believe that most Trinitarians in cyberspace, at any rate, will ever cease being Trinitarians based on the preponderance of evidence from Scripture, I would like to put a somewhat basic question to Trinitarians.

In the case of humans, 3 persons = 3 beings or entities. But in the case of the three divine persons, we are led to believe that 3 persons = 1 God (i.e. one divine being or entity). How does this whole process work? How is it possible for 3 persons to equal 1 being?

One explanation that I have found for this question is that God is simple (i.e. God has no parts or composition, that is, God is non-mereological) whereas human persons are complex (i.e. mereological or they have parts). Due to the fact that God is simple, it is said that the only acceptable distinctions in God are the three persons. Yet this defense obviously evokes the question, how do we know that God is simple?

Thomas Aquinas certainly provides a rejoinder to this question in the Summa Theologica. But are his rejoinders satisfactory? Are there valid or sound arguments against divine simplicity? Can we find compelling arguments that seem to refute divine simplicity? I will address these questions in a separate post.