Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Problematic Nature of the Trinity Doctrine (A Paper in the Works)

The Problematic Nature of the Trinity Doctrine

Trinitarians and non-trinitarians alike have noted the problematic
nature of the Trinity doctrine. In the Aquinas lectures of 1969,
Bernard Cooke stated his disapproval of the arbitrary abstractness of
the Trinity, saying: "one must ask whether the revelation of Father,
Son, and Spirit can then be fitted into the formalities of thought set
up by such [philosophical] reflection" (16). The philosophical
reflection that Cooke references is the learned cogitation of men like
Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. In the writings of Aquinas,
the unicity of God is so neatly distinguished from the triunity of God,
Cooke worried that the divine nature might be viewed as "an infinite
neutrality" (16). This thought world, exclaims Cooke, is very different
from the Weltanschauung of the apostle John.

Cooke is not the only theologian to worry about deep-seated problems of
the Trinity. Cyril C. Richardson has also expressed his personal
reservations about the doctrine of God's triunity. According to
Richardson, the Trinity is "an artificial construct" (Richardson 148).
It arbitrarily tries to resolve the perennial problem of God's
simultaneous absoluteness and relatedness to the world, by formulating
a doctrine of necessary threeness in the Godhead. In fact, Richardson
writes: "there is no necessary threeness in the Godhead" (149). He
concedes that there are immanent distinctions in the godhead; but the
Trinity does not exhaust all of the distinctions that need to be made,
nor does it resolve the numerous antinomies associated with the
absoluteness and relatedness of God. Richardson asserts that this has
been true of every Trinitarian theory ever formulated. Is Richardson
correct? Does an analysis of the Trinity doctrine show that there are
insoluble difficulties connected with it? Is it indeed possible to
postulate a coherent statement of God's supposed threefoldness? The
purpose of this essay is to provide an answer to these questions, and
carefully analyze both terminological and logical problems related to
the Trinity. After scrutinizing the doctrine, I will briefly evaluate
the arguments on both sides and state my thoughts regarding the

The question of how to refer to the three persons (tres personae)
united in one divine substance (substantia) has been an ongoing debate
in Christian theology for centuries. Normally, when we moderns think of
a person, we envision reasoning, responsible, thinking centers of
consciousness--distinct and individuated from other centers of
consciousness. Nevertheless, if we apply such terminology to the three
persons of the Godhead, ineluctable conundrums result. The idea of God
subsisting as three centers of consciousness in one substance is a
notion repugnant to most Trinitarians. Karl Rahner writes, "this is the
very thing which is excluded by the dogmatic teaching on the single and
unique essence of God" (135). That is, the three persons cannot be
three separate centers of consciousness because: "this unicity of
[God's] essence implies and includes the unicity of one single
consciousness and one single freedom" that is determined by the
"mysterious threeness" of the triune Godhead (135). While this approach
eliminates the threat of tritheism, however, other problems ominously
hover above the orthodox dogma of the Trinity.
Not only have most modern theologians been disturbed by the implication
of the term "person," with reference to the Father, Son and Holy
Spirit; the word "person" also bothered Augustine of Hippo.
Consequently, the famed bishop formulated a psychological model of the
Trinity, likening the divine substantia to human memory, imagination
and will. Furthermore, Augustine wrote that the whole of the Godhead
resided in each persona. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is
fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God. Yet, there are not three
gods, but one God. While Augustine's model obviates the threat of
tritheism, Rahner suggests that his formulation is deficient because it
does not sufficiently explain the Father's begettal of the Son, or the
spiration of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, Augustine's analogy does
not give enough weight to the "historical and salvific experience of
the Son and of the Spirit" (135). It woefully fails to explain the
Trinity's relation to God's dealings within history (His economic
dealings). This renders the doctrine incomprehensible from an economic
(oikonomia) standpoint.

A third criticism of Rahner's is that Augustine's metaphor fails to
teach us that the God revealed in the oikonomia, is the same God of the
ontological Trinity. Consequently, if the ontological Trinity (God as
He is in Himself) is not equivalent to the economic Trinity, we can not
assume that God has disclosed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ (a
conclusion radically at odds with the revelation deposited in the New
Testament). Rahner thus concludes that interpretations of the Trinity
like Augustine's are gnostic in nature: they put forth the idea of a
God "behind" the God that Jesus Christ "explained" (exegesato). In an
effort to solve problems associated with the psychological analogy of
the Trinity, Rahner proposes viewing the persons of the Godhead in
terms of relations. However, does this positing of three "relations,"
as opposed to three persons, really solve the problematic implications
that attend the triune doctrine of God? For the following reasons, we
must answer 'no'.

For one, from Rahner's frame of reference, to think of the Trinity
numerically (one nature, etc.) is ipso facto not to think of God's
triunity at all! Rahner further insists that "the three persons are not
three distinct things per se but are three distinct things only in and
through their relations with each other" (Davis 139). He frequently
employs such terms as "relative realities" or 'mere and opposed
relations' to describe the personae of the Godhead, all the while
insisting that the Trinity is a "unity of three divine persons"
subsisting in "three distinct manners of subsisting" (qt. In Davis
139). The tres personae "are identical to the Godhead but only
virtually distinct from each other" (Davis 139). In this regard,
Stephen Davis comments:

Rahner calls relations 'the most unreal of realities' but insists that
they are absolutely real as other determinations. But I do not see how
this helps. There is nothing in my experience that helps me understand
the concepts Rahner is working with; thus they do not help me
understand the doctrine of the Trinity (140).

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